Netanyahu Is Going To Trade One Headache For Another

December 3, 2014 § 3 Comments

The big news from Israel this week is that early elections, long predicted by many, are now officially here. Following months of bickering between Bibi Netanyahu and his various ministers, internal upheaval within Likud, and fights over legislation involving the budget and the Jewish nation-state bill, Netanyahu yesterday fired Yair Lapid and Tzipi Livni from the cabinet, the Knesset voted to dissolve, and elections have been scheduled for March 17. This government did not even make it to the two year mark before dissolving (elections were in January 2013 and the coalition was formed in March of that year), but this shouldn’t have come as a surprise to anyone. This was in many ways the strangest and most unlikely coalition government to ever be compiled in Israeli history. You had ministers from other rightwing parties not even trying to hide their desire to at some point soon supplant Bibi by overthrowing Likud, ministers from Bibi’s own party quitting because of their distaste for him, an alliance between two parties – Yesh Atid and Habayit Hayehudi – that had little business allying on anything but did so in an effort to box Bibi in, and such polar opposite opinions between ministers on matters ranging from Jerusalem to the peace process to the budget to Israel’s identity that the government could not credibly claim to have a unified coherent opinion on anything. So this was never a matter of if the government would spectacularly implode, but a matter of when.

Yet despite the complete dysfunction and mayhem that has marked Israel’s 33rd government, Netanyahu’s move to fire his ministers now and to hold new elections is a misstep for him. Netanyahu’s thinking seems rather straightforward here, and theoretically makes sense; the polls indicate a bigger share of votes for rightwing parties in general, so he can go to new elections, construct a coalition that leaves out Lapid and Livni and thus eliminates his budgetary nemesis and his peace process nemesis, and bring in the Haredi parties instead – who will do whatever Bibi wants provided they get their usual buy-offs in the form of subsidies and benefits – and have a much easier time managing his government. It seems simple enough to trade in the current coalition for a more rightwing and pliable one, but Netanyahu may find in the end that he is going to get more than he bargained for, because while this plan makes sense on paper, the path to getting there is not quite so easy.

For starters, a more rightwing coalition doesn’t necessarily mean a more pliable one. The truth is that for varying reasons, Netanyahu has very few allies left on the right aside from Yuval Steinitz and Bogie Ya’alon. Not only is he without allies, but leading rightwing politicians actively and openly despise him. President Ruvi Rivlin, whose Likud credentials are unimpeachable, would love nothing more than to see Bibi toppled following the prime minister’s failed attempt to prevent Rivlin from replacing Shimon Peres as Israel’s president and views Bibi as unnecessarily inflaming relations between Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs. Gideon Sa’ar, who is enormously popular among the rank and file and who was the leading vote getter in the last Likud primary, resigned his ministerial and Knesset posts in September, but gave a “retirement” speech in which he made plain his disdain for Netanyahu and that he would be returning to politics in the near future. Moshe Kahlon, another popular Likud politician who was a main driver of Mizrahi votes for the party, suddenly quit the party right before the last election over reported differences with Bibi and has now formed his own party with the aim of siphoning more votes away from Netanyahu. The enmity between Netanyahu and the ascendant radical Likudniks such as Danny Danon and Moshe Feiglin is well-documented and this group smells blood in the water as an isolated Netanyahu now sits on an island occupying the left pole of the party. Then there is Avigdor Lieberman, who is zigging and zagging – including releasing his own peace plan last week – and trying to be all things to all people in hopes of fulfilling his long held dream of becoming prime minister one day himself. He is only going to cooperate with Netanyahu to the extent that it furthers his own career interests, and given that the best way of positioning himself is to differentiate himself from the current prime minister, I don’t anticipate much altruism from Lieberman being directed Bibi’s way.

Finally there is Naftali Bennett, who is slated to take over Yair Lapid’s role as Bibi’s bete noire in the next government. Despite appearing to have reached a detente in recent months, Bennett and Netanyahu are still at odds, still have personal issues with each other (thanks to Sara Netanyahu), and are natural political rivals. Unlike Lapid though, Bennett represents an actual threat to Bibi, because he has the ability to hit Bibi where it hurts by stealing the prime minister’s own base. I have been arguing for years that the real political threat to Netanyahu comes not from his left but from his right, and Bennett is the personification of that threat. He is more appealing to the settler right and to nationalists – and let there be no doubt that Netanyahu’s championing of the Jewish nation-state bill is primarily an effort to win back the mantle of Israel’s most vigilant nationalist – and more appealing to the economically conservative technology and entrepreneur class as he is one of them. The right trusts him in a way that they don’t trust Bibi, and this goes double for religious voters. Bennett has also made a naked play at broadening Habayit Hayehudi’s electoral appeal by amending the party’s constitution in September to allow him to directly appoint every fifth candidate to the party’s electoral list in order to get more secular and Russian candidates into Habayit Hayehudi’s Knesset bloc. The upshot of all this is that Bennet doesn’t want to help Netanyahu; he wants to replace Netanyahu. He knows that it is unlikely to happen outright in this election, but if Bennett emerges from elections with the second most mandates in the Knesset, he is going to spend his time either pulling Netanyahu rightward  – and loudly taking the credit for the results – or setting up showdowns designed to expose Netanyahu as a fraud to Israeli rightwing voters. Either way, Netanyahu may end up longing for the types of battles that he had with Lapid rather than those that will be orchestrated by Bennett.

Then there is Netanyahu’s assumption that the result of elections in March will be more overall Knesset seats for the rightwing bloc, and I’m not so sure about this one either. The current polls certainly reflect this to be the case, but the election is three months away and Israeli polls are notoriously unreliable. If Lapid and Livni band together, which by all indications is going to happen, it is going to pull the combined party to the left as Lapid will bring Livni along with the socially oriented economic program that he cares most about while Livni brings Lapid along with the peace process program that she cares most about, and such a party has a good shot of picking up more votes than the individual sum of its parts. In addition, Kahlon is polling well despite having literally no platform or real public positions yet, and that may dissipate very quickly once he is held to the fire. Even if it doesn’t, Kahlon’s party may end up being more leftwing than rightwing given his historical focus on socioeconomic issues for Israel’s more underprivileged sectors. The Israeli economy has suffered since the Gaza war, and if Netanyahu’s economic stewardship becomes a loud campaign issue, which Lapid and Labor are both trying to make happen, it does not bode well for any of the parties on the right given Netanyahu’s reputation as the godfather of unbridled Israeli capitalism.

Leaving aside the right more generally, Likud itself may not even match its current nineteen seats despite the early polls. Voters are wary about the state of the economy, and for the first time in a decade there is a real sense of unease over the domestic security situation given the spate of attacks in Jerusalem and the West Bank. Netanyahu’s choice of making such a big deal over the nation-state bill is also an odd one, as his traditional appeal is as the only experienced grownup in the room who can truly protect Israel in a time of growing threats. There is risk in pursuing this battle-tested strategy coming on the heels of a mixed performance in Gaza and new upheaval on the Palestinian front, but it is also true that many more Israelis are inclined to support Netanyahu’s no-nonsense rhetorical approach when they are feeling less safe. There is far less consensus on the nation-state Jewish identity issue than there is on being vigilant with Israel’s security, and by seizing upon the nation-state bill to benefit his own campaign, Bibi is taking a risk that he is actually using a wedge issue that will harm him. Likud is more likely to draw votes by primarily projecting itself as the ultimate guarantor of Israelis’ safety than by primarily projecting itself as the ultimate guarantor of Jewish identity. There is also the fact that a not insignificant chunk of voters seems to be annoyed that Netanyahu is going to early elections and don’t quite see the point beyond political expediency, which could hurt Likud. Finally, it is looking like with everyone gunning for Netanyahu personally, this campaign may end up being a referendum on the man himself, and while he has been popular enough to slide by with a plurality of votes in a very divided political system, he is not universally popular in any objective sense of the word.

A lot can happen in the three months between now and the election that will affect votes in unanticipated ways, be it rock throwers on the Temple Mount or Sara Netanyahu’s Haagen Dazs budget, but my educated guess this far out is that the right’s share is not going to be too much above 60-65 votes and that Likud is going to lose ground relative to Habayit Hayehudi so that the power imbalance between Netanyahu and Bennett narrows further. Netanyahu is living in a cocoon and has been at the top for so long that his instincts are off. If he ends up with a narrower margin above the leftwing parties than he is expecting along with a further empowered Bennett looking to stick a knife in his back at every opportunity, Netanyahu may just end up wishing that he had left well enough alone and stuck with his current low-grade headache rather than trading up for a migraine.

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.

Welcome to Israeli Election Day

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.

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.

Domestic Politics Vs. International Politics In The Israeli Election

December 26, 2012 § 7 Comments

As regular O&Z readers know, if this blog has any sort of running theme it is that domestic politics is often decisive in determining foreign policy. When I wrote last week for The Atlantic about the rightwing political competition that is driving settlement activity, a close friend emailed, “So you’re saying it is local politics at work…#ImagineMySurprise.” I have pointed to domestic politics to argue that Israel and Turkey won’t be normalizing relations any time soon (and I’ll try and write about the recent NATO news tomorrow, but no, I don’t think it signals that anything is going to imminently change) and to predict that there was not going to be an Israeli strike on Iran last spring, summer, or fall. Does this mean that domestic politics is always decisive in every situation? Of course not. There are plenty of times in which other considerations are at work; the months-long push on the Turkish government’s to get NATO to intervene in Syria is one such instance. Nevertheless, I maintain that a lack of focus on domestic politics and the constraints it imposes leads to lots of shoddy analysis from both professionals and casual observers.

Over the next few months, Israel is going to be a great petri dish for watching these trends at work. On the one hand, influential and respected defense and security experts like Amos Yadlin are warning that Israel is losing its international support and status because of its footdragging on the peace process, Tzipi Livni has founded a new party devoted solely to reviving talks with the Palestinians, and there is chatter that the EU is losing so much patience that it is going to try and force Israel and the Palestinians into a deal. Last week the State Department issued a harsher than usual condemnation of Israeli settlement activity, as did the fourteen non-U.S. members of the Security Council. By any measure, Israel’s settlement policy and reticence on the creation of a Palestinian state is become increasingly costly. Looking at it from a black box perspective, you have a state living in a hostile neighborhood with an enormous qualitative military edge over its neighbors that is facing a dangerous potential dip in support from its main external allies and is facing increasing international isolation over the Palestinian statehood issue, which does not present an existential security threat by any means. The state is facing what it believes is an existential threat from Iran, and on that front it needs all the help it can get from its main allies. Given everything involved, you’d expect Israel in this situation to take moves to forestall its isolation and shore up its relationship with the U.S. and EU – which are its primary providers of military and economic aid and diplomatic support across the board – by making some serious concessions on the Palestinian front. After all, even if settlements in the West Bank are viewed as a security buffer, keeping them from a security perspective given Palestinian military capabilities pales in comparison to risking the cessation of purchases of military hardware and transfers of military technology, and enabling the risk of complete diplomatic isolation.

Given all of this, one might expect to see an Israeli coalition after the election that includes Livni’s Hatnua party and that undertakes serious initiatives on the Palestinian statehood and peace process fronts. Such a coalition would under no circumstances include Naftali Bennett and Habayit Hayehudi, as Bennett wants to annex Area C and does not support the creation of a Palestinian state. Indeed, there have been moves in that direction as far as keeping Bennett out is concerned, and there have also been reports that Netanyahu and Livni are exploring the possibility of Hatnua joining the coalition after the election, which would almost necessarily mean her return to the Foreign Ministry and a greater push for a negotiated settlement with the Palestinians.

On the other hand, taking domestic politics into account would point to a different path. As I wrote last week, the idea behind the joint Likud-Beiteinu list was to create a right-wing monolith that would put an electoral victory out of reach for Israel’s left and to also present rightwing voters without a real alternative. Netanyahu wanted to eliminate any challenges from his right flank by co-opting Lieberman, but it now turns out that he has to deal with Bennett on his right and a swift migration of voters (so far, at least) away from Likud and to Habayit Hayehudi. It is also the case that Israeli voters do not care about the Palestinians or the peace process, which is why Hatnua is stuck in single digits, Labor and Shelley Yachimovich barely mention anything other than social issues and the economy unless absolutely forced to, and Bennett is gaining a larger following based partly on a perception that Netanyahu is actually not hawkish enough. Taking all of this into account means a coalition that includes Bennett, continues to take a hardline on a Palestinian state, and bemoans the lack of support from European states rather than constructing a policy meant to change that reality.

So which will it be? Unsurprisingly, my money is on the second option, but the first one is certainly plausible. It really just depends on how much weight you place on the domestic political calculus. Netanyahu’s history is that he pays attention to his domestic political survival above all else, and I see no evidence that he has suddenly become a changed man. To my mind, Israel’s long term health necessitates the first path, while Netanyahu’s lies with the second. Let’s hope that events in 2013 prove me wrong.

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.

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