Did Bibi Make A Mistake?

October 31, 2012 § Leave a comment

Like I said yesterday, I’ve been thinking a lot about the Likud Beiteinu deal and whether it is actually going to accomplish what Netanyahu and Lieberman are hoping. I expanded on my thoughts from yesterday for Foreign Policy, and looked at whether Likud Beiteinu is going to add to the vote share that the two parties have separately and what the whole thing means for the U.S. You can read the original article on FP’s website here, and I have reproduced it below for convenience sake.

In an announcement last Thursday that shocked the Israeli political establishment, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman stated their intention to merge Netanyahu’s Likud Party with Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu. Despite the contention made by some — notably Haaretz editor Aluf Benn — that this move creates a war cabinet that will make it easier for Israel to strike Iranian nuclear facilities, it’s more likely the two men had domestic politics at the forefront of their minds. In birthing the new Likud Beiteinu, Netanyahu and Lieberman are hoping to create a monolith that will dominate Israeli politics for years to come.

Creating a workable majority in the 120-seat Knesset has proven to be difficult, and always requires a coalition of larger and smaller parties. In the current Knesset, Kadima has the most seats with 28, and Likud comes in second with 27, but these numbers are historically low for the top vote-getters. Two decades ago, Labor won the 1992 Knesset elections after garnering 44 seats and Likud came in second with 32 seats, while the previous election in 1988 had yielded 40 seats for Likud and 39 for Labor’s leftwing bloc. Netanyahu and Lieberman are gambling that their new Likud Beiteinu party will be an electorally dominant rightwing giant by combining the strength of their two parties while also picking up former Likud voters who have voted for Kadima in the past two elections. The hope is that a bigger party will have the strength to withstand hostage-taking demands from smaller parties and be able to push its agenda through the Knesset with a minimum of haggling and horse trading. That agenda is likely to include a renewed push for Haredi military service, more building in the West Bank, and a neoliberal economic policy — and Netanyahu wants to be able to carry his policies out with a minimum of resistance.

While this is nice in theory, it is unlikely to play out in the way that Netanyahu and Lieberman hope. To begin with, the current polls are not looking too promising and show Likud Beiteinu either slipping from its current combination of 42 seats or maintaining the exact same share of the Knesset that it holds now. Controlling 42 seats as a single party would give Netanyahu a lot of power and flexibility, and there is certainly plenty of time between now and the election for Likud Beiteinu to surge in the polls. There are, however, good reasons to believe that the new party is not going to surge, but is actually going to slip.

To begin with, Likud Beiteinu might have a real problem with the Russian voters who make up Yisrael Beiteinu’s base. A poll commissioned for Channel 99 showed only 59 percent of 2009 Yisrael Beiteinu voters casting their ballot for the new mega-party in 2013, with 22 percent undecided. It is very possible that Russian voters who voted for Yisrael Beiteinu because it served as a patronage party bringing benefits to Russian immigrants are rightfully wary that Likud Beiteinu will have the same focus, and are casting around for another party to fill that void.

Within Likud, there is a mirror-image problem of the party’s base of Mizrahi (Jews primarily from Iraq, Syria, and Yemen) voters being turned off by the elevation of the Russian Lieberman to the second-most powerful person in Likud. The party has long struggled with the problem of having a Sephardi grassroots and an Ashkenazi leadership, and the inclusion of Lieberman along with the concurrent exit of Communications Minister Moshe Kahlon, who is of Libyan descent, might very well drive some Likud voters into the arms of Shas, which represents ultra-Orthodox Sephardi voters.

Another reason to suspect that this new arrangement is not going to yield as strong a party as Netanyahu hopes is that it rests on an odd and somewhat counterintuitive theory of party strengthening. As a general rule, the best ways to create a newly large and powerful party are to co-opt the opposition and to create a big tent that welcomes many different factions. The Likud-Kadima coalition agreement in May — despite its quick demise — was actually a successful attempt at such a maneuver since it eliminated Likud’s largest opponent and built bridges between a rightwing party and a more centrist party. The merger deal with Yisrael Beiteinu, however, will not be successful at co-opting smaller centrist parties and it will not create a big tent, as both Likud and YB reside on the right side of the political spectrum.

What this means in practice is that we are likely to see Likud Beiteinu get the largest share of seats in the Knesset but with nothing approaching a mandate for action. Rather than smooth sailing for the ruling party, there will be the usual political gridlock and unstable coalition as the smaller parties extort Likud Beiteinu to fund their pet projects as a condition of joining the government. Lieberman is also an unusually polarizing figure, and his presence at the top will make it harder for a party like Labor to even contemplate joining up in a unity government.

There are also some real implications here for the new U.S. administration, whomever the next president might be. The fact that Netanyahu is not going to be in as strong a position as he anticipates means that he will not be able to afford alienating his settler base or risk an insurrection from Moshe Feiglin, Danny Danon, and the more revanchist wing of Likud. Lieberman, himself a settler, takes an extremely hard-line positions on settlements as well, and thus the new Likud Beiteinu is likely to frustrate any desires on the part of the United States for the Israeli government to either freeze settlement building or to make concessions to the Palestinians, who have been immovably intransigent. The formation of Likud Beiteinu might even deal the final fatal blow to the Palestinian Authority, as Lieberman has been waging a months-long campaign to discredit Mahmoud Abbas by calling him a diplomatic terrorist and is unlikely in his newly powerful position to agree to keep on bolstering the PA. This will create all sorts of headaches for the United States and means that any remaining optimism surrounding the peace process is misplaced.

Netanyahu and Lieberman are banking that their new party will be greater than the sum of its parts, but there is an excellent chance that it will actually be the opposite. Should that turn out to be the case, expect to see a continuation of the congestion that has marked Israeli politics and frustrated its diplomacy over the last decade.

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I Say Israel,You Say Israel

October 23, 2012 § 2 Comments

So, how about that foreign policy debate last night? Among some of the international affairs topics discussed by our two august candidates for president was the auto industry bailout, economic opportunities for the middle class, how to balance the budget, bayonet manufacturing and horse husbandry…well, you get the point. I made a joke on Twitter before the debate started alluding to the fact that, unlike during the first two debates, nobody was going to be complaining about the lack of foreign policy in this debate, but turns out the joke was on me. Mitt Romney was all too happy to shift the debate away from foreign policy to the economy and President Obama for some reason followed. I’m still waiting for the promised foreign policy debate.

One topic that did come up early and often, however, was Israel. Obama was the first to break the seal, and both candidates spent a lot of time playing up their pro-Israel credentials. Curiously, Romney initially seemed to back off his early and often claim that Obama has “thrown Israel under the bus” and when he resurrected his usual line of attack later on, Obama hit back at him hard by comparing Romney’s fundraising trip to Israel to Obama’s own trip to Israel during the previous campaign when Obama visited Yad Vashem and the rocket-scarred border town of Sderot. So aside from the fact that the debate was held in Boca Raton and that Florida has a large Jewish population, why so much focus on Israel? As much as some people like to shout about the Israel lobby, Israel happens to be very popular with U.S. voters generally, and some important swing states like Florida, Pennsylvania, and Ohio have a high percentage of Jewish voters. The race by each candidate to establish pro-Israel bonafides is caused by the electoral college, and not the Israel lobby. Were there a national popular vote rather than a state-by-state one, Israel would come up a lot less.

More interesting is not that Israel was mentioned so often (22 times vs. not one mention of Europe, which is a staggering fact to digest about a supposed foreign policy debate given everything going on in the Eurozone at the moment), but that Obama was the first one to do it. Israel is generally viewed as a weak spot for Obama given the uneasy relationship he has with Bibi Netanyahu and the constant GOP attacks on Obama’s record toward Israel, and I would have bet that Romney would bring up Israel and try to hammer Obama over the head with it and force him to play defense. That Obama preempted Romney and repeated again and again that Israel is America’s greatest ally in the Middle East, that Egypt breaking its peace treaty with Israel is a red line for the U.S., and that the U.S. will back Israel if it is attacked says to me that the Obama campaign has some internal polling that is scaring it to death. Obama had clearly also prepared a strong and challenging answer for Romney’s contention that Obama was not sufficiently pro-Israel and he hit him hard with it when the opportunity arose. Obama knows that beginning with Franklin D. Roosevelt and continuing through his own victory in 2008, only once has a Democrat been elected president without winning at least 75 percent of the Jewish vote (Jimmy Carter received 64 percent in 1976), and I think based on last night that he is legitimately worried about what will happen should he miss that threshold.

A few other quick and not so quick thoughts on non-Israel related topics:

There was much speculation a few months ago about which camp was winning the fight for Romney’s foreign policy soul, the neoconservative wing or the GOP establishment realist wing. It seems pretty clear after last night that John Bolton and Romney’s other neocon advisors appear to have lost the battle. Romney disavowed intervention in Syria and was not pushing too hard for a war with Iran, and in many ways agreed with much of what Obama has been trying to do.

For me, the most disheartening part of of the debate last night was the brief section on drones. The reason it was brief is because Obama and Romney apparently have the exact same position on the subject, which is that drones are a great tool that the U.S. employs and are entirely unproblematic. I know most people don’t think much about the drone war taking place in Pakistan and that the public is generally supportive of it, but this is something that desperately needs to be debated. As Justin Green succinctly put it, “This is the time partisanship should cause these questions to arise, but instead we have a consensus on the issue. Shameful.” Leaving aside the fact that the drone war may be radicalizing an entire new generation of people, or that it leaves large numbers of civilian casualties in its wake, or that the Obama administration has taken the unprecedented – and to my mind blatantly unconstitutional – step of claiming the right to kill American citizens extrajudicially via drones without any type of meaningful due process, there is another serious issue the drone war raises, which is that we are opening a dangerous Pandora’s box. At some point other states are going to ramp up their use of drones as well, and I don’t quite know what our response will be given our current behavior when China or Russia or Iran starts flying drones over U.S. territory. I desperately wish that if this issue were to unite both parties it would be in the other direction, but at the very least we need to have some debate on this, rather than Obama talking about how great the policy is and Romney nodding his head as vigorously as he can.

Finally, Romney’s call for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to be indicted for advocating genocide was a bit curious given what I am sure is his position on international tribunals and universal jurisdiction. If Ahmadinejad were to be indicted, the indictment would be issued by the International Criminal Court, a body which nearly all Republicans are opposed to and to which the U.S. has not joined as a member (and with good reason, in my view). I am certain that Romney does not support the idea of international judicial organizations having the power to bring criminal cases across all national boundaries, and yet he forcefully advocated such a move for Ahmadinejad. Talk about head-spinning!

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