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.

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Sticks And Stones May Break My Bones, And So Will Words

October 29, 2014 § 3 Comments

Frustrating the deeply held convictions of “Zionist Occupied Government” conspiracy theorists everywhere, it has not exactly been a banner week for the U.S.-Israel relationship. First there was the Bogie Ya’alon snub during his sojourn to Washington, where the Israeli defense minister met with Chuck Hagel and Samantha Power – the latter reportedly only because the White House was too late in trying to prevent it – but was not granted meetings with Joe Biden, John Kerry, or Susan Rice. Then came yesterday’s already legendary Jeff Goldberg piece in the Atlantic, henceforth known as the chickenshit article, during which an unnamed senior administration official used that moniker to describe Bibi Netanyahu. The piece, which proclaimed a crisis in U.S-Israel relations, was right and has now inflamed that crisis even further. As dedicated readers may recall, in July I wrote that despite the very bad personal relationship between Netanyahu and President Obama, the bilateral U.S.-Israel relationship was not going to be threatened in the long term, and I think that is still true. Nevertheless, what is going on now is certainly serious and can derail things in the short term. So to make up for my lack of recent blogging, and my even longer lack of blogging about Israel specifically, here are some semi-extensive thoughts about the entire contretemps.

First, just as Israeli officials are completely out of line and do damage to their own cause and interests when they make nasty comments about Obama, Kerry, and other U.S. government officials, the same goes for the inane and childish comments made to Goldberg about Netanyahu. I am and have been highly critical of Ya’alon, Naftali Bennett, and others who have launched inappropriate personal attacks; it reflects terribly upon them and does absolutely nothing to rectify whatever it is that has made them upset. This is no different, and the intensely personal nature of denigrating the courage of a former Israeli special forces commando is particularly ugly. Literally taunting an Israeli prime minister for not bombing Iran – as if the issue is a lack of guts rather than an array of barriers to doing so, from Israel’s security cabinet to intense differences of opinion about such a move across the political and military spectrum to serious pressure from the U.S. – is boorish and petty and smacks of smug, childish amateurism, not to mention a terrifyingly myopic and incomplete view of how foreign policy actually operates. I hope that the outrage expressed by some in the U.S. when Ya’alon has insulted Kerry in the press is also expressed today. On the flip side, those who found nothing wrong with Ya’alon’s remarks a few months ago should have the appropriate sense of self-perception to keep their mouths shut now as well. It’s not good when Israelis trash their American counterparts, and it’s not good when Americans trash their Israeli counterparts, but if you are a pro-Israel American, your outrage at one had better be matched by your outrage at the other.

Second, Netanyahu’s broadside in return today is a great example of a world leader who does not properly appreciate his country’s position in the international system. Israel is a regional power in its own right, but it is also largely dependent on the largesse of its great power patron – for which, by the way, it has no genuine feasible alternative replacements should that largesse ever be withdrawn. Despite the heady excitement Israelis have over increased trade ties with China and India, the optimism that this will translate into political support is misplaced, as excellently outlined by Rory Miller in Foreign Affairs, who demonstrated that both countries have completely delinked their economic relations with Israel from their political relations with Israel, and are not going to reverse that path any time soon. Were Netanyahu smart about this, he would have expressed his anger and disappointment behind closed doors, and publicly kept his mouth shut. The fact is that Israel and the U.S. will never be equal. There is an enormous power imbalance in the relationship, and the U.S. can afford to alienate Israel (although it shouldn’t and it would make things harder for U.S. initiatives in the region) but Israel can absolutely not afford to alienate the U.S. I get why Netanyahu’s impulse is to lash back out, but this is a tit-for-tat exchange that Israel will always lose. Israel’s greatest geopolitical advantage is its relationship with the U.S., and thus a well thought out plan would be to swallow whatever American insults come Israel’s way and do nothing to harm that relationship. Some Israeli leaders, including rightwing Likud politician President Ruby Rivlin, get this. Netanyahu quite obviously does not.

Third, leaving aside the damage in the day to day working relationship, the infamous chickenshit interview has potential to backfire on the U.S. when it comes to the Iranian nuclear program in two ways. One has to with Israel, and the other has to do with Iran. On the Israeli side of the equation, the White House is quite obviously happy that Jerusalem has so far sat on its hands and kept its planes far away from Fordow. In the context of an Israeli populace and political class that sees external threats rising up around it, nervousness that the U.S. is getting snookered by Iran in the nuclear negotiations and will agree to nearly any terms to just make the problem go away, and an election coming soon in which the threats to Netanyahu come not from the left but from the right, is there a better way of prompting Netanyahu into taking military action against Iran than denigrating him as a chickenshit who is too scared to use his military? It’s almost as if the person or persons who felt the need to go blabbing to Goldberg are trying to end up with egg all over their faces. I’d agree that the chances of Israeli action at this point are remote, but just listen to some of the saner and more respected security voices in Israel – Amos Yadlin and Ya’akov Amidror are two who come to mind – and you will quickly realize that Israel does not necessarily share the same view of these unnamed administration officials that a bombing run is completely off the table.

On the Iran side of the ledger, I agree with Dan Drezner that there is a component to this that involves signaling to Iran. I am not as certain that it is intentional, however; rather, my fear is that the U.S. is instead unwittingly and massively reducing its negotiating leverage by openly doubting Israel’s ability and willpower to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities, and by implying that it sees a nuclear Iran as a near fait accompli. Any Iranian leader reading the Goldberg interview would logically assume that there is nothing Iran can do that will invite a strike against its nuclear program, and that it really has no reason to offer any negotiating concessions at all. Irrespective of whether or not the Obama administration has privately decided that it wants a deal with Iran at any cost, this is terrible negotiating strategy and very poor strategic behavior.

Fourth, the chickenshit comments are more likely than not going to exacerbate the type of Israeli behavior that frustrates the U.S. unless the insults and vitriol are ultimately accompanied by a genuine change in policy toward Israel. If things continue along the same path, meaning that there is no real penalty for increased settlement activity in the form of reduced intelligence and military cooperation, reduced defense aid, or reduced support at the United Nations, the takeaway message for Netanyahu is going to be that the only price for driving U.S. officials to apoplexy is having to absorb personal insults. I don’t know whether policy is going to change following the November elections or not; I have read some predictions that the cover for Israel at the U.N. in particular is something that will be endangered, but I have serious doubts as to whether that will be the case. The point is, if Goldberg’s unnamed official thinks that his or her words alone are going to have any real effect on Israeli policy, I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for it.

Finally, it is pretty clear to me that this is not just a random attempt to make Bibi look bad here, but a deliberate ploy to damage his political prospects. There is a perception among Israeli elites that picking a real fight with the U.S. is fatal for Israeli politicians, and many in various U.S. administrations believe that as well. My friend Brent Sasley has argued otherwise, although others take a different view of the Shamir loss in 1992. In this case, in the short term the fight seems to have bolstered Bibi, with people like Bennett coming out and strongly backing him against the chickenshit comments. It makes him look like a stronger leader standing up to a petty and bullying American administration. In the long term, however, I think that the White House political calculation here is correct in the sense of wanting to play up the hostility between Netanyahu and the White House in order to damage him. There are going to be elections in the next few months, and there are plenty of rightwing politicians aspiring to unseat Bibi who can claim that they will stand up to Washington when need be but do not have the baggage that Bibi has. Ya’alon is obviously not in this camp, but Bennett, Moshe Kahlon, Avigdor Lieberman, and even Yair Lapid will all try to take advantage of this dynamic to siphon votes away from Likud and toward themselves.

Ultimately, whomever it was that has now made the term chickenshit a permanent part of the foreign policy lexicon may feel a lot better today after a self-satisfied venting session, but this kind of thing is entirely counterproductive. Allies can and do disagree, but this is not the way to do it. Nobody in the Obama administration should be too pleased with themselves this afternoon.

Why A Gaza Ceasefire Is So Difficult

July 16, 2014 § 1 Comment

There was a strong expectation in Israel yesterday once the Egyptian-brokered ceasefire terms were announced that Hamas was going to accept the deal. Even after Hamas rejected the terms and launched 80 more rockets at Israel yesterday morning, some prominent voices, such as former Israel national security adviser Giora Eiland, were predicting that Hamas would ultimately accept the deal today. While anything may still happen, it is highly unlikely given Hamas’s vociferous objections to terms that are essentially a replica of the 2012 ceasefire agreement and Hamas’s release of its own offer this morning, which calls for an end to the Gaza blockade, the release of any prisoners swept up over the last month who had been released in the Gilad Shalit deal in 2011, building an airport and seaport in Gaza, expansion of the Gaza fishing zone, and the opening of all crossings into Gaza, including the Refah crossing into Egypt. Like the Egyptian deal was to Hamas, these terms are unpalatable to Israel and will not be accepted. Unlike in 2012, when a ceasefire was brokered relatively easily and put an end to hostilities, this time around things are proving to be far more difficult, and it isn’t just a matter of Israel and Hamas meeting halfway.

For starters, there are no good brokers for a truce. The problems with Egypt are well-known; Sisi and the Egyptian government want to isolate Hamas, and Hamas does not trust Sisi any more than they trust Bibi Netanyahu. Egypt’s ceasefire deal was negotiated without any Hamas input or even prior notification to Hamas before the terms were made public, and was likely more of an effort on Egypt’s part to isolate and weaken Hamas even further by having the entire Arab League and Western countries line up behind a deal that Hamas was almost certainly going to reject rather than a true effort at brokering an end to fighting. At this point, it is difficult to envision a situation in which Egypt plays a role in mediating between the two sides. The U.S. cannot do it alone given that it has no ties to Hamas, and that leaves aside the reporting in Haaretz that Israel specifically asked Kerry to stay out of it to avoid the impression that the U.S. was pressuring Israel and thus granting Hamas a win. I wrote last week about the potential for Turkey and Qatar to step in so no need to rehash the variables there – and indeed Mahmoud Abbas and Meshal are meeting with President Gül and Prime Minister Erdoğan in Turkey on Friday –  but both countries are deeply flawed due to their lack of successful experience in wading into Israeli-Palestinian fights, and Israel for good reason does not exactly trust either of them (particularly after Erdoğan yesterday compared Habayit Hayehudi MK Ayelet Shaked to Hitler).

Second, Hamas is an organization fractured between the Gaza leadership and the international leadership based in Qatar, and so it is unclear what it actually wants and who has the authority to make a deal. Signs point to Khaled Meshal following the military leaders right now than the other way around, and the military guys in Gaza appear to be averse to ending the fighting anytime soon. The atmosphere is very different now than it was in 2012, and while I will for the second time in a week emphasize that internal Palestinian politics are not my expertise, I have the sense that Meshal will be subject to the Gaza leadership’s veto on any deal he is involved in brokering. There is also the complicating factor of Gazans wanting a ceasefire and whether this will create any pressure on Hamas’s Gaza wing to at some point acquiesce.

Next, there is the fact that there is enormous political pressure on Bibi coming from his right flank to not accept any ceasefire – even one, like yesterday’s proposal, that is almost entirely on Israel’s terms – and to instead send the already-mobilized ground forces into Gaza. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman yesterday gave a press conference during which he advocated the IDF invading and retaking Gaza, and after Deputy Defense Minister Danny Danon – who has long been a thorn in Netanyahu’s side within Likud – trashed Netanyahu for supporting the Egyptian ceasefire proposal, Netanyahu immediately fired him from his ministerial post. The ostensible reason was that it is unacceptable for a deputy defense minister to so harshly criticize the government’s defense policy in the midst of a war, but Netanyahu has been looking for ways to cut Danon down to size for awhile, and so he seized the opportunity once it presented itself. The larger point here is that Netanyahu has been isolated within his own party for some time as it moves further and further to the right, and his instinctual conservative behavior when it comes to sending troops into battle is not lauded by Likud members but is instead distrusted and viewed as weakness. I don’t think that Bibi wants to get involved in a ground war in Gaza, which entails lots of messy fighting, larger casualty numbers on both sides, guaranteed international opprobrium, and which last time led to the Goldstone Report following Operation Cast Lead in 2008-9. Nevertheless, the longer that rockets come flying from Gaza and the longer ground troops sit idly by waiting for orders, the more the rightwing is going to yell and howl about the need to take stronger military action rather than accepting a ceasefire deal that will only guarantee a few years of quiet at best.

There is also the factor of international support, and each side’s delusions about where it will lie as this drags further on. Israel made it very clear in the aftermath of the Hamas rejection of the Egyptian ceasefire that it views Hamas’s refusal to lay down arms as granting legitimacy to an eventual Israeli ground invasion, and the Israeli government believes that much of the world agrees with this position. I find it hard to believe that this logic will hold up in the face of mounting Palestinian deaths and a continued lopsided body count, even if the one-sided casualty numbers need to be viewed in the context of Hamas’s failure at killing Israelis not being for a lack of trying. It is also generally the case that world opinion does not work in Israel’s favor, and I do not think that structural feature is going to change as Operation Protective Edge continues. On Hamas’s side, it believes that world opinion will turn against Israel as things progress, which is in my view correct, and that the Israeli public will eventually get fed up and pressure Netanyahu to stop fighting, which in my view is comically incorrect. Furthermore, world opinion and international support are two different things, and at the moment Israel does not lack for support. In fact, yesterday Congress approved more funding for Iron Dome, and Hamas underestimates how much support in 2012 was driven by Arab countries that have since abandoned Hamas wholesale.

Finally, there is the balancing act that Israel is trying to play with the eventual outcome regarding Hamas itself. Israel’s goals are delicately balanced between weakening Hamas and taking out its capabilities to launch long-range missiles at Israeli cities while still keeping Hamas alive and viable to the point of it maintaining its rule over Gaza. Israel recognizes that while Hamas used to look like the most radical group in the neighborhood when compared to Fatah and the Palestinian Authority, Hamas now routinely gets pressured from Palestinian Islamic Jihad and other even scarier jihadi groups. That basic fact is what led Hamas to escalate things in the first place, as it has its own internal politics with which to contend. The Israeli government knows that until last week, Hamas has largely been trying to keep rockets from being launched out of Gaza rather than themselves doing the launching since the 2012 ceasefire, and it also knows that it is a pipe dream to hope for the PA to regain control of Gaza. Israel needs Hamas to run Gaza and keep it from spiraling even further out of control, so any ceasefire agreement that Israel signs will have to keep Hamas in power but assure Israel that Hamas’s military capabilities remain degraded following the fighting.

The upshot of all this is that Gaza in 2014 is a lot more complicated than Gaza in 2012, and assuming that the U.S. or Egypt can just swoop in and put an end to things when both sides have had enough is naive. There is lots of politics, both international and domestic, involved here, and while I still hold out hope of some combination of the U.S. and Turkey/Qatar being able to bridge the various gaps, the problem is that the gaps look more like chasms.

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.

What I Got Wrong, 2013 Edition

December 30, 2013 § 4 Comments

As it’s the end of the year, it’s time to revisit my 12 months of screw-ups (last year’s mea culpa is here). There don’t seem to be as many big ones this year as last year, but that is not a function of my improving analysis and is rather a function of my increasingly neglectful blogging habits; last year I wrote 276 posts, this year only 65. Thankfully for all of you though, there’s still plenty of material for you to use in heaping scorn upon my head. Here are some of the lowlights.

Israeli-Palestinian peace talks: On February 13, I wrote a post entitled “The Prospects For Real Peace Talks” in which I downplayed the idea that Israel would enter into substantive talks with the Palestinians. I didn’t think the makeup of what I expected to be the new Israeli coalition government would allow for real negotiations to take place, and I wrote, “even if Tzipi Livni brings Hatnua into the government nobody should be getting their hopes up too high for a big diplomatic push on the horizon.” We can debate whether the current talks are going to lead anywhere real, but certainly the process is taking place and there have been enough signs that the talks have been substantive and are going well that this call was wrong on my part.

Erdoğan’s relative reasonableness: This seems destined to become a permanently recurring theme, as a similar prediction made this list last year too. Last year it was about Erdoğan realizing that his interests should override his harsh rhetoric on Israel, and this year it was about Erdoğan realizing that his interests should override his harsh stance toward the Gezi protestors. In trying to figure out how Gezi was going to resolve itself, I wrote on June 7, “Erdoğan does not want to back down, but my instincts tell me that as he is reminded of just how much his popularity depends on the economy and as he faces the prospect of losing the bid for the 2020 Turkish Olympics, he will try to come up with some sort of solution to end the chaos in the streets without having to go so far as to issue a formal full-blown apology. The fact that there is no opposition party poised to take advantage of the situation makes backing down slightly easier for him to do, and even Erdoğan understands just how crucial it is for his and his party’s longterm political future to make sure the Turkish economy keeps humming along. Only the prospect of serious economic damage will get him to back down, since giving in to the protestors in any way is completely anathema to his general philosophy and outlook. How long it will take for him to get to this point is way beyond my prognostication skills, but I’d be surprised if he doesn’t get there at one point or another.”

Oops. Erdoğan did not ease up on his rhetoric in any measurable way, and he in fact actually became increasingly harsher and waited for the protests’ momentum to peter out over time, which it did. Eleven days after my prediction, I was forced to write another post dealing with Erdoğan’s even more over-the-top responses to Gezi, as the prospect of economic losses clearly had not moved him. It’s worth remembering now as the corruption scandal is raging around him, since unlike last year, this time I really have learned my lesson. The only way Erdoğan is backing down this time, economic crisis be damned, is if his party forces him to do so by default in replacing him.

Bibi’s position in Likud: I don’t know why I am so insistent on this point, but every few months I seem to write a post predicting trouble on the horizon for Netanyahu within Likud to the point that he will be split the party or be ousted. While I am going to stubbornly insist that events will at some point vindicate my point of view, they haven’t yet. On June 27 in a post called “The Likud Bell Is Tolling For Bibi” I ran through some of Netanyahu’s recent troubles and then denigrated an op-ed my Mati Tuchfeld in which he predicted that Netanyahu could retake the party pretty much any time he wanted. I wrote, “I think this is a bad misreading of the situation that does not take into account just how much things have changed. Likud members used to venerate their prime minister, but at last year’s Likud convention, Netanyahu was being disparaged left and right in a way that had never occurred before. In addition, much like the younger generation of Congressional Republicans here, folks like Danon have little desire to stand on tradition and do not venerate Netanyahu, and are not going to “fall at his feet” just because he wishes it….There is a new coterie of deputy ministers and up and coming backbenchers who not only do not like or trust Netanyahu, they don’t feel as if they owe him anything. He did not mentor them and they got to where they are now via the Likud primary, which Netanyahu now wants to get rid of, and so they are not going to back him just because he asks. And unlike a year ago, they are no longer revolutionaries and they speak for a larger percentage of the party.”

While my assessment of the dynamic was correct, my assessment of Netanyahu’s grip on the party and power to influence outcomes was not. Earlier this month, three proposed Likud constitutional amendments whose aim was to weaken Netanyahu were withdrawn under pressure before they could even be brought up for a vote. It seems clear that the new deputy ministers do not like or trust Netanyahu a great deal, but it seems equally clear that Netanyahu is still very much in control of the party and is not going anywhere.

I’m sure there is more, and please feel free to point out any other things that I got egregiously or embarrassingly wrong this year. Here’s hoping to a great 2014.

Optimism and Pessimism On The New Round Of Peace Talks

July 25, 2013 § 13 Comments

Now that reports are surfacing that negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians are scheduled to begin in Washington on Tuesday – although there are also conflicting reports that Saeb Erekat is going to stay home until the Israelis agree to use the 1967 lines as the basis for negotiations over the final border – it seems like a good time to lay out some reasons for optimism and reasons for pessimism about whether these talks are fated to go anywhere. Since I am generally pretty cynical about such things, let’s start with the reasons why I think the talks may fail. One of the biggest obstacles is the domestic politics involved. Brent Sasley has written a thorough piece arguing that the politics right now on the Israeli side are actually favorable for meaningful negotiations and concessions, but I tend to see things differently. Prime Minister Netanyahu has not shown the willingness in the past to actually deal with the hard choices involved in coming to an agreement, and while that does not mean that he is incapable of doing so, nothing in his past indicates that he is an enthusiastic peace process negotiator. If he is being dragged to the negotiating table unwillingly through a combination of pressure and quid pro quo for past U.S. security assistance, it is not going to bode well for the final outcome. Even if he is doing it of his own volition, which is certainly in the realm of possibility, the fact that he seems unwilling to accede to measures such as relinquishing sovereignty over parts of Jerusalem – which is going to have to be in any deal that the Palestinians will accept – is a bad omen. Then there is the problem of Netanyahu’s party. The current iteration of the Likud is the most right wing in its history, and a large bloc, if not an outright majority of the party, does not trust Netanyahu and is adamantly opposed to negotiations. In fact, an increasingly large subset of Likud members, led by Danny Danon, have been openly calling for Israel to annex the West Bank and ditch the two state solution in favor of the rightwing version of a one state solution. It is also the case that the more radical Likud members now control the party’s policy apparatus and serve as deputy ministers in the government; in fact, it seems as if Netanyahu is refuting the latest nonsense from Deputy Defense Minister Danon every other week. Sasley argues that this cast of characters is aware that they cannot win without Netanyahu and will ultimately fall in line, but I am not nearly so certain. Plenty of Likud voters will vote for the party if, say, Bogie Ya’alon is the headliner, and I don’t think that the Likud ministers and back benchers are going to sit idly by if Netanyahu begins to give up territory in the West Bank or order the evacuation of settlements. They have staked their political reputations almost entirely on rejectionism of the two state solution, and just because Netanyahu asks them nicely does not mean that they would not rather have a smaller but purer version of the Likud. See the experience that John Boehner has had with his own unruly caucus of House Republican newcomers as a parallel to how this would play out. Furthermore, Netanyahu is being kept afloat by his temporary merger with Yisrael Beiteinu, which he wants to turn into a permanent one. Without the extra YB votes, Likud immediately loses 10-12 seats in the Knesset. The problem is that Avigdor Lieberman is in many ways the original rightwing one stater, and there is simply no way in which he agrees to keep the two parties together once settlements are given up. Netanyahu knows this, which provides another incentive to make sure that talks break down along their usual pattern. The same problem exists with coalition partner Habayit Hayehudi, which has repeatedly threatened to leave the government over the issue of freezing settlements and whose head, Naftali Bennett, is also an advocate of annexation. Sasley argues that pulling out of the coalition will risk breaking the party apart, leaving Bennett politically homeless, and so he can’t risk it. I think the much bigger risk to Bennett is the party folding or excommunicating him for selling out his core principles if he agrees to remain in a government that agrees to extricate itself from the West Bank. After all, the party’s very name – Jewish Home in English – is meant to refer to the entirely of the Land of Israel from the river to the sea and explicitly lay claim to all of the territory as part of the Jewish state. The idea that the greater risk in this lies in leaving the government seems to gloss over the very reason the party exists, its history, and its makeup. There is also the issue of a referendum, which Netanyahu has now promised to hold to approve any peace agreement that is struck with the Palestinians. While the latest poll in Ha’aretz indicates that 55% of Israelis would approve a peace agreement, that is in a generic sense. Once the details are factored in and various political parties and lobbying groups begin to play on Israeli fears about security, sovereignty over Jerusalem and the Temple Mount, the Jewish character of the state, etc. it will be very easy to siphon off entire groups of voters through scare tactics and populist campaigns. That 55% number is a mirage, akin to the way in which Yair Lapid supports a two state solution but is adamantly opposed to any division of Jerusalem; lots of people support a peace deal in theory, but the devil is in the details. Bennett knows this, which is why Habayit Hayehudi has pushed to extend the Basic Law that requires a referendum to approve giving up land that Israel has annexed – East Jerusalem and the Golan – to include the West Bank as well. The hope on the right is that a referendum will doom any successful negotiations for good. Finally, there is the Palestinian side. There is no need to rehash here all of the various arguments over Mahmoud Abbas and whether he rejected Ehud Olmert’s offer of 99% of the West Bank or whether he simply did not respond because Olmert was a lame duck and out of office before he even had a chance. My own opinion is that the truth lies somewhere in the middle, but I am not as convinced as others on the left that Abbas is a willing a peace negotiator. The insistence on preconditions to negotiating is a tactic designed to doom talks, and the fact that Abbas was not willing to jump on Netanyahu’s partial 10 month building freeze a couple of years ago as the excuse he needed to reenter talks does not bolster the case of those who want to pin all of the blame on the Israeli side. Abbas may indeed want to talk, but I do not think it is fair to portray him as champing at the bit to get started. On the flip side, there are reasons to be optimistic. While, as I noted above, Netanyahu has not shown a propensity in the past to reach an agreement that the Palestinians can reasonably accept, he certainly appears to have arrived at the realization that Israel’s international standing is becoming more precarious by the day. The EU guidelines on settlements last week seem to have been a wakeup call of sorts, and his now repeated public warnings that Israel is facing a real prospect of a binational state indicate that his attitude in 2013 is very different than it was during his tenure as prime minister in the mid-90s or during the beginning of his current stint in 2009. In addition, as Dahlia Scheindlin has pointed out, polls consistently and repeatedly show support for a two state solution, 83 out of 120 seats in the current Knesset are controlled by parties theoretically supporting two states, and the support for two states remains even when you add various line items about specific concessions into the polling questions. In this light, the referendum may turn out to be a very good thing, since it will reinforce the move toward a negotiated solution. It is also encouraging that Netanyahu is seeking political cover to do what needs to be done, since if he negotiates a deal that is then approved by the Israeli electorate, it will be difficult for the right to claim that he has overstepped his authority. Finally, there is the fact that the best way for negotiations to succeed is if the specific details are kept under wraps, and any concessions made by either side are not wielded by opponents of two states as populist cudgels designed to doom the talks. John Kerry has done a good job of this by not publicly outlining the conditions that each side have agreed to in order for talks to resume, but even more encouragingly so has Netanyahu. There is currently a purposeful cloud of ambiguity hovering over the question of whether Israel has frozen settlement construction or not, with Netanyahu denying such a freeze exists and Housing Minister Uri Ariel saying that the de facto and unannounced policy in place is not allowing for any new construction. This, more than anything, is the most hopeful sign of all, since if Netanyahu has actually frozen settlement construction while trying to trick his party and coalition into thinking that he has done no such thing, it is a more serious indication of his desire to really strike a deal than any other datapoint I have seen. P.S. To watch me talk about this more extensively, here is a link to a video of a roundtable hosted by David Halperin and the Israel Policy Forum that I did yesterday with Hussein Ibish and Dahlia Scheindlin. It’s long, but an interesting and thorough discussion of the various issues involved.

The Likud Bell Is Tolling For Bibi

June 27, 2013 § 7 Comments

A little over a year ago, the Likud party was going through a tug of war between the old Likud princes – Dan Meridor, Benny Begin, and their ilk – and a younger and more hardline group consisting of people like Danny Danon, Moshe Feiglin, Ze’ev Elkin, Yariv Levin, Tzipi Hotovely, and Miri Regev. At the time, the latter group were upstarts who were farther down on the party list – or in the case of Feiglin, not even an MKs – while the Likud princes were cabinet ministers. It was clear that the genuine fervor within the party lay with the hardliners but they did not yet control things, and so the party was exhibiting all kinds of strains while still holding together. The hardline group did not trust or even like Bibi Netanyahu at all, but he was the prime minister and his allies were in the top ranks of the party and so there was little they could do about it.

The came the Likud convention in May 2012, where Netanyahu was booed and subjected to rampant criticism, and unable to even secure the ceremonial post of convention chairman, which was deeply embarrassing. Next was the Likud primary in November, in which Danon came in 6th – ensuring that he would end up not only high in the Likud but as a deputy minister in the next government – and Feiglin made it into the Knesset, and Netanyahu allies Meridor and Begin lost their MK status entirely. Completing the trifecta, Danon won the chairmanship of the Likud convention this week with 85% of the vote after Netanyahu didn’t even try to challenge him for fear of being humiliated, and much more importantly is about to win the vote for chair of the Likud Central Committee, which is a powerful and consequential post. He has already stated his intentions to block Netanyahu’s plans to make the unity deal with Yisrael Beiteinu permanent and to subject any peace agreement to a Likud vote, which will never approve any deal with the Palestinians. Overall, things are looking bleaker for Netanyahu within Likud than they ever have before. He is presiding over an unruly caucus where his deputy ministers repeatedly undermine him, his old allies are gone from the scene, his party members do not respect him, and he is busy making plans to resume negotiations with the Palestinians while his own party warns him that it will not acquiesce to a deal under any circumstances.

Mati Tuchfeld today argues that the picture is not actually quite so bleak and that Netanyahu can retake Likud if he desires. His argument boils down to this:

Likud members venerate their prime ministers. Since Israel was established, there have been only four Likud prime ministers. If Netanyahu decides to return to the field, it’s safe to assume that everyone will again fall at his feet. If Netanyahu makes an effort, however small, to show that he wants another term as prime minister, the rebellious voices within Likud will likely die down at once. Unlike Livni, who fought tooth and nail to survive as Kadima leader and lost, or Barak, who was forced to leave Labor, all Netanyahu needs to do is make a decision — return to the field or retire. It’s likely that he’ll ultimately prefer the first option.

I think this is a bad misreading of the situation that does not take into account just how much things have changed. Likud members used to venerate their prime minister, but at last year’s Likud convention, Netanyahu was being disparaged left and right in a way that had never occurred before. In addition, much like the younger generation of Congressional Republicans here, folks like Danon have little desire to stand on tradition and do not venerate Netanyahu, and are not going to “fall at his feet” just because he wishes it. In fact, from their perspective, the sooner he is gone the better. Netanyahu has not made any attempts to court them, as opposed to other senior Likud members like Bogie Ya’alon, and while there is evidence that he is just now waking up to the problem he has within the grassroots of his party, it’s likely too little, too late. There is a new coterie of deputy ministers and up and coming backbenchers who not only do not like or trust Netanyahu, they don’t feel as if they owe him anything. He did not mentor them and they got to where they are now via the Likud primary, which Netanyahu now wants to get rid of, and so they are not going to back him just because he asks. And unlike a year ago, they are no longer revolutionaries and they speak for a larger percentage of the party.

So what are Netanyahu’s options? He appears to have three. First, he can finish him term as prime minister and retire. That is exceedingly unlikely, as by many accounts Netanyahu is more obsessed with being PM than he is with actually doing anything as PM, and even were that not the case, he has never given any indication that he is ready to be done. Second, he can start to fight a little to regain control of Likud and ultimately hope, as Shmuel Sandler argues in the last paragraph of this Jerusalem Post piece, that Likud members believe that they are incapable of winning an election without Netanyahu at the helm and so his position will always be safe. This is more plausible than the first option, but it’s a gamble since Netanyahu is currently caving to the enormous pressure being placed on him on settlements and the peace process, and any real initiatives on that front are going to bring a serious Likud backlash and a threat from Habayit Hayehudi to exit the coalition (which is why I argued back in January that the current government was doomed to fail). If Netanyahu assumes that his position in Likud will be safe after resuming negotiations with the Palestinians, irrespective of the outcome, I think he is fated to be surprised the next time around when Ya’alon or Gideon Sa’ar emerges to try and take his place.

That leaves option three, which is pulling an Arik Sharon and breaking away from Likud to form a new party. Netanyahu is historically risk-averse and is not operating from a position of strength at the moment, and unlike Ben Gurion breaking Mapai to ultimately form Labor, he is not immensely popular, nor does he have a single coalescing issue like Sharon. He also has a number of people, like Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett, waiting in the wings to take him down. Nevertheless, Netanyahu is bleeding support within his own party every hour, and that is before he has even taken any real steps on the Israeli-Palestinian front. If he is actually serious about doing something and making sure that this is not his last term as prime minister, the only way around that is to form a new party. Formulating it around the idea of keeping all of the large blocs plus a multi-decade IDF presence in the Jordan Valley and selling it as a necessary security measure in the wake of Arab Spring upheaval in Egypt and Syria would attract enough support to make it a viable party, and would let Netanyahu shed the Likud thorns in his side. I wouldn’t bet on him actually going ahead and doing it, but it would be the smart move at this juncture. If he doesn’t, I am not nearly as sanguine as Tuchfeld on his future within his current political home.

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