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 Perfect and the Good

February 11, 2016 § 5 Comments

Labor leader Buji Herzog did something unusual this week for a man who leads Israel’s traditionally largest party on the left. He got the party of Yitzhak Rabin and Oslo, of Ehud Barak and Camp David, to temporarily throw in the towel on the peace process and negotiations, and to embrace unilateral separation from the Palestinians instead. Herzog’s plan calls for Israel to freeze all building outside the settlement blocs, retain the blocs, and complete the security fence in order to establish a provisional border; convert parts of Area C to Area B, thereby transferring administrative control to the Palestinian Authority; and separating Palestinian neighborhoods of East Jerusalem from the Jerusalem municipality. The plan is predicated on the principle that a two-state vision is currently impossible to implement under the framework of permanent status negotiations, and that the only path forward is to preserve the two-state vision while doing everything possible to separate from the Palestinians until the environment is more conducive to negotiations. As someone who wrote with Jordan Hirsch in Foreign Affairs in August 2014 that Israel should unilaterally pull out of the West Bank and kill the peace process in order to save the two-state solution, Herzog’s general approach here is one that I favor.

But the plan has many vocal critics who raise valid concerns. Within Labor itself, former Labor leader Shelley Yachimovich has come out against it and is likely to use opposition to the plan as a springboard to challenge Herzog for the party leadership. While Yachimovich is motivated as much by politics as anything else, other critics on the left have pointed to specific aspects of the plan that they contend will cut off Palestinians from the Old City of Jerusalem, or make it harder for the Palestinians to get the land swaps they want in return for Israel annexing the blocs, or doom the two-state solution by abandoning it and empowering the current government. What much of this boils down to is opposition to Herzog’s attempts at triangulation; ditching the formula of permanent status negotiations, which is the only way of arriving at a fair and equitable solution for all sides, in favor of a stopgap strategy that will make some things better and other things worse but certainly prioritize Israel’s interests at the Palestinians’ expense.

These arguments carry a lot of weight. Any temporary measure that ends up making the situation in Jerusalem worse or turns into a permanent land grab is ultimately not sustainable. Nevertheless, I think Herzog’s measure can theoretically be a good initial step if it is done right. In order to do it right, it will also have to incorporate three Ds – define, develop, and defend. Without these, its critics are correct that it will only establish facts on the ground without moving the two sides closer to a sustainable and permanent solution.

Any plan that effectively prioritizes the settlement blocs while freezing settlement activity outside of them can only work if the blocs are defined. Everyone throws the term “blocs” around as if they constitute an agreed-upon area, but it means different things to different people. The blocs that Israel will keep in any permanent status negotiation need to be identified definitively; for instance, including the Etzion bloc as part of Israel is an easy one, but Ariel juts much farther out into the West Bank, so does a settlement freeze outside the blocs include or exclude Ariel? Furthermore, once it is settled just which blocs we are talking about, the precise borders of each bloc need to be delineated so that they don’t keep on expanding and swallow up more of the land that will go to an eventual Palestinian state. Without defining the blocs, calling for a settlement freeze outside of them is an empty gesture.

Separating from the Palestinians without a plan to develop the West Bank is another necessary condition for the success of a unilateral strategy. Herzog hints at this through his recommendation to enlarge Area B at the expense of Area C, but it can’t simply be foisting more responsibility on the Palestinian Authority and then dusting off your hands. It must also include exponential expansion of the building permits granted to Palestinians in Area C – of which only one was granted in all of 2014 – while eliminating the absurd amounts of red tape that cause goods for Palestinian towns to languish in Israeli ports (such as pipes for the new reservoir that is supposed to supply Bethlehem with water). Without building up the West Bank economy and actually giving it a chance to flourish, separation will do nothing but create a boiling cauldron on the Palestinian side of the fence.

Finally and most crucially, for any unilateral separation to eventually result in a genuine two-state outcome, defense of Israel and security issues must be addressed. The reason that Bibi Netanyahu wins election after election is because, irrespective of anything else that goes on, he has his pulse on Israelis’ psyches and the genuine fear that has dominated Israeli life since the Second Intifada. Israelis are not willing to play games with security, and no Israeli government will ever be party to the creation of a Palestinian state unless and until Israelis feel assured that the West Bank will not present a permanent security threat. This means that if unilateral separation is supposed to move Israel toward two states while waiting for a more opportune moment to resume negotiations – and I don’t doubt that this is Herzog’s wish and intention – then there must be continued coordination with the PA security forces, a robust plan for how to secure the Jordan Valley, and a mechanism for correcting the currently wholly inadequate Palestinian police coverage in Areas A and B. Defending Israelis’ daily security and providing them with a sense of calm in the aftermath of any unilateral separation is the only way to build enough trust in laying the groundwork on the Israeli side for a negotiated solution in the future.

When thinking about two states, a common mistake is to conflate the peace process with the two-state solution. Tom Friedman committed this cardinal error just yesterday, writing that because the peace process is dead, the two-state solution dies with it. They aren’t the same thing. The peace process is the perfect ideal, while the two-state solution is a good result. Any viable plan has to take the politics of the moment into account, and the politics of the moment clearly dictate that pushing negotiations on two unwilling parties is an unmitigated disaster. One can take the Netanyahu approach, which is to sit on one’s hands and do nothing, or one can try to advance an alternative that is highly suboptimal but that beats the status quo. I would rather see the latter option be tried rather than continuing to sacrifice the good on the altar of the perfect.

Bibi’s Coalition Gamble

February 20, 2013 § 6 Comments

It has been almost a month since the Israeli election, and yesterday finally brought us the first move to form a coalition as Tzipi Livni’s Hatnua party agreed to join up with Bibi Netanyahu and Likud Beiteinu. I have been skeptical throughout the campaign and the election’s aftermath that Livni would come to an agreement with Netanyahu given her efforts to convince Ehud Olmert and even Shimon Peres to run; her failed maneuvering at uniting Hatnua, Labor, and Yesh Atid into an anti-Bibi bloc; her constant railing against Netanyahu as a danger and a failed prime minister; the fact that Hatnua includes former Labor leaders Amir Peretz and Amram Mitzna, neither of whom are exactly Netanyahu cheerleaders; and finally, her refusal to join with Bibi after the last election when her party – which was then Kadima – had the most seats in the Knesset and she would have been able to work out a deal in which she served as co-prime minister. Nevertheless, Livni has now reversed course and has accepted the positions of Justice Minister and chief negotiator with the Palestinians, and she will be reporting to Netanyahu rather than the eventual Foreign Minister in this latter gig.

Many people are now speculating on what this means for the peace process and whether Livni’s overseeing negotiations means that we can expect some real movement ahead. I don’t think this changes anything and I wouldn’t be taking any investment advice from people who think that Livni is going to pull Netanyahu along rather than the reverse, but the really interesting angle here is the political one. Bringing Livni into the coalition is not about Netanyahu signaling anything on the peace process, but about putting pressure on Naftali Bennett to join the government. The thinking on Netanyahu’s part goes as follows: he now has 37 seats lined up and getting Kadima and its 2 seats is a given, and he is on the verge of adding Shas (his real goal all along) and its 11 seats, which means that he can then turn to Bennett and Habayit Hayehudi and use their 12 seats to get past the magic number of 61. Netanyahu is gambling that once he adds Kadima and Shas, he will present Bennett with an ultimatum of joining the government or calling new elections, and that Bennett will not be able to withstand the pressure ensuing from calls for him to join a rightwing coalition and so he will crack. Essentially, Netanyahu is betting on Bennett’s alliance with Yair Lapid and Yesh Atid not being strong enough to buck the rightwing nationalist forces in HH who want to band together with Likud and the religious forces in HH who don’t see why serving in a government with Shas is the end of the world. Hence the immediate rumors that negotiations with Shas are proceeding and that it too will join the coalition imminently.

This plan of Bibi’s seems nicely formulated, but ultimately I don’t think it will work. More importantly, if Bennett is smart he will make sure that it doesn’t. The success of Bibi’s strategy turns on the idea that Bennett will do anything to avoid going to another round of elections, but much as I thought (correctly, as it turned out) that Netanyahu miscalculated in allying with Yisrael Beiteinu, I think he is miscalculating here as well. Netanyahu’s gamble is that new elections will cost Bennett seats and weaken his position, and that might have been true before yesterday, but bringing in Livni changes things in a big way. If I am a HH voter, I am not going to punish the party for not joining with its natural Likud partner by fleeing and and now voting for Likud since bringing Tzipi Livni on board to deal with peace process issues makes Likud untrustworthy. Looking at this map of election results and seeing where HH got votes makes this point abundantly clear; voters in Elon Moreh and Karnei Shomron are not now going to give up on Bennett and vote for Bibi given his most recent coalition choice.

In addition, many Likud voters are not going to be terribly happy now that Netanyahu has banded together with Livni, and I don’t see how doing so possibly increases his share of votes at all in a hypothetical new round of elections. If anything, it drives even more people away and into the arms of Bennett, and if you need some further proof, just look at Moshe Feiglin’s crack today that he hopes Likud will be in the coalition too. Furthermore, by trying to repeat history and bring Shas – his most pliable partners – into the coalition, Netanyahu is turning his back on the draft issue, which is one of the most popular issues in Israel today and which Lapid rode to his stunning success. Not only is Netanyahu potentially angering his base by bringing Livni in, he is angering many other voters who don’t understand why he insists on bringing Shas into the government despite the massive popular will for reforming the draft. Given what has transpired, if new elections were held today, I think that Likud would drop even further while Habayit Hayehudi and Yesh Atid would pick up some new mandates.

Netanyahu is behaving as if bringing first Livni and then Shas into the government gives him all the leverage he needs over Bennett to break up the YA-HH alliance, but I think he has things wrong. If he brings in Shas, he will then be unable to form a government without Lapid or Bennett (I am operating on the assumption that Labor is not joining at this point), and so in reality Bennett will be the one with the leverage over Netanyahu. Reports are that Bennett is feeling heat from within his party over his footdragging to run to Likud and his head-scratching unbreakable bond with Lapid, but by brining Livni into the government, Netanyahu actually did Bennett a favor. He now has a good excuse to sit tight, and once Netanyahu strikes a deal with Shas, he benefits further from sticking to his guns on the draft issue and staying out. If I were Bennett and Netanyahu presented me with the ultimatum to join the coalition with Shas or go to new elections, I would be printing up new campaign posters before even getting off the phone.

Welcome to Israeli Election Day

January 22, 2013 § 2 Comments

Finally, the day we’ve all been waiting for – Israelis go to the polls today to elect a new Knesset and a new government for the first time since 2009. Despite the fact that we don’t have any results yet, I thought I’d set out a list of things we know and things we don’t.

Things We Know:

Bibi Netanyahu and Likud Beiteinu are going to win the most seats in the Knesset and Likud will be the largest party. This is an easy one given the polls, since even with the Likud Beiteinu list losing about a seat a week for months now, no other party is going to come close to the 32-36 seats LB is likely to take. The irony of course is that Netanyahu created the joint list in order to create an unbeatable force, yet Likud might have done better on its own as banding together with Avigdor Lieberman and Yisrael Beiteinu likely cost Netanyahu seats for a host of reasons (and from the Department of Shameless Self Promotion, remember who told you months ago that this was a very bad idea on Bibi’s part). Despite the blunder, Labor is probably going to come in second with 15-18 seats, and Habayit Hayehudi and Yesh Atid are going to be battling for 3rd and 4th place. It is possible that the LB list will have twice as many seats as the next largest party despite its free fall in the polls, although this is a bit misleading since the two parties agreed to merge until only 30 days past the election, at which point they are free to revisit their agreement and separate. The most interesting little nugget about Likud being the largest party in the Knesset is that despite having served two terms as prime minister, this will be the first time that Netanyahu leads his party to a Knesset victory. When Netanyahu was elected in 1996, Israel was in the midst of its decade-long experiment of directly electing the prime minister, and so while Netanyahu beat Shimon Peres by 1% in the prime ministerial vote, Likud won 32 seats to Labor’s 34. In 2009, Likud came in second to Kadima, but after Tzipi Livni was unable to form a government, Netanyahu swooped in and cobbled together a governing coalition despite controlling the second largest party in the Knesset rather than the largest. By the end of today, Netanyahu will finally be able to say that he led his party to an electoral victory.

Things We Don’t Know

Everything else. And I mean that. Aside from Likud Beiteinu winning the most mandates, I cannot say with 100% certainty what else will happen. I am 99% sure that Netanyahu is going to be the next prime minister, but there are enough weird things going on to give me that minuscule 1% pause. To begin with, there are an unusually high number of undecided voters, and while they might break Bibi’s way, I don’t think that Bibi’s base is one that is marked by indecision, unless that indecision comprises whether to continue to vote for Netanyahu or to go with the trendier rightwing choice of Naftali Bennett and Habayit Hayehudi.

Furthermore, Netanyahu’s margins are going to be very tight, and this means there is an outside chance that he pulls a Livni and can’t pull off putting together a viable government. I am as confident as I can possibly be that HH is going to be in the coalition, but then the coalition math becomes very tricky. It involves bringing in a centrist party such as Yesh Atid, which will clash with HH and the more extremist Likud voices over peace process issues, or going with Shas and UTJ, who are toxic to HH over the draft and toxic to Yisrael Beiteinu over both the draft and the religious-secular divide. Then there is the possibility that Aryeh Deri’s return to Shas means it is no longer so reliably rightwing and will give Netanyahu a harder time when it comes to coalition bargaining.

To throw another monkey wrench into this, there are the rumblings from all sorts of quarters that the electorate has shifted in the past few days and that the leftwing and centrist parties are going to do better than their polling indicates. If voter turnout is high, it means that left and center parties are going to do better than expected, in which case there is even a possibility that Netanyahu is denied the first chance to form a government. Last month I brought up the possibility of a unity government, which started to look ridiculous in the interim but now I am not so sure that I was off-base. Then there are the rumors that were flying around last night that Ehud Barak is going to be defense minister and Tzipi Livni foreign minister, which I find to be completely far-fetched given the rancor toward Barak exhibited by all sorts of newly influential Likud members and the fact that Netanyahu would never give Livni any real power as foreign minister while Livni would never accept the position to be a mere figurehead. All of this is to say that while Bibi is almost definitely going to remain as prime minister, the possibility of a black swan would not be entirely out of the blue. As for what type of coalition he will put together assuming he remains prime minister, your guess is as good as mine. If I have to predict something, it’s that we will see a nationalist bent due to the inclusion of Habayit Hayehudi, that the haredi parties are going to be left out, and that Yesh Atid will be brought in. This will allow Bibi to keep his rightwingers happy on peace process and settlements, let Yesh Atid have its pet issue of reforming the draft, and not have to worry about the secular-religious divide issue bringing down the government. I can also see Labor being brought into this mix if Netanyahu wants to have the coalition be as big as possible or if the numbers are such that he needs another party but wants to avoid bringing in Shas. Whatever happens, the next few weeks promise to be an entertaining ride.

Following Up On E1 And A Unity Government

January 4, 2013 § 2 Comments

There are a couple of news items today related to two predictions I made last month – that Israel is not actually going to build in E1 and that there is a decent likelihood of a Likud-Labor unity government after the elections in a couple of weeks – so I figured I’d take the opportunity to revisit the topics and see where things currently stand.

In the E1 department, Netanyahu has delayed the plans for building despite the Defense Ministry approving the blueprints and the Civil Administration approving the plans. Predictably, this has raised rightwing ire as there is no word as to when the prime minister’s office is going to file the plans with the zoning committee or what is causing the delay. As you may recall, I argued that this is precisely what was going to happen:

The reason for this is that building homes in E1 has been a longstanding red line for both the United States and the European Union, and that line won’t dissipate just because the Palestinian Authority decided to defy Israeli and American wishes against pursuing a statehood claim at the U.N. The U.S. response to the E1 announcement was unambiguous, labeling it counterproductive and a threat to the two-state solution, and pointing out that settlement building in E1 makes direct negotiations harder, which is a not-so-subtle reminder that this is the exact charge Israel has leveled at the Palestinians over the U.N. strategy…

The U.N. vote came as a surprise to Jerusalem, and Netanyahu knows that actually sending construction crews and cement mixers into E1 will worsen Israel’s image problem. I also imagine that there have been some extremely unpleasant conversations with White House and State Department officials this past weekend given that the E1 announcement came on the heels of unwavering American support over Gaza and at the U.N. As dedicated as Netanyahu has been to the settlement project, even he must now realize that building Mevaseret Adumim is a bridge too far…

Following the embarrassingly lopsided U.N. vote and the criticism from his right that he did not go far enough during Operation Pillar of Cloud, Netanyahu needed to make a big gesture before the January 22 election to demonstrate that he is committed to settlements and that he will not take the PA’s new statehood status in stride. E1 is an enormous deal to the settler wing of Likud, and declaring a new planning and zoning stage is red meat to Israeli right-wing partisans in a variety of camps, whether they be pro-settlements or have a religious or nationalist attachment to an eternal undivided Jerusalem.

The fact that this—just like the Levy Report—is an announcement that will never be acted upon does not negate the fact that it is good politics for Netanyahu. He is going to perform a delicate balancing act, in which he doubles down on settlementsfor a domestic audience while assuring the U.S. and the EU that E1 will remain a barren tract of land.

What has changed since I wrote this is that Naftali Bennett’s Habayit Hayehudi party has skyrocketed in the polls while Likud-Beiteinu has plummeted. The latest poll of polls has LB at 34 Knesset seats and HH at 14.5, which is the continuation of the trend of HH gaining about one seat a week and LB losing about one seat a week in opinion polling. When Netanyahu decided to create the joint Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu list, the idea was to co-opt Lieberman from taking away votes on his right, but he did not foresee another rightwing party posing a serious challenge and siphoning away votes from the LB creation. Now he is dealing with a serious HH presence in the next Knesset, which might be enough of a scare to change his E1 decision. Despite this, I am holding to my original prediction, because while Likud-Beiteinu is going to be a lot weaker electorally than Netanyahu originally envisioned, it does not change the fact that E1 is still a much bigger deal for the U.S. and Europe than almost any other settlement in the West Bank. What I think we are likely to see is Netanyahu keep E1 on the back burner while fast tracking building in East Jerusalem neighborhoods such as Gilo and Har Homa, which will mollify rightwingers somewhat without risking an enormous clash with Western states.

On the unity government front, Labor leader Shelley Yachimovich yesterday indicated that she will not join a Likud government which at first glance seems to blow up my previous analysis. A few point to keep in mind, however, before deciding that Labor is definitively going to be in the opposition. First, Israeli opposition politicians are notorious for blasting the prime minister and making claims about never joining the government right before doing exactly that. For a recent example, go back and look at what Shaul Mofaz was saying about Netanyahu and Likud last spring literally just days before agreeing to form a unity government with Likud. Whatever Yachimovich says know in the heat of an election campaign should be taken with a grain of salt.

Second, in parsing what Yachimovich said, contrary to the reporting and the headlines she actually did not definitely rule out anything and gave herself lots of wiggle room. She said that she wants to be prime minister but that she will lead the opposition if she’s not, and explicitly made clear that she had decided not to join the coalition because of recent radical positions taken by Likud and because of Netanyahu’s embrace of Avigdor Lieberman. According to her, under the current circumstances she cannot work with Likud because “this is not the Likud we all know.” This formulation is expressly designed so that it can be walked back if needed. After the election, with Lieberman’s status uncertain and the electioneering over, Yachimovich can easily say that she has spoken with Netanyahu and that they have agreed on a set of broad principles, coupled with a statement or two from Netanyahu reaffirming his commitment to a two-state solution and finding a solution to the problem of social inequality. Framing her opposition to joining a Likud-led coalition in the terms that she has is not a categorical denial that she will ever agree to form a unity government, but rather a very temporary hurdle that she can dismantle anytime she wants. All that needs to be done is to declare that Likud is actually more reasonable than she originally thought and that she is joining the coalition because it is in the best interests of the country. A General Sherman type blanket denial this was not. Does this mean that a unity government is guaranteed to happen? Of course not, since the fact still remains that Likud and Labor have many sharp disagreements and the coalition politics might be tricky. All I’m saying is that yesterday’s statement does not rule out the possibility.

Domestic Politics Vs. International Politics In The Israeli Election

December 26, 2012 § 7 Comments

As regular O&Z readers know, if this blog has any sort of running theme it is that domestic politics is often decisive in determining foreign policy. When I wrote last week for The Atlantic about the rightwing political competition that is driving settlement activity, a close friend emailed, “So you’re saying it is local politics at work…#ImagineMySurprise.” I have pointed to domestic politics to argue that Israel and Turkey won’t be normalizing relations any time soon (and I’ll try and write about the recent NATO news tomorrow, but no, I don’t think it signals that anything is going to imminently change) and to predict that there was not going to be an Israeli strike on Iran last spring, summer, or fall. Does this mean that domestic politics is always decisive in every situation? Of course not. There are plenty of times in which other considerations are at work; the months-long push on the Turkish government’s to get NATO to intervene in Syria is one such instance. Nevertheless, I maintain that a lack of focus on domestic politics and the constraints it imposes leads to lots of shoddy analysis from both professionals and casual observers.

Over the next few months, Israel is going to be a great petri dish for watching these trends at work. On the one hand, influential and respected defense and security experts like Amos Yadlin are warning that Israel is losing its international support and status because of its footdragging on the peace process, Tzipi Livni has founded a new party devoted solely to reviving talks with the Palestinians, and there is chatter that the EU is losing so much patience that it is going to try and force Israel and the Palestinians into a deal. Last week the State Department issued a harsher than usual condemnation of Israeli settlement activity, as did the fourteen non-U.S. members of the Security Council. By any measure, Israel’s settlement policy and reticence on the creation of a Palestinian state is become increasingly costly. Looking at it from a black box perspective, you have a state living in a hostile neighborhood with an enormous qualitative military edge over its neighbors that is facing a dangerous potential dip in support from its main external allies and is facing increasing international isolation over the Palestinian statehood issue, which does not present an existential security threat by any means. The state is facing what it believes is an existential threat from Iran, and on that front it needs all the help it can get from its main allies. Given everything involved, you’d expect Israel in this situation to take moves to forestall its isolation and shore up its relationship with the U.S. and EU – which are its primary providers of military and economic aid and diplomatic support across the board – by making some serious concessions on the Palestinian front. After all, even if settlements in the West Bank are viewed as a security buffer, keeping them from a security perspective given Palestinian military capabilities pales in comparison to risking the cessation of purchases of military hardware and transfers of military technology, and enabling the risk of complete diplomatic isolation.

Given all of this, one might expect to see an Israeli coalition after the election that includes Livni’s Hatnua party and that undertakes serious initiatives on the Palestinian statehood and peace process fronts. Such a coalition would under no circumstances include Naftali Bennett and Habayit Hayehudi, as Bennett wants to annex Area C and does not support the creation of a Palestinian state. Indeed, there have been moves in that direction as far as keeping Bennett out is concerned, and there have also been reports that Netanyahu and Livni are exploring the possibility of Hatnua joining the coalition after the election, which would almost necessarily mean her return to the Foreign Ministry and a greater push for a negotiated settlement with the Palestinians.

On the other hand, taking domestic politics into account would point to a different path. As I wrote last week, the idea behind the joint Likud-Beiteinu list was to create a right-wing monolith that would put an electoral victory out of reach for Israel’s left and to also present rightwing voters without a real alternative. Netanyahu wanted to eliminate any challenges from his right flank by co-opting Lieberman, but it now turns out that he has to deal with Bennett on his right and a swift migration of voters (so far, at least) away from Likud and to Habayit Hayehudi. It is also the case that Israeli voters do not care about the Palestinians or the peace process, which is why Hatnua is stuck in single digits, Labor and Shelley Yachimovich barely mention anything other than social issues and the economy unless absolutely forced to, and Bennett is gaining a larger following based partly on a perception that Netanyahu is actually not hawkish enough. Taking all of this into account means a coalition that includes Bennett, continues to take a hardline on a Palestinian state, and bemoans the lack of support from European states rather than constructing a policy meant to change that reality.

So which will it be? Unsurprisingly, my money is on the second option, but the first one is certainly plausible. It really just depends on how much weight you place on the domestic political calculus. Netanyahu’s history is that he pays attention to his domestic political survival above all else, and I see no evidence that he has suddenly become a changed man. To my mind, Israel’s long term health necessitates the first path, while Netanyahu’s lies with the second. Let’s hope that events in 2013 prove me wrong.

Israel’s Next Unity Government

December 18, 2012 § 8 Comments

In the time leading up to an Israeli election, one always gets the impression that Israel’s political system is the most fractured on Earth. Outrageous charges are hurled back and forth, and this year Kadima took things to a new level by adopting an anti-Bibi slogan superimposed on a picture of a nuclear mushroom cloud as its campaign poster. Nevertheless, as Israeli parties and politicians all jockey and maneuver before the January 22 election, it seems to me that if the poll numbers remain relatively stable, there is a good chance that Israel is headed toward a unity government comprised of Likud and Labor. While nobody will come right out and admit that while campaigning, the inter-party dynamics, Bibi Netanyahu’s past preferences, and Labor leader Shelley Yachimovich’s interview over the weekend are all pointing in that direction.

The latest polling – and the first to be released after Avigdor Lieberman’s resignation as foreign minister – confirms the trend that has been taking place for weeks, which is that the Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu joint list is polling in the mid to upper 30s range for Knesset seats and is likely to garner fewer seats than the two currently have now (and don’t forget where you first heard that this arrangement was going to backfire). In addition, the Habayit Hayehudi list under Naftali Bennett is holding steady at 11 seats, and is Netanyahu’s natural coalition partner given its rightwing stance. While there are rumors that Netanyahu would rather not deal with Bennett, he cannot afford to have Bennett constantly sniping at him from his right flank, particularly given how rightwing voters appear to be leaving Likud and flocking to Habayit Hayehudi. Including Bennett gets Netanyahu to just under 50 coalition seats, leaving him 10-12 short depending on how things precisely shake out. In the past, Netanyahu has turned to Shas and UTJ to fill this gap, and indeed together they are currently at 16 seats, which would get Netanyahu past the magic number of 60 seats and allow him to continue as prime minister. The problem is that Yisrael Beiteinu has been adamant about not wanting Haredi parties in the coalition, and Bennett last week demanded that Netanyahu take away the Interior and Housing ministries from Shas as part of his general argument that Haredi parties should be kept out of the next coalition. Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party might not get enough seats to fill the gap, and even if it does, it will still leave Netanyahu with a very narrow margin and no wiggle room. Tzipi Livni’s Hatnua party is probably out too, as Livni and Netanyahu do not like each other and Livni has turned down multiple opportunities to join with Netanyahu in the past. As demonstrated by his move to form a unity government with Kadima last spring, Netanyahu clearly likes to keep as many options open to him as possible, and his current narrow one has been a disaster, with infighting over the Tal Law and Haredi military service being a particular problem. This means constructing a coalition with as many seats as possible and without a big issue that will prove enormously divisive and impossible to overcome.

Enter Labor, which is second in the polls behind Likud Beiteinu, and Yachimovich, who has repeatedly declined to rule out joining a Likud-led coalition and who has insisted that Labor is not a leftwing party but a centrist party. Yachimovich wants to  join the next coalition because she has never served as a minister and is relatively inexperienced and untested. Serving in the government will provide her with some more gravitas and do away with the impression that she isn’t quite ready for prime time, and lay the foundation for a future chance at expanding Labor’s seats and competing to be prime minister. In this vein, yesterday she gave an interview in which she said that the budget for settlements should remain untouched in the absence of a peace agreement with the Palestinians and stressed Labor’s history of building settlements when in government and that Labor has always had a hawkish element, including Yitzhak Rabin. This drew immediate responses from Lapid and Meretz chief Zahava Gal-On, but Yachimovich does not appear to be worried about Gal-On or other leftist parties damaging her credibility. Instead, she is clearly appealing to the fact that Israel’s electorate is far more hawkish on the Palestinians and the West Bank than in the past, and is laying the groundwork to be able to join a Likud-led coalition in which support for settlements is going to be a must. It is not accidental that Yachimovich broke her laser-like focus on economic and social issues to talk about settlements rather than Iran, the peace process, Gaza, etc. If there is one issue that will make it possible for Netanyahu to invite Labor into the coalition without risking a rightwing revolt it is support for the settlement budget, and Yachimovich’s interview was an attempt to forestall any criticism that might emerge on this front. While there will invariably be differences in opinion between her and Netanyahu on socioeconomic issues and on the peace process, there is now no daylight on the question of support for settlements. While I am loath to predict anything with certainly when it comes to coalition politics – particularly as I have been burned in the past – the signs as I read them point to a Likud-Labor unity government once the dust settles after the election.

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