October 27, 2016 § Leave a comment
After what many viewed as Prime Minister Netanyahu’s boosterism on behalf of Mitt Romney in 2012 and his meetings in New York last month with Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, there has been inevitable chatter about how Israeli politics is impacting the U.S. presidential election. For what it’s worth, I thought in 2012 that Netanyahu largely got an unfair bad rap over allegations that he was trying to influence the campaign, and I give him credit this time around for having clean hands. By all accounts, Netanyahu gave zero encouragement to Trump when he was making noise about taking a campaign trip to Israel last spring, made no independent effort to meet with the candidates while in the U.S., and made sure to reach out to Clinton to schedule a meeting only after Trump asked for one first. While there is plenty of speculation about the Israeli government’s preferences and how those preferences will impact the election, the more interesting angle goes the other way. The U.S. election has the potential to wreak havoc on Israeli politics, and it is forcing Netanyahu to make some potentially momentous choices with regard to his own political positioning.
The past couple of months have not been kind to Netanyahu and Likud insofar as the polls go. In early September, public opinion surveys showed Yesh Atid pulling ahead of Likud were elections to be held, with Yesh Atid more than doubling its current seats and Likud’s share cut by 25%. Another poll in late September confirmed this trend holding, with Yesh Atid ahead of Likud by four seats despite more respondents preferring Netanyahu to Yair Lapid as prime minister. While the numbers dictate trouble ahead for Netanyahu and Likud politically absent some sort of course correction, there is one important way in which the polling acts to Netanyahu’s political benefit. Israeli government coalitions are notoriously unstable – Netanyahu’s most recent government lasted just over two years, and there have been nine governments in the twenty one years since Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination – and it oftentimes takes little to bring a government down. Coalition partners are able to hold the prime minister hostage by insisting on an array of demands and threatening – explicitly or implicitly – to bring down the government and force new elections if they aren’t met. Conversely, when the polls show the leading party benefitting from new elections, the prime minister will often force a crisis, such as when Netanyahu fired Yair Lapid and Tzipi Livni in December 2014 in order to try and pick up more seats and bring the Haredi parties into the government.
The current government is in many ways one that should be particularly susceptible to hostage taking behavior by Likud’s coalition partners. The coalition is 66 MKs – and was only 61 MKs until Avigdor Lieberman brought Yisrael Beiteinu into the government in May – and it can be unilaterally brought down by four out of its five coalition partners, since a defection by any of the four would put the coalition under a majority of 61 Knesset seats. It is filled with party leaders, such as Naftali Bennett and Lieberman, who harbor ambitions to replace Netanyahu, have extremely checkered pasts with him, and are also widely reputed to loathe him personally. It contains parties with wildly different priorities, from Habayit Hayehudi and its focus on its settler and rightwing nationalist constituency to Shas and United Torah Judaism and their championing of ultra-Orthodox welfare and religious priorities. It has been plagued with fights surrounding the budget. In short, few people thought this government would last particularly long.
The recent polls change that calculus, because the prospects of Yesh Atid winning and forming the next government mean that Habayit Hayehudi and the Haredi parties would be doomed to irrelevance. Despite Lapid and Bennett’s unlikely partnership of strange bedfellows in the previous government, it is difficult to foresee a coalition led by Lapid in which their two parties coexist. The Haredi parties are also terrified of Lapid, despite his recent efforts to take a softer rhetorical line on their pet issues, since he represents the secular elite with whom they clash and his late father, Tommy Lapid, was Israel’s most ardent and outspoken secular leader and Haredi opponent. In addition, Moshe Kahlon and his Kulanu party would nearly disappear if new elections were held today, and Kahlon’s future political career is dependent on his banking some tangible policy victories as finance minister. In short, Netanyahu’s partners can no longer afford to make idle threats of bringing the government down, which makes Netanyahu’s coalition far more stable in inverse proportion to how strong Likud is polling.
Which brings us to the wrinkle, which is our presidential election here at home. Currently, Netanyahu’s biggest fear is that President Obama will do something on his way out the door related to the peace process and/or settlements, ranging from what Netanyahu views as disastrous (a binding UN Security Council resolution) to enormously inconvenient (a speech laying out Obama’s views on parameters for future two-state negotiations). Netanyahu and Israeli officials have been furiously lobbying everyone from the president on down not to make any moves on this front, and they have been counting on the uncertainty of the election outcome to forestall any surprises, since Obama will not want to do anything that may drive Jewish voters in Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and other swing states toward Trump. After the election though, all bets are off, and this is particularly so in the unlikely but still possible case that Trump wins, since then Obama will have no concerns about saddling his successor with a policy on Israel that may not be to his liking. Even if Clinton wins as expected, the unusually harsh American response to the Israeli government’s plan to build a new neighborhood in Shilo for the relocated Amona settlers makes Netanyahu and his coalition partners fear that there is an American sword of Damocles waiting to drop.
In Netanyahu’s calculations, the one possibly foolproof thing he can do to head this all off at the pass is to bring Yitzhak Herzog and his Zionist Union party into the government and make Herzog foreign minister, which explains the dalliance with Herzog a few months ago and the constant reports that he and Herzog are once again cooking up plans for a unity government. Netanyahu thinks that bringing in Herzog and giving him the diplomatic portfolio will signal to the world that he is genuine in his desire to see a two-state solution, and that it will prevent a post-election move from Obama while starting him off on the right foot with Clinton should she win. It will also not bring down his government if Herzog can bring enough Zionist Union MKs with him to replace the eight from Habayit Hayehudi who will leave should Zionist Union join, and while it leaves Netanyahu with a suboptimal coalition from a policy standpoint and creates future political problems for him, it gives him diplomatic breathing room.
I am skeptical that Netanyahu’s fears are well-placed since I think the likelihood is greater than not that Obama does nothing earth shattering on the Israeli-Palestinian front before he leaves the White House, but there is also little question that Netanyahu’s calculus on this is presenting him with a political choice and that he is weighing his options. So the intersection of American politics and Israeli politics are indeed important for the next few months, but the impact will be far more heavily felt in Israel than here.
October 13, 2016 § 4 Comments
When your work centers on Israel, you spend a lot of time contemplating existential threats. Whether it is Iran’s nuclear program, Hizballah and Hamas terrorism, Israel’s presence in the West Bank, the specter of Israel ending its presence in the West Bank, the monopoly of the Orthodox on Israel’s religious and family institutions, the threat of allowing the non-Orthodox a say in Israel’s religious and family institutions – everyone has their favorite doomsday scenario for what will bring the end of Israel. I don’t want to debate whose alarmist tendencies are most on point, but there is one clear and present danger looming on the horizon that nobody should casually dismiss, and that is the potential presidency of Donald Trump.
Let’s begin with the easy stuff. American Jews often like to talk about whether or not a candidate feels Israel in his or her kishkes, and for many it can be a quick and easy litmus test for pro-Israel voters. If this is the standard that you employ, there is no conceivable argument that Trump meets it. Trump seems to know nothing about Israel other than that it has built a wall. He has suggested cutting all U.S. foreign aid – which would include the military assistance to Israel – and then embraced making Israel reimburse the U.S. for the defense aid it receives. He then switched course yet again and defended the annual military assistance and missile defense cooperation not on the grounds of Israel being an important ally or because its safety is an American interest or because Israel doesn’t exactly live in a friendly neighborhood, but because it is an “excellent investment.” Given Trump’s history of bailing on investments that have turned sour and leaving his creditors high and dry, I don’t know why anyone would assume that he would treat Israel otherwise were his views of its investment worthiness – whatever that even means – to change.
But let’s leave aside Trump’s emotional attachment to Israel or lack thereof. The actual policy agenda that he has embraced would be disastrous for Israel as well. Trump has made his disdain for allies and alliances clear, treating every relationship that the U.S. has as a transactional one. For a country that relies on the U.S. for weapons, security guarantees, diplomatic assistance in the United Nations and other international forums, and intelligence sharing, to list only a short part of a long menu of items, it would be four or eight years of constant walking on eggshells, hoping that a President Trump views Israel as pulling its perceived weight.
Trump does not actually understand Israel’s specific policy concerns. The major area of disagreement between the U.S. and Israel during the Obama administration has been Iranian power, and yet at the debate this past Sunday night, Trump repeatedly expressed his preference for farming out responsibility and influence in Syria to Iran and Russia so that they could assist Bashar al-Assad. In short, Trump actively wants to further empower Iran in establishing a permanent and dominant presence in Syria, creating the biggest threat on Israel’s immediate border in decades and ensuring that Hizballah has even freer reign than it ever has to stockpile missiles and menace Israel. He has called for Saudi Arabia to develop its own nuclear weapons, which would permanently eliminate Israel’s qualitative military edge. Does this sound like someone who even understands what Israeli security concerns are, let alone a great and glorious friend?
Trump does not understand Israel itself. He has stated that if he is not elected president, the Iran deal will lead to Israel’s elimination. We can debate the merits of the Iran deal from now until Election Day – and Trump is correct that Israeli officials, including those in the security establishment and not just politicians, are not exactly fans – but the notion that only Trump can save Israel runs counter to anything and everything for which Israel stands. It betrays an utter ignorance of the very essence of Zionism, of Jewish power and survival embodied in the Jewish state. It betrays an utter contempt for the Israeli ethos of self-reliance and making “Never Again” more than just a hollow slogan. It betrays an utter incomprehension of Israeli military power, intelligence, and capabilities. It betrays an insulting narcissism that pays lip service to Israel without bothering to learn the first thing about it.
Trump does not understand the U.S.-Israel relationship. He thinks that it is based upon the shared darkness of struggling with terrorism rather than the shared values of democracy. He seizes upon suboptimal choices that Israel has reluctantly made out of necessity – the separation barrier, profiling at Ben Gurion Airport – to bind himself to Israel, never for one second comprehending that Israel does not take these measures with the glee that Trump evinces when discussing them. Every time he unfairly tarnishes Israel by using it as his justification for pushing a set of noxious policy prescriptions that are completely devoid of the Israeli context, Israel’s standing in the U.S. suffers. When naysayers doubt the values aspect of the U.S.-Israel relationship, they tend to focus on Israel’s democratic deficit, warning that Israel is in danger of losing its appeal in the eyes of Americans. Not only do Trump’s words of damning praise threaten support for Israel by continually shining a spotlight on Israel’s least attractive side, a Trump presidency will take this dynamic and turn it on its head, making Israel diplomatically captive to an America whose moral leadership is eroded and tarnishing Israel with a guilt-by-association. It is difficult to have a robust alliance that is based primarily on shared values when one side of that alliance is run by an imperious megalomaniac obsessed with punishing his political enemies and eviscerating the rule of law.
During Sunday night’s debate, I tweeted that Trump is an authoritarian. Over the next 24 hours on Twitter, I was called an oven dodger, a dumb kike, a hook-nosed Jew, a Jewish subversive, a traitor, told to “get your ass back to Tel Aviv” and to go back to “your country Israel,” among other pleasantries. My characterization of Trump did not even hint at anything having to do with Jews or Israel, yet the putrescent sleaze emanating from his fans was quite narrowly tailored. I do not hold Trump responsible for what his supporters do and say, and thankfully none of these mental midgets will be responsible for his Israel policy. But think about the political persuasions of Trump’s most ardent fans and remember that this is a man with no real policy ideas that do not involve sound bites and who is captive to whatever crazy idea is the latest to penetrate his skull. And then ask yourself whether you are comfortable with the most powerful leader in the world being someone who lies awake at night retweeting the kind of people who think that an American Jew whose family has been here for over a century should “pack your bags for your walled ethnostate.” There is a wide universe of policies that can be deemed pro-Israel, but I don’t trust that any of them will be reliably implemented by an unapologetically oblivious and proudly uninformed cretin whose policies and statements present a danger to the long term health and interests of his own country’s democracy, let alone one six thousand miles away.
October 7, 2016 § Leave a comment
The American and Israeli governments are in the midst of the latest chapter of their ongoing dispute over West Bank settlements, with the spark this time being Israel’s announcement of its solution to the problem of Amona, an issue about which I wrote last month. The solution, such as it is, is to build a new neighborhood in the settlement of Shilo consisting of 98 new houses for the residents of Amona, which the Israeli government insists is simply building on empty land within the current municipal boundary of an existing settlement, and the U.S. government insists is the creation of a brand new settlement and runs contrary to assurances from the Netanyahu government that it would not build new settlements in the West Bank. Consequently, the Obama administration issued an unusually harsh condemnation on Wednesday, while the Israeli Foreign Ministry and various ministers fired right back on Thursday. All of this comes on the heels of the recently concluded $38 billion ten year military assistance MOU between the two countries, and in the middle of rampant speculation as to what the White House will do (or not do) regarding the peace process or settlements on its way out the door.
The tragedy here is that this dust up could have and should have been easily avoided with some more measured moves on both sides. The Israeli government has a problem, which is that it needs to evacuate these settlers who are living in a settlement that was illegally built on private Palestinian land, but it is constrained by a coalition that cannot countenance any policies that appear to be selling out the settlers or limit Jewish settlement in the West Bank. The U.S. government also has a problem, which is that it has taken a tough line with regard to Israeli settlement activity and cannot sit silently by as Israel announces new settlement construction in a place that is outside any conceivable boundaries of what Israel will annex under a permanent status agreement, but also does not want a high profile fight with Jerusalem in the midst of a presidential election and so soon after the successful MOU negotiation.
The solution to this lies in the plans that have been developed by the Commanders for Israel’s Security, and in measures for which I have previously argued. Shilo is a clear example of a settlement that is beyond the security barrier, has not been proposed by Israel to be retained under any round of peace negotiations, and will eventually be evacuated. There is no earthly sensible reason to move the Amona settlers there, since it only complicates the situation down the road and is guaranteed to raise hell from the U.S., the E.U., and nearly every international observer. But if the Israeli government were to take the commanders’ advice and complete the security barrier while renouncing all territorial claims to land beyond it, then it could move the Amona settlers to one of the bloc settlements on the west side of the fence. This would abrogate the need to build new housing in a place that is literally closer to Jordan than it is to the Green Line, make it clear that Israel’s intentions are not to gobble up as much of the West Bank as possible, and still mollify coalition partners by keeping the settlers in a settlement. Concurrently, the U.S. government could recognize that not all settlements are equal, that saving its fire for settlement construction exclusively in places like Shilo rather than equally condemning construction in places like Ramat Shlomo inside the Jerusalem municipality might actually lead to better outcomes through creating a different set of incentives, and ensure that a contiguous Palestinian state in the West Bank remains a possible outcome.
Is this a perfect solution? Not at all. I would much rather see the Amona residents move to Jerusalem or Tel Aviv. But clearly what’s happening now is not working, and the politics both in the U.S. and Israel make more drastic measures from both sides impossible. Amona should never have been built in the first place, and this entire mess should never have gone this far. But even so, if Israel were to act a bit smarter and not kowtow so far to the right, and the U.S. were to keep an eye on the long game rather than sweat the relatively small stuff – even when the small stuff is legitimately infuriating, as it is in this case – then everyone would be a lot better off.
October 6, 2016 § Leave a comment
What does a state owe its citizens, and what do a state’s citizens owe their state? It is a question that has been front and center in the U.S. stemming from what seems like an avalanche of police shootings of African Americans and the resulting demonstrations, including those of NFL players not standing for the national anthem, but in the last week it has been occupying my mind due to events in Israel. Both sides – state and citizens – appear to be forgetting that there is a mutual obligation to each other that can and must be divorced from specific policies lest the entire system suffer a crisis of legitimacy.
At Shimon Peres’s funeral last Friday, there was a cavalcade of world leaders, cultural luminaries, and Israeli politicians and officials in attendance. Notably absent were Joint List chairman Ayman Odeh and the other members of his Knesset faction, a move that Odeh defended later that day by arguing that Palestinian citizens of Israel have no part in Israeli national mourning and that Peres was responsible for policies that Arab Israelis cannot forgive. Odeh singled out the Israeli narrative and Israeli symbols that exclude him as a non-Jewish citizen, and also specifically mentioned Peres’s role in building up the state’s defenses as something that he cannot celebrate. As to be expected, Odeh was roundly criticized, but stuck to his guns that not attending the funeral or issuing any official statement of condolence was the appropriate move.
Then this week, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked served as the mirror image of Odeh, arguing in a HaShiloach journal article entitled המשילות אל מסילות (The Tracks to Governability) that the more Jewish a nation Israel is, the more ipso facto democratic it will be. The core of the article is actually an argument for the primacy of the legislative branch and its right to be largely free of unwarranted judicial checks, but Shaked spends the third section of the article making the case that Judaism reinforces democracy and that there is not actually any tradeoff between Israel’s Jewish character and its democratic character. So while Odeh made the point that Israel’s focus on its Jewishness makes aspects of it inherently illegitimate for its non-Jewish citizens, Shaked made the point that Israel’s Jewishness makes it more legitimate as a democratic state that represents all of its citizens.
You can fill an entire library with books and articles of political theory and law dealing with the question of what a state owes its citizens, but I’d boil it down to a very simple precept: a state is required to protect and represent all of its citizens equally. By the same token, citizens owe a basic allegiance to the state; not to the government or its specific policies, but to the state itself. That is why both Odeh and Shaked are wrong in this case, and if you pursue their rationales and justifications to their logical conclusions, you end up with a complete disaster.
Let’s start with Shaked, which is in some ways the more straightforward case. I am an unapologetic defender of Israel as the Jewish homeland and as a Jewish state, and in my view the need for a Jewish state and the right of Jews to realize their nationalist aspirations require no apology or qualification. Nonetheless, since Israel is not a state only for Jews, this requires a delicate balancing act that takes into account the fact that democracy requires equal rights for non-Jewish citizens and identical treatment under the law. It is possible to have a state that is both Jewish and democratic, as Israel demonstrates every day, but it is plainly wrong to assert that these two elements can both be fulfilled to their utmost capacity simultaneously. A perfectly pure liberal democracy would not have the Law of Return; a perfectly pure Jewish state would not have non-Jews serving in the Knesset, Supreme Court, or IDF. The fact that Israel is not an ideal type of either of these things is something to be celebrated rather than criticized, but to assert that the two elements march together in perfect lockstep is a statement of ideology rather than logic. But more crucially, it risks destroying the balance and leading to a situation in which Israel is not fulfilling its obligations to its citizens by protecting and representing them equally to the best of its ability. Legislation that prioritizes Jewish law for domestic legal purposes will discriminate against and disenfranchise non-Jewish Israelis, and advocating for such betrays a lack of understanding about how democratic states must operate.
This brings me to Odeh and his view of what he owes the state. I understand and sympathize with Odeh’s dilemma, given his struggle for the rights of Palestinian citizens of Israel to be free of discrimination and to have their narrative not only understood by Israeli Jews but respected and acknowledged by the state. Israel is far from perfect, and perhaps no better than adequate for a Western democracy, in the way it deals with its non-Jewish minority. Nevertheless, in skipping Peres’s funeral Odeh and the Joint List elevated the “Palestinian” part to the complete exclusion of the “citizens of Israel” part. Leaving aside the somewhat perplexing move of demonizing Peres of all people, and ignoring his later role as a genuine peacemaker in favor of his earlier role as a hawk and champion of settlements, Odeh and company did not snub a man but the state itself. Peres served as president, prime minister, and in a host of other cabinet positions, and was the last member of the state’s founding generation. I do not for a second begrudge Odeh and Palestinian citizens of Israel their Nakba narrative or their view that the founding of Israel was a tragedy, nor do I believe that any criticisms they have of Peres should be kept under wraps (although Odeh’s decrying Peres for his work defending the state in which Odeh and his family live boggles the mind). But as Israeli citizens and members of the national legislature, who rightly demand that the state fulfill its obligations to them and participate in the state’s politics and governance, I expect them to have a baseline respect for the state itself, whether they like the state or not. I keep on thinking of the West Wing episode in which the president hires the wildly eccentric and inappropriate Debbie Fiderer to be his secretary because in a letter she writes to the White House suggesting that arsenic be put in his water, she still refers to him as President Bartlet, showing her respect for the office despite her feelings about the man occupying it. The more appropriate move for Odeh and the Joint List MKs would have been for them to attend the funeral and then spend the rest of the day loudly broadcasting their criticisms of Peres in every outlet they could find.
Israel successfully walks a very fine line between competing pressures of governance every day. Neither Shaked nor Odeh seem to appreciate this balancing act, nor to understand that a state must have a basic respect for all its citizens while its citizens must have a basic respect for their state if the polity is to be successful. What makes Israel unique is the unprecedented experiment in Jewishness and democracy simultaneously, and it will be tragic indeed if a vision for Israel emerges victorious that does not have sufficient room for both.