February 13, 2013 § 1 Comment
I wrote about this topic last week from the U.S. perspective in light of President Obama’s forthcoming trip to Israel, but from the standpoint of Israel politics some comments yesterday from Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett are worth highlighting in assessing what movement we can expect to see on the peace process from the next Israeli government. As faithful O&Z readers know, I am fairly confident that Yesh Atid and Habayit Hayehudi will be in the coalition, and I am also fairly confident that Yair Lapid cares a lot more about the military draft issue than he does about the peace process and that he should not be viewed as the great savior of the peace camp and the two state solution. In light of this, let’s consider some facts that are emerging about the coalition talks and some things that were said by Lapid and Bennett yesterday in different forums.
To begin with, Lapid and Bennett have negotiated a deal that binds their fates together so that either Yesh Atid and Habayit Hayehudi will both be in the government or both parties will stay out. While Bibi Netanyahu is frantically trying to peel Bennett away from Lapid by making him extravagant but exploding offers, so far Bennett appears to be resistant to go back on his agreement with Lapid. This is interesting, because obviously Likud is more of a natural partner for Habayit Hayehudi than Yesh Atid is as Netanyahu and Bennett are closer ideologically – despite their history of personal issues – than Bennett and Lapid are. The one issue on which HH and YA are closer on is the issue of the draft and equalizing the burden of service, which suggests that it is the issue most important to both Lapid and Bennett and the one on which both parties are most reluctant to back down. Lots of attention has been paid to Lapid’s pledge that he is guided by overhauling the draft and reanimating the peace process and that he will not join a government that does not agree to do both, but in tying his fate to Bennett’s, he is signaling that one of those issues is far more important to him than the other and that the peace process condition is more about lip service than anything else.
Then there were Lapid’s remarks yesterday before the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations meeting in Jerusalem, in which he said that Ehud Olmert had gone too far in his concessions toward the Palestinians while prime minister, that Jerusalem could never be divided in his view, and that the Palestinians were going to have to accept an interim semi-state within temporary borders subject to future revision. Now, none of this makes Lapid a fire-breathing Greater Israel supporter, but it also does not make him the great champion of the two state solution that some think he is. Not agreeing to a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem and talking about interim agreements are both positions that probably make peace talks doomed to fail before they even begin. The interim agreement is the bigger hurdle of these two, since while Jerusalem can be negotiated over during talks, no Palestinian government at this point will even come to the table for talks that deal with anything less than a final status agreement. This is the ultimate display of someone trying to cultivate a more left-wing image without adopting any policies to match. Again, this does not make Lapid an extremist or out of line with mainstream Israeli popular opinion, but it also does not make him the next Yitzhak Rabin.
Lapid’s new best friend also had some things of his own to say about the prospects of a Palestinian state yesterday, but in a much more straightforward way. In a Knesset speech, Bennett said that “there is no room” for a Palestinian state, that it will never happen, and that the government needs to say with finality that the Land of Israel belongs to the people of Israel. Nobody has ever had any illusions about Bennett’s views on the peace process and the two state solution so this does not come as a surprise, but the important takeaway here is that Lapid knows full well what Bennett’s views are and has still hitched his wagon to Bennett’s. Irrespective of whatever his own personal views may be, it is difficult from a political perspective to think that Lapid is committed to real negotiations when he will only go into the government if Bennett goes as well. Taking all of these factors into consideration, even if Tzipi Livni bring Hatnua into the government nobody should be getting their hopes up too high for a big diplomatic push on the horizon.
January 22, 2013 § 2 Comments
Finally, the day we’ve all been waiting for – Israelis go to the polls today to elect a new Knesset and a new government for the first time since 2009. Despite the fact that we don’t have any results yet, I thought I’d set out a list of things we know and things we don’t.
Things We Know:
–Bibi Netanyahu and Likud Beiteinu are going to win the most seats in the Knesset and Likud will be the largest party. This is an easy one given the polls, since even with the Likud Beiteinu list losing about a seat a week for months now, no other party is going to come close to the 32-36 seats LB is likely to take. The irony of course is that Netanyahu created the joint list in order to create an unbeatable force, yet Likud might have done better on its own as banding together with Avigdor Lieberman and Yisrael Beiteinu likely cost Netanyahu seats for a host of reasons (and from the Department of Shameless Self Promotion, remember who told you months ago that this was a very bad idea on Bibi’s part). Despite the blunder, Labor is probably going to come in second with 15-18 seats, and Habayit Hayehudi and Yesh Atid are going to be battling for 3rd and 4th place. It is possible that the LB list will have twice as many seats as the next largest party despite its free fall in the polls, although this is a bit misleading since the two parties agreed to merge until only 30 days past the election, at which point they are free to revisit their agreement and separate. The most interesting little nugget about Likud being the largest party in the Knesset is that despite having served two terms as prime minister, this will be the first time that Netanyahu leads his party to a Knesset victory. When Netanyahu was elected in 1996, Israel was in the midst of its decade-long experiment of directly electing the prime minister, and so while Netanyahu beat Shimon Peres by 1% in the prime ministerial vote, Likud won 32 seats to Labor’s 34. In 2009, Likud came in second to Kadima, but after Tzipi Livni was unable to form a government, Netanyahu swooped in and cobbled together a governing coalition despite controlling the second largest party in the Knesset rather than the largest. By the end of today, Netanyahu will finally be able to say that he led his party to an electoral victory.
Things We Don’t Know
–Everything else. And I mean that. Aside from Likud Beiteinu winning the most mandates, I cannot say with 100% certainty what else will happen. I am 99% sure that Netanyahu is going to be the next prime minister, but there are enough weird things going on to give me that minuscule 1% pause. To begin with, there are an unusually high number of undecided voters, and while they might break Bibi’s way, I don’t think that Bibi’s base is one that is marked by indecision, unless that indecision comprises whether to continue to vote for Netanyahu or to go with the trendier rightwing choice of Naftali Bennett and Habayit Hayehudi.
Furthermore, Netanyahu’s margins are going to be very tight, and this means there is an outside chance that he pulls a Livni and can’t pull off putting together a viable government. I am as confident as I can possibly be that HH is going to be in the coalition, but then the coalition math becomes very tricky. It involves bringing in a centrist party such as Yesh Atid, which will clash with HH and the more extremist Likud voices over peace process issues, or going with Shas and UTJ, who are toxic to HH over the draft and toxic to Yisrael Beiteinu over both the draft and the religious-secular divide. Then there is the possibility that Aryeh Deri’s return to Shas means it is no longer so reliably rightwing and will give Netanyahu a harder time when it comes to coalition bargaining.
To throw another monkey wrench into this, there are the rumblings from all sorts of quarters that the electorate has shifted in the past few days and that the leftwing and centrist parties are going to do better than their polling indicates. If voter turnout is high, it means that left and center parties are going to do better than expected, in which case there is even a possibility that Netanyahu is denied the first chance to form a government. Last month I brought up the possibility of a unity government, which started to look ridiculous in the interim but now I am not so sure that I was off-base. Then there are the rumors that were flying around last night that Ehud Barak is going to be defense minister and Tzipi Livni foreign minister, which I find to be completely far-fetched given the rancor toward Barak exhibited by all sorts of newly influential Likud members and the fact that Netanyahu would never give Livni any real power as foreign minister while Livni would never accept the position to be a mere figurehead. All of this is to say that while Bibi is almost definitely going to remain as prime minister, the possibility of a black swan would not be entirely out of the blue. As for what type of coalition he will put together assuming he remains prime minister, your guess is as good as mine. If I have to predict something, it’s that we will see a nationalist bent due to the inclusion of Habayit Hayehudi, that the haredi parties are going to be left out, and that Yesh Atid will be brought in. This will allow Bibi to keep his rightwingers happy on peace process and settlements, let Yesh Atid have its pet issue of reforming the draft, and not have to worry about the secular-religious divide issue bringing down the government. I can also see Labor being brought into this mix if Netanyahu wants to have the coalition be as big as possible or if the numbers are such that he needs another party but wants to avoid bringing in Shas. Whatever happens, the next few weeks promise to be an entertaining ride.
December 28, 2012 § 2 Comments
As 2012 comes to a close, I want to take a look back at the big things I got wrong this year. Crowing about what I got right is a lot more fun – and I don’t waste many opportunities to remind everyone that I was correct about an Iran strike – but it is also far less useful for me and for my readers, since it doesn’t allow me to recalibrate my thinking or give all of you a sense of when and why you should be ignoring me. I started this blog on March 13 of this year and this is my 276th post so I don’t have the time to comprehensively go through every single one, but after trying to go through the bulk of them, here are some of my biggest misfires from 2012.
Migron’s evacuation: On March 26, I wrote, “Yet, I’ll bet almost anything that Migron is not evacuated and demolished by August 1, and that Likud’s younger rightwing vanguard does everything in its power to make sure that the Migron decision is consigned to nothingness. The Knesset’s current coalition politics will not allow anything less, and Israel will continue to fight a losing battle to convince the world that it is blameless for the situation with the Palestinians and that it will be able to withdraw from part of the West Bank whenever the Palestinian leadership is interested in returning to the negotiating table.”
While this was technically correct since Migron was still standing and fully populated on August 1, the idea behind it was wrong as Migron was evacuated by the first week in September. In this case, I did not give enough credit to the Israeli government and its willingness to carry out an unambiguous High Court decision.
Palestinian civil war: This one was a big misfire. On April 3, I wrote that Hamas and Fatah were on the brink of open armed conflict. My logic was that the Palestinian Authority moves to quash dissent in the West Bank were aimed at limiting Hamas’s ability to operate in Fatah’s stronghold, and that Hamas would do the same in Gaza in response and that eventually the entire tinder box would blow up. This has of course not happened, and I think I was too glib about just how drastic things would have to get for a civil war to take place.
Ehud Barak and Atzmaut: On May 3 I wrote that Barak and his party were going to make the threshold for getting into the next Knesset once elections happened. While this has not actually been proven wrong yet, Barak has decided not to run and Atzmaut is going to fold, so this prediction will be wrong quite soon. Let’s just all pretend that I did not write the following: “So despite the polls, remember that you read this prediction here first: Atzmaut is going to have seats in the next Knesset, will serve in the governing coalition, and Ehud Barak will continue as defense minister.”
Kadima staying in the coalition: On July 3, I predicted that the Likud-Kadima unity government was going to hold together despite the Plesner Committee – which was tasked with figuring out a solution to Haredi and Arab military exemptions – being disbanded. When my prediction was proven incorrect, I wrote a long post taking stock of where I went wrong, so no need to rehash that again.
Turkey’s response to Operation Pillar of Cloud: On November 14, I wrote in The Atlantic that Turkey and Prime Minister Erdoğan were going to maintain a muted response to Israel’s Gaza operation because of the hypocrisy entailed in a more vocal response given Turkey’s tactics against the PKK. Here’s the relevant part:
But Turkey’s situation has changed in a very important way since Cast Lead. In 2008 and in the aftermath of the flotilla in 2010 Turkey was dealing with a quieter Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), the Kurdish separatist group. Today, that is no longer the case. Since this summer, Ankara has been waging a full-blown war with the Kurdish terrorist group, inflicting hundreds of casualties and suffering many of its own.
Much like Israel’s fight against Hamas, Turkey’s fight with the PKK has not been without civilian collateral damage. Last December, the Turkish military carried out an airstrike in Uludere that killed 34 civilians who the military thought were PKK fighters attempting to cross the border into Turkey. Earlier this year, the government sealed off the Semdinli district in the Hakkari province for months while it fought the PKK, not letting any information out or any journalists in.
Turkey’s problem with PKK terrorism, combined with the inevitable civilian casualties that occur when fighting terrorist groups embedded amongst the general population, makes it harder this time around for Turkey to angrily denounce Israel as it once did. While I expected Turkey to issue a condemnation of Israeli actions, it is not surprising that it did not have the full force as it has in the past given the uncomfortable parallels that exist between Israel’s actions against Hamas and Turkey’s actions against the PKK.
Of everything that I’ve written this year, this is the prediction that was perhaps the one that was most off-base, as Erdoğan later blasted Israel repeatedly for days. My error here is pretty easy to identify, which is that I for whatever reason convinced myself that a desire to not look like a hypocrite was going to override the strong political incentives that existed for Erdoğan to continue foaming at the mouth any time Israel comes up, and to tie himself to the Palestinian cause at every opportunity. Rest assured my naiveté on this issue is done with.
So there you go. I am sure I’ve missed things, and if anyone knows what those are, please let me know in the comments. Happy New Year, and see you all back here in 2013.
December 18, 2012 § 8 Comments
In the time leading up to an Israeli election, one always gets the impression that Israel’s political system is the most fractured on Earth. Outrageous charges are hurled back and forth, and this year Kadima took things to a new level by adopting an anti-Bibi slogan superimposed on a picture of a nuclear mushroom cloud as its campaign poster. Nevertheless, as Israeli parties and politicians all jockey and maneuver before the January 22 election, it seems to me that if the poll numbers remain relatively stable, there is a good chance that Israel is headed toward a unity government comprised of Likud and Labor. While nobody will come right out and admit that while campaigning, the inter-party dynamics, Bibi Netanyahu’s past preferences, and Labor leader Shelley Yachimovich’s interview over the weekend are all pointing in that direction.
The latest polling – and the first to be released after Avigdor Lieberman’s resignation as foreign minister – confirms the trend that has been taking place for weeks, which is that the Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu joint list is polling in the mid to upper 30s range for Knesset seats and is likely to garner fewer seats than the two currently have now (and don’t forget where you first heard that this arrangement was going to backfire). In addition, the Habayit Hayehudi list under Naftali Bennett is holding steady at 11 seats, and is Netanyahu’s natural coalition partner given its rightwing stance. While there are rumors that Netanyahu would rather not deal with Bennett, he cannot afford to have Bennett constantly sniping at him from his right flank, particularly given how rightwing voters appear to be leaving Likud and flocking to Habayit Hayehudi. Including Bennett gets Netanyahu to just under 50 coalition seats, leaving him 10-12 short depending on how things precisely shake out. In the past, Netanyahu has turned to Shas and UTJ to fill this gap, and indeed together they are currently at 16 seats, which would get Netanyahu past the magic number of 60 seats and allow him to continue as prime minister. The problem is that Yisrael Beiteinu has been adamant about not wanting Haredi parties in the coalition, and Bennett last week demanded that Netanyahu take away the Interior and Housing ministries from Shas as part of his general argument that Haredi parties should be kept out of the next coalition. Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party might not get enough seats to fill the gap, and even if it does, it will still leave Netanyahu with a very narrow margin and no wiggle room. Tzipi Livni’s Hatnua party is probably out too, as Livni and Netanyahu do not like each other and Livni has turned down multiple opportunities to join with Netanyahu in the past. As demonstrated by his move to form a unity government with Kadima last spring, Netanyahu clearly likes to keep as many options open to him as possible, and his current narrow one has been a disaster, with infighting over the Tal Law and Haredi military service being a particular problem. This means constructing a coalition with as many seats as possible and without a big issue that will prove enormously divisive and impossible to overcome.
Enter Labor, which is second in the polls behind Likud Beiteinu, and Yachimovich, who has repeatedly declined to rule out joining a Likud-led coalition and who has insisted that Labor is not a leftwing party but a centrist party. Yachimovich wants to join the next coalition because she has never served as a minister and is relatively inexperienced and untested. Serving in the government will provide her with some more gravitas and do away with the impression that she isn’t quite ready for prime time, and lay the foundation for a future chance at expanding Labor’s seats and competing to be prime minister. In this vein, yesterday she gave an interview in which she said that the budget for settlements should remain untouched in the absence of a peace agreement with the Palestinians and stressed Labor’s history of building settlements when in government and that Labor has always had a hawkish element, including Yitzhak Rabin. This drew immediate responses from Lapid and Meretz chief Zahava Gal-On, but Yachimovich does not appear to be worried about Gal-On or other leftist parties damaging her credibility. Instead, she is clearly appealing to the fact that Israel’s electorate is far more hawkish on the Palestinians and the West Bank than in the past, and is laying the groundwork to be able to join a Likud-led coalition in which support for settlements is going to be a must. It is not accidental that Yachimovich broke her laser-like focus on economic and social issues to talk about settlements rather than Iran, the peace process, Gaza, etc. If there is one issue that will make it possible for Netanyahu to invite Labor into the coalition without risking a rightwing revolt it is support for the settlement budget, and Yachimovich’s interview was an attempt to forestall any criticism that might emerge on this front. While there will invariably be differences in opinion between her and Netanyahu on socioeconomic issues and on the peace process, there is now no daylight on the question of support for settlements. While I am loath to predict anything with certainly when it comes to coalition politics – particularly as I have been burned in the past – the signs as I read them point to a Likud-Labor unity government once the dust settles after the election.
October 18, 2012 § 5 Comments
Dan Ephron, who is Newsweek’s Jerusalem bureau chief, wrote a piece on Monday about the Israeli right wing’s dominance of that country’s politics. Ephron quoted Noam Sheizaf as predicting that the election in January will create a “total collapse of the center-left, both as a political power and as an ideologically coherent idea,” and Ephron appears to agree that this is a likely scenario. The reason Ephron provides is that the fastest growing groups in Israel are the Orthodox and the ultra-Orthodox, and that “both groups lean heavily to the right.” Furthermore, “Since the core motivation for their political hawkishness is largely unchanging—a biblical injunction to maintain Israeli control over Judea and Samaria (their term for the West Bank)—it’s hard to imagine them ever shifting alliances. The upshot: with each passing year, the Israeli right grows stronger.”
This seems plausible on its face, but there are a few major problems with this analysis. First, conflating the Orthodox and the ultra-Orthodox (or Haredim) is a rookie mistake. Orthodox voters and Haredi voters have different motivations and vote based on different issues. The idea that a party like Shas speaks for, say, Israelis attending hesder yeshivot (where draft-eligible Israeli men split their time between army service and Torah study) is nonsense. It is also analytically lazy to contend that Orthodox Jews who serve in the IDF and go on to careers of various sorts are no different than Haredi Jews who do not perform army service and are largely dependent on state subsidies. Lumping their positions and ideologies together makes Ephron’s argument automatically suspect.
Second, it is simply not accurate to describe Haredi rightwing tendencies as being motivated by a desire to hold on to Greater Israel. As my friend Brent Sasley has pointed out, Haredim are generally anti-Zionist or non-Zionist. Not only do they not care about maintaining all of Greater Israel, as Ephron contends, but many Haredim are actually opposed to the idea of Israel at all, let alone an Israel that encompasses the West Bank. Haredi parties in the Knesset recognize the existence of the state, but they do not care about any biblical injunction regarding the land of Israel. In fact, as Brent usefully noted, Rav Ovadia Yosef, the founder and current spiritual leader of Shas (which is the Knesset’s largest Orthodox party of any stripe), held for years that it was acceptable to give up land if it would save Jewish lives, which is certainly not in line with Ephron’s dubious claim that Haredi rightwing positions stem first and foremost from a desire to hang on to the West Bank. Haredi parties generally – although historically not always – band together with other rightwing parties because they are very socially conservative and they feel most at home on the right. Issues surrounding the West Bank or the Palestinians have very little to do with it.
Third, throwing Likud’s politics in together with Haredi politics and pretending that it all stems from the same rightwing ideology is inaccurate. Both segments are conservative and ideological in their own way, but their conservatism and ideology are not shared. Likud is economically conservative and extremely devoted to the settler cause, and if any party has an ideology based on settling the entire land of Greater Israel, Likud is it. There is, of course, the inconvenient fact that Likud leaders are not themselves religious, including Likud founder Menachem Begin and current Likud prime minister Bibi Netanyahu, but certainly a sizable percentage of Likud voters are Orthodox (but not Haredi). Haredi parties are ideological and conservative as well, but their conservatism is social rather than economic – not surprising given how many Haredim survive on state largesse – and their ideology is one of fealty to Torah and Jewish law as a way of structuring daily life, rather than anything surrounding settling or holding onto the land. Likud is rightwing, and Shas and UTJ are rightwing, but they are rightwingers in the same way the Club for Growth and the Christian Coalition are rightwing – they inhabit the same general political universe but for vastly different reasons.
It is true that the Orthodox and the ultra-Orthodox both lean heavily to the right, but that is about the only part of Ephron’s analysis that isn’t stunningly ill-informed. Just because both groups have the word “Orthodox” in their names does not mean that they share the same core motivations. The Israeli right may be growing stronger, but that doesn’t mean that Haredi parties wouldn’t shift their allegiance to the left if they were promised a better deal on subsidies and control of Israel’s religious institutions. Ephron’s permanent majority theory is based on some serious basic factual errors, and given that he is the Jerusalem bureau chief for one of America’s most prominent newsweeklies, I expect some more rigor from him.
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.
July 3, 2012 § 4 Comments
Two of my favorite Israel bloggers, Allison Good and The Camel’s Nose, are having an entertaining debate on Twitter and their respective blogs over the survival prospects of the Likud-Kadima coalition government. For those who haven’t been following along, Bibi Netanyahu disbanded the Kadima-led Plesner Committee charged with coming up with a solution to the problem of Haredi and Arab exemptions from military service following the resignations of Yisrael Beiteinu, Habayit Hayehudi, and the Haredi representative from the committee. AG thinks that this means that the coalition government is going to be gone by the end of the week because Bibi is ultimately going to stick with his more rightwing coalition partners and because Shaul Mofaz realizes that he is getting nowhere with Netanyahu and would rather resume his erstwhile role as opposition leader. In contrast, TCN thinks that the coalition will last because Bibi is a cunning politician and will be able to ride out the current storm and because Mofaz gains nothing by quitting the government.
I hate to pick sides here, but since I was planning on writing about this anyway before the two of them beat me to it, I have to go with The Camel’s Nose on this one. Allison’s logic is good, particularly on the issue of Bibi being a creature of habit with a long history of being risk-averse when it comes to big picture policies who tends to placate his rightwing base, but I will add a few reasons to the ones already set forth by TCN in explaining why I think the coalition holds.
First, Netanyahu issued a statement warning the Haredi parties that if a compromise is not reached, Haredim will be subject to the draft beginning August 1. This angered the Haredi parties to no end and they ripped him for issuing an ultimatum, and it seems like a strange move for Bibi to make if he is ultimately going to ditch Kadima and side with Shas and UTJ. Why warn them about coming back to the table if the intention is to back them to the hilt anyway? If the answer is that equalizing the burden of service is popular with the Israeli public and issuing the hardline statement is all public relations showmanship, then Netanyahu is setting himself for a severe backlash if he then goes and lets Haredim off the hook for military or national service. Furthermore, it bears noting that Haredi voters are not part of Netanyahu and Likud’s base – they historically have been willing to join any government, left or right, that has been willing to buy their support with subsidies and key ministries. Netanyahu’s base is the settler and religious Zionist movements, and they hold no water for Haredi draft dodgers. All of this reads to me like Bibi is gearing up to make Haredim subject to the draft, and only disbanded the Plesner Committee because it seemed like a futile exercise once YB and the Haredi rep had both quit and not because he is trying to protect the Haredi exemption.
Second, I don’t think that Mofaz has any intention of quitting the coalition. His threat to do so is an empty one since there is no reason for him to wait – if he was actually going to pull out of the government, he would have done so when Netanyahu pulled the plug on the Plesner Committee, which was Mofaz’s pet project. Mofaz has already been sufficiently embarrassed to justify leaving, and the fact that he hasn’t done so indicates to me that he is looking for excuses to stick around. That Mofaz brought Kadima into the government does not change the fact that Kadima’s poll numbers were badly sinking before the coalition deal was struck and that Kadima was increasingly looking like a party that would not survive more than one additional election. Leaving the coalition now, as TCN points out, probably dilutes Mofaz’s power since he is not by any means a natural leader of a left of center opposition, and that goes double now that he has tainted himself in the left’s eyes by joining hands with Bibi in a unity government.
Finally, there is the fact that Netanyahu created this monster of a coalition for a reason, and we need to think about what that reason might be. Sure, I think he liked the idea of presiding over a government with virtually no real opposition to speak of, but he also wasn’t accumulating numbers just for the sole sake of accumulating numbers. I think that creating such a large coalition was meant to give Netanyahu room to maneuver on precisely this issue – equalizing the burden of service and ending the Haredi military exemption – since it is a popular position and one that he could not pursue before without bringing down his government. The day after the news of the deal with Kadima broke, I wrote the following:
A newly stabilized government gives Netanyahu more time to quell the growing backbench rebellion within Likud as well, and he can expect Kadima to now back him full-tilt on settlements once he backs Mofaz’s Tal Law alternative. In sum, this is move to bring in Kadima and cancel the early elections is a no-brainer that eliminates potential rival parties, strengthens Likud internally, and probably increases its vote share over what it would have gotten in September.
This logic still holds. Putting Kadima in charge of the committee tasked with replacing the Tal Law was a high profile move and Netanyahu staked a lot on it, and the idea that after all that he would now just turn around, kill the committee and not allow its recommendation to see the light of day, and end the unity government, putting him right back where he started – namely, a coalition that is bound to break apart and bring down the government since Yisrael Beiteinu and Shas/UTJ cannot coexist for much longer – doesn’t make sense to me. Ultimately, the deal with Kadima was about Netanyahu’s survival as prime minister without having to call early elections, and so he needs Mofaz to stick around almost as much as Mofaz needs him in order to remain relevant. So, my prediction is that after everyone gets in their saber rattling, Netanyahu and Mofaz will work out some sort of arrangement, the Haredi parties will leave the coalition in a huff, and the unity government will remain in place. We should know by the end of the week if I am right or if I am wrong in a big way. And if it’s the latter, consider this my preemptive apology and huge tip of the hat to Allison Good.
May 15, 2012 § 1 Comment
A committee is being established to come up with an alternative to the Tal Law, and the deal that emerges will affect Israel’s Haredi community more than any other segment of society since it will determine what becomes of the system whereby Haredi Jews are granted exemptions from military service. So naturally, one would expect the Haredi parties to be intimately involved in coming up with new proposals and fighting tooth and nail to get as many seats on the committee as possible. Right?
In fact, the Tal Law committee is being boycotted by Shas and UTJ following rabbinical instructions to the parties’ MKs that they should not participate since the Haredi rabbinical leadership is ideologically opposed to compulsory military service for the members of its community. Shas head Eli Yishai, who was previously on record as being willing to consider alternatives to the Tal Law, changed his mind after meeting with Rabbi Ovadia Yosef and now says that he is against any negotiations or quotas and that the right of Haredim to study Torah should not be subject to debate. Instead, Shas is going to come up with its own plan for draft reform outside the auspices of the official committee, while UTJ has threatened to leave the coalition on the orders of its own rabbinical leadership should Haredi students be prevented from studying Torah all day.
Boycotts of politics never end well. All that happens is that politics proceeds apace, and the parties that choose not to participate do not get to air their grievances, promote their interests, or affect the results in any way. This is particularly true when the boycotters are not protesting the legitimacy of the political system itself, but rather a specific policy that they do not like. Shas and UTJ are not taking a stand against the Knesset’s legitimacy; they just think that the people they represent should be allowed a different set of rules than everyone else. Now, it is understandable that they think this way, since for decades they have indeed had a different set of rules that were endorsed by the Knesset, the courts, and the other organs of Israeli democracy. The corollary to this though is that if the old rules were deemed to be legitimate, then any new rules that emerge must be deemed legitimate as well.
It seems to me that the Haredi politicians understand this. Yishai seemed willing at first to be involved in crafting a compromise, and apostate Shas MK Haim Amsalem has blasted Shas for not participating in the committee. It is only on the orders of the various rabbis who comprise Shas and UTJ’s “spiritual leadership” that the two parties are now boycotting the committee rather than serving on it. This appears like a logical step to the rabbinic overseers, since like anything else that conflicts with their interpretation of halakha – immodestly dressed women, “secular” music, the internet, etc. – their approach is to ban any contact with it. In their view, the Tal Law committee is going to force Haredim to stop devoting all their time to learning Torah, and since they consider this to be unlawful from a religious standpoint, they will have nothing to do with it and have instructed their MKs accordingly. While the religious logic of this might make sense, the political logic does not. What is sure to happen now is that a compromise will be worked out that will not be to the Haredi parties’ liking, the Haredi community and its leaders will reject it as illegitimate, and Israel will have a new problem on its hands. I do not begrudge the Haredi parties their reliance on rabbis to influence their policy proposals. In a democracy, any party has the right to organize itself as it chooses, and this applies to religious parties just as equally as it applies to anyone else. The Shas and UTJ MKs, however, know enough to realize that religious expertise is not the same as political expertise, and when the rabbinical leadership begins to control tactical political decisions rather than broad policy preferences, it is going to lead to political disaster.
May 7, 2012 § 2 Comments
Were there any question at all about whether the unconstitutionality of the Tal Law is going to bring a wholesale change to Haredi military exemptions, this weekend’s events should put an end to any speculation that it will. First there was the refusal of Netanyahu and Likud to postpone the Knesset dissolution despite the fact that its largest coalition partner, Yisrael Beiteinu, has formally requested that it do so. Yisrael Beiteinu has wanted to introduce its Tal Law replacement bill that would require mandatory Haredi military or national service, but because there is a chance that the YB bill will have the support of the majority of the Knesset, Netanyahu and Likud were not willing to risk that happening. A few hours ago, the Yisrael Beiteinu bill and another similar bill proposed by Atzmaut MK Einat Wilf were surprisingly approved for submission by the Ministerial Committee on Legislative Affairs but then frozen by Shas minister Meshulam Nahari, which means that they will not be brought before the Knesset for a vote for the time being. This should put to rest the speculation being floated that Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu are going to run on a joint ticket since if that were to happen Likud would not now be placing so many hurdles in Yisrael Beiteinu’s path. The reason, of course, that the Knesset is being dissolved now before the bill can be introduced and passed, is because Netanyahu and Likud need to do everything in their power to keep the Haredi parties happy so as not to have them jump ship when it comes time to form the new coalition after the elections. Netanyahu needs them in the fold to form a government without Yisrael Beiteinu, and Likud governments have a long and happy history of relying on Shas and UTJ (and the NRP in the old days) to build coalitions since the Haredi parties generally have no demands outside of being able to control the religious affairs and interior ministries and are content to leave Likud alone on other issues. The end run around Yisrael Beiteinu is a concession to Likud’s Haredi partners, and no doubt Likud is now expecting them to fall in line after the elections in September. Bibi particularly needs Haredi support following the hardline revolt within Likud yesterday that temporarily denied him the presidency of his own Likud convention, since he now needs to get his own house in order and will not need any other outside distractions.
It is not only Likud, however, that is trying to buy Haredi support. Last week, Yair Lapid announced his proposal that would extend the blanket Haredi military exemption for another five years. This was quite the backtrack from his previous strident position that Shas and UTJ had the country and various ministries wrapped around their fingers and that the Tal Law should be completely revoked. Lapid has also recently announced his willingness to serve in a future Netanyahu coalition and is a newcomer to politics with his new Yesh Atid party, and since his raison d’etre seems to be his own political advancement it is perhaps unsurprising that does not want to make an enemy out of Netanyahu’s probable coalition partners.
More surprising is Shelly Yachimovich and Labor’s sudden turn toward the Haredim. Last night, the Labor party leader said that the Haredi parties would be good coalition partners for her were she to lead the government. In a fit of rhetorical mind bending, she also claimed that she and the Haredim are ideological bedfellows. This is the textbook definition of pandering, and it just reiterates that the Avigdor Lieberman era is over. It might be that the Knesset as it is currently configured would support a bill that makes Haredi military service mandatory, but now that election season is upon us, the Haredi agenda is outside the danger zone once again. When Lapid and Yachimovich are giving Shas a free pass and even making outrageous claims about the ideological compatibility of leftwing socialism and ultra-Orthodox religious fundamentalism, it means that the handwriting is on the wall as regards Netanyahu’s future coalition partners. With Netanyahu poised to coast to another term as prime minister, and Shas and UTJ all but guaranteed coalition spots, expect Mofaz as well to soon join the chorus of those reassuring Haredi voters that the Netzah Yehuda battalion is not slated to grow any time soon.