Rightwing Competition And Settlements

December 20, 2012 § Leave a comment

I wrote a piece for the Atlantic yesterday about how Israel’s recent announcements on settlements in the West Bank and building in East Jerusalem is widely viewed as an effort to punish the Palestinians in the wake of their statehood bid at the UN, but that’s not the only thing driving Israeli policy. The sudden emergence of serious competitors on Bibi Netanyahu’s right flank accounts for much of what is going on as well. Here’s a teaser:

Over the past few weeks, the Israeli government has been on a building spree. First came word that planning and zoning would begin for E1, a controversial move that would further encircle East Jerusalem with settlements — cutting off from the West Bank the part of the city Palestinians demand to be the capital of their future state. As part of the same announcement, Israel said that it was going to build more housing in other parts of the West Bank as well.

This week, the government approved 1500 new housing units in the Ramat Shlomo neighborhood in East Jerusalem — the same housing units whose initial announcement in 2010 during Vice President Biden’s visit to Israel caused a temporary rift between the United States and Israel and Hilary Clinton’s chewing-out of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. The Interior Ministry and the Jerusalem Local Committee are also expected to approve plans to build in Givat Hamatos and Gilo this week, both of which are new Jerusalem neighborhoods that are also across the 1967 armistice line that divides East and West Jerusalem.

This is all taking place despite enormous pressure and condemnation from Western countries, who are not happy with the escalation of Israeli plans to expand settlements or to build up Jerusalem neighborhoods that challenge the viability of a future Palestinian state. Britain, France, Germany, and Portugal are about to formally condemn Israel over its East Jerusalem building plans, and the 14 non-American members of the United Nations Security Council are going to do the same. Even the United States seems to have lost its usual patience with the Israeli government, deeming the new building announcements part of a “pattern of provocative action” that endangers the peace process and the two-state solution. Israel seems hell-bent on isolating itself over the settlement issue, and appears determined to move ahead with plans for both the West Bank and East Jerusalem no matter the cost.

It is easy to chalk this up to Israel’s fury with the Palestinian Authority’s statehood bid at the United Nations, as the E1 announcement came the day after the vote, amidst stated determination on Israel’s part to punish the Palestinians for pursuing unilateral moves outside of the Oslo framework. “We felt if the Palestinians were taking unilateral action in the UN, we had to also send the message that we could take unilateral actions,” Israeli ambassador to the US Michael Oren said this week, making the connection explicit.

Yet, this does not account for the scope of the recent Israeli announcements, or for the seeming recklessness of drawing real anger and censure from Israel’s Western allies immediately following American and EU support during Operation Pillar of Cloud in Gaza. There is indeed something else going on here, and it has nothing to do with the Palestinians and everything to do with the political jockeying taking place on the right of Israel’s political spectrum before Israelis go to the polls on January 22 to elect their next government.

To read the article in its entirety, please click over to the Atlantic’s website.


The National Security Impact Of The Likud Primary

November 27, 2012 § 3 Comments

On Sunday and Monday, Likud party members got to vote in the Likud primary and choose the list that will stand for Knesset elections in January, and what emerged was the most rightwing Likud in the party’s history. The Likud list is a catalogue of the most strident and hardline voices in the party, with Danny Danon in the 6th spot, Zeev Elkin in 9th, Yariv Levin in 10th, Tzipi Hotovely in 13th, and Moshe Feiglin – who is Bibi Netanyahu’s main intra-party challenger from his right and is not even currently an MK – in 15th. Regular O&Z readers will recognize all of these names, as their exploits make regular appearances on this blog, but in case you need a refresher, Noam Sheizaf has a rundown of their greatest hits. In addition, because of the deal with Yisrael Beiteinu that created the joint list with Likud, it is unlikely that anyone lower than 20th on the list is going to make it into the Knesset, which means that Likud princes and moderates such as Dan Meridor, Benny Begin, and Mickey Eitan are going to lose their jobs as MKs. To get a sense of just how remarkable this is, not only are Begin and Meridor currently Knesset members, they are both ministers and members of the nine person security cabinet, and yet Likud voters just unceremoniously showed them the door. This is not just a changing of the guard from the old to the new, but a serious step to the right. If there was any doubt left that Likud is first and foremost a settler party, it has just been erased.

Plenty of people will spend the next couple of days bemoaning the state of Israeli politics and noting that a Likud government in which someone like Danny Danon might actually be a minister is going to double down on settlements and treat the peace process like a relic from a bygone era. This is all true, and in my humble opinion it’s a terrible development for Israel, but I am not here to state the glaringly obvious. Instead, I’d like to think through the impact of the new Likud makeup on Israel’s defense policy outside of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The immediate result is going to be the involuntary hiatus of Ehud Barak, who announced yesterday that he was quitting politics and would not stand for election in January. While I found the timing of this announcement strange given that Barak’s Atzmaut party, which had been polling at zero Knesset seats, had rebounded in the aftermath of Operation Pillar of Cloud and was looking like it might return to the Knesset with the same five seats it currently has, a couple of smart observers of Israeli politics have convinced me that perhaps it makes sense given the humiliation involved for a former PM barely crossing the Knesset threshold. Amir Mizroch and Robert Danin argue that in resigning, Barak is actually plotting a course to remain as defense minister since he will be viewed as the indispensable general whom Netanyahu will have no choice but to reappoint, and the fact that he is not a member of Knesset will free from him any political constraints. I think it’s quite plausible that this was Barak’s plan yesterday morning and that he may even have been able to pull it off, but he did not count on the events of the afternoon and evening. MKs like Danon and Elkin absolutely detest Barak with every fiber of their being because they have long viewed him as the primary hurdle standing between them and unfettered settlement growth, and now that they essentially control the party, Netanyahu is not going to have the political space to keep Barak as his defense minister. Doing so will cause a riot within Likud and open Netanyahu up to a serious challenge from Feiglin or from his old nemesis (and Washington Generals-type foil) Silvan Shalom, and Bibi is not going to risk that. Instead, I think the Likud primary has guaranteed that Bogie Ya’alon becomes the next defense minister, which also puts him in the pole position to be the next Likud leader once Netanyahu decides to leave the scene.

Aside from silencing Barak and removing his all-encompassing control of Israeli defense policy, I think the new Likud list also makes an Israeli strike on Iran a lot more likely. I have been continuously arguing that one of the primary constraints on an Israeli strike is the makeup of the security cabinet, where four out of the nine members have been unwaveringly opposed to unilateral military action against Iran. Two out of those four are Begin and Meridor, who are now going to be out of the group, and they will almost certainly be replaced by ministers who are more hawkish. The third of the four is Ya’alon, who badly wants to be defense minister and who knows that the post is a potential stepping stone to eventually becoming prime minister. The fact that the defense portfolio is now going to be open might be enough incentive for him to quietly acquiesce to Netanyahu’s plans on Iran in order to get the appointment that he seeks, in which case the security cabinet flips from being divided down the middle to being nearly unanimous in favor of a strike. That does not make a war with Iran a fait accompli, but it does bring the possibility ever closer. One month ago in arguing that the Netanyahu-Lieberman deal was not going to affect the Iran calculus, I noted that “the math in the security cabinet does not change substantially unless Begin, Meridor, and Ya’alon are all excised.” As it turns out, the result of this week’s Likud primary means that the math has now changed, and the impact on Israeli defense policy might be even greater than the impact on Israeli domestic politics.


Ulpana and Closing the Pandora’s Box

June 6, 2012 § 3 Comments

Apparently I take a few days off, and Israel descends into anarchy. I am not going to do a thorough rundown of the Ulpana vote and the events leading up to it; Amir Mizroch, Brent Sasley, and Allison Good all have some good thoughts  on the subject that you should check out. Instead, I’d like to focus on one limited point, which is the fact that the settler movement has apparently lost all ability to think rationally or logically.

Let’s remember one simple and basic fact: Five homes are being transferred to another neighborhood rather than be demolished, and 300 new homes are being constructed in the settlement to which those five belong. In addition, the government is announcing a tender for 551 new homes in other settlements. With this in mind, here is a selection of some of my favorite rightwing quotes from the past few days. UTJ MK Yisrael Eichler, despite what is taking place right across Israel’s northern border in Syria, dubs Israel “the worst dictatorship ever.” National Union MK Yaakov Katz says that the government displays evil-heartedness in dealing with the settlers. National Union MK Aryeh Eldad said that Likud only pretends to support settlements but actually destroys them at their roots. Finally Likud MK Danny Danon proclaimed the 69-22 vote in the Knesset a travesty of democracy since voters chose Likud and said that the “extreme left” tries to win through the courts rather than by convincing the public come election time (never mind, of course, that Kadima got more votes than Likud at the last election, or that the Ulpana homes are being moved following a Knesset vote confirming the High Court’s order). Up is down. Day is night. Likud hates settlements, and settlers are treated like second class citizens.

As if the rhetorical nonsense was not enough, settlers have marched on Jerusalem, started hunger strikes, flooded MKs with phone calls and texts, and generally acted as if this is the most egregious affront to their existence since the forced evacuations of the Sinai and Gaza. That literally not one building is being demolished and that 850 more are being built is of completely no consequence to them. One would think that Ulpana was the Temple Mount and had some sort of special sacred significance, rather than being a completely random tract of land in a small and otherwise non-descript settlement. This puts an even greater sheen of ludicrousness on Eldad’s mind-blowing statement about how anti-settlement Likud is; the settler movement has become so accustomed to getting every single thing they want from various Likud governments that they have somehow come to believe that the Ulpana decision is an existential crisis. They have won so big, they don’t even realize what a regular win looks like anymore. This is the force that Likud, and Netanyahu in particular, has unleashed, and now the government has to deal with it.

Finally, take note of who voted to legalize Ulpana or did not show up to the vote following Netanyahu’s “vote with me or be fired from your ministerial post” ultimatum. All the usual Likud suspects such as Danon, Zeev Elkin, Yariv Levin, and Miri Regev voted against Netanyahu in favor of retroactively legalizing Ulpana, and Silvan Shalom did not show up to the vote. Danon has already threatened the ministers who voted with Netanyahu and said that they are mistaken to believe that Likud voters will have short memories, and settler leaders have been calling Netanyahu a liar and vowing political retaliation. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: a Likud split is coming, and it’s going to happen sooner rather than later. The hardline settlement supporters simply cannot remain together in a party with the leadership that they have denounced so forcefully and in such harsh terms. When Netanyahu wakes up to the fact that he cannot keep this ungainly ship together, Likud is going to fracture.

The Likud Maneuvering Begins In Earnest

May 11, 2012 § 2 Comments

For those who are not familiar with him, Silvan Shalom is Bibi Netanyahu’s political nemesis and constant foil. He is also somewhat inconveniently one of the vice prime ministers and Netanyahu’s erstwhile main challenger for the Likud leadership. I wrote this in March:

Netanyahu and vice premier Silvan Shalom are long time rivals who do not like each other. The two go out of their way to antagonize each other by scheduling conflicting events and trying to embarrass the other through tactical voting on legislation, and Netanyahu even made sure that Shalom’s face was blocked in the official picture from the Cabinet meeting in which the Gilad Shalit deal was approved. While Shalom often comes across in these confrontations as bumbling and hapless, his resentment of Netanyahu is at the boiling point and Bibi cannot afford to make any of the younger MKs unhappy and risk a genuine leadership challenge within Likud.

Shalom has formally challenged Bibi to be head of Likud twice and both times he has lost, but he is still constantly looking for an opening. Today, while speaking to Moshe Rosenbaum, who is the chairman of the Beit El regional community council which has jurisdiction over Ulpana, Shalom called for an authorization law that would retroactively legalize all settlements and outposts since he believes that fighting for individual hilltops on a case by case basis is not supportive enough of the settlement project at large. These comments came after a cabinet meeting of senior ministers (which did not include Shalom) in which no decision was taken on whether to comply with the High Court order to demolish Ulpana by July 1, and in the midst of pressure from Likud MKs for the government to pass a law bypassing the High Court entirely.

As I have said a couple of times this week, bringing Kadima into the government gives Netanyahu lots of room to maneuver within the larger coalition, but it does nothing to alleviate – and even intensifies – his problem within his own party. Shalom is naturally trying to seize upon this, knowing that Netanyahu needs to placate the hardline members of what is after all a pro-settlement party but that doing so will cause trouble for Netanyahu with Mofaz and Kadima. Likud’s fault lines are being exposed, and it is going to be a Herculean task to try and keep the party in one piece without causing a major political crisis between the Knesset and the High Court. I don’t know that doing so is feasible, and I remain convinced that Likud is going to fracture and that an official split is coming at some point. Meridor staked out his position yesterday and Shalom has staked out his position today – the question is, where does Netanyahu ultimately stand? The answer is not one that he is going to be able to avoid providing for too much longer.

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