What I Got Wrong, 2013 Edition

December 30, 2013 § 4 Comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Bibi’s Coalition Gamble

February 20, 2013 § 6 Comments

It has been almost a month since the Israeli election, and yesterday finally brought us the first move to form a coalition as Tzipi Livni’s Hatnua party agreed to join up with Bibi Netanyahu and Likud Beiteinu. I have been skeptical throughout the campaign and the election’s aftermath that Livni would come to an agreement with Netanyahu given her efforts to convince Ehud Olmert and even Shimon Peres to run; her failed maneuvering at uniting Hatnua, Labor, and Yesh Atid into an anti-Bibi bloc; her constant railing against Netanyahu as a danger and a failed prime minister; the fact that Hatnua includes former Labor leaders Amir Peretz and Amram Mitzna, neither of whom are exactly Netanyahu cheerleaders; and finally, her refusal to join with Bibi after the last election when her party – which was then Kadima – had the most seats in the Knesset and she would have been able to work out a deal in which she served as co-prime minister. Nevertheless, Livni has now reversed course and has accepted the positions of Justice Minister and chief negotiator with the Palestinians, and she will be reporting to Netanyahu rather than the eventual Foreign Minister in this latter gig.

Many people are now speculating on what this means for the peace process and whether Livni’s overseeing negotiations means that we can expect some real movement ahead. I don’t think this changes anything and I wouldn’t be taking any investment advice from people who think that Livni is going to pull Netanyahu along rather than the reverse, but the really interesting angle here is the political one. Bringing Livni into the coalition is not about Netanyahu signaling anything on the peace process, but about putting pressure on Naftali Bennett to join the government. The thinking on Netanyahu’s part goes as follows: he now has 37 seats lined up and getting Kadima and its 2 seats is a given, and he is on the verge of adding Shas (his real goal all along) and its 11 seats, which means that he can then turn to Bennett and Habayit Hayehudi and use their 12 seats to get past the magic number of 61. Netanyahu is gambling that once he adds Kadima and Shas, he will present Bennett with an ultimatum of joining the government or calling new elections, and that Bennett will not be able to withstand the pressure ensuing from calls for him to join a rightwing coalition and so he will crack. Essentially, Netanyahu is betting on Bennett’s alliance with Yair Lapid and Yesh Atid not being strong enough to buck the rightwing nationalist forces in HH who want to band together with Likud and the religious forces in HH who don’t see why serving in a government with Shas is the end of the world. Hence the immediate rumors that negotiations with Shas are proceeding and that it too will join the coalition imminently.

This plan of Bibi’s seems nicely formulated, but ultimately I don’t think it will work. More importantly, if Bennett is smart he will make sure that it doesn’t. The success of Bibi’s strategy turns on the idea that Bennett will do anything to avoid going to another round of elections, but much as I thought (correctly, as it turned out) that Netanyahu miscalculated in allying with Yisrael Beiteinu, I think he is miscalculating here as well. Netanyahu’s gamble is that new elections will cost Bennett seats and weaken his position, and that might have been true before yesterday, but bringing in Livni changes things in a big way. If I am a HH voter, I am not going to punish the party for not joining with its natural Likud partner by fleeing and and now voting for Likud since bringing Tzipi Livni on board to deal with peace process issues makes Likud untrustworthy. Looking at this map of election results and seeing where HH got votes makes this point abundantly clear; voters in Elon Moreh and Karnei Shomron are not now going to give up on Bennett and vote for Bibi given his most recent coalition choice.

In addition, many Likud voters are not going to be terribly happy now that Netanyahu has banded together with Livni, and I don’t see how doing so possibly increases his share of votes at all in a hypothetical new round of elections. If anything, it drives even more people away and into the arms of Bennett, and if you need some further proof, just look at Moshe Feiglin’s crack today that he hopes Likud will be in the coalition too. Furthermore, by trying to repeat history and bring Shas – his most pliable partners – into the coalition, Netanyahu is turning his back on the draft issue, which is one of the most popular issues in Israel today and which Lapid rode to his stunning success. Not only is Netanyahu potentially angering his base by bringing Livni in, he is angering many other voters who don’t understand why he insists on bringing Shas into the government despite the massive popular will for reforming the draft. Given what has transpired, if new elections were held today, I think that Likud would drop even further while Habayit Hayehudi and Yesh Atid would pick up some new mandates.

Netanyahu is behaving as if bringing first Livni and then Shas into the government gives him all the leverage he needs over Bennett to break up the YA-HH alliance, but I think he has things wrong. If he brings in Shas, he will then be unable to form a government without Lapid or Bennett (I am operating on the assumption that Labor is not joining at this point), and so in reality Bennett will be the one with the leverage over Netanyahu. Reports are that Bennett is feeling heat from within his party over his footdragging to run to Likud and his head-scratching unbreakable bond with Lapid, but by brining Livni into the government, Netanyahu actually did Bennett a favor. He now has a good excuse to sit tight, and once Netanyahu strikes a deal with Shas, he benefits further from sticking to his guns on the draft issue and staying out. If I were Bennett and Netanyahu presented me with the ultimatum to join the coalition with Shas or go to new elections, I would be printing up new campaign posters before even getting off the phone.

The Prospects For Real Peace Talks

February 13, 2013 § 2 Comments

I wrote about this topic last week from the U.S. perspective in light of President Obama’s forthcoming trip to Israel, but from the standpoint of Israel politics some comments yesterday from Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett are worth highlighting in assessing what movement we can expect to see on the peace process from the next Israeli government. As faithful O&Z readers know, I am fairly confident that Yesh Atid and Habayit Hayehudi will be in the coalition, and I am also fairly confident that Yair Lapid cares a lot more about the military draft issue than he does about the peace process and that he should not be viewed as the great savior of the peace camp and the two state solution. In light of this, let’s consider some facts that are emerging about the coalition talks and some things that were said by Lapid and Bennett yesterday in different forums.

To begin with, Lapid and Bennett have negotiated a deal that binds their fates together so that either Yesh Atid and Habayit Hayehudi will both be in the government or both parties will stay out. While Bibi Netanyahu is frantically trying to peel Bennett away from Lapid by making him extravagant but exploding offers, so far Bennett appears to be resistant to go back on his agreement with Lapid. This is interesting, because obviously Likud is more of a natural partner for Habayit Hayehudi than Yesh Atid is as Netanyahu and Bennett are closer ideologically – despite their history of personal issues – than Bennett and Lapid are. The one issue on which HH and YA are closer on is the issue of the draft and equalizing the burden of service, which suggests that it is the issue most important to both Lapid and Bennett and the one on which both parties are most reluctant to back down. Lots of attention has been paid to Lapid’s pledge that he is guided by overhauling the draft and reanimating the peace process and that he will not join a government that does not agree to do both, but in tying his fate to Bennett’s, he is signaling that one of those issues is far more important to him than the other and that the peace process condition is more about lip service than anything else.

Then there were Lapid’s remarks yesterday before the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations meeting in Jerusalem, in which he said that Ehud Olmert had gone too far in his concessions toward the Palestinians while prime minister, that Jerusalem could never be divided in his view, and that the Palestinians were going to have to accept an interim semi-state within temporary borders subject to future revision. Now, none of this makes Lapid a fire-breathing Greater Israel supporter, but it also does not make him the great champion of the two state solution that some think he is. Not agreeing to a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem and talking about interim agreements are both positions that probably make peace talks doomed to fail before they even begin. The interim agreement is the bigger hurdle of these two, since while Jerusalem can be negotiated over during talks, no Palestinian government at this point will even come to the table for talks that deal with anything less than a final status agreement. This is the ultimate display of someone trying to cultivate a more left-wing image without adopting any policies to match. Again, this does not make Lapid an extremist or out of line with mainstream Israeli popular opinion, but it also does not make him the next Yitzhak Rabin.

Lapid’s new best friend also had some things of his own to say about the prospects of a Palestinian state yesterday, but in a much more straightforward way. In a Knesset speech, Bennett said that “there is no room” for a Palestinian state, that it will never happen, and that the government needs to say with finality that the Land of Israel belongs to the people of Israel. Nobody has ever had any illusions about Bennett’s views on the peace process and the two state solution so this does not come as a surprise, but the important takeaway here is that Lapid knows full well what Bennett’s views are and has still hitched his wagon to Bennett’s. Irrespective of whatever his own personal views may be, it is difficult from a political perspective to think that Lapid is committed to real negotiations when he will only go into the government if Bennett goes as well. Taking all of these factors into consideration, even if Tzipi Livni bring Hatnua into the government nobody should be getting their hopes up too high for a big diplomatic push on the horizon.

Obama’s Visit To Israel

February 7, 2013 § 3 Comments

I’m a day behind on writing about this, but as everyone now knows and has processed, President Obama will be visiting Israel next month. There is lots of speculation about why he is going, and most of it has focused on the peace process. The instant conventional wisdom is that Obama is going to lean hard on Prime Minister Netanyahu to restart serious talks with the Palestinians and that the focus of the new Israeli government is now going to be on diplomacy and the two-state solution rather than on the domestic issues over which the election was fought. There are even those who argue, as Dan Margalit does in Israel Hayom, that Obama’s pending arrival is going to affect which parties are in the coalition since Netanyahu will not want to welcome Obama to Israel without a center or left party included in the government.

I get why all of this makes sense on its face, but I disagree with the premise. Of course Obama cares about the peace process and assigns a large degree of importance to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and without question it will be a topic of conversation between Obama and Netanyahu and will be part of whatever public comments Obama makes while there. It would be bizarre for Obama to show up and not try to create some pressure on both sides to resume negotiations. But there are a few reasons to think that this trip is not intended to be a big diplomatic push over and above whatever else the administration is currently doing on the peace process front.

First, the White House said yesterday that the trip is not going to include a rollout of any specific peace proposals. That means no roadmap, no offer to host a summit, no calls for settlement freezes, or any other approaches that we have seen in the past by this or other administrations. Second, the U.S. has not coordinated this trip with any European countries, which is strange given EU efforts to convince the administration to reinsert itself into the peace process and the reports that Britain, France, and Germany are planning on making a big push on this issue now that Israeli elections are over. Third, a presidential visit to Israel does not automatically mean pressure on the Israeli government over the Palestinians, as there was little pressure placed when President Bush went to Israel in 2008 despite Ehud Olmert being more receptive to such an approach.

As Brent Sasley pointed out yesterday, there are lots of reasons for Obama to be going to Israel, although I disagree with Brent (which is rare) about Iran, and I think that this trip is much more about foreign policy issues than domestic politics (which is even more rare for me). Obama’s travels are going to take him to Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Israel; if that isn’t a lineup that indicates the focus will be on coordinating strategy to deal with Iran, then I don’t know what is. Now that both Obama and Netanyahu have been returned to office and both clearly have their eyes on Tehran, I think that Obama’s visit to Israel is about security issues – Iran, Syria, etc. – first and foremost. That John Kerry is going to Israel before Obama’s trip reinforces that for me, since Kerry’s visit will likely be focused on the peace process while Obama’s visit will be geared toward other things. And of course, the possibility exists that Obama is going simply because he promised he would, as Haviv Rettig Gur reminded everyone yesterday.

Finally, on the coalition politics issue, I don’t buy the argument that Obama’s visit will affect the coalition one way or the other. Once the trip was announced, all leverage in that area was gone. Bibi could put together the most rightwing coalition imaginable at this point, and it won’t alter the fact that Obama is going to Israel come hell or high-water. I don’t quite get the argument that Netanyahu won’t dare greet Obama without a center-left component in his government, or that a three day visit somehow creates such enormous pressure that an entire coalition designed to theoretically serve for five years has to be shaped around three days. Furthermore, there is a real possibility that Netanyahu won’t form a coalition until after Obama has come and gone, in which case all of this speculation is moot. [As Chemi Shalev has helpfully pointed out in the comments below, the deadline for Bibi to form a coalition is March 16 - ed.] Let’s also not forget that Netanyahu went out of his way just this morning to reiterate that his policy on settlements has not changed. Obama coming to Israel is a new wrinkle, but if Netanyahu were not going to bend to internal and external pressure to jumpstart the peace process, I don’t think Obama’s visit would alter his calculations.

To be clear, I am sure that Obama will talk about the peace process, and I am also sure that Netanyahu will not embarrass Obama on Israeli soil so he will likely make some token concessions or promises. I do not think that this trip changes the entire thrust of the government’s policy or makeup though, and I do not think it means we are about to get a real life version of the fictional Bartlet peace plan from the second to last season of the West Wing. It was always assumed that Kerry was going to be more interested in the peace process during the second term than Obama was until there was some real movement, and I haven’t seen anything over the last two days to make me think that assumption is incorrect.

Domestic Politics Vs. International Politics In The Israeli Election

December 26, 2012 § 7 Comments

As regular O&Z readers know, if this blog has any sort of running theme it is that domestic politics is often decisive in determining foreign policy. When I wrote last week for The Atlantic about the rightwing political competition that is driving settlement activity, a close friend emailed, “So you’re saying it is local politics at work…#ImagineMySurprise.” I have pointed to domestic politics to argue that Israel and Turkey won’t be normalizing relations any time soon (and I’ll try and write about the recent NATO news tomorrow, but no, I don’t think it signals that anything is going to imminently change) and to predict that there was not going to be an Israeli strike on Iran last spring, summer, or fall. Does this mean that domestic politics is always decisive in every situation? Of course not. There are plenty of times in which other considerations are at work; the months-long push on the Turkish government’s to get NATO to intervene in Syria is one such instance. Nevertheless, I maintain that a lack of focus on domestic politics and the constraints it imposes leads to lots of shoddy analysis from both professionals and casual observers.

Over the next few months, Israel is going to be a great petri dish for watching these trends at work. On the one hand, influential and respected defense and security experts like Amos Yadlin are warning that Israel is losing its international support and status because of its footdragging on the peace process, Tzipi Livni has founded a new party devoted solely to reviving talks with the Palestinians, and there is chatter that the EU is losing so much patience that it is going to try and force Israel and the Palestinians into a deal. Last week the State Department issued a harsher than usual condemnation of Israeli settlement activity, as did the fourteen non-U.S. members of the Security Council. By any measure, Israel’s settlement policy and reticence on the creation of a Palestinian state is become increasingly costly. Looking at it from a black box perspective, you have a state living in a hostile neighborhood with an enormous qualitative military edge over its neighbors that is facing a dangerous potential dip in support from its main external allies and is facing increasing international isolation over the Palestinian statehood issue, which does not present an existential security threat by any means. The state is facing what it believes is an existential threat from Iran, and on that front it needs all the help it can get from its main allies. Given everything involved, you’d expect Israel in this situation to take moves to forestall its isolation and shore up its relationship with the U.S. and EU – which are its primary providers of military and economic aid and diplomatic support across the board – by making some serious concessions on the Palestinian front. After all, even if settlements in the West Bank are viewed as a security buffer, keeping them from a security perspective given Palestinian military capabilities pales in comparison to risking the cessation of purchases of military hardware and transfers of military technology, and enabling the risk of complete diplomatic isolation.

Given all of this, one might expect to see an Israeli coalition after the election that includes Livni’s Hatnua party and that undertakes serious initiatives on the Palestinian statehood and peace process fronts. Such a coalition would under no circumstances include Naftali Bennett and Habayit Hayehudi, as Bennett wants to annex Area C and does not support the creation of a Palestinian state. Indeed, there have been moves in that direction as far as keeping Bennett out is concerned, and there have also been reports that Netanyahu and Livni are exploring the possibility of Hatnua joining the coalition after the election, which would almost necessarily mean her return to the Foreign Ministry and a greater push for a negotiated settlement with the Palestinians.

On the other hand, taking domestic politics into account would point to a different path. As I wrote last week, the idea behind the joint Likud-Beiteinu list was to create a right-wing monolith that would put an electoral victory out of reach for Israel’s left and to also present rightwing voters without a real alternative. Netanyahu wanted to eliminate any challenges from his right flank by co-opting Lieberman, but it now turns out that he has to deal with Bennett on his right and a swift migration of voters (so far, at least) away from Likud and to Habayit Hayehudi. It is also the case that Israeli voters do not care about the Palestinians or the peace process, which is why Hatnua is stuck in single digits, Labor and Shelley Yachimovich barely mention anything other than social issues and the economy unless absolutely forced to, and Bennett is gaining a larger following based partly on a perception that Netanyahu is actually not hawkish enough. Taking all of this into account means a coalition that includes Bennett, continues to take a hardline on a Palestinian state, and bemoans the lack of support from European states rather than constructing a policy meant to change that reality.

So which will it be? Unsurprisingly, my money is on the second option, but the first one is certainly plausible. It really just depends on how much weight you place on the domestic political calculus. Netanyahu’s history is that he pays attention to his domestic political survival above all else, and I see no evidence that he has suddenly become a changed man. To my mind, Israel’s long term health necessitates the first path, while Netanyahu’s lies with the second. Let’s hope that events in 2013 prove me wrong.

The Battle For Kadima Is Just Beginning

May 29, 2012 § 1 Comment

Remember how I’ve been saying for months that Shaul Mofaz is going to eventually join Likud and that Kadima as we know it is going to disappear? It appears as if the maneuvering by all of the affected parties – Mofaz loyalists, Tzipi Livni loyalist, Likud members, etc. –  is now starting in earnest. First though, a little background. Before 2009, if a faction of MKs wanted to break away from their party, they needed to have the votes of 1/3 of the party’s Knesset parliamentarians. In 2009, however, Bibi Netanyahu passed a bill through the Knesset that is known as the Mofaz Law, since its sole purpose was to entice Mofaz to leave Kadima, which at the time was controlled by Tzipi Livni. The Mofaz Law eliminated the 1/3 requirement and instead enabled a group of 7 MKs to leave a party, which was coincidentally the number of Kadima members who were reputedly unhappy under Livni’s stewardship and considering joining Mofaz and returning to Likud. Mofaz himself denounced the law and did not end up jumping ship, but the law is still in force.

Fast forward three years to the present day, and the situation in Kadima has been flipped. Mofaz is now in charge, and there is a group of Livni loyalists who are reportedly looking to leave Kadima. The Mofaz Law makes it easier for this group to do so since Kadima has 28 MKs in total, so they only need 7 dissenters rather than 10. In an effort to stop this from happening, Kadima MK Yuval Zellner, who is a Mofaz supporter, introduced what is being called the Confinement Bill, which would eliminate the Mofaz Law and restore the 1/3 requirement. The Kadima MKs who are upset with the party’s current direction have been pushing for the bill to be killed and at the moment its status is in limbo, although Mofaz himself has come out against the bill in an effort to keep the Kadima rebels placated and maintain party unity.

Yesterday, however, Israeli Channel 10 reported that a group of 7 has been formed and that they are looking for an opportunity to leave and form a new centrist party that will be headed by Livni and Haim Ramon, who was one of the original founders of Kadima and who quit the party earlier this month. Kadima has denied the report’s veracity but this move was pretty much preordained the day that Mofaz beat Livni in the Kadima leadership election. Kadima is a strange hybrid of clashing interests, having been founded by Ariel Sharon for the sole purpose of disengaging from Gaza and then morphing into a party concerned more with social issues under Livni’s tenure, and now led by a former Likud minister and general who is unconvincing as a champion of the lower rungs of society and who brought Kadima into a rightwing coalition. There is little chance that this party is able to hold together in the long term. Furthermore, Mofaz is going to have every incentive to rejoin Likud, either before the next election or immediately afterward when Kadima gets routed at the ballot box. Once the Livni faction breaks away and Kadima is comprised of more right leaning former Likud members, it won’t be long before Mofaz drops the charade. Joining the government was the first step, and I see no reason for the eventual reconciliation with Likud not to occur. Likud minister Dan Meridor recognized that fact this weekend in calling for Kadima to merge with Likud, noting that there is very little substantively separating the two parties at this point. So get ready for Kadima to split, with the larger group joining Likud and the smaller group forming a new party under Livni and Ramon. Kadima was doomed to eventually disappear the day after Israel pulled out of Gaza, and once it does it will make the Israeli political scene a bit more coherent.

The Likud-Kadima Deal Is Not About Iran

May 8, 2012 § 10 Comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some Quick Initial Thoughts On The Israeli Political Bombshell

May 7, 2012 § 4 Comments

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

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

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

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

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

Israeli Politics Blows Up, Part 2

April 30, 2012 § 2 Comments

The other big development over the weekend was the governing coalition, which has been fraying at the seams, nearly bursting apart and the unofficial announcement of early elections. It appears that Netanyahu wants Knesset elections to be held on either August 14 or September 4, which pulls the rug out from under Shaul Mofaz and Kadima and allows Bibi to capitalize on his current wave of popularity. The reason for the early elections though is that Netanyahu is afraid that his coalition will not last much longer past the summer. Avigdor Lieberman has threatened to break the coalition apart and bring down the government over the Tal Law, which was ruled unconstitutional but which Netanyahu has promised to somehow reauthorize, and over the weekend Lieberman announced plans to introduce his own bill dealing with Haredi military exemptions. Lieberman’s bill would take away welfare payments from anyone who does not serve in the military or perform national service, which is of course unacceptable to coalition partners Shas and UTJ. Lieberman says he is going to introduce his bill on May 9, while Netanyahu has asked him to wait until August which is when the Tal Law expires and when Netanyahu conveniently wants to hold elections. Ominously for Bibi’s plans, Lieberman also declared that his obligation to the coalition was over, and does not look like he is going to dissuaded from introducing his bill and letting the chips fall where they may. Barak has also announced plans for his own Tal Law alternative that would exempt 400 Haredi students from serving in the army each year as compared to the currently 60,000+ that are exempt, which is naturally going to be equally unacceptable to the coalition’s Haredi parties.

There are also serious differences over settlements which have been papered over but are becoming tougher to ignore. After the government announced that it was not going to comply with the High Court’s order to demolish the Ulpana neighborhood, the court granted it a 60 day extension but this is not going to be enough to make all the coalition partners live together as one happy family. Shas introduced a bill yesterday that requires the Interior Ministry and Religious Services Ministry – both of which it currently controls – to sign off on the destruction of religious structures, which is a shot at Barak and his authority as defense minister over settlements. While the rift over settlements is not nearly as large a problem for the coalition as the secular-religious divide since it basically isolates Barak and Atzmaut rather than pitting Likud and Shas on one side against Yisrael Beiteinu and Atzmaut on the other, the constant calls from other members of the government for Barak to step down and leave the coalition is bound to take a toll on any unified sense of purpose that exists. And In case all this wasn’t enough, Kadima, Labor, Meretz, National Union, and Balad are all introducing no-confidence motions in the Knesset next week (originally scheduled for today but postponed out of respect following the death of Ben-Zion Netanyahu, Bibi’s father).

In light of all the above, the early elections gambit is unavoidable, but it may not turn out as favorably as Netanyahu wants. While elections in August do not give the opposition parties much time to organize, it also means that they will take place in the midst of social protests over Haredi exemptions, state resources going disproportionately to settlements, and the exploding cost of living, and Mofaz has declared his intention to lead this protest movement. Without a few additional months to blunt the effects of this, Netanyahu may be facing voters at the height of their anger at the government. The most current Israel Hayom poll  gives Likud 31 seats, which is only a 4 seat gain over what it has right now; it’s quite conceivable that this figure drops over the summer, and then Netanyahu does not get the benefit of the recovery that would likely happen by October. He is taking a risk based on the timing of ceding real ground to Labor and to Kadima, and a larger share of seats for those two parties will make it harder for him to form a coalition with Yisrael Beiteinu (which is not going to agree to serve again if Haredi parties are included).

Finally, to connect this post with my previous one, early elections are going to impact the Iran decision as well by making the chances of a strike more remote. As I have stressed before, Netanyahu’s career demonstrates that he is risk-averse, and I don’t think there is any way that he takes the chance of a strike on Iran going poorly or igniting a war with Hizballah in the north if there are going to be early elections. This is particularly the case now that there is a chorus of current and former defense officials weighing in against a strike right now. With his position as prime minister at stake and so many doubters speaking up, Netanyahu is not going to attack Iran a mere three months before an election when public opinion polls show that Israelis are decidedly lukewarm to the idea of an Israeli strike to begin with.

A Simple But Radical Independence Day Proposal

April 26, 2012 § Leave a comment

Today is Yom Haatzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day, and while Israelis of all stripes are celebrating, it is pretty clear that Israeli politics is badly dysfunctional. This is not a new phenomenon by any means, but it appears to have gotten worse over the last decade. Amir Mizroch had a fantastic post yesterday outlining some of the problems, and almost all of them stem from the legislative gridlock and political hostage-taking that characterize the Knesset and government by coalition. As Mizroch puts it,

It is crystal clear that we need to change the system of government, to make government more accountable to the voters, to break the power of small sectoral parties, and to stabilize our governments so that they can rule for at least 4 years and carry out long-term projects of national importance. We cannot continue to swap governments every 2 to 3 years. Nothing of consequence gets done.

The problem, of course, is that the party that gets the most seats in elections (or in the current Knesset, the second most seats) never has even close to a majority and so has to rely on an increasingly disparate set of smaller parties to form a coalition. Each of these parties has different interests and demands which conflict with those of its coalition partners, and the prime minister’s party ends up making concessions to the most extreme coalition members, who know that they can hold the government hostage by threatening to leave if their demands are not met. In addition, little is actually passed or implemented since only legislation that appeals to every party in the coalition will get through the Knesset, except for certain situations when the opposition parties agree with a measure that the ruling party introduces. Knesset coalitions are inherently unstable because of this constant tension between conflicting interests, and thus governments fall with alarming regularity. The problem has only worsened over the past twenty years, as the share of the leading party has shrunk from 44 seats in 1992 to 28 seats today (and Likud, which formed the government, only has 27). This means that Israel is likely to see politics pulled even more to the extremes as smaller parties gain even more leverage to advance their particular issue.

Take the example of the current Netanyahu government, which has appeared to buck the trend and has been remarkably stable. In the past two weeks alone there have been numerous threats from Likud partners that they will pull out of the coalition if the government complies with a High Court order to demolish the Ulpana neighborhood in Beit El, while at the same time Ehud Barak has insisted that the neighborhood must go (although he has since appeared to back down). The Tal Law, which exempts Haredim from military service, was ruled unconstitutional in February, prompting Shas and UTJ to threaten to leave if a legislative workaround was not passed, and Yisrael Beiteinu to then threaten to leave if it was. All the while, Netanyahu and Likud have no choice but to cater to their partners’ demands as the only way out would be to invite Kadima into the government, which cannot happen since Shaul Mofaz has one more Knesset member than Netanyahu and would therefore never agree to serve in a coalition in which he was not prime minister.

How did Israel arrive at this morass? It has come about through Israel’s system of party list proportional representation voting, meaning that voters cast one vote for a single party and then Knesset seats are allocated in rough proportion to the percentage of votes each party receives. The big advantage to this system is that of proportionality, which allows for many different voices in the Knesset and gives smaller parties that would never have a chance of winning a seat in a multi-district first-past-the post election an opportunity to actively participate in legislative politics and even be part of the government. The disadvantages, which are obvious to anyone who has either taken an introductory comparative politics course or spent a minimal amount of time observing Israeli politics, are that there is less accountability as people don’t know who their direct representative is and parliaments get bogged down and become more susceptible to extremes in order to placate small coalition parties. Sound familiar?

Aside from the practical issues laid out above, there are some genuine philosophical problems with a proportional representation electoral system as well. In a sense, it is extremely anti-democratic because more voters will have voted against the ruling party than for the ruling party. Bibi Netanyahu is prime minister despite his party getting only 21.6% of the votes cast, and the Interior Ministry is controlled by Shas with its 8.5% of the vote, which seems like a fundamental problem when we think about the fact that we associate democracy with majority rule. This is not an issue that is particular to Israel at all, as it plagues all proportional representation systems. In fact, it is not even particular to PR, since it rears its head in winner-take-all voting systems as well, such as the one we use right here in the United States.  For instance, in the 2010 House elections, Bill Owens won the election in New York District 23 with 48% of the vote. This means that a majority of the voters in his district voted to send someone else to Congress, yet Congressman Owens won anyway. Similarly, Bill Clinton became president in 1992 with only 43% of the vote, meaning that 57% of voting Americans wanted someone else in the White House.

Furthermore, when Israelis go to vote, they are not able to express their true range of preferences because they only check off the name of one party. Most voters though have strong opinions about the full slate of parties competing, and would jump at the chance to communicate those opinions and have them translate into results. For example, when an Israeli looks at his ballot during the next Knesset elections, he may want Labor to win but want just as much for Likud to lose, or he may want Atid to win if Labor does not, but there is no way of communicating that preference as he only gets to put his first choice on the ballot. This is another way in which party list PR restricts democratic choice, and it also has the unintended consequence of making politicians write off voters who might favor someone else. A voter who is decided in favor of Labor but likes Atid as a second choice is of no value to Yair Lapid, and Lapid has no incentive to appeal to that voter or take his views into account. This in turn encourages a less open-minded approach on the part of parties and politicians, as the incentives are structured to appeal only to those who list you as their first choice and to ignore everyone else, furthering a narrow set of partisan interests and hardening viewpoints.

So what is the solution to this whole mess of a broken Israeli political system? There are undoubtedly others, but mine is a system of voting that encourages parties to appeal to the widest group of people possible, while simultaneously taking into account the full range of voters’ preferences in an effort to make elections even more democratic. Such a system is used in Australia and Ireland, and it is called single-transferable voting. It works by having voters rank the parties on the ballot in order of first preference to last preference, rather than only checking off one, and a party has to meet a quota in order to get a seat (for anyone interested in the math, the quota is generally the number of votes divided by one more than the number of parliamentary seats, plus one). When votes are tallied, these preferences are taken into account so that being listed as a voter’s second or third choice boosts a party’s chances of winning the election, in a manner similar to how Major League Baseball and the NFL vote for their season MVPs.

The advantages to voting this way are manifold. Because voters get to indicate their full range of preferences, outcomes are more representative of voter opinion. More importantly for our purposes, however, parties have to appeal to as many voters as possible, since being listed at the bottom of voters’ ballots makes it extremely difficult to win a seat. This desire to be people’s second and third choice, and not only their first choice, means that parties running in the elections cannot afford to ignore voters who have decided on someone else, as each marginal vote is important for winning. This has the effect of eliminating extreme single issue parties that are only looking for benefits for their constituents, but it also does not mean that single issue voters are ignored entirely since parties are looking to pick up votes wherever they can. In addition, in order to appeal to a wide range of voters, parties must also consider a wide range of viewpoints, making moderation, compromise, and bipartisanship a hallmark of STV voting systems.

Translated to the Knesset, this would mean larger parties representing a wider swath of voters, making unstable coalitions with multiple conflicting interests a thing of the past. It would also make for less extremist positions, as someone like Avigdor Lieberman or Danny Danon would turn off so many people that it would hurt his party’s prospects of winning by garnering so many last place votes. In short, Israel would have more stable governments that were less in thrall to smaller extremist sectoral parties, and far more would be accomplished. I am under no illusions that this system will ever be instituted in Israel since it would threaten far too many entrenched interests, and the Knesset is too dysfunctional to even enact such a change if it wanted to, so it will remain a pipe dream. But for anyone who is at their wit’s end over the state of Israeli politics, it is worth realizing on this Yom Haatzmaut that it does not have to be this way, and that Israel’s political system is a victim of its own structure.

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