Getting the U.S. and Israel Back On Track

April 21, 2015 § 3 Comments

Now that the Israeli elections are in the rearview mirror – although coalition negotiations are still ongoing – it is time to assess the damage to the U.S.-Israel relationship and figure out how to avoid clashes going forward such as those that have marred the past few years. There is no doubt that the relationship is at a low point politically, perhaps even historically low. But it is also the case that it will certainly recover and that we are not seeing the beginning of the end, but are rather going through the sort of blip that happened under Ford in 1975, Reagan in 1981, Bush in 1990, etc. The relationship between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu is the worst between any two presidents and prime ministers, and there is also wide distrust and dislike of ministers such as Bogie Ya’alon and Naftali Bennett in the White House with a corresponding disdain for people like John Kerry and Susan Rice in the prime minister’s office. Ultimately, Obama and Netanyahu are going to move on from the scene, and the robust institutional relationship that still exists at all other levels will be paramount. That said, this fighting at the top levels is ugly and counterproductive, and at some point threatens to become a lasting acrimonious trend rather than a temporary occurrence, so each side needs to think about what can and should be done to prevent future misunderstandings big and small.

Starting with the Israeli side, this government and all future governments need to understand that support from the U.S. is predicated on a number of things, but first and foremost on the idea of shared democratic values. I have written about this at length in academic form and the post-9/11 picture is a bit more complicated, but the executive summary is that it is easy to draw a direct line from public preferences to foreign policy formation in this particular case, and Americans don’t care whether or not Israel is a strategic asset or liability but do care whether or not Israel is a liberal democracy. Furthermore, the erosion of support for Israel on the left and among younger voters is even more tightly tied to this (whether Israel could do anything that would be able to satisfy some of this segment is a separate question). Netanyahu’s lackluster moves toward creating a Palestinian state and his ugly election day display thus matter hugely in this regard, and all of the “yes, but” arguments that seek to mitigate these things don’t matter, even if they are true. Maybe a Palestinian negotiating partner that was more serious and responsive to Israeli concessions or an altered security environment would prompt Netanyahu to leave the West Bank, and maybe Netanyahu’s rejection of a Palestinian state on his watch really was meant to be qualified and his warning that Arabs are coming to the polls in droves wasn’t about Arabs specifically but just shorthand for leftwing voters. Even if you fervently believe these things – and, for what it’s worth, I am hugely skeptical – it doesn’t matter when it comes to the relationship with the U.S., because they both chip away at the vision in the American mind of Israel as a like-minded country that we can easily understand and with which we can sympathize. What Israeli governments need to understand is that 99% of people outside of Israel are not following the daily back and forth of Israeli politics and policy, and so the rapidly spreading perception of Israel as an increasingly illiberal country seeking to shout down minorities and keep the Palestinians in a state of perpetual occupied statelessness doesn’t have to be true in order to be damaging. Once Israel is seen as abandoning the two state solution and the peace process, the game is over and Israel becomes like any other country when it comes to U.S. foreign policy. The only priority the Israeli government should have going forward when it comes to the U.S. is preserving the possibility of an eventual two state solution, even if such an outcome is currently impossible.

The Israel Policy Forum released a statement of principles last week that is dead-on in this regard. It explicitly recognizes that a negotiated two state solution is not imminent for a variety of reasons, but that preserving the possibility of two states happening at some point down the road is critical. It recognizes the security bind that Israel is in and thus does not demand that Israel simply pull out of the West Bank tomorrow, and unqualifiedly states that Palestinian moves to encourage the BDS movement or to use the ICC are counterproductive. At the same time, the statement is clear that advancing the goal of two states for two people is the key to U.S.-Israel relations, among other things, and that this means rethinking settlement policy and embracing ways out of the bind such as the Arab Peace Initiative. This is on target because it displays an understanding of the fact that just because Israel may not be able to create a Palestinian state at this point in time due to circumstances both of its own doing and beyond its control does not obviate the necessity to keep this goal alive, if for no other reason than to preserve the crucial relationship with the U.S.

For a variety of historical reasons, no matter what it does Israel is never going to be a normal country accepted by everyone. Anti-Semitism is a very real phenomenon and it underpins much (although not all) of anti-Zionism, and the strain of anti-imperial ideology that exists in many places is never going to be comfortable with Israel whether it pulls out of the West Bank or not. Israel does not and never will live a completely normal life. But this fact makes it even more important for Israel to have completely clean hands and to not give anyone any excuse to condemn her, since double standards when it comes to Israel are a permanent fact of life. The U.S. is a country that actually does sympathize with Israel for many reasons, whether it be because of a frontier mentality or Christian Zionism or respect for democracy or solidarity with a Westernized state in the Middle East. Even the U.S., however, is not going to give Israel a blank check, and needs to see that Israel is doing what it can within reason to live up to its ideals. Obama and Netanyahu will continue to loathe each other, and better Israeli behavior on settlements would have had absolutely zero bearing on mitigating West Wing retaliation in the aftermath of the Netanyahu speech to Congress, but looking at a longer time horizon and anticipating what happens once the principals change, Israel needs to do a better job on always acting like a country that values its democracy first and foremost, and that is ready to live next to a Palestinian state when the Palestinians are ready to live next to Israel. When you rule out that possibility entirely, what the Palestinians are or are not doing simply doesn’t matter when it comes to better relations with the U.S.

On the U.S. side, just as Israel needs to understand what is important to the U.S., the U.S. needs to better understand what is important to Israel. As a political scientist, one of the things that I think the Obama administration has gotten right is an understanding that countries have their own internal politics and that this cannot be simply brushed away as an inconvenient fact to be ignored. Public opinion matters, in authoritarian states as well as in democracies (in fact, it may be even more important in authoritarian states where the only outlet for dissatisfaction is violence in the streets), and even a government in a country like Iran with a Supreme Leader ironically has to take politics into account when taking action like selling a nuclear deal. Yet, when it comes to Israel, the Obama White House seems to forget this lesson and grants Netanyahu zero leeway. If the U.S. wants the Israeli government to stop acting so hostile, it needs to get a better sense of when to push and when to lay off, since not all perceived Israeli misdeeds are created equal.

To take an important example, the Obama administration’s views on the moral and practical problems with settlements are strident, but in expressing this, it rarely takes into account the fact that Israelis do not view all settlement activity as equal, and so putting all settlements into the same boat makes Israelis feel as if the U.S. does not understand Israeli realities. For instance, 90% of Israelis, if not more, do not view building in Jewish neighborhoods of East Jerusalem as settlement activity, and are deeply resentful of efforts to prevent building in their own capital. Every time Marie Harf or Jen Psaki says something negative about Israeli construction in neighborhoods like Gilo or Har Homa, Netanyahu seizes the opportunity to slam the U.S. government, and not only is he not wrong to do so in the minds of the vast majority of Israelis, it wins him points in their eyes. Within the West Bank as well, many Israelis make distinctions between building in settlement blocs that will be part of Israel in any eventual deal and building in areas outside of the blocs, but the U.S. publicly does not recognize any distinction between an apartment in French Hill or Efrat and one in Kiryat Arba, and this is a problem. Just as Israel needs to recognize U.S. realities, the U.S. needs to do the same with Israeli realities, and one of these realities is that not all building outside the Green Line is equal by a long shot. When the administration treats all building as the same, it makes the Israeli government throw its hands in the air in frustration and assume that since it will get criticism no matter what it does, it may as well do whatever it likes. If this administration or any future one wants to get the Israeli government to crack down on the problematic settlements and to stop expanding blocs like Ma’ale Adumim or Ariel that legitimately cut into the West Bank so as to threaten its territorial continuity, then it has to be very clear with the Israeli government that it understands that Gilo and similar neighborhoods are always going to be a part of Israel. Without acknowledging where Israeli politics are on this issue, the U.S. will never have the trust of either the Israeli government or the Israeli public when it comes to territorial concessions. Even if the U.S. does not publicly acknowledge Israel’s right to build in Ramot or Alon Shvut, it needs to privately concede the point and pick its public battles more carefully if it wants an Israeli prime minister to ever be able to sell a deal with the Palestinians.

Relatedly, Netanyahu has obviously born the brunt of the anger coming from the White House and has been raked over the coals numerous times, and I think that in many instances it is deserved, but to give the man credit where it it due, he is capable of instituting a policy of doing no harm. He has not expanded settlements at a faster pace than his predecessors, and he has initiated new ones on a much reduced scale than his predecessors. He also instituted a building freeze outside of Jerusalem for nine months when asked, and has very quietly instituted a freeze on new settlement projects even in Jerusalem this year. The point is not that Netanyahu is a peacenik, but that even he is capable of doing things that will make the U.S. happy, and that giving the Israeli government a little bit of breathing space may do wonders for American priorities.

For both sides, it is imperative in the future to keep disputes behind closed doors rather than air them in public. This applies to the U.S. taking Netanyahu to task for a wide variety of real and perceived misdeeds, and it applies even more heavily to Israel doing things like trying to sabotage an Iran deal by embarrassing the White House in very public ways. Aside from the fact that it poisons the relationship, it ends up being massively counterproductive for everyone involved. Is there really anyone left who thinks that Netanyahu’s speech to Congress moved the needle in the direction he wanted rather than doing the opposite by forcing Democrats to publicly side with the president even if their inclination was to do otherwise? Does anyone really believe that publicly threatening to withhold American vetoes in the United Nations Security Council is going to have a salutary effect on Israel’s willingness to negotiate with the Palestinians? On issues like settlements, it is in fact vital that the U.S. try to accomplish what it wants in private, since if Netanyahu or any rightwing prime minister is going to give on territorial issues, they will not be able to loudly broadcast it and will need to maintain plausible deniability. The public sniping back and forth is bad for both sides and needs to stop, no matter how cathartic it may be for two parties that could use some couples therapy.

Despite the policy disputes, American and Israeli long term interests still align in many ways. Even on Iran, which is of course the most high profile and deepest disagreement that has caused the most acrimony, the issue may now be working to Israel’s benefit. The White House’s apparent desire to strike a deal at nearly any cost likely means that it will not want to rock the boat in any way with Congress, which makes Israel’s position at the UN a lot safer. Both sides have to learn from past mistakes, such as the U.S. not creating unreasonable expectations for Israel that can’t be met, like a total settlement freeze, and Israel not trying to win fights with an administration when it has no leverage and little influence. The personalities at the top will not be there forever, but if the U.S. continues to use Israel as a wedge issue to score points, or if Israel keeps on behaving as if it is an equal partner – such as when it makes very public demands from U.S. nuclear negotiators that are completely unrelated to the nuclear deal – when it is in fact very much a junior partner, then U.S.-Israel ties really will suffer a blow that is not so easily recoverable. Both sides need to step back, realize what is important to the other, what is doable within the confines of the political and security environment, and recalibrate things.

Lessons To Be Learned From Netanyahu’s Victory

March 18, 2015 § 8 Comments

I’m going to pat myself on the back for predicting on Monday that Likud and Bibi Netanyahu would win the most seats, that Buji Herzog would have no viable path to becoming prime minister, and that the government formed would boil down to Moshe Kahlon deciding whether to go with Netanyahu or force a national unity government (for the record, I think Kahlon going with Netanyahu is now an inevitability given how things turned out.) But my specific seat predictions were way off, and it’s easy to see how. I expected two things to happen, which I closed out the post with: “First, I think that Likud will gain back some votes at Habayit Hayehudi’s expense as rightwing voters are freaked out by the late Zionist Camp surge in the polls, and decide to throw their support behind Netanyahu despite their general fatigue with him. Second, socioeconomic issues are dominating people’s concerns, and that will translate into unexpectedly strong showings for Yesh Atid and Kulanu at the expense of Zionist Camp and Shas.” I was more right than I knew about that first statement, and vastly underestimated just how much that shift from BY to Likud was going to occur. I was dead wrong about that second statement, which is what led me so far astray. Let’s dive into the numbers a bit to see what actually happened yesterday, and I have some thoughts on what the various consequences might be.

The most useful comparison is between this year’s results and the 2013 results. In 2013, the rightwing bloc of Likud, Yisrael Beiteinu, and Habayit Hayehudi won 43 seats; the leftwing bloc of Labor and Meretz won 21 seats; the two state solution bloc (which was only Hatnua) won 6 seats; the socioeconomic reform bloc (which was only Yesh Atid) won 19 seats; the Haredi bloc of Shas and UTJ won 18 seats; the Arab bloc won 11 seats. The last two seats went to Kadima, but frankly nobody at the time could explain what Kadima stood for and was running on, and I’m not going to try.

In yesterday’s election, the rightwing bloc of the same three parties won 44 seats; the leftwing bloc of the same two parties plus Hatnua (since it formed an electoral alliance with Labor) won 28 seats; the socioeconomic reform bloc of Yesh Atid and Kulanu won 21 seats; the Haredi bloc won 13 seats; the Arab bloc that is now the Joint List won 14 seats. Compared to the last election, the nationalist right picked up only one seat, the left picked up only one seat (since Zionist Camp plus Meretz in 2013 added up to 27, and it’s unfortunately impossible to tease out which Zionist Camp votes were for Labor and which were for Hatnua), the socioeconomic camp picked up two seats, the Arab bloc picked up three seats, and the Haredi parties lost five seats. Nothing about this is a surge for the right, or for any side for that matter; the various blocs remained more or less constant, with the exception of the Haredi bloc losing seats due to the Shas-Yachad split. But it is unquestionably a surge for Likud itself, which went from 19 seats in the current Knesset to 30 seats in the next one. Where did those seats come from? It’s pretty evident that they came from the two other rightwing nationalist parties, Habayit Hayehudi and Yisrael Beiteinu, which respectively won 12 and 11 seats in 2013 but fell off a cliff to 8 and 6 yesterday. When you add in the seat that Likud picked up once Eli Yishai’s Yachad party did not make the threshold, you account for pretty much all of Likud’s gain. There is simply no denying that Netanyahu’s eleventh hour tactics worked, which were to drum up turnout on the right and explicitly make the case that rightwing voters could only vote for Likud or they would be risking a leftist government. He successfully cannibalized his natural allies, and in so doing increased Likud’s share of the pie without making the pie any bigger.

The related questions of turnout versus polling are interesting as well. My initial instinct yesterday was that the polling – both pre-election and exit – must have been garbage, and I noted on Monday that there are many reasons not to trust Israeli polling, which proves to be inaccurate in some measure every cycle. After thinking about it a bit more though, now I’m not quite so sure. The legal moratorium on polls in the last few days before an election meant that no poll could be conducted after Thursday, and the exit polls were concluded two hours before the actual election itself (since they aren’t interview surveys, but require Israeli voters to cast their actual vote and then go and cast a dummy vote in a fake voting box for the exit pollsters, which then get collected and tallied). Netanyahu’s huge campaign push – in which he gave an unprecedented number of interviews and turned up the nationalist rhetoric –  occurred over the weekend and through election day itself, so the pre-voting polls would have had no way of capturing this effect. As far as the exit polls go, final voter turnout was up 4% from 2013, but if you were obsessively keeping track of the turnout numbers throughout the day yesterday as I was, you know that this turnout surge did not take place until very late in the day, so that the exit polls (which aren’t really polls) missed much of it. The exit polls may very well have been correct in reflecting a 27-27 deadlock between Likud and Zionist Camp at 8 PM Israel time, and the anecdotal evidence suggests that there was a flood of rightwing voters in the last couple of hours. The takeaway from this is not necessarily that Israeli pollsters are incompetent, although that can’t be ruled out, but that the accuracy of Israeli polling is not served by the legal blackout at the end of the campaign. On turnout, it should be noted that Netanyahu’s old-fashioned barn-burning turnout efforts destroyed the get out the vote campaign run by V-15 and Jeremy Bird. Likud increased its share of the rightwing vote, while Zionist Camp didn’t increase the percentage of leftwing voters or even get more of them to vote for Herzog. The money spent in this campaign to unseat Netanyahu was as big of a waste as what GOP groups spent in 2012 to get rid of Obama.

If there is one big thing that jumps out at me the day after, it is that ideology and identity distinctly trump economics in Israeli politics. Like in 2013, voters overwhelmingly listed socioeconomic concerns as their top issue in the run-up to the election, but ultimately that made little difference. There was no flock of new voters to Yesh Atid and Kulanu, which both ran on the economy and quality of life issues and had very little of substance to say on security. Likud, which barely bothered to campaign on specific policies, hugely increased its vote share by essentially saying, trust Netanyahu on security and send a message to the leftists and their foreign backers trying to take over your country. It was an emotional and identity-based appeal to nationalism that resonated with many voters, and it is a tactic that is sure to be replicated on both sides in the future.

There are many dangers in overt appeals to nationalism, one of which is that when you win, it makes it easier to demonize your opponents and claim that you have a mandate to do whatever you please. For Exhibit A through Z on how this works in practice, take a gander through the increasing ugliness of Turkish politics that has been wrought largely by Tayyip Erdoğan. Israel’s political system makes this even messier because of how it is structured. Netanyahu will act like he has been granted an enormous mandate following a landslide victory; after all, he beat the next largest party by a 25% margin in seats, obliterated the predictions for Likud based on the polls, and is going to control the winning coalition and be prime minister. Taking a step back though, Israel’s proportional representation political system means that in reality he won only 23% of the votes cast, which translates to 25% of the seats in the Knesset. He is simultaneously the clear winner and on the receiving end of 77% of Israeli voters preferring someone else. This does not in any way make his win illegitimate, and anyone who argues otherwise does not want to face reality, but the fact of the matter is that the system itself encourages post-election overreach. Netanyahu and his supporters are going to insist that his win validates his entire approach to politics, the Palestinians, the international community, etc. because voters were presented with a choice and they choose him. The true answer to that is in some ways yes and in some ways no, and as he will be leading the government fair and square, he can do as he pleases since that is how democracy works. But objectively, when the clear victor can only manage to get 1 out of every 4 votes cast, the system is probably not translating voters’ preferences into the appropriate policy outputs.

I don’t think much needs to be written on what Israeli policy will look like under a third consecutive Netanyahu government, since there aren’t very many surprises left. Netanyahu is who he is, and he is not going to undergo a late in life conversion that convinces him to shift course. I am more interested in what happens to Israel in the U.S., since Netanyahu’s reelection is going to keep on affecting one political trend that is already in full swing and may influence another, and perhaps more important, social one. The first is the partisanization of Israel in the U.S., which was very much laid bare by the machinations surrounding Netanyahu’s speech to Congress. The blame for this lies partially on both sides, although I certainly think one side is far more to blame than the other. Everyone with a dose of common sense knows that the White House badly wanted to see Netanyahu get tossed out by Israeli voters and that Netanyahu is now just biding his time until January 20, 2017 so that he never needs to think about Obama again, so it goes without saying that relations between Obama and Netanyahu for the next 22 months are going to be abysmal, and probably even non-existent. Will U.S.-Israel ties survive and come out the other side intact? Of course they will. But there will be more ugliness ahead and short-term relations are going to be very rocky, and if I worked in the prime minister’s office, starting today I would be spending all of my time coming up with a strategic plan for operating in the world without an automatic U.S. veto in the UN Security Council, because I think that era is now officially over. Netanyahu clearly and explicitly rejected a Palestinian state on Monday, and there is no walking it back or dissembling after the fact. That he did so wasn’t and shouldn’t be a surprise, but it destroys the legal fiction that he had constructed, and so when the Israeli government talks about the Palestinians not living up to their Oslo obligations or their promises to the Quartet (which in many ways they aren’t), that now officially goes both ways. You cannot insist that Palestinians must establish a state through the sole route of negotiations with Israel after you have declared unequivocally and without reservation that there will be no independent Palestinian state in the West Bank so long as you are prime minister. It was electioneering, but electioneering is not consequence-free.

Lastly, there is the pink elephant in the room that I have been ignoring so far in this blog post. Assess the following quote: “The right wing government is in danger. Black voters are coming out in droves to the polls. Left wing NGOs are bringing them on buses. We have no NAACP; we have the National Guard, we have only you. Go the polls, bring your friends and family. Vote Republican in order to close the gap between us and the Democrats. With your help and with God’s help, we will form a nationalist government that will protect the United States.” Nobody with any sense of decency would call that a legitimate effort to counter a get out the vote drive targeting minority voters. So when Netanyahu said it yesterday about Arabs – which everyone by now recognizes as the direct quote from him, with the specifics altered of course to make the analogy work – it wasn’t simply a legitimate attempt to just bring voters to the polls, as the usual suspects are reflexively arguing. Does this mean that Netanyahu is racist and has been harboring views all of these years that he just now allowed to come out, or that he made a racist appeal in a desperate attempt to boost his prospects? I don’t know, and frankly it doesn’t matter, since neither explanation is acceptable. The prime minister of any country should be nothing short of proud when more citizens vote, and exhorting only the right kind of citizen to get to the polls in order to counter the wrong sort of citizen is disgusting and unworthy of the leader of a democracy. That some people are falling all over themselves to pretend that there is nothing out of the ordinary or objectionable about this reflects just as poorly upon them as Netanyahu’s comments do upon himself. What all of this leads to for me is to wonder how this will affect American Jews. Just as the rejection of a Palestinian state under any circumstances will have political consequences, the blatantly racist appeal is going to have social consequences among American Jewry. American Jews as a group proudly support Israel, and one of the reasons is a conviction that Israel is in a tough spot but is genuinely trying to do the right thing. That argument, both internally and externally, becomes harder by some degree or another after yesterday. Are people going to look at the Jewish state bill in a new light? Is Netanyahu still going to get nearly universal support from establishment groups? Most crucially, what is the effective counter when the odious Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement takes this quote and argues incessantly that it proves official and institutional racism in Israel? I don’t know the definitive answer to these questions, but I suspect that it will ultimately prove to be a significant aspect of Netanyahu’s eventual legacy.

Who’s Going To Win Tomorrow’s Israeli Election?

March 16, 2015 § 5 Comments

Israeli politics is massively entertaining and raucous under normal circumstances, but tomorrow’s election is particularly special since for the first time in awhile, the outcome is entirely up in the air. Nobody knows with any real degree of certainty who will emerge victorious or how the coalition horse trading will conclude or even who is going to get the first shot at building that coalition. Americans – me very much included – spend lots of time watching shows like House of Cards, Scandal, Game of Thrones, and others that provide twists and turns that hinge on varying degrees of political surprises, but there is nothing like the real thing, and Israel’s election is certain to provide that. If you haven’t been paying attention, you’re missing the best reality show that exists.

Anybody who is confident that they know who the ultimate winner will be is demagoguing and I do not claim any clairvoyant powers, so take everything that follows with a grain of salt as it is nothing more than my best guess based on the last polls that were published on Friday and some intuition developed after years of closely paying attention to Israeli political trends. Israeli polls are notoriously unreliable; large classes of voters are disproportionately inaccessible to pollsters (Haredim, Arabs, immigrants, working poor), Israeli voters are fickle and in many cases do not decide until the last minute, and the proportional representation system presents a fundamental dilemma of voting strategically versus voting your conscience. For instance, pretend that you are a lifelong Meretz voter stepping up to the ballot box on Tuesday. You are almost certainly secular, liberal, Ashkenazi, living in Tel Aviv or its immediate environs, and you despise Netanyahu with a burning passion. In the last election, you knew that the left had no shot at forming the government and so there was no reason not to vote for Meretz. In this election, however, the last polls gave the Machane Tziyoni (Zionist Camp) alliance led by Herzog and Livni a four point lead over Likud, and you know that at least a four point margin is likely required if Zionist Camp is to be given the first shot at forming the government. So voting for Meretz and the leftist bloc overall is actually not cost-free even though your vote for Meretz is functionally a vote for a Herzog government, as Herzog needs as much as a lead as he can get over Netanyahu in order to get a chance at building a coalition. The Habayit Hayehudi voter at the opposite end of the spectrum is faced with the same choice; voting for the far-right party that is guaranteed to be part of a Netanyahu coalition risks empowering the leftist (and yes, that is a dirty word to your typical rightwing Israeli voter), defeatist, if not outright anti-Zionist Herzog and Livni, and so do you swallow your principles and vote for Likud directly, or do you vote for Habayit Hayehudi and Naftali Bennett as the only way of keeping Netanyahu honest and guaranteeing that a Likud government will never compromise on settlements and giving up land? This is all a roundabout way of saying that Nate Silver’s sorcery would never work on the Israeli election, because the polls are a guidepost but are not entirely trustworthy.

Assuming that the final polling results hold up – and I don’t think that they necessarily will – it is going to be very hard for Herzog and Livni to form a government. The last Channel 2 poll had Zionist Camp at 25, Likud at 21, Joint Arab List at 13, Yesh Atid at 11, Habayit Hayehudi at 11, Kulanu at 9, Shas at 9, UTJ at 6, Yisrael Beiteinu at 6, Meretz at 5, and Yachad at 4. We can safely assume that Zionist Camp, Yesh Atid, and Meretz are a united bloc, which is 41 seats. Likud, Habayit Hayehudi, and Yachad will not join with that group under any circumstances and they hold 36 seats, which leaves a leftwing government needing to pick up 20 seats from the 43 remaining. The 13 seats held by the Arab list can be used to block Netanyahu and Likud, but since the Arab list is not going to sit with Zionist parties barring a momentous and unprecedented policy change, Herzog actually needs to find 20 seats from the 30 represented by Kulanu, Shas, UTJ, and Yisrael Beiteinu. Shas and UTJ have sat with leftwing governments in the past, but even if they are willing to do so again, neither they or Lapid will sit with each other. Yisrael Beiteinu, which is led by Avigdor Lieberman, won’t sit with Meretz (and vice versa). Herzog could potentially pick up Kulanu, but he’d still need to somehow break the logjam between Lapid and the Haredi parties in order to get to the magic number of 61. In other words, Zionist Camp can beat Likud and the ideological leftwing bloc can beat the ideological rightwing bloc, and Herzog still has an almost impossible uphill climb to form a coalition. Not many people foresaw the bizarre Lapid-Bennett alliance two years ago and so I’m not willing to say that Herzog cannot somehow work some sort of combination of magic and legalized bribery in order to cobble something together, but it would be pretty much the most unworkable coalition in Israeli history and would be on death watch from day one. The one big wrinkle would be if the Arab list decides that actual political power is worth compromising on its principles and joins the coalition, but even then Herzog is not home free as Kahlon has publicly stated that he will not sit in a government that is dependent on the Joint Arab List for seats, which means convincing the Haredi parties to sit with Lapid, Meretz, and Arab parties. In other words, I wouldn’t be putting very much money on the next prime minister being Buji Herzog.

Netanyahu’s path is also difficult, but far less so. He starts with 36 and needs another 25 out of the remaining 30, but Shas, UTJ, and Yisrael Beiteinu sat in Netanyahu’s 2009 coalition and are all natural Likud partners. Those three parties get him to 57, meaning that Netanyahu’s fate hinges upon Kahlon. On the one hand, Kahlon is a former Likud minister whose list includes Netanyahu’s first term ambassador to the U.S. (Michael Oren) and whose support is drawn from Mizrahi traditional Likud supporters. On the other, Kahlon left Likud for a reason, starting with the fact that his stance on socioeconomic issues – which is his raison d’être in politics – is way out of whack with Likud and the right generally, and his base of voters has become disillusioned with Likud after feeling like it has been taken for granted and leans more left on economic issues. That Kahlon has stated as his goal to be appointed finance minister also cuts both ways. Netanyahu publicly promised over the weekend that Kahlon would be finance minister in his government irrespective of the number of seats Kulanu wins (an offer that Kahlon refused to accept before the election), and this is a promise that Herzog cannot match given his pledge to appoint Manuel Trajtenberg as finance minister should Zionist Camp form the next government. Despite this, it is hard to imagine Kahlon being more empowered to implement his agenda of lowering housing costs and regulating Israel’s banking system under a Likud government than he would be under a Labor government, and Kahlon know this full well. Again, I claim no clairvoyance to know what Kahlon is thinking or what his natural inclination is before both sides start wooing him in earnest, but I do know that he appears to control the only viable path to a third consecutive Netanyahu term, and you can bet that Netanyahu will move heaven and earth to gain Kahlon’s support. To paraphrase Mel Brooks, it’s good to be the king(maker).

Assuming that Kahlon does not want to enthrone Bibi, it means that Israel is headed for a national unity government. That could happen right away if Kahlon and Lieberman (natural allies in many ways given that they are both immigrants who came of age in Likud and now head parties that champion socially rightwing voters who have traditionally been poor and on the margins of Israeli society) decide that they will not recommend either Netanyahu or Herzog to President Rubi Rivlin and instead insist on a short-lived national unity government (and if they do this, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Yair Lapid, with his finger perpetually to the wind, do the same). It could also happen after three or six weeks of drawn out haggling with no resolution. If this happens, it would mean Netanyahu and Herzog agreeing to a prime ministerial rotation, and I have my doubts as to whether Bibi would actually accept such a scenario or would resign instead. In any event, for those who are still following along here, the sum total of this is that I am expecting either a third Netanyahu term or a national unity government, and which one occurs hinges entirely on Moshe Kahlon.

A few other small things to watch out for if you’re keeping score at home. First is whether Meretz, Yisrael Beiteinu, and Yachad clear the new higher electoral threshold of 3.25%, up from a previous 2%. While I suspect they will all squeak in – and frankly, you almost have to be rooting for YB and Lieberman not to make it for poetic justice purposes since he engineered the higher threshold in an effort to keep the Arab parties out in a move that backfired ever so spectacularly – the one I am keeping my eye on is Meretz, since it will not surprise me if Meretz is kept out of the Knesset. Meretz has basically been on a long and slow 15 year decline, but the pressure is really on now because I expect some Meretz voters to defect to Zionist Camp now that the left smells blood in the water and is riding the momentum of the final polls putting Herzog and Livni in first place. If Meretz does not make it in, this places Herzog’s path to becoming prime minister even further out of reach.

Second is the bad blood – and that’s putting it mildly – between Yachad leader Eli Yishai and Shas leader Aryeh Deri, the man whom Yishai replaced as head of Shas and who then had his revenge by replacing Yishai. In an effort to get back at Deri, Yishai split from Shas, initiating a nasty internecine fight and invoking insults directed at Deri from beyond the grave by deceased Shas spiritual leader and founder Ovadia Yosef. Yishai and Deri are mortal enemies, and having the two of them in the same coalition might present some problems as well.

And lastly, a final word about the polls. As I indicated, I don’t particularly trust in their accuracy, and I am guessing that they will be wrong in a few ways. First, I think that Likud will gain back some votes at Habayit Hayehudi’s expense as rightwing voters are freaked out by the late Zionist Camp surge in the polls, and decide to throw their support behind Netanyahu despite their general fatigue with him. Second, socioeconomic issues are dominating people’s concerns, and that will translate into unexpectedly strong showings for Yesh Atid and Kulanu at the expense of Zionist Camp and Shas. Since I want to give everyone the opportunity to mock how far off I am, my final spot predictions for the election are as follows:

Likud – 23
Zionist Union – 22
Yesh Atid -15
Joint Arab List – 12
Kulanu – 12

Habayit Hayehudi – 11
UTJ – 7
Shas – 6
Yisrael Beiteinu – 4
Meretz – 4
Yachad – 4

Netanyahu Is Going To Trade One Headache For Another

December 3, 2014 § 4 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.

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

October 29, 2014 § 4 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.

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 § 8 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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