Bibi’s Trump Dilemma

November 18, 2016 § 1 Comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trump and the Virtues of Israeli Caution

November 17, 2016 § 2 Comments

The Israeli right has embraced Donald Trump’s election as if the country has been granted a new lease on life. Naftali Bennett has declared the end of the era of the Palestinian state and shared his view that Trump’s election is an opportunity to restructure the entire region. Ofir Akunis has called for a new round of settlement construction. Yoav Kish has said that it is time to stop talking about two states. In general, there is a mood of exhilaration on the right driven by a sense that come January 20, President Trump will give Israel leeway to anything it pleases.

For a government that has been frustrated by President Obama for eight years, it is easy to understand the temptation to throw caution to the wind and move full steam ahead on settlement building and creating a new paradigm vis-à-vis the Palestinians. If yesterday’s preliminary approval of the bill legalizing settlements built on private Palestinian land is an indication of what’s to come, Israel is about to embark on a path that eliminates any ambiguity about its intentions. The government of Israel has every right to do what it pleases, of course. But doing so would be an enormous mistake. Taking a myopic approach and racking up as many short term wins as possible before the winds shift will only harm Israel in the long term, and would be a continuation of allowing tactics to win out over strategy.

For starters, assuming that Trump does indeed give Israel an unencumbered hand to deal with the West Bank and the Palestinians (more on this assumption in a moment), the United States is not the only relevant actor in this drama. Israel has spent years fending off sanctions from Europe over settlement activity, and the labeling controversy of earlier this year will seem like child’s play compared to what will come if Israel does indeed annex part of the West Bank. Israel has touted its improving ties with Sunni Arab states, but as tenuous as these relationships already are, they will disappear completely if Israel is viewed as destroying any chances of Palestinian sovereignty once and for all. Russia, which has enormous leverage over Israel at the moment given its role in Syria and its willingness to look the other way when Israel targets Hizballah weapons shipments, is also unlikely to respond well to Israel formally ending a two-state policy. In short, while any American administration will always be Israel’s top concern, it is never the only one.

And even if it were, the fact is that nobody – neither in Israel nor here – actually has any concrete idea what a Trump administration’s Israel policy will be. The panoply of conflicting signals and statements from Trump and his advisers on topics such as the wisdom of pursuing an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal, whether the American embassy will be moved to Jerusalem, or if Israel is at fault for the current impasse or if it is only the Palestinians, means that predictions about what Trump will support or tolerate are speculative at best. While I’d say that he will take more rightwing positions on Israel were I forced to bet, I also think it is safe to say that he does not have deeply held ideological beliefs on the subject. If, for instance, Trump wants to get Sunni buy-in on a Syria policy that effectively strengthens Iran and the price in return is cracking down on Israeli building over the Green Line (an unlikely but not impossible scenario), is anyone confident that he won’t sacrifice his Israel policy for a more pressing regional priority? If Israel commits itself to a policy in the West Bank that is even more encouraging of building anywhere and everywhere – or moves toward outright annexation – on the assumption that Trump will not pose an obstacle, it may find itself in a deep hole with no way out. Avigdor Lieberman seems to recognize the potential danger, urging his government to strike a deal with Trump that allows building inside the blocs while freezing it everywhere else rather than build everywhere with abandon, but there is no indication that any other coalition members have the same presence of mind.

Just as there is no way of knowing what comes with Trump, there is no way of knowing what comes after Trump. Given the radical departure that President Obama represented from the Bush era, and the radical departure that President-elect Trump represents from the Obama era, and the seemingly permanent hunger of the American electorate for change from whatever currently reigns in Washington, it is reasonable to assume that the 46th president will have very different views from the 45th. If Israel builds so much in the West Bank over the next four – or possibly eight – years to destroy any possibility of a contiguous Palestinian state, it might find itself under fire from the next president from day one. Shutting off the possibility of changing course when there is a new administration is foolhardy.

Then there’s the inconvenient fact that the majority of American Jews are rigidly opposed to Trump, and it creates an awkward situation if the Israeli government treats Trump as its long-awaited savior when most American Jews view him with extreme distaste. This is not to say that Israel should exhibit any disdain for Trump; it must have the best relationship with any U.S. president that it can. But there is a difference between staying on Trump’s good side and anointing him as the second coming of Cyrus the Great. If Israel cares a lick about the opinions of the 76% of American Jews who did not vote for Trump and views American Jews as an important national security asset for Israel, it will not embrace Trump in a bear hug.

Were I the Israeli prime minister, I would use Trump’s ascent to the presidency as an opportunity to reset the foundation of the relationship with my most important and only irreplaceable ally. The Netanyahu government should make the most out of the fact that there will certainly be less public conflict and disagreement with Trump than there has been with Obama to reinforce how valuable Israel is as an intelligence and military partner, and to reinforce to American Jews that the U.S.-Israel alliance rests on democratic values and ideological affinity above all else. Seizing on Trump’s willingness to look the other way on settlements and thus plowing ahead with a narrow domestic political agenda will be squandering a larger space to think strategically about Israel’s geostrategic position, and will inevitably lead to negative consequences down the road.

Nobody should be naïve about what is likely to happen next. Talking about two states, the peace process, and a resumption of negotiations as remotely imminent given the two governments about to be in place borders on delusion. It is also important to note that this is not solely a Trump-related phenomenon; measures such as the Amona-related settlement legalization bill, despite the Washington Post’s strange framing of it as being spurred directly by the election, have been in the works for months. This does not mean giving up making the case again and again for why two states are necessary, but expectations have to be properly calibrated. Nevertheless, the Israeli government should think long and hard before taking the plunge toward using a Trump presidency to kill two states for good. Things that seem too good to be true almost always are.

The American Election and Israeli Coalition Politics

October 27, 2016 § Leave a comment

After what many viewed as Prime Minister Netanyahu’s boosterism on behalf of Mitt Romney in 2012 and his meetings in New York last month with Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, there has been inevitable chatter about how Israeli politics is impacting the U.S. presidential election. For what it’s worth, I thought in 2012 that Netanyahu largely got an unfair bad rap over allegations that he was trying to influence the campaign, and I give him credit this time around for having clean hands. By all accounts, Netanyahu gave zero encouragement to Trump when he was making noise about taking a campaign trip to Israel last spring, made no independent effort to meet with the candidates while in the U.S., and made sure to reach out to Clinton to schedule a meeting only after Trump asked for one first. While there is plenty of speculation about the Israeli government’s preferences and how those preferences will impact the election, the more interesting angle goes the other way. The U.S. election has the potential to wreak havoc on Israeli politics, and it is forcing Netanyahu to make some potentially momentous choices with regard to his own political positioning.

The past couple of months have not been kind to Netanyahu and Likud insofar as the polls go. In early September, public opinion surveys showed Yesh Atid pulling ahead of Likud were elections to be held, with Yesh Atid more than doubling its current seats and Likud’s share cut by 25%. Another poll in late September confirmed this trend holding, with Yesh Atid ahead of Likud by four seats despite more respondents preferring Netanyahu to Yair Lapid as prime minister. While the numbers dictate trouble ahead for Netanyahu and Likud politically absent some sort of course correction, there is one important way in which the polling acts to Netanyahu’s political benefit. Israeli government coalitions are notoriously unstable – Netanyahu’s most recent government lasted just over two years, and there have been nine governments in the twenty one years since Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination – and it oftentimes takes little to bring a government down. Coalition partners are able to hold the prime minister hostage by insisting on an array of demands and threatening – explicitly or implicitly – to bring down the government and force new elections if they aren’t met. Conversely, when the polls show the leading party benefitting from new elections, the prime minister will often force a crisis, such as when Netanyahu fired Yair Lapid and Tzipi Livni in December 2014 in order to try and pick up more seats and bring the Haredi parties into the government.

The current government is in many ways one that should be particularly susceptible to hostage taking behavior by Likud’s coalition partners. The coalition is 66 MKs – and was only 61 MKs until Avigdor Lieberman brought Yisrael Beiteinu into the government in May – and it can be unilaterally brought down by four out of its five coalition partners, since a defection by any of the four would put the coalition under a majority of 61 Knesset seats. It is filled with party leaders, such as Naftali Bennett and Lieberman, who harbor ambitions to replace Netanyahu, have extremely checkered pasts with him, and are also widely reputed to loathe him personally. It contains parties with wildly different priorities, from Habayit Hayehudi and its focus on its settler and rightwing nationalist constituency to Shas and United Torah Judaism and their championing of ultra-Orthodox welfare and religious priorities. It has been plagued with fights surrounding the budget. In short, few people thought this government would last particularly long.

The recent polls change that calculus, because the prospects of Yesh Atid winning and forming the next government mean that Habayit Hayehudi and the Haredi parties would be doomed to irrelevance. Despite Lapid and Bennett’s unlikely partnership of strange bedfellows in the previous government, it is difficult to foresee a coalition led by Lapid in which their two parties coexist. The Haredi parties are also terrified of Lapid, despite his recent efforts to take a softer rhetorical line on their pet issues, since he represents the secular elite with whom they clash and his late father, Tommy Lapid, was Israel’s most ardent and outspoken secular leader and Haredi opponent. In addition, Moshe Kahlon and his Kulanu party would nearly disappear if new elections were held today, and Kahlon’s future political career is dependent on his banking some tangible policy victories as finance minister. In short, Netanyahu’s partners can no longer afford to make idle threats of bringing the government down, which makes Netanyahu’s coalition far more stable in inverse proportion to how strong Likud is polling.

Which brings us to the wrinkle, which is our presidential election here at home. Currently, Netanyahu’s biggest fear is that President Obama will do something on his way out the door related to the peace process and/or settlements, ranging from what Netanyahu views as disastrous (a binding UN Security Council resolution) to enormously inconvenient (a speech laying out Obama’s views on parameters for future two-state negotiations). Netanyahu and Israeli officials have been furiously lobbying everyone from the president on down not to make any moves on this front, and they have been counting on the uncertainty of the election outcome to forestall any surprises, since Obama will not want to do anything that may drive Jewish voters in Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and other swing states toward Trump. After the election though, all bets are off, and this is particularly so in the unlikely but still possible case that Trump wins, since then Obama will have no concerns about saddling his successor with a policy on Israel that may not be to his liking. Even if Clinton wins as expected, the unusually harsh American response to the Israeli government’s plan to build a new neighborhood in Shilo for the relocated Amona settlers makes Netanyahu and his coalition partners fear that there is an American sword of Damocles waiting to drop.

In Netanyahu’s calculations, the one possibly foolproof thing he can do to head this all off at the pass is to bring Yitzhak Herzog and his Zionist Union party into the government and make Herzog foreign minister, which explains the dalliance with Herzog a few months ago and the constant reports that he and Herzog are once again cooking up plans for a unity government. Netanyahu thinks that bringing in Herzog and giving him the diplomatic portfolio will signal to the world that he is genuine in his desire to see a two-state solution, and that it will prevent a post-election move from Obama while starting him off on the right foot with Clinton should she win. It will also not bring down his government if Herzog can bring enough Zionist Union MKs with him to replace the eight from Habayit Hayehudi who will leave should Zionist Union join, and while it leaves Netanyahu with a suboptimal coalition from a policy standpoint and creates future political problems for him, it gives him diplomatic breathing room.

I am skeptical that Netanyahu’s fears are well-placed since I think the likelihood is greater than not that Obama does nothing earth shattering on the Israeli-Palestinian front before he leaves the White House, but there is also little question that Netanyahu’s calculus on this is presenting him with a political choice and that he is weighing his options. So the intersection of American politics and Israeli politics are indeed important for the next few months, but the impact will be far more heavily felt in Israel than here.

A Primer on Building Beyond the Green Line

July 7, 2016 § 2 Comments

Israel announced its plans this week for new construction in a number of different places in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and the variety of locations provides a great primer for why I think that not all settlements should be treated equally. Whenever Israel announces that it is constructing new units across the Green Line, it is instinctively condemned, but this is not always the most productive approach. There is no question that settlements are a large problem that cannot and should not be brushed aside as if they are ancillary to the difficulty in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. There is also no question that the problem that the settlements present has grown exponentially as a direct result of purposeful Israeli policy to move as many Jews into the West Bank as possible. I do not give the Israeli government a free pass on this issue nor do I justify the activity after the fact, and look no further for why the Palestinians are so rightly distrustful of Israel constantly seeking to establish facts on the ground. Nevertheless, while I wish that we were not at this point, it does not change the fact that some settlements are a lot worse than others. Looking at the most recent announcements demonstrates precisely why.

Following the horrific terrorist attacks last week in Kiryat Arba and Route 60, Prime Minister Netanyahu and Defense Minister Lieberman approved a tender for 42 new homes in Kiryat Arba, intended partly to signal that terrorism against Israelis in the West Bank will never drive them out. Netanyahu and Lieberman also approved plans for 560 new units in Ma’ale Adumim, and 140 and 100 new units in the East Jerusalem neighborhoods of Ramot and Har Homa respectively. Finally, they approved 600 new homes for Palestinians in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Beit Safafa. None of these announcements are helpful in that they all complicate matters to one degree or another, but the question to be asked is to what extent they make arriving at a permanent status agreement more difficult. These announcements taken as a group represent four distinct types of areas, all of which should be treated differently: settlements that will have to be evacuated in a final deal, settlements that will be annexed to Israel, neighborhoods of East Jerusalem that will remain under Israeli sovereignty, and neighborhoods of East Jerusalem that have the potential to be the decisive nail in the coffin of the two-state solution.

Kiryat Arba is an example of the first category. It sits right next to Hebron and was one of the first settlements that was built after the Six Day War, and has historical and emotional resonance given the millennia-old Jewish connection to Hebron, considered to be the second holiest city in Judaism after Jerusalem. It is also a settlement that will unquestionably have to be evacuated when the time comes. Hebron is the largest city in the West Bank and Kiryat Arba is located far into what will be the future state of Palestine. It was not part of the Jewish state envisioned in the 1947 partition plan, it is outside the current security barrier, and was not included in the areas to be annexed by Israel under its own proposals at Camp David in 2000, at Taba in 2001, or at Annapolis in 2008. The Israeli government could approve one thousand new units there tomorrow and all it would do is complicate the eventual evacuation of Kiryat Arba. This type of housing approval is completely unproductive and unnecessarily provocative, but it thankfully does nothing to change the facts on the ground by making a two-state solution more difficult to negotiate.

Ma’ale Adumim is an example of the second category, although it is more problematic than some of the other settlements that share this distinction. It anchors one of the five settlement blocs, is the third largest settlement in the West Bank and one of only four Jewish cities across the Green Line, and it is inside the planned route for the security barrier. The vast majority of Israelis consider it to be completely non-controversial and part of Israel, and it has been included in the territory that Israel would like to annex during each negotiation with the Palestinians, including in the 2003 Geneva Initiative. If one takes the position, as I do, that settlement construction inside the blocs should be treated differently than construction outside the blocs, then more housing in Ma’ale Adumim should essentially be ignored. What makes Ma’ale Adumim a little different is that because it is significantly east of Jerusalem, its continued growth poses problems for Palestinian contiguity in the West Bank and – depending on which way it expands – Palestinian access to Jerusalem. But assuming that the new construction does not move north or west, the new units in Ma’ale Adumim are ultimately going to be part of Israel under a permanent status agreement.

Ramot is one of the ring neighborhoods attached to West Jerusalem to the north, and there is an even smaller likelihood than there is with Ma’ale Adumim that it does not remain part of Israel under an eventual peace deal. Far more complicated is Har Homa, which was approved by Netanyahu in 1997 during his first term as prime minister, and is one of only two Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem to be built post-Oslo. What makes Har Homa so controversial is that it is one of two pieces in the jigsaw puzzle cutting off Bethlehem from Jerusalem, and it seriously damages Palestinian continuity in the area south of Jerusalem. Despite being inside the security barrier and the municipal boundary of Jerusalem, it is obvious in glancing at a map why Har Homa makes a final resolution far more difficult, and the fact that its boundary has now outgrown the territory that Israel proposed to annex at Camp David and that it was not included by the Geneva Initiative in Israeli territory illustrates this point further. Its population is now over 25,000 and when push comes to shove it is likely to be part of Israel under a permanent status agreement, but it is one of the best examples there is of how Israel establishes facts on the ground that are specifically intended to make an agreement harder to reach, in this case by strategically expanding what is considered to be part of Jerusalem and cutting off Palestinian access from the southern West Bank.

This leaves the second part of the jigsaw puzzle between Bethlehem and Jerusalem, which is Beit Safafa and Givat Hamatos. The former is an Arab neighborhood, the latter a planned Jewish neighborhood and one of two absolute red lines for the U.S. when it comes to Israeli construction (the other being E-1, across from Ma’ale Adumim) since it would cut off the last remaining corridor between Bethlehem and Jerusalem and make dividing Jerusalem in any permanent status agreement exponentially more difficult. The importance of Givat Hamatos to opponents of two states is evident in the reactions to the approval for Palestinian construction in Beit Safafa, with Zeev Elkin slamming the construction announcement since it does not also include Jewish housing in Givat Hamatos and Naftali Bennett calling it a “Palestinian arrow in the heart of Jerusalem” and a de facto division of the city. The government didn’t have much choice in the matter as the Jerusalem District Court in May ordered the construction of housing in Beit Safafa to move forward since it had already been planned and approved, but the fact that it instantly created pressure on Netanyahu from his right is dangerous. There is no more precarious area beyond the Green Line than Givat Hamatos, and should the neighborhood ever be built, it is hard to see a worse obstacle for the two-state solution.

The policy of the United States is to criticize any building by Israel over the Green Line, and this week’s announcement prompted the expected deep concern from the State Department. Were I the president, however, knowing that Israeli politics and public opinion are where they are and understanding that some construction is nearly innocuous while other construction is deeply deleterious, I would criticize the new units in Kiryat Arba, keep my mouth shut about Ramot and Ma’ale Adumim, project concern over Har Homa with a call not to expound the boundaries of the neighborhood in any way, and make it clear that any moves in Givat Hamatos will be treated as the equivalent of a nuclear option. Yes, this is much more complicated than just criticizing any and all new building, but it would be a policy designed to prevent Israel from doing harm in places where it really matters and get to a two-state solution that both sides will be able to live with.

Your Handy Guide To Netanyahu’s Coalitional Maneuvering

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.

The Slow Self-Immolation Of A Political Party

April 14, 2016 § 1 Comment

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

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

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

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

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

What To Watch For In Israel In 2016

December 23, 2015 § Leave a comment

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

Civil-military relations

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

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

Political scandals

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

Orthodox vs. Orthodox

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

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

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

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