What I Got Wrong

December 28, 2012 § 3 Comments

As 2012 comes to a close, I want to take a look back at the big things I got wrong this year. Crowing about what I got right is a lot more fun – and I don’t waste many opportunities to remind everyone that I was correct about an Iran strike – but it is also far less useful for me and for my readers, since it doesn’t allow me to recalibrate my thinking or give all of you a sense of when and why you should be ignoring me. I started this blog on March 13 of this year and this is my 276th post so I don’t have the time to comprehensively go through every single one, but after trying to go through the bulk of them, here are some of my biggest misfires from 2012.

Migron’s evacuation: On March 26, I wrote, “Yet, I’ll bet almost anything that Migron is not evacuated and demolished by August 1, and that Likud’s younger rightwing vanguard does everything in its power to make sure that the Migron decision is consigned to nothingness. The Knesset’s current coalition politics will not allow anything less, and Israel will continue to fight a losing battle to convince the world that it is blameless for the situation with the Palestinians and that it will be able to withdraw from part of the West Bank whenever the Palestinian leadership is interested in returning to the negotiating table.” 

While this was technically correct since Migron was still standing and fully populated on August 1, the idea behind it was wrong as Migron was evacuated by the first week in September. In this case, I did not give enough credit to the Israeli government and its willingness to carry out an unambiguous High Court decision.

Palestinian civil war: This one was a big misfire. On April 3, I wrote that Hamas and Fatah were on the brink of open armed conflict. My logic was that the Palestinian Authority moves to quash dissent in the West Bank were aimed at limiting Hamas’s ability to operate in Fatah’s stronghold, and that Hamas would do the same in Gaza in response and that eventually the entire tinder box would blow up. This has of course not happened, and I think I was too glib about just how drastic things would have to get for a civil war to take place.

Ehud Barak and Atzmaut: On May 3 I wrote that Barak and his party were going to make the threshold for getting into the next Knesset once elections happened. While this has not actually been proven wrong yet, Barak has decided not to run and Atzmaut is going to fold, so this prediction will be wrong quite soon. Let’s just all pretend that I did not write the following: “So despite the polls, remember that you read this prediction here first: Atzmaut is going to have seats in the next Knesset, will serve in the governing coalition, and Ehud Barak will continue as defense minister.”

Kadima staying in the coalition: On July 3, I predicted that the Likud-Kadima unity government was going to hold together despite the Plesner Committee – which was tasked with figuring out a solution to Haredi and Arab military exemptions –  being disbanded. When my prediction was proven incorrect, I wrote a long post taking stock of where I went wrong, so no need to rehash that again.

Turkey’s response to Operation Pillar of Cloud: On November 14, I wrote in The Atlantic that Turkey and Prime Minister Erdoğan were going to maintain a muted response to Israel’s Gaza operation because of the hypocrisy entailed in a more vocal response given Turkey’s tactics against the PKK. Here’s the relevant part:

But Turkey’s situation has changed in a very important way since Cast Lead. In 2008 and in the aftermath of the flotilla in 2010 Turkey was dealing with a quieter Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), the Kurdish separatist group. Today, that is no longer the case. Since this summer, Ankara has been waging a full-blown war with the Kurdish terrorist group, inflicting hundreds of casualties and suffering many of its own.

Much like Israel’s fight against Hamas, Turkey’s fight with the PKK has not been without civilian collateral damage. Last December, the Turkish military carried out an airstrike in Uludere that killed 34 civilians who the military thought were PKK fighters attempting to cross the border into Turkey. Earlier this year, the government sealed off the Semdinli district in the Hakkari province for months while it fought the PKK, not letting any information out or any journalists in.

Turkey’s problem with PKK terrorism, combined with the inevitable civilian casualties that occur when fighting terrorist groups embedded amongst the general population, makes it harder this time around for Turkey to angrily denounce Israel as it once did. While I expected Turkey to issue a condemnation of Israeli actions, it is not surprising that it did not have the full force as it has in the past given the uncomfortable parallels that exist between Israel’s actions against Hamas and Turkey’s actions against the PKK.

Of everything that I’ve written this year, this is the prediction that was perhaps the one that was most off-base, as Erdoğan later blasted Israel repeatedly for days. My error here is pretty easy to identify, which is that I for whatever reason convinced myself that a desire to not look like a hypocrite was going to override the strong political incentives that existed for Erdoğan to continue foaming at the mouth any time Israel comes up, and to tie himself to the Palestinian cause at every opportunity. Rest assured my naiveté on this issue is done with.

So there you go. I am sure I’ve missed things, and if anyone knows what those are, please let me know in the comments. Happy New Year, and see you all back here in 2013.

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Did Bibi Make A Mistake?

October 31, 2012 § Leave a comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Back To The Drawing Board For Kadima (And For Me)

July 17, 2012 § 5 Comments

So remember when I predicted that Shaul Mofaz and Kadima were going to remain in the coalition? Turns out, not so much. According to reports, Kadima is officially out over the failure of Mofaz and Bibi Netanyahu to bridge the gap between their parties over what will replace the Tal Law. Specifically, the sticking point is the age until which Haredim can defer the draft, with Mofaz insisting that Netanyahu’s proposal of allowing Haredim to defer until age 23 is unacceptable. And so with that, the curtain closes on the grand unity government experiment.

Why did I get this wrong? I think I underestimated the humiliation and credibility factors for Mofaz. He has been threatening to pull out for weeks, and each time he issued a threat and Bibi called his bluff, it turned into a hollow one. There were only so many times Mofaz could allow that to happen, and my assumption that the overarching political considerations (more on that in a moment) would trump the more personal ones was pretty obviously faulty. I also underestimated the degree to which Netanyahu was going to remain in thrall to the Haredi parties, since the logic of creating the larger coalition was precisely so that he wouldn’t have to be held hostage to the demands of Shas and Eli Yishai. Unlike some others, I did not think that the Likud-Kadima agreement was about Iran, and unless Mofaz is actually leaving because a strike is imminent and he wants no part of it, the Iran factor was clearly overhyped by some. Given Netanyahu’s unwillingness to do what he could to keep Kadima in the coalition following his establishment of the Plesner Committee, which signaled his intention to let Kadima lead on the Tal Law, I am confused as to what his original intention was. It was obvious to me at the time that it was not about Iran or the peace process, and I assumed it was to give him maneuvering room for equalizing the burden of service and upsetting his Haredi coalition partners and for ignoring the extreme faction within Likud on his right. That he let the unity government fall apart like this is puzzling to me, since while Mofaz walks away from this looking weak and like a buffoon, so does Netanyahu to a lesser extent. Make no mistake, the Kadima position on this is a lot more popular with Israelis than the Likud/Shas position, and Netanyahu just lost an opportunity to score some very easy political points while at the same time doing the right thing by not letting Haredim avoid their duties to the state.

So, assuming that my analysis still carries some credibility, what comes next? To begin with, Kadima leaving does not alter the fact that Netanyahu still has a governing coalition that agrees on most rightwing issues. In fact, he is going to have a larger coalition than he did before the deal with Mofaz, because a bunch of Kadima MKs are now going to break off and join Likud. I thought this was going to happen both before the unity deal and after the unity deal, and the only difference now is that Mofaz himself will not be going with them. Netanyahu is still going to have to reconcile the fact that Shas and UTJ want to maintain the status quo on the draft and Yisrael Beiteinu does not, but this juggling act might be easier to manage depending on how many Kadima MKs break away from their current home and join their former home. I have seen early reports that it will be at least 7, and it might grow to more. So while Netanyahu’s life is more difficult today than it was yesterday, he is still in good shape and will head into elections in early 2013 in a strong position.

As for Kadima, this misguided move today is going to be the final nail in the coffin. Mofaz is first going to have to deal with a rump party following the MKs who break off and head for Likud, not to mention the other group of 7 that wanted to break away in May and start a new party to be headed by Tzipi Livni and Haim Ramon. Then there is the problem that Kadima has essentially transformed itself from one single issue party (disengagement from Gaza) to another single issue party (equalizing the burden of service), and while this is a popular issue, it is not enough to sustain a viable party (Kadima’s new slogan is apparently “Kadima L’Shareit” which means Kadima, To Serve, or more literally Forward, To Serve). Mofaz still has no real credibility on social justice issues, and what little benefit of the doubt anyone was willing to grant him vanished into thin air the day he joined forces with Bibi. So what’s left for him? There is no way that Netanyahu and Likud are now going to adopt any policy that even resembles what Kadima was proposing on the universal draft, and there might even be enough defections from Kadima one way or the other to knock Mofaz out of being leader of the opposition. Even if Kadima retains enough members to be the largest opposition party, Mofaz will be left shouting into the wind on this issue and does not have enough of a base or a coherent set of policies to prevent Kadima from getting decimated in the next election. The bottom line here is that this is an enormous loss for Mofaz; he was outmaneuvered by Bibi, made his situation much worse by issuing a stream of threats to leave despite his bluff being repeatedly called, and now his party is almost certainly fated to disappear and he has ruined his own chances of being welcomed back into Likud with open arms. No matter which way you view this, today was the most epic of fails for Shaul Mofaz, and Netanyahu gets to remain right where he was.

The Fate of Israel’s Unity Government

July 3, 2012 § 4 Comments

Two of my favorite Israel bloggers, Allison Good and The Camel’s Nose, are having an entertaining debate on Twitter and their respective blogs over the survival prospects of the Likud-Kadima coalition government. For those who haven’t been following along, Bibi Netanyahu disbanded the Kadima-led Plesner Committee charged with coming up with a solution to the problem of Haredi and Arab exemptions from military service following the resignations of Yisrael Beiteinu, Habayit Hayehudi, and the Haredi representative from the committee. AG thinks that this means that the coalition government is going to be gone by the end of the week because Bibi is ultimately going to stick with his more rightwing coalition partners and because Shaul Mofaz realizes that he is getting nowhere with Netanyahu and would rather resume his erstwhile role as opposition leader. In contrast, TCN thinks that the coalition will last because Bibi is a cunning politician and will be able to ride out the current storm and because Mofaz gains nothing by quitting the government.

I hate to pick sides here, but since I was planning on writing about this anyway before the two of them beat me to it, I have to go with The Camel’s Nose on this one. Allison’s logic is good, particularly on the issue of Bibi being a creature of habit with a long history of being risk-averse when it comes to big picture policies who tends to placate his rightwing base, but I will add a few reasons to the ones already set forth by TCN in explaining why I think the coalition holds.

First, Netanyahu issued a statement warning the Haredi parties that if a compromise is not reached, Haredim will be subject to the draft beginning August 1. This angered the Haredi parties to no end and they ripped him for issuing an ultimatum, and it seems like a strange move for Bibi to make if he is ultimately going to ditch Kadima and side with Shas and UTJ. Why warn them about coming back to the table if the intention is to back them to the hilt anyway? If the answer is that equalizing the burden of service is popular with the Israeli public and issuing the hardline statement is all public relations showmanship, then Netanyahu is setting himself for a severe backlash if he then goes and lets Haredim off the hook for military or national service. Furthermore, it bears noting that Haredi voters are not part of Netanyahu and Likud’s base – they historically have been willing to join any government, left or right, that has been willing to buy their support with subsidies and key ministries. Netanyahu’s base is the settler and religious Zionist movements, and they hold no water for Haredi draft dodgers. All of this reads to me like Bibi is gearing up to make Haredim subject to the draft, and only disbanded the Plesner Committee because it seemed like a futile exercise once YB and the Haredi rep had both quit and not because he is trying to protect the Haredi exemption.

Second, I don’t think that Mofaz has any intention of quitting the coalition. His threat to do so is an empty one since there is no reason for him to wait – if he was actually going to pull out of the government, he would have done so when Netanyahu pulled the plug on the Plesner Committee, which was Mofaz’s pet project. Mofaz has already been sufficiently embarrassed to justify leaving, and the fact that he hasn’t done so indicates to me that he is looking for excuses to stick around. That Mofaz brought Kadima into the government does not change the fact that Kadima’s poll numbers were badly sinking before the coalition deal was struck and that Kadima was increasingly looking like a party that would not survive more than one additional election. Leaving the coalition now, as TCN points out, probably dilutes Mofaz’s power since he is not by any means a natural leader of a left of center opposition, and that goes double now that he has tainted himself in the left’s eyes by joining hands with Bibi in a unity government.

Finally, there is the fact that Netanyahu created this monster of a coalition for a reason, and we need to think about what that reason might be. Sure, I think he liked the idea of presiding over a government with virtually no real opposition to speak of, but he also wasn’t accumulating numbers just for the sole sake of accumulating numbers. I think that creating such a large coalition was meant to give Netanyahu room to maneuver on precisely this issue – equalizing the burden of service and ending the Haredi military exemption – since it is a popular position and one that he could not pursue before without bringing down his government. The day after the news of the deal with Kadima broke, I wrote the following:

A newly stabilized government gives Netanyahu more time to quell the growing backbench rebellion within Likud as well, and he can expect Kadima to now back him full-tilt on settlements once he backs Mofaz’s Tal Law alternative. In sum, this is move to bring in Kadima and cancel the early elections is a no-brainer that eliminates potential rival parties, strengthens Likud internally, and probably increases its vote share over what it would have gotten in September.

This logic still holds. Putting Kadima in charge of the committee tasked with replacing the Tal Law was a high profile move and Netanyahu staked a lot on it, and the idea that after all that he would now just turn around, kill the committee and not allow its recommendation to see the light of day, and end the unity government, putting him right back where he started – namely, a coalition that is bound to break apart and bring down the government since Yisrael Beiteinu and Shas/UTJ cannot coexist for much longer – doesn’t make sense to me. Ultimately, the deal with Kadima was about Netanyahu’s survival as prime minister without having to call early elections, and so he needs Mofaz to stick around almost as much as Mofaz needs him in order to remain relevant. So, my prediction is that after everyone gets in their saber rattling, Netanyahu and Mofaz will work out some sort of arrangement, the Haredi parties will leave the coalition in a huff, and the unity government will remain in place. We should know by the end of the week if I am right or if I am wrong in a big way. And if it’s the latter, consider this my preemptive apology and huge tip of the hat to Allison Good.

The Likud-Kadima Deal Is Not About Iran

May 8, 2012 § 10 Comments

Last night right after the news broke that Shaul Mofaz and Kadima were joining Bibi Netanyahu’s governing coalition and that the early elections that had been announced for September 4 are now off, I wrote this post on the implications of the deal for Israeli domestic politics. On the morning after, I have a few more thoughts pertaining to how the new unity government will affect changes in Israeli foreign policy. The short version is, it won’t.

The area in which some people are expecting Israeli policy to shift with the new government is Iran. Jeffrey Goldberg thinks that the larger coalition and unity government might make it easier for Netanyahu to strike Iranian nuclear sites should he be so inclined. I think it is true that it makes doing so easier since the new coalition comprises 93 out of 120 MKs, and a unity government deciding to launch an attack takes some of the bite out of the recent cascade of criticism coming from former defense and intelligence leaders. Kadima joining the coalition, however, does not alter the basic realities that were preventing Netanyahu and Barak from carrying out a strike months ago. Israeli public opinion is still ambivalent on a unilateral Israeli strike, U.S. and world pressure to wait and give sanctions more time has not disappeared, four out of the eight Shminiya (Octet) members are still opposed, and the security and intelligence establishment have raised legitimate concerns that cannot be waved away just because Kadima joined the government. Add to all this the fact that Israel has serious renewed security concerns on its southern border with Egypt and is keeping an eye on its northern border following reports that Scud missile installations being moved closer to the border in Syria, and attacking Iran appears to be a dicey proposition.

There is also the Mofaz factor, which does not necessarily weigh in favor of a strike. Looking at Mofaz’s position on Iran, a little over a month ago he blasted Netanyahu for pushing for a strike that he deemed would be premature and ineffective, and said that he would stand with any PM who ordered an attack as the last resort but that Israel was not yet at that stage. Just yesterday, he accused Netanyahu of politicizing the issue of a strike and endangering the relationship with the U.S. Now, anything Mofaz said in the guise of campaigning must be taken with a grain of salt, but that he chose to hit Bibi hard on Iran cannot just be brushed aside so easily. It is also important to remember that Mofaz was not campaigning primarily on security or defense issues but rather donned the mantle of social justice, and was particularly targeting preferential treatment for Haredim. The deal with Likud gives Mofaz and Kadima the task of leading the committee charged with coming up with a Tal Law alternative, which is again not a security-related issue. It is easy to think that bringing a former defense minister and IDF chief of staff on board must mean that Netanyahu is seeking to add another buffer against criticism should he choose to attack Iran, but the details of Mofaz’s campaign and the particulars of the unity deal do not necessarily point to this conclusion. There are now three former chiefs of staff in the cabinet – Barak, Mofaz, and Yaalon – and based on what we know, only one of them is on board for an imminent unilateral strike on Iran. Just because the cabinet is full of generals does not mean that they are all gung ho to launch a new military adventure.

There is, however, one important way in which Israeli foreign policy might change with this unity deal, and that is the renewed empowerment of the foreign minister should Avigdor Lieberman be indicted, which I expect will happen in light of Zeev Ben Arie’s indictment and plea bargain last week. If Lieberman has to leave the government, it is safe to assume that Mofaz will take his place, and Israel will then once again have a foreign minister who is actually trusted to carry out the state’s diplomacy. This would undoubtedly be a good development should it occur, since Israel’s Foreign Ministry is too important to be left in incompetent hands.

When all is said and done, I do not think this deal is about Iran. I think it was done for domestic political considerations first and foremost. Let’s remember that while Netanyahu has faced no real challenges, Likud has not been on nearly as solid footing as its party leader. It is right now the second largest party in the Knesset – and that Kadima is the largest but is only getting one minister slot out of this deal tells you all you need to know about its long term prospects – but had been facing a new threat from Yesh Atid, a Labor bump following summer social justice protests, and a rightwing revolt within its own ranks led by Moshe Feiglin, Danny Danon, and others who do not find Netanyahu sufficiently committed to the settlement cause. The deal with Kadima eliminates these problems or gives Netanyahu more time to deal with them. By bringing Kadima and Mofaz into the coalition, it increases the chances that an increasingly unpopular Kadima (polls had it coming in fourth or fifth were elections to be held in September) will simply merge back with Likud before October 2013 and undo the rift that Ariel Sharon created in order to pull out of Gaza. It also cuts the legs out from under Yair Lapid and his new party before it can really get off the ground, and while Yesh Atid might stick around and build support, October 2013 is a long ways away for a party that has no seats in the Knesset. A newly stabilized government gives Netanyahu more time to quell the growing backbench rebellion within Likud as well, and he can expect Kadima to now back him full-tilt on settlements once he backs Mofaz’s Tal Law alternative. In sum, this is move to bring in Kadima and cancel the early elections is a no-brainer that eliminates potential rival parties, strengthens Likud internally, and probably increases its vote share over what it would have gotten in September. Does it make it easier to attack Iran? Sure – Mofaz might now become Netanyahu’s Colin Powell inasmuch as his known reticence about a strike and his presence in the cabinet make it more credible should Netanyahu decide to act. But I don’t think that is the correct prism through which to view yesterday’s political machinations.

P.S. Related to all of this, Brent Sasley has a great post over at Mideast Matrix that is well worth a read because it gets to the root causes of Israel’s political dysfunction. The casual observer familiar only with the American form of government looks at the fact that the Israeli prime minister just decided on a whim to cancel his own call for early elections and put them off for over a year as a gross violation of democracy, when in fact it is par for the course in a parliamentary system. That does not mean, however, that all is well with Israeli politics, and Brent makes a great counter-intuitive argument that yesterday’s events actually strengthen Israel democracy by temporarily papering over some of the immense structural problems that exist in the system.

Some Quick Initial Thoughts On The Israeli Political Bombshell

May 7, 2012 § 4 Comments

First of all, wow. The deal to form a Likud-Kadima government is a master stroke by Bibi Netanyahu, who now gets to avoid dealing with elections and having to make a bunch of imperfect choices in putting together a coalition, while also seizing on the fact that nearly 3/4 of Israelis want to see the Tal Law gone for good. He isn’t giving up anything, gets to cut Yair Lapid off at the knees, and strengthens his bid as the most dominant Israeli politician of his generation. This is an enormous win for him.

Another big winner, perhaps even more so than Bibi when thinking about relative gains, is Ehud Barak. I wrote last week that I was confident Barak and Atzmaut would get enough votes to be seated in the Knesset and remain in the coalition, but now Barak doesn’t have to worry about that anymore. He gets to remain as defense minister and doesn’t have to keep taking symbolic stands against settlements in an effort to rebuild his constituency. Barak also seems to genuinely hate Lapid, mocking him in the past week for using a teleprompter and comparing his Yesh Atid party charter to that of the Baath party in Syria, so the fact that Lapid now goes back to being a television host for the time being must make Barak happy.

The fact that Barak is staying as defense minister is even more remarkable when considering the that it is Mofaz who cut the deal with Netanyahu to join the government. Mofaz is a former IDF chief of staff and former defense minister, and you know that he must have wanted to take Barak’s seat but is instead joining the coalition as vie premier. Certainly not a bad gig by any means, but you have to think it is his second choice. What this says to me is just how badly Netanyahu wants and needs Barak by his side in order to provide credibility and instill confidence in the Israeli public should Israel move to strike Iranian nuclear sites. Netanyahu is clearly unwilling to give him up, which again reinforces the point I have been harping on about Barak being the critical decision maker and figure to watch on Iran.

Another winner here is Shelly Yachimovich and Labor. Yachimovich has been in major pander mode lately, saying that she would join the Netanyahu government under the right circumstances and even absurdly claiming to share a lot in common ideologically with Shas and UTJ. She knew that she was facing an uphill battle in an election with Mofaz trying to siphon off social justice voters, Yisrael Beiteinu seen as the face of the battle against Haredi military exemptions, and Yesh Atid going after Labor’s main demographic. Labor as of today had no ministerial posts and was not even the largest opposition party. Now, Labor instantly vaults over Kadima to be the primary opposition party and Yachimovich has a new position as opposition leader and a larger bully pulpit. Given that she had zero chance of replacing Netanyahu and becoming the next prime minister anyway, the Likud-Kadima deal benefits her in the end as well.

In hindsight, a deal between Likud and Kadima was inevitable given Mofaz and Kadima’s free-falling poll numbers. Mofaz harbored hopes of beating Netanyahu and becoming PM, but the polls made it clear that this was not going to happen. Things were looking so bad that there were even calls in the past few days for Mofaz to make up with Tzipi Livni and bring her back into the fold. As I’ve noted previously, Mofaz had no intention of orchestrating a leadership fight with Livni and taking control of Kadima to be just another powerless politician, and it was clear that he was going to move closer to Likud if he thought he couldn’t beat Netanyahu outright. But it never occurred to me that he and Bibi would forge a deal before the elections rather than after them. Good for Mofaz for leveraging his position when he was at his most powerful, and good for Bibi for recognizing a good opportunity staring him in the face.

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