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.
June 27, 2013 § 3 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.
May 30, 2013 § Leave a comment
A year ago I wrote about the way in which Israeli domestic politics was coloring its foreign policy toward Russia on account of Israel’s large Russian population – over 1 million immigrants from the former Soviet Union now live in Israel, making up somewhere between 10-15% of the total population – and noted that the government was doing its best to cozy up to Putin on account of the domestic political benefits despite the fact that there were obvious foreign policy pitfalls for Israel in pursuing such a strategy. In light of the violence in Syria, it is time to revisit this issue. The topic has taken on greater urgency now that Bashar al-Assad has claimed that Russia has already sent a shipment of S-300 surface-to-air missile batteries to Syria. Earlier this week, Defense Minister Bogie Ya’alon had warned Russia not to arm the Assad regime with these missiles, considered to be a significant upgrade to existing Syrian air defense capabilities, and said that if the shipment of weapons left for Syria, Israel would “know how to act.” While Russia had postponed the initial shipment of missiles at Israel’s request, all signs point to further Israeli requests to delay delivering the SAM batteries being likely to fall on deaf ears. Russia’s interest in propping up the Assad regime has only grown, and the increasing calls for Western intervention and hints of U.S. plans for a no-fly zone in Syria have only seemed to strengthen Russian resolve as it turns the fight in Syria into a proxy battle against the West.
As Jordan Hirsch and Sam Kleiner smartly argued a couple of weeks ago, the chaos in Syria is in some ways restoring a Cold War dynamic between the U.S. and Israel that is focused on Israel as a proxy and strategic ally against a larger adversary, which in this case is Iran. However, the past couple of weeks have added a twist to this observation, which is that in some ways we are actually returning to the original Cold War dynamic of the U.S. against Russia and Israel caught in the middle. While the relationship between Israel and Russia has been strong, full of state visits and Israeli officials fawning over their Russian counterparts, the situation in Syria has put the brakes on what was in many ways a friendship built on a mirage. Israeli politicians have wanted to reap the low-hanging political fruit of being seen as having close ties with Russia, but Russia never gave Israel any indication of being willing to budge on its support for Iran or its backing of Assad. In fact, fostering a close relationship with Russia might have actually backfired, as when Israel hit Syrian military sites in Damascus earlier in May, it infuriated the Russian government, which was taken by surprise by the Israeli raid. Close ties between Jerusalem and Moscow may have created an expectation in Russia’s mind of notification by Israel, or perhaps some level of leeway on Russian priorities that Israel is unwilling to give.
The entire situation demonstrates the strategic quandary in which Israel finds itself due to its relatively small stature. Israel is not enough of a heavyweight to do much of anything to change the direction of Russian foreign policy, and its threats are not credible when dealing with a country the size and strength of Russia. Israel has spent years cultivating Putin and other Russian leaders, and Avigdor Lieberman played up his Russian connection while serving as foreign minister to an unprecedented degree, but when push comes to shove, all of this falls by the wayside in the face of larger Russian geostrategic priorities. Keeping Assad as an ally and maintaining the Russian naval base in Tartus, and in the big picture frustrating Western efforts to get Assad to exit power, is just worth much more to Moscow than anything Israel can offer and any benefits that accrue to Russia as a result of closer ties with Israel. Furthermore, Russia even has good cause to start intimidating Israel if it believes that Israeli natural gas exports - if they ever happen, which is a big if – might in any way cut into Russian market share in Europe. Israel just does not measure up when it comes to ordering Russian priorities, and Israel is learning this the hard way in the context of the Syrian morass.
There is another element at play here, which is how Israeli domestic politics require Israel to tread carefully in its dealings with Russia. As I noted a year ago, the Russian population in Israel feels a strong pull and sense of nostalgia toward its previous home even as its connection there wanes, much like American Jews feel strongly about Israel and Irish-Americans feel strongly about Ireland. Were the U.S. ever to have tense relations with Ireland, it would actually raise a serious problem in Congress and make for an extremely tricky political environment. Domestic politics affects every move the Israeli government makes, and if the connection between the large population of Russian origin and Israel’s foreign policy maneuvering has not already been taken into account by the more insightful politicians, I’d be surprised. Note that Israel has not yet directly threatened Russia, but has instead made veiled threats toward Syria on the issue of missile shipments, which is a counterintuitive move when you consider the supply chain here and that the party that needs to be prevented from moving is Moscow rather than Damascus. Part of that is, as I noted above, that Israel just does not have the heft to make any credible threats against Russia, but I think part of it is also the domestic political angle of trying not to pick a public fight with the Russian government any more than is absolutely necessary. Whatever the outcomes of the spat over the S-300 missile batteries, it will be very difficult going forward for Israel to pretend that its relationship with Russia is as cozy as it has portrayed in the past.
March 21, 2013 § 2 Comments
Today’s guest post is brought to you by my friend Joel Braunold, who heads up Strategic Partnerships for the OneVoice Movement. Joel is a keen observer of Israeli politics and a passionate advocate for a two state solution, and he has been keeping his eye on Naftali Bennett’s Habayit Hayehudi party and its efforts to carry out the settlement movement’s aims. The Yesha Council, which is the most prominent settler group, has released a new strategy paper coinciding with President Obama’s visit to Israel, and Joel has an extended take (see his quick take at Open Zion here) on what it portends for the new Knesset and government. You can read more of Joel’s work on his blog at Haaretz.com and his Twitter handle is @braunold.
With President Obama visiting Israel, many groups are trying to get his attention so they can let the president know what they think he should do. Included within the pleas from the peace camp and the ‘Free Pollard’ camp is a document prepared by the Yesha council titled, “Judea and Samaria – It’s Jewish, It’s Vital, It’s Realistic.”
Questions answered within this Kafkaesque document include: why the demographics are on the settlers’ side, why the Palestinians are stealing water from Israel, and what is the legal history of Israel’s settlement enterprise. Most interesting, however, is the nine-step plan that the Yesha council has created at the end of the document to fulfill their vision.
The main tool that the Yesha council has to achieve its vision are its political advocates in the Knesset and in the government. Their building in the West Bank happens through the good graces of the state authorities. Of course the main party for the Yesha council is Habayit Hayehudi, but they also have representation through Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu and a scattering of MKs in some of the center parties. Members of their communities operate across the center and right of the Israeli political spectrum.
Looking at the nine steps we can see the underlying Habayit Hayehudi strategy during the coalition talks. Additionally we can start to make sense of some of the other Knesset moves and statements by members of the settler community on the national stage.
Step 1: Renewing the strong belief in the supremacy of the Jewish claim to the Jewish Homeland and the justness of taking measures to maintain control of it
In the coalition agreement between Likud and Habayit Hayehudi was a bill to make the Jewishness of the state supreme. This is a redo of the Avi Dichter bill from the last Knesset. No one is quite sure of which version will hit the Knesset, if it gets through Tzipi Livni, but it is part of a big move to decouple the concepts of Jewish and democratic state as equal and promote the former at the expense of the latter. The motivations behind this become clear in a strategy that is tied into biblical land claims and preparing for a situation where the civil rights of millions of Palestinians are going to have to be restricted.
Step 2: Uniting the nation and its leadership
Throughout the coalition talks, Bennett was the peacemaker between Yair Lapid and Bibi Netanyahu and has pledged to be a leader for all of Israel, not just the settlers. His party has also taken over key ministries that can affect the cost of living across Israel. Bennett has been very keen to be seen as responding to the J14 protests and be a transformative politician who can transcend the tribal politics of the moment and be one of the new leaders of Israel alongside Lapid. By also slipping in the raising of the electoral threshold into the coalition agreement, he can ride the wave of Habayit Hayehudi current popularity and force others from his camp to work with him if they want any representation at all. By forcing people into a broad tent he gives himself a broader appeal and solidifies himself and by extension the Yesha council firmly into the mainstream.
Step 3: Military strength and control of the territory by the security establishment
Though many ex-military and security men veer to the left after they retire from service (just see The Gatekeepers), the new Defense Minister, Moshe Ya’alon, most definitely veers to the right and was the first choice of the settler community. Though the security establishment is pretty much entrenched in the West Bank already, Ehud Barak had been the thorn in the side of the Yesha council. With him removed the security establishment can work in concert with the Yesha council in helping it expand both from the Knesset and on the ground itself.
Step 4: The elimination of terror and cessation of incitement in Palestinian schools
While all Israelis want to see an end to terror and incitement, the previous government’s flat-out rejection of the State Department’s school textbook report demonstrates a complete unwillingness to examine the issue of incitement on both sides of the border. It is essential to demonize the Palestinian national narrative while maintaining that individual Palestinians are ok and stating that the settlements actually have had great relationships with the communities pre the first intifada.
Step 5: Creating a situation where it becomes clear to the international community that another state west of the Jordan River is not viable
The serious policy community is split about whether the two-state solution has already been killed by the settlements and the Yesha council or if it is merely on life support. Needless to say, the Yesha council is well on its way to pulling the plug. The new Deputy Foreign Minister, Ze’ev Elkin, already ascribes to this point of view. Though many advocates of one-state agree that the settlements have killed the two-state solution they do not share the Yesha council’s vision of what a one-state solution would look like. The power and establishment will be with the Yesha council and in doing so it will have a tremendous momentum on the ground when two-states is officially abandoned to fulfill its vision before anyone else gets a look in. Yes, Israel will lose friends and allies and there might be a brain drain that could seriously affect the economy. But I sadly have less faith that pressure will force Israel to give up its raison d’état of providing the Jewish people with self-defense and power by giving those they have been occupying full civic rights. The death of the two-state solution will mean the Yesha council has won, and read the rest of their document to see how they view Palestinians.
Step 6: The further immigration of one million Jews to Israel to secure a permanent Jewish majority in Israel
In the coalition talks, Bennett managed to carve the Diaspora portfolio out of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and into his own portfolio. The reason for this now becomes crystal clear, as he is desperate to get more Jews to immigrate. Bennett demanding this portfolio always seemed odd. The settlements are often the largest bone of contention between Israel and her Diaspora (amongst Jews who are engaged at least). Passing on this responsibility to the former general secretary of the Yesha council looks on the surface to be a recipe for disaster. This step helps us understand the real consequence of why this demand was made. What will be interesting to see is how Bennett attempts to bring Diaspora Jews to Israel and how their aliyah will be tied to step 7. Is the aim just to lock in the demographics regardless of where the Jews live or to get them to move to the West Bank and lock in the settlements? We will have to wait and see but watch to see where new job incentives will be made for new immigrants, as Bennett has the ability through Trade and Industry to create incentives where he chooses.
Step 7: One million Jews in Judea and Samaria, tripling its Jewish population
With the housing and trade ministries, Habayit Hayehudi can now start working on this. The proof will be in where the new low-income housing is built. Even if just restricted into the settlement blocs, if this plan is being followed the aim will be a massive increase in settlers. As with step 6, we will have to see if alyiah and settlement are linked. President Bush (41) conditioned the aid to help resettle the Russian Jews on them not being housed in the West Bank. One other important step to remember is that Bennett received the public diplomacy portfolio as well. Through this he can push the settlements into the official Israeli government narrative both at home and abroad.
Step 8: The creation of large residential areas surrounding the current communities of Judea and Samaria
Housing, Trade, Knesset Finance chair – between these three portfolios and a willing defense minister the sky is the limit on step 8. I predict the concept of settlement bloc will expand and large scale projects will begin to be planned as expansions in key areas. Even more so then Yaalon, Danny Danon is a particular fan of the Yesha council and he is Deputy Defense Minister.
Step 9: The execution of a construction, development and economic plan for the million residents of Judea and Samaria
Habayit Hayehudi has already indicated that they would rather release prisoners and transfer taxes to the PA than freeze settlement construction. Looking at this nine-step plan, it is easy to see why Bennett would rather give any other ‘confidence building measure’ than allow the slowing of the settler population. The one thing that the party cannot allow is a settlement freeze as it destroys the plan above.
All of this should be seen as nothing less than a strategic effort to kill the two-state solution. Keep in mind that Prime Minister Netanyahu just committed his new government to two states for two peoples in his joint press conference with President Obama on Wednesday. Looking at how this is planned out, it is clear that the only thing that could stop this from happening is freezing settlement construction. The sad fact is that a settlement freeze has already been tossed by the US administration as a failed attempt.
The Yesha council is very open about its aims, objectives and methods. If people want to do more than pay lip service to the idea of two-states, they must not only oppose the Yesha council at every turn of this plan but offer their own step by step approach to how to create a two-state reality today. Though it is the establishment opinion that two-states will happen, those opposing it literally are executing on a plan to kill it. Those of us who wish to see it come about must equally set out a plan and today start building facts on the ground to make it so.
November 27, 2012 § 3 Comments
On Sunday and Monday, Likud party members got to vote in the Likud primary and choose the list that will stand for Knesset elections in January, and what emerged was the most rightwing Likud in the party’s history. The Likud list is a catalogue of the most strident and hardline voices in the party, with Danny Danon in the 6th spot, Zeev Elkin in 9th, Yariv Levin in 10th, Tzipi Hotovely in 13th, and Moshe Feiglin – who is Bibi Netanyahu’s main intra-party challenger from his right and is not even currently an MK – in 15th. Regular O&Z readers will recognize all of these names, as their exploits make regular appearances on this blog, but in case you need a refresher, Noam Sheizaf has a rundown of their greatest hits. In addition, because of the deal with Yisrael Beiteinu that created the joint list with Likud, it is unlikely that anyone lower than 20th on the list is going to make it into the Knesset, which means that Likud princes and moderates such as Dan Meridor, Benny Begin, and Mickey Eitan are going to lose their jobs as MKs. To get a sense of just how remarkable this is, not only are Begin and Meridor currently Knesset members, they are both ministers and members of the nine person security cabinet, and yet Likud voters just unceremoniously showed them the door. This is not just a changing of the guard from the old to the new, but a serious step to the right. If there was any doubt left that Likud is first and foremost a settler party, it has just been erased.
Plenty of people will spend the next couple of days bemoaning the state of Israeli politics and noting that a Likud government in which someone like Danny Danon might actually be a minister is going to double down on settlements and treat the peace process like a relic from a bygone era. This is all true, and in my humble opinion it’s a terrible development for Israel, but I am not here to state the glaringly obvious. Instead, I’d like to think through the impact of the new Likud makeup on Israel’s defense policy outside of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The immediate result is going to be the involuntary hiatus of Ehud Barak, who announced yesterday that he was quitting politics and would not stand for election in January. While I found the timing of this announcement strange given that Barak’s Atzmaut party, which had been polling at zero Knesset seats, had rebounded in the aftermath of Operation Pillar of Cloud and was looking like it might return to the Knesset with the same five seats it currently has, a couple of smart observers of Israeli politics have convinced me that perhaps it makes sense given the humiliation involved for a former PM barely crossing the Knesset threshold. Amir Mizroch and Robert Danin argue that in resigning, Barak is actually plotting a course to remain as defense minister since he will be viewed as the indispensable general whom Netanyahu will have no choice but to reappoint, and the fact that he is not a member of Knesset will free from him any political constraints. I think it’s quite plausible that this was Barak’s plan yesterday morning and that he may even have been able to pull it off, but he did not count on the events of the afternoon and evening. MKs like Danon and Elkin absolutely detest Barak with every fiber of their being because they have long viewed him as the primary hurdle standing between them and unfettered settlement growth, and now that they essentially control the party, Netanyahu is not going to have the political space to keep Barak as his defense minister. Doing so will cause a riot within Likud and open Netanyahu up to a serious challenge from Feiglin or from his old nemesis (and Washington Generals-type foil) Silvan Shalom, and Bibi is not going to risk that. Instead, I think the Likud primary has guaranteed that Bogie Ya’alon becomes the next defense minister, which also puts him in the pole position to be the next Likud leader once Netanyahu decides to leave the scene.
Aside from silencing Barak and removing his all-encompassing control of Israeli defense policy, I think the new Likud list also makes an Israeli strike on Iran a lot more likely. I have been continuously arguing that one of the primary constraints on an Israeli strike is the makeup of the security cabinet, where four out of the nine members have been unwaveringly opposed to unilateral military action against Iran. Two out of those four are Begin and Meridor, who are now going to be out of the group, and they will almost certainly be replaced by ministers who are more hawkish. The third of the four is Ya’alon, who badly wants to be defense minister and who knows that the post is a potential stepping stone to eventually becoming prime minister. The fact that the defense portfolio is now going to be open might be enough incentive for him to quietly acquiesce to Netanyahu’s plans on Iran in order to get the appointment that he seeks, in which case the security cabinet flips from being divided down the middle to being nearly unanimous in favor of a strike. That does not make a war with Iran a fait accompli, but it does bring the possibility ever closer. One month ago in arguing that the Netanyahu-Lieberman deal was not going to affect the Iran calculus, I noted that “the math in the security cabinet does not change substantially unless Begin, Meridor, and Ya’alon are all excised.” As it turns out, the result of this week’s Likud primary means that the math has now changed, and the impact on Israeli defense policy might be even greater than the impact on Israeli domestic politics.
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.
August 21, 2012 § 3 Comments
Bibi Netanyahu and Ehud Barak have run into the problem that they appear to be virtually alone when it comes to deciding whether to strike Iran’s nuclear facilities. The two are so out on a limb at the moment that Shai Feldman, writing in Foreign Policy, declared the debate over attacking Iran to be over because Netanyahu and Barak lack the minimum consensus that would be required for military action. The defense and intelligence establishments are united in wanting to wait for the U.S. and not wanting to attack Iran unilaterally, and until Avi Dichter was added to the security cabinet formerly known as the Octet last week (which means that it is no longer a shminiya but a tishiya), the vote to attack Iran was reportedly split 4-4. A lot was made of the fact that Dichter is presumed to be on Netanyahu and Barak’s side and that adding him to the mix breaks the logjam, but I didn’t write anything about that last week because it is a faulty and ill-informed argument. A 5-4 vote is not going to be enough to launch a strike given the heavy opposition that exists to such a move; Netanyahu and Barak need to do some serious convincing and make real headway with the holdouts, who are Benny Begin, Dan Meridor, Moshe “Boogie” Ya’alon, and Eli Yishai.
It is this last name that is perhaps the toughest to move, because Begin, Meridor, and Ya’alon are all members of Likud and presumably Netanyahu has some more sway with them since he is their party leader (although my hunch is that Meridor, and to a lesser extent Begin, would never flip). Yishai, however, is a member of Shas, and that’s how we get to the outrageously cynical ploy that Bibi tried yesterday. For the uninitiated – although since you are reading a niche blog about Israeli politics right now, you probably don’t need this background – Shas is an ultra-Orthodox Sephardic party whose spiritual leader, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, controls how its members vote despite not being an elected official of any kind. I wrote about this dynamic back in May, when Rabbi Yosef ordered Yishai to change his opinion on being willing to consider alternatives to the Tal Law. What you have in Shas is a theocratic party, in which the elected politicians are beholden to the party’s rabbinic leadership and dare not contravene rabbinic orders when it comes to taking public positions or voting on issues in the Knesset or the cabinet. With this in mind, yesterday Rabbi Ovadia Yosef – who holds no elected or official position in the Israeli polity and has zero to do with Israeli national security – was the recipient of a national security briefing on Iran. Not only was he briefed, but it was done by Yaakov Amidror, the head of the Israeli National Security Council, lest anyone think that this was not a big deal or little more than a courtesy for a former chief rabbi of Israel.
Make no mistake about what is going on here in case it isn’t already abundantly clear: Netanyahu is trying to swing a vote to launch a strike against Iran by convincing a religious leader to order an acolyte to vote a certain way. He is not trying to convince Yishai by making a cogent case for military action – or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that he has given up trying to do it this way – but is going above his head to Yishai’s rabbi, whom he knows Yishai is bound to follow, and telling a man with no national security experience at all and no training or education in evaluating intelligence or threat assessments that it is crucial to bomb Iran. Does anyone think that Amidror, a general and Israel’s equivalent of Tom Donilon, had any trouble at all convincing Rabbi Yosef about the urgent need to strike now in order to prevent Israel’s annihilation? For all of the outrageous things that go on in politics, and Israeli politics in particular, this represents an absolute low. It is a naked appeal to religious authority made to a theocratic party in which politicians serve as mouthpieces for rabbis. The reason that Shas has never taken an interest in foreign affairs is because its spiritual leaders don’t care about the issue, and to prey on that ignorance in order to influence a crucial position on national security is nothing short of abominable.
There are two conclusions to be drawn from this sorry and craven episode. First, Netanyahu is desperate since he realizes that he is fighting a steep uphill battle and he will resort to anything, no matter how blatantly insulting and undemocratic, to get an advantage. Second, Netanyahu and Barak’s argument for an attack is not only falling on deaf ears but is so weak on its face that they both know it cannot win on its own merits. Briefing Eli Yishai’s rabbi is not a move made out of strength, but one made out of a position that is even weaker than anyone could have realized. If this svengali routine is the best that Netanyahu can come up with, I hope for his sake that he has something better when it comes to the rest of his security cabinet, since unlike Yishai, the three Likud holdouts do not answer to a higher authority.
August 14, 2012 § 6 Comments
I don’t know if you guys have heard, but apparently Israel is about to go to war with Iran. Not only that, but it doesn’t actually matter what is going in Israel or the rest of the world, because any event or environment can be interpreted to mean that an Israeli strike is just around the corner. In fact, an imminent Israeli attack can be predicted based on two diametrically opposed sets of facts. For instance, in May it was reported that the decision to attack was imminent because Israeli officials were being uncharacteristically silent, and this speculation lockdown meant that an attack was about to come. As one unnamed Israeli official said, ”Nobody is saying anything publicly. That in itself tells you a lot about where things stand.” So the lesson is that when things are quiet, an attack is on the way. But wait – now there is a slew of reports that Israel has decided to attack because all sorts of officials are openly talking about it, and everyone knows that rampant speculation means that an attack is about to come. So the lesson now is that when there is lots of noise about an attack, an attack is on the way. Isn’t it nifty how that works? No matter what Israeli officials are saying and doing, a strike on Iranian facilities can be easily predicted.
The same can be applied to the looming presence of Bibi Netanyahu’s father, Ben-Zion Netanyahu. When Ben-Zion was alive, his influence over his son meant a strike was more likely. Now that he recently passed away, Bibi’s desire to heed his father’s warnings and sense of history make a strike more likely. How about the Likud-Kadima unity deal? When it was announced, some interpreted it to mean that a strike on Iran was now coming (which, for the record, I pointed out as bad analysis at the time). Now that Mofaz is even more clear that he opposes a unilateral Israeli strike, I have no doubt that someone somewhere has made the argument that Bibi let the coalition fall apart in order to pave the way for an attack on Iran. I could go on, but you get my point. The process at work here seems to assume that an attack will happen and then reverse engineer the facts to support that conclusion, rather than looking at the facts and trying to ascertain in light of those facts what is most likely to occur.
Rather than interpret any and every event as leading to war, let’s take a step back and assess actual factors that might mean an Israeli strike is more or less likely. To my mind, the recent extremely public chatter weighs against things, since successful Israeli strikes in the past – Iraq in 1981 and Syria in 2007 – were complete surprises and were not in any way publicly telegraphed. In contrast, we have heard that Israel was readying to strike at Iran for nearly a decade now, and yet it still hasn’t happened.
Also weighing against an attack is the fact that there is a lack of support for such a move from three influential groups. First is the Israeli public, which opposes a unilateral Israeli strike by 46% to 32%, and which has increasingly rated Netanyahu’s job performance as unsatisfactory over the past three months as he has ratcheted the war talk back up. Second is the U.S., whose top officials have repeatedly stated that sanctions should be given more time to work and have pleaded with Israel not to launch an attack. Third, and perhaps most significantly, Israeli officials aside from Netanyahu and Barak are staunchly opposed to a strike, and while the IDF has to carry out whatever orders are given, when the IDF chief of staff thinks that an attack is a bad idea, he is probably going to be listened to. There is also the inconvenient fact that there is no majority in the Shminiyah (or Octet), which is the inner security cabinet, for a strike on Iran, with Eli Yishai, Benny Begin, Dan Meridor, and Boogie Ya’alon all firmly opposed and Avigdor Lieberman and Yuval Steinitz reportedly wavering back and forth. Netanyahu and Barak are probably banking on the fact that the other six ministers will back them when push comes to shove, but that’s a real risk to take and the prime minister and defense minister cannot just make the decision on their own without the support of the rest of this group. In fact, one could make a good case that all of the recent war talk from the two men at the top is directed entirely at the Octet and that the chatter is completely about stirring up public pressure on them.
There are also the problems that Israel does not have the military capability to do the job thoroughly and completely by itself, that an attack on Iran would devastate the Israeli economy according to Israel’s central banker Stanley Fischer, and that the home front is woefully underprepared. There are indications that Netanyahu and Barak are deluding themselves about this last factor with their speculation that a retaliation from Iran would claim no more than 500 Israeli lives, but one would think that they will conduct a real and thorough analysis of the potential damage and loss of life before making any decision.
There are, however, two new factors that point to the conclusion that Netanyahu and Barak are readying an attack. First, the government just handed Netanyahu unprecedented procedural powers to delay ministerial committee decisions and to give himself a vote on every ministerial committee irrespective of whether he serves on it or not. This to me seems like a move to make a vote on Iran go Bibi’s way by eliminating debate and making it easier to put every single other issue to the side until the Iran outcome is to his liking. Second, after waiting months to appoint a replacement for outgoing Home Front Defense Minister Matan Vilnai, Netanyahu appointed Avi Dichter last night as Vilnai’s replacement, the Home Front Command is testing the emergency text message alert system this week, and gas masks and supply kits are being distributed around the country. This indicates that the government is suddenly taking the mission seriously of preparing its citizens for war, and unlike hawkish rhetoric, the recent moves are tangible and actually cost something.
So, all in all, it appears to me that a strike on Iran is still unlikely, but it is not out of the question. More stuff like this from the press and various analysts would be helpful, rather than people running around with their hair on fire and claiming that an attack is coming because the sun rose in the east this morning and will set in the west this evening. More facts please, and less rampant breathless speculation.
April 4, 2012 § 1 Comment
The IDF successfully evacuated the Beit Hamachpela building in Hebron today without incident – making me very happy that the proper procedure was followed and the rule of (military) law prevailed – but there are going to be long term political consequences that have the potential to upset the stability of the Netanyahu coalition. The evacuation was driven by Ehud Barak, who bluntly told Netanyahu that he had no choice in the matter and that there could be no further delays in carrying out the IDF missive, and this has predictably made Barak a target of right wing ire. Moshe Ya’alon, who is vice PM and himself a former IDF chief of staff like Barak, has lashed out at Barak and called for authority over the settlements to be taken away from him and given to a special ministerial committee, which would be highly unusual given the fact that the legal status of the West Bank is that it is under military occupation and hence unmistakably under the purview of the defense minister. Barak is not taking the criticism lying down and accused Ya’alon of playing politics with national security issues, which will not endear him to other Likud members who are wary of him to begin with. Additionally, Avigdor Lieberman made some comments about coalition members taking unilateral moves and contrasting that with what he described as Yisrael Beiteinu’s efforts to keep the coalition together, and warned that Barak had made a “grave diplomatic mistake” by not taking into account the views of other government members.
Netanyahu and Barak are an odd pair, bound together over the Iran issue but not a good match in any other way. Barak has no attachment to the settlements or to the Israeli right wing, and does not see any reason to jump through hoops to remain in the right’s good graces. He wants to serve as defense minister and continue to dominate Israel’s defense and security policy, and his breaking away from Labor and forming his own Atzmaut party for the sole purpose of remaining in the cabinet betrays the fact that he has no intention of attempting to become PM at any point. Unlike Netanyahu, traditional political and electoral concerns are the last thing from Barak’s mind at the moment. Netanyahu maintains this co-dependent relationship because he needs Barak around to deal with Iran, and Barak is no mere figurehead in this regard but a true partner as the two of them have frozen out the rest of the security cabinet.
Now, however, a number of issues are coming to a head that will test whether Bibi can hold his coalition together. It appears increasingly unlikely that an attack on Iran is imminent, a point driven home by Hillary Clinton’s warning yesterday that a unilateral Israeli strike is not in anyone’s best interests. If Iran is put on the back burner, then the Netanyahu-Barak relationship will come under a good deal of stress. Nobody questions Barak’s stranglehold on the defense portfolio while Israel is contemplating serious military action, but if a consensus emerges to delay it means that Barak is no longer a vital piece of the coalition puzzle. The evacuation of the Hebron settlers has meanwhile inflamed members of Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu, and Netanyahu’s base is going to start clamoring loudly to boot Barak out of the coalition. Given the fact that such a move would be seen as naked politics taking priority over legitimate national security concerns, this will be a tough move for Netanyahu to make. He has so publicly hitched his wagon to Barak that removing him as defense minister over an issue that Barak indisputably has authority over is bound to damage Netanyahu’s credibility both at home and abroad. If, however, Netanyahu ignores the anger coming from Likud voters and even from other coalition ministers such as Ya’alon and Lieberman, then he is putting his position as PM in danger. There is no way for him to replace Yisrael Beiteinu should it decide to leave, since a deal with Kadima before the next election reduces Kadima’s Knesset contingent is impossible, and Mofaz seems determined so far to see if he can make a play at becoming prime minister. If there is indeed a right wing revolt over the Hebron issue and a narrative takes hold that accuses Netanyahu of caving to Barak too quickly, the stability of the Netanyahu coalition is going to be seriously challenged. Stay tuned…