Israel’s Russian Roulette

May 30, 2013 § Leave a comment

A year ago I wrote about the way in which Israeli domestic politics was coloring its foreign policy toward Russia on account of Israel’s large Russian population – over 1 million immigrants from the former Soviet Union now live in Israel, making up somewhere between 10-15% of the total population – and noted that the government was doing its best to cozy up to Putin on account of the domestic political benefits despite the fact that there were obvious foreign policy pitfalls for Israel in pursuing such a strategy. In light of the violence in Syria, it is time to revisit this issue. The topic has taken on greater urgency now that Bashar al-Assad has claimed that Russia has already sent a shipment of S-300 surface-to-air missile batteries to Syria. Earlier this week, Defense Minister Bogie Ya’alon had warned Russia not to arm the Assad regime with these missiles, considered to be a significant upgrade to existing Syrian air defense capabilities, and said that if the shipment of weapons left for Syria, Israel would “know how to act.” While Russia had postponed the initial shipment of missiles at Israel’s request, all signs point to further Israeli requests to delay delivering the SAM batteries being likely to fall on deaf ears. Russia’s interest in propping up the Assad regime has only grown, and the increasing calls for Western intervention and hints of U.S. plans for a no-fly zone in Syria have only seemed to strengthen Russian resolve as it turns the fight in Syria into a proxy battle against the West.

As Jordan Hirsch and Sam Kleiner smartly argued a couple of weeks ago, the chaos in Syria is in some ways restoring a Cold War dynamic between the U.S. and Israel that is focused on Israel as a proxy and strategic ally against a larger adversary, which in this case is Iran. However, the past couple of weeks have added a twist to this observation, which is that in some ways we are actually returning to the original Cold War dynamic of the U.S. against Russia and Israel caught in the middle. While the relationship between Israel and Russia has been strong, full of state visits and Israeli officials fawning over their Russian counterparts, the situation in Syria has put the brakes on what was in many ways a friendship built on a mirage. Israeli politicians have wanted to reap the low-hanging political fruit of being seen as having close ties with Russia, but Russia never gave Israel any indication of being willing to budge on its support for Iran or its backing of Assad. In fact, fostering a close relationship with Russia might have actually backfired, as when Israel hit Syrian military sites in Damascus earlier in May, it infuriated the Russian government, which was taken by surprise by the Israeli raid. Close ties between Jerusalem and Moscow may have created an expectation in Russia’s mind of notification by Israel, or perhaps some level of leeway on Russian priorities that Israel is unwilling to give.

The entire situation demonstrates the strategic quandary in which Israel finds itself due to its relatively small stature. Israel is not enough of a heavyweight to do much of anything to change the direction of Russian foreign policy, and its threats are not credible when dealing with a country the size and strength of Russia. Israel has spent years cultivating Putin and other Russian leaders, and Avigdor Lieberman played up his Russian connection while serving as foreign minister to an unprecedented degree, but when push comes to shove, all of this falls by the wayside in the face of larger Russian geostrategic priorities. Keeping Assad as an ally and maintaining the Russian naval base in Tartus, and in the big picture frustrating Western efforts to get Assad to exit power, is just worth much more to Moscow than anything Israel can offer and any benefits that accrue to Russia as a result of closer ties with Israel. Furthermore, Russia even has good cause to start intimidating Israel if it believes that Israeli natural gas exports  – if they ever happen, which is a big if – might in any way cut into Russian market share in Europe. Israel just does not measure up when it comes to ordering Russian priorities, and Israel is learning this the hard way in the context of the Syrian morass.

There is another element at play here, which is how Israeli domestic politics require Israel to tread carefully in its dealings with Russia. As I noted a year ago, the Russian population in Israel feels a strong pull and sense of nostalgia toward its previous home even as its connection there wanes, much like American Jews feel strongly about Israel and Irish-Americans feel strongly about Ireland. Were the U.S. ever to have tense relations with Ireland, it would actually raise a serious problem in Congress and make for an extremely tricky political environment. Domestic politics affects every move the Israeli government makes, and if the connection between the large population of Russian origin and Israel’s foreign policy maneuvering has not already been taken into account by the more insightful politicians, I’d be surprised. Note that Israel has not yet directly threatened Russia, but has instead made veiled threats toward Syria on the issue of missile shipments, which is a counterintuitive move when you consider the supply chain here and that the party that needs to be prevented from moving is Moscow rather than Damascus. Part of that is, as I noted above, that Israel just does not have the heft to make any credible threats against Russia, but I think part of it is also the domestic political angle of trying not to pick a public fight with the Russian government any more than is absolutely necessary. Whatever the outcomes of the spat over the S-300 missile batteries, it will be very difficult going forward for Israel to pretend that its relationship with Russia is as cozy as it has portrayed in the past.

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Did Bibi Make A Mistake?

October 31, 2012 § Leave a comment

Like I said yesterday, I’ve been thinking a lot about the Likud Beiteinu deal and whether it is actually going to accomplish what Netanyahu and Lieberman are hoping. I expanded on my thoughts from yesterday for Foreign Policy, and looked at whether Likud Beiteinu is going to add to the vote share that the two parties have separately and what the whole thing means for the U.S. You can read the original article on FP’s website here, and I have reproduced it below for convenience sake.

In an announcement last Thursday that shocked the Israeli political establishment, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman stated their intention to merge Netanyahu’s Likud Party with Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu. Despite the contention made by some — notably Haaretz editor Aluf Benn — that this move creates a war cabinet that will make it easier for Israel to strike Iranian nuclear facilities, it’s more likely the two men had domestic politics at the forefront of their minds. In birthing the new Likud Beiteinu, Netanyahu and Lieberman are hoping to create a monolith that will dominate Israeli politics for years to come.

Creating a workable majority in the 120-seat Knesset has proven to be difficult, and always requires a coalition of larger and smaller parties. In the current Knesset, Kadima has the most seats with 28, and Likud comes in second with 27, but these numbers are historically low for the top vote-getters. Two decades ago, Labor won the 1992 Knesset elections after garnering 44 seats and Likud came in second with 32 seats, while the previous election in 1988 had yielded 40 seats for Likud and 39 for Labor’s leftwing bloc. Netanyahu and Lieberman are gambling that their new Likud Beiteinu party will be an electorally dominant rightwing giant by combining the strength of their two parties while also picking up former Likud voters who have voted for Kadima in the past two elections. The hope is that a bigger party will have the strength to withstand hostage-taking demands from smaller parties and be able to push its agenda through the Knesset with a minimum of haggling and horse trading. That agenda is likely to include a renewed push for Haredi military service, more building in the West Bank, and a neoliberal economic policy — and Netanyahu wants to be able to carry his policies out with a minimum of resistance.

While this is nice in theory, it is unlikely to play out in the way that Netanyahu and Lieberman hope. To begin with, the current polls are not looking too promising and show Likud Beiteinu either slipping from its current combination of 42 seats or maintaining the exact same share of the Knesset that it holds now. Controlling 42 seats as a single party would give Netanyahu a lot of power and flexibility, and there is certainly plenty of time between now and the election for Likud Beiteinu to surge in the polls. There are, however, good reasons to believe that the new party is not going to surge, but is actually going to slip.

To begin with, Likud Beiteinu might have a real problem with the Russian voters who make up Yisrael Beiteinu’s base. A poll commissioned for Channel 99 showed only 59 percent of 2009 Yisrael Beiteinu voters casting their ballot for the new mega-party in 2013, with 22 percent undecided. It is very possible that Russian voters who voted for Yisrael Beiteinu because it served as a patronage party bringing benefits to Russian immigrants are rightfully wary that Likud Beiteinu will have the same focus, and are casting around for another party to fill that void.

Within Likud, there is a mirror-image problem of the party’s base of Mizrahi (Jews primarily from Iraq, Syria, and Yemen) voters being turned off by the elevation of the Russian Lieberman to the second-most powerful person in Likud. The party has long struggled with the problem of having a Sephardi grassroots and an Ashkenazi leadership, and the inclusion of Lieberman along with the concurrent exit of Communications Minister Moshe Kahlon, who is of Libyan descent, might very well drive some Likud voters into the arms of Shas, which represents ultra-Orthodox Sephardi voters.

Another reason to suspect that this new arrangement is not going to yield as strong a party as Netanyahu hopes is that it rests on an odd and somewhat counterintuitive theory of party strengthening. As a general rule, the best ways to create a newly large and powerful party are to co-opt the opposition and to create a big tent that welcomes many different factions. The Likud-Kadima coalition agreement in May — despite its quick demise — was actually a successful attempt at such a maneuver since it eliminated Likud’s largest opponent and built bridges between a rightwing party and a more centrist party. The merger deal with Yisrael Beiteinu, however, will not be successful at co-opting smaller centrist parties and it will not create a big tent, as both Likud and YB reside on the right side of the political spectrum.

What this means in practice is that we are likely to see Likud Beiteinu get the largest share of seats in the Knesset but with nothing approaching a mandate for action. Rather than smooth sailing for the ruling party, there will be the usual political gridlock and unstable coalition as the smaller parties extort Likud Beiteinu to fund their pet projects as a condition of joining the government. Lieberman is also an unusually polarizing figure, and his presence at the top will make it harder for a party like Labor to even contemplate joining up in a unity government.

There are also some real implications here for the new U.S. administration, whomever the next president might be. The fact that Netanyahu is not going to be in as strong a position as he anticipates means that he will not be able to afford alienating his settler base or risk an insurrection from Moshe Feiglin, Danny Danon, and the more revanchist wing of Likud. Lieberman, himself a settler, takes an extremely hard-line positions on settlements as well, and thus the new Likud Beiteinu is likely to frustrate any desires on the part of the United States for the Israeli government to either freeze settlement building or to make concessions to the Palestinians, who have been immovably intransigent. The formation of Likud Beiteinu might even deal the final fatal blow to the Palestinian Authority, as Lieberman has been waging a months-long campaign to discredit Mahmoud Abbas by calling him a diplomatic terrorist and is unlikely in his newly powerful position to agree to keep on bolstering the PA. This will create all sorts of headaches for the United States and means that any remaining optimism surrounding the peace process is misplaced.

Netanyahu and Lieberman are banking that their new party will be greater than the sum of its parts, but there is an excellent chance that it will actually be the opposite. Should that turn out to be the case, expect to see a continuation of the congestion that has marked Israeli politics and frustrated its diplomacy over the last decade.

Likud Beiteinu Is Going To Happen, But Is It A Good Idea?

October 30, 2012 § 3 Comments

I’m writing this post at 10:30 on Monday night as a hurricane rages outside my house, and since I somehow inexplicably have power (and really Pepco? I lose power when there is a little drizzle, but you manage to keep it going during a freaking hurricane??) I am going to keep it short and sweet before it goes out. Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu moved one step closer to merging today as the Likud Central Committee voted to move forward with the union. This is going to be the first post of many analyzing whether this move makes sense, and according to the initial polls, the answer is not necessarily. The Channel 10 poll has Likud Beiteinu winning 35 seats, down from their current combined 42, and the Channel 2 poll has LB treading water at 42 seats. The point of this merger was to create a party greater than the sum of its parts, and while we have months to go before the actual vote, so far Bibi Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman do not appear to be moving toward accomplishing that goal.

Why might this be? I think a big part of the answer so far has to do with Yisrael Beiteinu’s base. When the news of the deal broke on Thursday, I wrote the following:

Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu, though, are not necessarily better off. Likud is now alternating with Yisrael Beiteinu for the first 42 party slots, which obviously waters down Likud, and the rank and file have got to be furious about this. As for YB, the party’s focus on Russian voters is not going to be as laser-like as it once was, and while it will likely get some more attention for its initiatives at the outset, the independent concerns that YB had are eventually going to be subsumed by the larger Likud project and constituency.

If you look at YB voters, they appear to have some real concerns. The Panels poll conducted for Channel 99 has LB winning 35 seats, and the poll asked 2009 YB voters how they were planning on voting in this election with results that should worry Netanyahu. Only 59% of 2009 YB voters indicated that they are planning on voting for the new LB party in 2013, and an enormous 22% said they were not sure. That 22% is the key to this election, since my strong hunch is that those are the voters who cast their ballot in the past for YB because they counted on Lieberman to represent their interests as Russian olim. It is no longer assured that Likud Beiteinu will perform that same function, and that’s one of the reasons why this merger was, to my mind, a strange and risky move for Netanyahu. He needs to keep all of those Russian voters and then pick up some extra voters along the way, but by banding with Lieberman not only does he risk losing some of the Russian voters, he also risks losing some of his own considerable Mizrachi base within Likud since they are wary of Lieberman and the Russians. Netanyahu now has to do a very precarious dance in convincing both of these camps to hang around, and moves signaling one group that they are still valued are precisely the types of signals bound to turn off the other. How Netanyahu and the new LB party deal with this over the next few months will be very interesting indeed.

More to come when there isn’t an old man outside my window loading pairs of animals into an ark..

I Don’t Think This Is About Iran, Redux

October 26, 2012 § 1 Comment

Building on my initial reaction yesterday to the new Likud Beiteinu party created by Bibi Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman, I have one more important point to add about why I think this deal happened. It seems to me that this was about domestic politics, plain and simple. Netanyahu was nervous about polls showing Likud’s vote share slipping and Labor’s rising, and Lieberman wanted to position himself to head his former party and not have Yisrael Beiteinu suffer the fate of so many other parties like Shinui or what is about to happen to Kadima. This way the two men were able to create the perception of a strong rightwing party that will be able to withstand any challengers and give an air of inevitability to Netanyahu remaining as prime minister and Likud Beiteinu creating the next governing coalition.

Aluf Benn thinks that something else is at work though, which is the creation of a war cabinet to strike Iran. He writes, “The merger with Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party will dissolve any domestic opposition to the war, since after the election, Netanyahu will be able to argue that he received a mandate from the people to act as he sees fit. Ministers and top defense officials will have a hard time arguing with him. From now on, only American opposition is liable to delay, or even prevent, a command to the Israel Air Force to take off for Iran.” He adds that Ehud Barak, Benny Begin, and Dan Meridor will be marginalized or pushed out completely and that Lieberman will push the cabinet into radical foreign policy positions that Netanyahu will no longer be able to disavow.

This analysis is plausible on its face, but I think there are a few problems with it. First, it’s not enough to just declare absent compelling evidence that every move Netanyahu makes is with the intent of striking Iran. Plenty of people said the same thing when Netanyahu made the deal with Kadima despite the fact that Mofaz had been on record as opposing a strike, and obviously the short-lived unity government did not make any moves on the Iran front. Bibi’s obsession with Iran is well documented, but he has other concerns as well, such as political survival and consolidating his position, and this seems so clearly aimed at doing just those things that I don’t see why the simplest explanation here is not the right one.

Second, looking at what Benn actually argues, I don’t think it is correct to assert de novo that this gives Netanyahu a mandate for anything. For that to occur, the new LB party has to win an unusually large number of seats and Netanyahu has to campaign specifically and primarily on the Iran issue. Netanyahu is probably counting on about 45 seats, which is roughly what you get from adding up where Likud and YB were in public opinion polls, but I think there is a significant chance that the number is less than that. Lieberman is a polarizing figure, to say the least, and he could easily scare away some Mizrachi and more religious Likud voters. It is also possible that Russian YB voters who were mainly voting for the party based on its advocacy for Russian olim will be disenchanted and feel that Lieberman has sold out their core interest in the pursuit of greater personal power. If that happens, then Netanyahu’s alleged mandate is not going to be quite as strong as Benn predicts, and I don’t quite understand why ministers and generals would have a hard time opposing him. Even if he does get 45 seats, that doesn’t seem like it will all of a sudden cow Likud members like Meridor, Begin, and Bogie Ya’alon into reversing their positions, or convince the IDF leadership that their reservations on Iran have been wrong.

Third, there is the fact that, like Mofaz before him, Lieberman is not necessarily an Iran hawk. The reports are that he originally opposed a strike and was then convinced to change his position, but it’s obviously not on the top of his agenda. Lieberman cares much more about undermining the Palestinan Authority and taking a hard line on peace process issues and territorial concessions, so if there is any foreign affairs implication from yesterday’s announcement, it is that the two state solution is now even more endangered. Lieberman is going to take many radical positions; of that I have no doubt. The question is whether those positions will have anything to do with Iran, and I’m not sure that they will. He may support a strike, but he is not going to be strongly and constantly advocating one. The math in the security cabinet does not change substantially unless Begin, Meridor, and Ya’alon are all excised. One also must consider who the rest of the coalition is going to include, since 45 seats still means that Netanyahu is going to have to rope in Shas, where Eli Yishai is opposed to a strike, or one of the center or left parties, and Tzipi Livni, Yair Lapid, and Shelley Yachimovich are certainly not guaranteed to vote the way Netanyahu wants on Iran.

In looking at yesterday’s merger, does it strengthen Netanyahu’s hand by giving him a larger number of seats? Yup, it does. But he still has to contend with opposition in Likud, opposition in the IDF, opposition from other potential coalition partners, and opposition from the public. In short, aside from making generalizations about the prime minister’s increased clout and murky electoral mandates, I don’t see how this makes a strike on Iran a foregone conclusion by any means.

The Politics of Russia in Israel

June 27, 2012 § 2 Comments

Vladimir Putin was in Israel this week, and the government rolled out the red carpet for him. Shimon Peres hosted a state dinner for him and he held meetings with Bibi Netanyahu and Ehud Barak, and he inaugurated a memorial in Netanya to Soviet soldiers who were killed in WWII. The Israeli welcoming embrace might seem strange given that Israel and the Soviet Union had an acrimonious relationship and that Putin is not exactly seen as a paragon of virtue these days, but it is actually a no-brainer from a domestic political standpoint. There are over 1 million immigrants from the former Soviet Union in Israel out of a total population of 7.6 million, and there are many prominent Russian-Jewish politicians, from Natan Sharansky to current Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman. With the fall of the Soviet Union, many of these Russian olim no longer feel as acrimonious toward their former homeland as they once did, and they still have deep ties to Russia that make the Russian issue a political winner.

This point was really driven home for me this morning reading Marc Tracy’s post-Birthright thoughts on how his trip to Israel has made him feel more viscerally connected and emotionally attached to Israel even though he is an American Jew and not an Israeli. This connection felt by American Jews is one of the primary drivers behind the U.S.-Israel bond, as a particularly active and vocal (and yes, influential – let’s not sell ourselves short) segment of Americans feel so strongly about Israel. In Israel, the same holds true about the Russian population, who are Israeli citizens and may have not been to Russia or other former Soviet countries since they left but nevertheless feel a strong pull and sense of nostalgia toward their previous home. This relationship goes both ways, as the new annual $1 million prize that Israel is going to bestow on recipients whose contributions to sciences or the arts reflect Jewish values is being funded by a group of Jewish Russian oligarchs. It makes sense for Israeli politicians to take advantage of this sentiment through stronger ties with Russia and wanting to have their pictures taken with Putin when he visits.

The question for me is whether this is a good idea for Israel geostrategically once you set aside the domestic political benefits, and my answer is no. To begin with, as Elise Labott points out, Israel and Russia do not see eye to eye on many foreign policy issues these days. The two countries are working at cross purposes when it comes to Iran and Syria, and yesterday Putin met with Mahmoud Abbas and implicitly backed the Palestinian president’s view that Israel is the party responsible for the deadlock in peace negotiations. Peres spent much of the visit publicly pressuring Putin to come around to the Israeli view of things, commenting during the memorial dedication ceremony that the country that defeated fascism will not tolerate similarly odious regimes in Iran and Syria, and expressing his view during the state dinner that Russia will not allow Iran to develop nuclear weapons. This seems more like wishful thinking than an expression of confidence, since Russia has so far shown little inclination to budge on these issues and did not hint at any changes in policy during Putin’s meetings with Israeli leaders. Netanyahu, Barak, Lieberman, and other Israeli officials are assiduously working to court Russia, but to no avail. At some point, the closer relationship with Russia is going to come to a head, and it will be easier if there are fewer messy entanglements at that point.

Aside from the fact that Israel is destined to endlessly bang its head against the wall when it comes to Russian policy, there is another good reason for Israel to distance itself from Russia. Putin under Russia has evidenced an increasingly authoritarian bent, with Putin’s domestic opponents harassed and jailed, opposition political parties eviscerated, and charges of election rigging and voter fraud. Russia today is no longer a democracy, and Freedom House this year assigned it a 6 for political rights and a 5 for civil liberties (with 7 being the worst score a state can achieve). In short, Israel is trying to tighten its relationship with a deeply illiberal state, and one with which it foten disagrees on matters of foreign policy. In doing so, it risks damaging its relationship with other democracies and European states that do not look kindly upon Russian intransigence. Israel often evinces a view that any friend is a good one, but cozying up to Russia is not going to advance Israel’s international standing or leave it feeling less isolated. This is a classic example of losing sight of what is strategically prudent in the long term in favor of short term tactical political gain. Israel does not have to publicly repudiate Russia or Putin or lead the Mitt Romney vanguard that views Russia as the top geopolitical threat in the world today, but it also does not need to spend its time trying to be Russia’s best friend. Israel should work to keep its relationship with Russia as non-acrimonious as it can while holding Russia at arm’s length.

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