November 27, 2012 § 3 Comments
On Sunday and Monday, Likud party members got to vote in the Likud primary and choose the list that will stand for Knesset elections in January, and what emerged was the most rightwing Likud in the party’s history. The Likud list is a catalogue of the most strident and hardline voices in the party, with Danny Danon in the 6th spot, Zeev Elkin in 9th, Yariv Levin in 10th, Tzipi Hotovely in 13th, and Moshe Feiglin – who is Bibi Netanyahu’s main intra-party challenger from his right and is not even currently an MK – in 15th. Regular O&Z readers will recognize all of these names, as their exploits make regular appearances on this blog, but in case you need a refresher, Noam Sheizaf has a rundown of their greatest hits. In addition, because of the deal with Yisrael Beiteinu that created the joint list with Likud, it is unlikely that anyone lower than 20th on the list is going to make it into the Knesset, which means that Likud princes and moderates such as Dan Meridor, Benny Begin, and Mickey Eitan are going to lose their jobs as MKs. To get a sense of just how remarkable this is, not only are Begin and Meridor currently Knesset members, they are both ministers and members of the nine person security cabinet, and yet Likud voters just unceremoniously showed them the door. This is not just a changing of the guard from the old to the new, but a serious step to the right. If there was any doubt left that Likud is first and foremost a settler party, it has just been erased.
Plenty of people will spend the next couple of days bemoaning the state of Israeli politics and noting that a Likud government in which someone like Danny Danon might actually be a minister is going to double down on settlements and treat the peace process like a relic from a bygone era. This is all true, and in my humble opinion it’s a terrible development for Israel, but I am not here to state the glaringly obvious. Instead, I’d like to think through the impact of the new Likud makeup on Israel’s defense policy outside of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The immediate result is going to be the involuntary hiatus of Ehud Barak, who announced yesterday that he was quitting politics and would not stand for election in January. While I found the timing of this announcement strange given that Barak’s Atzmaut party, which had been polling at zero Knesset seats, had rebounded in the aftermath of Operation Pillar of Cloud and was looking like it might return to the Knesset with the same five seats it currently has, a couple of smart observers of Israeli politics have convinced me that perhaps it makes sense given the humiliation involved for a former PM barely crossing the Knesset threshold. Amir Mizroch and Robert Danin argue that in resigning, Barak is actually plotting a course to remain as defense minister since he will be viewed as the indispensable general whom Netanyahu will have no choice but to reappoint, and the fact that he is not a member of Knesset will free from him any political constraints. I think it’s quite plausible that this was Barak’s plan yesterday morning and that he may even have been able to pull it off, but he did not count on the events of the afternoon and evening. MKs like Danon and Elkin absolutely detest Barak with every fiber of their being because they have long viewed him as the primary hurdle standing between them and unfettered settlement growth, and now that they essentially control the party, Netanyahu is not going to have the political space to keep Barak as his defense minister. Doing so will cause a riot within Likud and open Netanyahu up to a serious challenge from Feiglin or from his old nemesis (and Washington Generals-type foil) Silvan Shalom, and Bibi is not going to risk that. Instead, I think the Likud primary has guaranteed that Bogie Ya’alon becomes the next defense minister, which also puts him in the pole position to be the next Likud leader once Netanyahu decides to leave the scene.
Aside from silencing Barak and removing his all-encompassing control of Israeli defense policy, I think the new Likud list also makes an Israeli strike on Iran a lot more likely. I have been continuously arguing that one of the primary constraints on an Israeli strike is the makeup of the security cabinet, where four out of the nine members have been unwaveringly opposed to unilateral military action against Iran. Two out of those four are Begin and Meridor, who are now going to be out of the group, and they will almost certainly be replaced by ministers who are more hawkish. The third of the four is Ya’alon, who badly wants to be defense minister and who knows that the post is a potential stepping stone to eventually becoming prime minister. The fact that the defense portfolio is now going to be open might be enough incentive for him to quietly acquiesce to Netanyahu’s plans on Iran in order to get the appointment that he seeks, in which case the security cabinet flips from being divided down the middle to being nearly unanimous in favor of a strike. That does not make a war with Iran a fait accompli, but it does bring the possibility ever closer. One month ago in arguing that the Netanyahu-Lieberman deal was not going to affect the Iran calculus, I noted that “the math in the security cabinet does not change substantially unless Begin, Meridor, and Ya’alon are all excised.” As it turns out, the result of this week’s Likud primary means that the math has now changed, and the impact on Israeli defense policy might be even greater than the impact on Israeli domestic politics.
October 15, 2012 § 1 Comment
As anyone who watched the vice-presidential debate on Thursday night may have noticed – and as I noted myself on Friday – Joe Biden repeatedly brought up Prime Minister Netanyahu but always referred to him by his nickname, Bibi. On Friday I wrote, “I get that Biden was trying to push how well he knows Netanyahu and that informality is part of Biden’s natural shtick, but can you imagine Biden talking about any other foreign leader in such an informal manner? Not sure if this says more about Biden, Netanyahu, or the U.S.-Israel relationship more broadly, but it’s worth thinking about.”
I actually did spend some time thinking about it for The Atlantic, and here’s what I came up with:
When the subject of Iran’s nuclear program came up during last night’s vice presidential debate, Joe Biden began talking about his friend, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. Biden likes to play up his long-standing connections with foreign leaders, so mentioning Netanyahu by name was not in itself surprising. The odd part is that Biden never referred to Netanyahu in any way but “Bibi,” which is Netanyahu’s often-used nickname.
While Netanyahu is referred to as Bibi in a number of settings (in line with Israelis’ proclivity toward nicknames, especially in the military), Biden’s use of his friend’s nickname stood out in a formal political debate. Even more noticeable is that Biden initially referred to “Bibi” without even providing his last name or his position as prime minister of Israel. It is impossible to imagine this happening with any other world leader, but Biden did it repeatedly and with ease when it came to Netanyahu.
It is easy to chalk this up to Biden’s generally informal nature, or his desire to create a contrast between his own decades of foreign policy experience and Ryan’s relative dearth of foreign policy chops. Yet even if Biden did so unintentionally, there are some lessons to be learned from the vice president’s colloquialism about Netanyahu and the current state of the U.S.-Israel relationship.
The rest of the article can be found on The Atlantic’s website here, and as always please let me know what you think.
September 28, 2012 § 4 Comments
Bibi Netanyahu gave a widely covered and dissected speech to the United Nations General Assembly yesterday in which the main takeaway seems to be that he watched a lot of Warner Brothers cartoons during his time as a teenager living in the U.S. Brent Sasley and Jeffrey Goldberg both weighed in on what Netanyahu was trying to accomplish, and Ali Gharib pointed out that Bibi actually made a mistake with his cartoon bomb, so I don’t need to rehash what others have already eloquently written. Instead I’d like to pick up on a theme that Robert Wright captured, which is that Netanyahu essentially conceded that Israel will not be bombing Iran any time soon. As regular O&Z readers know, I have thought for months that an Israeli strike is unlikely to happen, and so now that the conventional wisdom has caught up with me, it is worth rehashing why most people thought that an attack was going to happen during the summer or fall.
The thinking in the DC foreign policy community on an Israeli strike has largely been shaped by the notion that the decision to attack lies with Netanyahu and Ehud Barak, and so the speculation over whether Israel was on the brink of striking Iran’s nuclear facilities broke down into two camps. On one side are those who believe that Netanyahu and Barak are deadly serious about a strike. They view Israeli saber rattling as an effort to prepare the Israeli public for war and think that the reportedly reluctant Israeli military and political leadership will line up behind the prime minister and the defense minister once they decide to order military action. On the other side are those who believe that Netanyahu and Barak are engaged in an elaborate bluff designed to either pressure Iran into ceasing its uranium enrichment program or to convince the United States to handle the job of taking out the Iranian nuclear program. Israeli chatter about the looming threat from Iran is aimed at creating conditions under which the U.S. feels it has no choice but to do everything possible to prevent an Iranian nuclear weapon and convincing the Europeans to back harsher sanctions on Iran. In this reading of the situation, the rest of the Israeli military and political leadership do not matter because Netanyahu and Barak are only interested in creating the perception that they are going to attack.
The question then of what Israel is going to do turns on Netanyahu and Barak’s true mindset; if they are serious about attacking they will attack, and if they are bluffing they won’t. It is a very simple dynamic, leading to an entire cottage industry designed to ascertain what precisely the two men’s intentions are, with an increasing focus on Barak – or, per his feeble attempt at anonymity, the “decision maker” – as the key figure. In this increasingly accepted view, there are only two possibilities and two outcomes, and the only people who matter are the Netanyahu-Barak tandem.
What this discussion has entirely missed, however, is that there is a plausible third outcome, which is that Netanyahu and Barak are dead set on launching a military operation against Iranian nuclear sites but that such an operation will not occur. People have discounted this possibility because they either misread the way in which national security decision making takes place in Israel or discount the Israeli political climate.
Netanyahu and Barak are not the only people who matter in this decision. When an American president wants to go to war, he generally gets his way irrespective of what his cabinet or generals want to do, with the Iraq War a good demonstration of how the president is truly The Decider. In contrast, Netanyahu and Barak will not be able to launch a strike on Iran without the near unanimous consent of the inner security cabinet and the larger political-security cabinet, and such authorization is not assured. Four of the nine members of the smaller group are currently believed to be opposed to a strike, and the fact that Netanyahu briefed Rav Ovadia Yosef in order to flip Eli Yishai’s support speaks volumes about Netanyahu and Barak’s power to order an attack against other ministers’ wishes.
There are also important constraints on Netanyahu and Barak’s decision making. Israeli public opinion does not favor a unilateral Israeli strike, the home front is woefully unprepared for retaliation from Iran or Hizballah, a myriad of current and former IDF and intelligence officials believe an attack is a bad idea at this point, and the specter of the Winograd Commission – which blasted former prime minister Ehud Olmert and the IDF chiefs for the 2006 war in Lebanon – hangs over everything. All of this is particularly salient given Netanyahu’s historical risk aversion when it comes to ordering military operations of any sort, compounded by the fact that this is an operation whose chances of success are seen to be limited to delaying Iran’s nuclear program rather than ending it and might end up with thousands of Israeli civilian casualties as retaliation. That the Obama administration is also opposed to an Israeli strike is an enormous constraint on Netanyahu given Israeli reliance on U.S. munitions and aid.
In the aftermath of yesterday’s speech, there is a rush of commentary focusing on the fact that Obama looks increasingly likely to be elected and so Netanyahu feels like he needs to back off and not risk angering the White House any further. I am sure that is part of what is going on, but this narrative implies that Netanyahu would have ordered a strike by now if Romney were ahead in the polls. I think that is wrong, and misses the fact that there is lots going on here on the Israeli side and that the U.S. is only one of many variables in this equation, and perhaps not even the most important one. If the focus is exclusively on the argument that U.S. pressure has sufficiently convinced Netanyahu to change his plans, then analysts are guaranteed to get it wrong again in the months or years ahead when trying to figure out what Israel is going to do.
August 21, 2012 § 3 Comments
Bibi Netanyahu and Ehud Barak have run into the problem that they appear to be virtually alone when it comes to deciding whether to strike Iran’s nuclear facilities. The two are so out on a limb at the moment that Shai Feldman, writing in Foreign Policy, declared the debate over attacking Iran to be over because Netanyahu and Barak lack the minimum consensus that would be required for military action. The defense and intelligence establishments are united in wanting to wait for the U.S. and not wanting to attack Iran unilaterally, and until Avi Dichter was added to the security cabinet formerly known as the Octet last week (which means that it is no longer a shminiya but a tishiya), the vote to attack Iran was reportedly split 4-4. A lot was made of the fact that Dichter is presumed to be on Netanyahu and Barak’s side and that adding him to the mix breaks the logjam, but I didn’t write anything about that last week because it is a faulty and ill-informed argument. A 5-4 vote is not going to be enough to launch a strike given the heavy opposition that exists to such a move; Netanyahu and Barak need to do some serious convincing and make real headway with the holdouts, who are Benny Begin, Dan Meridor, Moshe “Boogie” Ya’alon, and Eli Yishai.
It is this last name that is perhaps the toughest to move, because Begin, Meridor, and Ya’alon are all members of Likud and presumably Netanyahu has some more sway with them since he is their party leader (although my hunch is that Meridor, and to a lesser extent Begin, would never flip). Yishai, however, is a member of Shas, and that’s how we get to the outrageously cynical ploy that Bibi tried yesterday. For the uninitiated – although since you are reading a niche blog about Israeli politics right now, you probably don’t need this background – Shas is an ultra-Orthodox Sephardic party whose spiritual leader, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, controls how its members vote despite not being an elected official of any kind. I wrote about this dynamic back in May, when Rabbi Yosef ordered Yishai to change his opinion on being willing to consider alternatives to the Tal Law. What you have in Shas is a theocratic party, in which the elected politicians are beholden to the party’s rabbinic leadership and dare not contravene rabbinic orders when it comes to taking public positions or voting on issues in the Knesset or the cabinet. With this in mind, yesterday Rabbi Ovadia Yosef – who holds no elected or official position in the Israeli polity and has zero to do with Israeli national security – was the recipient of a national security briefing on Iran. Not only was he briefed, but it was done by Yaakov Amidror, the head of the Israeli National Security Council, lest anyone think that this was not a big deal or little more than a courtesy for a former chief rabbi of Israel.
Make no mistake about what is going on here in case it isn’t already abundantly clear: Netanyahu is trying to swing a vote to launch a strike against Iran by convincing a religious leader to order an acolyte to vote a certain way. He is not trying to convince Yishai by making a cogent case for military action – or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that he has given up trying to do it this way – but is going above his head to Yishai’s rabbi, whom he knows Yishai is bound to follow, and telling a man with no national security experience at all and no training or education in evaluating intelligence or threat assessments that it is crucial to bomb Iran. Does anyone think that Amidror, a general and Israel’s equivalent of Tom Donilon, had any trouble at all convincing Rabbi Yosef about the urgent need to strike now in order to prevent Israel’s annihilation? For all of the outrageous things that go on in politics, and Israeli politics in particular, this represents an absolute low. It is a naked appeal to religious authority made to a theocratic party in which politicians serve as mouthpieces for rabbis. The reason that Shas has never taken an interest in foreign affairs is because its spiritual leaders don’t care about the issue, and to prey on that ignorance in order to influence a crucial position on national security is nothing short of abominable.
There are two conclusions to be drawn from this sorry and craven episode. First, Netanyahu is desperate since he realizes that he is fighting a steep uphill battle and he will resort to anything, no matter how blatantly insulting and undemocratic, to get an advantage. Second, Netanyahu and Barak’s argument for an attack is not only falling on deaf ears but is so weak on its face that they both know it cannot win on its own merits. Briefing Eli Yishai’s rabbi is not a move made out of strength, but one made out of a position that is even weaker than anyone could have realized. If this svengali routine is the best that Netanyahu can come up with, I hope for his sake that he has something better when it comes to the rest of his security cabinet, since unlike Yishai, the three Likud holdouts do not answer to a higher authority.
April 30, 2012 § 4 Comments
Lots of big news happened over the weekend with far-reaching consequences, so let’s start with Friday’s Yuval Diskin speech. Diskin, the former head of the Shin Bet, slammed Netanyahu and Barak – and did so in a particularly insulting manner tinged with class-based resentment by referring to them as the “messiahs from Akirov [the expensive high end apartment building in Tel Aviv where Barak resides] and Caesaerea” – as being unfit to lead the government and for presenting Israelis with a false choice on Iran. Diskin said that he does not trust either of them, and that they are wrong to declare that striking Iran will set back its nuclear program when in fact it might accelerate it. He also warned about right wing extremists on both sides of the Green Line and said that something like the Rabin assassination could easily happen again, and charged Netanyahu with not wanting to conduct peace talks with the Palestinians because it would break apart his coalition. Diskin’s broadside launched a round of recriminations, with the pro-Bibi camp charging Diskin of petty score-settling over the fact that he was not appointed head of the Mossad following his time as head of the Shin Bet, and ex-Mossad chief Meir Dagan – himself a strident critic of Netanyahu and Barak over the Iran issue – and ex-IDF chief Gabi Ashkenazi both publicly supporting Diskin.
Let’s sort this all out. What precisely is going on here? To begin with, there is no doubt that personality issues are part of this very public feud. Diskin’s strikingly sneering personal tone is unusual for a critique solely based on the merits, and he is clearly still upset about not getting the Mossad job. It is also well known that the trio of Diskin, Dagan, and Askenazi were all pushed aside and replaced by Netanyahu partially to clear the way for a strike on Iran since all three of them were opposed to such a move, and this is coming back to haunt Bibi as they are now getting their revenge. That does not mean, however, that they are wrong, although Diskin is the least qualified to register such a strong objection given that his portfolio had him dealing mainly with Palestinian issues and not with Iran.
It’s tough to say why Diskin decided to speak up now and do it so harshly, but it definitely fuels speculation that he wants to enter politics and that this was his opening salvo. I also wonder, given his area of expertise and the fact that he was critical on a host of topics, if he meant for the Iran issue to be front and center or if he instead expected his criticisms of Netanyahu’s stance toward the Palestinians to be the headline in the weekend papers. Diskin holding forth on Iran is unusual because it would be analogous to the FBI director attacking the White House over drone policy in Pakistan – he certainly knows more about it than most people, but it falls far outside his portfolio. More appropriately, Diskin went after Bibi pretty hard on the Palestinian front, essentially accusing him of negotiating in bad faith and insisting that Netanyahu rather than Abbas was the person responsible for the lack of progress due to his having no interest in altering the existing status quo. Diskin also stressed his bona fides on the topic by pointing out that he knows what is going on from being up close to the Palestinian issue and dealing with it personally, and that the West Bank is primed to explode in frustration over the lack of progress toward a Palestinian state. The news has a way of spiraling out of people’s control, and I’ll bet that Diskin did not necessarily expect his Iran comments to be the ones dominating the airwaves.
It is also interesting to see who spoke up in defense of Netanyahu and Barak and who did not. Likud ministers went after Diskin, including Yuval Steinitz (Finance), Limor Livnat (Culture and Sport), and Yisrael Katz (Transportation), but there were some mixed signals from people who actually matter when it comes to Iran. Avigdor Lieberman criticized Diskin for serving out his full Shin Bet term if he had such major issues with Netanyahu and Barak, but in the same sentence praised Diskin as an excellent Shin Bet head and stressed that the entire security cabinet and not just Bibi and Barak would be making decisions on Iran. Silvan Shalom, who is the vice PM, also praised Diskin’s tenure at the Shin Bet and stressed that the decision to strike Iran is not Netanyahu and Barak’s alone to make. Most importantly (and ominously for Netanyahu), the silence from Moshe Yaalon, Dan Meridor, Benny Begin, and Eli Yishai was deafening. These four, as faithful readers of this blog may recall, are the members of the Shminiya believed to be opposed to attacking Iran, and they did not come out swinging in Netanyahu or Barak’s defense. Combined with the fact that current IDF head Benny Gantz is evidently bearish on the idea as well, and that Netanyahu is historically an extremely cautious political actor, it signals that Bibi is still fighting an uphill battle and confirms my longstanding belief that a strike is nowhere near imminent.
At the end of the day, no matter what Diskin’s motives or his credibility level, his speaking out is not a good development for Netanyahu and Barak’s freedom of action on Iran. Israel has great respect for its military, security, and intelligence leaders, many of whom later enter politics with great success, including current Cabinet members Barak and Yaalon and Kadima head Shaul Mofaz and Kadima MK Avi Dichter. The current and previous four IDF chiefs (Gantz, Ashkenazi, Dan Halutz, Yaalon, and Mofaz) are all on record as opposing a strike or are believed to oppose a strike at this point in time, and while Mofaz clearly has political reasons for being opposed given his status as opposition leader, the other four do not. All of this carries weight with Israelis, and it should carry weight with Netanyahu and Barak as well. This Yediot article quotes a bunch of anonymous state and defense officials trashing Diskin, including one “senior minister who has a close relationship with Netanyahu” saying that Diskin fits into a legacy of “moronic Shin Bet chiefs,” but it cannot escape notice that not one of the people questioning Diskin’s intelligence or abilities was willing to go on record. The fact that the security and military officials who matter primarily appear to view attacking Iran right now as a bad idea is not a small problem that Netanyahu and Barak can wave away. In the grand scheme of things, Yuval Diskin’s opinion might not matter, but he stands as a proxy for a larger group of people whose opinion does.
March 28, 2012 § 4 Comments
The New York Times has a story this morning on the relationship between Bibi Netanyahu and Ehud Barak, Israel’s version of Oscar and Felix. The piece does not cover much, if any, new ground, and regular readers of this blog (to the extent that there are any!) will be familiar with the politics and current whip count in the security cabinet for a strike on Iran. Two brief thoughts come to mind for me after reading the piece.
First, Netanyahu and Barak’s strengths, weaknesses, and insecurities have always been evident. Despite serving as a commando and being the brother of Israel’s most famous soldier, Netanyahu does not have lots of military street cred, and indeed has been more reserved on that front than any other prime minister of the last two decades. He has avoided conducting major military operations in Gaza or Lebanon and seems risk-averse, which is what makes his banging the drums of war on Iran such an interesting anomaly and leads to speculation on the influence of his father and the role that he sees for himself as preventer of another Holocaust. He relies on Barak’s presence at his side to give him cover in making a momentous military/security decision, since nobody questions the credentials of Israel’s most decorated solider. In light of this, the reporting and guessing about what Netanyahu wants and the efforts to convince him to wait are probably a waste of time, since the person who really needs to be influenced is Barak. Without Barak, Netanyahu cannot in all likelihood advocate for or carry out a strike, so any pressure the Obama administration or Israelis opposed to a strike are exerting should be aimed squarely at the defense minister rather than at the prime minister.
Second, and related to the first point, the fact that Barak was Netanyahu’s commander in Sayeret Matkal – which is the Israeli equivalent of the Navy Seals, and which
was also commanded at various points by all three Netanyahu brothers and new Kadima leader Shaul Mofaz served in – takes on outsized relevance. I have never served in the military nor have I studied psychology so I make no pretense of being an expert on this topic, but I’ve got to imagine that it is a tough thing to disagree with or even override your former unit commander on military issues. Netanyahu is going to do what he thinks is best for Israel, but his decision must be that much easier for him to come to grips with when the commander of his extremely tight-knit military unit under whom he served agrees with him and backs him up. If that element disappears, I don’t know what it does to Netanyahu’s calculus, but surely it would have some effect.