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 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.
June 29, 2012 § Leave a comment
Apparently Bibi Netanyahu’s strategy of expanding his governing coalition in an effort to deal with the crisis precipitated by the Tal Law’s expiration didn’t solve the problem but only kicked it down the road. Following the news that the Plesner Committee, which was charged with coming up with a viable plan to rectify the military and national service exemptions for Haredim and Israeli Arabs, has decided to essentially give Israeli Arabs a free pass, Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party quit the committee. The news that Haredim were going to be treated differently than Israeli Arabs obviously did not sit well with Shas and UTJ either, who were already upset that Shaul Mofaz and Kadima are insisting on severe penalties for draft dodgers that are squarely aimed at the Haredi sector. So in a nutshell, the two sides that were pulling on Netanyahu from opposite ends during the last coalition crisis are now both angry again, and this is all being driven by Kadima, Netanyahu’s new coalition partner that was supposed to give him room to maneuver and put an end to the constant worrying about the coalition breaking apart.
Netanyahu and Mofaz are meeting today in an effort to try and resolve the impasse after the prime minister made clear that he was not ok with the Plesner Committee plan (which is being pushed, if not outright dictated, by Mofaz), but this is just a reminder that Israeli coalitions are never fully stable no matter how large they are. This is not going to bring down the government, but if forced to choose between Mofaz and Kadima on the one hand and Lieberman and Yisrael Beiteinu on the other, Netanyahu is going to go with Mofaz, which will set off all sorts of problems with the settler community at the worst possible time for Bibi given that the Ulpana evacuation just went off shockingly smoothly.
Speaking of Ulpana, the events there this week revealed another important split, but this one has nothing to do with coalition politics. Instead, there seems to be a growing divide between the camp containing the majority of the settlement movement and the more extreme militant wing (often referred to by the shorthand “hilltop youth”), with some in the settler leadership waking up to the fact that violence turned outward almost always inevitably migrates inward as well. It began when Ze’ev Hever, who is in charge of the settlement movement’s building and construction, found his car tires slashed, prompting a set of mea culpas from him and from Yesha head Danny Dayan, who both admitted that they have stayed silent for years in the face of settler violence against Arabs. This acknowledgement and promise to begin cracking down on the violent extremists within their midst unfortunately came too late for the Defense Ministry subcontractors visiting Ulpana earlier this month in preparation for the evacuation who were pelted with rocks for their efforts to ensure that Ulpana’s residents would be moved out as painlessly and seamlessly as possible. Then if that weren’t enough, the Ulpana families – who were fully cooperative and left peacefully – had to spend their time skirmishing with hilltop youths who were trying to prevent those very families from evacuating by barring their way and then barricading themselves in one of the vacated apartments. If it wasn’t clear to the settler leadership that they have a serious problem within their midst while violent settler extremists were torching mosques and carrying out odious “price tag” attacks in the West Bank, it has become abundantly clear now. All of this is a useful reminder that, as Jeremy Pressman aptly put it yesterday, the term “settler” papers over the fact that settlers are not a monolithic group and the settlement movement is not a unified whole marching in lockstep. These divisions within Israeli politics and Israeli society bear close watching over the next few months as tensions that have been buried are now starting to bubble up to the surface.
May 21, 2012 § 3 Comments
After a Twitter exchange a couple of weeks ago in which he schooled Ali Abunimah on Zionism and social cleavages within Israeli society, I asked Dov Friedman if he would be willing to turn his thoughts into a guest post and he graciously agreed. Aside from being an early booster of O&Z, Dov is a preternaturally astute analyst, and when he decides to use his prodigious talents to write something longer than 140 characters, you don’t want to miss it. You should also all be following his Twitter feed @DovSFriedman since I guarantee that it will make you think on a daily basis. Without further ado, I give you Dov’s thoughts on the shortcomings of the anti-Zionist movement.
Were the anti-Zionist movement wiser—and less unmoored—it might recognize that it could make common cause with the left wing of the Zionist movement. In many respects, leftist Zionists have far more in common with pro-Palestinian voices than they do with Zionism’s far-right wing. The Zionist left awaits an Israel that abandons the settlement enterprise, that disaggregates Orthodox Judaism and the state, and that increases equality of rights among its citizens. Some in the pro-Palestinian movement have recognized that much progress can be made promoting liberal values and human rights before the groups philosophically diverge; however, the anti-Zionist wing of the movement has not joined them.
In theory, the potential for common cause explains why J Street has—shortsightedly—downplayed its Zionism in an attempt to create a “big tent.” Yet, with much to gain through joint action, the anti-Zionist wing perpetually radicalizes the debate, precluding any meaningful consensus on forcing accountability from a recalcitrant Israel. Organizations like J Street jeopardize potential constituencies to accommodate a movement that lacks a shred of interest in fruitful dialogue aimed to carve out common ground.
Last week, I exchanged messages with Ali Abunimah, the founder of Electronic Intifada and a prominent anti-Zionist writer who authored a book advocating a one-state solution. On the surface, the topic was a bizarre op-ed by Yaron London in Yediot Ahronot that Israel should deal with its Haredi issue by seeking to reduce—not integrate—the population. The piece is troubling and weakly argued—even among Israelis who harbor bitterness toward Haredim, it is not clear London’s argument would draw sympathy. Yet, Mr. Abunimah saw an opportunity and pounced. The op-ed was proof, he claimed, of “Zionist anti-Semitism” that dates back to “Herzl’s vile Jew-hatred.” In Mr. Abunimah’s view, London’s piece encapsulates societal feelings that Haredi, Ethiopian, and Palestinian populations are all threats to the Zionist vision.
I replied to Mr. Abunimah that his understanding was impoverished, partly because he derives a societal feeling from a singular op-ed, and partly because he conflates three issues with different historical origins and different societal discourses.
The Haredi issue is one of civic participation, national economic health, and the welfare state. Historically, the republican equation dictated that secular, educated Ashkenazi Jews traded military service for political and economic power. This began to change as Mizrahi and religious Israelis achieved military and societal status. The only non-Arab group that escapes national service is the Haredi community. Deepening the societal rift, the state devotes major resources to support this community that contributes neither to the nation’s defense nor to its coffers. The predominant discourse surrounding the Haredim is not London’s proposal to thin their ranks; rather, it is how to increase their participation in society—in terms of both national service and economic contribution. The Haredim are essentially a national issue.
The Ethiopian issue stems from racism, parochialism, and fierce protection of communal interests. Thus, Ethiopians, in essence, are the new Mizrahim. They are the new “marked” Israeli group. Particular social classes fear the pressures these new Israelis have placed on their economic prospects and communal interests—spurring some of the racism that can accompany class resentment. Certainly, Israel’s affluent, educated residents are less concerned with Ethiopian immigration than are Israel’s blue-collar families. If any critique is valid in this case it is a Marxist one. A rudimentary understanding of Israeli history and contemporary society would reveal the incongruity of the Haredi and Ethiopian issues.
This is all before we arrive at the Palestinians—who for Mr. Abunimah are the heart of the matter. Defining the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is beyond the scope of this post. Suffice it to say, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict may be well understood within the history of nationalism as an idea and within the development of 20th century international order on the basis of nation-states. To tie Israel-Palestine in with Israel’s Haredi and Ethiopian issues goes beyond poor analysis—it constitutes willful misrepresentation.
When evaluated closely, this misrepresentation is only the initial sleight of hand. If all three issues are one and the same, as Mr. Abunimah suggests, then not only has Zionism begat hatred of Palestinians—it provokes deep anti-Semitism as well! I wonder if Mr. Abunimah esteems his readers so lightly that he believes he can pose as the premier anti-Semitism watchdog. This from someone who advocates a solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict which—as Gershom Gorenberg notes in his most recent book—solves the borders issue, shifts every other issue from an international to a national one, and risks civil war. Mr. Abunimah warps history and obfuscates the issues at hand to score a political point.
Yet Mr. Abunimah’s ahistorical misrepresentation was not the most mindless note I received that day; Palestinian activist Susan Abulhawa seized on my call for nuance in evaluating Israel’s societal issues by ignoring the debate over Haredim and Zionism completely. She simply posted pictures of IDF soldiers with crying Palestinian children. No context, no opening for discussion—Abulhawa was “justsayin.” What is there to say back to such deliberate non-argument?
And therein lies the tragedy. The anti-Zionist wing of the pro-Palestinian movement is so consumed with frustration—so aggressive in trying to “win” arguments—that it willfully distorts reality and proves immune to reasoned debate. In so doing, it fails—day after day—to recognize a true partner in achieving Israeli retrenchment and Palestinian self-determination in a better Middle East.
Dov Friedman is a research fellow in foreign policy at the SETA Foundation in Ankara.
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.
March 14, 2012 § Leave a comment
Via Haaretz, a popular niche restaurant in Jerusalem is cutting back on its waitresses’ hours in order to placate its Haredi customers. This is the kind of thing that makes my blood boil, since anyone with even a rudimentary understanding of the laws of kashrut knows that employing women as servers has absolutely nothing to do with a restaurant’s kosher status, and yet this is a growing trend that does not appear to be abating. What makes this even more galling is that a large group of this particular restaurant’s customers are Americans spending a post-high school year in Israel at various yeshivot, and this is the type of behavior that could potentially influence their thinking when they return home about whether such blatantly unnecessary gender segregation is appropriate. No doubt those who are critical of illiberal trends in Israel stemming from ultra-Orthodox influence (and I unquestionably fall squarely into this category of critics) view this type of nonsense as a bad harbinger of things to come.
On the other hand, does it actually matter in the greater scheme of things when considering the future of Israel? Alright, a bunch of Haredi owned establishments are going even more overboard than usual (my favorite most cringeworthy example is a pizza place called American Pizza with a picture of the World Trade Center on its facade because the Statue of Liberty is deemed spiritually problematic due to its association with unfettered freedom – http://www.nytimes.com/2007/11/02/world/middleeast/02orthodox.html?pagewanted=all) but the Haredi community has always done its own thing. The risks of Haredim taking over all of Israel are remote at best, and the risk of Haredi customs and restrictions seeping over into the rest of Israeli society is even lower. So while reading about increasingly extreme Haredi behavior makes me crazy, I wonder if I and people who share my mindset make too big of a deal of it than is necessary. In a perfect world, Haredim would not behave this way toward women, but in looking at the big picture, does this actually hold any predictive value for the direction in which Israeli society at large is going when it comes to gender issues?
On a more positive note, the restaurant’s owner has resisted all entreaties to fire his Arab employee, which is a good thing and means that the pressure on gender issues is far tougher than the pressure on Palestinian issues. It also tells you something about Haredi priorities and why their inclusion in government coalitions may not need to be a fatal blow to ending settlement activity or negotiating a successful peace deal if the incentive structure can be managed deftly.