What Is Bogie Ya’alon Up To?

March 19, 2014 § 3 Comments

Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon gave a speech yesterday at Tel Aviv University during which he said some things that have got the White House pretty annoyed. Ya’alon inferred that President Obama wants to play out the clock and punt dealing with the Iranian nuclear issue to the next president, fingered the U.S. for demonstrating weakness in a variety of areas including in its response to the Crimean crisis, pointed out that U.S. military aid to Israel is not entirely altruistic but operates to American benefit as well in the areas of intelligence and technology, and finally predicted that U.S. weakness will come back to haunt it in the form of terrorism and direct challenges from revisionist powers. All in all, it was quite the rhetorical broadside. I will refrain from extensively commenting on Ya’alon’s last point except to note that by the standards of many of Ya’alon’s ideological compatriots and Likud fellow travelers who excoriated John Kerry when he predicted that the failure of the peace process will lead to greater international isolation of Israel and accused him of advocating for Israel to be treated as a pariah, Ya’alon has now done something far more serious than offer a prediction that the U.S. will suffer future attacks.

In response, an unnamed senior Obama administration official hit back at Ya’alon for undermining security ties between the U.S. and Israel and calling the entire relationship into question. To quote, “We were shocked by Moshe Ya’alon’s comments, which seriously call into question his commitment to Israel’s relationship with the United States. Moreover, this is part of a disturbing pattern in which the defense minister disparages the U.S. administration, and insults its most senior officials. Given the unprecedented commitment that this administration has made to Israel’s security, we are mystified why the defense minister seems intent on undermining the relationship.” This is not the first time this year that the White House has responded to comments from Ya’alon that it deemed to be over the line, as in January it was leaked that Ya’alon had disparaged John Kerry, which drew a disappointed, albeit less harsh, American response.

What is driving Ya’alon here? Ultimately, causing a rift with the U.S. is not going to benefit Israel in any way, and Ya’alon is presumably smart enough to know that trying to rhetorically peer pressure the U.S. into taking a more confrontational approach with Iran is not going to work. Furthermore, Ya’alon knows from intimate firsthand experience, first as IDF chief of staff and now as defense minister, just how close security cooperation between the two countries is, and so pretending that it’s not such a big deal rings hollow. In addition, the timing of going after Obama personally just as the U.S. is actively involved in Israeli-Palestinian peace talks and figuring out the security parameters of a longterm presence for IDF troops in the Jordan Valley is an awful strategy. If Ya’alon wants to ensure that the White House becomes more sympathetic to Palestinians complaints about Israeli intransigence, this would be one good way to go about it.

Certainly some of Ya’alon’s frustration is real. It is no secret that Israeli officials are worried about the direction of events in the Middle East, particularly with regard to Iran, and fear the U.S. stepping back from the region. What looks like cautious realism in the West Wing is viewed by Israelis as weak-kneed appeasement and wavering, whether it be negotiations with Tehran, an unwillingness to intervene in Syria despite repeated threats to do so, not bolstering Hosni Mubarak or dealing more harshly with the Muslim Brotherhood, etc. In addition, as Jonathan Schanzer points out, Ya’alon is upset about the U.S. not giving Israel weapons systems that would help in an Iran strike. Perhaps all of this boiled over at once and Ya’alon just couldn’t contain himself.

Or, perhaps there is more at work here, and Ya’alon’s outburst was a bit more politically strategic. Bibi Netanyahu has long had a real problem within his own party, and it is only compounded by the current peace negotiations. The younger and more hardline Likud members don’t trust him, and they have sought to embarrass him countless times, whether it be at Likud conventions, Likud primaries, or looking to amend the party’s constitution. Some of these efforts have been more successful than others, but if Netanyahu makes any real concessions with regard to the West Bank, the party is fated to split apart and there are no two ways about it. All of that is assuming that Netanyahu does not do the deed himself at some point and go the route of Arik Sharon, forming a new party and leaving a rump Likud behind (which would be deeply ironic since Netanyahu was the one who took the helm of the badly weakened Likud when Sharon formed Kadima). Ya’alon has been doing a good job of courting the Danny Danons, Yariv Levins, and Miri Regevs of the world, and they trust him a lot more than they trust the prime minister. Should it come down to needing a replacement for Netanyahu, Ya’alon seems like an obvious choice, and he can keep it that way by consistently espousing hawkish views such as the ones he did yesterday.

On top of this, the mood among Israel’s rightwing is no longer as uniformly pro-U.S. as it has been. There is a deep distrust of the Obama administration of course, but also a sense that the U.S. is moving in a very different direction than Israel. Netanyahu and his circle were genuinely surprised by the outcome of the 2012 presidential election, and simply did not grasp the internal American political dynamics, the changing demographics, or the war weariness of the American public. Throw on top of this the pressure coming from the White House on the peace process, and it just compounds the notion for some that the U.S. is harming more than it is helping. Many Israelis are for the first time in awhile openly questioning whether the U.S. can be reliably counted on, and nowhere is this more prevalent than among the younger Likud ideological vanguard who are the party’s future. Ya’alon recognizes this, and has been subtly playing into it for some time, which is why I think his comments about Kerry in January and his speech yesterday were more coldly calculating than he may want to let on. The other component to this is that Avigdor Lieberman, who wants to be prime minister one day and can only do so through Likud and is thus engaging in some jockeying for position of his own, has been criticizing the anti-American tone since his acquittal of fraud charges and his return to politics and publicly reminding Israelis that they should be wary of ruining the relationship with Washington. To the extent that Ya’alon views Lieberman – a hawkish nationalist who is very at home among the younger Likud folks – as a potential future rival, setting himself apart from Lieberman in a way that the Likud base favors is only smart politics.

At first glance, Ya’alon’s comments certainly seem puzzling, and they will not do any good for Israel itself. The question is whether Ya’alon was directing them toward Israel’s future or his own, and as usual, I think there is a heavy dose of internal domestic politics that is being overlooked. Yes, the frustration is real and is not entirely manufactured, but there is a method to the madness inasmuch as Ya’alon is thinking instrumentally about his political prospects down the line.

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What Comes After The Turkish Protests

June 5, 2013 § 15 Comments

Events in Turkey are still taking their course and so it is obviously premature to write any type of postscript, but I thought it might be useful to try and look ahead and game out some of the longer term consequences of the protests. First though, it is important to dispense with two quick points that I have seen floating around in various places. First, the Turkish government unquestionably displays some authoritarian tendencies and even more unquestionably has a distinct illiberal and majoritarian bent, and the excessive use of teargas on peaceful protestors is nothing short of shameful. Turkey is not, however, a fascist state and neither is it a dictatorship, and throwing those charges around in a vociferous manner won’t make them any less inaccurate. Second, Prime Minister Erdoğan is not going to resign, no matter what some stunningly ignorant folks might speculate. The AKP was elected with 50% of the vote in the last election, which was more than double than the share received by the second place CHP, and Erdoğan does not have any serious challengers in the party who would even think about trying to depose him. When these protests die down, Erdoğan will still be the prime minister, albeit a weakened one and maybe – but not likely – a chastened one, and the AKP will still be Turkey’s governing party. And furthermore, if I had to wager today, I’d bet with a large degree of confidence that the AKP will be Turkey’s governing party after the next election as well.

So how does this thing end? As Claire Sadar noted among other points in an excellent post, the comparisons to the Arab Spring are particularly inapt for a few reasons. The first and most obvious one is that, as I pointed out above, Turkey has free and fair democratic elections by even the strictest standard, and Erdoğan is not an unelected autocrat. The thousands of protestors in the street are shouting for Erdoğan to resign because they are unhappy and it is a convenient slogan to use, but I highly doubt that many of them – and this is certainly the case with my own friends currently manning the barricades in Istanbul and Izmir – have any reasonable expectation that this will happen. Everyone knows that Erdoğan will leave government the same way by which he entered, which is through elections, and because this is his last term as prime minister anyway, the protests are not going to change the timeline of his departure.

Another way in which this differs from the Arab Spring protests in Egypt and Tunisia in particular is that the military is highly unlikely to get involved. The Turkish armed forces have been brought to heel, first by the democratic reforms that placed the military under true civilian control for the first time in Turkey’s history, and then by the far less democratic witch hunt that jailed over 20% of Turkey’s active and retired officers for alleged coup plots against the government. Civil-military relations in Turkey have been transformed in a way that cannot be overstated, and while I would never go so far as to say that a military coup is absolutely impossible given Turkey’s history, the chances of one happening are infinitesimal.

Finally, the situation in Egypt was marked by scenes of non-uniformed government thugs attacking protestors, armed clashes between supporters of the government and opponents of the government, and a general violent breakdown along sectarian and ideological lines pitting civilians against other civilians. Despite the abhorrent police behavior – and reports indicate that police brutality seems to be slowing down as well – so far we have not seen bands of AKP supporters attacking protestors, and this is a good thing on many levels. When something along those lines occurs, it creates the likelihood of the situation spiraling out of control in unpredictable ways, and hopefully the fact that it has not happened yet means that Turkey is going to avoid large scale violent unrest.

What the situation in Turkey does remind me of in some ways is the J14 social protests in Israel in the summer of 2011, during which hundreds of thousands of Israelis were in the streets protesting over the high cost of living for everything from housing to cottage cheese. Many predicted that this was going to mean the downfall of the government and a radical sea change in Israeli politics, but what actually happened was that Prime Minister Netanyahu and the Likud government were reelected less than two years later. The primary reasons for this were that Netanyahu and Likud still remained popular with a large segment of the population, and perhaps more importantly there was no strong opposition party able to take advantage of the situation and unseat Netanyahu. Labor, which was the main party on the left, was fractured and disorganized, and Kadima’s constituency was not one that had social justice concerns as its main priority as Kadima had never embraced such a platform in any way. Similarly, it’s important to remember that the AKP has enormous support in Turkey, and this might diminish that support but it will not undo it. The economy is strong, many Turks have conservative values that the AKP embodies, and if you are not an educated urbanite or a persecuted minority (such as a Kurd or an Alevi), you are still relatively happy with the job the government is doing. Even more crucially, Turkey has no viable opposition at all. The CHP is little more than a joke, completely feckless and politically tone deaf and with no vision at all other than opposing anything the AKP does out of spite. There seems to be a constituency of Turks who crave a more liberal party that will be a bit more humble and protect the rights of all Turks while keeping in mind that differences of opinion do exist. There is no party currently in existence that can fill that role though, as the CHP is Turkish political equivalent of the Washington Generals and the BDP is too narrowly focused as a party representing Kurdish interests to attract true widespread support. The upshot of this is that when the next elections roll around, I expect the AKP to win again handily, albeit with a smaller total vote share than it received in 2011.

That does not mean that the path of Turkish politics will not be altered. The new presidential system that Erdoğan has been trying to push through is now, in my opinion, dead and buried. Nobody, and that includes people within the AKP, is going to be supporting a system in which Erdoğan gets to be a powerful president, particularly after he has complained that the American presidency is inadequate for his needs because the U.S. president has insufficient power due to having to deal with Congressional checks. This means that President Gül may continue as president without a hitch, but I think what this actually brings about is Gül as the next Turkish prime minister. Gül likely has no desire at all to serve as PM under a President Erdoğan who actually holds the real political power in Turkey, but serving as prime minister in the current system is an attractive proposition. In the last few days Gül has been distancing himself from Erdoğan, first disagreeing with Erdoğan’s contention that elections confer upon the government the right to do anything it pleases, and then implying that he might not approve Erdoğan’s new law restricting the sale of alcohol. These are moves designed to shore up his support within the party and to appeal to AKP members for whom Erdoğan’s scorched earth approach is wearing thin.

The irony in all of this is that the likelihood of the party splitting apart is now lessened than it was even a week ago. When Erdoğan stood the chance of becoming the president in a new presidential system, which would have meant unseating Gül in 2014, it would have led to a clash between the two men and the distinct possibility that the AKP would divide into two camps. If the system remain as it is, however, Gül can become a prime minister who actually has real political power, and so despite what appears to be growing enmity between the two longtime friends and political partners, I think the AKP actually stands a better chance now of remaining united, even as it is will be weaker following the damage that Erdoğan has wrought over the past week.

Bibi’s Coalition Gamble

February 20, 2013 § 6 Comments

It has been almost a month since the Israeli election, and yesterday finally brought us the first move to form a coalition as Tzipi Livni’s Hatnua party agreed to join up with Bibi Netanyahu and Likud Beiteinu. I have been skeptical throughout the campaign and the election’s aftermath that Livni would come to an agreement with Netanyahu given her efforts to convince Ehud Olmert and even Shimon Peres to run; her failed maneuvering at uniting Hatnua, Labor, and Yesh Atid into an anti-Bibi bloc; her constant railing against Netanyahu as a danger and a failed prime minister; the fact that Hatnua includes former Labor leaders Amir Peretz and Amram Mitzna, neither of whom are exactly Netanyahu cheerleaders; and finally, her refusal to join with Bibi after the last election when her party – which was then Kadima – had the most seats in the Knesset and she would have been able to work out a deal in which she served as co-prime minister. Nevertheless, Livni has now reversed course and has accepted the positions of Justice Minister and chief negotiator with the Palestinians, and she will be reporting to Netanyahu rather than the eventual Foreign Minister in this latter gig.

Many people are now speculating on what this means for the peace process and whether Livni’s overseeing negotiations means that we can expect some real movement ahead. I don’t think this changes anything and I wouldn’t be taking any investment advice from people who think that Livni is going to pull Netanyahu along rather than the reverse, but the really interesting angle here is the political one. Bringing Livni into the coalition is not about Netanyahu signaling anything on the peace process, but about putting pressure on Naftali Bennett to join the government. The thinking on Netanyahu’s part goes as follows: he now has 37 seats lined up and getting Kadima and its 2 seats is a given, and he is on the verge of adding Shas (his real goal all along) and its 11 seats, which means that he can then turn to Bennett and Habayit Hayehudi and use their 12 seats to get past the magic number of 61. Netanyahu is gambling that once he adds Kadima and Shas, he will present Bennett with an ultimatum of joining the government or calling new elections, and that Bennett will not be able to withstand the pressure ensuing from calls for him to join a rightwing coalition and so he will crack. Essentially, Netanyahu is betting on Bennett’s alliance with Yair Lapid and Yesh Atid not being strong enough to buck the rightwing nationalist forces in HH who want to band together with Likud and the religious forces in HH who don’t see why serving in a government with Shas is the end of the world. Hence the immediate rumors that negotiations with Shas are proceeding and that it too will join the coalition imminently.

This plan of Bibi’s seems nicely formulated, but ultimately I don’t think it will work. More importantly, if Bennett is smart he will make sure that it doesn’t. The success of Bibi’s strategy turns on the idea that Bennett will do anything to avoid going to another round of elections, but much as I thought (correctly, as it turned out) that Netanyahu miscalculated in allying with Yisrael Beiteinu, I think he is miscalculating here as well. Netanyahu’s gamble is that new elections will cost Bennett seats and weaken his position, and that might have been true before yesterday, but bringing in Livni changes things in a big way. If I am a HH voter, I am not going to punish the party for not joining with its natural Likud partner by fleeing and and now voting for Likud since bringing Tzipi Livni on board to deal with peace process issues makes Likud untrustworthy. Looking at this map of election results and seeing where HH got votes makes this point abundantly clear; voters in Elon Moreh and Karnei Shomron are not now going to give up on Bennett and vote for Bibi given his most recent coalition choice.

In addition, many Likud voters are not going to be terribly happy now that Netanyahu has banded together with Livni, and I don’t see how doing so possibly increases his share of votes at all in a hypothetical new round of elections. If anything, it drives even more people away and into the arms of Bennett, and if you need some further proof, just look at Moshe Feiglin’s crack today that he hopes Likud will be in the coalition too. Furthermore, by trying to repeat history and bring Shas – his most pliable partners – into the coalition, Netanyahu is turning his back on the draft issue, which is one of the most popular issues in Israel today and which Lapid rode to his stunning success. Not only is Netanyahu potentially angering his base by bringing Livni in, he is angering many other voters who don’t understand why he insists on bringing Shas into the government despite the massive popular will for reforming the draft. Given what has transpired, if new elections were held today, I think that Likud would drop even further while Habayit Hayehudi and Yesh Atid would pick up some new mandates.

Netanyahu is behaving as if bringing first Livni and then Shas into the government gives him all the leverage he needs over Bennett to break up the YA-HH alliance, but I think he has things wrong. If he brings in Shas, he will then be unable to form a government without Lapid or Bennett (I am operating on the assumption that Labor is not joining at this point), and so in reality Bennett will be the one with the leverage over Netanyahu. Reports are that Bennett is feeling heat from within his party over his footdragging to run to Likud and his head-scratching unbreakable bond with Lapid, but by brining Livni into the government, Netanyahu actually did Bennett a favor. He now has a good excuse to sit tight, and once Netanyahu strikes a deal with Shas, he benefits further from sticking to his guns on the draft issue and staying out. If I were Bennett and Netanyahu presented me with the ultimatum to join the coalition with Shas or go to new elections, I would be printing up new campaign posters before even getting off the phone.

Did Israelis Give The Center A Big Win?

January 24, 2013 § 9 Comments

Now that the final results of the Israeli election are in, everyone is rushing to declare that centrist parties were the big winners and that the Israeli electorate has made a surprising shift away from the right. This is understandable in light of the fact that Yair Lapid and his Yesh Atid party won 19 seats to become the second largest party in the Knesset and Bibi Netanyahu led the Likud-Beiteinu list to an extremely disappointing 31 seats, down from the 42 seats that Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu control in the current Knesset. Nevertheless, I think that this view of things is incorrect. As I argue in Foreign Affairs, this does not take into account that the other so-called centrist parties did poorly and finished well below expectations and that many Likud voters chose to move even farther to the right by giving Habayit Hayehudi 12 seats. In addition, Yesh Atid can be characterized as centrist in some ways but as pragmatically rightwing in others, and so dubbing yesterday’s results as an unabashed win for the center is misleading. In fact, the center controls 28 seats in the current Knesset, but will control 27 seats in the next one (19 for Yesh Atid, 6 for Hatnua, 2 for Kadima), so in reality the center actually lost ground. No doubt Lapid scored a big victory, but one centrist party doing well does not mean that Israel is now avowedly centrist, particularly when other centrist parties turned in disappointing performances and the banner rightwing nationalist party more than doubled its current Knesset representation. Here is a teaser from my piece in FA:

The problem with this narrative, however, is that Tuesday’s results were not really a victory for centrists and Yesh Atid is not really a centrist party. The largest vote-getter was still Likud-Beiteinu, made up of arguably the most right-wing version of Likud in the party’s history and the nationalist and pro-settlement Yisrael Beiteinu. Bayit Yehudi also did well, and it will be the fourth largest party in the Knesset with 11 seats. On the left, Labor underperformed and could not even garner enough votes to win second place as expected. Livni’s Hatnua, meanwhile, won fewer seats than even the parochial ultra-orthodox party, United Torah Judaism. Kadima, a real centrist party, has all but disappeared, plummeting from 28 seats to two. Even though the right-wing parties did not do quite as well as they had hoped, the larger picture does not support the claim that the center scored a great victory.

Furthermore, the grouping of Labor, Hatnua, and Yesh Atid under a centrist or center-left banner is analytically lazy. On economic issues, those three parties do indeed fall within the left and the center. On security and foreign policy issues, Labor and Hatnua are centrist as well. Yesh Atid, however, cannot be accurately described as centrist when it comes to the peace process. Lapid has stated that Jerusalem cannot be divided under any circumstances and insists that standing firm on this issue will force the Palestinians to recant their demand that East Jerusalem serve as the capital of a future Palestinian state. During the campaign, Lapid chose the West Bank settlement of Ariel as the place to give a major campaign speech calling for negotiations with the Palestinians, and declined to endorse a settlement freeze. None of this is enough to put him into the far-right camp, which rejects the two-state solution and calls for annexing the West Bank, but it also does not make him a centrist. In fact, Lapid’s views on security issues are close to those that Netanyahu has publicly staked out.

To read the rest please click over to Foreign Affairs, and comments and emails are welcome as always.

Following Up On E1 And A Unity Government

January 4, 2013 § 2 Comments

There are a couple of news items today related to two predictions I made last month – that Israel is not actually going to build in E1 and that there is a decent likelihood of a Likud-Labor unity government after the elections in a couple of weeks – so I figured I’d take the opportunity to revisit the topics and see where things currently stand.

In the E1 department, Netanyahu has delayed the plans for building despite the Defense Ministry approving the blueprints and the Civil Administration approving the plans. Predictably, this has raised rightwing ire as there is no word as to when the prime minister’s office is going to file the plans with the zoning committee or what is causing the delay. As you may recall, I argued that this is precisely what was going to happen:

The reason for this is that building homes in E1 has been a longstanding red line for both the United States and the European Union, and that line won’t dissipate just because the Palestinian Authority decided to defy Israeli and American wishes against pursuing a statehood claim at the U.N. The U.S. response to the E1 announcement was unambiguous, labeling it counterproductive and a threat to the two-state solution, and pointing out that settlement building in E1 makes direct negotiations harder, which is a not-so-subtle reminder that this is the exact charge Israel has leveled at the Palestinians over the U.N. strategy…

The U.N. vote came as a surprise to Jerusalem, and Netanyahu knows that actually sending construction crews and cement mixers into E1 will worsen Israel’s image problem. I also imagine that there have been some extremely unpleasant conversations with White House and State Department officials this past weekend given that the E1 announcement came on the heels of unwavering American support over Gaza and at the U.N. As dedicated as Netanyahu has been to the settlement project, even he must now realize that building Mevaseret Adumim is a bridge too far…

Following the embarrassingly lopsided U.N. vote and the criticism from his right that he did not go far enough during Operation Pillar of Cloud, Netanyahu needed to make a big gesture before the January 22 election to demonstrate that he is committed to settlements and that he will not take the PA’s new statehood status in stride. E1 is an enormous deal to the settler wing of Likud, and declaring a new planning and zoning stage is red meat to Israeli right-wing partisans in a variety of camps, whether they be pro-settlements or have a religious or nationalist attachment to an eternal undivided Jerusalem.

The fact that this—just like the Levy Report—is an announcement that will never be acted upon does not negate the fact that it is good politics for Netanyahu. He is going to perform a delicate balancing act, in which he doubles down on settlementsfor a domestic audience while assuring the U.S. and the EU that E1 will remain a barren tract of land.

What has changed since I wrote this is that Naftali Bennett’s Habayit Hayehudi party has skyrocketed in the polls while Likud-Beiteinu has plummeted. The latest poll of polls has LB at 34 Knesset seats and HH at 14.5, which is the continuation of the trend of HH gaining about one seat a week and LB losing about one seat a week in opinion polling. When Netanyahu decided to create the joint Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu list, the idea was to co-opt Lieberman from taking away votes on his right, but he did not foresee another rightwing party posing a serious challenge and siphoning away votes from the LB creation. Now he is dealing with a serious HH presence in the next Knesset, which might be enough of a scare to change his E1 decision. Despite this, I am holding to my original prediction, because while Likud-Beiteinu is going to be a lot weaker electorally than Netanyahu originally envisioned, it does not change the fact that E1 is still a much bigger deal for the U.S. and Europe than almost any other settlement in the West Bank. What I think we are likely to see is Netanyahu keep E1 on the back burner while fast tracking building in East Jerusalem neighborhoods such as Gilo and Har Homa, which will mollify rightwingers somewhat without risking an enormous clash with Western states.

On the unity government front, Labor leader Shelley Yachimovich yesterday indicated that she will not join a Likud government which at first glance seems to blow up my previous analysis. A few point to keep in mind, however, before deciding that Labor is definitively going to be in the opposition. First, Israeli opposition politicians are notorious for blasting the prime minister and making claims about never joining the government right before doing exactly that. For a recent example, go back and look at what Shaul Mofaz was saying about Netanyahu and Likud last spring literally just days before agreeing to form a unity government with Likud. Whatever Yachimovich says know in the heat of an election campaign should be taken with a grain of salt.

Second, in parsing what Yachimovich said, contrary to the reporting and the headlines she actually did not definitely rule out anything and gave herself lots of wiggle room. She said that she wants to be prime minister but that she will lead the opposition if she’s not, and explicitly made clear that she had decided not to join the coalition because of recent radical positions taken by Likud and because of Netanyahu’s embrace of Avigdor Lieberman. According to her, under the current circumstances she cannot work with Likud because “this is not the Likud we all know.” This formulation is expressly designed so that it can be walked back if needed. After the election, with Lieberman’s status uncertain and the electioneering over, Yachimovich can easily say that she has spoken with Netanyahu and that they have agreed on a set of broad principles, coupled with a statement or two from Netanyahu reaffirming his commitment to a two-state solution and finding a solution to the problem of social inequality. Framing her opposition to joining a Likud-led coalition in the terms that she has is not a categorical denial that she will ever agree to form a unity government, but rather a very temporary hurdle that she can dismantle anytime she wants. All that needs to be done is to declare that Likud is actually more reasonable than she originally thought and that she is joining the coalition because it is in the best interests of the country. A General Sherman type blanket denial this was not. Does this mean that a unity government is guaranteed to happen? Of course not, since the fact still remains that Likud and Labor have many sharp disagreements and the coalition politics might be tricky. All I’m saying is that yesterday’s statement does not rule out the possibility.

Rightwing Competition And Settlements

December 20, 2012 § Leave a comment

I wrote a piece for the Atlantic yesterday about how Israel’s recent announcements on settlements in the West Bank and building in East Jerusalem is widely viewed as an effort to punish the Palestinians in the wake of their statehood bid at the UN, but that’s not the only thing driving Israeli policy. The sudden emergence of serious competitors on Bibi Netanyahu’s right flank accounts for much of what is going on as well. Here’s a teaser:

Over the past few weeks, the Israeli government has been on a building spree. First came word that planning and zoning would begin for E1, a controversial move that would further encircle East Jerusalem with settlements — cutting off from the West Bank the part of the city Palestinians demand to be the capital of their future state. As part of the same announcement, Israel said that it was going to build more housing in other parts of the West Bank as well.

This week, the government approved 1500 new housing units in the Ramat Shlomo neighborhood in East Jerusalem — the same housing units whose initial announcement in 2010 during Vice President Biden’s visit to Israel caused a temporary rift between the United States and Israel and Hilary Clinton’s chewing-out of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. The Interior Ministry and the Jerusalem Local Committee are also expected to approve plans to build in Givat Hamatos and Gilo this week, both of which are new Jerusalem neighborhoods that are also across the 1967 armistice line that divides East and West Jerusalem.

This is all taking place despite enormous pressure and condemnation from Western countries, who are not happy with the escalation of Israeli plans to expand settlements or to build up Jerusalem neighborhoods that challenge the viability of a future Palestinian state. Britain, France, Germany, and Portugal are about to formally condemn Israel over its East Jerusalem building plans, and the 14 non-American members of the United Nations Security Council are going to do the same. Even the United States seems to have lost its usual patience with the Israeli government, deeming the new building announcements part of a “pattern of provocative action” that endangers the peace process and the two-state solution. Israel seems hell-bent on isolating itself over the settlement issue, and appears determined to move ahead with plans for both the West Bank and East Jerusalem no matter the cost.

It is easy to chalk this up to Israel’s fury with the Palestinian Authority’s statehood bid at the United Nations, as the E1 announcement came the day after the vote, amidst stated determination on Israel’s part to punish the Palestinians for pursuing unilateral moves outside of the Oslo framework. “We felt if the Palestinians were taking unilateral action in the UN, we had to also send the message that we could take unilateral actions,” Israeli ambassador to the US Michael Oren said this week, making the connection explicit.

Yet, this does not account for the scope of the recent Israeli announcements, or for the seeming recklessness of drawing real anger and censure from Israel’s Western allies immediately following American and EU support during Operation Pillar of Cloud in Gaza. There is indeed something else going on here, and it has nothing to do with the Palestinians and everything to do with the political jockeying taking place on the right of Israel’s political spectrum before Israelis go to the polls on January 22 to elect their next government.

To read the article in its entirety, please click over to the Atlantic’s website.

Israel’s Next Unity Government

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.

Israeli Politics Should Be Serialized on HBO

December 7, 2012 § 2 Comments

On many Fridays I highlight some of the more ridiculous things that I have read over the past week, but today there is no need to link to or comment on specific articles and op-eds because the most entertaining spectacle of the week has been the maneuvering, pettiness, backstabbing, and theater of the absurd that is Israeli politics. At the heart of all the shifting back and forth are a number of personal relationships characterized by deep animosity that are manifesting themselves as shifts in political loyalties, and it is all making for the most mesmerizing election season that I can remember, in Israel or anywhere else.

First up is the curious case of Danny Ayalon, Israel’s deputy foreign minister and previously the number two person behind Avigdor Lieberman on Yisrael Beiteinu’s party list. On Tuesday, while he was on his way to the press conference announcing YB’s party list and just two hours before it was scheduled to begin, Ayalon received a call from Lieberman informing him that he was leaving Ayalon off YB’s Knesset slate for the January 22 election. Leaving aside the Night of the Long Knives quality to all of this in terms of its suddenness, the move to sideline Ayalon is puzzling in the extreme. Not only is Ayalon a top Foreign Ministry official and a former ambassador to the U.S., there was little hint that relations between him and Lieberman were so bad as to warrant this type of excommunication. In fact, Ayalon’s increasingly extreme rhetoric and behavior, such as his purposeful humiliation of the Turkish ambassador in January 2010 by making him sit on a low chair before television cameras and not displaying the Turkish flag and for which Ayalon was later forced to publicly apologize, seemed to be driven by the need to placate his boss. While Ayalon has reverted to his former more diplomatic self and has refused to make a scene, his father did not take the news terribly well and gave an interview in which he called Lieberman a “little Stalin.” Rumors abound as to why Ayalon was dumped, and the most likely explanation seems to be that Lieberman thought Ayalon had a history of leaking to the press and that he might not have been a fan of Ayalon’s high public profile. In any event, it is difficult to see how this makes Yisrael Beiteinu any stronger or inspires much confidence in Lieberman’s leadership.

Next is the fallout between Labor leader Shelley Yachimovich and former party head Amir Peretz, who was third on Labor’s list until yesterday, when he announced that he was leaving Labor and joining up with Tzipi Livni and her new Hatnua party. Is Peretz leaving because he feels that Labor is no longer a suitable ideological home for him, or because he has a close and longstanding relationship with Livni, or because he thinks that boosting Hatnua is in his country’s best interests? If you guessed any of these options, you’d be wrong. Peretz is bolting from Labor at the last minute, and literally only one week after Labor’s members deemed him to be such an important member of the party that he got the second most votes in the party’s primary, because he is jealous of Yachimovich and felt that she wasn’t giving him, a former defense minister and the man who is in some ways the godfather of the Iron Dome missile defense system, the requisite amount of respect. To put this into perspective, the former head of Israel’s largest trade union and Israel’s largest and most prominent leftwing party has just left his longtime political home despite its current laserlike focus on social and economic issues  - Peretz’s bread and butter – to join a party led by a former Likudnik and erstwhile Kadima head whose track record of commitment to liberal social causes is tenuous at best. The personal rivalry between Peretz and Yachimovich is so intense that he is actively hoping that Labor will go down in flames so that he can oust Yachimovich from the party leadership the next time around, and is willing to join up with a party and a politician with whom he shares no common cause other than a hatred of Bibi Netanyahu just so that he can punish Yachimovich. Isn’t it a shame that Shakespeare isn’t around to catalogue all of this?

Finally we have Tzipi Livni and her various hangups with her former allies and fellow travelers on the right. The relationship between her and Shaul Mofaz, who only months ago launched a palace coup and replaced her as head of Kadima, is obviously terrible, and so she undoubtedly took extra special joy in siphoning off seven members from Kadima on Monday. The reason this matters is that seven is the magic number that allows a faction to break off from a party and bring campaign funds with them, so now not only has Livni taken her revenge on Mofaz by guaranteeing Kadima’s electoral death, she is likely saddling him with debt as well by taking campaign money too. Then there is her longstanding refusal to join up with Netanyahu in a coalition following the elections no matter the outcome. While such declarations in Israeli politics obviously must be taken with a grain of salt – see Shaul Mofaz’s rhetoric right before banding together with Likud earlier this year as Exhibit A – Livni’s stance can probably be viewed as ironclad given the various opportunities she had to form a unity government following the 2009 elections that she turned down. She seems determined to spend the rest of her life trying to topple her former Likud buddy Bibi, and she doesn’t care how long or how many elections it takes. So we are left with the prospect of former Labor leaders Peretz and Amram Mitzna flocking to a party led by a right-winger claiming to be undergoing a conversion later in life, and the possible eventuality of the former Likud and Kadima official Livni refusing to join a coalition with Netanyahu after the elections while Labor under Yachimovich jumps at the chance. Is any of this logical? Nope, not really. But there’s Israeli politics for you, and if you’re not watching this drama as it unfolds, you’re missing the world’s greatest show.

The Israel Calculus On Gaza

November 12, 2012 § 11 Comments

Israel has been dealing with a constant barrage of rockets and shelling from Gaza since last week, and despite Egyptian claims to have mediated a ceasefire yesterday, it has apparently had no effect as the rockets have continued unabated today. Bibi Netanyahu warned foreign ambassadors yesterday that Israel might have no choice but to launch a ground operation into Gaza, and the Israeli press is rife with speculation that Cast Lead redux is about to begin.

On the face of it this may seem like a risky move. A ground operation into Gaza is bound to lead to civilian casualties and international opprobrium, along with the inevitable resulting Israeli investigatory commission. Also factoring in is that this is the second day in a row that Israel has fired at Syria in response to Syrian shooting at Israeli positions in its attempt to hit rebel fighters – the same dynamic that has been occurring along the Turkish border. If Israel goes after Hamas and other terror groups in Gaza, the possibility always exists for Hizballah to seize on Israel’s preoccupation in the south and launch its own rockets in the north, and between Palestinian armed groups in Gaza and Hizballah, it is the latter that is the far graver danger and more serious threat. Looming in the background of all of this is Iran, and how a large scale operation in Gaza might danger Israel’s diplomatic efforts to keep the pressure on the regime in Tehran. And of course, with elections coming in January, Netanyahu might be loathe to undertake any big risks right now that will endanger his presumptive reelection, and any large operation into Gaza is undoubtedly a big risk.

Despite all this, unless Egypt is actually successful and the rockets stop in the next two or three days, I think we are going to see Israel go into Gaza with air strikes and ground forces. To begin with, Israel has never been hesitant to do what it must to establish deterrence against Hamas, and the IDF is probably concluding right now that any hint of deterrence it might have created following Cast Lead is gone. It is an open question as to whether such deterrence ever existed, but the rocket escalation leaves little doubt that Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and other armed groups in Gaza have zero qualms right now about targeting Israel civilians with rocket fire. No government can afford to let such attacks continue, and certainly the Israel government has not historically been shy about going after Hamas when it feels it is necessary.

The security angle is prominent, but there is a political angle as well. Netanyahu has been campaigning on security issues pretty much his entire political life, and the current campaign is no different. His focus on security is so strong that Kadima, in what can only be described as a last ditch effort amongst its death throes, has adopted as its campaign slogan “Bibi is endangering us” superimposed against a backdrop of a mushroom cloud. The irony of Netanyahu’s hawkish public persona is that he has never presided over a large military operation during either of his two tenures as prime minister, but as risky as it may be to send ground forces into Gaza right now, he cannot afford to just sit on his hands. A man running for prime minister whose primary rationale for reelection is that only he is prepared to do what is necessary to keep Israel safe cannot sit idly by as rockets rain down on southern Israeli towns and have any hope of winning the election. From an electoral standpoint, I don’t think Netanyahu has any choice but to respond with force and hope that the IDF is prepared for what it will encounter in the streets and warrens of Gaza City. If Netanyahu cannot deal with the threat emanating from his own backyard, he cannot credibly claim to be able to deal with the threat coming from Iran.

Compounding this situation is the fact that the other Israeli political parties are egging Netanyahu and Likud on. Kadima, Yisrael Beiteinu, Yesh Atid, and Habayit Hayehudi have all called for military operations hitting Hamas or the resumption of targeted assassinations of Hamas leaders, and even Labor has made a nebulous recommendation for “military and diplomatic pressure.” The only significant party urging a ceasefire is Meretz. This means that the longer Netanyahu waits to move on Gaza, the longer he will have to face calls from political rivals urging immediate actions, and every day this goes on endangers Netanyahu’s electoral prospects. It is one thing to take your time when the other parties are calling for calm, but quite another when elections are coming up and nearly every party across the political spectrum is calling for some form of action. As an aside, this also goes to show just how dead the peace camp is in Israel, and why Ehud Olmert’s apparent plan to reenter politics and campaign on the basis of reaching a peace deal with the Palestinians is going to be a disastrous miscalculation (more on that later this week).

As I noted yesterday on twitter, I think Israeli military action has crossed the threshold of being a lot more likely than not. As historically risk-averse as he might be, Netanyahu is not going to just wait this out. Security necessity and political calculations are both moving in the same direction here, and I think that we are about to see a Cast Lead-type incursion.

P.S. If this does indeed happen, I am going to be a busy man given what it will do to Turkish-Israeli relations in light of Erdoğan’s embrace of Hamas and imminent trip to Gaza.

I Don’t Think This Is About Iran, Redux

October 26, 2012 § 1 Comment

Building on my initial reaction yesterday to the new Likud Beiteinu party created by Bibi Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman, I have one more important point to add about why I think this deal happened. It seems to me that this was about domestic politics, plain and simple. Netanyahu was nervous about polls showing Likud’s vote share slipping and Labor’s rising, and Lieberman wanted to position himself to head his former party and not have Yisrael Beiteinu suffer the fate of so many other parties like Shinui or what is about to happen to Kadima. This way the two men were able to create the perception of a strong rightwing party that will be able to withstand any challengers and give an air of inevitability to Netanyahu remaining as prime minister and Likud Beiteinu creating the next governing coalition.

Aluf Benn thinks that something else is at work though, which is the creation of a war cabinet to strike Iran. He writes, “The merger with Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party will dissolve any domestic opposition to the war, since after the election, Netanyahu will be able to argue that he received a mandate from the people to act as he sees fit. Ministers and top defense officials will have a hard time arguing with him. From now on, only American opposition is liable to delay, or even prevent, a command to the Israel Air Force to take off for Iran.” He adds that Ehud Barak, Benny Begin, and Dan Meridor will be marginalized or pushed out completely and that Lieberman will push the cabinet into radical foreign policy positions that Netanyahu will no longer be able to disavow.

This analysis is plausible on its face, but I think there are a few problems with it. First, it’s not enough to just declare absent compelling evidence that every move Netanyahu makes is with the intent of striking Iran. Plenty of people said the same thing when Netanyahu made the deal with Kadima despite the fact that Mofaz had been on record as opposing a strike, and obviously the short-lived unity government did not make any moves on the Iran front. Bibi’s obsession with Iran is well documented, but he has other concerns as well, such as political survival and consolidating his position, and this seems so clearly aimed at doing just those things that I don’t see why the simplest explanation here is not the right one.

Second, looking at what Benn actually argues, I don’t think it is correct to assert de novo that this gives Netanyahu a mandate for anything. For that to occur, the new LB party has to win an unusually large number of seats and Netanyahu has to campaign specifically and primarily on the Iran issue. Netanyahu is probably counting on about 45 seats, which is roughly what you get from adding up where Likud and YB were in public opinion polls, but I think there is a significant chance that the number is less than that. Lieberman is a polarizing figure, to say the least, and he could easily scare away some Mizrachi and more religious Likud voters. It is also possible that Russian YB voters who were mainly voting for the party based on its advocacy for Russian olim will be disenchanted and feel that Lieberman has sold out their core interest in the pursuit of greater personal power. If that happens, then Netanyahu’s alleged mandate is not going to be quite as strong as Benn predicts, and I don’t quite understand why ministers and generals would have a hard time opposing him. Even if he does get 45 seats, that doesn’t seem like it will all of a sudden cow Likud members like Meridor, Begin, and Bogie Ya’alon into reversing their positions, or convince the IDF leadership that their reservations on Iran have been wrong.

Third, there is the fact that, like Mofaz before him, Lieberman is not necessarily an Iran hawk. The reports are that he originally opposed a strike and was then convinced to change his position, but it’s obviously not on the top of his agenda. Lieberman cares much more about undermining the Palestinan Authority and taking a hard line on peace process issues and territorial concessions, so if there is any foreign affairs implication from yesterday’s announcement, it is that the two state solution is now even more endangered. Lieberman is going to take many radical positions; of that I have no doubt. The question is whether those positions will have anything to do with Iran, and I’m not sure that they will. He may support a strike, but he is not going to be strongly and constantly advocating one. The math in the security cabinet does not change substantially unless Begin, Meridor, and Ya’alon are all excised. One also must consider who the rest of the coalition is going to include, since 45 seats still means that Netanyahu is going to have to rope in Shas, where Eli Yishai is opposed to a strike, or one of the center or left parties, and Tzipi Livni, Yair Lapid, and Shelley Yachimovich are certainly not guaranteed to vote the way Netanyahu wants on Iran.

In looking at yesterday’s merger, does it strengthen Netanyahu’s hand by giving him a larger number of seats? Yup, it does. But he still has to contend with opposition in Likud, opposition in the IDF, opposition from other potential coalition partners, and opposition from the public. In short, aside from making generalizations about the prime minister’s increased clout and murky electoral mandates, I don’t see how this makes a strike on Iran a foregone conclusion by any means.

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