Israel’s Next Unity Government

December 18, 2012 § 8 Comments

In the time leading up to an Israeli election, one always gets the impression that Israel’s political system is the most fractured on Earth. Outrageous charges are hurled back and forth, and this year Kadima took things to a new level by adopting an anti-Bibi slogan superimposed on a picture of a nuclear mushroom cloud as its campaign poster. Nevertheless, as Israeli parties and politicians all jockey and maneuver before the January 22 election, it seems to me that if the poll numbers remain relatively stable, there is a good chance that Israel is headed toward a unity government comprised of Likud and Labor. While nobody will come right out and admit that while campaigning, the inter-party dynamics, Bibi Netanyahu’s past preferences, and Labor leader Shelley Yachimovich’s interview over the weekend are all pointing in that direction.

The latest polling – and the first to be released after Avigdor Lieberman’s resignation as foreign minister – confirms the trend that has been taking place for weeks, which is that the Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu joint list is polling in the mid to upper 30s range for Knesset seats and is likely to garner fewer seats than the two currently have now (and don’t forget where you first heard that this arrangement was going to backfire). In addition, the Habayit Hayehudi list under Naftali Bennett is holding steady at 11 seats, and is Netanyahu’s natural coalition partner given its rightwing stance. While there are rumors that Netanyahu would rather not deal with Bennett, he cannot afford to have Bennett constantly sniping at him from his right flank, particularly given how rightwing voters appear to be leaving Likud and flocking to Habayit Hayehudi. Including Bennett gets Netanyahu to just under 50 coalition seats, leaving him 10-12 short depending on how things precisely shake out. In the past, Netanyahu has turned to Shas and UTJ to fill this gap, and indeed together they are currently at 16 seats, which would get Netanyahu past the magic number of 60 seats and allow him to continue as prime minister. The problem is that Yisrael Beiteinu has been adamant about not wanting Haredi parties in the coalition, and Bennett last week demanded that Netanyahu take away the Interior and Housing ministries from Shas as part of his general argument that Haredi parties should be kept out of the next coalition. Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party might not get enough seats to fill the gap, and even if it does, it will still leave Netanyahu with a very narrow margin and no wiggle room. Tzipi Livni’s Hatnua party is probably out too, as Livni and Netanyahu do not like each other and Livni has turned down multiple opportunities to join with Netanyahu in the past. As demonstrated by his move to form a unity government with Kadima last spring, Netanyahu clearly likes to keep as many options open to him as possible, and his current narrow one has been a disaster, with infighting over the Tal Law and Haredi military service being a particular problem. This means constructing a coalition with as many seats as possible and without a big issue that will prove enormously divisive and impossible to overcome.

Enter Labor, which is second in the polls behind Likud Beiteinu, and Yachimovich, who has repeatedly declined to rule out joining a Likud-led coalition and who has insisted that Labor is not a leftwing party but a centrist party. Yachimovich wants to  join the next coalition because she has never served as a minister and is relatively inexperienced and untested. Serving in the government will provide her with some more gravitas and do away with the impression that she isn’t quite ready for prime time, and lay the foundation for a future chance at expanding Labor’s seats and competing to be prime minister. In this vein, yesterday she gave an interview in which she said that the budget for settlements should remain untouched in the absence of a peace agreement with the Palestinians and stressed Labor’s history of building settlements when in government and that Labor has always had a hawkish element, including Yitzhak Rabin. This drew immediate responses from Lapid and Meretz chief Zahava Gal-On, but Yachimovich does not appear to be worried about Gal-On or other leftist parties damaging her credibility. Instead, she is clearly appealing to the fact that Israel’s electorate is far more hawkish on the Palestinians and the West Bank than in the past, and is laying the groundwork to be able to join a Likud-led coalition in which support for settlements is going to be a must. It is not accidental that Yachimovich broke her laser-like focus on economic and social issues to talk about settlements rather than Iran, the peace process, Gaza, etc. If there is one issue that will make it possible for Netanyahu to invite Labor into the coalition without risking a rightwing revolt it is support for the settlement budget, and Yachimovich’s interview was an attempt to forestall any criticism that might emerge on this front. While there will invariably be differences in opinion between her and Netanyahu on socioeconomic issues and on the peace process, there is now no daylight on the question of support for settlements. While I am loath to predict anything with certainly when it comes to coalition politics – particularly as I have been burned in the past – the signs as I read them point to a Likud-Labor unity government once the dust settles after the election.

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The Israel Calculus On Gaza

November 12, 2012 § 11 Comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Tale of Two Letters

July 18, 2012 § Leave a comment

Two letters were issued this week that tell very different stories about where Israel is going. The first was from the Shomron Residents Council and it was addressed to Shimon Peres. The settlement movement has never been in love with Peres, but they are particularly outraged at him at the moment following Peres’s comments last week about the need to take Israel’s demographic challenges into account and end the settlement project. The letter, which was also published as an ad in today’s Ha’aretz, calls for Peres to step down after accusing him of being a Palestinian agent working against Israeli and Jewish interests. It also states that Peres should join Meretz, Balad, or Kadima, but that he cannot continue serving as the president of the state.

Nobody who is thinking clearly would actually accuse Peres, the last remaining politically active member of Israel’s founding generation and literally one of the fathers of the state, of acting against Israel’s interests, so in that respect this is a fundamentally unserious letter. It does, however, tell us something serious about a significant portion of Israeli citizens, which is that they view Israel in a disturbingly parochial and sectarian manner. Calling for Peres to step down for crossing the settlers is rather unremarkable, but calling for him to join Meretz or Balad or Kadima is a statement that speaks volumes. First, it suggests that the settler leadership does not view those parties as legitimate, since it is apparently acceptable for Peres to be a member of Kadima despite not acting in the interests of the Israeli public or the Jewish public. Second, it implies that in order to serve as president of Israel, you must adhere to a certain line with regard to the settlements, and anyone that crosses this line also crosses the boundary of being unfit for office. This is a revolutionary view of citizenship, political participation, and public service. It imagines an Israel that is not simply split between citizens and non-citizens, or even Jews and non-Jews, but one that is officially and legally further fragmented along lines that delineate between acceptable viewpoints and unacceptable viewpoints. Peres is free to join Meretz or Kadima in the eyes of the settlement leadership since these parties, in their view, do not act in the state’s interests and are thus illegitimate.

The second letter was from the Israel Policy Forum and it was addressed to Prime Minister Netanyahu. The IPF letter was a response to the Levy Report, and it expressed the fear that adopting Levy’s recommendations will lead to the end of the two state solution. It referred to the importance of maintaining Israel as both a Jewish and democratic state, and stated that the Levy Report will actually weaken Israel’s hand in its conflict with the Palestinians by providing fodder to the delegitimization crowd. The letter was then signed by 41 leaders of the American Jewish community.

The letter itself was smartly worded with its acknowledgement that the Palestinian Authority has “abdicated leadership by not returning to the negotiating table” and thus negating any warrantless accusations that the letter is an effort to place all blame on Israel, and as I wrote last week, I think that framing the issue of settlements strategically by referencing the serious threat to Israel’s future is the way to go. What is more encouraging though is the list of signatories. Nobody will be surprised that the letter was signed by Charles Bronfman or Rabbi Eric Yoffie, people with a reputation for being in the center or the left on Israel issues. It was also signed by Rabbi Daniel Gordis, who is at the Shalem Center and recently held a well-publicized debate with Peter Beinart, and by Thomas Dine, who used to head up AIPAC. It suggests a different vision of Israel, one in which leaders from all sides of the spectrum are able to cooperate and come to an agreement on the big issues facing the Jewish state. Rather than viewing everything through a narrow prism, folks like Gordis and Dine, who might have very different views on settlements generally than someone like Yoffie, are able to recognize the unique problem that the Levy Report poses. In fact, Gordis wrote in Ha’aretz that he does not necessarily disagree with Levy’s legal reasoning, but that adopting the report would signal an annexation of the West Bank and the official abandonment of the two state solution. The letter represents a hopeful trend of moving away from political and ideological sectarianism and viewing Israel not as a disparate collection of tribal groups but as a whole. Quite frankly, it represents a more hopeful vision than the one displayed just yesterday by Bibi Netanyahu and Shaul Mofaz, who could not maintain a unity government in the face of some tough decisions over whether Israelis should equally share in the burden of service or not. Let’s hope that going forward, the vision contained in the IPF missive trumps the that contained in the Shomrom Residents Council’s one.

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