Trump and Netanyahu, Round One

February 15, 2017 § Leave a comment

After spending his entire tenure as prime minister chafing under the strictures placed upon him by Democratic presidents, Prime Minister Netanyahu finally gets his wish today: his first face-to-face Oval Office meeting with a Republican president. And not just any Republican president, but President Trump – the man the Israeli right has hailed as a savior from the day he was elected and upon whom they have placed their hopes and dreams. There is no question that Netanyahu is looking for a vastly different relationship with the current president than he had with the previous one, and also no question that both men will emerge from their meeting with ear-to-ear grins and acting like best friends, irrespective of whether the meeting warrants it or not. There are some obvious reasons for this, from the fact that both men lead right of center parties and are broadly ideologically similar to the simple desire to get off on the right foot. The current moment, however, also provides some more detailed and specific reasons for the two men to avoid disagreements, and provides some guide as to what they are likely to discuss, what they are likely to avoid, and what they should discuss if they want to keep the relationship on an even keel.

What Trump needs out of this meeting is simple. He is being buffeted on all sides with headache-inducing crises, be it the North Korean ballistic missile test, the resignation after only twenty four days of his national security adviser Mike Flynn beneath a cloud of allegations of his being compromised by Russia, or questions over the basic competence level of his senior aides and his continuing inability to staff the government beneath the cabinet level. Trump also has clearly not yet formulated a coherent policy on Israel, with different advisers pulling him in different directions and his own thoughts apparently still unsettled. Whether it be the embassy move or the role of settlements in preventing Israeli-Palestinian peace, Trump’s positions from the campaign have shifted, and in the case of settlements they have subtly shifted between the statement issued by Sean Spicer two weeks ago and Trump’s interview with Yisrael HaYom on Friday. What Trump needs while he is sorting through everything else in the Middle East is regional stability, not having Israel as a constant issue to manage, and above all no surprises. For now, he wants Israel to be something that he doesn’t have to think about or worry about, since if that wish is fulfilled, it will be just about the only issue that clears that bar.

What Netanyahu needs out of this meeting is even simpler. He arrives in Washington in the midst of the biggest threat he has ever faced to his tenure as prime minister, namely the four separate investigations being carried out into various allegations of corruption and improper behavior. Should he be indicted, as most Israeli analysts and journalists expect, he will be under enormous pressure to resign, and only the complete and unbroken support from every member of his coalition will keep him in office. Even if none of the four investigations end with an indictment, Netanyahu is still in a precarious position, down in the polls to Yair Lapid and under constant demand from his Bayit Yehudi coalition members and many of his Likud coalition members to definitively reject the two-state solution, support annexation of Ma’ale Adumim and perhaps even larger parts of the West Bank, and to completely alter the paradigm with the Palestinians under which Israel has operated. None of these are things that Netanyahu has ever particularly appeared or appears now to want to do, but he is in danger of being swallowed up by the Israeli right, for whom ideological purity tests are increasingly important. More than any specific policy victory or understanding with Trump, Netanyahu needs something that will help his domestic standing back home, and the only thing that can provide that is a black hole in which no daylight between the U.S. and Israel escapes. Netanyahu was reportedly able to mollify Naftali Bennett and other cabinet members before his departure from Israel by appealing to his stewardship of the U.S.-Israel relationship, which is truly an Israeli existential issue, and he has to return home with an unambiguous demonstration of his ability – and his ability alone – to keep that relationship unbreakable. Netanyahu does not need a green light to build in the West Bank or a commitment to move the embassy or a vow to tear up the Iran deal. What he needs is no hint, no sign, and no leak of even the slightest public or private disagreement with Trump on anything.

In theory, this should be an easy plan for Trump and Netanyahu to execute. The problem is that Netanyahu is dealing with a president whom he expects to be an easier interlocutor than President Obama, but one who is unpredictable and unprepared to an unprecedented degree. Netanyahu cannot be sure what Trump will say, whether what he says can be trusted as an accurate predictor of what policies he will actually pursue down the road, to what extent Israel should rely on Trump’s assurance on various issues for its own policy planning purposes, and whether Trump has even devoted any real attention to planning for the conversation given that his national security adviser will have been replaced less than 48 hours earlier.

Given all of this, the one topic that is guaranteed to be on the agenda is Iran. As my colleague Ilan Goldenberg ably laid out earlier this week in his own preview of the meeting, Trump and Netanyahu have both focused on vigorously holding Iran to task and calling Iran out on its destabilizing actions in the region. It is unlikely that even Netanyahu is sticking to a position that the Iran deal needs to be scrapped, and both men might hold the view that even if the deal should be torn up, there are ways to make Iran be the actor that abrogates it through additional sanctions and testing the boundaries of Iran’s breaking point much as Iran has done since the JCPOA was implemented.

What both leaders want to avoid is any robust discussion of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, settlements, or the two-state solution. Whatever Trump’s positions end up being, they are not going to be the positions pushed by Bennett and the annexation caucus, and Netanyahu cannot politically afford right now to publicly endorse two states. Neither Trump nor Netanyahu wants to start things off with a fight over where Israel will and will not build, and so my hunch is that they will both try and avoid any related subjects to the greatest possible extent.

There are two issues, however, that Trump and Netanyahu should discuss whether they want to or not in an effort to avoid any surprises or misunderstandings down the road. The first is Gaza, where Hamas’s newly installed leader Yahya Sinwar is far more hardline and confrontational than his predecessor Ismail Haniya and may be more willing to break the uneasy quiet that has largely held for two and a half years. It would be wise of the president and the prime minister to discuss how far Israel is willing to go in Gaza when the next war breaks out, what the plan is to deal with any wider regional fallout, and how the U.S. would like to manage a coordinated response with Israel and Egypt. This does not have to be a difficult conversation, and both men may be precisely on the same page, but it is easier to do it now than when the rockets start falling on Tel Aviv and the world is up in arms over civilian casualties in the Gaza war zone. The second issue is Syria, where Trump and Netanyahu may not be on the same page but cannot afford to let any differences of opinion fester. Rhetorically at least, Trump wants to make fighting ISIS in Syria a priority, which will be difficult to do while squaring completely with Israel’s objectives of maintaining its own freedom of movement against Hizballah weapons convoys and not allowing any long-term Iranian presence in Syria. If there will be disagreements on these issues, they should be dealt with up front and in private since any public blow up later will be far worse.

Today’s meeting will be the first of many, and we may not have any greater clarity after it has concluded than we do right now. Many assume that Trump and Netanyahu will set a new standard for the relationship between an American president and Israeli prime minister, but no matter what their personal relationship turns out to be, there is going to be friction over policy issues big and small. The most important question going forward will not be why and where there are disagreements, but how the two men manage them.

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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 § 7 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.

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