April 20, 2017 § 3 Comments
On Sunday, Marwan Barghouti published an op-ed in the New York Times. To read it without being versed in Israeli-Palestinian affairs, one would be forgiven for thinking that Barghouti is the Palestinian Martin Luther King writing his equivalent of the letter from the Birmingham jail. Barghouti used the op-ed to announce that he is leading a hunger strike of Palestinian prisoners to protest their treatment by Israel, wrote eloquently about the Palestinian national struggle for freedom and dignity while implying that he has been imprisoned for political reasons, and was identified in his byline as “a Palestinian leader and parliamentarian.” For those who know that Barghouti is serving five consecutive life sentences after having been convicted by an Israeli civilian court for murder and terrorism in his capacity as orchestrating suicide bombings as the founder of the al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, this was outrageous, and the anger directed at the Times resulted in a clarification and a brushback from the paper’s public editor.
The bulk of the focus – including from Prime Minister Netanyahu, Yair Lapid, and others – has been on the fact that the New York Times gave Barghouti a platform to make all sorts of unsubstantiated claims and misleadingly portray himself as something he is not. This anger is in no way misplaced, and it is helping shine a light on the fact that opponents of Israel are often granted a benefit of the doubt with regard to their motives and a whitewash of their histories to an alarming degree. But the import of Barghouti’s op-ed is not the revisionist history treatment of his biography; it is rather the fact that he chose to write it now and what it says about Palestinian politics going forward and the American effort to get Israelis and Palestinians to the negotiating table.
Barghouti is a legendary Palestinian prisoner in a society where Palestinian prisoners are granted exalted status. His leadership of the latest prisoners’ hunger strike comes on the heels of his finishing first in the Fatah Central Committee elections in December, cementing his status as the most popular Palestinian political figure, while being sidelined two months ago by the current leadership as Mahmoud Abbas chose Mahmoud al-Aloul as Fatah’s first vice president. The jockeying to replace Abbas began in earnest some time ago, but Barghouti deciding now to take up the mantle of prisoners’ rights while making as public a splash as possible in the U.S. paper of record seems like one of the clearest signal from him that he intends to be part of the future leadership conversation.
Barghouti has in some ways had it easier than most despite being in prison, as it has insulated him from having to make any decisions or engage in the daily compromises that are involved in politics. He has been able to sit back and bask in his growing popularity as current Fatah leaders walk the fine line between security coordination with Israel and maintaining their power on one side and popular will and maintaining their grassroots legitimacy on the other. He has not had to navigate the minefield of dealing with Hamas rule in Gaza and playing the game of proclaiming national unity while taking steps to use the power of the Palestinian Authority to choke Hamas. The longer he is in prison, the greater the myth that surrounds him, and should Israel end up granting prisoners any concessions as a result of this hunger strike, it will make Barghouti’s power and influence greater. That he is taking this step now indicates that he thinks a leadership transition is coming sooner rather than later, and he wants to get ahead of the internal Fatah machinations that are designed to sideline him.
The repercussions of this are not limited to Barghouti and internal Fatah jockeying for position. Leading a movement of Palestinian prisoners is guaranteed to lead to wider West Bank foment, and it will not make the IDF or Shabak sleep easier at night. I am not suggesting that this will spark an intifada, but it could lead to an uptick in violence and further support for the position that compromise or even engagement with Israel sells out the Palestinian national cause. Palestinian politicians are bound to follow public sentiment, and nobody will want to be forced to take a backseat to Barghouti on the issue of resisting Israel. It will create a wider radicalization within the Palestinian political arena, and undermine any politicians who take a more moderate tone while perhaps undermining Fatah itself in relation to Hamas.
None of this portends well for President Trump’s efforts to push the two sides toward his ultimate deal, and if the prisoner strike is not quickly resolved, it will also make for a difficult Abbas White House visit the first week in May. Abbas proved to be a difficult interlocutor for President Obama, famously not responding to Obama’s Oval Office presentation of a framework for a final status agreement in 2014. Abbas is coming to DC this time to meet with a president whose vision is not nearly as fully formed on the details, but he will undoubtedly be asked by Trump to commit to something more specific than being willing to talk. Against the backdrop of hungerstriking prisoners and Barghouti trying to force him into a corner, it will be a particularly inauspicious time for Abbas to return to Ramallah and announce that he has agreed to return to talks with Israel without first winning any significant concessions. While the sense of gloomy fatalism that enveloped the Palestinian leadership at Trump’s election may have dissipated given his apparent willingness to push Netanyahu and the Israeli government on settlements and Jason Greenblatt’s praiseworthy performance in the region last month, it does not mean that Abbas is going to suddenly give Trump anything he wants. Abbas’s politics back home are still difficult, and having a friendlier White House than he anticipated does not change the fact that he is a weak political leader without the legitimacy or the chits to say yes to any comprehensive peace deal. This Barghouti move makes that even more of an entrenched reality.
Barghouti’s New York Times byline was the type of thing that drives Israeli politicians and American Jews up a wall with frustration. The byline, however, is just a distraction in this case from everything else that is going on. If Barghouti ushers in a new era of Fatah radicalization, we will look back at the focus over the byline rather than the underlying political move as the true outrage.
February 15, 2017 § Leave a comment
After spending his entire tenure as prime minister chafing under the strictures placed upon him by Democratic presidents, Prime Minister Netanyahu finally gets his wish today: his first face-to-face Oval Office meeting with a Republican president. And not just any Republican president, but President Trump – the man the Israeli right has hailed as a savior from the day he was elected and upon whom they have placed their hopes and dreams. There is no question that Netanyahu is looking for a vastly different relationship with the current president than he had with the previous one, and also no question that both men will emerge from their meeting with ear-to-ear grins and acting like best friends, irrespective of whether the meeting warrants it or not. There are some obvious reasons for this, from the fact that both men lead right of center parties and are broadly ideologically similar to the simple desire to get off on the right foot. The current moment, however, also provides some more detailed and specific reasons for the two men to avoid disagreements, and provides some guide as to what they are likely to discuss, what they are likely to avoid, and what they should discuss if they want to keep the relationship on an even keel.
What Trump needs out of this meeting is simple. He is being buffeted on all sides with headache-inducing crises, be it the North Korean ballistic missile test, the resignation after only twenty four days of his national security adviser Mike Flynn beneath a cloud of allegations of his being compromised by Russia, or questions over the basic competence level of his senior aides and his continuing inability to staff the government beneath the cabinet level. Trump also has clearly not yet formulated a coherent policy on Israel, with different advisers pulling him in different directions and his own thoughts apparently still unsettled. Whether it be the embassy move or the role of settlements in preventing Israeli-Palestinian peace, Trump’s positions from the campaign have shifted, and in the case of settlements they have subtly shifted between the statement issued by Sean Spicer two weeks ago and Trump’s interview with Yisrael HaYom on Friday. What Trump needs while he is sorting through everything else in the Middle East is regional stability, not having Israel as a constant issue to manage, and above all no surprises. For now, he wants Israel to be something that he doesn’t have to think about or worry about, since if that wish is fulfilled, it will be just about the only issue that clears that bar.
What Netanyahu needs out of this meeting is even simpler. He arrives in Washington in the midst of the biggest threat he has ever faced to his tenure as prime minister, namely the four separate investigations being carried out into various allegations of corruption and improper behavior. Should he be indicted, as most Israeli analysts and journalists expect, he will be under enormous pressure to resign, and only the complete and unbroken support from every member of his coalition will keep him in office. Even if none of the four investigations end with an indictment, Netanyahu is still in a precarious position, down in the polls to Yair Lapid and under constant demand from his Bayit Yehudi coalition members and many of his Likud coalition members to definitively reject the two-state solution, support annexation of Ma’ale Adumim and perhaps even larger parts of the West Bank, and to completely alter the paradigm with the Palestinians under which Israel has operated. None of these are things that Netanyahu has ever particularly appeared or appears now to want to do, but he is in danger of being swallowed up by the Israeli right, for whom ideological purity tests are increasingly important. More than any specific policy victory or understanding with Trump, Netanyahu needs something that will help his domestic standing back home, and the only thing that can provide that is a black hole in which no daylight between the U.S. and Israel escapes. Netanyahu was reportedly able to mollify Naftali Bennett and other cabinet members before his departure from Israel by appealing to his stewardship of the U.S.-Israel relationship, which is truly an Israeli existential issue, and he has to return home with an unambiguous demonstration of his ability – and his ability alone – to keep that relationship unbreakable. Netanyahu does not need a green light to build in the West Bank or a commitment to move the embassy or a vow to tear up the Iran deal. What he needs is no hint, no sign, and no leak of even the slightest public or private disagreement with Trump on anything.
In theory, this should be an easy plan for Trump and Netanyahu to execute. The problem is that Netanyahu is dealing with a president whom he expects to be an easier interlocutor than President Obama, but one who is unpredictable and unprepared to an unprecedented degree. Netanyahu cannot be sure what Trump will say, whether what he says can be trusted as an accurate predictor of what policies he will actually pursue down the road, to what extent Israel should rely on Trump’s assurance on various issues for its own policy planning purposes, and whether Trump has even devoted any real attention to planning for the conversation given that his national security adviser will have been replaced less than 48 hours earlier.
Given all of this, the one topic that is guaranteed to be on the agenda is Iran. As my colleague Ilan Goldenberg ably laid out earlier this week in his own preview of the meeting, Trump and Netanyahu have both focused on vigorously holding Iran to task and calling Iran out on its destabilizing actions in the region. It is unlikely that even Netanyahu is sticking to a position that the Iran deal needs to be scrapped, and both men might hold the view that even if the deal should be torn up, there are ways to make Iran be the actor that abrogates it through additional sanctions and testing the boundaries of Iran’s breaking point much as Iran has done since the JCPOA was implemented.
What both leaders want to avoid is any robust discussion of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, settlements, or the two-state solution. Whatever Trump’s positions end up being, they are not going to be the positions pushed by Bennett and the annexation caucus, and Netanyahu cannot politically afford right now to publicly endorse two states. Neither Trump nor Netanyahu wants to start things off with a fight over where Israel will and will not build, and so my hunch is that they will both try and avoid any related subjects to the greatest possible extent.
There are two issues, however, that Trump and Netanyahu should discuss whether they want to or not in an effort to avoid any surprises or misunderstandings down the road. The first is Gaza, where Hamas’s newly installed leader Yahya Sinwar is far more hardline and confrontational than his predecessor Ismail Haniya and may be more willing to break the uneasy quiet that has largely held for two and a half years. It would be wise of the president and the prime minister to discuss how far Israel is willing to go in Gaza when the next war breaks out, what the plan is to deal with any wider regional fallout, and how the U.S. would like to manage a coordinated response with Israel and Egypt. This does not have to be a difficult conversation, and both men may be precisely on the same page, but it is easier to do it now than when the rockets start falling on Tel Aviv and the world is up in arms over civilian casualties in the Gaza war zone. The second issue is Syria, where Trump and Netanyahu may not be on the same page but cannot afford to let any differences of opinion fester. Rhetorically at least, Trump wants to make fighting ISIS in Syria a priority, which will be difficult to do while squaring completely with Israel’s objectives of maintaining its own freedom of movement against Hizballah weapons convoys and not allowing any long-term Iranian presence in Syria. If there will be disagreements on these issues, they should be dealt with up front and in private since any public blow up later will be far worse.
Today’s meeting will be the first of many, and we may not have any greater clarity after it has concluded than we do right now. Many assume that Trump and Netanyahu will set a new standard for the relationship between an American president and Israeli prime minister, but no matter what their personal relationship turns out to be, there is going to be friction over policy issues big and small. The most important question going forward will not be why and where there are disagreements, but how the two men manage them.
October 27, 2016 § Leave a comment
After what many viewed as Prime Minister Netanyahu’s boosterism on behalf of Mitt Romney in 2012 and his meetings in New York last month with Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, there has been inevitable chatter about how Israeli politics is impacting the U.S. presidential election. For what it’s worth, I thought in 2012 that Netanyahu largely got an unfair bad rap over allegations that he was trying to influence the campaign, and I give him credit this time around for having clean hands. By all accounts, Netanyahu gave zero encouragement to Trump when he was making noise about taking a campaign trip to Israel last spring, made no independent effort to meet with the candidates while in the U.S., and made sure to reach out to Clinton to schedule a meeting only after Trump asked for one first. While there is plenty of speculation about the Israeli government’s preferences and how those preferences will impact the election, the more interesting angle goes the other way. The U.S. election has the potential to wreak havoc on Israeli politics, and it is forcing Netanyahu to make some potentially momentous choices with regard to his own political positioning.
The past couple of months have not been kind to Netanyahu and Likud insofar as the polls go. In early September, public opinion surveys showed Yesh Atid pulling ahead of Likud were elections to be held, with Yesh Atid more than doubling its current seats and Likud’s share cut by 25%. Another poll in late September confirmed this trend holding, with Yesh Atid ahead of Likud by four seats despite more respondents preferring Netanyahu to Yair Lapid as prime minister. While the numbers dictate trouble ahead for Netanyahu and Likud politically absent some sort of course correction, there is one important way in which the polling acts to Netanyahu’s political benefit. Israeli government coalitions are notoriously unstable – Netanyahu’s most recent government lasted just over two years, and there have been nine governments in the twenty one years since Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination – and it oftentimes takes little to bring a government down. Coalition partners are able to hold the prime minister hostage by insisting on an array of demands and threatening – explicitly or implicitly – to bring down the government and force new elections if they aren’t met. Conversely, when the polls show the leading party benefitting from new elections, the prime minister will often force a crisis, such as when Netanyahu fired Yair Lapid and Tzipi Livni in December 2014 in order to try and pick up more seats and bring the Haredi parties into the government.
The current government is in many ways one that should be particularly susceptible to hostage taking behavior by Likud’s coalition partners. The coalition is 66 MKs – and was only 61 MKs until Avigdor Lieberman brought Yisrael Beiteinu into the government in May – and it can be unilaterally brought down by four out of its five coalition partners, since a defection by any of the four would put the coalition under a majority of 61 Knesset seats. It is filled with party leaders, such as Naftali Bennett and Lieberman, who harbor ambitions to replace Netanyahu, have extremely checkered pasts with him, and are also widely reputed to loathe him personally. It contains parties with wildly different priorities, from Habayit Hayehudi and its focus on its settler and rightwing nationalist constituency to Shas and United Torah Judaism and their championing of ultra-Orthodox welfare and religious priorities. It has been plagued with fights surrounding the budget. In short, few people thought this government would last particularly long.
The recent polls change that calculus, because the prospects of Yesh Atid winning and forming the next government mean that Habayit Hayehudi and the Haredi parties would be doomed to irrelevance. Despite Lapid and Bennett’s unlikely partnership of strange bedfellows in the previous government, it is difficult to foresee a coalition led by Lapid in which their two parties coexist. The Haredi parties are also terrified of Lapid, despite his recent efforts to take a softer rhetorical line on their pet issues, since he represents the secular elite with whom they clash and his late father, Tommy Lapid, was Israel’s most ardent and outspoken secular leader and Haredi opponent. In addition, Moshe Kahlon and his Kulanu party would nearly disappear if new elections were held today, and Kahlon’s future political career is dependent on his banking some tangible policy victories as finance minister. In short, Netanyahu’s partners can no longer afford to make idle threats of bringing the government down, which makes Netanyahu’s coalition far more stable in inverse proportion to how strong Likud is polling.
Which brings us to the wrinkle, which is our presidential election here at home. Currently, Netanyahu’s biggest fear is that President Obama will do something on his way out the door related to the peace process and/or settlements, ranging from what Netanyahu views as disastrous (a binding UN Security Council resolution) to enormously inconvenient (a speech laying out Obama’s views on parameters for future two-state negotiations). Netanyahu and Israeli officials have been furiously lobbying everyone from the president on down not to make any moves on this front, and they have been counting on the uncertainty of the election outcome to forestall any surprises, since Obama will not want to do anything that may drive Jewish voters in Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and other swing states toward Trump. After the election though, all bets are off, and this is particularly so in the unlikely but still possible case that Trump wins, since then Obama will have no concerns about saddling his successor with a policy on Israel that may not be to his liking. Even if Clinton wins as expected, the unusually harsh American response to the Israeli government’s plan to build a new neighborhood in Shilo for the relocated Amona settlers makes Netanyahu and his coalition partners fear that there is an American sword of Damocles waiting to drop.
In Netanyahu’s calculations, the one possibly foolproof thing he can do to head this all off at the pass is to bring Yitzhak Herzog and his Zionist Union party into the government and make Herzog foreign minister, which explains the dalliance with Herzog a few months ago and the constant reports that he and Herzog are once again cooking up plans for a unity government. Netanyahu thinks that bringing in Herzog and giving him the diplomatic portfolio will signal to the world that he is genuine in his desire to see a two-state solution, and that it will prevent a post-election move from Obama while starting him off on the right foot with Clinton should she win. It will also not bring down his government if Herzog can bring enough Zionist Union MKs with him to replace the eight from Habayit Hayehudi who will leave should Zionist Union join, and while it leaves Netanyahu with a suboptimal coalition from a policy standpoint and creates future political problems for him, it gives him diplomatic breathing room.
I am skeptical that Netanyahu’s fears are well-placed since I think the likelihood is greater than not that Obama does nothing earth shattering on the Israeli-Palestinian front before he leaves the White House, but there is also little question that Netanyahu’s calculus on this is presenting him with a political choice and that he is weighing his options. So the intersection of American politics and Israeli politics are indeed important for the next few months, but the impact will be far more heavily felt in Israel than here.
September 13, 2016 § 7 Comments
Prime Minister Netanyahu stirred up a cocktail of controversy on Friday when his latest attempt at creating a viral video did not get the reception he anticipated. In the two minute clip, Netanyahu opened by saying he was perplexed by the charge that “Jewish communities” in the West Bank are an obstacle to peace since it is clear that Arabs living inside Israel are not an obstacle to peace. He then alleged that the sole precondition the Palestinian leadership has demanded for a future state is that it be free of Jews, which he said is an example of ethnic cleansing. He went on to criticize this demand as outrageous, criticize the world community for not finding this outrage to be outrageous, and firmly state that those who say that Jews cannot live somewhere should think through the implications. Since the video has provoked responses all over the map from the right, the left, the Israeli opposition, and the U.S. government, here is your concise and handy guide to Jews in the West Bank, ethnic cleansing, and what Netanyahu is up to.
Netanyahu is right. It is outrageous that a future Palestinian state won’t allow any Jews to live in the West Bank! Yes, it would be if that were the case. If an independent Palestine forced out all of its Jews and barred any Jews from living there, it would certainly be a textbook case of ethnic cleansing, and there is no defensible argument to construct such a policy.
What do you mean, “if that were the case” – haven’t Palestinian leaders said there will be no Jews allowed? Nope. Netanyahu was in all likelihood referring to Mahmoud Abbas’s statement in 2013 that he would not accept the “the presence of a single Israeli – civilian or soldier – on our lands” in the aftermath of an Israeli-Palestinian final status agreement. As Matt Duss helpfully points out, PLO leaders have explicitly said that Jews are welcome to live in a Palestinian state while categorically ruling out Israelis living in settlements where they maintain their Israeli citizenship. To put this into some perspective, this would be like a presidential candidate saying that Syrian Muslims are welcome to come and live in the U.S. so long as they are not living in extra-territorial enclaves that are sovereign Syrian territory and they are subject to the laws and authority of the U.S. Makes sense, right? A presidential candidate would be on much shakier and more discriminatory ground if he, say, I don’t know, ruled out all Syrian Muslims entirely just because they are Syrian Muslims. Now, it is certainly possible – and even likely – that there are members of the Palestinian leadership who have said they would bar all Jews, Israeli citizens or not. Given the way that the Old City of Jerusalem was administered while under Jordanian control between 1948 and 1967, or the calls from various quarters to ban Jews from the Temple Mount entirely today, there is certainly some precedent that warrants suspicion. But given the public record of Abbas’s comments, it is clear that he was referring to Israelis living in Palestine as Israeli citizens under Israeli sovereignty. So much like Netanyahu’s rhetorical excess back in October regarding Haj Amin al-Husseini and the Holocaust, once again his imprecision with pesky little details has cost him some credibility.
So it comes back to settlements? Indeed it does. Note Netanyahu’s rhetorical sleight of hand in the video, where he begins by talking about Jewish communities in the West Bank, and then pivots to talking about Jews writ large. It is one thing for Israel to absorb the large settlements blocs into Israel proper once an agreement is signed, but it is quite another for Israel to maintain settlements that are in Palestinian state territory, that are only open to residents who are Jewish, and that are Israeli sovereign territory guarded by Israeli soldiers. That is what Netanyahu was actually arguing for in the video and positing that there is no reason that such an arrangement should be an obstacle to peace, when the reality is that describing it for what it actually is, as I have above, demonstrates precisely what an enormous problem it is. If Palestinians who before 1948 lived in territory that is now part of Israel wanted to come back and live in their old houses but as Palestinian citizens subject to the law and authority of the government of Palestine, they’d be dismissed out of hand, and rightly so. Once a permanent status agreement is signed, the Israeli government should make every conceivable effort to persuade settlers to relocate to Israel and provide compensation for them to do so, which will likely result in the evacuation of the overwhelming majority of settlers. Any settler who greets the IDF with violent resistance should be arrested and immediately moved out of the West Bank. But any peaceful, law-abiding settler who is willing to renounce Israeli citizenship and wants to remain in his or her home should absolutely be allowed to do so, but only as citizens of Palestine under the jurisdiction of the Palestinian government. In other words, settlers are fine; settlements are not.
So why would Netanyahu put out a video like that? This brings us to the essence of Netanyahu, which is that he subsumes all policy goals to political ones. There is a reason that Netanyahu has provoked the wrath and scorn of nearly every general and intelligence chief who has served under him. Why negotiate a new defense package when you have maximum leverage when you can instead shore up your rightwing base at home by giving a speech before Congress instead? Why keep an extremely competent and respected and supremely qualified defense minister during the midst of a wave of violence – and following an Iran deal that you say has put Israel at greater risk – when you can enlarge your coalition and neutralize an ultranationalist foe by making him defense minister despite a pitiful lack of qualifications? In this case, Netanyahu was coming off the debacle of shutting down train repairs on Shabbat in order to mollify his Haredi coalition partners and then having the public squarely blame him for putting politics ahead of soldiers trying to get home for the weekend, and then facing down polls that show Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party besting Netanyahu and Likud were an election to be held now. On top of that, the polls show Likud losing ground to its farther right coalition partner Habayit Hayehudi. In this instance, the obvious move for Netanyahu was to say something controversial that would fire up the rightwing base, provoke rebukes abroad, and thus benefit Netanyahu even further as he rails against foreign interference and vows to stand up to those who would smear Israel and try to discriminate against Jews. I’d be surprised if Netanyahu anticipated quite the depth of the pushback that he would face, but this is all part of his domestic political calculations.
So in conclusion, I agree 100% with the principle that Netanyahu espoused, namely that it is outrageous bigotry to prevent Jews from living in the West Bank. Unfortunately, in this instance Netanyahu was not speaking theoretically, and everyone should see through the smokescreen that he constructed in order to use anti-Semitism as a cover in defending settlements.
June 23, 2016 § 4 Comments
The 2016 U.S. presidential campaign has seen the culmination of a trend that has been building in American politics for some time, namely the distrust of the establishment and the glorification of the outsider. The Iraq War and the Great Recession were probably the most significant contributors to the growing idea that the old order couldn’t be trusted, that the historically bipartisan establishment consensus on foreign and economic policy was failing regular citizens, and that only by “throwing the bums out” could the ship of state be righted. The election of Barack Obama and the rise of the Tea Party were manifestations of this political movement. Bernie Sanders’s surprising success in this year’s Democratic primary and the nomination of Donald Trump on the Republican side have only magnified it. The U.S., however, is not the only country where this has taken place, and in many ways Israeli politics is giving us a glimpse of what happens when the outsiders become the insiders and the old establishment begins to plot its comeback.
Menachem Begin’s election as prime minister with the Likud victory in 1977 was earth shattering. It marked the first time that the Israeli rightwing defeated the leftwing Mapai and its political heirs and was the first rejection of the secular Ashkenazi elite that had founded the state and governed it since its inception. The Israeli rightwing – which includes secular Ashkenazi Jews but also is viewed as representing Mizrahim, Haredim, national religious, immigrants, and others in a way that the left traditionally has not – has been in power with only two brief interludes since Begin’s first victory. In spite of this history, the prime ministership of Binyamin Netanyahu has in many ways embraced this outsider ethos rather than acting as the latest iteration of a political movement that thoroughly controls the state. Despite hailing from a well-known family with deep Zionist roots, Netanyahu seems to have a chip on his shoulder against Israeli establishment elites. He surrounds himself – to his credit – with relative newcomers to the state, whether it be close advisers like Ron Dermer and Dore Gold or political allies like Avigdor Lieberman and Yuli Edelstein. Ministers in his cabinet, like Moshe Kahlon or Miri Regev, speak out against the old establishment and work to upend the old order in various ways. Netanyahu, like many politicians who successfully capitalize on voters’ resentment, never hesitates to appeal to nationalism that denigrates leftists, the “State of Tel Aviv,” or other symbols of the traditional establishment. Despite being a three term prime minister who has served more time in the post than anyone other than David Ben Gurion and heads a political camp that has dominated Israeli politics for four decades, Netanyahu in many ways gives off the vibe of being an upstart outsider.
The conflict between Netanyahu and various political and military figures that is now playing out – intensified by Moshe Ya’alon’s and Ehud Barak’s speeches at the IDC Herzliya conference last week – can be viewed in a number of ways. On the one hand, there is the never-ending battle taking place between Likud and the parties to its left looking to displace it. Netanyahu still maintains the overwhelming upper hand over the conflict and angst-ridden Labor party, but the political rival who presents the most obvious clear and present danger is Yair Lapid, who in the latest poll is running only two seats behind Netanyahu and Likud. This is a battle not between right and left, but between right and center, and there is no doubt that Lapid is gunning hard to become the next prime minister and taking positions that will still appeal to nationalists while distinguishing him from Netanyahu.
Another way to view the current contretemps is politicians vs. the military. Israel’s current political leadership is very much at odds with the military leadership and security establishment over all sorts of issues, from what steps to take in the West Bank to how to address the controversy surrounding Elor Azaria (the soldier on trial for shooting and killing an immobile Palestinian terrorist in Hebron). There is no question that some in the government see benefit to using the IDF as a punching bag, and that some in the IDF see benefit in discrediting the government, and politicians on all sides of the issue are eager to line up behind one side or another based on the politics irrespective of the actual issues at hand.
But there is another way to look at the sudden cavalcade of politicians and former generals aligning themselves against Netanyahu, and it is the frame of the traditional establishment reasserting itself. Barak and Ya’alon are both former defense ministers and former IDF chiefs of staff, but that is where the comparison ends. They differ in their politics, in their styles, and in their worldviews, but the common thread uniting them aside from their military backgrounds is the charge that Netanyahu is changing the fabric of the country by pitting different groups against each other and damaging Israel’s democracy. The same goes for establishment Likud princes, such as Dan Meridor and Michael Eitan, who have fallen out with Netanyahu over similar issues rather than over issues of left vs. right. Much like the Bush family here – the ultimate symbol of the American establishment – who seem to abhor Trump not so much for his specific positions but for the threat he represents to the fabric of a harmonious American society and democracy, the various people and forces now lining up against Netanyahu across the spectrum represent the old Israeli establishment consensus despite having diverse political views. Netanyahu, who has done a masterful job of sidelining and diminishing his adversaries over the course of his political career, finally seems to have provoked a widespread backlash not because of any one policy per se, but because the people who view themselves as guardians of the Israeli ethos – and after all, what is an establishment for if not for that? – see his continued tenure as a threat to some definition of what it means to be Israeli and what Israel should stand for. I do not mean to abandon my cynical self here; very clearly much of this is political opportunism and some long-time Netanyahu rivals seeing the chance to finally draw some blood. But looking at how Israeli politics seems to be realigning itself along establishment/non-establishment fault lines may give us a glimpse of what the post-Trump future will look like here as well.
May 19, 2016 § 1 Comment
On Tuesday, center-left opposition leader Isaac Herzog was set to become the new Israeli foreign minister after bringing the Zionist Union into a national unity government. On Wednesday, rightwing gadfly and Bibi Netanyahu frenemy Avigdor Lieberman was set to become the new defense minister while Herzog was consigned to losing his party’s leadership and his potential new cabinet post. Looking for answers to your questions about all of the political shenanigans? You’ve come to the right place.
Isn’t there supposed to be a new unity government?
Netanyahu and Herzog have reportedly been talking about bringing the Zionist Union into the coalition ever since the government was formed with the Zionist Union on the outside last spring, and these negotiations burst into the open in recent weeks. For Netanyahu, the appeal was primarily twofold. First, despite the fact that his 61 seat coalition does not have any huge ideological fissures, a government with a one seat majority is never a comfortable place from which to operate. Bringing in Herzog and the approximately fourteen Labor Party members from the Zionist Union faction that he would have brought along would give Netanyahu breathing space and not make every coalition member a potential hostage taker. Second, there is something of a perfect storm gathering on the horizon on the diplomatic front, with the French initiative, the forthcoming Quartet report that is expected to be harsh on Israeli settlements, the end of the Obama administration (bearing in mind that Clinton and Bush both made a renewed effort at Israeli-Palestinian peace on their way out the door), and the 50th anniversary of the 1967 war all looming. Appointing Herzog as foreign minister would give Israel a friendlier face in Western capitals and offset some of the pressure that is hurtling down the road by signaling that Israel is more serious than assumed about finding a way to get to two states.
From Herzog’s perspective, he leads a party that has been plummeting in the polls, is completely ineffective in its opposition to the government, and he himself was facing massive discontent within the ranks. Entering into talks to join the government only sealed his inevitable demise within the Labor Party, as everyone from Zionist Union co-chief Tzipi Livni to Herzog’s predecessor Shelley Yachimovich to popular rising Labor star Stav Shaffir was opposed to joining the government. Indeed, Shaffir and other Labor members have now called for him to step down. Even if he were successful in joining the government, Herzog would have only brought a rump contingent with him. Nevertheless, if he was going to be ousted for ineffectiveness at some point, Herzog clearly believed that he may as well join the government as a top minister and also clearly believed in his ability to affect change from the inside. Not only did this make sense for him, it was the only way for him to maintain any real relevance. There was also the added wrinkle of Herzog mysteriously claiming earlier in the week that there was a secret regional diplomatic opportunity that might disappear if not immediately acted upon and that he was the man to make it happen, and then Egyptian president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi on Tuesday offering warmer relations with Israel if it would reach a settlement with the Palestinians. Some saw this confluence of events as a bit too convenient, speculating that Netanyahu and Herzog had coordinated this with Sisi in order to pave the way for the unity government to happen.
So what happened?
Suddenly, everything turned on a dime, and it became apparent that Netanyahu had been using Herzog to instead entice Avigdor Lieberman and Yisrael Beiteinu to join the coalition, a move that prompted Herzog to cut off talks on a unity government. Netanyahu and Lieberman have a long and tortured history, and after serving as foreign minister in the last government (with a corruption trial that forced him to temporarily step down from the post for a year), Lieberman decided to remain in the opposition after the last election and has been sniping at Netanyahu from the right ever since, accusing him of selling out the rightwing and not being a true nationalist or Zionist. It has been a smart political move for Lieberman, as Yisrael Beiteinu has six seats in the current Knesset and a poll released this week by the Israeli newspaper Ma’ariv shows that going up to eleven, but ultimately Lieberman has always wanted power, and being in the government is the only way for him to do it. Becoming defense minister – particularly in the wake of the Hebron shooting and the Yair Golan speech and at a time when there is concern within the nationalist camp over the direction of the IDF – is perfect for Lieberman, and he will get to demonstrate that he is more hawkish than anyone else in Israeli politics while using the power of his post to protect the settlement enterprise
From Netanyahu’s angle, he gets to remove a thorn in his side and also shore up his own internal political position. There has been serious friction between him and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon and major discontent within the Likud ranks over where Ya’alon’s priorities lie, and now Netanyahu gets to remove him and mollify the right by creating the most rightwing government that can be assembled. He also gets to neutralize the critiques coming from his biggest long-term threat, Naftali Bennett, by removing the basis for the charge that Netanyahu is not sufficiently attuned to the concerns of settlers or in step with the nationalist camp. Netanyahu also still gets to expand his coalition, but does so in a way that makes his base happy rather than making them think that he is selling out rightwing principles.
How can Netanyahu pursue Herzog and Lieberman at the same time? That’s like a voter who thinks that the economy is rigged supporting a billionaire who lives in an apartment made of gold and marble and whose success is based on borrowing money from banks based on family connections and his last name.
There are a couple rules of Bibi politics that you need to know to make sense of this. The first is that Netanyahu is constantly in search of room to maneuver, but don’t ever presume to know what he wants to do with that space. The smart take on Tuesday was that he needed the flexibility to deflect the pressure from the French and the Quartet and to take advantage of the regional overtures about which he is constantly boasting, but he then went and ignited a wildfire on his own lawn. There is literally no more inflammatory figure as defense minister than Lieberman, who is on record as wanting to execute the terrorists that Israel captures alive and keep in perpetuity the bodies of those they don’t. Any caution that Ya’alon has exercised in the West Bank, where the defense minister has final decision making power, is now going to dissipate overnight. Not only has Netanyahu decided not to deflect the diplomatic pressure, he has taken the move that will ramp it up to the highest possible level.
This segues into the second rule, which is that Netanyahu is always more worried about threats that come from his right than about threats that come from his left, and he will always guard his right flank irrespective of anything else that is going on. He perpetually faces the choice of going in a more moderate direction and mollifying the center and Israel’s allies, or tacking right and mollifying the rightwing, and he always chooses the same way. The surprise here is not that he played Herzog in order to reestablish his rightwing credentials, but that anyone thought that he would actually go through with it. In one fell swoop, Netanyahu has silenced Lieberman’s continuing criticism of the government, removed the specter of a hard right rebellion against Ya’alon that would have reverberated against him as well, cut off any discontent from the settler wing by ending talks with Herzog that might have led to measures curtailing settlement growth, and set himself up for the next election as the man who puts Zionism and nationalism first no matter what the rest of the world thinks. The threats that were massing against him on the far right are now largely – although not entirely – neutralized.
This is a long piece. Anything else we should be looking out for while you are in a talkative mood?
Yes, and thanks for asking. This whole thing is not as entirely straightforward as it seems, and there are some potential surprises and some potential pitfalls. It is important to know that during the Kerry negotiations two years ago, American officials found Lieberman during his time as foreign minister to actually be a helpful presence and willing interlocutor. Despite the fact that he is a hardliner on settlements and the Palestinians more generally, he seems to understand far better than Netanyahu that international opinion is not meaningless and that protecting the U.S.-Israel relationship is truly an existential issue. Amir Tibon’s excellent Tablet profile of Lieberman last May noted that he has surprisingly strong links throughout the Middle East and has promoted himself as the person to unite Israel and its Arab neighbors, and so while he is no longer foreign minister, the fact that there appear to be regional opportunities abounding as Lieberman returns to power is interesting.
On the domestic side, including Lieberman in the coalition will generally make Netanyahu’s Likud members happy, but it will infuriate the Haredi parties. They do not coexist well with Lieberman given the importance among his Russian constituency of breaking the Haredi monopoly of control over marriage and conversion, and it is bound to cause Netanyahu some serious unpleasantness.
This move also empowers Yair Lapid and Yesh Atid, who would have been the largest non-Likud vote getter in the next election anyway and who will now be the unquestionable de facto alternative to Netanyahu as the Labor infighting between Herzog and his adversaries destroys the party from within. This entire episode gives him a much larger megaphone, and he consequently may actually be able to present a serious electoral threat to Netanyahu the next time around.
Finally, and perhaps most seriously, I predicted in December that civil-military relations were going to be potentially explosive in 2016, and with the tension between the IDF and the government over a range of issues, that has sadly been a topic that I got right. Replacing Ya’alon – a former IDF chief of staff and staunch defender of the military, which is what has prompted the tension between him and Netanyahu during the last couple of months – with Lieberman, who had a relatively undistinguished stint in an IDF artillery unit and has been attacking the military leadership over its values, is not going to improve this situation, to say the least. Netanyahu has made his choice, and I am afraid that it will mean a rocky period ahead on a number of fronts.