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.
January 22, 2013 § 2 Comments
Finally, the day we’ve all been waiting for – Israelis go to the polls today to elect a new Knesset and a new government for the first time since 2009. Despite the fact that we don’t have any results yet, I thought I’d set out a list of things we know and things we don’t.
Things We Know:
–Bibi Netanyahu and Likud Beiteinu are going to win the most seats in the Knesset and Likud will be the largest party. This is an easy one given the polls, since even with the Likud Beiteinu list losing about a seat a week for months now, no other party is going to come close to the 32-36 seats LB is likely to take. The irony of course is that Netanyahu created the joint list in order to create an unbeatable force, yet Likud might have done better on its own as banding together with Avigdor Lieberman and Yisrael Beiteinu likely cost Netanyahu seats for a host of reasons (and from the Department of Shameless Self Promotion, remember who told you months ago that this was a very bad idea on Bibi’s part). Despite the blunder, Labor is probably going to come in second with 15-18 seats, and Habayit Hayehudi and Yesh Atid are going to be battling for 3rd and 4th place. It is possible that the LB list will have twice as many seats as the next largest party despite its free fall in the polls, although this is a bit misleading since the two parties agreed to merge until only 30 days past the election, at which point they are free to revisit their agreement and separate. The most interesting little nugget about Likud being the largest party in the Knesset is that despite having served two terms as prime minister, this will be the first time that Netanyahu leads his party to a Knesset victory. When Netanyahu was elected in 1996, Israel was in the midst of its decade-long experiment of directly electing the prime minister, and so while Netanyahu beat Shimon Peres by 1% in the prime ministerial vote, Likud won 32 seats to Labor’s 34. In 2009, Likud came in second to Kadima, but after Tzipi Livni was unable to form a government, Netanyahu swooped in and cobbled together a governing coalition despite controlling the second largest party in the Knesset rather than the largest. By the end of today, Netanyahu will finally be able to say that he led his party to an electoral victory.
Things We Don’t Know
–Everything else. And I mean that. Aside from Likud Beiteinu winning the most mandates, I cannot say with 100% certainty what else will happen. I am 99% sure that Netanyahu is going to be the next prime minister, but there are enough weird things going on to give me that minuscule 1% pause. To begin with, there are an unusually high number of undecided voters, and while they might break Bibi’s way, I don’t think that Bibi’s base is one that is marked by indecision, unless that indecision comprises whether to continue to vote for Netanyahu or to go with the trendier rightwing choice of Naftali Bennett and Habayit Hayehudi.
Furthermore, Netanyahu’s margins are going to be very tight, and this means there is an outside chance that he pulls a Livni and can’t pull off putting together a viable government. I am as confident as I can possibly be that HH is going to be in the coalition, but then the coalition math becomes very tricky. It involves bringing in a centrist party such as Yesh Atid, which will clash with HH and the more extremist Likud voices over peace process issues, or going with Shas and UTJ, who are toxic to HH over the draft and toxic to Yisrael Beiteinu over both the draft and the religious-secular divide. Then there is the possibility that Aryeh Deri’s return to Shas means it is no longer so reliably rightwing and will give Netanyahu a harder time when it comes to coalition bargaining.
To throw another monkey wrench into this, there are the rumblings from all sorts of quarters that the electorate has shifted in the past few days and that the leftwing and centrist parties are going to do better than their polling indicates. If voter turnout is high, it means that left and center parties are going to do better than expected, in which case there is even a possibility that Netanyahu is denied the first chance to form a government. Last month I brought up the possibility of a unity government, which started to look ridiculous in the interim but now I am not so sure that I was off-base. Then there are the rumors that were flying around last night that Ehud Barak is going to be defense minister and Tzipi Livni foreign minister, which I find to be completely far-fetched given the rancor toward Barak exhibited by all sorts of newly influential Likud members and the fact that Netanyahu would never give Livni any real power as foreign minister while Livni would never accept the position to be a mere figurehead. All of this is to say that while Bibi is almost definitely going to remain as prime minister, the possibility of a black swan would not be entirely out of the blue. As for what type of coalition he will put together assuming he remains prime minister, your guess is as good as mine. If I have to predict something, it’s that we will see a nationalist bent due to the inclusion of Habayit Hayehudi, that the haredi parties are going to be left out, and that Yesh Atid will be brought in. This will allow Bibi to keep his rightwingers happy on peace process and settlements, let Yesh Atid have its pet issue of reforming the draft, and not have to worry about the secular-religious divide issue bringing down the government. I can also see Labor being brought into this mix if Netanyahu wants to have the coalition be as big as possible or if the numbers are such that he needs another party but wants to avoid bringing in Shas. Whatever happens, the next few weeks promise to be an entertaining ride.
December 18, 2012 § 8 Comments
In the time leading up to an Israeli election, one always gets the impression that Israel’s political system is the most fractured on Earth. Outrageous charges are hurled back and forth, and this year Kadima took things to a new level by adopting an anti-Bibi slogan superimposed on a picture of a nuclear mushroom cloud as its campaign poster. Nevertheless, as Israeli parties and politicians all jockey and maneuver before the January 22 election, it seems to me that if the poll numbers remain relatively stable, there is a good chance that Israel is headed toward a unity government comprised of Likud and Labor. While nobody will come right out and admit that while campaigning, the inter-party dynamics, Bibi Netanyahu’s past preferences, and Labor leader Shelley Yachimovich’s interview over the weekend are all pointing in that direction.
The latest polling – and the first to be released after Avigdor Lieberman’s resignation as foreign minister – confirms the trend that has been taking place for weeks, which is that the Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu joint list is polling in the mid to upper 30s range for Knesset seats and is likely to garner fewer seats than the two currently have now (and don’t forget where you first heard that this arrangement was going to backfire). In addition, the Habayit Hayehudi list under Naftali Bennett is holding steady at 11 seats, and is Netanyahu’s natural coalition partner given its rightwing stance. While there are rumors that Netanyahu would rather not deal with Bennett, he cannot afford to have Bennett constantly sniping at him from his right flank, particularly given how rightwing voters appear to be leaving Likud and flocking to Habayit Hayehudi. Including Bennett gets Netanyahu to just under 50 coalition seats, leaving him 10-12 short depending on how things precisely shake out. In the past, Netanyahu has turned to Shas and UTJ to fill this gap, and indeed together they are currently at 16 seats, which would get Netanyahu past the magic number of 60 seats and allow him to continue as prime minister. The problem is that Yisrael Beiteinu has been adamant about not wanting Haredi parties in the coalition, and Bennett last week demanded that Netanyahu take away the Interior and Housing ministries from Shas as part of his general argument that Haredi parties should be kept out of the next coalition. Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party might not get enough seats to fill the gap, and even if it does, it will still leave Netanyahu with a very narrow margin and no wiggle room. Tzipi Livni’s Hatnua party is probably out too, as Livni and Netanyahu do not like each other and Livni has turned down multiple opportunities to join with Netanyahu in the past. As demonstrated by his move to form a unity government with Kadima last spring, Netanyahu clearly likes to keep as many options open to him as possible, and his current narrow one has been a disaster, with infighting over the Tal Law and Haredi military service being a particular problem. This means constructing a coalition with as many seats as possible and without a big issue that will prove enormously divisive and impossible to overcome.
Enter Labor, which is second in the polls behind Likud Beiteinu, and Yachimovich, who has repeatedly declined to rule out joining a Likud-led coalition and who has insisted that Labor is not a leftwing party but a centrist party. Yachimovich wants to join the next coalition because she has never served as a minister and is relatively inexperienced and untested. Serving in the government will provide her with some more gravitas and do away with the impression that she isn’t quite ready for prime time, and lay the foundation for a future chance at expanding Labor’s seats and competing to be prime minister. In this vein, yesterday she gave an interview in which she said that the budget for settlements should remain untouched in the absence of a peace agreement with the Palestinians and stressed Labor’s history of building settlements when in government and that Labor has always had a hawkish element, including Yitzhak Rabin. This drew immediate responses from Lapid and Meretz chief Zahava Gal-On, but Yachimovich does not appear to be worried about Gal-On or other leftist parties damaging her credibility. Instead, she is clearly appealing to the fact that Israel’s electorate is far more hawkish on the Palestinians and the West Bank than in the past, and is laying the groundwork to be able to join a Likud-led coalition in which support for settlements is going to be a must. It is not accidental that Yachimovich broke her laser-like focus on economic and social issues to talk about settlements rather than Iran, the peace process, Gaza, etc. If there is one issue that will make it possible for Netanyahu to invite Labor into the coalition without risking a rightwing revolt it is support for the settlement budget, and Yachimovich’s interview was an attempt to forestall any criticism that might emerge on this front. While there will invariably be differences in opinion between her and Netanyahu on socioeconomic issues and on the peace process, there is now no daylight on the question of support for settlements. While I am loath to predict anything with certainly when it comes to coalition politics – particularly as I have been burned in the past – the signs as I read them point to a Likud-Labor unity government once the dust settles after the election.
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.
October 25, 2012 § 2 Comments
I have almost no time today, but I just cannot let the Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu merger go by without commenting. Here are my very brief thoughts, with hopefully more to follow later.
1. This deal shows how worried Netanyahu actually was about the emerging strength of the center-left bloc. The reason for him to make this deal is to control so many seats that there is no alternative but to let Likud form the next government.
2. This is about the two personalities involved rather than the parties. Netanyahu is now virtually guaranteed of staying on as PM no matter what else happens. Avigdor Lieberman gets to be the presumptive Likud heir apparent when Netanyahu eventually steps down and his own political power has increased immeasurably. 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. Oh, it also goes without saying that you can now kiss any hope of a peace deal or concessions to the Palestinians or a harder line on settlements goodbye.
3. Where the Haredi parties now go is the most interesting part of this. Before the Likud-Kadima deal last spring, the coalition was nearly falling apart due to the clash between YB and Shas. Now that YB is part of Likud and presumably still pushing the question of Haredi military service just as hard as before, can Shas actually be part of the next Likud-led coalition? I’m not sure that it reasonably can, and I think that Aryeh Deri’s presence makes it even more likely that it does not join up and considers its alternatives. And by the way, this should be a reminder to Andrew Sullivan that, like I previously argued, not all Israeli rightwing parties are rightwing in the same way.
4. If I am Tzipi Livni or Shelley Yachimovich, I strongly consider joining up with the Likud coalition following the elections given the secularist bent it is now bound to have. I also think about the fact that Lieberman might be the most polarizing figure in all of Israel, and that Likud is now stronger in the short term but weaker in the long term. In fact, I might go so far as to suggest that this move, and setting up Lieberman to take over Likud, means the eventual demise of the party as Israel’s political powerhouse.
5. If you just stop for a moment and think about what has gone on over the past year, Bibi’s coalition almost broke up over YB-Shas fighting; then he brought in Kadima in an effort to marginalize his Haredi partners; then the unity government broke up because Bibi decided to back the Haredi parties and their opposition to equalizing the burden of service, which infuriated Lieberman; and now he is actually merging with Lieberman and probably casting the Haredi parties into the wilderness. The two lessons from this are that Israeli politics is just about the most entertaining show in the world, and that Bibi has no long term plan or strategy other than surviving from moment to moment.
October 18, 2012 § 5 Comments
Dan Ephron, who is Newsweek’s Jerusalem bureau chief, wrote a piece on Monday about the Israeli right wing’s dominance of that country’s politics. Ephron quoted Noam Sheizaf as predicting that the election in January will create a “total collapse of the center-left, both as a political power and as an ideologically coherent idea,” and Ephron appears to agree that this is a likely scenario. The reason Ephron provides is that the fastest growing groups in Israel are the Orthodox and the ultra-Orthodox, and that “both groups lean heavily to the right.” Furthermore, “Since the core motivation for their political hawkishness is largely unchanging—a biblical injunction to maintain Israeli control over Judea and Samaria (their term for the West Bank)—it’s hard to imagine them ever shifting alliances. The upshot: with each passing year, the Israeli right grows stronger.”
This seems plausible on its face, but there are a few major problems with this analysis. First, conflating the Orthodox and the ultra-Orthodox (or Haredim) is a rookie mistake. Orthodox voters and Haredi voters have different motivations and vote based on different issues. The idea that a party like Shas speaks for, say, Israelis attending hesder yeshivot (where draft-eligible Israeli men split their time between army service and Torah study) is nonsense. It is also analytically lazy to contend that Orthodox Jews who serve in the IDF and go on to careers of various sorts are no different than Haredi Jews who do not perform army service and are largely dependent on state subsidies. Lumping their positions and ideologies together makes Ephron’s argument automatically suspect.
Second, it is simply not accurate to describe Haredi rightwing tendencies as being motivated by a desire to hold on to Greater Israel. As my friend Brent Sasley has pointed out, Haredim are generally anti-Zionist or non-Zionist. Not only do they not care about maintaining all of Greater Israel, as Ephron contends, but many Haredim are actually opposed to the idea of Israel at all, let alone an Israel that encompasses the West Bank. Haredi parties in the Knesset recognize the existence of the state, but they do not care about any biblical injunction regarding the land of Israel. In fact, as Brent usefully noted, Rav Ovadia Yosef, the founder and current spiritual leader of Shas (which is the Knesset’s largest Orthodox party of any stripe), held for years that it was acceptable to give up land if it would save Jewish lives, which is certainly not in line with Ephron’s dubious claim that Haredi rightwing positions stem first and foremost from a desire to hang on to the West Bank. Haredi parties generally – although historically not always – band together with other rightwing parties because they are very socially conservative and they feel most at home on the right. Issues surrounding the West Bank or the Palestinians have very little to do with it.
Third, throwing Likud’s politics in together with Haredi politics and pretending that it all stems from the same rightwing ideology is inaccurate. Both segments are conservative and ideological in their own way, but their conservatism and ideology are not shared. Likud is economically conservative and extremely devoted to the settler cause, and if any party has an ideology based on settling the entire land of Greater Israel, Likud is it. There is, of course, the inconvenient fact that Likud leaders are not themselves religious, including Likud founder Menachem Begin and current Likud prime minister Bibi Netanyahu, but certainly a sizable percentage of Likud voters are Orthodox (but not Haredi). Haredi parties are ideological and conservative as well, but their conservatism is social rather than economic – not surprising given how many Haredim survive on state largesse – and their ideology is one of fealty to Torah and Jewish law as a way of structuring daily life, rather than anything surrounding settling or holding onto the land. Likud is rightwing, and Shas and UTJ are rightwing, but they are rightwingers in the same way the Club for Growth and the Christian Coalition are rightwing – they inhabit the same general political universe but for vastly different reasons.
It is true that the Orthodox and the ultra-Orthodox both lean heavily to the right, but that is about the only part of Ephron’s analysis that isn’t stunningly ill-informed. Just because both groups have the word “Orthodox” in their names does not mean that they share the same core motivations. The Israeli right may be growing stronger, but that doesn’t mean that Haredi parties wouldn’t shift their allegiance to the left if they were promised a better deal on subsidies and control of Israel’s religious institutions. Ephron’s permanent majority theory is based on some serious basic factual errors, and given that he is the Jerusalem bureau chief for one of America’s most prominent newsweeklies, I expect some more rigor from him.
August 21, 2012 § 3 Comments
Bibi Netanyahu and Ehud Barak have run into the problem that they appear to be virtually alone when it comes to deciding whether to strike Iran’s nuclear facilities. The two are so out on a limb at the moment that Shai Feldman, writing in Foreign Policy, declared the debate over attacking Iran to be over because Netanyahu and Barak lack the minimum consensus that would be required for military action. The defense and intelligence establishments are united in wanting to wait for the U.S. and not wanting to attack Iran unilaterally, and until Avi Dichter was added to the security cabinet formerly known as the Octet last week (which means that it is no longer a shminiya but a tishiya), the vote to attack Iran was reportedly split 4-4. A lot was made of the fact that Dichter is presumed to be on Netanyahu and Barak’s side and that adding him to the mix breaks the logjam, but I didn’t write anything about that last week because it is a faulty and ill-informed argument. A 5-4 vote is not going to be enough to launch a strike given the heavy opposition that exists to such a move; Netanyahu and Barak need to do some serious convincing and make real headway with the holdouts, who are Benny Begin, Dan Meridor, Moshe “Boogie” Ya’alon, and Eli Yishai.
It is this last name that is perhaps the toughest to move, because Begin, Meridor, and Ya’alon are all members of Likud and presumably Netanyahu has some more sway with them since he is their party leader (although my hunch is that Meridor, and to a lesser extent Begin, would never flip). Yishai, however, is a member of Shas, and that’s how we get to the outrageously cynical ploy that Bibi tried yesterday. For the uninitiated – although since you are reading a niche blog about Israeli politics right now, you probably don’t need this background – Shas is an ultra-Orthodox Sephardic party whose spiritual leader, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, controls how its members vote despite not being an elected official of any kind. I wrote about this dynamic back in May, when Rabbi Yosef ordered Yishai to change his opinion on being willing to consider alternatives to the Tal Law. What you have in Shas is a theocratic party, in which the elected politicians are beholden to the party’s rabbinic leadership and dare not contravene rabbinic orders when it comes to taking public positions or voting on issues in the Knesset or the cabinet. With this in mind, yesterday Rabbi Ovadia Yosef – who holds no elected or official position in the Israeli polity and has zero to do with Israeli national security – was the recipient of a national security briefing on Iran. Not only was he briefed, but it was done by Yaakov Amidror, the head of the Israeli National Security Council, lest anyone think that this was not a big deal or little more than a courtesy for a former chief rabbi of Israel.
Make no mistake about what is going on here in case it isn’t already abundantly clear: Netanyahu is trying to swing a vote to launch a strike against Iran by convincing a religious leader to order an acolyte to vote a certain way. He is not trying to convince Yishai by making a cogent case for military action – or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that he has given up trying to do it this way – but is going above his head to Yishai’s rabbi, whom he knows Yishai is bound to follow, and telling a man with no national security experience at all and no training or education in evaluating intelligence or threat assessments that it is crucial to bomb Iran. Does anyone think that Amidror, a general and Israel’s equivalent of Tom Donilon, had any trouble at all convincing Rabbi Yosef about the urgent need to strike now in order to prevent Israel’s annihilation? For all of the outrageous things that go on in politics, and Israeli politics in particular, this represents an absolute low. It is a naked appeal to religious authority made to a theocratic party in which politicians serve as mouthpieces for rabbis. The reason that Shas has never taken an interest in foreign affairs is because its spiritual leaders don’t care about the issue, and to prey on that ignorance in order to influence a crucial position on national security is nothing short of abominable.
There are two conclusions to be drawn from this sorry and craven episode. First, Netanyahu is desperate since he realizes that he is fighting a steep uphill battle and he will resort to anything, no matter how blatantly insulting and undemocratic, to get an advantage. Second, Netanyahu and Barak’s argument for an attack is not only falling on deaf ears but is so weak on its face that they both know it cannot win on its own merits. Briefing Eli Yishai’s rabbi is not a move made out of strength, but one made out of a position that is even weaker than anyone could have realized. If this svengali routine is the best that Netanyahu can come up with, I hope for his sake that he has something better when it comes to the rest of his security cabinet, since unlike Yishai, the three Likud holdouts do not answer to a higher authority.
July 23, 2012 § Leave a comment
For anyone paying attention to the news this weekend, it appeared that Kadima was on the ropes. There were reports that a faction of Kadima MKs was set to leave and join Likud, while another group of more left-leaning Kadima members were plotting to leave and either form their own party or join up with Labor or Meretz. As of today, however, it seems that the rebels have been foiled for now. Finally, Shaul Mofaz shows why he was a top general! Instead of breaking away, the four Kadima MKs who had allegedly agreed to move over to Likud are now going to be referred to the Knesset House Committee as secessionists and if they are found to have tried to secede then they will not be able to run again under the Kadima banner.
The reason the four cannot just leave on their own is, in a bit of dark humor, a legacy of Likud trying to entice Mofaz to do the very same thing for which he is now denouncing his own members. 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 seven 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. Reports over the weekend were that a group of seven had been lined up, but this turned out to be premature, despite the fact that Likud members were reportedly bragging about having held discussions with half of the Kadima MKs.
Why did this gambit fail? For one, it was organized by the wrong person. Tzachi Hanegbi, who was trying to organize the group of Kadima rebels to jump ship and was going to be named Home Front Defense Minister in return, is not currently a member of the Knesset after having been convicted of perjury. For him, this is a cost-free action since he doesn’t have much to lose by incurring the wrath of Mofaz and the Kadima leadership, but that is not the case for the MKs. Either the larger group of seven got spooked by something or they did not like what they were hearing from Likud, but they were taking a bigger chance by attempting to leave than Hanegbi is and might have suspected that he was using them for no other reason than to get himself back into the cabinet. Had the move to Likud been organized by an MK, perhaps the story this morning might be different.
Second, it’s possible that Netanyahu himself fouled this up by inexplicably presenting his watered down Tal Law replacement plan to the cabinet yesterday. It is essentially a sellout to the Haredi parties that calls for only 6000 Haredim to be drafted annually and calls for a draft exemption age of 26, and does away with any personal sanctions for draft dodgers. After basically giving Haredim another free pass, it would have been tough for the Kadima MKs to go, as the Plesner plan was far more popular than the one that Netanyahu just announced and the optics would have been terrible for the Kadima rebels to join Likud the day after Bibi made it clear that he is putting his Haredi coalition partners’ interests above popular sentiment.
This appears to be Bibi’s first real strategic blunder to date. For whatever reason, the Kadima MKs are staying put for now and he still has to deal with his awkward coalition that contains Shas/UTJ and Yisrael Beiteinu, who are very much at odds. If the Kadima members had joined Likud, he would have been able to more or less ignore YB, but now he is stuck with the same problem he had before the Kadima unity deal. In addition, the polls on Likud are all over the place with some indicating that Likud is losing popularity over the Plesner Committee fiasco and others indicating that Likud will increase their margin in the next election. So as things currently stand, Netanyahu began the weekend with the prospect of picking up Knesset seats without having to call elections, and ended the weekend right back where he started but is now saddled with a Tal Law albatross around his neck of his own making. My hunch is that he thought the Kadima rebels jumping ship was a done deal and he then took the opportunity to shore up Shas and UTJ support with his Tal Law replacement bill. There have been rumors today that Netanyahu is now going to call an early election within 90 days, and then quick refutations from the prime minister’s office that these rumors are wrong. Elections would make sense if Bibi had expected to have a larger Likud this morning but now doesn’t and thinks he might reasonably pick up the majority of voters who cast their ballots for Kadima in 2009, but given the polls that show Likud dropping and the fact that he just signed on to what is sure to be a massively unpopular draft law, I think that the rumors of early elections are probably unwarranted. Whatever the case may be, this has not been one of Netanyahu’s better political sequences.
July 17, 2012 § 5 Comments
So remember when I predicted that Shaul Mofaz and Kadima were going to remain in the coalition? Turns out, not so much. According to reports, Kadima is officially out over the failure of Mofaz and Bibi Netanyahu to bridge the gap between their parties over what will replace the Tal Law. Specifically, the sticking point is the age until which Haredim can defer the draft, with Mofaz insisting that Netanyahu’s proposal of allowing Haredim to defer until age 23 is unacceptable. And so with that, the curtain closes on the grand unity government experiment.
Why did I get this wrong? I think I underestimated the humiliation and credibility factors for Mofaz. He has been threatening to pull out for weeks, and each time he issued a threat and Bibi called his bluff, it turned into a hollow one. There were only so many times Mofaz could allow that to happen, and my assumption that the overarching political considerations (more on that in a moment) would trump the more personal ones was pretty obviously faulty. I also underestimated the degree to which Netanyahu was going to remain in thrall to the Haredi parties, since the logic of creating the larger coalition was precisely so that he wouldn’t have to be held hostage to the demands of Shas and Eli Yishai. Unlike some others, I did not think that the Likud-Kadima agreement was about Iran, and unless Mofaz is actually leaving because a strike is imminent and he wants no part of it, the Iran factor was clearly overhyped by some. Given Netanyahu’s unwillingness to do what he could to keep Kadima in the coalition following his establishment of the Plesner Committee, which signaled his intention to let Kadima lead on the Tal Law, I am confused as to what his original intention was. It was obvious to me at the time that it was not about Iran or the peace process, and I assumed it was to give him maneuvering room for equalizing the burden of service and upsetting his Haredi coalition partners and for ignoring the extreme faction within Likud on his right. That he let the unity government fall apart like this is puzzling to me, since while Mofaz walks away from this looking weak and like a buffoon, so does Netanyahu to a lesser extent. Make no mistake, the Kadima position on this is a lot more popular with Israelis than the Likud/Shas position, and Netanyahu just lost an opportunity to score some very easy political points while at the same time doing the right thing by not letting Haredim avoid their duties to the state.
So, assuming that my analysis still carries some credibility, what comes next? To begin with, Kadima leaving does not alter the fact that Netanyahu still has a governing coalition that agrees on most rightwing issues. In fact, he is going to have a larger coalition than he did before the deal with Mofaz, because a bunch of Kadima MKs are now going to break off and join Likud. I thought this was going to happen both before the unity deal and after the unity deal, and the only difference now is that Mofaz himself will not be going with them. Netanyahu is still going to have to reconcile the fact that Shas and UTJ want to maintain the status quo on the draft and Yisrael Beiteinu does not, but this juggling act might be easier to manage depending on how many Kadima MKs break away from their current home and join their former home. I have seen early reports that it will be at least 7, and it might grow to more. So while Netanyahu’s life is more difficult today than it was yesterday, he is still in good shape and will head into elections in early 2013 in a strong position.
As for Kadima, this misguided move today is going to be the final nail in the coffin. Mofaz is first going to have to deal with a rump party following the MKs who break off and head for Likud, not to mention the other group of 7 that wanted to break away in May and start a new party to be headed by Tzipi Livni and Haim Ramon. Then there is the problem that Kadima has essentially transformed itself from one single issue party (disengagement from Gaza) to another single issue party (equalizing the burden of service), and while this is a popular issue, it is not enough to sustain a viable party (Kadima’s new slogan is apparently “Kadima L’Shareit” which means Kadima, To Serve, or more literally Forward, To Serve). Mofaz still has no real credibility on social justice issues, and what little benefit of the doubt anyone was willing to grant him vanished into thin air the day he joined forces with Bibi. So what’s left for him? There is no way that Netanyahu and Likud are now going to adopt any policy that even resembles what Kadima was proposing on the universal draft, and there might even be enough defections from Kadima one way or the other to knock Mofaz out of being leader of the opposition. Even if Kadima retains enough members to be the largest opposition party, Mofaz will be left shouting into the wind on this issue and does not have enough of a base or a coherent set of policies to prevent Kadima from getting decimated in the next election. The bottom line here is that this is an enormous loss for Mofaz; he was outmaneuvered by Bibi, made his situation much worse by issuing a stream of threats to leave despite his bluff being repeatedly called, and now his party is almost certainly fated to disappear and he has ruined his own chances of being welcomed back into Likud with open arms. No matter which way you view this, today was the most epic of fails for Shaul Mofaz, and Netanyahu gets to remain right where he was.