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.
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.
September 28, 2016 § 7 Comments
Unlike many authors of his obituaries this week, I did not know Shimon Peres. I met him briefly a couple of times, where I heard him extol the virtues of being a dreamer and admired the way he was able to churn out pithy and poignant aphorisms, but I don’t have any personal stories about him or particularly meaningful encounters to relate. Nevertheless, I have always found him inspiring because he is the personification of one of the most important lessons for being successful in life, which is how to overcome failure.
Shimon Peres was good at many things, but his chosen profession was not one of them. Unlike many of Israel’s founding fathers, he did not have an illustrious or decorated military career and chose much earlier to go the political route, but he was, at best, a middling politician. He failed in his early jousts with Yitzhak Rabin to become party leader of HaMa’arakh (Labor’s predecessor), only succeeding in taking over the party when Rabin had to resign as prime minister and party leader because of his wife’s foreign bank account. He then immediately presided over his party’s first electoral defeat in Israel’s existence following 29 years of uninterrupted rule, losing to Menachem Begin and Likud in 1977 and setting off a new era of rightwing dominance that continues to this day. He lost the next election in 1981 as well, and finally won an election in 1984 only to fail at putting together a coalition and being forced into a power sharing arrangement with Likud and Yitzhak Shamir in which they rotated the offices of prime minister and foreign minister. When Peres lost the 1988 election, he agreed to form a unity government with Shamir once again, but without being able to extract the same concession for a prime ministerial rotation that Shamir had been able to extract from him. After Rabin’s tragic assassination, Peres served as acting prime minister for seven months until he promptly lost the first post-Rabin election to Bibi Netanyahu, an election that arguably should not have even been close but was lost partially as a result of Peres’s poor political instincts. The next time he ran for office was in 2000 when he stood for president, an election in the Knesset that everyone predicted he would win handily but which he lost to the undistinguished future convicted felon Moshe Katzav, thereby becoming both the first candidate for prime minister and the first candidate for president to ever lose to a Likud opponent. Peres won the presidency in 2007 on his second try, marking his first unambiguous electoral victory for high national office, although it was not an embrace from Israeli voters but one from the 120 Knesset members who vote for president.
Why am I inconsiderately recounting this embarrassing history of the last member of the state’s founding generation before he has even been buried? Because to me, the greatness of Shimon Peres stems precisely from this embarrassing history. Peres is being feted as an Israeli hero, as someone who was responsible for more Israeli military and diplomatic achievements than any other figure, as the high prophet of Israeli technology and ingenuity, and as the ultimate striver to realize his otherworldly vision of Israel at peace with its Palestinian neighbor. Yet, Peres never won an outright election to be prime minister. He was not, until his last decade, truly loved or embraced by the Israeli public. He was continually overshadowed by his rival Rabin. But rather than become the Adlai Stevenson of Israel, he became the Shimon Peres of Israel. He understood that failure was something that you overcome rather than something that defines you. He took whatever situation he was in and elevated it to something sublime and heretofore unimaginable. Has there ever been a more tireless or successful foreign minister? Is there anyone else who could have taken the completely ceremonial and entirely ignored position of Israeli president and transformed it into the bully pulpit and clarion voice of moral order that it has now become? By all rights, Peres should have disappeared from Israel’s political scene decades ago, yet the more time went on and the more electoral losses he racked up, the more influential and visionary he became.
Peres did not only rebound from failures. Equally important, he learned from them, and did not allow them to constrict him going forward. Many will note in the coming days the contradictions of Shimon Peres and his legacy; how he was derided by the military establishment despite being the most important figure in Israel’s acquisition of military assets and weapons in the state’s first decade and the godfather of its nuclear arsenal, or how he was lauded as a peacemaker despite being an early and effective champion of settlements, or how the world sees him as the face of Israel despite his being a non-sabra, suit wearing, European accented Hebrew speaker. But these contradictions were another key to his success, because when he was wrong or when something did not work, he was able to pivot and embrace something else. It is true that he was a hawk for most of his life, but he was a dove when it mattered. It is true that he encouraged the settlement enterprise and protected settlements as defense minister, but he was able to see how that policy would lead to Israel’s destruction and came to advocate for a Palestinian state. It is true that he spent years championing the concept of economic peace, but he eventually saw that it would never be sufficient without addressing the political aspect as well. Peres will go down as one of history’s greatest dreamers, but he was able to dream big because he was willing to stand on the rubble of his own previous failures of imagination.
The last giant of Israel’s founding generation is now gone. Shimon Peres’s death marks a new era for the Jewish state, whether Israel is ready for it or not. Peres’s death leaves a gaping hole and his legacy is overwhelming. May his memory be for an eternal blessing, and may Israel always embrace his ethos of never giving in to failure, elevating the mundane into the lofty, and constantly pushing against the limits of what appears possible.
September 13, 2016 § 6 Comments
Prime Minister Netanyahu stirred up a cocktail of controversy on Friday when his latest attempt at creating a viral video did not get the reception he anticipated. In the two minute clip, Netanyahu opened by saying he was perplexed by the charge that “Jewish communities” in the West Bank are an obstacle to peace since it is clear that Arabs living inside Israel are not an obstacle to peace. He then alleged that the sole precondition the Palestinian leadership has demanded for a future state is that it be free of Jews, which he said is an example of ethnic cleansing. He went on to criticize this demand as outrageous, criticize the world community for not finding this outrage to be outrageous, and firmly state that those who say that Jews cannot live somewhere should think through the implications. Since the video has provoked responses all over the map from the right, the left, the Israeli opposition, and the U.S. government, here is your concise and handy guide to Jews in the West Bank, ethnic cleansing, and what Netanyahu is up to.
Netanyahu is right. It is outrageous that a future Palestinian state won’t allow any Jews to live in the West Bank! Yes, it would be if that were the case. If an independent Palestine forced out all of its Jews and barred any Jews from living there, it would certainly be a textbook case of ethnic cleansing, and there is no defensible argument to construct such a policy.
What do you mean, “if that were the case” – haven’t Palestinian leaders said there will be no Jews allowed? Nope. Netanyahu was in all likelihood referring to Mahmoud Abbas’s statement in 2013 that he would not accept the “the presence of a single Israeli – civilian or soldier – on our lands” in the aftermath of an Israeli-Palestinian final status agreement. As Matt Duss helpfully points out, PLO leaders have explicitly said that Jews are welcome to live in a Palestinian state while categorically ruling out Israelis living in settlements where they maintain their Israeli citizenship. To put this into some perspective, this would be like a presidential candidate saying that Syrian Muslims are welcome to come and live in the U.S. so long as they are not living in extra-territorial enclaves that are sovereign Syrian territory and they are subject to the laws and authority of the U.S. Makes sense, right? A presidential candidate would be on much shakier and more discriminatory ground if he, say, I don’t know, ruled out all Syrian Muslims entirely just because they are Syrian Muslims. Now, it is certainly possible – and even likely – that there are members of the Palestinian leadership who have said they would bar all Jews, Israeli citizens or not. Given the way that the Old City of Jerusalem was administered while under Jordanian control between 1948 and 1967, or the calls from various quarters to ban Jews from the Temple Mount entirely today, there is certainly some precedent that warrants suspicion. But given the public record of Abbas’s comments, it is clear that he was referring to Israelis living in Palestine as Israeli citizens under Israeli sovereignty. So much like Netanyahu’s rhetorical excess back in October regarding Haj Amin al-Husseini and the Holocaust, once again his imprecision with pesky little details has cost him some credibility.
So it comes back to settlements? Indeed it does. Note Netanyahu’s rhetorical sleight of hand in the video, where he begins by talking about Jewish communities in the West Bank, and then pivots to talking about Jews writ large. It is one thing for Israel to absorb the large settlements blocs into Israel proper once an agreement is signed, but it is quite another for Israel to maintain settlements that are in Palestinian state territory, that are only open to residents who are Jewish, and that are Israeli sovereign territory guarded by Israeli soldiers. That is what Netanyahu was actually arguing for in the video and positing that there is no reason that such an arrangement should be an obstacle to peace, when the reality is that describing it for what it actually is, as I have above, demonstrates precisely what an enormous problem it is. If Palestinians who before 1948 lived in territory that is now part of Israel wanted to come back and live in their old houses but as Palestinian citizens subject to the law and authority of the government of Palestine, they’d be dismissed out of hand, and rightly so. Once a permanent status agreement is signed, the Israeli government should make every conceivable effort to persuade settlers to relocate to Israel and provide compensation for them to do so, which will likely result in the evacuation of the overwhelming majority of settlers. Any settler who greets the IDF with violent resistance should be arrested and immediately moved out of the West Bank. But any peaceful, law-abiding settler who is willing to renounce Israeli citizenship and wants to remain in his or her home should absolutely be allowed to do so, but only as citizens of Palestine under the jurisdiction of the Palestinian government. In other words, settlers are fine; settlements are not.
So why would Netanyahu put out a video like that? This brings us to the essence of Netanyahu, which is that he subsumes all policy goals to political ones. There is a reason that Netanyahu has provoked the wrath and scorn of nearly every general and intelligence chief who has served under him. Why negotiate a new defense package when you have maximum leverage when you can instead shore up your rightwing base at home by giving a speech before Congress instead? Why keep an extremely competent and respected and supremely qualified defense minister during the midst of a wave of violence – and following an Iran deal that you say has put Israel at greater risk – when you can enlarge your coalition and neutralize an ultranationalist foe by making him defense minister despite a pitiful lack of qualifications? In this case, Netanyahu was coming off the debacle of shutting down train repairs on Shabbat in order to mollify his Haredi coalition partners and then having the public squarely blame him for putting politics ahead of soldiers trying to get home for the weekend, and then facing down polls that show Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party besting Netanyahu and Likud were an election to be held now. On top of that, the polls show Likud losing ground to its farther right coalition partner Habayit Hayehudi. In this instance, the obvious move for Netanyahu was to say something controversial that would fire up the rightwing base, provoke rebukes abroad, and thus benefit Netanyahu even further as he rails against foreign interference and vows to stand up to those who would smear Israel and try to discriminate against Jews. I’d be surprised if Netanyahu anticipated quite the depth of the pushback that he would face, but this is all part of his domestic political calculations.
So in conclusion, I agree 100% with the principle that Netanyahu espoused, namely that it is outrageous bigotry to prevent Jews from living in the West Bank. Unfortunately, in this instance Netanyahu was not speaking theoretically, and everyone should see through the smokescreen that he constructed in order to use anti-Semitism as a cover in defending settlements.
June 23, 2016 § 4 Comments
The 2016 U.S. presidential campaign has seen the culmination of a trend that has been building in American politics for some time, namely the distrust of the establishment and the glorification of the outsider. The Iraq War and the Great Recession were probably the most significant contributors to the growing idea that the old order couldn’t be trusted, that the historically bipartisan establishment consensus on foreign and economic policy was failing regular citizens, and that only by “throwing the bums out” could the ship of state be righted. The election of Barack Obama and the rise of the Tea Party were manifestations of this political movement. Bernie Sanders’s surprising success in this year’s Democratic primary and the nomination of Donald Trump on the Republican side have only magnified it. The U.S., however, is not the only country where this has taken place, and in many ways Israeli politics is giving us a glimpse of what happens when the outsiders become the insiders and the old establishment begins to plot its comeback.
Menachem Begin’s election as prime minister with the Likud victory in 1977 was earth shattering. It marked the first time that the Israeli rightwing defeated the leftwing Mapai and its political heirs and was the first rejection of the secular Ashkenazi elite that had founded the state and governed it since its inception. The Israeli rightwing – which includes secular Ashkenazi Jews but also is viewed as representing Mizrahim, Haredim, national religious, immigrants, and others in a way that the left traditionally has not – has been in power with only two brief interludes since Begin’s first victory. In spite of this history, the prime ministership of Binyamin Netanyahu has in many ways embraced this outsider ethos rather than acting as the latest iteration of a political movement that thoroughly controls the state. Despite hailing from a well-known family with deep Zionist roots, Netanyahu seems to have a chip on his shoulder against Israeli establishment elites. He surrounds himself – to his credit – with relative newcomers to the state, whether it be close advisers like Ron Dermer and Dore Gold or political allies like Avigdor Lieberman and Yuli Edelstein. Ministers in his cabinet, like Moshe Kahlon or Miri Regev, speak out against the old establishment and work to upend the old order in various ways. Netanyahu, like many politicians who successfully capitalize on voters’ resentment, never hesitates to appeal to nationalism that denigrates leftists, the “State of Tel Aviv,” or other symbols of the traditional establishment. Despite being a three term prime minister who has served more time in the post than anyone other than David Ben Gurion and heads a political camp that has dominated Israeli politics for four decades, Netanyahu in many ways gives off the vibe of being an upstart outsider.
The conflict between Netanyahu and various political and military figures that is now playing out – intensified by Moshe Ya’alon’s and Ehud Barak’s speeches at the IDC Herzliya conference last week – can be viewed in a number of ways. On the one hand, there is the never-ending battle taking place between Likud and the parties to its left looking to displace it. Netanyahu still maintains the overwhelming upper hand over the conflict and angst-ridden Labor party, but the political rival who presents the most obvious clear and present danger is Yair Lapid, who in the latest poll is running only two seats behind Netanyahu and Likud. This is a battle not between right and left, but between right and center, and there is no doubt that Lapid is gunning hard to become the next prime minister and taking positions that will still appeal to nationalists while distinguishing him from Netanyahu.
Another way to view the current contretemps is politicians vs. the military. Israel’s current political leadership is very much at odds with the military leadership and security establishment over all sorts of issues, from what steps to take in the West Bank to how to address the controversy surrounding Elor Azaria (the soldier on trial for shooting and killing an immobile Palestinian terrorist in Hebron). There is no question that some in the government see benefit to using the IDF as a punching bag, and that some in the IDF see benefit in discrediting the government, and politicians on all sides of the issue are eager to line up behind one side or another based on the politics irrespective of the actual issues at hand.
But there is another way to look at the sudden cavalcade of politicians and former generals aligning themselves against Netanyahu, and it is the frame of the traditional establishment reasserting itself. Barak and Ya’alon are both former defense ministers and former IDF chiefs of staff, but that is where the comparison ends. They differ in their politics, in their styles, and in their worldviews, but the common thread uniting them aside from their military backgrounds is the charge that Netanyahu is changing the fabric of the country by pitting different groups against each other and damaging Israel’s democracy. The same goes for establishment Likud princes, such as Dan Meridor and Michael Eitan, who have fallen out with Netanyahu over similar issues rather than over issues of left vs. right. Much like the Bush family here – the ultimate symbol of the American establishment – who seem to abhor Trump not so much for his specific positions but for the threat he represents to the fabric of a harmonious American society and democracy, the various people and forces now lining up against Netanyahu across the spectrum represent the old Israeli establishment consensus despite having diverse political views. Netanyahu, who has done a masterful job of sidelining and diminishing his adversaries over the course of his political career, finally seems to have provoked a widespread backlash not because of any one policy per se, but because the people who view themselves as guardians of the Israeli ethos – and after all, what is an establishment for if not for that? – see his continued tenure as a threat to some definition of what it means to be Israeli and what Israel should stand for. I do not mean to abandon my cynical self here; very clearly much of this is political opportunism and some long-time Netanyahu rivals seeing the chance to finally draw some blood. But looking at how Israeli politics seems to be realigning itself along establishment/non-establishment fault lines may give us a glimpse of what the post-Trump future will look like here as well.
May 19, 2016 § 1 Comment
On Tuesday, center-left opposition leader Isaac Herzog was set to become the new Israeli foreign minister after bringing the Zionist Union into a national unity government. On Wednesday, rightwing gadfly and Bibi Netanyahu frenemy Avigdor Lieberman was set to become the new defense minister while Herzog was consigned to losing his party’s leadership and his potential new cabinet post. Looking for answers to your questions about all of the political shenanigans? You’ve come to the right place.
Isn’t there supposed to be a new unity government?
Netanyahu and Herzog have reportedly been talking about bringing the Zionist Union into the coalition ever since the government was formed with the Zionist Union on the outside last spring, and these negotiations burst into the open in recent weeks. For Netanyahu, the appeal was primarily twofold. First, despite the fact that his 61 seat coalition does not have any huge ideological fissures, a government with a one seat majority is never a comfortable place from which to operate. Bringing in Herzog and the approximately fourteen Labor Party members from the Zionist Union faction that he would have brought along would give Netanyahu breathing space and not make every coalition member a potential hostage taker. Second, there is something of a perfect storm gathering on the horizon on the diplomatic front, with the French initiative, the forthcoming Quartet report that is expected to be harsh on Israeli settlements, the end of the Obama administration (bearing in mind that Clinton and Bush both made a renewed effort at Israeli-Palestinian peace on their way out the door), and the 50th anniversary of the 1967 war all looming. Appointing Herzog as foreign minister would give Israel a friendlier face in Western capitals and offset some of the pressure that is hurtling down the road by signaling that Israel is more serious than assumed about finding a way to get to two states.
From Herzog’s perspective, he leads a party that has been plummeting in the polls, is completely ineffective in its opposition to the government, and he himself was facing massive discontent within the ranks. Entering into talks to join the government only sealed his inevitable demise within the Labor Party, as everyone from Zionist Union co-chief Tzipi Livni to Herzog’s predecessor Shelley Yachimovich to popular rising Labor star Stav Shaffir was opposed to joining the government. Indeed, Shaffir and other Labor members have now called for him to step down. Even if he were successful in joining the government, Herzog would have only brought a rump contingent with him. Nevertheless, if he was going to be ousted for ineffectiveness at some point, Herzog clearly believed that he may as well join the government as a top minister and also clearly believed in his ability to affect change from the inside. Not only did this make sense for him, it was the only way for him to maintain any real relevance. There was also the added wrinkle of Herzog mysteriously claiming earlier in the week that there was a secret regional diplomatic opportunity that might disappear if not immediately acted upon and that he was the man to make it happen, and then Egyptian president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi on Tuesday offering warmer relations with Israel if it would reach a settlement with the Palestinians. Some saw this confluence of events as a bit too convenient, speculating that Netanyahu and Herzog had coordinated this with Sisi in order to pave the way for the unity government to happen.
So what happened?
Suddenly, everything turned on a dime, and it became apparent that Netanyahu had been using Herzog to instead entice Avigdor Lieberman and Yisrael Beiteinu to join the coalition, a move that prompted Herzog to cut off talks on a unity government. Netanyahu and Lieberman have a long and tortured history, and after serving as foreign minister in the last government (with a corruption trial that forced him to temporarily step down from the post for a year), Lieberman decided to remain in the opposition after the last election and has been sniping at Netanyahu from the right ever since, accusing him of selling out the rightwing and not being a true nationalist or Zionist. It has been a smart political move for Lieberman, as Yisrael Beiteinu has six seats in the current Knesset and a poll released this week by the Israeli newspaper Ma’ariv shows that going up to eleven, but ultimately Lieberman has always wanted power, and being in the government is the only way for him to do it. Becoming defense minister – particularly in the wake of the Hebron shooting and the Yair Golan speech and at a time when there is concern within the nationalist camp over the direction of the IDF – is perfect for Lieberman, and he will get to demonstrate that he is more hawkish than anyone else in Israeli politics while using the power of his post to protect the settlement enterprise
From Netanyahu’s angle, he gets to remove a thorn in his side and also shore up his own internal political position. There has been serious friction between him and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon and major discontent within the Likud ranks over where Ya’alon’s priorities lie, and now Netanyahu gets to remove him and mollify the right by creating the most rightwing government that can be assembled. He also gets to neutralize the critiques coming from his biggest long-term threat, Naftali Bennett, by removing the basis for the charge that Netanyahu is not sufficiently attuned to the concerns of settlers or in step with the nationalist camp. Netanyahu also still gets to expand his coalition, but does so in a way that makes his base happy rather than making them think that he is selling out rightwing principles.
How can Netanyahu pursue Herzog and Lieberman at the same time? That’s like a voter who thinks that the economy is rigged supporting a billionaire who lives in an apartment made of gold and marble and whose success is based on borrowing money from banks based on family connections and his last name.
There are a couple rules of Bibi politics that you need to know to make sense of this. The first is that Netanyahu is constantly in search of room to maneuver, but don’t ever presume to know what he wants to do with that space. The smart take on Tuesday was that he needed the flexibility to deflect the pressure from the French and the Quartet and to take advantage of the regional overtures about which he is constantly boasting, but he then went and ignited a wildfire on his own lawn. There is literally no more inflammatory figure as defense minister than Lieberman, who is on record as wanting to execute the terrorists that Israel captures alive and keep in perpetuity the bodies of those they don’t. Any caution that Ya’alon has exercised in the West Bank, where the defense minister has final decision making power, is now going to dissipate overnight. Not only has Netanyahu decided not to deflect the diplomatic pressure, he has taken the move that will ramp it up to the highest possible level.
This segues into the second rule, which is that Netanyahu is always more worried about threats that come from his right than about threats that come from his left, and he will always guard his right flank irrespective of anything else that is going on. He perpetually faces the choice of going in a more moderate direction and mollifying the center and Israel’s allies, or tacking right and mollifying the rightwing, and he always chooses the same way. The surprise here is not that he played Herzog in order to reestablish his rightwing credentials, but that anyone thought that he would actually go through with it. In one fell swoop, Netanyahu has silenced Lieberman’s continuing criticism of the government, removed the specter of a hard right rebellion against Ya’alon that would have reverberated against him as well, cut off any discontent from the settler wing by ending talks with Herzog that might have led to measures curtailing settlement growth, and set himself up for the next election as the man who puts Zionism and nationalism first no matter what the rest of the world thinks. The threats that were massing against him on the far right are now largely – although not entirely – neutralized.
This is a long piece. Anything else we should be looking out for while you are in a talkative mood?
Yes, and thanks for asking. This whole thing is not as entirely straightforward as it seems, and there are some potential surprises and some potential pitfalls. It is important to know that during the Kerry negotiations two years ago, American officials found Lieberman during his time as foreign minister to actually be a helpful presence and willing interlocutor. Despite the fact that he is a hardliner on settlements and the Palestinians more generally, he seems to understand far better than Netanyahu that international opinion is not meaningless and that protecting the U.S.-Israel relationship is truly an existential issue. Amir Tibon’s excellent Tablet profile of Lieberman last May noted that he has surprisingly strong links throughout the Middle East and has promoted himself as the person to unite Israel and its Arab neighbors, and so while he is no longer foreign minister, the fact that there appear to be regional opportunities abounding as Lieberman returns to power is interesting.
On the domestic side, including Lieberman in the coalition will generally make Netanyahu’s Likud members happy, but it will infuriate the Haredi parties. They do not coexist well with Lieberman given the importance among his Russian constituency of breaking the Haredi monopoly of control over marriage and conversion, and it is bound to cause Netanyahu some serious unpleasantness.
This move also empowers Yair Lapid and Yesh Atid, who would have been the largest non-Likud vote getter in the next election anyway and who will now be the unquestionable de facto alternative to Netanyahu as the Labor infighting between Herzog and his adversaries destroys the party from within. This entire episode gives him a much larger megaphone, and he consequently may actually be able to present a serious electoral threat to Netanyahu the next time around.
Finally, and perhaps most seriously, I predicted in December that civil-military relations were going to be potentially explosive in 2016, and with the tension between the IDF and the government over a range of issues, that has sadly been a topic that I got right. Replacing Ya’alon – a former IDF chief of staff and staunch defender of the military, which is what has prompted the tension between him and Netanyahu during the last couple of months – with Lieberman, who had a relatively undistinguished stint in an IDF artillery unit and has been attacking the military leadership over its values, is not going to improve this situation, to say the least. Netanyahu has made his choice, and I am afraid that it will mean a rocky period ahead on a number of fronts.