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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Guest Post: The Yesha Council’s One State Plan

March 21, 2013 § 2 Comments

Today’s guest post is brought to you by my friend Joel Braunold, who heads up Strategic Partnerships for the OneVoice Movement. Joel is a keen observer of Israeli politics and a passionate advocate for a two state solution, and he has been keeping his eye on Naftali Bennett’s Habayit Hayehudi party and its efforts to carry out the settlement movement’s aims. The Yesha Council, which is the most prominent settler group, has released a new strategy paper coinciding with President Obama’s visit to Israel, and Joel has an extended take (see his quick take at Open Zion here) on what it portends for the new Knesset and government. You can read more of Joel’s work on his blog at Haaretz.com and his Twitter handle is @braunold.

With President Obama visiting Israel, many groups are trying to get his attention so they can let the president know what they think he should do. Included within the pleas from the peace camp and the ‘Free Pollard’ camp is a document prepared by the Yesha council titled, “Judea and Samaria – It’s Jewish, It’s Vital, It’s Realistic.”

Questions answered within this Kafkaesque document include: why the demographics are on the settlers’ side, why the Palestinians are stealing water from Israel, and what is the legal history of Israel’s settlement enterprise. Most interesting, however, is the nine-step plan that the Yesha council has created at the end of the document to fulfill their vision.

The main tool that the Yesha council has to achieve its vision are its political advocates in the Knesset and in the government. Their building in the West Bank happens through the good graces of the state authorities. Of course the main party for the Yesha council is Habayit Hayehudi, but they also have representation through Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu and a scattering of MKs in some of the center parties. Members of their communities operate across the center and right of the Israeli political spectrum.

Looking at the nine steps we can see the underlying Habayit Hayehudi strategy during the coalition talks. Additionally we can start to make sense of some of the other Knesset moves and statements by members of the settler community on the national stage.

Step 1: Renewing the strong belief in the supremacy of the Jewish claim to the Jewish Homeland and the justness of taking measures to maintain control of it

In the coalition agreement between Likud and Habayit Hayehudi was a bill to make the Jewishness of the state supreme. This is a redo of the Avi Dichter bill from the last Knesset. No one is quite sure of which version will hit the Knesset, if it gets through Tzipi Livni, but it is part of a big move to decouple the concepts of Jewish and democratic state as equal and promote the former at the expense of the latter. The motivations behind this become clear in a strategy that is tied into biblical land claims and preparing for a situation where the civil rights of millions of Palestinians are going to have to be restricted.

Step 2: Uniting the nation and its leadership

Throughout the coalition talks, Bennett was the peacemaker between Yair Lapid and Bibi Netanyahu and has pledged to be a leader for all of Israel, not just the settlers. His party has also taken over key ministries that can affect the cost of living across Israel. Bennett has been very keen to be seen as responding to the J14 protests and be a transformative politician who can transcend the tribal politics of the moment and be one of the new leaders of Israel alongside Lapid. By also slipping in the raising of the electoral threshold into the coalition agreement, he can ride the wave of Habayit Hayehudi current popularity and force others from his camp to work with him if they want any representation at all. By forcing people into a broad tent he gives himself a broader appeal and solidifies himself and by extension the Yesha council firmly into the mainstream.

Step 3: Military strength and control of the territory by the security establishment

Though many ex-military and security men veer to the left after they retire from service (just see The Gatekeepers), the new Defense Minister, Moshe Ya’alon, most definitely veers to the right and was the first choice of the settler community. Though the security establishment is pretty much entrenched in the West Bank already, Ehud Barak had been the thorn in the side of the Yesha council. With him removed the security establishment can work in concert with the Yesha council in helping it expand both from the Knesset and on the ground itself.

Step 4: The elimination of terror and cessation of incitement in Palestinian schools

While all Israelis want to see an end to terror and incitement, the previous government’s flat-out rejection of the State Department’s school textbook report demonstrates a complete unwillingness to examine the issue of incitement on both sides of the border. It is essential to demonize the Palestinian national narrative while maintaining that individual Palestinians are ok and stating that the settlements actually have had great relationships with the communities pre the first intifada.

Step 5: Creating a situation where it becomes clear to the international community that another state west of the Jordan River is not viable

The serious policy community is split about whether the two-state solution has already been killed by the settlements and the Yesha council or if it is merely on life support. Needless to say, the Yesha council is well on its way to pulling the plug. The new Deputy Foreign Minister, Ze’ev Elkin, already ascribes to this point of view. Though many advocates of one-state agree that the settlements have killed the two-state solution they do not share the Yesha council’s vision of what a one-state solution would look like. The power and establishment will be with the Yesha council and in doing so it will have a tremendous momentum on the ground when two-states is officially abandoned to fulfill its vision before anyone else gets a look in. Yes, Israel will lose friends and allies and there might be a brain drain that could seriously affect the economy. But I sadly have less faith that pressure will force Israel to give up its raison d’état of providing the Jewish people with self-defense and power by giving those they have been occupying full civic rights. The death of the two-state solution will mean the Yesha council has won, and read the rest of their document to see how they view Palestinians.

Step 6: The further immigration of one million Jews to Israel to secure a permanent Jewish majority in Israel

In the coalition talks, Bennett managed to carve the Diaspora portfolio out of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and into his own portfolio. The reason for this now becomes crystal clear, as he is desperate to get more Jews to immigrate. Bennett demanding this portfolio always seemed odd. The settlements are often the largest bone of contention between Israel and her Diaspora (amongst Jews who are engaged at least). Passing on this responsibility to the former general secretary of the Yesha council looks on the surface to be a recipe for disaster. This step helps us understand the real consequence of why this demand was made. What will be interesting to see is how Bennett attempts to bring Diaspora Jews to Israel and how their aliyah will be tied to step 7. Is the aim just to lock in the demographics regardless of where the Jews live or to get them to move to the West Bank and lock in the settlements? We will have to wait and see but watch to see where new job incentives will be made for new immigrants, as Bennett has the ability through Trade and Industry to create incentives where he chooses.

Step 7: One million Jews in Judea and Samaria, tripling its Jewish population

With the housing and trade ministries, Habayit Hayehudi can now start working on this. The proof will be in where the new low-income housing is built. Even if just restricted into the settlement blocs, if this plan is being followed the aim will be a massive increase in settlers. As with step 6, we will have to see if alyiah and settlement are linked. President Bush (41) conditioned the aid to help resettle the Russian Jews on them not being housed in the West Bank. One other important step to remember is that Bennett received the public diplomacy portfolio as well. Through this he can push the settlements into the official Israeli government narrative both at home and abroad.

Step 8: The creation of large residential areas surrounding the current communities of Judea and Samaria

Housing, Trade, Knesset Finance chair – between these three portfolios and a willing defense minister the sky is the limit on step 8. I predict the concept of settlement bloc will expand and large scale projects will begin to be planned as expansions in key areas. Even more so then Yaalon, Danny Danon is a particular fan of the Yesha council and he is Deputy Defense Minister.

Step 9: The execution of a construction, development and economic plan for the million residents of Judea and Samaria

Habayit Hayehudi has already indicated that they would rather release prisoners and transfer taxes to the PA than freeze settlement construction. Looking at this nine-step plan, it is easy to see why Bennett would rather give any other ‘confidence building measure’ than allow the slowing of the settler population. The one thing that the party cannot allow is a settlement freeze as it destroys the plan above.

All of this should be seen as nothing less than a strategic effort to kill the two-state solution. Keep in mind that Prime Minister Netanyahu just committed his new government to two states for two peoples in his joint press conference with President Obama on Wednesday. Looking at how this is planned out, it is clear that the only thing that could stop this from happening is freezing settlement construction. The sad fact is that a settlement freeze has already been tossed by the US administration as a failed attempt.

The Yesha council is very open about its aims, objectives and methods. If people want to do more than pay lip service to the idea of two-states, they must not only oppose the Yesha council at every turn of this plan but offer their own step by step approach to how to create a two-state reality today. Though it is the establishment opinion that two-states will happen, those opposing it literally are executing on a plan to kill it. Those of us who wish to see it come about must equally set out a plan and today start building facts on the ground to make it so.

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.

The Prospects For Real Peace Talks

February 13, 2013 § 2 Comments

I wrote about this topic last week from the U.S. perspective in light of President Obama’s forthcoming trip to Israel, but from the standpoint of Israel politics some comments yesterday from Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett are worth highlighting in assessing what movement we can expect to see on the peace process from the next Israeli government. As faithful O&Z readers know, I am fairly confident that Yesh Atid and Habayit Hayehudi will be in the coalition, and I am also fairly confident that Yair Lapid cares a lot more about the military draft issue than he does about the peace process and that he should not be viewed as the great savior of the peace camp and the two state solution. In light of this, let’s consider some facts that are emerging about the coalition talks and some things that were said by Lapid and Bennett yesterday in different forums.

To begin with, Lapid and Bennett have negotiated a deal that binds their fates together so that either Yesh Atid and Habayit Hayehudi will both be in the government or both parties will stay out. While Bibi Netanyahu is frantically trying to peel Bennett away from Lapid by making him extravagant but exploding offers, so far Bennett appears to be resistant to go back on his agreement with Lapid. This is interesting, because obviously Likud is more of a natural partner for Habayit Hayehudi than Yesh Atid is as Netanyahu and Bennett are closer ideologically – despite their history of personal issues – than Bennett and Lapid are. The one issue on which HH and YA are closer on is the issue of the draft and equalizing the burden of service, which suggests that it is the issue most important to both Lapid and Bennett and the one on which both parties are most reluctant to back down. Lots of attention has been paid to Lapid’s pledge that he is guided by overhauling the draft and reanimating the peace process and that he will not join a government that does not agree to do both, but in tying his fate to Bennett’s, he is signaling that one of those issues is far more important to him than the other and that the peace process condition is more about lip service than anything else.

Then there were Lapid’s remarks yesterday before the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations meeting in Jerusalem, in which he said that Ehud Olmert had gone too far in his concessions toward the Palestinians while prime minister, that Jerusalem could never be divided in his view, and that the Palestinians were going to have to accept an interim semi-state within temporary borders subject to future revision. Now, none of this makes Lapid a fire-breathing Greater Israel supporter, but it also does not make him the great champion of the two state solution that some think he is. Not agreeing to a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem and talking about interim agreements are both positions that probably make peace talks doomed to fail before they even begin. The interim agreement is the bigger hurdle of these two, since while Jerusalem can be negotiated over during talks, no Palestinian government at this point will even come to the table for talks that deal with anything less than a final status agreement. This is the ultimate display of someone trying to cultivate a more left-wing image without adopting any policies to match. Again, this does not make Lapid an extremist or out of line with mainstream Israeli popular opinion, but it also does not make him the next Yitzhak Rabin.

Lapid’s new best friend also had some things of his own to say about the prospects of a Palestinian state yesterday, but in a much more straightforward way. In a Knesset speech, Bennett said that “there is no room” for a Palestinian state, that it will never happen, and that the government needs to say with finality that the Land of Israel belongs to the people of Israel. Nobody has ever had any illusions about Bennett’s views on the peace process and the two state solution so this does not come as a surprise, but the important takeaway here is that Lapid knows full well what Bennett’s views are and has still hitched his wagon to Bennett’s. Irrespective of whatever his own personal views may be, it is difficult from a political perspective to think that Lapid is committed to real negotiations when he will only go into the government if Bennett goes as well. Taking all of these factors into consideration, even if Tzipi Livni bring Hatnua into the government nobody should be getting their hopes up too high for a big diplomatic push on the horizon.

Did Israelis Give The Center A Big Win?

January 24, 2013 § 9 Comments

Now that the final results of the Israeli election are in, everyone is rushing to declare that centrist parties were the big winners and that the Israeli electorate has made a surprising shift away from the right. This is understandable in light of the fact that Yair Lapid and his Yesh Atid party won 19 seats to become the second largest party in the Knesset and Bibi Netanyahu led the Likud-Beiteinu list to an extremely disappointing 31 seats, down from the 42 seats that Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu control in the current Knesset. Nevertheless, I think that this view of things is incorrect. As I argue in Foreign Affairs, this does not take into account that the other so-called centrist parties did poorly and finished well below expectations and that many Likud voters chose to move even farther to the right by giving Habayit Hayehudi 12 seats. In addition, Yesh Atid can be characterized as centrist in some ways but as pragmatically rightwing in others, and so dubbing yesterday’s results as an unabashed win for the center is misleading. In fact, the center controls 28 seats in the current Knesset, but will control 27 seats in the next one (19 for Yesh Atid, 6 for Hatnua, 2 for Kadima), so in reality the center actually lost ground. No doubt Lapid scored a big victory, but one centrist party doing well does not mean that Israel is now avowedly centrist, particularly when other centrist parties turned in disappointing performances and the banner rightwing nationalist party more than doubled its current Knesset representation. Here is a teaser from my piece in FA:

The problem with this narrative, however, is that Tuesday’s results were not really a victory for centrists and Yesh Atid is not really a centrist party. The largest vote-getter was still Likud-Beiteinu, made up of arguably the most right-wing version of Likud in the party’s history and the nationalist and pro-settlement Yisrael Beiteinu. Bayit Yehudi also did well, and it will be the fourth largest party in the Knesset with 11 seats. On the left, Labor underperformed and could not even garner enough votes to win second place as expected. Livni’s Hatnua, meanwhile, won fewer seats than even the parochial ultra-orthodox party, United Torah Judaism. Kadima, a real centrist party, has all but disappeared, plummeting from 28 seats to two. Even though the right-wing parties did not do quite as well as they had hoped, the larger picture does not support the claim that the center scored a great victory.

Furthermore, the grouping of Labor, Hatnua, and Yesh Atid under a centrist or center-left banner is analytically lazy. On economic issues, those three parties do indeed fall within the left and the center. On security and foreign policy issues, Labor and Hatnua are centrist as well. Yesh Atid, however, cannot be accurately described as centrist when it comes to the peace process. Lapid has stated that Jerusalem cannot be divided under any circumstances and insists that standing firm on this issue will force the Palestinians to recant their demand that East Jerusalem serve as the capital of a future Palestinian state. During the campaign, Lapid chose the West Bank settlement of Ariel as the place to give a major campaign speech calling for negotiations with the Palestinians, and declined to endorse a settlement freeze. None of this is enough to put him into the far-right camp, which rejects the two-state solution and calls for annexing the West Bank, but it also does not make him a centrist. In fact, Lapid’s views on security issues are close to those that Netanyahu has publicly staked out.

To read the rest please click over to Foreign Affairs, and comments and emails are welcome as always.

Netanyahu’s Conundrum

January 23, 2013 § Leave a comment

Yesterday morning before any of the election results were in, I had a piece up at the Atlantic arguing that the coalition stability that was a hallmark of the current government was destined to end. In my view, the choices that Bibi Netanyahu was likely to end up with were going to create pressures from one side or another no matter which path he decided to go down. Here is the relevant passage:

There are two factors that are going to contribute to detonating Netanyahu’s coveted stability. The first is that unlike during the past three plus years, Netanyahu is going to have a significant presence on his right flank both within his party and outside, creating constant pressure to take a harder line on settlements and the peace process. The Likud primary in November created the most right-wing version of the party that has ever existed. For instance, among the returning Likud MKs in the new Knesset will be the inciters of May’s anti-immigrant race riot, a mass of supporters for annexing the West Bank, and new MK Moshe Feiglin who wants to be the Mohamed Morsi of anti-Arab remarks. This group largely distrusts Netanyahu and will be waiting to pounce at even the slightest digression from their preferred policy of holding on to the West Bank forever.

In addition, Netanyahu will be dealing with the newly empowered nationalist Habayit Hayehudi (Jewish Home) Party, which is poised to become the third largest party in the Knesset. This party is led by Netanyahu’s former chief of staff Naftali Bennett, who also advocates unilaterally annexing Area C of the West Bank and recently got into trouble for saying that he would refuse orders to evacuate settlements. ( He recanted after the predictable furor that arose.) Either as part of the coalition or as a constant thorn in Netanyahu’s side, the large Habayit Hayehudi bloc will be pushing Netanyahu constantly to the right.

The second new factor, which operates at complete cross-purposes to the first, is that Netanyahu will be looking at a renewed push by outside actors on the peace process at a time in which international pressure on Israel is beginning to reach a critical mass. John Kerry is going to want to tackle the peace process as one of his priorities as Secretary of State, and Britain and France intend to present their own plan for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with the support of Germany and possibly the full European Union. Anger toward Israel over settlements and the breakdown of the peace process has lately intensified. Whether this is justified or not, given Palestinian foot-dragging, the anger exists to the point that even Israeli diplomats are beginning to get frustrated over the heat they are taking over West Bank construction.

Now that the results are in, I think this analysis still holds, and is perhaps even more salient to understanding what will happen next. Netanyahu is almost certainly going to have to build a coalition that includes Yesh Atid and Habayit Hayehudi, and this means foot-dragging on the peace process and a storm of international pressure. The option of trying to pivot to the center on security and peace process issues is a lot more difficult today than it was yesterday. Netanyahu had some serious problems within Likud before, since the newly empowered crop of hardliners did not really trust him to begin with, but now he has to deal with the fact that he has led his party to the hollowest of victories. His gambit of merging with Yisrael Beiteinu backfired badly, particularly since only 20 of the 31 Likud Beiteinu MKs hail from Likud because of the seat allocation deal he worked out with Avigdor Lieberman, and undoubtedly Likud members are not very happy this morning. If Yisrael Beiteinu separates from Likud in thirty days as the merger agreement allows, Likud will be the largest party by only one seat. In order to prevent this from happening, Netanyahu is going to have to promise Lieberman the moon and the stars, which also does not bode well for any new push to slow down settlement growth or fast track negotiations with the Palestinians. Any moves that Netanyahu makes in that direction will imperil his leadership as head of Likud and prompt a rebellion within the ranks. Nobody should underestimate just how much pressure Netanyahu is now under from his own side, let alone from the parties on the left of the spectrum that would like nothing more than to bring him down. Netanyahu is in a very difficult spot, and while I am relatively sure he will be able to form a coalition and serve as prime minister, don’t expect it to last very long.

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.

Israel’s Next Unity Government

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.

The Israel Calculus On Gaza

November 12, 2012 § 11 Comments

Israel has been dealing with a constant barrage of rockets and shelling from Gaza since last week, and despite Egyptian claims to have mediated a ceasefire yesterday, it has apparently had no effect as the rockets have continued unabated today. Bibi Netanyahu warned foreign ambassadors yesterday that Israel might have no choice but to launch a ground operation into Gaza, and the Israeli press is rife with speculation that Cast Lead redux is about to begin.

On the face of it this may seem like a risky move. A ground operation into Gaza is bound to lead to civilian casualties and international opprobrium, along with the inevitable resulting Israeli investigatory commission. Also factoring in is that this is the second day in a row that Israel has fired at Syria in response to Syrian shooting at Israeli positions in its attempt to hit rebel fighters – the same dynamic that has been occurring along the Turkish border. If Israel goes after Hamas and other terror groups in Gaza, the possibility always exists for Hizballah to seize on Israel’s preoccupation in the south and launch its own rockets in the north, and between Palestinian armed groups in Gaza and Hizballah, it is the latter that is the far graver danger and more serious threat. Looming in the background of all of this is Iran, and how a large scale operation in Gaza might danger Israel’s diplomatic efforts to keep the pressure on the regime in Tehran. And of course, with elections coming in January, Netanyahu might be loathe to undertake any big risks right now that will endanger his presumptive reelection, and any large operation into Gaza is undoubtedly a big risk.

Despite all this, unless Egypt is actually successful and the rockets stop in the next two or three days, I think we are going to see Israel go into Gaza with air strikes and ground forces. To begin with, Israel has never been hesitant to do what it must to establish deterrence against Hamas, and the IDF is probably concluding right now that any hint of deterrence it might have created following Cast Lead is gone. It is an open question as to whether such deterrence ever existed, but the rocket escalation leaves little doubt that Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and other armed groups in Gaza have zero qualms right now about targeting Israel civilians with rocket fire. No government can afford to let such attacks continue, and certainly the Israel government has not historically been shy about going after Hamas when it feels it is necessary.

The security angle is prominent, but there is a political angle as well. Netanyahu has been campaigning on security issues pretty much his entire political life, and the current campaign is no different. His focus on security is so strong that Kadima, in what can only be described as a last ditch effort amongst its death throes, has adopted as its campaign slogan “Bibi is endangering us” superimposed against a backdrop of a mushroom cloud. The irony of Netanyahu’s hawkish public persona is that he has never presided over a large military operation during either of his two tenures as prime minister, but as risky as it may be to send ground forces into Gaza right now, he cannot afford to just sit on his hands. A man running for prime minister whose primary rationale for reelection is that only he is prepared to do what is necessary to keep Israel safe cannot sit idly by as rockets rain down on southern Israeli towns and have any hope of winning the election. From an electoral standpoint, I don’t think Netanyahu has any choice but to respond with force and hope that the IDF is prepared for what it will encounter in the streets and warrens of Gaza City. If Netanyahu cannot deal with the threat emanating from his own backyard, he cannot credibly claim to be able to deal with the threat coming from Iran.

Compounding this situation is the fact that the other Israeli political parties are egging Netanyahu and Likud on. Kadima, Yisrael Beiteinu, Yesh Atid, and Habayit Hayehudi have all called for military operations hitting Hamas or the resumption of targeted assassinations of Hamas leaders, and even Labor has made a nebulous recommendation for “military and diplomatic pressure.” The only significant party urging a ceasefire is Meretz. This means that the longer Netanyahu waits to move on Gaza, the longer he will have to face calls from political rivals urging immediate actions, and every day this goes on endangers Netanyahu’s electoral prospects. It is one thing to take your time when the other parties are calling for calm, but quite another when elections are coming up and nearly every party across the political spectrum is calling for some form of action. As an aside, this also goes to show just how dead the peace camp is in Israel, and why Ehud Olmert’s apparent plan to reenter politics and campaign on the basis of reaching a peace deal with the Palestinians is going to be a disastrous miscalculation (more on that later this week).

As I noted yesterday on twitter, I think Israeli military action has crossed the threshold of being a lot more likely than not. As historically risk-averse as he might be, Netanyahu is not going to just wait this out. Security necessity and political calculations are both moving in the same direction here, and I think that we are about to see a Cast Lead-type incursion.

P.S. If this does indeed happen, I am going to be a busy man given what it will do to Turkish-Israeli relations in light of Erdoğan’s embrace of Hamas and imminent trip to Gaza.

The Likud-Kadima Deal Is Not About Iran

May 8, 2012 § 10 Comments

Last night right after the news broke that Shaul Mofaz and Kadima were joining Bibi Netanyahu’s governing coalition and that the early elections that had been announced for September 4 are now off, I wrote this post on the implications of the deal for Israeli domestic politics. On the morning after, I have a few more thoughts pertaining to how the new unity government will affect changes in Israeli foreign policy. The short version is, it won’t.

The area in which some people are expecting Israeli policy to shift with the new government is Iran. Jeffrey Goldberg thinks that the larger coalition and unity government might make it easier for Netanyahu to strike Iranian nuclear sites should he be so inclined. I think it is true that it makes doing so easier since the new coalition comprises 93 out of 120 MKs, and a unity government deciding to launch an attack takes some of the bite out of the recent cascade of criticism coming from former defense and intelligence leaders. Kadima joining the coalition, however, does not alter the basic realities that were preventing Netanyahu and Barak from carrying out a strike months ago. Israeli public opinion is still ambivalent on a unilateral Israeli strike, U.S. and world pressure to wait and give sanctions more time has not disappeared, four out of the eight Shminiya (Octet) members are still opposed, and the security and intelligence establishment have raised legitimate concerns that cannot be waved away just because Kadima joined the government. Add to all this the fact that Israel has serious renewed security concerns on its southern border with Egypt and is keeping an eye on its northern border following reports that Scud missile installations being moved closer to the border in Syria, and attacking Iran appears to be a dicey proposition.

There is also the Mofaz factor, which does not necessarily weigh in favor of a strike. Looking at Mofaz’s position on Iran, a little over a month ago he blasted Netanyahu for pushing for a strike that he deemed would be premature and ineffective, and said that he would stand with any PM who ordered an attack as the last resort but that Israel was not yet at that stage. Just yesterday, he accused Netanyahu of politicizing the issue of a strike and endangering the relationship with the U.S. Now, anything Mofaz said in the guise of campaigning must be taken with a grain of salt, but that he chose to hit Bibi hard on Iran cannot just be brushed aside so easily. It is also important to remember that Mofaz was not campaigning primarily on security or defense issues but rather donned the mantle of social justice, and was particularly targeting preferential treatment for Haredim. The deal with Likud gives Mofaz and Kadima the task of leading the committee charged with coming up with a Tal Law alternative, which is again not a security-related issue. It is easy to think that bringing a former defense minister and IDF chief of staff on board must mean that Netanyahu is seeking to add another buffer against criticism should he choose to attack Iran, but the details of Mofaz’s campaign and the particulars of the unity deal do not necessarily point to this conclusion. There are now three former chiefs of staff in the cabinet – Barak, Mofaz, and Yaalon – and based on what we know, only one of them is on board for an imminent unilateral strike on Iran. Just because the cabinet is full of generals does not mean that they are all gung ho to launch a new military adventure.

There is, however, one important way in which Israeli foreign policy might change with this unity deal, and that is the renewed empowerment of the foreign minister should Avigdor Lieberman be indicted, which I expect will happen in light of Zeev Ben Arie’s indictment and plea bargain last week. If Lieberman has to leave the government, it is safe to assume that Mofaz will take his place, and Israel will then once again have a foreign minister who is actually trusted to carry out the state’s diplomacy. This would undoubtedly be a good development should it occur, since Israel’s Foreign Ministry is too important to be left in incompetent hands.

When all is said and done, I do not think this deal is about Iran. I think it was done for domestic political considerations first and foremost. Let’s remember that while Netanyahu has faced no real challenges, Likud has not been on nearly as solid footing as its party leader. It is right now the second largest party in the Knesset – and that Kadima is the largest but is only getting one minister slot out of this deal tells you all you need to know about its long term prospects – but had been facing a new threat from Yesh Atid, a Labor bump following summer social justice protests, and a rightwing revolt within its own ranks led by Moshe Feiglin, Danny Danon, and others who do not find Netanyahu sufficiently committed to the settlement cause. The deal with Kadima eliminates these problems or gives Netanyahu more time to deal with them. By bringing Kadima and Mofaz into the coalition, it increases the chances that an increasingly unpopular Kadima (polls had it coming in fourth or fifth were elections to be held in September) will simply merge back with Likud before October 2013 and undo the rift that Ariel Sharon created in order to pull out of Gaza. It also cuts the legs out from under Yair Lapid and his new party before it can really get off the ground, and while Yesh Atid might stick around and build support, October 2013 is a long ways away for a party that has no seats in the Knesset. A newly stabilized government gives Netanyahu more time to quell the growing backbench rebellion within Likud as well, and he can expect Kadima to now back him full-tilt on settlements once he backs Mofaz’s Tal Law alternative. In sum, this is move to bring in Kadima and cancel the early elections is a no-brainer that eliminates potential rival parties, strengthens Likud internally, and probably increases its vote share over what it would have gotten in September. Does it make it easier to attack Iran? Sure – Mofaz might now become Netanyahu’s Colin Powell inasmuch as his known reticence about a strike and his presence in the cabinet make it more credible should Netanyahu decide to act. But I don’t think that is the correct prism through which to view yesterday’s political machinations.

P.S. Related to all of this, Brent Sasley has a great post over at Mideast Matrix that is well worth a read because it gets to the root causes of Israel’s political dysfunction. The casual observer familiar only with the American form of government looks at the fact that the Israeli prime minister just decided on a whim to cancel his own call for early elections and put them off for over a year as a gross violation of democracy, when in fact it is par for the course in a parliamentary system. That does not mean, however, that all is well with Israeli politics, and Brent makes a great counter-intuitive argument that yesterday’s events actually strengthen Israel democracy by temporarily papering over some of the immense structural problems that exist in the system.

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