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.
March 30, 2012 § Leave a comment
Benny Begin, one of the members of the cabinet Octet that is presumed to be behind any major Israeli security decisions, said in a speech yesterday that support for a Palestinian state is not a policy binding on the Netanyahu government but is something that is advocated solely for international audiences (Hebrew only). Begin added that the decision to support two states side by side has not been formally discussed within the government, and furthermore that someone like him could only serve in the government because such an understanding does not exist. He also expressed the opinion that a Palestinian state is not viable in the current environment because Israel’s security needs would require it to be completely demilitarized, and that is something that a sovereign Arab state will not be willing to accept.
This double talk, where a politician says one thing to international audiences and something very different to a domestic audience in his own language when he thinks nobody is paying attention, is something that Israelis and American Jews condemn all the time when it is done by Palestinians, and rightly so. In this case, it was said by a cabinet minister rather than the prime minister himself, and Begin’s strange aside about how he respects the prime minister as first among equals but that no formal decision on a Palestinian state was made by the government indicates that Begin’s position on this is at odds with Netanyahu’s. That at least provides some measure of solace. But just as we American Jews blast Palestinian politicians like Abbas Zaki for saying that the ultimate goal is to destroy Israel itself but that such things shouldn’t be announced to the world, we need to call out Begin for doing the exact same thing. Netanyahu says that he supports a Palestinian state and that he is ready to negotiate whenever the Palestinians are willing to come to the table. He therefore needs to denounce Begin as going against official Israeli policy, or Begin needs to explain why what the world believes is Israel’s official position is not in fact Israel’s official position. This kind of nonsense is incredibly damaging to Israel by destroying any international credibility that it has, and it is patently dishonest to make a huge stink over Mahmoud Abbas’s refusal to negotiate if in fact the Israeli government has tacitly decided that it is not prepared under any circumstances to accept a Palestinian state. So c’mon Bibi, do the right thing here and make it crystal clear that Begin is wrong and speaks for nobody but himself. If you don’t, then your silence will send a very different message.