Bibi’s Trump Dilemma

November 18, 2016 § 1 Comment

Natan Sachs and I argue today in Foreign Affairs that despite the jubilation on the Israeli right at Trump’s election, it actually creates some real political problems for Bibi Netanyahu.

On November 9, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu congratulated President-elect Donald Trump through a video message, in which the Israeli leader could barely contain his giddiness at the prospect of a friendlier White House. The ruling Israeli right-wing coalition, which sees Trump as a potential champion of Greater Israel, believes that the United States’ next president will finally remove any outside constraints on settlement construction in the West Bank or the legalization of already existing settlements built without governmental approval. Settlement-friendly politicians in Israel are already working hard on such moves; on Wednesday, a bill legalizing settlements built on private Palestinian land passed its first reading in the Knesset, despite the objections of the attorney general and a near certain rejection by Israel’s High Court of Justice. Some in Israel even view the next four years as an opportunity to annex the West Bank outright. This is a “tremendous opportunity to announce a renunciation of the idea of founding a Palestinian state in the heart of the land,” Naftali Bennett, leader of the Jewish Home party, stated. “The era of the Palestinian state is over.”

It’s not clear what Trump will do, of course, nor whether he even knows his position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. During the campaign, he initially said that he would like to remain a “neutral guy”—a contrast to decades of U.S. policy that his tilted toward Israel—but he later shifted to a more traditional pro-Israel stance. To the delight of the Israeli right, the Republican platform omitted any mention of a two-state solution. And since the election, the co-chairs of Trump’s Israel advisory committee have reiterated controversial statements about Trump moving the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to West Jerusalem. They’ve also said that Trump does not view settlements as an obstacle to peace. At the same time, Trump himself told The Wall Street Journal of his desire to close the “ultimate deal” between Israelis and Palestinians. “As a dealmaker, I’d like to do … the deal that can’t be made,” he said. “And do it for humanity’s sake.”

Despite the myriad conflicting signals, it is reasonable to assume that Netanyahu will now have a freer hand to implement the policies he desires with regard to settlements and negotiations with the Palestinians. Politically speaking, he may no longer have to run the gauntlet between a coalition that demands more building in the West Bank and a White House that insists on less.

But Netanyahu may soon find out that he needs to be careful with what he wishes for. Freedom from U.S. pressure would be a mixed blessing. Rather than solving his problems, it could cost him his political leverage, his ability to play two-level games.

Head over to Foreign Affairs to read the rest of the piece.

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.

Your Guide to Settlements and Ethnic Cleansing

September 13, 2016 § 6 Comments

Prime Minister Netanyahu stirred up a cocktail of controversy on Friday when his latest attempt at creating a viral video did not get the reception he anticipated. In the two minute clip, Netanyahu opened by saying he was perplexed by the charge that “Jewish communities” in the West Bank are an obstacle to peace since it is clear that Arabs living inside Israel are not an obstacle to peace. He then alleged that the sole precondition the Palestinian leadership has demanded for a future state is that it be free of Jews, which he said is an example of ethnic cleansing. He went on to criticize this demand as outrageous, criticize the world community for not finding this outrage to be outrageous, and firmly state that those who say that Jews cannot live somewhere should think through the implications. Since the video has provoked responses all over the map from the right, the left, the Israeli opposition, and the U.S. government, here is your concise and handy guide to Jews in the West Bank, ethnic cleansing, and what Netanyahu is up to.

Netanyahu is right. It is outrageous that a future Palestinian state won’t allow any Jews to live in the West Bank! Yes, it would be if that were the case. If an independent Palestine forced out all of its Jews and barred any Jews from living there, it would certainly be a textbook case of ethnic cleansing, and there is no defensible argument to construct such a policy.

What do you mean, “if that were the case” – haven’t Palestinian leaders said there will be no Jews allowed? Nope. Netanyahu was in all likelihood referring to Mahmoud Abbas’s statement in 2013 that he would not accept the “the presence of a single Israeli – civilian or soldier – on our lands” in the aftermath of an Israeli-Palestinian final status agreement. As Matt Duss helpfully points out, PLO leaders have explicitly said that Jews are welcome to live in a Palestinian state while categorically ruling out Israelis living in settlements where they maintain their Israeli citizenship. To put this into some perspective, this would be like a presidential candidate saying that Syrian Muslims are welcome to come and live in the U.S. so long as they are not living in extra-territorial enclaves that are sovereign Syrian territory and they are subject to the laws and authority of the U.S. Makes sense, right? A presidential candidate would be on much shakier and more discriminatory ground if he, say, I don’t know, ruled out all Syrian Muslims entirely just because they are Syrian Muslims. Now, it is certainly possible – and even likely – that there are members of the Palestinian leadership who have said they would bar all Jews, Israeli citizens or not. Given the way that the Old City of Jerusalem was administered while under Jordanian control between 1948 and 1967, or the calls from various quarters to ban Jews from the Temple Mount entirely today, there is certainly some precedent that warrants suspicion. But given the public record of Abbas’s comments, it is clear that he was referring to Israelis living in Palestine as Israeli citizens under Israeli sovereignty. So much like Netanyahu’s rhetorical excess back in October regarding Haj Amin al-Husseini and the Holocaust, once again his imprecision with pesky little details has cost him some credibility.

So it comes back to settlements? Indeed it does. Note Netanyahu’s rhetorical sleight of hand in the video, where he begins by talking about Jewish communities in the West Bank, and then pivots to talking about Jews writ large. It is one thing for Israel to absorb the large settlements blocs into Israel proper once an agreement is signed, but it is quite another for Israel to maintain settlements that are in Palestinian state territory, that are only open to residents who are Jewish, and that are Israeli sovereign territory guarded by Israeli soldiers. That is what Netanyahu was actually arguing for in the video and positing that there is no reason that such an arrangement should be an obstacle to peace, when the reality is that describing it for what it actually is, as I have above, demonstrates precisely what an enormous problem it is. If Palestinians who before 1948 lived in territory that is now part of Israel wanted to come back and live in their old houses but as Palestinian citizens subject to the law and authority of the government of Palestine, they’d be dismissed out of hand, and rightly so. Once a permanent status agreement is signed, the Israeli government should make every conceivable effort to persuade settlers to relocate to Israel and provide compensation for them to do so, which will likely result in the evacuation of the overwhelming majority of settlers. Any settler who greets the IDF with violent resistance should be arrested and immediately moved out of the West Bank. But any peaceful, law-abiding settler who is willing to renounce Israeli citizenship and wants to remain in his or her home should absolutely be allowed to do so, but only as citizens of Palestine under the jurisdiction of the Palestinian government. In other words, settlers are fine; settlements are not.

So why would Netanyahu put out a video like that? This brings us to the essence of Netanyahu, which is that he subsumes all policy goals to political ones. There is a reason that Netanyahu has provoked the wrath and scorn of nearly every general and intelligence chief who has served under him. Why negotiate a new defense package when you have maximum leverage when you can instead shore up your rightwing base at home by giving a speech before Congress instead? Why keep an extremely competent and respected and supremely qualified defense minister during the midst of a wave of violence – and following an Iran deal that you say has put Israel at greater risk – when you can enlarge your coalition and neutralize an ultranationalist foe by making him defense minister despite a pitiful lack of qualifications? In this case, Netanyahu was coming off the debacle of shutting down train repairs on Shabbat in order to mollify his Haredi coalition partners and then having the public squarely blame him for putting politics ahead of soldiers trying to get home for the weekend, and then facing down polls that show Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party besting Netanyahu and Likud were an election to be held now. On top of that, the polls show Likud losing ground to its farther right coalition partner Habayit Hayehudi. In this instance, the obvious move for Netanyahu was to say something controversial that would fire up the rightwing base, provoke rebukes abroad, and thus benefit Netanyahu even further as he rails against foreign interference and vows to stand up to those who would smear Israel and try to discriminate against Jews. I’d be surprised if Netanyahu anticipated quite the depth of the pushback that he would face, but this is all part of his domestic political calculations.

So in conclusion, I agree 100% with the principle that Netanyahu espoused, namely that it is outrageous bigotry to prevent Jews from living in the West Bank. Unfortunately, in this instance Netanyahu was not speaking theoretically, and everyone should see through the smokescreen that he constructed in order to use anti-Semitism as a cover in defending settlements.

How Free Is Israel’s Media?

August 4, 2016 § 3 Comments

This past spring, in a move that largely slipped under the radar, Freedom House downgraded Israel’s press freedom status from free to partly free. Freedom House cited “the growing impact of Israel Hayom, whose owner-subsidized business model endangered the stability of other media outlets” as the primary reason for the status change, and also noted Prime Minister Netanyahu’s control over regulating the media through his own assumption of the communications portfolio. Then this past Sunday, New York-based Israeli journalist Ruth Margalit wrote an op-ed in the New York Times that went significantly further, charging that Netanyahu is stifling the press across the board, trying to “fragment” the television market in a ploy to control coverage, and working to turn the media into his own personal mouthpiece. So are things really as dire as Margalit portrays them, and is Freedom House correct to no longer describe Israel as having a free press?

This is not the first time that Freedom House has downgraded Israeli press freedom in its rankings. In 2013, it also moved Israel from the free column to the partly free column, and it cited the influence of Israel Hayom then too. I wrote at the time that the designation rang hollow given that every objection listed in the Freedom House report was immediately followed (or preceded) by a disclaimer modifying most of the actual objection or admitting that the objection has not yet come to pass, and this year’s report suffers from the same flaw.

Freedom House ranks countries’ press freedom in three categories – legal, political, and economic environments – and it left Israel’s first two unchanged from last year while downgrading the economic environment two points. The section on the economic environment talks about the pressure created by Israel Hayom on the financial sustainability of other papers since Israel Hayom – or the Bibiton, as it is pejoratively referred to by many – is distributed for free, and also criticizes the proliferation of paid content.

Israel Hayom is a blatant vehicle for pro-Netanyahu propaganda, funded at a loss of tens of millions of shekels a year by non-Israeli citizen Sheldon Adelson, and given out for free in order to make sure that it has Israel’s highest circulation. In other words, a foreign billionaire is making an indirect monetary contribution to the prime minister every day in order to influence Israeli opinion in the prime minister’s favor and crowd out critical voices. Nobody will objectively look at this and say that it’s not a huge problem, but to infer that Israel’s press is only partly free now because Israel Hayom may eventually push other newspapers out of business (despite the fact that it hasn’t yet happened) is jumping the gun.

Margalit’s criticism also focuses on Israel Hayom but is much broader. Her contention that Netanyahu is not satisfied with having one newspaper in his pocket but wants to have every media outlet submit to his control certainly has elements of truth. There is little question that Netanyahu does much to pressure and cajole favorable coverage for himself in a variety of ways, from using subordinates to intimidate journalists to complaining about headlines to leaning on wealthy media magnates who are either supporters or who want some favor from the government. This should not be whitewashed. I have heard stories from Israeli journalists about being pressured to write about certain things and not to write about others. Many are hounded incessantly on social media as leftists for challenging the government in campaigns that seem to be encouraged by the government itself. There have been ongoing controversies the past few months over Galei Tzahal (Army Radio) and ministers trying to dictate what songs are played and what poems are read. During a cabinet meeting on Sunday, Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev complained that the government doesn’t have enough direct control of the media, sparking a fight between Likud ministers and Habayit Hayehudi ministers that has continued into this week, in which the latter accused the former of trying to stamp out free media and the former accused the latter of being “champions of the left.”

But the problem also should not be blown out of proportion. To begin with, some of Margalit’s assertions are oddly off-base. She brings up the government shuttering the Israel Broadcasting Authority (IBA) as proof that Netanyahu is trying to control the news, when in reality he is madly trying to postpone the closing of the IBA and the opening of its replacement because he is afraid that the new broadcasting authority will be too independent. She claims that “most Israelis are getting their news from Israel Hayom or Walla News” as a way of proving that Netanyahu’s efforts are not about countering leftwing bias, but Israel Hayom and Yediot Ahronot are very close in their market share – 40.8% to 35.2% – and equating Israel Hayom (quite literally a propaganda mouthpiece) with an internet news portal that employs legitimate and dogged reporters like Amir Tibon and Tal Shalev is the same as comparing Pravda with Yahoo News. As Liel Leibovitz points out in Tablet, Netanyahu’s fight to control the media is in many ways a tussle between right and left playing out in the media landscape rather than in the halls of the Knesset, which doesn’t make it better but at least provides some context. But the most effective counterargument to Margalit is the content of the Israeli press itself. Israel’s press is far from perfect, but spend one day reading Israeli newspapers and watching Israeli television – where this week alone Ben Caspit in the rightwing Ma’ariv referenced Netanyahu’s “political commissars” and Finance Ministry “jackboots” – and tell me that Israeli journalists have been cowed into silence due to government intimidation. It doesn’t mean that the intimidation doesn’t exist, but that Israel’s press is still unmistakably free.

Finally, remember that this problem is not unique to Israel among Western democracies. The fact that Fox News is owned by a billionaire supporter of Republican policies and causes, or that Breitbart reads as if its headlines are written directly by Trump campaign staffers, or that the White House brings enormous pressure to bear on editors and reporters to craft stories that support its interests, does not mean that the U.S. does not have a free press. It means that there is no such thing as unbiased news; that reporters have always had to and always will walk a line between the companies or people that pay their salaries and the people who consume their products; and that the fact that people increasingly gravitate toward sources that support their own political biases means we need to be even more vigilant about recognizing our preferred sources’ biases and figuring out how much to trust. That is true if you are Israeli and it is true if you are American.

The Slow Self-Immolation Of A Political Party

April 14, 2016 § 1 Comment

Imagine a political party that finds itself in what appears to be a permanent bind. The elites who run the party and make up the senior elected officials represent an establishment rightwing view, and it is one that has been electorally successful for decades as it stayed within a national consensus that allowed it to attract a wider array of voters beyond its natural base. At the same time, many of the party’s voters have been steadily moving rightward and taking more extreme positions that are being embraced by people on an order of magnitude that would have been unimaginable a couple of elections before. The party honchos have not been unaware of this trend, and have been playing a timeless game in which they rhetorically support the more extreme positions of the base in an effort to keep them in the fold and win their votes, while rarely following through on the promises they make during the heat of a campaign. They are careful to give the base some small victories, but generally tend to pull back from the edge of the cliff of truly revolutionary proposals, always providing an array of excuses and promises that patience will pay off in the end, and that the eventual victory of remaking the country wholesale is just around the corner.

With each heightened expectation that is inevitably dashed, the base of the party becomes more upset and more radicalized. They eventually turn to even more rightwing movements that are seen as more authentic and more grassroots, and even though these more extreme movements are smaller and will never be able to win an election on their own outright, the effect is to push the larger and more establishment party to the right as it becomes terrified of being cannibalized by its more ideologically pure sibling. This of course only encourages the extremist base, and it creates a spiral in which the party becomes more extreme but can never go far enough to satisfy its most strident voters, and eventually the voters who happily kept returning the party and its standard bearers to national office turn on those standard bearers, branding their former heroes traitors to the cause and embracing new politicians who tell them what they want to hear, no matter how absurd or devastating the consequences of the proposed policies would be.

This is a rough portrayal of what has been taking place in the Republican Party, but it is also the story of what is right now taking place in Likud. The Likud establishment has been winning elections for decades, but the impatience of many in its base – particularly religious settlers – has led to challenges from smaller parties demanding greater fidelity to nationalist ideology, Naftali Bennett’s Bayit Yehudi being the most prominent recent example. Prime Minister Netanyahu comes off as unapologetically rightwing to many American Jews, but the fact is that to the Israeli right, he is seen as too cautious and not viewed as a true believer. His rhetoric meant for the rightwing base has become more extreme over time, from the infamous election night warning about Arab voters coming to the polls in droves to his all but calling Mahmoud Abbas a terrorist, but it is never enough. The fact that he and his government have placed any brakes at all on settlement activity in the West Bank, let alone refused to seriously consider annexation, makes him and other Likud luminaries automatically suspect. And thus Netanyahu keeps on being returned to office, but each time the grumbling becomes louder and keeping his coalition satisfied becomes increasingly Sisyphean.

In the U.S., this trend has led to a Republican Party circular firing squad, where whomever or whatever emerges is going to be barely breathing politically. In Israel, however, the consequences have been more serious, since this trend is not only ensnaring one of Israel’s two historically major political parties, but the IDF as well. This has been laid bare by the fallout from the Hebron shooting, in which an IDF soldier shot and killed an injured and immobilized terrorist with a bullet to the head. Both Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon and Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot immediately moved to make sure that the soldier was detained and that a proper investigation was conducted, and Ya’alon forcefully condemned the soldier as one who had gone bad. The fact that they did not instead unequivocally support the soldier – who may yet turn out to be guilty of something less serious than murder, but whose actions were captured on tape and appear to be as ugly as it gets – was immediately seized upon by those on the far right, led by Bennett who accused Ya’alon of selling out the IDF. Netanyahu’s zigzag, from initially supporting Ya’alon and criticizing the soldier to then calling the soldier’s family and seemingly playing all sides, was sadly predictable. All of this was naturally followed by images circulating of Ya’alon’s face in the crosshairs of a rifle, comparisons to Hitler, and posters hung all over Tel Aviv calling on Eisenkot to resign and accusing him of failing to safeguard Jewish lives. The sad fact that Bennett is more representative of the public mood, as a majority of Israelis do not believe that the solider should have been arrested and investigated, does not make his conduct any less dangerous or reprehensible, since he is deliberately undermining the institution that is most trusted by the Israeli public in order to further his own political career. That Netanyahu is continuing to calibrate his own actions based on what Bennett does should finally put the notion to bed once and for all that Netanyahu is a leader rather than a man with his finger perpetually in the air testing the wind.

The IDF is what holds Israel together; once it has been undermined for short term political gain, there is no going back. And yet after years of treating its base as simplistic fools and seeing it boomerang in the faces of its leaders, the Likud is now haplessly watching by as its own defense minister is savaged for actually acting correctly and responsibly, and the IDF leadership is questioned for acting like armies in democratic countries act. That Republican leaders in the U.S. completely lost control of their own political vehicle and are now faced with the prospect of a nominee that many of them refuse to support – whether it is Donald Trump or Ted Cruz – is not a good thing for American democracy; no matter which party owns your sympathies, competition is both good and necessary for a healthy and functioning democracy, and the corrosion of the Republican Party is not good for the country. But ultimately, the damage is likely going to be limited to Republican institutions and not the institutions of the state. In Israel, the same cannot be said. Likud has been fighting a losing battle against its own Tea Partiers, whom it tacitly encouraged under the assumption that it could contain them, but the chaos is now spilling over and has the potential to bring the rest of the country down with it. When you wink at extremism while laughing at it behind its back, the joke is often on you. This time, it is coming at all of Israel’s expense.

What To Watch For In Israel In 2016

December 23, 2015 § Leave a comment

2015 was a busy year in Israel, with elections, the Iran deal and the accompanying fiasco of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s address to Congress, the return of routinized violence in the streets, and other stories big and small occupying headlines. While 2016 will (presumably) not bring another election, there will be plenty of other momentous events and slow-burning stories that occupy Israel. At the risk of opening myself up to some serious embarrassment at this time next year, here are some issues that I think will manifest themselves in a major way over the next twelve months.

Civil-military relations

Israel is a rare case when it comes to the relationship between the political and military leadership. Since most Israelis – and virtually all of the political leadership – do mandatory military service, military issues are not unfamiliar to any policymakers. On the other hand, because the IDF is Israel’s most revered institution, military leaders are accorded enormous respect and deference by the Israeli public. It means that Israel’s elected officials are in a better position than elected officials in many other countries to challenge the military leadership when disagreements arise, but are simultaneously constrained by a public that itself has firsthand familiarity with the military.

When the politicians and the generals are on the same page, this is not a problem. When they are not, the potential exists for things to get hairy. Netanyahu has famously been on the opposite side of issues with IDF chiefs of staff and Mossad and Shin Bet directors in the past, but it has seemed over the past two years that the current government is never in the same place as the upper echelon of the security and intelligence establishment. The disagreement over whether to attack Iran before the Iran deal has given way to disagreement over how to deal with the growing terrorist violence erupting from East Jerusalem and the West Bank, and it almost seems inevitable that at some point down the road, the IDF is going to be asked to take actions to which it is adamantly opposed. I do not in any way mean to suggest that Israel is in danger of a military coup, since that seems about as far-fetched a possibility as Netanyahu all of a sudden embracing the BDS movement, but there is no question that the recommendations and priorities of the security leadership are clashing head on with the desires and priorities of the political leadership. Look for this to become an even bigger issue in 2016 as Palestinian violence grows and what to do in the West Bank becomes a more acute problem.

Political scandals

While you wouldn’t necessarily know it in the U.S. unless you regularly read beyond the headlines of the Israeli press, there are a couple of political scandals besetting Netanyahu that are ripe for explosion. The first surrounds his unusual process of appointments and suspicions that his primary criteria for evaluating whether someone is fit to lead Israel’s police force or become the next attorney general is if those appointees will turn a blind eye to the second, which is Sara Netanyahu’s household financial chicanery. It was reported this week that attorney general Yehuda Weinstein will allow the police to question Mrs. Netanyahu over allegations of misappropriating state funds in running the official Netanyahu residence, which comes on the heels of the search committee for the next attorney general recommending Avihai Mandelblit, who is seen as beholden to Netanyahu and likely to shield him and his wife from any future investigations. Possibly connected to this is Netanyahu’s strange decision to try and hold the primary for Likud chairman – which would normally happen six months before a Knesset election – as soon as two months from now in a blatant effort to forestall any challengers to his primacy. While Netanyahu’s motives may just be to get his ducks in order and catch rivals such as Gideon Sa’ar off balance well ahead of an election campaign, he also may be trying to get this out of the way before the scandals nipping at his heels catch up with him. Whatever the case, this will be a story to watch over the coming year.

Orthodox vs. Orthodox

Yedioth Ahronoth ran a feature over the weekend on the “new elites,” who are largely in the Naftali Bennett mold – young religious Zionists who are supportive of the settlement movement. While I think it is too soon to write the obituary for the secular liberal Ashkenazi elite that dominated Israel since its founding, there is no question that the fortunes of the national religious community – largely analogous to American Jewry’s modern Orthodox – are on the rise. The proportion of religious IDF officers and elite commandos has been skyrocketing for some time, and the heads of the Mossad, Shin Bet, and Israeli police all come from the national religious camp. Bennett and Tzipi Hotovely are the political figureheads of this new elite, and there is no question that their influence is rising.

The Orthodox are not monolithic, however, and the fact that the Haredi population is on the rise as well – not to mention that Shas and UTJ are back in the coalition and are Netanyahu’s favorite political partners due to their general quiescence to his agenda – almost guarantees more intra-Orthodox friction in 2016. As it is, there is bad blood between the Haredi parties and Bennett’s Habayit Hayehudi, stemming from Bennett’s alliance in the last coalition with Haredi bogeyman Yair Lapid and the fight between the Haredim and the religious Zionists over the chief rabbinate, and the tension will continue to rise. The new religious Zionist elite is not willing to live with the status quo that grants the Haredi rabbinate a monopoly over the state’s religious institutions, and religious Zionist and Haredi priorities are frequently not in alignment, with the former caring first and foremost about hanging onto the West Bank and the latter caring first and foremost about stamping out secularism and continuing the state subsidies for yeshivot and other Haredi mainstays. The clashes that have so far been mostly below the radar are likely to burst into the open the longer these two camps have to coexist with each other in the same narrow coalition.

So there are some of my broad predictions for what we will see, and keep on following this space over the next year to see whether I’ll be completely wrong or just a little wrong. Happy New Year to all.

Lessons To Be Learned From Netanyahu’s Victory

March 18, 2015 § 9 Comments

I’m going to pat myself on the back for predicting on Monday that Likud and Bibi Netanyahu would win the most seats, that Buji Herzog would have no viable path to becoming prime minister, and that the government formed would boil down to Moshe Kahlon deciding whether to go with Netanyahu or force a national unity government (for the record, I think Kahlon going with Netanyahu is now an inevitability given how things turned out.) But my specific seat predictions were way off, and it’s easy to see how. I expected two things to happen, which I closed out the post with: “First, I think that Likud will gain back some votes at Habayit Hayehudi’s expense as rightwing voters are freaked out by the late Zionist Camp surge in the polls, and decide to throw their support behind Netanyahu despite their general fatigue with him. Second, socioeconomic issues are dominating people’s concerns, and that will translate into unexpectedly strong showings for Yesh Atid and Kulanu at the expense of Zionist Camp and Shas.” I was more right than I knew about that first statement, and vastly underestimated just how much that shift from BY to Likud was going to occur. I was dead wrong about that second statement, which is what led me so far astray. Let’s dive into the numbers a bit to see what actually happened yesterday, and I have some thoughts on what the various consequences might be.

The most useful comparison is between this year’s results and the 2013 results. In 2013, the rightwing bloc of Likud, Yisrael Beiteinu, and Habayit Hayehudi won 43 seats; the leftwing bloc of Labor and Meretz won 21 seats; the two state solution bloc (which was only Hatnua) won 6 seats; the socioeconomic reform bloc (which was only Yesh Atid) won 19 seats; the Haredi bloc of Shas and UTJ won 18 seats; the Arab bloc won 11 seats. The last two seats went to Kadima, but frankly nobody at the time could explain what Kadima stood for and was running on, and I’m not going to try.

In yesterday’s election, the rightwing bloc of the same three parties won 44 seats; the leftwing bloc of the same two parties plus Hatnua (since it formed an electoral alliance with Labor) won 28 seats; the socioeconomic reform bloc of Yesh Atid and Kulanu won 21 seats; the Haredi bloc won 13 seats; the Arab bloc that is now the Joint List won 14 seats. Compared to the last election, the nationalist right picked up only one seat, the left picked up only one seat (since Zionist Camp plus Meretz in 2013 added up to 27, and it’s unfortunately impossible to tease out which Zionist Camp votes were for Labor and which were for Hatnua), the socioeconomic camp picked up two seats, the Arab bloc picked up three seats, and the Haredi parties lost five seats. Nothing about this is a surge for the right, or for any side for that matter; the various blocs remained more or less constant, with the exception of the Haredi bloc losing seats due to the Shas-Yachad split. But it is unquestionably a surge for Likud itself, which went from 19 seats in the current Knesset to 30 seats in the next one. Where did those seats come from? It’s pretty evident that they came from the two other rightwing nationalist parties, Habayit Hayehudi and Yisrael Beiteinu, which respectively won 12 and 11 seats in 2013 but fell off a cliff to 8 and 6 yesterday. When you add in the seat that Likud picked up once Eli Yishai’s Yachad party did not make the threshold, you account for pretty much all of Likud’s gain. There is simply no denying that Netanyahu’s eleventh hour tactics worked, which were to drum up turnout on the right and explicitly make the case that rightwing voters could only vote for Likud or they would be risking a leftist government. He successfully cannibalized his natural allies, and in so doing increased Likud’s share of the pie without making the pie any bigger.

The related questions of turnout versus polling are interesting as well. My initial instinct yesterday was that the polling – both pre-election and exit – must have been garbage, and I noted on Monday that there are many reasons not to trust Israeli polling, which proves to be inaccurate in some measure every cycle. After thinking about it a bit more though, now I’m not quite so sure. The legal moratorium on polls in the last few days before an election meant that no poll could be conducted after Thursday, and the exit polls were concluded two hours before the actual election itself (since they aren’t interview surveys, but require Israeli voters to cast their actual vote and then go and cast a dummy vote in a fake voting box for the exit pollsters, which then get collected and tallied). Netanyahu’s huge campaign push – in which he gave an unprecedented number of interviews and turned up the nationalist rhetoric –  occurred over the weekend and through election day itself, so the pre-voting polls would have had no way of capturing this effect. As far as the exit polls go, final voter turnout was up 4% from 2013, but if you were obsessively keeping track of the turnout numbers throughout the day yesterday as I was, you know that this turnout surge did not take place until very late in the day, so that the exit polls (which aren’t really polls) missed much of it. The exit polls may very well have been correct in reflecting a 27-27 deadlock between Likud and Zionist Camp at 8 PM Israel time, and the anecdotal evidence suggests that there was a flood of rightwing voters in the last couple of hours. The takeaway from this is not necessarily that Israeli pollsters are incompetent, although that can’t be ruled out, but that the accuracy of Israeli polling is not served by the legal blackout at the end of the campaign. On turnout, it should be noted that Netanyahu’s old-fashioned barn-burning turnout efforts destroyed the get out the vote campaign run by V-15 and Jeremy Bird. Likud increased its share of the rightwing vote, while Zionist Camp didn’t increase the percentage of leftwing voters or even get more of them to vote for Herzog. The money spent in this campaign to unseat Netanyahu was as big of a waste as what GOP groups spent in 2012 to get rid of Obama.

If there is one big thing that jumps out at me the day after, it is that ideology and identity distinctly trump economics in Israeli politics. Like in 2013, voters overwhelmingly listed socioeconomic concerns as their top issue in the run-up to the election, but ultimately that made little difference. There was no flock of new voters to Yesh Atid and Kulanu, which both ran on the economy and quality of life issues and had very little of substance to say on security. Likud, which barely bothered to campaign on specific policies, hugely increased its vote share by essentially saying, trust Netanyahu on security and send a message to the leftists and their foreign backers trying to take over your country. It was an emotional and identity-based appeal to nationalism that resonated with many voters, and it is a tactic that is sure to be replicated on both sides in the future.

There are many dangers in overt appeals to nationalism, one of which is that when you win, it makes it easier to demonize your opponents and claim that you have a mandate to do whatever you please. For Exhibit A through Z on how this works in practice, take a gander through the increasing ugliness of Turkish politics that has been wrought largely by Tayyip Erdoğan. Israel’s political system makes this even messier because of how it is structured. Netanyahu will act like he has been granted an enormous mandate following a landslide victory; after all, he beat the next largest party by a 25% margin in seats, obliterated the predictions for Likud based on the polls, and is going to control the winning coalition and be prime minister. Taking a step back though, Israel’s proportional representation political system means that in reality he won only 23% of the votes cast, which translates to 25% of the seats in the Knesset. He is simultaneously the clear winner and on the receiving end of 77% of Israeli voters preferring someone else. This does not in any way make his win illegitimate, and anyone who argues otherwise does not want to face reality, but the fact of the matter is that the system itself encourages post-election overreach. Netanyahu and his supporters are going to insist that his win validates his entire approach to politics, the Palestinians, the international community, etc. because voters were presented with a choice and they choose him. The true answer to that is in some ways yes and in some ways no, and as he will be leading the government fair and square, he can do as he pleases since that is how democracy works. But objectively, when the clear victor can only manage to get 1 out of every 4 votes cast, the system is probably not translating voters’ preferences into the appropriate policy outputs.

I don’t think much needs to be written on what Israeli policy will look like under a third consecutive Netanyahu government, since there aren’t very many surprises left. Netanyahu is who he is, and he is not going to undergo a late in life conversion that convinces him to shift course. I am more interested in what happens to Israel in the U.S., since Netanyahu’s reelection is going to keep on affecting one political trend that is already in full swing and may influence another, and perhaps more important, social one. The first is the partisanization of Israel in the U.S., which was very much laid bare by the machinations surrounding Netanyahu’s speech to Congress. The blame for this lies partially on both sides, although I certainly think one side is far more to blame than the other. Everyone with a dose of common sense knows that the White House badly wanted to see Netanyahu get tossed out by Israeli voters and that Netanyahu is now just biding his time until January 20, 2017 so that he never needs to think about Obama again, so it goes without saying that relations between Obama and Netanyahu for the next 22 months are going to be abysmal, and probably even non-existent. Will U.S.-Israel ties survive and come out the other side intact? Of course they will. But there will be more ugliness ahead and short-term relations are going to be very rocky, and if I worked in the prime minister’s office, starting today I would be spending all of my time coming up with a strategic plan for operating in the world without an automatic U.S. veto in the UN Security Council, because I think that era is now officially over. Netanyahu clearly and explicitly rejected a Palestinian state on Monday, and there is no walking it back or dissembling after the fact. That he did so wasn’t and shouldn’t be a surprise, but it destroys the legal fiction that he had constructed, and so when the Israeli government talks about the Palestinians not living up to their Oslo obligations or their promises to the Quartet (which in many ways they aren’t), that now officially goes both ways. You cannot insist that Palestinians must establish a state through the sole route of negotiations with Israel after you have declared unequivocally and without reservation that there will be no independent Palestinian state in the West Bank so long as you are prime minister. It was electioneering, but electioneering is not consequence-free.

Lastly, there is the pink elephant in the room that I have been ignoring so far in this blog post. Assess the following quote: “The right wing government is in danger. Black voters are coming out in droves to the polls. Left wing NGOs are bringing them on buses. We have no NAACP; we have the National Guard, we have only you. Go the polls, bring your friends and family. Vote Republican in order to close the gap between us and the Democrats. With your help and with God’s help, we will form a nationalist government that will protect the United States.” Nobody with any sense of decency would call that a legitimate effort to counter a get out the vote drive targeting minority voters. So when Netanyahu said it yesterday about Arabs – which everyone by now recognizes as the direct quote from him, with the specifics altered of course to make the analogy work – it wasn’t simply a legitimate attempt to just bring voters to the polls, as the usual suspects are reflexively arguing. Does this mean that Netanyahu is racist and has been harboring views all of these years that he just now allowed to come out, or that he made a racist appeal in a desperate attempt to boost his prospects? I don’t know, and frankly it doesn’t matter, since neither explanation is acceptable. The prime minister of any country should be nothing short of proud when more citizens vote, and exhorting only the right kind of citizen to get to the polls in order to counter the wrong sort of citizen is disgusting and unworthy of the leader of a democracy. That some people are falling all over themselves to pretend that there is nothing out of the ordinary or objectionable about this reflects just as poorly upon them as Netanyahu’s comments do upon himself. What all of this leads to for me is to wonder how this will affect American Jews. Just as the rejection of a Palestinian state under any circumstances will have political consequences, the blatantly racist appeal is going to have social consequences among American Jewry. American Jews as a group proudly support Israel, and one of the reasons is a conviction that Israel is in a tough spot but is genuinely trying to do the right thing. That argument, both internally and externally, becomes harder by some degree or another after yesterday. Are people going to look at the Jewish state bill in a new light? Is Netanyahu still going to get nearly universal support from establishment groups? Most crucially, what is the effective counter when the odious Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement takes this quote and argues incessantly that it proves official and institutional racism in Israel? I don’t know the definitive answer to these questions, but I suspect that it will ultimately prove to be a significant aspect of Netanyahu’s eventual legacy.

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