The American Election and Israeli Coalition Politics

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.

Opining On Outposts

September 8, 2016 § 2 Comments

In 2011, the Israeli High Court ruled that Migron, an outpost in the West Bank built without government approval on private Palestinian land, had to be dismantled. After the government ignored the court order and instead worked out an agreement with Migron’s residents that delayed the evacuation, the court stepped in again and ordered Migron evacuated before the deadline that had been agreed upon with the settlers. The Israeli government complied, but rather than end the Migron experiment entirely, it simply moved Migron slightly to the south, where it would now sit on state land, and retroactively legalized its status.

Were Migron an isolated incident, it would be bad enough. But as the current fights over Amona and Netiv Ha’avot – two other unauthorized outposts ordered to be demolished by the High Court – make clear, the story of Migron is the rule rather than the exception. Just like with Migron, Amona is slated to be torn down at the end of the year but the government is planning on relocating it a few hundred yards away and retroactively approving it as an authorized settlement. The fight over Netiv Ha’avot is only just beginning as the High Court ruled last week that it had to be demolished and could not be retroactively legalized, but given the parade of ministers who vowed to prevent its destruction, there is no doubt Netiv Ha’avot will live on. It is critical to understand what is taking place in these unauthorized outposts and to recognize the “solutions” for just how damaging they are, since they are critical to a key talking point that Prime Minister Netanyahu uses when speaking to foreign audiences and point to just how malleable rule of law is within Israel.

While there is controversy over any and all Israeli settlement activity in the West Bank, Israel has attempted to deal with the contested legality of settlements in general by establishing rules and processes for determining when Israeli law deems a settlement legal or not. The two main components that a settlement requires to be legal in Israel’s eyes are government approval in a formal planning and authorization process, and being built on land that is not privately owned by Palestinians. The outposts, which number in the hundreds, violate both of these requirements, which is why the High Court continues to order their demolition. Yet, either because the orders are ignored, the state retroactively legalizes the construction,  or the outposts are relocated to the closest parcel of state land, once an outpost goes up it almost never disappears. Even though outposts do not, by definition, have formal government approval, they are often supported by government officials and ministries.

Migron, for instance, was funded by the Housing Ministry at the behest of then-Minister Yair Rafaeli despite never having been formally approved or planned. The best way to understand how outposts get built, evade government efforts to tear them down, and manage to leverage political support and connections to tie up the bureaucracy and keep expanding, is not by reading the news but by reading Assaf Gavron’s 2014 novel The Hilltop, which is an engrossing work of fiction but also a cutting analysis of the dynamics that allow illegal outposts to thrive.

And as Isabel Kershner’s recent New York Times article on illegal outposts makes clear, they are indeed thriving, as the Israeli government retroactively legalizes them and does everything in its power under Israel’s legal system to let them stay. I am not someone who thinks that the presence of a few caravans on isolated hilltops makes it impossible to create a fair and contiguous Palestinian state, but I still think that the largest spotlight possible needs to be shined on this process for a variety of reasons.

First, one of Netanyahu’s favorite rhetorical devices is to note that Israel has not built any new settlements during his current run in the prime minister’s office. He uses this fact to shut down criticism of Israeli settlement activity and as proof that it is only the Palestinians, and not he, who are the real obstacles to achieving a two-state agreement, and when he trots it out before sympathetic or uninformed audiences, it is an effective trick. The trick is that while it is technically and narrowly correct, it ignores the fact that Israel under Netanyahu’s – and his predecessors’ – watch may not be authorizing brand new settlements, but the government doesn’t have to when it can just take the illegal ones that exist and make them legal. The more that interested observers get the sleight of hand at work, the less Netanyahu will be able to make unsubstantiated claims that muddy the waters.

Second, and more substantively important, the process of making illegal outposts legal is devastating to a two-state solution, not because the outposts themselves are such an obstacle but because they point to just how hard it will be for Israel to undertake the big moves that will be necessary down the road. If the government cannot commit to evacuating tens of settlers living in caravans and tents, what will happen when it agrees to evacuate thousands of settlers living in stone structures, like in Kdumim or Shilo or even Ariel? These outposts are a test of the government’s will, and it almost always fails the test miserably. If settlers can establish a community in contravention of Israeli law, clash with the IDF, repel government efforts to make them evacuate, refer to politicians and IDF commanders as Nazis, dictators, and enemies of Jews (all of which routinely happens), and still draw support from ministers and face little worse than having their homes picked up and relocated just yards away, then I wish the government good luck in working up the courage to move tens of thousands of settlers out of the West Bank who actually followed the rules.

Third, the process of dealing with illegal outposts shows how the rule of law in Israel can be more dependent on whom you are than on what you do. When Israeli Jews build illegally in the West Bank, the government has to be dragged kicking and screaming by NGOs who file lawsuits before it takes an action, and that action more often than not is to legalize what was illegal. When Palestinians build illegally in the West Bank – something that they are often forced into by circumstance as Israel issued only one building permit for Palestinians in Area C in 2014 and issued zero in 2015 – their homes are not retroactively legalized or relocated to Area B on the state’s dime, but are torn down. When Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman announced that he was going to comply with the order to tear down Amona, he made sure to add that he was going to comply with the order to tear down the Palestinian village of Susya as well, which seems defensible on its face since the same rules should apply to everyone until you consider that Israel is going to rebuild Amona right next door while the residents of Susya are more likely going to have to fend for themselves.

In the greater scope of things, a tiny illegal outpost deep in the West Bank is irrelevant compared to the problems presented by places like Givat Hamatos or Givat Ze’ev, neighborhoods that do indeed make a contiguous Palestinian state with access to East Jerusalem overwhelmingly difficult. But these outposts matter because of what they say about the Israeli government and its willingness to give in to extremists and small interest groups at the slightest hint of political pressure. In many ways, as the fate of these outposts go, so goes the fate of the two-state solution.

The Fight To Frame The Iran Deal

August 11, 2016 § 3 Comments

If you thought that the seemingly never-ending battle between the United States and Israel to shape how the Iran deal is viewed was finally over, you’d be wrong. At a press conference last Thursday, President Obama touted what he said was Israel’s ex-post support for the deal, saying, “And it’s not just the assessment of our intelligence community; it’s the assessment of the Israeli military and intelligence community, the country that was most opposed to this deal, that acknowledges this has been a game changer and that Iran has abided by the deal; and that they no longer have the sort of short-term breakout capacity that would allow them to create nuclear weapons.” The next day, an unsigned statement was issued by the Israeli Defense Ministry insinuating that the Iran deal has “no value” because it is based on a faulty reading of the facts on the ground, asserting that it damaged Israel’s struggle to defend itself from Iran, and comparing it to the infamous Munich agreement that preceded WWII. This in turn was followed by a statement from Prime Minister Netanyahu confirming that Israel’s opposition to the deal has not changed, but emphasizing that Israel has no greater ally than the U.S. and that the most important things going forward are ensuring Iranian compliance with the deal and strengthening the U.S.-Israel relationship. Then on Monday, the Defense Ministry issued another unsigned statement apologizing for any misunderstanding over the Munich analogy but reiterating again that Israel remains concerned about Iranian behavior in the wake of the Iran deal.

The Iran deal has been at the core of much of the up-and-down relationship between the American and Israeli governments over the past few years, culminating in Netanyahu’s speech to Congress in March 2015 and continuing to cast a pall over the negotiations for the new ten year defense assistance Memorandum of Understanding. Despite the fact that the Iran deal has been signed and implemented, framing how it is perceived is still crucial to both sides. For the U.S., defending Obama’s signature – and most controversial – foreign policy achievement is the way to shape how history will view his presidency, and even more importantly to set the future direction of American foreign policy long after he is gone from office. For Israel, which was the most publicly vociferous opponent of the deal, continuing to inveigh against it is not only about protecting Israeli credibility and demonstrating Israeli prescience, but about keeping the heat on Iran in order to preserve Israel’s position in the region and assure international support for its defense and security priorities. So more than one year on from the deal’s conclusion, it still affects U.S.-Israel relations and will continue to do so for years to come.

In this particular case, the blowup could have and should have been easily avoided, and much of the blame lies on the president himself. Obama was wrong in his characterization of how the Israeli security establishment views the deal, particularly in his use of the phrase “game changer.” Whereas Obama portrayed Israel as Saul on the road to Damascus, having seen the light and undergone a conversion on the Iran deal’s merits, the reality is that Israeli officials are far more wary. They acknowledge that the deal has eliminated the nuclear issue in the short term, but they also worry that it has actually made the issue even more dangerous in the long term once the deal expires in ten years and that it has worsened other Iranian non-nuclear headaches, such as terrorism and ballistic missile production, in the present. And while Israeli officials concede that Iran has hewed to the narrow terms of the deal so far, they are also certain that Iran will violate the agreement as soon as it is in its interests to do so. In light of this, Israeli officials’ anger at Obama’s press conference is eminently understandable. Israelis rightly don’t like being used as pawns in a PR battle, and all the more so when they feel that their position is being misrepresented. Even worse, Israel’s response since the deal was implemented has been precisely what the U.S. had been pleading for – measured opposition and an acknowledgement that the most important thing now is to hold Iran to its commitments, rather than to continue lambasting the deal at every opportunity and lobbying for it to be scrapped. For that to be throw back in its face must have been particularly galling.

Being justifiably angry, however, does not make the response justifiable. Rather than bring a gun to a knife fight – and breaking out the Munich analogy was certainly a disproportionate response – Israel would have been better off spinning this as a win. After all, the fact that Obama referenced Israel as the ultimate validator in judging whether or not the deal has been and will be successful gives Israel a fair deal of leverage going forward when it comes to evaluating Iranian compliance and developing a response should Iran be deemed in violation of the accord. It is embarrassing enough that the “Defense Ministry” had to walk back its original statement a few days later, but the timing itself made things even more precarious given that the U.S. and Israel are reportedly in the end stages of negotiating the new military aid package, and this hardly seems the time for Israel to do anything that might upset the apple cart. The fact that Avigdor Lieberman – who presumably took the strange step of hiding behind an entire ministry in an effort to give his statement more weight – was unable to hold his tongue despite the timing and despite his past criticism of other Israeli ministers for needlessly harming relations with the U.S. is a reminder of how the pragmatic defense minister can still be dangerously erratic, placing politics above wider considerations.

If there is a positive element to all of this, it is that despite the missteps on both sides of the ocean, it seems that both the U.S. and Israel have learned something from the recent tensions in the relationship. That Israel almost immediately walked back its over the top outburst demonstrates a recognition that rhetorical excesses do indeed have consequences and must be contained. That the U.S. was publicly silent and did not escalate the confrontation in response to Lieberman’s barb demonstrates a desire going forward to keep disagreements behind closed doors, as the Israelis have often requested. There is no question that Iran is going to continue to be a wedge between the U.S. and Israel through the end of the Obama presidency at the very least, but hopefully both sides can manage to be more felicitous in their public statements going forward.

A Primer on Building Beyond the Green Line

July 7, 2016 § 2 Comments

Israel announced its plans this week for new construction in a number of different places in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and the variety of locations provides a great primer for why I think that not all settlements should be treated equally. Whenever Israel announces that it is constructing new units across the Green Line, it is instinctively condemned, but this is not always the most productive approach. There is no question that settlements are a large problem that cannot and should not be brushed aside as if they are ancillary to the difficulty in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. There is also no question that the problem that the settlements present has grown exponentially as a direct result of purposeful Israeli policy to move as many Jews into the West Bank as possible. I do not give the Israeli government a free pass on this issue nor do I justify the activity after the fact, and look no further for why the Palestinians are so rightly distrustful of Israel constantly seeking to establish facts on the ground. Nevertheless, while I wish that we were not at this point, it does not change the fact that some settlements are a lot worse than others. Looking at the most recent announcements demonstrates precisely why.

Following the horrific terrorist attacks last week in Kiryat Arba and Route 60, Prime Minister Netanyahu and Defense Minister Lieberman approved a tender for 42 new homes in Kiryat Arba, intended partly to signal that terrorism against Israelis in the West Bank will never drive them out. Netanyahu and Lieberman also approved plans for 560 new units in Ma’ale Adumim, and 140 and 100 new units in the East Jerusalem neighborhoods of Ramot and Har Homa respectively. Finally, they approved 600 new homes for Palestinians in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Beit Safafa. None of these announcements are helpful in that they all complicate matters to one degree or another, but the question to be asked is to what extent they make arriving at a permanent status agreement more difficult. These announcements taken as a group represent four distinct types of areas, all of which should be treated differently: settlements that will have to be evacuated in a final deal, settlements that will be annexed to Israel, neighborhoods of East Jerusalem that will remain under Israeli sovereignty, and neighborhoods of East Jerusalem that have the potential to be the decisive nail in the coffin of the two-state solution.

Kiryat Arba is an example of the first category. It sits right next to Hebron and was one of the first settlements that was built after the Six Day War, and has historical and emotional resonance given the millennia-old Jewish connection to Hebron, considered to be the second holiest city in Judaism after Jerusalem. It is also a settlement that will unquestionably have to be evacuated when the time comes. Hebron is the largest city in the West Bank and Kiryat Arba is located far into what will be the future state of Palestine. It was not part of the Jewish state envisioned in the 1947 partition plan, it is outside the current security barrier, and was not included in the areas to be annexed by Israel under its own proposals at Camp David in 2000, at Taba in 2001, or at Annapolis in 2008. The Israeli government could approve one thousand new units there tomorrow and all it would do is complicate the eventual evacuation of Kiryat Arba. This type of housing approval is completely unproductive and unnecessarily provocative, but it thankfully does nothing to change the facts on the ground by making a two-state solution more difficult to negotiate.

Ma’ale Adumim is an example of the second category, although it is more problematic than some of the other settlements that share this distinction. It anchors one of the five settlement blocs, is the third largest settlement in the West Bank and one of only four Jewish cities across the Green Line, and it is inside the planned route for the security barrier. The vast majority of Israelis consider it to be completely non-controversial and part of Israel, and it has been included in the territory that Israel would like to annex during each negotiation with the Palestinians, including in the 2003 Geneva Initiative. If one takes the position, as I do, that settlement construction inside the blocs should be treated differently than construction outside the blocs, then more housing in Ma’ale Adumim should essentially be ignored. What makes Ma’ale Adumim a little different is that because it is significantly east of Jerusalem, its continued growth poses problems for Palestinian contiguity in the West Bank and – depending on which way it expands – Palestinian access to Jerusalem. But assuming that the new construction does not move north or west, the new units in Ma’ale Adumim are ultimately going to be part of Israel under a permanent status agreement.

Ramot is one of the ring neighborhoods attached to West Jerusalem to the north, and there is an even smaller likelihood than there is with Ma’ale Adumim that it does not remain part of Israel under an eventual peace deal. Far more complicated is Har Homa, which was approved by Netanyahu in 1997 during his first term as prime minister, and is one of only two Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem to be built post-Oslo. What makes Har Homa so controversial is that it is one of two pieces in the jigsaw puzzle cutting off Bethlehem from Jerusalem, and it seriously damages Palestinian continuity in the area south of Jerusalem. Despite being inside the security barrier and the municipal boundary of Jerusalem, it is obvious in glancing at a map why Har Homa makes a final resolution far more difficult, and the fact that its boundary has now outgrown the territory that Israel proposed to annex at Camp David and that it was not included by the Geneva Initiative in Israeli territory illustrates this point further. Its population is now over 25,000 and when push comes to shove it is likely to be part of Israel under a permanent status agreement, but it is one of the best examples there is of how Israel establishes facts on the ground that are specifically intended to make an agreement harder to reach, in this case by strategically expanding what is considered to be part of Jerusalem and cutting off Palestinian access from the southern West Bank.

This leaves the second part of the jigsaw puzzle between Bethlehem and Jerusalem, which is Beit Safafa and Givat Hamatos. The former is an Arab neighborhood, the latter a planned Jewish neighborhood and one of two absolute red lines for the U.S. when it comes to Israeli construction (the other being E-1, across from Ma’ale Adumim) since it would cut off the last remaining corridor between Bethlehem and Jerusalem and make dividing Jerusalem in any permanent status agreement exponentially more difficult. The importance of Givat Hamatos to opponents of two states is evident in the reactions to the approval for Palestinian construction in Beit Safafa, with Zeev Elkin slamming the construction announcement since it does not also include Jewish housing in Givat Hamatos and Naftali Bennett calling it a “Palestinian arrow in the heart of Jerusalem” and a de facto division of the city. The government didn’t have much choice in the matter as the Jerusalem District Court in May ordered the construction of housing in Beit Safafa to move forward since it had already been planned and approved, but the fact that it instantly created pressure on Netanyahu from his right is dangerous. There is no more precarious area beyond the Green Line than Givat Hamatos, and should the neighborhood ever be built, it is hard to see a worse obstacle for the two-state solution.

The policy of the United States is to criticize any building by Israel over the Green Line, and this week’s announcement prompted the expected deep concern from the State Department. Were I the president, however, knowing that Israeli politics and public opinion are where they are and understanding that some construction is nearly innocuous while other construction is deeply deleterious, I would criticize the new units in Kiryat Arba, keep my mouth shut about Ramot and Ma’ale Adumim, project concern over Har Homa with a call not to expound the boundaries of the neighborhood in any way, and make it clear that any moves in Givat Hamatos will be treated as the equivalent of a nuclear option. Yes, this is much more complicated than just criticizing any and all new building, but it would be a policy designed to prevent Israel from doing harm in places where it really matters and get to a two-state solution that both sides will be able to live with.

Return Of The Establishment

June 23, 2016 § 4 Comments

The 2016 U.S. presidential campaign has seen the culmination of a trend that has been building in American politics for some time, namely the distrust of the establishment and the glorification of the outsider. The Iraq War and the Great Recession were probably the most significant contributors to the growing idea that the old order couldn’t be trusted, that the historically bipartisan establishment consensus on foreign and economic policy was failing regular citizens, and that only by “throwing the bums out” could the ship of state be righted. The election of Barack Obama and the rise of the Tea Party were manifestations of this political movement. Bernie Sanders’s surprising success in this year’s Democratic primary and the nomination of Donald Trump on the Republican side have only magnified it. The U.S., however, is not the only country where this has taken place, and in many ways Israeli politics is giving us a glimpse of what happens when the outsiders become the insiders and the old establishment begins to plot its comeback.

Menachem Begin’s election as prime minister with the Likud victory in 1977 was earth shattering.  It marked the first time that the Israeli rightwing defeated the leftwing Mapai and its political heirs and was the first rejection of the secular Ashkenazi elite that had founded the state and governed it since its inception. The Israeli rightwing – which includes secular Ashkenazi Jews but also is viewed as representing Mizrahim, Haredim, national religious, immigrants, and others in a way that the left traditionally has not – has been in power with only two brief interludes since Begin’s first victory.  In spite of this history, the prime ministership of Binyamin Netanyahu has in many ways embraced this outsider ethos rather than acting as the latest iteration of a political movement that thoroughly controls the state. Despite hailing from a well-known family with deep Zionist roots, Netanyahu seems to have a chip on his shoulder against Israeli establishment elites. He surrounds himself – to his credit – with relative newcomers to the state, whether it be close advisers like Ron Dermer and Dore Gold or political allies like Avigdor Lieberman and Yuli Edelstein. Ministers in his cabinet, like Moshe Kahlon or Miri Regev, speak out against the old establishment and work to upend the old order in various ways. Netanyahu, like many politicians who successfully capitalize on voters’ resentment, never hesitates to appeal to nationalism that denigrates leftists, the “State of Tel Aviv,” or other symbols of the traditional establishment. Despite being a three term prime minister who has served more time in the post than anyone other than David Ben Gurion and heads a political camp that has dominated Israeli politics for four decades, Netanyahu in many ways gives off the vibe of being an upstart outsider.

The conflict between Netanyahu and various political and military figures that is now playing out – intensified by Moshe Ya’alon’s and Ehud Barak’s speeches at the IDC Herzliya conference last week – can be viewed in a number of ways. On the one hand, there is the never-ending battle taking place between Likud and the parties to its left looking to displace it. Netanyahu still maintains the overwhelming upper hand over the conflict and angst-ridden Labor party, but the political rival who presents the most obvious clear and present danger is Yair Lapid, who in the latest poll is running only two seats behind Netanyahu and Likud. This is a battle not between right and left, but between right and center, and there is no doubt that Lapid is gunning hard to become the next prime minister and taking positions that will still appeal to nationalists while distinguishing him from Netanyahu.

Another way to view the current contretemps is politicians vs. the military. Israel’s current political leadership is very much at odds with the military leadership and security establishment over all sorts of issues, from what steps to take in the West Bank to how to address the controversy surrounding Elor Azaria (the soldier on trial for shooting and killing an immobile Palestinian terrorist in Hebron). There is no question that some in the government see benefit to using the IDF as a punching bag, and that some in the IDF see benefit in discrediting the government, and politicians on all sides of the issue are eager to line up behind one side or another based on the politics irrespective of the actual issues at hand.

But there is another way to look at the sudden cavalcade of politicians and former generals aligning themselves against Netanyahu, and it is the frame of the traditional establishment reasserting itself. Barak and Ya’alon are both former defense ministers and former IDF chiefs of staff, but that is where the comparison ends. They differ in their politics, in their styles, and in their worldviews, but the common thread uniting them aside from their military backgrounds is the charge that Netanyahu is changing the fabric of the country by pitting different groups against each other and damaging Israel’s democracy. The same goes for establishment Likud princes, such as Dan Meridor and Michael Eitan, who have fallen out with Netanyahu over similar issues rather than over issues of left vs. right. Much like the Bush family here – the ultimate symbol of the American establishment – who seem to abhor Trump not so much for his specific positions but for the threat he represents to the fabric of a harmonious American society and democracy, the various people and forces now lining up against Netanyahu across the spectrum represent the old Israeli establishment consensus despite having diverse political views. Netanyahu, who has done a masterful job of sidelining and diminishing his adversaries over the course of his political career, finally seems to have provoked a widespread backlash not because of any one policy per se, but because the people who view themselves as guardians of the Israeli ethos – and after all, what is an establishment for if not for that? – see his continued tenure as a threat to some definition of what it means to be Israeli and what Israel should stand for. I do not mean to abandon my cynical self here; very clearly much of this is political opportunism and some long-time Netanyahu rivals seeing the chance to finally draw some blood. But looking at how Israeli politics seems to be realigning itself along establishment/non-establishment fault lines may give us a glimpse of what the post-Trump future will look like here as well.

How Do You Determine When The IDF Has Gone Too Far?

May 26, 2016 § 1 Comment

Prime Minister Netanyahu’s appointment of Avigdor Lieberman as his defense minister has opened up all sorts of fault lines in Israeli politics, but perhaps none as important as the one between the government and the IDF. Outgoing Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon was a career military man and a former IDF chief of staff who commanded the military’s complete respect, and anytime someone with that profile and background is replaced with a defense minister whose military qualifications are minimal at best, it will engender anger and resentment. More saliently though, the genesis of the contretemps between Netanyahu and Ya’alon that ultimately led to the latter’s ouster was Ya’alon’s unwavering support for the IDF against the criticism of Netanyahu and other cabinet members. Given that Ya’alon has been replaced essentially for not selling out the generals under his purview, civil-military relations in Israel right now are at a nadir.

Assessing the situation in the New York Times over the weekend, veteran Israeli military and intelligence reporter Ronen Bergman expressed sympathy for IDF officers, writing that in Israel, “politicians blatantly trample the state’s values and laws and seek belligerent solutions, while the chiefs of the Israel Defense Forces and the heads of the intelligence agencies try to calm and restrain them.” Bergman reported that the IDF leadership saw Netanyahu’s phone call to the family of Elor Azariah – the soldier who shot and killed the Palestinian terrorist lying on the ground in Hebron – as “gross defiance of the military’s authority” and that high ranking IDF officials have raised the possibility of a military coup “with a smile,” even if that scenario is highly unlikely. In response, Wall Street Journal columnist Bret Stephens forcefully defended Netanyahu and the political leadership, warning that when generals are comfortable publicly criticizing civilian political leaders, erosion of civilian control of the military will follow. Stephens further warned that a military that conceives of anything it says or does as impartially guarding the national interest is at odds with how democratic government operates.

Let’s stipulate from the outset that a military coup in Israel is not just highly unlikely, as Bergman posits, but preposterous, as Stephens writes. Israel has had democratic governance from day one of its existence, and while generals often enter politics in Israel and end up in the prime minister’s office – Yitzhak Rabin, Ehud Barak, and Ariel Sharon are the most prominent examples – never have there even been any whispers of an IDF revolt against civilian government. But there are certainly ways that the military can erode the power and legitimacy of the elected politicians short of a coup. Speeches denouncing the government can be given, orders can be ignored, policy deliberations can be leaked in an effort to embarrass politicians and influence public opinion, and a myriad of other actions can be taken that are utilized by militaries all over the world – including in democracies – to sway elected officials.

It is evident that the IDF leadership is pretty actively engaged in Israeli politics at the moment. Both Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot and his deputy Yair Golan have tried to influence military policy through public comments of one sort or another, and each time have been immediately attacked by members of the government and right-leaning MKs. That military leaders are speaking out is not unusual for Israel when you take into account the fact that the IDF and the wider security establishment are granted a large role in the policymaking process by design. Israel is a country with mandatory military service for most, it has fought too many wars for a country with such a short history, and it faces an unusually large array of threats, so military officers are accorded a measure of political deference. That politicians are viciously attacking them is unusual though, and while there is no need to extensively go back over ground I have previously covered, politicizing the military is a very bad trend. The military should be free to make its thoughts known on subjects that directly fall under its jurisdiction, such as rules of engagement and prosecuting its own for misconduct, and contrary to Stephens’ assertion, I haven’t yet seen an instance of the IDF “publicly telling off its civilian masters.” Seizing upon every utterance of an officer as an opportunity to score political points will only end badly.

Nevertheless, if Bergman is accurately relaying a military culture that even makes jokes about military coups because of Lieberman’s appointment, then there is a serious problem, even if the actual possibility of a coup is as close to non-existent as it can get. Democracy has to be taken seriously when you don’t get your way; after all, democracy works precisely for this very reason as it offers perpetual hope that the next election cycle will turn this vote’s losers into next vote’s winners. Israel’s Basic Law on the military is crystal clear that the IDF is subject to the authority of the government and that the minister in charge of the IDF is the defense minister, full stop. Once IDF officers stop treating this as an inviolable truth, then the entire system is at risk of breaking down. Vertical accountability and civilian control of the military are necessary components of democratic government, and that applies even when the civilian in charge is someone that you don’t like and is severely under-qualified for the post.

The trends on each side – politicians using the military as a political punching bag, and the military coming dangerously close to the line of callousness regarding civilian oversight – are terrible developments that need to be cut off at the pass, and potentially the greatest tragedy of Lieberman’s appointment as defense minister is that it exacerbates them both. Lieberman does not have the experience or the gravitas to prevent the military running roughshod over him, which is bad for democracy. On the other side of the equation, his very appointment indicates that the politicization of the IDF has only just begun, as the defense ministry is not one to be used as a blatant political tool. Civil-military relations is not an issue to be trifled with if a country’s political system is to remain healthy, so let’s hope that what is now just a spark does not become a conflagration that consumes everything in its path.

Your Handy Guide To Netanyahu’s Coalitional Maneuvering

May 19, 2016 § 1 Comment

On Tuesday, center-left opposition leader Isaac Herzog was set to become the new Israeli foreign minister after bringing the Zionist Union into a national unity government. On Wednesday, rightwing gadfly and Bibi Netanyahu frenemy Avigdor Lieberman was set to become the new defense minister while Herzog was consigned to losing his party’s leadership and his potential new cabinet post. Looking for answers to your questions about all of the political shenanigans? You’ve come to the right place.

Isn’t there supposed to be a new unity government?

Netanyahu and Herzog have reportedly been talking about bringing the Zionist Union into the coalition ever since the government was formed with the Zionist Union on the outside last spring, and these negotiations burst into the open in recent weeks. For Netanyahu, the appeal was primarily twofold. First, despite the fact that his 61 seat coalition does not have any huge ideological fissures, a government with a one seat majority is never a comfortable place from which to operate. Bringing in Herzog and the approximately fourteen Labor Party members from the Zionist Union faction that he would have brought along would give Netanyahu breathing space and not make every coalition member a potential hostage taker. Second, there is something of a perfect storm gathering on the horizon on the diplomatic front, with the French initiative, the forthcoming Quartet report that is expected to be harsh on Israeli settlements, the end of the Obama administration (bearing in mind that Clinton and Bush both made a renewed effort at Israeli-Palestinian peace on their way out the door), and the 50th anniversary of the 1967 war all looming. Appointing Herzog as foreign minister would give Israel a friendlier face in Western capitals and offset some of the pressure that is hurtling down the road by signaling that Israel is more serious than assumed about finding a way to get to two states.

From Herzog’s perspective, he leads a party that has been plummeting in the polls, is completely ineffective in its opposition to the government, and he himself was facing massive discontent within the ranks. Entering into talks to join the government only sealed his inevitable demise within the Labor Party, as everyone from Zionist Union co-chief Tzipi Livni to Herzog’s predecessor Shelley Yachimovich to popular rising Labor star Stav Shaffir was opposed to joining the government. Indeed, Shaffir and other Labor members have now called for him to step down. Even if he were successful in joining the government, Herzog would have only brought a rump contingent with him. Nevertheless, if he was going to be ousted for ineffectiveness at some point, Herzog clearly believed that he may as well join the government as a top minister and also clearly believed in his ability to affect change from the inside. Not only did this make sense for him, it was the only way for him to maintain any real relevance. There was also the added wrinkle of Herzog mysteriously claiming earlier in the week that there was a secret regional diplomatic opportunity that might disappear if not immediately acted upon and that he was the man to make it happen, and then Egyptian president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi on Tuesday offering warmer relations with Israel if it would reach a settlement with the Palestinians. Some saw this confluence of events as a bit too convenient, speculating that Netanyahu and Herzog had coordinated this with Sisi in order to pave the way for the unity government to happen.

So what happened?

Suddenly, everything turned on a dime, and it became apparent that Netanyahu had been using Herzog to instead entice Avigdor Lieberman and Yisrael Beiteinu to join the coalition, a move that prompted Herzog to cut off talks on a unity government. Netanyahu and Lieberman have a long and tortured history, and after serving as foreign minister in the last government (with a corruption trial that forced him to temporarily step down from the post for a year), Lieberman decided to remain in the opposition after the last election and has been sniping at Netanyahu from the right ever since, accusing him of selling out the rightwing and not being a true nationalist or Zionist. It has been a smart political move for Lieberman, as Yisrael Beiteinu has six seats in the current Knesset and a poll released this week by the Israeli newspaper Ma’ariv shows that going up to eleven, but ultimately Lieberman has always wanted power, and being in the government is the only way for him to do it. Becoming defense minister – particularly in the wake of the Hebron shooting and the Yair Golan speech and at a time when there is concern within the nationalist camp over the direction of the IDF – is perfect for Lieberman, and he will get to demonstrate that he is more hawkish than anyone else in Israeli politics while using the power of his post to protect the settlement enterprise

From Netanyahu’s angle, he gets to remove a thorn in his side and also shore up his own internal political position. There has been serious friction between him and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon and major discontent within the Likud ranks over where Ya’alon’s priorities lie, and now Netanyahu gets to remove him and mollify the right by creating the most rightwing government that can be assembled. He also gets to neutralize the critiques coming from his biggest long-term threat, Naftali Bennett, by removing the basis for the charge that Netanyahu is not sufficiently attuned to the concerns of settlers or in step with the nationalist camp. Netanyahu also still gets to expand his coalition, but does so in a way that makes his base happy rather than making them think that he is selling out rightwing principles.

How can Netanyahu pursue Herzog and Lieberman at the same time? That’s like a voter who thinks that the economy is rigged supporting a billionaire who lives in an apartment made of gold and marble and whose success is based on borrowing money from banks based on family connections and his last name.

There are a couple rules of Bibi politics that you need to know to make sense of this. The first is that Netanyahu is constantly in search of room to maneuver, but don’t ever presume to know what he wants to do with that space. The smart take on Tuesday was that he needed the flexibility to deflect the pressure from the French and the Quartet and to take advantage of the regional overtures about which he is constantly boasting, but he then went and ignited a wildfire on his own lawn. There is literally no more inflammatory figure as defense minister than Lieberman, who is on record as wanting to execute the terrorists that Israel captures alive and keep in perpetuity the bodies of those they don’t. Any caution that Ya’alon has exercised in the West Bank, where the defense minister has final decision making power, is now going to dissipate overnight. Not only has Netanyahu decided not to deflect the diplomatic pressure, he has taken the move that will ramp it up to the highest possible level.

This segues into the second rule, which is that Netanyahu is always more worried about threats that come from his right than about threats that come from his left, and he will always guard his right flank irrespective of anything else that is going on. He perpetually faces the choice of going in a more moderate direction and mollifying the center and Israel’s allies, or tacking right and mollifying the rightwing, and he always chooses the same way. The surprise here is not that he played Herzog in order to reestablish his rightwing credentials, but that anyone thought that he would actually go through with it. In one fell swoop, Netanyahu has silenced Lieberman’s continuing criticism of the government, removed the specter of a hard right rebellion against Ya’alon that would have reverberated against him as well, cut off any discontent from the settler wing by ending talks with Herzog that might have led to measures curtailing settlement growth, and set himself up for the next election as the man who puts Zionism and nationalism first no matter what the rest of the world thinks. The threats that were massing against him on the far right are now largely – although not entirely – neutralized.

This is a long piece. Anything else we should be looking out for while you are in a talkative mood?

Yes, and thanks for asking. This whole thing is not as entirely straightforward as it seems, and there are some potential surprises and some potential pitfalls. It is important to know that during the Kerry negotiations two years ago, American officials found Lieberman during his time as foreign minister to actually be a helpful presence and willing interlocutor. Despite the fact that he is a hardliner on settlements and the Palestinians more generally, he seems to understand far better than Netanyahu that international opinion is not meaningless and that protecting the U.S.-Israel relationship is truly an existential issue. Amir Tibon’s excellent Tablet profile of Lieberman last May noted that he has surprisingly strong links throughout the Middle East and has promoted himself as the person to unite Israel and its Arab neighbors, and so while he is no longer foreign minister, the fact that there appear to be regional opportunities abounding as Lieberman returns to power is interesting.

On the domestic side, including Lieberman in the coalition will generally make Netanyahu’s Likud members happy, but it will infuriate the Haredi parties. They do not coexist well with Lieberman given the importance among his Russian constituency of breaking the Haredi monopoly of control over marriage and conversion, and it is bound to cause Netanyahu some serious unpleasantness.

This move also empowers Yair Lapid and Yesh Atid, who would have been the largest non-Likud vote getter in the next election anyway and who will now be the unquestionable de facto alternative to Netanyahu as the Labor infighting between Herzog and his adversaries destroys the party from within. This entire episode gives him a much larger megaphone, and he consequently may actually be able to present a serious electoral threat to Netanyahu the next time around.

Finally, and perhaps most seriously, I predicted in December that civil-military relations were going to be potentially explosive in 2016, and with the tension between the IDF and the government over a range of issues, that has sadly been a topic that I got right. Replacing Ya’alon – a former IDF chief of staff and staunch defender of the military, which is what has prompted the tension between him and Netanyahu during the last couple of months – with Lieberman, who had a relatively undistinguished stint in an IDF artillery unit and has been attacking the military leadership over its values, is not going to improve this situation, to say the least. Netanyahu has made his choice, and I am afraid that it will mean a rocky period ahead on a number of fronts.

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