Optimism and Pessimism On The New Round Of Peace Talks

July 25, 2013 § 13 Comments

Now that reports are surfacing that negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians are scheduled to begin in Washington on Tuesday – although there are also conflicting reports that Saeb Erekat is going to stay home until the Israelis agree to use the 1967 lines as the basis for negotiations over the final border – it seems like a good time to lay out some reasons for optimism and reasons for pessimism about whether these talks are fated to go anywhere. Since I am generally pretty cynical about such things, let’s start with the reasons why I think the talks may fail. One of the biggest obstacles is the domestic politics involved. Brent Sasley has written a thorough piece arguing that the politics right now on the Israeli side are actually favorable for meaningful negotiations and concessions, but I tend to see things differently. Prime Minister Netanyahu has not shown the willingness in the past to actually deal with the hard choices involved in coming to an agreement, and while that does not mean that he is incapable of doing so, nothing in his past indicates that he is an enthusiastic peace process negotiator. If he is being dragged to the negotiating table unwillingly through a combination of pressure and quid pro quo for past U.S. security assistance, it is not going to bode well for the final outcome. Even if he is doing it of his own volition, which is certainly in the realm of possibility, the fact that he seems unwilling to accede to measures such as relinquishing sovereignty over parts of Jerusalem – which is going to have to be in any deal that the Palestinians will accept – is a bad omen. Then there is the problem of Netanyahu’s party. The current iteration of the Likud is the most right wing in its history, and a large bloc, if not an outright majority of the party, does not trust Netanyahu and is adamantly opposed to negotiations. In fact, an increasingly large subset of Likud members, led by Danny Danon, have been openly calling for Israel to annex the West Bank and ditch the two state solution in favor of the rightwing version of a one state solution. It is also the case that the more radical Likud members now control the party’s policy apparatus and serve as deputy ministers in the government; in fact, it seems as if Netanyahu is refuting the latest nonsense from Deputy Defense Minister Danon every other week. Sasley argues that this cast of characters is aware that they cannot win without Netanyahu and will ultimately fall in line, but I am not nearly so certain. Plenty of Likud voters will vote for the party if, say, Bogie Ya’alon is the headliner, and I don’t think that the Likud ministers and back benchers are going to sit idly by if Netanyahu begins to give up territory in the West Bank or order the evacuation of settlements. They have staked their political reputations almost entirely on rejectionism of the two state solution, and just because Netanyahu asks them nicely does not mean that they would not rather have a smaller but purer version of the Likud. See the experience that John Boehner has had with his own unruly caucus of House Republican newcomers as a parallel to how this would play out. Furthermore, Netanyahu is being kept afloat by his temporary merger with Yisrael Beiteinu, which he wants to turn into a permanent one. Without the extra YB votes, Likud immediately loses 10-12 seats in the Knesset. The problem is that Avigdor Lieberman is in many ways the original rightwing one stater, and there is simply no way in which he agrees to keep the two parties together once settlements are given up. Netanyahu knows this, which provides another incentive to make sure that talks break down along their usual pattern. The same problem exists with coalition partner Habayit Hayehudi, which has repeatedly threatened to leave the government over the issue of freezing settlements and whose head, Naftali Bennett, is also an advocate of annexation. Sasley argues that pulling out of the coalition will risk breaking the party apart, leaving Bennett politically homeless, and so he can’t risk it. I think the much bigger risk to Bennett is the party folding or excommunicating him for selling out his core principles if he agrees to remain in a government that agrees to extricate itself from the West Bank. After all, the party’s very name – Jewish Home in English – is meant to refer to the entirely of the Land of Israel from the river to the sea and explicitly lay claim to all of the territory as part of the Jewish state. The idea that the greater risk in this lies in leaving the government seems to gloss over the very reason the party exists, its history, and its makeup. There is also the issue of a referendum, which Netanyahu has now promised to hold to approve any peace agreement that is struck with the Palestinians. While the latest poll in Ha’aretz indicates that 55% of Israelis would approve a peace agreement, that is in a generic sense. Once the details are factored in and various political parties and lobbying groups begin to play on Israeli fears about security, sovereignty over Jerusalem and the Temple Mount, the Jewish character of the state, etc. it will be very easy to siphon off entire groups of voters through scare tactics and populist campaigns. That 55% number is a mirage, akin to the way in which Yair Lapid supports a two state solution but is adamantly opposed to any division of Jerusalem; lots of people support a peace deal in theory, but the devil is in the details. Bennett knows this, which is why Habayit Hayehudi has pushed to extend the Basic Law that requires a referendum to approve giving up land that Israel has annexed – East Jerusalem and the Golan – to include the West Bank as well. The hope on the right is that a referendum will doom any successful negotiations for good. Finally, there is the Palestinian side. There is no need to rehash here all of the various arguments over Mahmoud Abbas and whether he rejected Ehud Olmert’s offer of 99% of the West Bank or whether he simply did not respond because Olmert was a lame duck and out of office before he even had a chance. My own opinion is that the truth lies somewhere in the middle, but I am not as convinced as others on the left that Abbas is a willing a peace negotiator. The insistence on preconditions to negotiating is a tactic designed to doom talks, and the fact that Abbas was not willing to jump on Netanyahu’s partial 10 month building freeze a couple of years ago as the excuse he needed to reenter talks does not bolster the case of those who want to pin all of the blame on the Israeli side. Abbas may indeed want to talk, but I do not think it is fair to portray him as champing at the bit to get started. On the flip side, there are reasons to be optimistic. While, as I noted above, Netanyahu has not shown a propensity in the past to reach an agreement that the Palestinians can reasonably accept, he certainly appears to have arrived at the realization that Israel’s international standing is becoming more precarious by the day. The EU guidelines on settlements last week seem to have been a wakeup call of sorts, and his now repeated public warnings that Israel is facing a real prospect of a binational state indicate that his attitude in 2013 is very different than it was during his tenure as prime minister in the mid-90s or during the beginning of his current stint in 2009. In addition, as Dahlia Scheindlin has pointed out, polls consistently and repeatedly show support for a two state solution, 83 out of 120 seats in the current Knesset are controlled by parties theoretically supporting two states, and the support for two states remains even when you add various line items about specific concessions into the polling questions. In this light, the referendum may turn out to be a very good thing, since it will reinforce the move toward a negotiated solution. It is also encouraging that Netanyahu is seeking political cover to do what needs to be done, since if he negotiates a deal that is then approved by the Israeli electorate, it will be difficult for the right to claim that he has overstepped his authority. Finally, there is the fact that the best way for negotiations to succeed is if the specific details are kept under wraps, and any concessions made by either side are not wielded by opponents of two states as populist cudgels designed to doom the talks. John Kerry has done a good job of this by not publicly outlining the conditions that each side have agreed to in order for talks to resume, but even more encouragingly so has Netanyahu. There is currently a purposeful cloud of ambiguity hovering over the question of whether Israel has frozen settlement construction or not, with Netanyahu denying such a freeze exists and Housing Minister Uri Ariel saying that the de facto and unannounced policy in place is not allowing for any new construction. This, more than anything, is the most hopeful sign of all, since if Netanyahu has actually frozen settlement construction while trying to trick his party and coalition into thinking that he has done no such thing, it is a more serious indication of his desire to really strike a deal than any other datapoint I have seen. P.S. To watch me talk about this more extensively, here is a link to a video of a roundtable hosted by David Halperin and the Israel Policy Forum that I did yesterday with Hussein Ibish and Dahlia Scheindlin. It’s long, but an interesting and thorough discussion of the various issues involved.

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The Likud Bell Is Tolling For Bibi

June 27, 2013 § 7 Comments

A little over a year ago, the Likud party was going through a tug of war between the old Likud princes – Dan Meridor, Benny Begin, and their ilk – and a younger and more hardline group consisting of people like Danny Danon, Moshe Feiglin, Ze’ev Elkin, Yariv Levin, Tzipi Hotovely, and Miri Regev. At the time, the latter group were upstarts who were farther down on the party list – or in the case of Feiglin, not even an MKs – while the Likud princes were cabinet ministers. It was clear that the genuine fervor within the party lay with the hardliners but they did not yet control things, and so the party was exhibiting all kinds of strains while still holding together. The hardline group did not trust or even like Bibi Netanyahu at all, but he was the prime minister and his allies were in the top ranks of the party and so there was little they could do about it.

The came the Likud convention in May 2012, where Netanyahu was booed and subjected to rampant criticism, and unable to even secure the ceremonial post of convention chairman, which was deeply embarrassing. Next was the Likud primary in November, in which Danon came in 6th – ensuring that he would end up not only high in the Likud but as a deputy minister in the next government – and Feiglin made it into the Knesset, and Netanyahu allies Meridor and Begin lost their MK status entirely. Completing the trifecta, Danon won the chairmanship of the Likud convention this week with 85% of the vote after Netanyahu didn’t even try to challenge him for fear of being humiliated, and much more importantly is about to win the vote for chair of the Likud Central Committee, which is a powerful and consequential post. He has already stated his intentions to block Netanyahu’s plans to make the unity deal with Yisrael Beiteinu permanent and to subject any peace agreement to a Likud vote, which will never approve any deal with the Palestinians. Overall, things are looking bleaker for Netanyahu within Likud than they ever have before. He is presiding over an unruly caucus where his deputy ministers repeatedly undermine him, his old allies are gone from the scene, his party members do not respect him, and he is busy making plans to resume negotiations with the Palestinians while his own party warns him that it will not acquiesce to a deal under any circumstances.

Mati Tuchfeld today argues that the picture is not actually quite so bleak and that Netanyahu can retake Likud if he desires. His argument boils down to this:

Likud members venerate their prime ministers. Since Israel was established, there have been only four Likud prime ministers. If Netanyahu decides to return to the field, it’s safe to assume that everyone will again fall at his feet. If Netanyahu makes an effort, however small, to show that he wants another term as prime minister, the rebellious voices within Likud will likely die down at once. Unlike Livni, who fought tooth and nail to survive as Kadima leader and lost, or Barak, who was forced to leave Labor, all Netanyahu needs to do is make a decision — return to the field or retire. It’s likely that he’ll ultimately prefer the first option.

I think this is a bad misreading of the situation that does not take into account just how much things have changed. Likud members used to venerate their prime minister, but at last year’s Likud convention, Netanyahu was being disparaged left and right in a way that had never occurred before. In addition, much like the younger generation of Congressional Republicans here, folks like Danon have little desire to stand on tradition and do not venerate Netanyahu, and are not going to “fall at his feet” just because he wishes it. In fact, from their perspective, the sooner he is gone the better. Netanyahu has not made any attempts to court them, as opposed to other senior Likud members like Bogie Ya’alon, and while there is evidence that he is just now waking up to the problem he has within the grassroots of his party, it’s likely too little, too late. There is a new coterie of deputy ministers and up and coming backbenchers who not only do not like or trust Netanyahu, they don’t feel as if they owe him anything. He did not mentor them and they got to where they are now via the Likud primary, which Netanyahu now wants to get rid of, and so they are not going to back him just because he asks. And unlike a year ago, they are no longer revolutionaries and they speak for a larger percentage of the party.

So what are Netanyahu’s options? He appears to have three. First, he can finish him term as prime minister and retire. That is exceedingly unlikely, as by many accounts Netanyahu is more obsessed with being PM than he is with actually doing anything as PM, and even were that not the case, he has never given any indication that he is ready to be done. Second, he can start to fight a little to regain control of Likud and ultimately hope, as Shmuel Sandler argues in the last paragraph of this Jerusalem Post piece, that Likud members believe that they are incapable of winning an election without Netanyahu at the helm and so his position will always be safe. This is more plausible than the first option, but it’s a gamble since Netanyahu is currently caving to the enormous pressure being placed on him on settlements and the peace process, and any real initiatives on that front are going to bring a serious Likud backlash and a threat from Habayit Hayehudi to exit the coalition (which is why I argued back in January that the current government was doomed to fail). If Netanyahu assumes that his position in Likud will be safe after resuming negotiations with the Palestinians, irrespective of the outcome, I think he is fated to be surprised the next time around when Ya’alon or Gideon Sa’ar emerges to try and take his place.

That leaves option three, which is pulling an Arik Sharon and breaking away from Likud to form a new party. Netanyahu is historically risk-averse and is not operating from a position of strength at the moment, and unlike Ben Gurion breaking Mapai to ultimately form Labor, he is not immensely popular, nor does he have a single coalescing issue like Sharon. He also has a number of people, like Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett, waiting in the wings to take him down. Nevertheless, Netanyahu is bleeding support within his own party every hour, and that is before he has even taken any real steps on the Israeli-Palestinian front. If he is actually serious about doing something and making sure that this is not his last term as prime minister, the only way around that is to form a new party. Formulating it around the idea of keeping all of the large blocs plus a multi-decade IDF presence in the Jordan Valley and selling it as a necessary security measure in the wake of Arab Spring upheaval in Egypt and Syria would attract enough support to make it a viable party, and would let Netanyahu shed the Likud thorns in his side. I wouldn’t bet on him actually going ahead and doing it, but it would be the smart move at this juncture. If he doesn’t, I am not nearly as sanguine as Tuchfeld on his future within his current political home.

The National Security Impact Of The Likud Primary

November 27, 2012 § 3 Comments

On Sunday and Monday, Likud party members got to vote in the Likud primary and choose the list that will stand for Knesset elections in January, and what emerged was the most rightwing Likud in the party’s history. The Likud list is a catalogue of the most strident and hardline voices in the party, with Danny Danon in the 6th spot, Zeev Elkin in 9th, Yariv Levin in 10th, Tzipi Hotovely in 13th, and Moshe Feiglin – who is Bibi Netanyahu’s main intra-party challenger from his right and is not even currently an MK – in 15th. Regular O&Z readers will recognize all of these names, as their exploits make regular appearances on this blog, but in case you need a refresher, Noam Sheizaf has a rundown of their greatest hits. In addition, because of the deal with Yisrael Beiteinu that created the joint list with Likud, it is unlikely that anyone lower than 20th on the list is going to make it into the Knesset, which means that Likud princes and moderates such as Dan Meridor, Benny Begin, and Mickey Eitan are going to lose their jobs as MKs. To get a sense of just how remarkable this is, not only are Begin and Meridor currently Knesset members, they are both ministers and members of the nine person security cabinet, and yet Likud voters just unceremoniously showed them the door. This is not just a changing of the guard from the old to the new, but a serious step to the right. If there was any doubt left that Likud is first and foremost a settler party, it has just been erased.

Plenty of people will spend the next couple of days bemoaning the state of Israeli politics and noting that a Likud government in which someone like Danny Danon might actually be a minister is going to double down on settlements and treat the peace process like a relic from a bygone era. This is all true, and in my humble opinion it’s a terrible development for Israel, but I am not here to state the glaringly obvious. Instead, I’d like to think through the impact of the new Likud makeup on Israel’s defense policy outside of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The immediate result is going to be the involuntary hiatus of Ehud Barak, who announced yesterday that he was quitting politics and would not stand for election in January. While I found the timing of this announcement strange given that Barak’s Atzmaut party, which had been polling at zero Knesset seats, had rebounded in the aftermath of Operation Pillar of Cloud and was looking like it might return to the Knesset with the same five seats it currently has, a couple of smart observers of Israeli politics have convinced me that perhaps it makes sense given the humiliation involved for a former PM barely crossing the Knesset threshold. Amir Mizroch and Robert Danin argue that in resigning, Barak is actually plotting a course to remain as defense minister since he will be viewed as the indispensable general whom Netanyahu will have no choice but to reappoint, and the fact that he is not a member of Knesset will free from him any political constraints. I think it’s quite plausible that this was Barak’s plan yesterday morning and that he may even have been able to pull it off, but he did not count on the events of the afternoon and evening. MKs like Danon and Elkin absolutely detest Barak with every fiber of their being because they have long viewed him as the primary hurdle standing between them and unfettered settlement growth, and now that they essentially control the party, Netanyahu is not going to have the political space to keep Barak as his defense minister. Doing so will cause a riot within Likud and open Netanyahu up to a serious challenge from Feiglin or from his old nemesis (and Washington Generals-type foil) Silvan Shalom, and Bibi is not going to risk that. Instead, I think the Likud primary has guaranteed that Bogie Ya’alon becomes the next defense minister, which also puts him in the pole position to be the next Likud leader once Netanyahu decides to leave the scene.

Aside from silencing Barak and removing his all-encompassing control of Israeli defense policy, I think the new Likud list also makes an Israeli strike on Iran a lot more likely. I have been continuously arguing that one of the primary constraints on an Israeli strike is the makeup of the security cabinet, where four out of the nine members have been unwaveringly opposed to unilateral military action against Iran. Two out of those four are Begin and Meridor, who are now going to be out of the group, and they will almost certainly be replaced by ministers who are more hawkish. The third of the four is Ya’alon, who badly wants to be defense minister and who knows that the post is a potential stepping stone to eventually becoming prime minister. The fact that the defense portfolio is now going to be open might be enough incentive for him to quietly acquiesce to Netanyahu’s plans on Iran in order to get the appointment that he seeks, in which case the security cabinet flips from being divided down the middle to being nearly unanimous in favor of a strike. That does not make a war with Iran a fait accompli, but it does bring the possibility ever closer. One month ago in arguing that the Netanyahu-Lieberman deal was not going to affect the Iran calculus, I noted that “the math in the security cabinet does not change substantially unless Begin, Meridor, and Ya’alon are all excised.” As it turns out, the result of this week’s Likud primary means that the math has now changed, and the impact on Israeli defense policy might be even greater than the impact on Israeli domestic politics.

 

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