July 18, 2012 § Leave a Comment
Two letters were issued this week that tell very different stories about where Israel is going. The first was from the Shomron Residents Council and it was addressed to Shimon Peres. The settlement movement has never been in love with Peres, but they are particularly outraged at him at the moment following Peres’s comments last week about the need to take Israel’s demographic challenges into account and end the settlement project. The letter, which was also published as an ad in today’s Ha’aretz, calls for Peres to step down after accusing him of being a Palestinian agent working against Israeli and Jewish interests. It also states that Peres should join Meretz, Balad, or Kadima, but that he cannot continue serving as the president of the state.
Nobody who is thinking clearly would actually accuse Peres, the last remaining politically active member of Israel’s founding generation and literally one of the fathers of the state, of acting against Israel’s interests, so in that respect this is a fundamentally unserious letter. It does, however, tell us something serious about a significant portion of Israeli citizens, which is that they view Israel in a disturbingly parochial and sectarian manner. Calling for Peres to step down for crossing the settlers is rather unremarkable, but calling for him to join Meretz or Balad or Kadima is a statement that speaks volumes. First, it suggests that the settler leadership does not view those parties as legitimate, since it is apparently acceptable for Peres to be a member of Kadima despite not acting in the interests of the Israeli public or the Jewish public. Second, it implies that in order to serve as president of Israel, you must adhere to a certain line with regard to the settlements, and anyone that crosses this line also crosses the boundary of being unfit for office. This is a revolutionary view of citizenship, political participation, and public service. It imagines an Israel that is not simply split between citizens and non-citizens, or even Jews and non-Jews, but one that is officially and legally further fragmented along lines that delineate between acceptable viewpoints and unacceptable viewpoints. Peres is free to join Meretz or Kadima in the eyes of the settlement leadership since these parties, in their view, do not act in the state’s interests and are thus illegitimate.
The second letter was from the Israel Policy Forum and it was addressed to Prime Minister Netanyahu. The IPF letter was a response to the Levy Report, and it expressed the fear that adopting Levy’s recommendations will lead to the end of the two state solution. It referred to the importance of maintaining Israel as both a Jewish and democratic state, and stated that the Levy Report will actually weaken Israel’s hand in its conflict with the Palestinians by providing fodder to the delegitimization crowd. The letter was then signed by 41 leaders of the American Jewish community.
The letter itself was smartly worded with its acknowledgement that the Palestinian Authority has “abdicated leadership by not returning to the negotiating table” and thus negating any warrantless accusations that the letter is an effort to place all blame on Israel, and as I wrote last week, I think that framing the issue of settlements strategically by referencing the serious threat to Israel’s future is the way to go. What is more encouraging though is the list of signatories. Nobody will be surprised that the letter was signed by Charles Bronfman or Rabbi Eric Yoffie, people with a reputation for being in the center or the left on Israel issues. It was also signed by Rabbi Daniel Gordis, who is at the Shalem Center and recently held a well-publicized debate with Peter Beinart, and by Thomas Dine, who used to head up AIPAC. It suggests a different vision of Israel, one in which leaders from all sides of the spectrum are able to cooperate and come to an agreement on the big issues facing the Jewish state. Rather than viewing everything through a narrow prism, folks like Gordis and Dine, who might have very different views on settlements generally than someone like Yoffie, are able to recognize the unique problem that the Levy Report poses. In fact, Gordis wrote in Ha’aretz that he does not necessarily disagree with Levy’s legal reasoning, but that adopting the report would signal an annexation of the West Bank and the official abandonment of the two state solution. The letter represents a hopeful trend of moving away from political and ideological sectarianism and viewing Israel not as a disparate collection of tribal groups but as a whole. Quite frankly, it represents a more hopeful vision than the one displayed just yesterday by Bibi Netanyahu and Shaul Mofaz, who could not maintain a unity government in the face of some tough decisions over whether Israelis should equally share in the burden of service or not. Let’s hope that going forward, the vision contained in the IPF missive trumps the that contained in the Shomrom Residents Council’s one.
July 9, 2012 § Leave a Comment
One of the most consequential, and yet underappreciated, events in recent Israeli politics was the creation of the Israel Hayom newspaper in 2007. Israel Hayom (meaning Israel Today) is owned and bankrolled by Sheldon Adelson, who has recently become well known in the United States for his support of Newt Gingrich and now Mitt Romney through millions of dollars in super PAC donations. After only three years, it became the largest circulation newspaper in Israel, and because it is free, it is unlikely to give up its top spot any time soon. It is also unabashedly and unwaveringly supportive of Bibi Netanyahu, and has contributed to a media climate in Israel in which Netanyahu is often treated with exceeding deference.
While Adelson is Netanyahu’s most enthusiastic backer, this was not always the case. As detailed in the recent Vanity Fair profile of Bibi,a decade ago his billionaire champion was Ronald Lauder, who bought Channel 10 in order to provide Netanyahu with a friendly media outlet. Over time, as the independent channel became increasingly critical of Netanyahu, the friendship between he and Lauder deteriorated, and Netanyahu characterized it to Vanity Fair as “O.K. We’ve had warmer periods and cooler periods. I respect him, and he respects me.” Lauder himself has also become more openly critical of Netanyahu, giving what was in many ways a shocking interview a year ago in which he publicly disagreed with Netanyahu’s demand that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state before commencing negotiations and criticized his foot dragging on the peace process. This past month, Lauder took out a full page ad in the Wall Street Journal that was supportive of Netanyahu and placed the blame on the Palestinians for the impasse in the peace process, which was seen as an effort to repair ties with Bibi but also could have been a PR response to the airing of dirty laundry in the Vanity Fair piece. In any event, there is sufficient evidence that Lauder and Netanyahu have parted ways over the last ten years, both in their friendship and in their views on Israeli policy.
In light of all this, the news that Lauder is planning on starting an English language Israeli news website is intriguing. On the one hand, this might be an effort to improve Israel’s image among the world’s English speaking population or even reconnect American Jews to Israel. On the other, this might also be a subtle dig at Adelson and Lauder’s attempt to shape Israeli news abroad as Adelson has done in Israel. Adelson and Lauder do not get along at all, and Lauder’s influence with Netanyahu has waned in direct proportion to Adelson’s increased clout, so it will be interesting to see if Lauder’s new venture is as pro-Bibi as Israel Hayom is. If Lauder has indeed broken with Netanyahu and believes that there needs to be greater pressure put upon him on the peace process front, the resulting clash of the titans will be interesting to watch.
Adelson and Lauder are not the only two billionaires inserting themselves into Israeli politics. Yediot reported today that Charles Bronfman and Ronald Cohen bankrolled the reservists’ protest on Saturday night, which clearly put lots of pressure on Netanyahu to back off his position earlier last week of ignoring Kadima’s demands regarding drafting Haredim. None of these developments are good, since the insertion of foreign money into Israeli politics, whether it be Adelson’s, Lauder’s, or Bronfman’s, is not going to end well. If you need any confirmation of that, just ask Ehud Olmert how things have been going for him lately. It doesn’t appear as if this trend is abating any time soon though, and given the different personalities and viewpoints involved, it looks like Adelson is about to have some competition.