November 27, 2012 § 3 Comments
On Sunday and Monday, Likud party members got to vote in the Likud primary and choose the list that will stand for Knesset elections in January, and what emerged was the most rightwing Likud in the party’s history. The Likud list is a catalogue of the most strident and hardline voices in the party, with Danny Danon in the 6th spot, Zeev Elkin in 9th, Yariv Levin in 10th, Tzipi Hotovely in 13th, and Moshe Feiglin – who is Bibi Netanyahu’s main intra-party challenger from his right and is not even currently an MK – in 15th. Regular O&Z readers will recognize all of these names, as their exploits make regular appearances on this blog, but in case you need a refresher, Noam Sheizaf has a rundown of their greatest hits. In addition, because of the deal with Yisrael Beiteinu that created the joint list with Likud, it is unlikely that anyone lower than 20th on the list is going to make it into the Knesset, which means that Likud princes and moderates such as Dan Meridor, Benny Begin, and Mickey Eitan are going to lose their jobs as MKs. To get a sense of just how remarkable this is, not only are Begin and Meridor currently Knesset members, they are both ministers and members of the nine person security cabinet, and yet Likud voters just unceremoniously showed them the door. This is not just a changing of the guard from the old to the new, but a serious step to the right. If there was any doubt left that Likud is first and foremost a settler party, it has just been erased.
Plenty of people will spend the next couple of days bemoaning the state of Israeli politics and noting that a Likud government in which someone like Danny Danon might actually be a minister is going to double down on settlements and treat the peace process like a relic from a bygone era. This is all true, and in my humble opinion it’s a terrible development for Israel, but I am not here to state the glaringly obvious. Instead, I’d like to think through the impact of the new Likud makeup on Israel’s defense policy outside of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The immediate result is going to be the involuntary hiatus of Ehud Barak, who announced yesterday that he was quitting politics and would not stand for election in January. While I found the timing of this announcement strange given that Barak’s Atzmaut party, which had been polling at zero Knesset seats, had rebounded in the aftermath of Operation Pillar of Cloud and was looking like it might return to the Knesset with the same five seats it currently has, a couple of smart observers of Israeli politics have convinced me that perhaps it makes sense given the humiliation involved for a former PM barely crossing the Knesset threshold. Amir Mizroch and Robert Danin argue that in resigning, Barak is actually plotting a course to remain as defense minister since he will be viewed as the indispensable general whom Netanyahu will have no choice but to reappoint, and the fact that he is not a member of Knesset will free from him any political constraints. I think it’s quite plausible that this was Barak’s plan yesterday morning and that he may even have been able to pull it off, but he did not count on the events of the afternoon and evening. MKs like Danon and Elkin absolutely detest Barak with every fiber of their being because they have long viewed him as the primary hurdle standing between them and unfettered settlement growth, and now that they essentially control the party, Netanyahu is not going to have the political space to keep Barak as his defense minister. Doing so will cause a riot within Likud and open Netanyahu up to a serious challenge from Feiglin or from his old nemesis (and Washington Generals-type foil) Silvan Shalom, and Bibi is not going to risk that. Instead, I think the Likud primary has guaranteed that Bogie Ya’alon becomes the next defense minister, which also puts him in the pole position to be the next Likud leader once Netanyahu decides to leave the scene.
Aside from silencing Barak and removing his all-encompassing control of Israeli defense policy, I think the new Likud list also makes an Israeli strike on Iran a lot more likely. I have been continuously arguing that one of the primary constraints on an Israeli strike is the makeup of the security cabinet, where four out of the nine members have been unwaveringly opposed to unilateral military action against Iran. Two out of those four are Begin and Meridor, who are now going to be out of the group, and they will almost certainly be replaced by ministers who are more hawkish. The third of the four is Ya’alon, who badly wants to be defense minister and who knows that the post is a potential stepping stone to eventually becoming prime minister. The fact that the defense portfolio is now going to be open might be enough incentive for him to quietly acquiesce to Netanyahu’s plans on Iran in order to get the appointment that he seeks, in which case the security cabinet flips from being divided down the middle to being nearly unanimous in favor of a strike. That does not make a war with Iran a fait accompli, but it does bring the possibility ever closer. One month ago in arguing that the Netanyahu-Lieberman deal was not going to affect the Iran calculus, I noted that “the math in the security cabinet does not change substantially unless Begin, Meridor, and Ya’alon are all excised.” As it turns out, the result of this week’s Likud primary means that the math has now changed, and the impact on Israeli defense policy might be even greater than the impact on Israeli domestic politics.
October 26, 2012 § 1 Comment
Building on my initial reaction yesterday to the new Likud Beiteinu party created by Bibi Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman, I have one more important point to add about why I think this deal happened. It seems to me that this was about domestic politics, plain and simple. Netanyahu was nervous about polls showing Likud’s vote share slipping and Labor’s rising, and Lieberman wanted to position himself to head his former party and not have Yisrael Beiteinu suffer the fate of so many other parties like Shinui or what is about to happen to Kadima. This way the two men were able to create the perception of a strong rightwing party that will be able to withstand any challengers and give an air of inevitability to Netanyahu remaining as prime minister and Likud Beiteinu creating the next governing coalition.
Aluf Benn thinks that something else is at work though, which is the creation of a war cabinet to strike Iran. He writes, “The merger with Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party will dissolve any domestic opposition to the war, since after the election, Netanyahu will be able to argue that he received a mandate from the people to act as he sees fit. Ministers and top defense officials will have a hard time arguing with him. From now on, only American opposition is liable to delay, or even prevent, a command to the Israel Air Force to take off for Iran.” He adds that Ehud Barak, Benny Begin, and Dan Meridor will be marginalized or pushed out completely and that Lieberman will push the cabinet into radical foreign policy positions that Netanyahu will no longer be able to disavow.
This analysis is plausible on its face, but I think there are a few problems with it. First, it’s not enough to just declare absent compelling evidence that every move Netanyahu makes is with the intent of striking Iran. Plenty of people said the same thing when Netanyahu made the deal with Kadima despite the fact that Mofaz had been on record as opposing a strike, and obviously the short-lived unity government did not make any moves on the Iran front. Bibi’s obsession with Iran is well documented, but he has other concerns as well, such as political survival and consolidating his position, and this seems so clearly aimed at doing just those things that I don’t see why the simplest explanation here is not the right one.
Second, looking at what Benn actually argues, I don’t think it is correct to assert de novo that this gives Netanyahu a mandate for anything. For that to occur, the new LB party has to win an unusually large number of seats and Netanyahu has to campaign specifically and primarily on the Iran issue. Netanyahu is probably counting on about 45 seats, which is roughly what you get from adding up where Likud and YB were in public opinion polls, but I think there is a significant chance that the number is less than that. Lieberman is a polarizing figure, to say the least, and he could easily scare away some Mizrachi and more religious Likud voters. It is also possible that Russian YB voters who were mainly voting for the party based on its advocacy for Russian olim will be disenchanted and feel that Lieberman has sold out their core interest in the pursuit of greater personal power. If that happens, then Netanyahu’s alleged mandate is not going to be quite as strong as Benn predicts, and I don’t quite understand why ministers and generals would have a hard time opposing him. Even if he does get 45 seats, that doesn’t seem like it will all of a sudden cow Likud members like Meridor, Begin, and Bogie Ya’alon into reversing their positions, or convince the IDF leadership that their reservations on Iran have been wrong.
Third, there is the fact that, like Mofaz before him, Lieberman is not necessarily an Iran hawk. The reports are that he originally opposed a strike and was then convinced to change his position, but it’s obviously not on the top of his agenda. Lieberman cares much more about undermining the Palestinan Authority and taking a hard line on peace process issues and territorial concessions, so if there is any foreign affairs implication from yesterday’s announcement, it is that the two state solution is now even more endangered. Lieberman is going to take many radical positions; of that I have no doubt. The question is whether those positions will have anything to do with Iran, and I’m not sure that they will. He may support a strike, but he is not going to be strongly and constantly advocating one. The math in the security cabinet does not change substantially unless Begin, Meridor, and Ya’alon are all excised. One also must consider who the rest of the coalition is going to include, since 45 seats still means that Netanyahu is going to have to rope in Shas, where Eli Yishai is opposed to a strike, or one of the center or left parties, and Tzipi Livni, Yair Lapid, and Shelley Yachimovich are certainly not guaranteed to vote the way Netanyahu wants on Iran.
In looking at yesterday’s merger, does it strengthen Netanyahu’s hand by giving him a larger number of seats? Yup, it does. But he still has to contend with opposition in Likud, opposition in the IDF, opposition from other potential coalition partners, and opposition from the public. In short, aside from making generalizations about the prime minister’s increased clout and murky electoral mandates, I don’t see how this makes a strike on Iran a foregone conclusion by any means.
August 21, 2012 § 3 Comments
Bibi Netanyahu and Ehud Barak have run into the problem that they appear to be virtually alone when it comes to deciding whether to strike Iran’s nuclear facilities. The two are so out on a limb at the moment that Shai Feldman, writing in Foreign Policy, declared the debate over attacking Iran to be over because Netanyahu and Barak lack the minimum consensus that would be required for military action. The defense and intelligence establishments are united in wanting to wait for the U.S. and not wanting to attack Iran unilaterally, and until Avi Dichter was added to the security cabinet formerly known as the Octet last week (which means that it is no longer a shminiya but a tishiya), the vote to attack Iran was reportedly split 4-4. A lot was made of the fact that Dichter is presumed to be on Netanyahu and Barak’s side and that adding him to the mix breaks the logjam, but I didn’t write anything about that last week because it is a faulty and ill-informed argument. A 5-4 vote is not going to be enough to launch a strike given the heavy opposition that exists to such a move; Netanyahu and Barak need to do some serious convincing and make real headway with the holdouts, who are Benny Begin, Dan Meridor, Moshe “Boogie” Ya’alon, and Eli Yishai.
It is this last name that is perhaps the toughest to move, because Begin, Meridor, and Ya’alon are all members of Likud and presumably Netanyahu has some more sway with them since he is their party leader (although my hunch is that Meridor, and to a lesser extent Begin, would never flip). Yishai, however, is a member of Shas, and that’s how we get to the outrageously cynical ploy that Bibi tried yesterday. For the uninitiated – although since you are reading a niche blog about Israeli politics right now, you probably don’t need this background – Shas is an ultra-Orthodox Sephardic party whose spiritual leader, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, controls how its members vote despite not being an elected official of any kind. I wrote about this dynamic back in May, when Rabbi Yosef ordered Yishai to change his opinion on being willing to consider alternatives to the Tal Law. What you have in Shas is a theocratic party, in which the elected politicians are beholden to the party’s rabbinic leadership and dare not contravene rabbinic orders when it comes to taking public positions or voting on issues in the Knesset or the cabinet. With this in mind, yesterday Rabbi Ovadia Yosef – who holds no elected or official position in the Israeli polity and has zero to do with Israeli national security – was the recipient of a national security briefing on Iran. Not only was he briefed, but it was done by Yaakov Amidror, the head of the Israeli National Security Council, lest anyone think that this was not a big deal or little more than a courtesy for a former chief rabbi of Israel.
Make no mistake about what is going on here in case it isn’t already abundantly clear: Netanyahu is trying to swing a vote to launch a strike against Iran by convincing a religious leader to order an acolyte to vote a certain way. He is not trying to convince Yishai by making a cogent case for military action – or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that he has given up trying to do it this way – but is going above his head to Yishai’s rabbi, whom he knows Yishai is bound to follow, and telling a man with no national security experience at all and no training or education in evaluating intelligence or threat assessments that it is crucial to bomb Iran. Does anyone think that Amidror, a general and Israel’s equivalent of Tom Donilon, had any trouble at all convincing Rabbi Yosef about the urgent need to strike now in order to prevent Israel’s annihilation? For all of the outrageous things that go on in politics, and Israeli politics in particular, this represents an absolute low. It is a naked appeal to religious authority made to a theocratic party in which politicians serve as mouthpieces for rabbis. The reason that Shas has never taken an interest in foreign affairs is because its spiritual leaders don’t care about the issue, and to prey on that ignorance in order to influence a crucial position on national security is nothing short of abominable.
There are two conclusions to be drawn from this sorry and craven episode. First, Netanyahu is desperate since he realizes that he is fighting a steep uphill battle and he will resort to anything, no matter how blatantly insulting and undemocratic, to get an advantage. Second, Netanyahu and Barak’s argument for an attack is not only falling on deaf ears but is so weak on its face that they both know it cannot win on its own merits. Briefing Eli Yishai’s rabbi is not a move made out of strength, but one made out of a position that is even weaker than anyone could have realized. If this svengali routine is the best that Netanyahu can come up with, I hope for his sake that he has something better when it comes to the rest of his security cabinet, since unlike Yishai, the three Likud holdouts do not answer to a higher authority.
August 14, 2012 § 6 Comments
I don’t know if you guys have heard, but apparently Israel is about to go to war with Iran. Not only that, but it doesn’t actually matter what is going in Israel or the rest of the world, because any event or environment can be interpreted to mean that an Israeli strike is just around the corner. In fact, an imminent Israeli attack can be predicted based on two diametrically opposed sets of facts. For instance, in May it was reported that the decision to attack was imminent because Israeli officials were being uncharacteristically silent, and this speculation lockdown meant that an attack was about to come. As one unnamed Israeli official said, ”Nobody is saying anything publicly. That in itself tells you a lot about where things stand.” So the lesson is that when things are quiet, an attack is on the way. But wait – now there is a slew of reports that Israel has decided to attack because all sorts of officials are openly talking about it, and everyone knows that rampant speculation means that an attack is about to come. So the lesson now is that when there is lots of noise about an attack, an attack is on the way. Isn’t it nifty how that works? No matter what Israeli officials are saying and doing, a strike on Iranian facilities can be easily predicted.
The same can be applied to the looming presence of Bibi Netanyahu’s father, Ben-Zion Netanyahu. When Ben-Zion was alive, his influence over his son meant a strike was more likely. Now that he recently passed away, Bibi’s desire to heed his father’s warnings and sense of history make a strike more likely. How about the Likud-Kadima unity deal? When it was announced, some interpreted it to mean that a strike on Iran was now coming (which, for the record, I pointed out as bad analysis at the time). Now that Mofaz is even more clear that he opposes a unilateral Israeli strike, I have no doubt that someone somewhere has made the argument that Bibi let the coalition fall apart in order to pave the way for an attack on Iran. I could go on, but you get my point. The process at work here seems to assume that an attack will happen and then reverse engineer the facts to support that conclusion, rather than looking at the facts and trying to ascertain in light of those facts what is most likely to occur.
Rather than interpret any and every event as leading to war, let’s take a step back and assess actual factors that might mean an Israeli strike is more or less likely. To my mind, the recent extremely public chatter weighs against things, since successful Israeli strikes in the past – Iraq in 1981 and Syria in 2007 – were complete surprises and were not in any way publicly telegraphed. In contrast, we have heard that Israel was readying to strike at Iran for nearly a decade now, and yet it still hasn’t happened.
Also weighing against an attack is the fact that there is a lack of support for such a move from three influential groups. First is the Israeli public, which opposes a unilateral Israeli strike by 46% to 32%, and which has increasingly rated Netanyahu’s job performance as unsatisfactory over the past three months as he has ratcheted the war talk back up. Second is the U.S., whose top officials have repeatedly stated that sanctions should be given more time to work and have pleaded with Israel not to launch an attack. Third, and perhaps most significantly, Israeli officials aside from Netanyahu and Barak are staunchly opposed to a strike, and while the IDF has to carry out whatever orders are given, when the IDF chief of staff thinks that an attack is a bad idea, he is probably going to be listened to. There is also the inconvenient fact that there is no majority in the Shminiyah (or Octet), which is the inner security cabinet, for a strike on Iran, with Eli Yishai, Benny Begin, Dan Meridor, and Boogie Ya’alon all firmly opposed and Avigdor Lieberman and Yuval Steinitz reportedly wavering back and forth. Netanyahu and Barak are probably banking on the fact that the other six ministers will back them when push comes to shove, but that’s a real risk to take and the prime minister and defense minister cannot just make the decision on their own without the support of the rest of this group. In fact, one could make a good case that all of the recent war talk from the two men at the top is directed entirely at the Octet and that the chatter is completely about stirring up public pressure on them.
There are also the problems that Israel does not have the military capability to do the job thoroughly and completely by itself, that an attack on Iran would devastate the Israeli economy according to Israel’s central banker Stanley Fischer, and that the home front is woefully underprepared. There are indications that Netanyahu and Barak are deluding themselves about this last factor with their speculation that a retaliation from Iran would claim no more than 500 Israeli lives, but one would think that they will conduct a real and thorough analysis of the potential damage and loss of life before making any decision.
There are, however, two new factors that point to the conclusion that Netanyahu and Barak are readying an attack. First, the government just handed Netanyahu unprecedented procedural powers to delay ministerial committee decisions and to give himself a vote on every ministerial committee irrespective of whether he serves on it or not. This to me seems like a move to make a vote on Iran go Bibi’s way by eliminating debate and making it easier to put every single other issue to the side until the Iran outcome is to his liking. Second, after waiting months to appoint a replacement for outgoing Home Front Defense Minister Matan Vilnai, Netanyahu appointed Avi Dichter last night as Vilnai’s replacement, the Home Front Command is testing the emergency text message alert system this week, and gas masks and supply kits are being distributed around the country. This indicates that the government is suddenly taking the mission seriously of preparing its citizens for war, and unlike hawkish rhetoric, the recent moves are tangible and actually cost something.
So, all in all, it appears to me that a strike on Iran is still unlikely, but it is not out of the question. More stuff like this from the press and various analysts would be helpful, rather than people running around with their hair on fire and claiming that an attack is coming because the sun rose in the east this morning and will set in the west this evening. More facts please, and less rampant breathless speculation.
March 30, 2012 § Leave a Comment
Benny Begin, one of the members of the cabinet Octet that is presumed to be behind any major Israeli security decisions, said in a speech yesterday that support for a Palestinian state is not a policy binding on the Netanyahu government but is something that is advocated solely for international audiences (Hebrew only). Begin added that the decision to support two states side by side has not been formally discussed within the government, and furthermore that someone like him could only serve in the government because such an understanding does not exist. He also expressed the opinion that a Palestinian state is not viable in the current environment because Israel’s security needs would require it to be completely demilitarized, and that is something that a sovereign Arab state will not be willing to accept.
This double talk, where a politician says one thing to international audiences and something very different to a domestic audience in his own language when he thinks nobody is paying attention, is something that Israelis and American Jews condemn all the time when it is done by Palestinians, and rightly so. In this case, it was said by a cabinet minister rather than the prime minister himself, and Begin’s strange aside about how he respects the prime minister as first among equals but that no formal decision on a Palestinian state was made by the government indicates that Begin’s position on this is at odds with Netanyahu’s. That at least provides some measure of solace. But just as we American Jews blast Palestinian politicians like Abbas Zaki for saying that the ultimate goal is to destroy Israel itself but that such things shouldn’t be announced to the world, we need to call out Begin for doing the exact same thing. Netanyahu says that he supports a Palestinian state and that he is ready to negotiate whenever the Palestinians are willing to come to the table. He therefore needs to denounce Begin as going against official Israeli policy, or Begin needs to explain why what the world believes is Israel’s official position is not in fact Israel’s official position. This kind of nonsense is incredibly damaging to Israel by destroying any international credibility that it has, and it is patently dishonest to make a huge stink over Mahmoud Abbas’s refusal to negotiate if in fact the Israeli government has tacitly decided that it is not prepared under any circumstances to accept a Palestinian state. So c’mon Bibi, do the right thing here and make it crystal clear that Begin is wrong and speaks for nobody but himself. If you don’t, then your silence will send a very different message.