Netanyahu Is Going To Trade One Headache For Another

December 3, 2014 § 3 Comments

The big news from Israel this week is that early elections, long predicted by many, are now officially here. Following months of bickering between Bibi Netanyahu and his various ministers, internal upheaval within Likud, and fights over legislation involving the budget and the Jewish nation-state bill, Netanyahu yesterday fired Yair Lapid and Tzipi Livni from the cabinet, the Knesset voted to dissolve, and elections have been scheduled for March 17. This government did not even make it to the two year mark before dissolving (elections were in January 2013 and the coalition was formed in March of that year), but this shouldn’t have come as a surprise to anyone. This was in many ways the strangest and most unlikely coalition government to ever be compiled in Israeli history. You had ministers from other rightwing parties not even trying to hide their desire to at some point soon supplant Bibi by overthrowing Likud, ministers from Bibi’s own party quitting because of their distaste for him, an alliance between two parties – Yesh Atid and Habayit Hayehudi – that had little business allying on anything but did so in an effort to box Bibi in, and such polar opposite opinions between ministers on matters ranging from Jerusalem to the peace process to the budget to Israel’s identity that the government could not credibly claim to have a unified coherent opinion on anything. So this was never a matter of if the government would spectacularly implode, but a matter of when.

Yet despite the complete dysfunction and mayhem that has marked Israel’s 33rd government, Netanyahu’s move to fire his ministers now and to hold new elections is a misstep for him. Netanyahu’s thinking seems rather straightforward here, and theoretically makes sense; the polls indicate a bigger share of votes for rightwing parties in general, so he can go to new elections, construct a coalition that leaves out Lapid and Livni and thus eliminates his budgetary nemesis and his peace process nemesis, and bring in the Haredi parties instead – who will do whatever Bibi wants provided they get their usual buy-offs in the form of subsidies and benefits – and have a much easier time managing his government. It seems simple enough to trade in the current coalition for a more rightwing and pliable one, but Netanyahu may find in the end that he is going to get more than he bargained for, because while this plan makes sense on paper, the path to getting there is not quite so easy.

For starters, a more rightwing coalition doesn’t necessarily mean a more pliable one. The truth is that for varying reasons, Netanyahu has very few allies left on the right aside from Yuval Steinitz and Bogie Ya’alon. Not only is he without allies, but leading rightwing politicians actively and openly despise him. President Ruvi Rivlin, whose Likud credentials are unimpeachable, would love nothing more than to see Bibi toppled following the prime minister’s failed attempt to prevent Rivlin from replacing Shimon Peres as Israel’s president and views Bibi as unnecessarily inflaming relations between Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs. Gideon Sa’ar, who is enormously popular among the rank and file and who was the leading vote getter in the last Likud primary, resigned his ministerial and Knesset posts in September, but gave a “retirement” speech in which he made plain his disdain for Netanyahu and that he would be returning to politics in the near future. Moshe Kahlon, another popular Likud politician who was a main driver of Mizrahi votes for the party, suddenly quit the party right before the last election over reported differences with Bibi and has now formed his own party with the aim of siphoning more votes away from Netanyahu. The enmity between Netanyahu and the ascendant radical Likudniks such as Danny Danon and Moshe Feiglin is well-documented and this group smells blood in the water as an isolated Netanyahu now sits on an island occupying the left pole of the party. Then there is Avigdor Lieberman, who is zigging and zagging – including releasing his own peace plan last week – and trying to be all things to all people in hopes of fulfilling his long held dream of becoming prime minister one day himself. He is only going to cooperate with Netanyahu to the extent that it furthers his own career interests, and given that the best way of positioning himself is to differentiate himself from the current prime minister, I don’t anticipate much altruism from Lieberman being directed Bibi’s way.

Finally there is Naftali Bennett, who is slated to take over Yair Lapid’s role as Bibi’s bete noire in the next government. Despite appearing to have reached a detente in recent months, Bennett and Netanyahu are still at odds, still have personal issues with each other (thanks to Sara Netanyahu), and are natural political rivals. Unlike Lapid though, Bennett represents an actual threat to Bibi, because he has the ability to hit Bibi where it hurts by stealing the prime minister’s own base. I have been arguing for years that the real political threat to Netanyahu comes not from his left but from his right, and Bennett is the personification of that threat. He is more appealing to the settler right and to nationalists – and let there be no doubt that Netanyahu’s championing of the Jewish nation-state bill is primarily an effort to win back the mantle of Israel’s most vigilant nationalist – and more appealing to the economically conservative technology and entrepreneur class as he is one of them. The right trusts him in a way that they don’t trust Bibi, and this goes double for religious voters. Bennett has also made a naked play at broadening Habayit Hayehudi’s electoral appeal by amending the party’s constitution in September to allow him to directly appoint every fifth candidate to the party’s electoral list in order to get more secular and Russian candidates into Habayit Hayehudi’s Knesset bloc. The upshot of all this is that Bennet doesn’t want to help Netanyahu; he wants to replace Netanyahu. He knows that it is unlikely to happen outright in this election, but if Bennett emerges from elections with the second most mandates in the Knesset, he is going to spend his time either pulling Netanyahu rightward  – and loudly taking the credit for the results – or setting up showdowns designed to expose Netanyahu as a fraud to Israeli rightwing voters. Either way, Netanyahu may end up longing for the types of battles that he had with Lapid rather than those that will be orchestrated by Bennett.

Then there is Netanyahu’s assumption that the result of elections in March will be more overall Knesset seats for the rightwing bloc, and I’m not so sure about this one either. The current polls certainly reflect this to be the case, but the election is three months away and Israeli polls are notoriously unreliable. If Lapid and Livni band together, which by all indications is going to happen, it is going to pull the combined party to the left as Lapid will bring Livni along with the socially oriented economic program that he cares most about while Livni brings Lapid along with the peace process program that she cares most about, and such a party has a good shot of picking up more votes than the individual sum of its parts. In addition, Kahlon is polling well despite having literally no platform or real public positions yet, and that may dissipate very quickly once he is held to the fire. Even if it doesn’t, Kahlon’s party may end up being more leftwing than rightwing given his historical focus on socioeconomic issues for Israel’s more underprivileged sectors. The Israeli economy has suffered since the Gaza war, and if Netanyahu’s economic stewardship becomes a loud campaign issue, which Lapid and Labor are both trying to make happen, it does not bode well for any of the parties on the right given Netanyahu’s reputation as the godfather of unbridled Israeli capitalism.

Leaving aside the right more generally, Likud itself may not even match its current nineteen seats despite the early polls. Voters are wary about the state of the economy, and for the first time in a decade there is a real sense of unease over the domestic security situation given the spate of attacks in Jerusalem and the West Bank. Netanyahu’s choice of making such a big deal over the nation-state bill is also an odd one, as his traditional appeal is as the only experienced grownup in the room who can truly protect Israel in a time of growing threats. There is risk in pursuing this battle-tested strategy coming on the heels of a mixed performance in Gaza and new upheaval on the Palestinian front, but it is also true that many more Israelis are inclined to support Netanyahu’s no-nonsense rhetorical approach when they are feeling less safe. There is far less consensus on the nation-state Jewish identity issue than there is on being vigilant with Israel’s security, and by seizing upon the nation-state bill to benefit his own campaign, Bibi is taking a risk that he is actually using a wedge issue that will harm him. Likud is more likely to draw votes by primarily projecting itself as the ultimate guarantor of Israelis’ safety than by primarily projecting itself as the ultimate guarantor of Jewish identity. There is also the fact that a not insignificant chunk of voters seems to be annoyed that Netanyahu is going to early elections and don’t quite see the point beyond political expediency, which could hurt Likud. Finally, it is looking like with everyone gunning for Netanyahu personally, this campaign may end up being a referendum on the man himself, and while he has been popular enough to slide by with a plurality of votes in a very divided political system, he is not universally popular in any objective sense of the word.

A lot can happen in the three months between now and the election that will affect votes in unanticipated ways, be it rock throwers on the Temple Mount or Sara Netanyahu’s Haagen Dazs budget, but my educated guess this far out is that the right’s share is not going to be too much above 60-65 votes and that Likud is going to lose ground relative to Habayit Hayehudi so that the power imbalance between Netanyahu and Bennett narrows further. Netanyahu is living in a cocoon and has been at the top for so long that his instincts are off. If he ends up with a narrower margin above the leftwing parties than he is expecting along with a further empowered Bennett looking to stick a knife in his back at every opportunity, Netanyahu may just end up wishing that he had left well enough alone and stuck with his current low-grade headache rather than trading up for a migraine.

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Leave Pollard Where He Is

April 1, 2014 § 19 Comments

The last time I wrote about Jonathan Pollard was two years ago after Shimon Peres made a personal appeal to President Obama for Pollard’s release, an appeal that was thankfully turned down. I had hoped to never have to waste even a minute of my time on the subject again, but the U.S. is now reportedly considering releasing Pollard in exchange for Israel agreeing to extend the current peace talks through 2015 and to enact a partial settlement freeze. Pollard’s release would also be accompanied by Israel releasing an additional 400 Palestinian prisoners on top of the ones whom they already agreed to release.

Let’s start with Pollard himself. What directly prompted my blog post last time was Gilad Shalit’s father publicly offering his support for Pollard’s cause to Pollard’s wife, and now Gilad Shalit himself has sent a letter to Obama requesting clemency for the unrepentant spy. While I understand Shalit’s personal sympathy for someone who has spent an extended period under lock and key, the comparison between Pollard and Shalit is odious. What I wrote two years ago has not changed one iota, and so I am going to reproduce it once again in the next paragraph as a handy reminder of why Pollard and Shalit do not belong in the same universe, let alone the same sentence.

Shalit was a 19 year old conscript captured by a terrorist organization that illegally breached the border fence and abducted him on Israeli territory. Pollard was a 31 year old civilian analyst who committed espionage in exchange for cash and jewelry and pled guilty to spying against his own country. Shalit’s actions were in no way responsible for his abduction (and please, spare me the noxious theory that all Israeli soldiers everywhere are legitimate targets no matter the circumstance) and he was not engaged in any hostilities against his captors at the time of his being taken hostage. Pollard’s actions are directly responsible for his imprisonment, as he stole classified information and passed on thousands of documents to a foreign government. Shalit was held in terrible conditions in violation of the Geneva Conventions and despite calls from the U.N., the Red Cross, the G-8, and individual countries for his immediate and unconditional release. Pollard is a legitimate prisoner under the laws of the United States and in accordance with international norms, is housed in safe and sanitary conditions in a medium security federal prison, and no international governmental organizations or human rights groups have called for his release. Shalit was illegally held by Hamas as a hostage for the sole purpose of extorting Israel into complying with Hamas demands and not because Shalit had any information or intelligence that would be of value to his abductors. Pollard is alleged by the U.S. to have an unacknowledged accomplice (according to former Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon) and the precise details of everything that Pollard passed on are still unclear. Shalit did not have to express remorse for his actions because he took no actions at all. Pollard remains unrepentant for spying against his own country. Shalit has been an Israeli citizen from birth, embraced both de facto and de jure by his country by virtue of being unambiguously and openly sent by Israel to serve in the military. Pollard did not become an Israeli citizen until 1995 after he had been arrested, convicted, and imprisoned, and Israel did not admit until 1998 that he was working on Israel’s behalf with its full knowledge and authorization. Shalit’s abduction did not subject any of his fellow citizens to additional danger or peril, nor did it damage Israel’s relations with any other country. Pollard’s spying cast serious aspersions on every Jewish citizen of the United States and created a backlash against Israel in the U.S. intelligence community. Shalit is an innocent kid who was held hostage by terrorists. Pollard is a traitorous spy who is wholly deserving of remaining in jail.

Even all of this aside, which should be more than enough reason to leave Pollard exactly where he is, releasing Pollard in the context of current negotiations is a terrible mistake. Pollard himself has nothing to do with an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal. He is not being held by the Palestinian Authority or Hamas, his actions were in no way related to the conflict, and his status should be completely unrelated to the talks. That the Israeli government would link his release to its own willingness to resolving a wholly separate issue is shameful. If Israel does not think that it is in its own best interests to continue negotiating or if it genuinely believes that it has no reliable partner across the table, then it should end the negotiations irrespective of what the U.S. offers since to do otherwise would be to take a concession in bad faith. Conversely, if the Israeli government believes that negotiations stand a good chance of success and that a deal with the Palestinians would be in Israel’s best interests, then it is monstrously dumb to link the willingness to keep on talking to Pollard’s release. Pollard is a factor that has no impact at all on the substance of a deal. His remaining in prison or his walking out a free man will not make Israel any safer or any more trustful of the Palestinians, and so using him as a reason to either keep negotiating or cease negotiating makes absolutely no sense at all from a substantive perspective. Were I the U.S., I would call this bluff without blinking.

Furthermore, if the negotiations are going so poorly that Israel will only agree to keep them going if Pollard is let out, then the two sides stand very little chance of coming to an agreement. That being the case, why release Pollard for such an ephemeral concession? Were the talks in their end stages and Israel needed a small push to get over the finish line, then the logic would make more sense, but Israel agreeing to extend the talks for another nine months and not issuing any new housing tenders in the West Bank in return for Pollard more likely than not means that the two sides will waste another nine months and then return to the status quo ante. This is a move that absolutely reeks of desperation on the Obama administration’s part, and it shows. John Kerry pretty clearly wants this to succeed more badly than either of the two actual parties to the conflict, and he is willing to do anything to advance the ball inches down the field. That is admirable tenacity, but in this case his tactic is a mistake that is not going to lead to any long term success.

I have no inside information as to how close Pollard’s release is to actually happening, but my best guess is that the administration leaked this as a trial balloon to gauge the reaction from the national security community and from the American Jewish community. I hope that the people at the Pentagon, CIA, and other agencies freak out over the news, make a big public stink, and Pollard remains locked up. His release will only cause problems for the American Jewish community, will not advance the cause of peace, and will create a terrible set of incentives for both the Israelis and the Palestinians that as long as they commit to a process, irrespective of any real progress, they can ask for any outrageous concession they want and will likely get it.

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.

Welcome to Israeli Election Day

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.

The Best of Israel and the Worst of Israel

August 23, 2012 § 2 Comments

Following the disgusting and abominable attack on Arab teenagers in Jerusalem’s Kikar Tzion last week – which, for those of you keeping track at home, Emergency Committee for Israel executive director Noah Pollak referred to as a “late-night scuffle” – Israel’s leaders have been unsparing in their condemnation of the incident. Shimon Peres declared himself ashamed at what happened and stated the obvious, which is that the Arab teens were attacked for no reason other than the fact that they are Arabs. While this is not surprising coming from Peres, Israeli rightwing politicians have been just as harsh in their denunciations. Bibi Netanyahu described the attack as racist to its core, and former IDF chief of staff and current vice PM Boogie Ya’alon called it an “act of terror” which left no ambiguity into how serious Israeli leaders view what has been accurately described as a lynching. Going further, Knesset speaker and Likud MK Reuven Rivlin visited one of the victims in the hospital yesterday and apologized, noting that racist anti-Arab sentiment is clearly not just on the fringe of Israeli society and that the attack is a “microcosm of a national problem that could endanger Israeli democracy.” Daniel Seidemann, writing on Jeffrey Goldberg’s blog, noted that the discourse from Likud politicians on this is significant because it is not being done with public opinion in mind (it will not help Bibi or anyone else in the Likud primaries) and indicates that rightwing politicians are genuinely worried that this is a serious and growing problem.

This is the way democracies are supposed to work, and it is heartening that for all of the criticism of Israel, both legitimate and illegitimate, over its treatment of Palestinians, things are operating in the aftermath of this attack exactly as they should. The government is not trying to explain it away or call it anything other than racism and terrorism, and Rivlin’s acknowledgment that this kind of behavior is becoming endemic and is a problem for a democratic society is the type of soul-searching that any democracy needs to go through in order to remain strong and vibrant. As I’ve noted before, for someone like me who is not shy about calling out Israeli misbehavior, it is important to also praise the things that demonstrate the strength of Israeli democracy and Israeli character, and the response to the Kikar Tzion attack across the political spectrum deserves to be praised. For all of the talk that Israel is content to keep the status quo and has no interest in introspection when it comes to treatment of Palestinians or Israeli Arabs, the political response so far is encouraging, and perhaps the worst of Israel encapsulated by the Kikar Tzion beating will now bring out the best of Israel.

Moving from the best of Israel to the other end of the spectrum, the political leaders who have not exactly covered themselves in glory this week are the two Yisrael Beiteinu members who run the Israeli Foreign Ministry, FM Avigdor Lieberman and deputy FM Danny Ayalon. Lieberman has apparently decided to take it upon himself to wage political guerilla warfare against Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority, writing a letter to the Quartet calling for new Palestinian elections with the aim of ousting Abbas as Palestinian president and then saying today that Abbas is a greater threat to Israel than Hamas. Netanyahu’s office distanced itself from Lieberman immediately, saying that his letter does not reflect the position of either Bibi or the government, and Ehud Barak slammed Lieberman for harming Israeli interests and for basically being a dolt in believing that it would be better for Israel were Hamas to take over control of the PA. Lieberman told a group of Israel ambassadors that he wrote the letter because the Israeli government is not heeding his advice and relaying his views on the Palestinians to the West, which is just the latest piece of evidence that the government sees Lieberman as the embarrassment that he is. That Israel does not have a professional, or even competent, foreign minister is a serious problem, and that Lieberman is in the post for political reasons is not an excuse. Israel has so many experienced and talented ambassadors and diplomats, and it discredits the entire enterprise to have Lieberman as the front man, even if he is not taken seriously by anyone inside or outside his government.

Not to be outdone by his boss, Ayalon resumed his spate of strange and embarrassing behavior by saying that South Africa remains an apartheid state in response to South Africa’s decision to label goods made in the West Bank as made in “occupied Palestinian territory.” Ayalon is rightly upset about what this will do to Israeli business interests, particularly if it ends up starting a trend that is picked up by other countries, but instead of responding with a measured argument, he chose to make a completely unsubstantiated (and incorrect) charge about South African politics and society. Not only won’t this change the South African government’s mind and will probably lead to an even further worsening of ties between the two countries, Ayalon did the exact thing that he and other Israel diplomats correctly rail against, which is recklessly tossing around the charge of apartheid in places to which it does not apply. How is Ayalon supposed to protest the next time some politician or celebrity stupidly refers to Israel as an apartheid state when he has just done the exact same thing? Ayalon was for years a respected diplomat and served as an able foreign policy advisor to Likud politicians and as ambassador to the U.S., but has seen his reputation take a serious turn for the worse under Lieberman. Between things like this and his ridiculous attempt at humiliating the Turkish ambassador by making him sit on a low chair in front of television cameras (for which Ayalon was forced to apologize), it’s tough to conclude anything other than that Lieberman’s corrosive influence is having a negative impact on Ayalon’s common sense. As well as the response to the attempted lynching of Arab teens by Jews has reflected on Israel’s politicians, its diplomats’ puerile actions this week have demonstrated the exact opposite.

 

A Tale of Two Letters

July 18, 2012 § Leave a comment

Two letters were issued this week that tell very different stories about where Israel is going. The first was from the Shomron Residents Council and it was addressed to Shimon Peres. The settlement movement has never been in love with Peres, but they are particularly outraged at him at the moment following Peres’s comments last week about the need to take Israel’s demographic challenges into account and end the settlement project. The letter, which was also published as an ad in today’s Ha’aretz, calls for Peres to step down after accusing him of being a Palestinian agent working against Israeli and Jewish interests. It also states that Peres should join Meretz, Balad, or Kadima, but that he cannot continue serving as the president of the state.

Nobody who is thinking clearly would actually accuse Peres, the last remaining politically active member of Israel’s founding generation and literally one of the fathers of the state, of acting against Israel’s interests, so in that respect this is a fundamentally unserious letter. It does, however, tell us something serious about a significant portion of Israeli citizens, which is that they view Israel in a disturbingly parochial and sectarian manner. Calling for Peres to step down for crossing the settlers is rather unremarkable, but calling for him to join Meretz or Balad or Kadima is a statement that speaks volumes. First, it suggests that the settler leadership does not view those parties as legitimate, since it is apparently acceptable for Peres to be a member of Kadima despite not acting in the interests of the Israeli public or the Jewish public. Second, it implies that in order to serve as president of Israel, you must adhere to a certain line with regard to the settlements, and anyone that crosses this line also crosses the boundary of being unfit for office. This is a revolutionary view of citizenship, political participation, and public service. It imagines an Israel that is not simply split between citizens and non-citizens, or even Jews and non-Jews, but one that is officially and legally further fragmented along lines that delineate between acceptable viewpoints and unacceptable viewpoints. Peres is free to join Meretz or Kadima in the eyes of the settlement leadership since these parties, in their view, do not act in the state’s interests and are thus illegitimate.

The second letter was from the Israel Policy Forum and it was addressed to Prime Minister Netanyahu. The IPF letter was a response to the Levy Report, and it expressed the fear that adopting Levy’s recommendations will lead to the end of the two state solution. It referred to the importance of maintaining Israel as both a Jewish and democratic state, and stated that the Levy Report will actually weaken Israel’s hand in its conflict with the Palestinians by providing fodder to the delegitimization crowd. The letter was then signed by 41 leaders of the American Jewish community.

The letter itself was smartly worded with its acknowledgement that the Palestinian Authority has “abdicated leadership by not returning to the negotiating table” and thus negating any warrantless accusations that the letter is an effort to place all blame on Israel, and as I wrote last week, I think that framing the issue of settlements strategically by referencing the serious threat to Israel’s future is the way to go. What is more encouraging though is the list of signatories. Nobody will be surprised that the letter was signed by Charles Bronfman or Rabbi Eric Yoffie, people with a reputation for being in the center or the left on Israel issues. It was also signed by Rabbi Daniel Gordis, who is at the Shalem Center and recently held a well-publicized debate with Peter Beinart, and by Thomas Dine, who used to head up AIPAC. It suggests a different vision of Israel, one in which leaders from all sides of the spectrum are able to cooperate and come to an agreement on the big issues facing the Jewish state. Rather than viewing everything through a narrow prism, folks like Gordis and Dine, who might have very different views on settlements generally than someone like Yoffie, are able to recognize the unique problem that the Levy Report poses. In fact, Gordis wrote in Ha’aretz that he does not necessarily disagree with Levy’s legal reasoning, but that adopting the report would signal an annexation of the West Bank and the official abandonment of the two state solution. The letter represents a hopeful trend of moving away from political and ideological sectarianism and viewing Israel not as a disparate collection of tribal groups but as a whole. Quite frankly, it represents a more hopeful vision than the one displayed just yesterday by Bibi Netanyahu and Shaul Mofaz, who could not maintain a unity government in the face of some tough decisions over whether Israelis should equally share in the burden of service or not. Let’s hope that going forward, the vision contained in the IPF missive trumps the that contained in the Shomrom Residents Council’s one.

Thinking Strategically on Settlements

July 13, 2012 § 1 Comment

Shimon Peres gave a speech this week in which he warned about the danger that settlements pose to Israel’s Jewish majority. He spoke about a “threatening demographic change” and pointed out that without a Jewish majority, Israel will cease to be a Jewish state. This prompted predictable outrage from the right, with Yesha head Dani Dayan inveighing that the only danger to the Jewish state is conceding the right to the West Bank and 350 rabbis sending Peres a letter in which they said he should beg for forgiveness for the peace process and criticized his “hallucinatory ideas.” Peres’s speech also, however, brought opprobrium from the left, as various people were upset that Peres framed the problem with settlements as a strategic problem rather than an ethical or moral one. In this view, the primary problem with the settlements is that they are furthering the occupation and preventing a Palestinian state, and thus the argument against them should be that Israel is perpetrating an unethical policy in the West Bank and settlements should be denounced primarily as conflicting with the value of a democratic state and a Jewish state.

I am sympathetic to this argument, but it ignores the politics of the situation and misses the long view. The left and center-left do not need any convincing on the need for Israel to abandon the settlement enterprise outside of the major settlement blocs that Israel will presumably keep in a peace deal. If there is to ever be real movement on this issue, it is the right that needs to be brought around, and arguments about Palestinian rights are unlikely to be convincing. I do not mean to suggest that everybody on the right is completely unconcerned with the status of the Palestinians on the West Bank, but this has historically not been a winning argument on the right. If the right is to be swayed, it will be by arguments about Israel’s security and future, and in that sense, the demographic argument is the only one in town. I’ve heard that people in the upper ranks of the government don’t take the demographic threat seriously and believe that time is actually on Israel’s side, and I have had similar impressions in talking to friends and colleagues who are more rightwing on Israel issues than I am. When I was in Turkey two years ago, I got into what turned into a heated discussion with an older American Jewish couple whom I met while their cruise ship was docked in Istanbul for the weekend. During a conversation about Israel where I brought up the argument that Israel was running out of time to separate from the West Bank, the wife heatedly insisted that I had no idea what I was talking about because her daughter lives in Israel and has five kids, and so she absolutely refuses to believe that in 20 years there will be just as many Palestinians in Israel and the West Bank as there are Jews. The only way to convince rightwingers and conservatives that settlements need to be dealt with is to keep on pushing the demographic argument and make people realize that every day that passes increases the possibility of a binational one state Israeli future. This is why Peres’s speech was the correct response to the Levy Report, and while it might make folks on the left upset, a little more strategic thinking on this issue is required.

On a similar note, this is why I think that the Levy Report is so dangerous and why I disagree with Brent Sasley’s argument that Levy does not represent anything new. Has Israel been extending its control over the West Bank? Yes, it has. But that doesn’t mean that the Levy Report is not a dangerous development, because by legally eviscerating the line between Tel Aviv in Israel proper and Efrat over the Green Line, and between authorized settlement bloc Ariel and unauthorized outpost Migron, it brings a one state solution ever closer (for those whose Hebrew is less than stellar, Elder of Ziyon has a useful translation of the legal reasoning section of the Levy Report). The report’s significance is not in what it signals about past Israeli intention in the West Bank, but in what it signals about Israel’s political future and survival as a Jewish state. Brent and others think that the report is simply more of the same and that the declaration that there is no occupation is just the Israeli right showing its true colors in a more public manner, but this loses sight of the fact that Levy represents the opening salvo in the growing calls for a rightwing one state solution. Quite simply, this will be the end of Israel as we know it, and the right needs to be convinced that this is a path to oblivion. If this requires hammering away at the demographic argument and dropping language steeped in morality and ethics, so be it. Peres is on to the right idea here, and people on the left and the center should start thinking along these lines as well.

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