A Western Wall For All

November 3, 2016 § Leave a comment

When I was fifteen, my family went to Israel for Passover in order to celebrate my younger brother’s bar mitzvah, and like many bar mitzvah-celebrating American families in Israel, we did it at the Western Wall. While walking toward the plaza next to a secular Israeli relative a couple of decades my senior, I asked him when he had last been to the Western Wall. I could barely comprehend it when he told me that this was his first time, and that he had never had any interest in visiting the site because he had no emotional or religious reason to do so. I was then bowled over when this same leftwing Tel Aviv-dwelling secular Israeli artist cousin immediately expressed his unalloyed view (during the very height of the debate over the Oslo process) that sovereignty over the Temple Mount could never be ceded to any other country or group because the site represented the core of Israeli identity. Here I was, an American Jewish teenager who had been brought up to revere the Western Wall for its religious significance and spiritual power and viewed praying there as a holy obligation but had never considered it in any way as a political symbol, and my Israeli cousin cared so little about the Wall’s religious significance that he had never even bothered to see it in person but was adamant that Israel must always control its environs. The ways we related to the Western Wall were about as far apart as they could be, and that anyone could view the site in the way he did was something that I had never considered or even encountered.

I recount this story in light of yesterday’s clash at the Western Wall between activists seeking to make the site more religiously pluralistic and (mostly) ultra-Orthodox worshippers seeking to maintain the site’s Orthodox status quo. It is helpful to me in framing and understanding the enormous gap that appears to exist between American and Israeli Jews over the importance of this issue, and the reactions by some on the left to whether the energy that liberal American and Israeli Jews are expending on this issue wouldn’t be better spent elsewhere on what they view as more pressing human rights violations.

The twin Pew surveys of American and Israeli Jews highlighted a number of clear distinctions between the two communities, with the most glaring one being that Americans view their Judaism as being more culturally universal and Israelis view theirs as being more religiously particularistic. This explains why despite the fact that Women of the Wall and the Masorti and Reform movements in Israel are the groups at the vanguard of religious pluralism at the Western Wall, this issue has been embraced far more strongly and widely by Diaspora Jews than by Israelis. Israelis, whether religious or secular, view Judaism through a more traditional religious lens that leads them to see religious observance as the Orthodox path, whether or not they are Orthodox. My secular Israeli cousin could not have been more indifferent to the Wall’s religious value and saw it as a political and nationalist symbol instead, but the fact that prayer there is regulated according to Orthodox custom also did not seem to bother him at all. The thorough dominance of traditional Orthodox Judaism over religion in Israel means that most Israelis do not see anything irregular about treating religion traditionally. This is particularly the case when it comes to purely religious activities, such as prayer, versus areas like marriage and divorce that are governed by religious law and custom despite being social institutions.

Speaking at the Zionism 3.0 conference in Palo Alto in September, the prominent American-Israeli writer and public intellectual Yossi Klein Halevi took exception with the American Jewish community for its support of the Iran deal. Speaking of his feelings in the aftermath of the agreement, Halevi said, “I wasn’t disappointed in the administration, I was disappointed in the American Jewish community. I felt deeply let down. Ninety percent of Israelis, according to polls, opposed that deal. For many of us, this was an existential threat. And I always felt that at an existential moment, for all of the differences between us, I could depend on the American Jewry….And the American Jewish community as a whole, I feel let down by them.” For many American Jews, the lack of religious pluralism in Israel – perfectly encapsulated by the government not implementing an agreement from January that creates a completely separate pluralistic prayer space at the Western Wall – is a source of equivalent disappointment. Given the enormous premium placed on support for Israel in American Jewish synagogues, communities, and institutions, American Jews see the rejection of their Jewish observance and the denial of their religious rights at the Western Wall as a devastating insight into how the Israeli government views them, and exhortations for them to be more patient or to express their hurt more quietly add insult to injury. Very few people in the Israeli government understand what a big deal it is and just how much it imperils support from the overwhelming majority of American Jews who do not pray or observe in the Orthodox tradition, and who are not accustomed to being told that they must simply acquiesce to the situation. Prime Minister Netanyahu’s rebuke of American Jewish leaders and his appeals to the maintenance of a religious status quo to which they never agreed or accepted is as tone deaf and short-sighted as it comes, ignoring Israel’s critical need for Diaspora Jewish support in order to lock in some illusory domestic political gains by mollifying his Haredi coalition partners.

Of course, it is not only those on the traditional right who don’t grasp what the fuss is about. Many prominent and well-known liberal Israeli activists and writers took to social media yesterday to question why those on the left are wasting their time and effort on the Western Wall issue when the far graver human rights violations against Palestinians must be battled. The irony here is that it is the same argument that many on the right use against anyone who criticizes Israel, since there are always other countries that act far worse and commit actual genocidal atrocities; after all, spending time highlighting Israel’s misbehavior when Bashar al-Assad is using chemical weapons and barrel bombs on his own people right next door seems like gravely misdirected energy. The obvious response to this is that humans are thankfully pretty capable beings who can focus on more than one thing at one time, but the deeper reason is that people tend to get worked about the things that are meaningful to them. I spill far more critical ink on Israeli illegal outposts than I do on Iranian executions of dissidents because Israel is much closer to my heart and has a special emotional and cultural resonance for me that is central to who I am. Similarly, for American Jews who view their Judaism not simply as an expression of universal values but as an expression of their religion, the discrimination at the Western Wall is as important as any other issue because it strikes directly at the core of their identity. Criticizing activists fighting for the Western Wall because they should instead be fighting separation walls misunderstands the fundamental thinking motivating those whose animating liberal passion is a more pluralistic Judaism in the Jewish state.

Like my cousin who didn’t see why he should pay the Western Wall any heed, these critics find it hard to see why this is a pressing civil rights issue. But if they don’t do a better job of understanding why this is important to American Jews, they will be sorely disappointed when American Jews become less receptive to the issues important to them.

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.

Did Bibi Make A Mistake?

October 31, 2012 § Leave a comment

Like I said yesterday, I’ve been thinking a lot about the Likud Beiteinu deal and whether it is actually going to accomplish what Netanyahu and Lieberman are hoping. I expanded on my thoughts from yesterday for Foreign Policy, and looked at whether Likud Beiteinu is going to add to the vote share that the two parties have separately and what the whole thing means for the U.S. You can read the original article on FP’s website here, and I have reproduced it below for convenience sake.

In an announcement last Thursday that shocked the Israeli political establishment, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman stated their intention to merge Netanyahu’s Likud Party with Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu. Despite the contention made by some — notably Haaretz editor Aluf Benn — that this move creates a war cabinet that will make it easier for Israel to strike Iranian nuclear facilities, it’s more likely the two men had domestic politics at the forefront of their minds. In birthing the new Likud Beiteinu, Netanyahu and Lieberman are hoping to create a monolith that will dominate Israeli politics for years to come.

Creating a workable majority in the 120-seat Knesset has proven to be difficult, and always requires a coalition of larger and smaller parties. In the current Knesset, Kadima has the most seats with 28, and Likud comes in second with 27, but these numbers are historically low for the top vote-getters. Two decades ago, Labor won the 1992 Knesset elections after garnering 44 seats and Likud came in second with 32 seats, while the previous election in 1988 had yielded 40 seats for Likud and 39 for Labor’s leftwing bloc. Netanyahu and Lieberman are gambling that their new Likud Beiteinu party will be an electorally dominant rightwing giant by combining the strength of their two parties while also picking up former Likud voters who have voted for Kadima in the past two elections. The hope is that a bigger party will have the strength to withstand hostage-taking demands from smaller parties and be able to push its agenda through the Knesset with a minimum of haggling and horse trading. That agenda is likely to include a renewed push for Haredi military service, more building in the West Bank, and a neoliberal economic policy — and Netanyahu wants to be able to carry his policies out with a minimum of resistance.

While this is nice in theory, it is unlikely to play out in the way that Netanyahu and Lieberman hope. To begin with, the current polls are not looking too promising and show Likud Beiteinu either slipping from its current combination of 42 seats or maintaining the exact same share of the Knesset that it holds now. Controlling 42 seats as a single party would give Netanyahu a lot of power and flexibility, and there is certainly plenty of time between now and the election for Likud Beiteinu to surge in the polls. There are, however, good reasons to believe that the new party is not going to surge, but is actually going to slip.

To begin with, Likud Beiteinu might have a real problem with the Russian voters who make up Yisrael Beiteinu’s base. A poll commissioned for Channel 99 showed only 59 percent of 2009 Yisrael Beiteinu voters casting their ballot for the new mega-party in 2013, with 22 percent undecided. It is very possible that Russian voters who voted for Yisrael Beiteinu because it served as a patronage party bringing benefits to Russian immigrants are rightfully wary that Likud Beiteinu will have the same focus, and are casting around for another party to fill that void.

Within Likud, there is a mirror-image problem of the party’s base of Mizrahi (Jews primarily from Iraq, Syria, and Yemen) voters being turned off by the elevation of the Russian Lieberman to the second-most powerful person in Likud. The party has long struggled with the problem of having a Sephardi grassroots and an Ashkenazi leadership, and the inclusion of Lieberman along with the concurrent exit of Communications Minister Moshe Kahlon, who is of Libyan descent, might very well drive some Likud voters into the arms of Shas, which represents ultra-Orthodox Sephardi voters.

Another reason to suspect that this new arrangement is not going to yield as strong a party as Netanyahu hopes is that it rests on an odd and somewhat counterintuitive theory of party strengthening. As a general rule, the best ways to create a newly large and powerful party are to co-opt the opposition and to create a big tent that welcomes many different factions. The Likud-Kadima coalition agreement in May — despite its quick demise — was actually a successful attempt at such a maneuver since it eliminated Likud’s largest opponent and built bridges between a rightwing party and a more centrist party. The merger deal with Yisrael Beiteinu, however, will not be successful at co-opting smaller centrist parties and it will not create a big tent, as both Likud and YB reside on the right side of the political spectrum.

What this means in practice is that we are likely to see Likud Beiteinu get the largest share of seats in the Knesset but with nothing approaching a mandate for action. Rather than smooth sailing for the ruling party, there will be the usual political gridlock and unstable coalition as the smaller parties extort Likud Beiteinu to fund their pet projects as a condition of joining the government. Lieberman is also an unusually polarizing figure, and his presence at the top will make it harder for a party like Labor to even contemplate joining up in a unity government.

There are also some real implications here for the new U.S. administration, whomever the next president might be. The fact that Netanyahu is not going to be in as strong a position as he anticipates means that he will not be able to afford alienating his settler base or risk an insurrection from Moshe Feiglin, Danny Danon, and the more revanchist wing of Likud. Lieberman, himself a settler, takes an extremely hard-line positions on settlements as well, and thus the new Likud Beiteinu is likely to frustrate any desires on the part of the United States for the Israeli government to either freeze settlement building or to make concessions to the Palestinians, who have been immovably intransigent. The formation of Likud Beiteinu might even deal the final fatal blow to the Palestinian Authority, as Lieberman has been waging a months-long campaign to discredit Mahmoud Abbas by calling him a diplomatic terrorist and is unlikely in his newly powerful position to agree to keep on bolstering the PA. This will create all sorts of headaches for the United States and means that any remaining optimism surrounding the peace process is misplaced.

Netanyahu and Lieberman are banking that their new party will be greater than the sum of its parts, but there is an excellent chance that it will actually be the opposite. Should that turn out to be the case, expect to see a continuation of the congestion that has marked Israeli politics and frustrated its diplomacy over the last decade.

No, The Israeli Right Does Not Have A Permanent Majority

October 18, 2012 § 5 Comments

Dan Ephron, who is Newsweek’s Jerusalem bureau chief, wrote a piece on Monday about the Israeli right wing’s dominance of that country’s politics. Ephron quoted Noam Sheizaf as predicting that the election in January will create a “total collapse of the center-left, both as a political power and as an ideologically coherent idea,” and Ephron appears to agree that this is a likely scenario. The reason Ephron provides is that the fastest growing groups in Israel are the Orthodox and the ultra-Orthodox, and that “both groups lean heavily to the right.” Furthermore, “Since the core motivation for their political hawkishness is largely unchanging—a biblical injunction to maintain Israeli control over Judea and Samaria (their term for the West Bank)—it’s hard to imagine them ever shifting alliances. The upshot: with each passing year, the Israeli right grows stronger.”

This seems plausible on its face, but there are a few major problems with this analysis. First, conflating the Orthodox and the ultra-Orthodox (or Haredim) is a rookie mistake. Orthodox voters and Haredi voters have different motivations and vote based on different issues. The idea that a party like Shas speaks for, say, Israelis attending hesder yeshivot (where draft-eligible Israeli men split their time between army service and Torah study) is nonsense. It is also analytically lazy to contend that Orthodox Jews who serve in the IDF and go on to careers of various sorts are no different than Haredi Jews who do not perform army service and are largely dependent on state subsidies. Lumping their positions and ideologies together makes Ephron’s argument automatically suspect.

Second, it is simply not accurate to describe Haredi rightwing tendencies as being motivated by a desire to hold on to Greater Israel. As my friend Brent Sasley has pointed out, Haredim are generally anti-Zionist or non-Zionist. Not only do they not care about maintaining all of Greater Israel, as Ephron contends, but many Haredim are actually opposed to the idea of Israel at all, let alone an Israel that encompasses the West Bank. Haredi parties in the Knesset recognize the existence of the state, but they do not care about any biblical injunction regarding the land of Israel. In fact, as Brent usefully noted, Rav Ovadia Yosef, the founder and current spiritual leader of Shas (which is the Knesset’s largest Orthodox party of any stripe), held for years that it was acceptable to give up land if it would save Jewish lives, which is certainly not in line with Ephron’s dubious claim that Haredi rightwing positions stem first and foremost from a desire to hang on to the West Bank. Haredi parties generally – although historically not always – band together with other rightwing parties because they are very socially conservative and they feel most at home on the right. Issues surrounding the West Bank or the Palestinians have very little to do with it.

Third, throwing Likud’s politics in together with Haredi politics and pretending that it all stems from the same rightwing ideology is inaccurate. Both segments are conservative and ideological in their own way, but their conservatism and ideology are not shared. Likud is economically conservative and extremely devoted to the settler cause, and if any party has an ideology based on settling the entire land of Greater Israel, Likud is it. There is, of course, the inconvenient fact that Likud leaders are not themselves religious, including Likud founder Menachem Begin and current Likud prime minister Bibi Netanyahu, but certainly a sizable percentage of Likud voters are Orthodox (but not Haredi). Haredi parties are ideological and conservative as well, but their conservatism is social rather than economic – not surprising given how many Haredim survive on state largesse – and their ideology is one of fealty to Torah and Jewish law as a way of structuring daily life, rather than anything surrounding settling or holding onto the land. Likud is rightwing, and Shas and UTJ are rightwing, but they are rightwingers in the same way the Club for Growth and the Christian Coalition are rightwing – they inhabit the same general political universe but for vastly different reasons.

It is true that the Orthodox and the ultra-Orthodox both lean heavily to the right, but that is about the only part of Ephron’s analysis that isn’t stunningly ill-informed. Just because both groups have the word “Orthodox” in their names does not mean that they share the same core motivations. The Israeli right may be growing stronger, but that doesn’t mean that Haredi parties wouldn’t shift their allegiance to the left if they were promised a better deal on subsidies and control of Israel’s religious institutions. Ephron’s permanent majority theory is based on some serious basic factual errors, and given that he is the Jerusalem bureau chief for one of America’s most prominent newsweeklies, I expect some more rigor from him.

The Fate of Israel’s Unity Government

July 3, 2012 § 4 Comments

Two of my favorite Israel bloggers, Allison Good and The Camel’s Nose, are having an entertaining debate on Twitter and their respective blogs over the survival prospects of the Likud-Kadima coalition government. For those who haven’t been following along, Bibi Netanyahu disbanded the Kadima-led Plesner Committee charged with coming up with a solution to the problem of Haredi and Arab exemptions from military service following the resignations of Yisrael Beiteinu, Habayit Hayehudi, and the Haredi representative from the committee. AG thinks that this means that the coalition government is going to be gone by the end of the week because Bibi is ultimately going to stick with his more rightwing coalition partners and because Shaul Mofaz realizes that he is getting nowhere with Netanyahu and would rather resume his erstwhile role as opposition leader. In contrast, TCN thinks that the coalition will last because Bibi is a cunning politician and will be able to ride out the current storm and because Mofaz gains nothing by quitting the government.

I hate to pick sides here, but since I was planning on writing about this anyway before the two of them beat me to it, I have to go with The Camel’s Nose on this one. Allison’s logic is good, particularly on the issue of Bibi being a creature of habit with a long history of being risk-averse when it comes to big picture policies who tends to placate his rightwing base, but I will add a few reasons to the ones already set forth by TCN in explaining why I think the coalition holds.

First, Netanyahu issued a statement warning the Haredi parties that if a compromise is not reached, Haredim will be subject to the draft beginning August 1. This angered the Haredi parties to no end and they ripped him for issuing an ultimatum, and it seems like a strange move for Bibi to make if he is ultimately going to ditch Kadima and side with Shas and UTJ. Why warn them about coming back to the table if the intention is to back them to the hilt anyway? If the answer is that equalizing the burden of service is popular with the Israeli public and issuing the hardline statement is all public relations showmanship, then Netanyahu is setting himself for a severe backlash if he then goes and lets Haredim off the hook for military or national service. Furthermore, it bears noting that Haredi voters are not part of Netanyahu and Likud’s base – they historically have been willing to join any government, left or right, that has been willing to buy their support with subsidies and key ministries. Netanyahu’s base is the settler and religious Zionist movements, and they hold no water for Haredi draft dodgers. All of this reads to me like Bibi is gearing up to make Haredim subject to the draft, and only disbanded the Plesner Committee because it seemed like a futile exercise once YB and the Haredi rep had both quit and not because he is trying to protect the Haredi exemption.

Second, I don’t think that Mofaz has any intention of quitting the coalition. His threat to do so is an empty one since there is no reason for him to wait – if he was actually going to pull out of the government, he would have done so when Netanyahu pulled the plug on the Plesner Committee, which was Mofaz’s pet project. Mofaz has already been sufficiently embarrassed to justify leaving, and the fact that he hasn’t done so indicates to me that he is looking for excuses to stick around. That Mofaz brought Kadima into the government does not change the fact that Kadima’s poll numbers were badly sinking before the coalition deal was struck and that Kadima was increasingly looking like a party that would not survive more than one additional election. Leaving the coalition now, as TCN points out, probably dilutes Mofaz’s power since he is not by any means a natural leader of a left of center opposition, and that goes double now that he has tainted himself in the left’s eyes by joining hands with Bibi in a unity government.

Finally, there is the fact that Netanyahu created this monster of a coalition for a reason, and we need to think about what that reason might be. Sure, I think he liked the idea of presiding over a government with virtually no real opposition to speak of, but he also wasn’t accumulating numbers just for the sole sake of accumulating numbers. I think that creating such a large coalition was meant to give Netanyahu room to maneuver on precisely this issue – equalizing the burden of service and ending the Haredi military exemption – since it is a popular position and one that he could not pursue before without bringing down his government. The day after the news of the deal with Kadima broke, I wrote the following:

A newly stabilized government gives Netanyahu more time to quell the growing backbench rebellion within Likud as well, and he can expect Kadima to now back him full-tilt on settlements once he backs Mofaz’s Tal Law alternative. In sum, this is move to bring in Kadima and cancel the early elections is a no-brainer that eliminates potential rival parties, strengthens Likud internally, and probably increases its vote share over what it would have gotten in September.

This logic still holds. Putting Kadima in charge of the committee tasked with replacing the Tal Law was a high profile move and Netanyahu staked a lot on it, and the idea that after all that he would now just turn around, kill the committee and not allow its recommendation to see the light of day, and end the unity government, putting him right back where he started – namely, a coalition that is bound to break apart and bring down the government since Yisrael Beiteinu and Shas/UTJ cannot coexist for much longer – doesn’t make sense to me. Ultimately, the deal with Kadima was about Netanyahu’s survival as prime minister without having to call early elections, and so he needs Mofaz to stick around almost as much as Mofaz needs him in order to remain relevant. So, my prediction is that after everyone gets in their saber rattling, Netanyahu and Mofaz will work out some sort of arrangement, the Haredi parties will leave the coalition in a huff, and the unity government will remain in place. We should know by the end of the week if I am right or if I am wrong in a big way. And if it’s the latter, consider this my preemptive apology and huge tip of the hat to Allison Good.

Cracks Appearing In All Sorts Of Coalitions

June 29, 2012 § Leave a comment

Apparently Bibi Netanyahu’s strategy of expanding his governing coalition in an effort to deal with the crisis precipitated by the Tal Law’s expiration didn’t solve the problem but only kicked it down the road. Following the news that the Plesner Committee, which was charged with coming up with a viable plan to rectify the military and national service exemptions for Haredim and Israeli Arabs, has decided to essentially give Israeli Arabs a free pass, Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party quit the committee. The news that Haredim were going to be treated differently than Israeli Arabs obviously did not sit well with Shas and UTJ either, who were already upset that Shaul Mofaz and Kadima are insisting on severe penalties for draft dodgers that are squarely aimed at the Haredi sector. So in a nutshell, the two sides that were pulling on Netanyahu from opposite ends during the last coalition crisis are now both angry again, and this is all being driven by Kadima, Netanyahu’s new coalition partner that was supposed to give him room to maneuver and put an end to the constant worrying about the coalition breaking apart.

Netanyahu and Mofaz are meeting today in an effort to try and resolve the impasse after the prime minister made clear that he was not ok with the Plesner Committee plan (which is being pushed, if not outright dictated, by Mofaz), but this is just a reminder that Israeli coalitions are never fully stable no matter how large they are. This is not going to bring down the government, but if forced to choose between Mofaz and Kadima on the one hand and Lieberman and Yisrael Beiteinu on the other, Netanyahu is going to go with Mofaz, which will set off all sorts of problems with the settler community at the worst possible time for Bibi given that the Ulpana evacuation just went off shockingly smoothly.

Speaking of Ulpana, the events there this week revealed another important split, but this one has nothing to do with coalition politics. Instead, there seems to be a growing divide between the camp containing the majority of the settlement movement and the more extreme militant wing (often referred to by the shorthand “hilltop youth”), with some in the settler leadership waking up to the fact that violence turned outward almost always inevitably migrates inward as well. It began when Ze’ev Hever, who is in charge of the settlement movement’s building and construction, found his car tires slashed, prompting a set of mea culpas from him and from Yesha head Danny Dayan, who both admitted that they have stayed silent for years in the face of settler violence against Arabs. This acknowledgement and promise to begin cracking down on the violent extremists within their midst unfortunately came too late for the Defense Ministry subcontractors visiting Ulpana earlier this month in preparation for the evacuation who were pelted with rocks for their efforts to ensure that Ulpana’s residents would be moved out as painlessly and seamlessly as possible. Then if that weren’t enough, the Ulpana families – who were fully cooperative and left peacefully – had to spend their time skirmishing with hilltop youths who were trying to prevent those very families from evacuating by barring their way and then barricading themselves in one of the vacated apartments. If it wasn’t clear to the settler leadership that they have a serious problem within their midst while violent settler extremists were torching mosques and carrying out odious “price tag” attacks in the West Bank, it has become abundantly clear now. All of this is a useful reminder that, as Jeremy Pressman aptly put it yesterday, the term “settler” papers over the fact that settlers are not a monolithic group and the settlement movement is not a unified whole marching in lockstep. These divisions within Israeli politics and Israeli society bear close watching over the next few months as tensions that have been buried are now starting to bubble up to the surface.

Guest Post: A Failure Of Reason

May 21, 2012 § 3 Comments

After a Twitter exchange a couple of weeks ago in which he schooled Ali Abunimah on Zionism and social cleavages within Israeli society, I asked Dov Friedman if he would be willing to turn his thoughts into a guest post and he graciously agreed. Aside from being an early booster of O&Z, Dov is a preternaturally astute analyst, and when he decides to use his prodigious talents to write something longer than 140 characters, you don’t want to miss it. You should also all be following his Twitter feed @DovSFriedman since I guarantee that it will make you think on a daily basis. Without further ado, I give you Dov’s thoughts on the shortcomings of the anti-Zionist movement.

Were the anti-Zionist movement wiser—and less unmoored—it might recognize that it could make common cause with the left wing of the Zionist movement.  In many respects, leftist Zionists have far more in common with pro-Palestinian voices than they do with Zionism’s far-right wing.  The Zionist left awaits an Israel that abandons the settlement enterprise, that disaggregates Orthodox Judaism and the state, and that increases equality of rights among its citizens.  Some in the pro-Palestinian movement have recognized that much progress can be made promoting liberal values and human rights before the groups philosophically diverge; however, the anti-Zionist wing of the movement has not joined them.

In theory, the potential for common cause explains why J Street has—shortsightedly—downplayed its Zionism in an attempt to create a “big tent.”  Yet, with much to gain through joint action, the anti-Zionist wing perpetually radicalizes the debate, precluding any meaningful consensus on forcing accountability from a recalcitrant Israel.  Organizations like J Street jeopardize potential constituencies to accommodate a movement that lacks a shred of interest in fruitful dialogue aimed to carve out common ground.

Last week, I exchanged messages with Ali Abunimah, the founder of Electronic Intifada and a prominent anti-Zionist writer who authored a book advocating a one-state solution.  On the surface, the topic was a bizarre op-ed by Yaron London in Yediot Ahronot that Israel should deal with its Haredi issue by seeking to reduce—not integrate—the population.  The piece is troubling and weakly argued—even among Israelis who harbor bitterness toward Haredim, it is not clear London’s argument would draw sympathy.  Yet, Mr. Abunimah saw an opportunity and pounced.  The op-ed was proof, he claimed, of “Zionist anti-Semitism” that dates back to “Herzl’s vile Jew-hatred.”  In Mr. Abunimah’s view, London’s piece encapsulates societal feelings that Haredi, Ethiopian, and Palestinian populations are all threats to the Zionist vision.

I replied to Mr. Abunimah that his understanding was impoverished, partly because he derives a societal feeling from a singular op-ed, and partly because he conflates three issues with different historical origins and different societal discourses.

The Haredi issue is one of civic participation, national economic health, and the welfare state.  Historically, the republican equation dictated that secular, educated Ashkenazi Jews traded military service for political and economic power.  This began to change as Mizrahi and religious Israelis achieved military and societal status.  The only non-Arab group that escapes national service is the Haredi community.  Deepening the societal rift, the state devotes major resources to support this community that contributes neither to the nation’s defense nor to its coffers.  The predominant discourse surrounding the Haredim is not London’s proposal to thin their ranks; rather, it is how to increase their participation in society—in terms of both national service and economic contribution.  The Haredim are essentially a national issue.

The Ethiopian issue stems from racism, parochialism, and fierce protection of communal interests.  Thus, Ethiopians, in essence, are the new Mizrahim.  They are the new “marked” Israeli group.  Particular social classes fear the pressures these new Israelis have placed on their economic prospects and communal interests—spurring some of the racism that can accompany class resentment.  Certainly, Israel’s affluent, educated residents are less concerned with Ethiopian immigration than are Israel’s blue-collar families.  If any critique is valid in this case it is a Marxist one.  A rudimentary understanding of Israeli history and contemporary society would reveal the incongruity of the Haredi and Ethiopian issues.

This is all before we arrive at the Palestinians—who for Mr. Abunimah are the heart of the matter.  Defining the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is beyond the scope of this post.  Suffice it to say, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict may be well understood within the history of nationalism as an idea and within the development of 20th century international order on the basis of nation-states.  To tie Israel-Palestine in with Israel’s Haredi and Ethiopian issues goes beyond poor analysis—it constitutes willful misrepresentation.

When evaluated closely, this misrepresentation is only the initial sleight of hand.  If all three issues are one and the same, as Mr. Abunimah suggests, then not only has Zionism begat hatred of Palestinians—it provokes deep anti-Semitism as well!  I wonder if Mr. Abunimah esteems his readers so lightly that he believes he can pose as the premier anti-Semitism watchdog.  This from someone who advocates a solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict which—as Gershom Gorenberg notes in his most recent book—solves the borders issue, shifts every other issue from an international to a national one, and risks civil war.  Mr. Abunimah warps history and obfuscates the issues at hand to score a political point.

Yet Mr. Abunimah’s ahistorical misrepresentation was not the most mindless note I received that day; Palestinian activist Susan Abulhawa seized on my call for nuance in evaluating Israel’s societal issues by ignoring the debate over Haredim and Zionism completely. She simply posted pictures of IDF soldiers with crying Palestinian children.  No context, no opening for discussion—Abulhawa was “justsayin.” What is there to say back to such deliberate non-argument?

And therein lies the tragedy.  The anti-Zionist wing of the pro-Palestinian movement is so consumed with frustration—so aggressive in trying to “win” arguments—that it willfully distorts reality and proves immune to reasoned debate.  In so doing, it fails—day after day—to recognize a true partner in achieving Israeli retrenchment and Palestinian self-determination in a better Middle East.

Dov Friedman is a research fellow in foreign policy at the SETA Foundation in Ankara.

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