IPF Column: Why IPF Is Important

October 1, 2015 § Leave a comment

I’ll be writing an Israel Policy Forum column every Thursday and cross-posting it here. The first one just went up and the original can be found here.

For my first column as IPF’s new policy director, I thought I’d explain why I decided to join IPF and what I hope to do with this space in the weeks and months ahead. Some readers may know me from my writing and analysis in other places, but for those who don’t, before coming to IPF I was the program director of the Israel Institute, an organization dedicated to expanding the study of Israel in universities and think tanks around the globe, and I have been writing about Israel in a variety of academic and policy journals, magazines, and blogs for years. Having seen the full array of research and approaches to analyzing Israel in both the academic and policy worlds, I have a strong sense of the diverse views people of all stripes have about Israel’s challenges, policies, and decision making. There is little question in my mind that we are at an enormously important moment for two crucial issues – the direction of Israel’s future identity and the direction of the U.S.-Israel relationship – and IPF is a perfect organization from which to explain and analyze these trends, and to influence the direction in which they head.

For years now there has been lots of overwrought analysis about the death of the two state solution. Each passing year brings new facts on the ground, new attacks on Israeli civilians from Gaza, newly expanded or constructed settlements, and newly hardened attitudes on both sides to compromise and empathy for the other party. We frequently hear about each ignominious milestone marking the last chance for two states and that Israel and the Palestinians are at the point of no return. I do not, and never have believed, that this is true, for the simple reason that as bad as things get – and I don’t mean to imply that the situation is not dire on many fronts – the two state solution is the only viable one that exists. A bi-national state would devolve instantly into civil war and mass violence, and a state in which Israel annexes the West Bank but does not grant full rights to its non-Jewish citizens will collapse under the weight of international sanctions and opprobrium. In the long term, the only possible path is separation from the Palestinians, with a Palestinian state alongside Israel.

Nevertheless, the short term is still a frightening thing to ponder, and I am not nearly so confident about precisely how Israel manages to right the ship. Just because two states is the only viable solution does not automatically mean that it will come to pass. Taking stock of the current environment, Israel is becoming increasingly nervous about its regional security environment (in some ways that I think are justified and in others that I think are not) and thus more reluctant to make any concessions that upend the status quo; becoming more entrenched in the West Bank both physically and attitudinally; facing what looks to me to be the beginnings of a third intifada brewing in Jerusalem over the status of the Temple Mount, which is the most nightmarish of scenarios; experiencing more political gridlock with each successive election and attempt to build a sustainable coalition; undergoing largescale social changes that are transforming the makeup of the IDF and society at large and causing new conflicts over the religious-secular balance, military and national service, immigration, and what it means to be a Jewish state, among other things; and facing the most serious international push in Israel’s relatively brief history to delegitimize the state and turn Israel into a pariah subject to sanctions and boycotts in a variety of forums. Given all of these pressures and the multitude of responses from the Israeli government and different actors within the system, I don’t know anyone who can say with any definitive certainty what Israel will look like in ten years, and whether the balance of being a Jewish and democratic state will tilt in one direction or another. Israel’s very identity is in flux, and tracking where it goes is going to be one of the most engrossing issues of the next decade.

Not only is Israel at a crossroads internally, it is also in the midst of real upheaval regarding its ties with the United States. The U.S. has been Israel’s patron for decades and oftentimes seems like its only true friend in the international arena, and the relationship has been beneficial to both sides on a variety of fronts. The Obama-Netanyahu relationship has been rocky, to put it charitably, and it has influenced the ways in which political elites in both countries view bilateral ties, and the way in which American Jews view Israel. No serious observer without a partisan axe to grind believes that strong U.S.-Israel ties are going away anytime soon, but certainly there are different degrees of strength, and it is an open question as to what the future holds. While bad blood between the president and the prime minister is often blamed for the hiccups in the relationship, the truth is that there are real and serious policy differences between the two governments that transcend the current occupants of the White House and Beit Agion. What does the U.S.-Israel relationship look like if there is robust military and security cooperation but the political relationship suffers? What happens if Israel is subject to a sustained campaign of boycotts from the European Union? How are bilateral ties affected as Israel develops closer ties with China and as Russia increasingly becomes an assertive player in the Middle East? What will be the effect of Israel rapidly becoming a partisan issue in Congress? Most crucially and interestingly, what does the U.S.-Israel relationship look like as the relationship between Israel and American Jews is transformed? None of these questions are easy, and they are going to consume those who care about the U.S.-Israel alliance and those who have spent their lives both in and out of government sustaining it.

While I have spent, and will continue to spend, much time writing about these issues as objectively as I can, I have always been open in my view that Israel must remain both democratic and Jewish, that the U.S.-Israel relationship must remain strong for both sides’ benefit, and that the only way to ensure these outcomes is via the two state solution. IPF is an organization that is dedicated to these principles and has advocated for them through educational initiatives and marshaling the American Jewish community to get behind them. I am excited to be part of an organization that has the ability to influence the direction of these issues about which I feel so strongly.

I hope to use this space going forward for a number of things, from arguing in favor of the solutions that I and IPF as an organization believe are the most viable, to opining on Israeli politics and the American Jewish scene, to analyzing American foreign policy in the Middle East. We will also be launching a blog that will be updated more frequently than this weekly column, and featuring voices that are newer and perhaps not as familiar to some, along with more timely posts on issues in the news. IPF has the infrastructure and resources to be a unique and credible source for information, analysis, and commentary on Israel, American Jewry, and the U.S.-Israel relationship, and I want to help strengthen and expand IPF’s reach and credibility. So if you’ve read this far and like what you’ve seen, please keep coming back and stay tuned for much more ahead.

Netanyahu Is Going To Trade One Headache For Another

December 3, 2014 § 4 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.

A Quick Note On Rockets At Jerusalem

November 16, 2012 § 3 Comments

There are all sorts of reports and firsthand accounts over Twitter that Hamas has started shooting rockets at Jerusalem and Hamas itself has claimed that it shot a rocket toward the Knesset.  It doesn’t appear that any rockets have hit Jerusalem proper, and it sounds as if they fell instead on Gush Etzion, which is a large settlement bloc south of Jerusalem. Where the rockets have landed is not as important as where they were intended to go though, and shooting at Jerusalem is a big, big deal for a couple of reasons.

First, the limited historical experience that Israelis have with this sort of thing is that Jerusalem is generally not targeted. During the Persian Gulf War, Saddam Hussein shot 42 Scuds at Israel and 39 of them landed, and they were all aimed at Tel Aviv and Haifa, but not at Jerusalem. During the 2006 war with Hizballah, Jerusalem was not targeted despite the rumored presence of long-range rockets in Hizballah’s arsenal. When Iran has made threats to attack Israel, Tel Aviv has been mentioned but not Jerusalem. The oft-stated Palestinian desire to liberate Jerusalem is a reference to pushing Israel out rather than destroying the city. Targeting Tel Aviv is not a surprise to Israelis, but sending large scale ordinance in the direction of Jerusalem is very much out of the ordinary.

Second, leaving aside the historical experience, there has been a presumption that Jerusalem would be left alone because of the makeup of its population and what the city contains. There is a large Palestinian population in East Jerusalem of over 200,000 people, and shooting notoriously unreliable and inaccurate rockets at Jerusalem is taking a huge chance of killing large numbers of Jerusalem’s Arab residents. While Hamas sent suicide bombers to Jerusalem with alarming frequency in the past, blowing up a bus or cafe in West Jerusalem meant killing large numbers of Jews. Sending rockets is a crap shoot, and while Jews are the obvious target, there is by no means a guarantee that Hamas will actually hit where they are aiming. In addition, Jerusalem is a patchwork mosaic of sites holy to Jews, Muslims, and Christians, whereas Tel Aviv and Haifa are not. Just imagine what would happen if a Hamas rocket hit the Old City and did any damage at all to the Temple Mount; the consequences of that are literally unimaginable.

Targeting Jerusalem is an enormous escalation and very risky, much more so than rockets toward Tel Aviv. Rocketing Tel Aviv to my mind guaranteed an eventual Israeli ground invasion, but attempting to bombard Jerusalem just exacerbates the situation to an exponential degree. Blake Hounshell tweeted earlier that Hamas firing at Jerusalem is the equivalent of scoring on your own goal, and I think that analogy is an apt one. It says to me that Hamas is getting desperate, and I think this move is going to backfire in a big way, both in terms of creating a more ferocious Israeli response and costing Hamas important points in the court of public opinion. Hamas is now acting in ways that could cause large numbers of Palestinian casualties and damage to Muslim holy sites, and I think that there will be consequences for this strategy.

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