Recent Developments in Israeli Politics

In the last couple weeks there have been some important developments in Israeli politics, with the potential to have short- and medium-term effects on policy. It’s hard to speak of these with certainty, since the outcome of talks to restart Israeli-Palestinian peace talks could easily shift things around and make some of the points below irrelevant.

First, Moshe Kahlon—the former Likudnik, Sephardic champion of social justice—has announced he’s returning to politics. The mere announcement, before he has even formed an actual party, has already sent ripples through the system. Polls give him 10 or 11 seats, drawing largely from Likud, Yesh Atid, and Labor.

Kahlon is another white knight who has the potential to disrupt the political system, but probably won’t have any staying power. What he will do is weaken both Likud and Labor, because he’ll represent voters from both. It’s not completely clear how hawkish or dovish he would be on the peace process. Most likely, he’ll be like Yair Lapid, trying to stay within the Israeli consensus (an independent Palestinian state but with main settlement blocs going to Israel, reluctant but somewhat willing to divide Jerusalem). Like Lapid, he’ll be known for his position on economic issues primarily, only moving on security-foreign affairs when he has to.

But what his presence will do undermine whatever comeback Labor was foretold to make under new leader Isaac Herzog. I’m skeptical of the claim that by focusing a lot more on the peace process and the settlements, Labor can reclaim the mantle of the party of peace and will suddenly bump up in the polls and pose a serious challenge to Likud. But even assuming this is possible, Labor can’t do it anymore without also maintaining a strong lead on social and economic issues. Kahlon undercuts Labor’s ability to do so.

Second, the big news on the right is that Ronen Shoval, a founder of the rightist Im Tirzu organization, has joined Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu. Though he won’t be running in Israeli elections, he will be running as a Yisrael Beiteinu candidate in the World Zionist Congress. It’s a signal, I think, that Lieberman is starting to ramp up his campaign to be prime minister by amassing credentials on the right and by obtaining more strength in Zionist and Israeli institutions.

While this is primarily a challenge to Benjamin Netanyahu, it’s also a challenge to Naftali Bennett’s position as a leader of the right. Bennett is already in a difficult position—his threat to leave the government over the release of Palestinian prisoners who are citizens of Israel might be put to the test. I think he’ll have trouble out of government, since his party is already factionalized. And while he might be able to represent the national-religious, he’s already facing a challenge from the far-right Strong Israel. Lieberman is angling to claim representation of the secular nationalists. It’s a two-front threat (within the party and among the right), and it’s not clear Bennett has enough strength to fight both.

Finally, despite the ups and downs of the peace process, Labor’s new leader, and polls showing Labor and Meretz increasing their representation in the Knesset, I still don’t see that the left has a strong, appealing alternate message to Netanyahu and the right. Noam Sheizaf writes that if Netanyahu falls, there will be several people rushing to replace him, on the left, right, and in the center. It’s possible, but they’d be temporarily filling a gap. Without an attractive platform that combines security issues with socio-economic concerns, the left—whose best chance at regaining power is still Labor—won’t have any staying power.

And even that won’t be enough. Israelis’ attitudes toward peace reflect a duality. On the one hand, they support negotiations and two states; on the other, they don’t trust the Palestinians and are skeptical talks will lead to a final resolution of the conflict. They aren’t coming out in the streets or at the grassroots level to do anything about it. If the left can’t mobilize these doubting-yet-hopeful voters, and keep them mobilized, they cannot take and hold power from the right.

Bibi’s Not in Trouble

For all the talk that Benjamin Netanyahu doesn’t want to be the one to walk away from peace talks, that he fears the global campaign of delegitimization of Israel, and of the dire consequences of failure for Israel, Bibi’s not in any real trouble at the current impasse (assuming it really is an impasse) in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations at this point. He can coast on the status quo, I think, for some time to come. Indeed, his balking at the release of the fourth group of Palestinian prisoners indicates he thinks there’s room to do so.

I’ve argued before that Bibi is a pragmatic opportunist. He prefers the status quo but everything about his temperament, his history, and his politics demonstrate that he’ll move if pushed. But that push has to be serious, and it has to come from outside as well as from within the country.

Thus far the external pressure in talks has been pretty mild. John Kerry has bent over backwards to accommodate Bibi’s demands, seemingly working to get Bibi’s approval of an issue or proposal first before then taking it to the Palestinians for discussion. There doesn’t appear to have been any serious sticks applied to the Israeli delegation (though to be sure, we do not have a lot of information about the specifics of the negotiations), but there have been a lot of carrots—the Jewish state demand, Israel’s position on the Jordan Valley.

Whether it’s because President Obama is distracted by other events, because he doesn’t think he has the necessary domestic political capital, or because Kerry believes the key to genuine progress lies with Bibi rather than with Abbas, the Americans have simply been unwilling to bring the necessary pressure to bear.

On the domestic front, Bibi is doing well. The rebels in Likud who have been consistently challenging him on policy have not gotten anywhere. They haven’t been able to take control over the party’s governing institutions, and they haven’t been able to stop the talks or the prisoner releases (though it seems some movement on the latter issue is growing). Former Shas member Haim Amsalem has now joined Likud, and while it seems to be because he had nowhere else to go, the move still demonstrates the importance of Likud in Israeli politics. Recent polling has the electoral list of Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu gaining a few seats.

More importantly, the left still does not pose a serious electoral challenge to Bibi. It hasn’t presented an alternate message, and there doesn’t seem to be a coherent strategy to create one. In fact, Labor leader Isaac Herzog, for all the talk of him being able to present a more serious threat to Bibi than Shelly Yachimovich, seems to be agreeing more with Bibi’s bargaining positions than Shelly ever did. His main argument is that he doesn’t think Bibi is willing to go all the way to a peace deal. It’s not a message the electorate can rally around.

Of course a lot can happen to disrupt things and generate pressure on Bibi: a breakdown in talks over Iran’s nuclear program, a sudden uptick in Israeli-Palestinian violence. But these are unplanned developments rather than carefully thought out policies designed to bring the conflict to a resolution. That’s not an effective strategy for such an important issue.

A Big Week in Israeli Politics

This week Israel’s Knesset is set to pass three sets of major legislative changes. At The Forward I look at the positives and negatives of them:

This is a big week in Israeli politics. Three sets of bills are being introduced into the Knesset for their second and third readings, and all of them have far-reaching consequences. Though there has been much handwringing over them, over fears that Israeli democracy is being ruined, there is no doubt that the Israeli electoral and governance systems need to be fixed. Israel has had 33 governments since 1949 — an average of about one every two years. This makes for unstable government, increases coalition infighting, and undermines coherent policymaking. Still, the manner in which these bills are being passed is what makes them problematic.

In reality, two of the three bills are actually packages of bills, some of them long and detailed. Most contain some positive changes, but because they were passed relatively quickly and without as much opposition input as necessary, without a broader, comprehensive package of reforms, and because they were essentially trade-offs between various parties that make up the coalition (except Hatnua, which just wanted to remain in the government) they will have an overall negative effect on Israeli governance.

Follow the link for the full piece.

Israeli Ambivalence about Russia’s Crimean Adventure

I saw some people wondering on Twitter why Israel, supposedly a close ally of the United States, is so silent about Russia’s intervention in Crimea. It’s an easy answer: there are no gains to be had by publicly condemning Russia, but plenty of disincentives blocking such a response.

Israel is a close ally of the US. But allies perform different functions when necessary. Moscow isn’t going to change its mind if Israel comes out publicly against its actions. Nor will a firm Israeli condemnation bring other states on board; nobody waits to see the Israeli reaction to major events in Eurasia before deciding to follow suit.

From Jerusalem’s perspective, there are powerful reasons to avoid open denunciation, and even some things to be afraid of. First, there are fairly strong ethnic ties between Israel’s million-strong Russian minority and the motherland. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman remains, in many ways, a Russian nationalist (though he was born in Moldova), and he has long viewed his role as serving as a bridge between the two countries.

Second, Israel doesn’t like unnecessarily alienating Russia on an issue of little strategic importance to it. This is because Israel prefers to maintain an open line to the Kremlin on matters related to Russia’s Middle East policy, particularly arms sales to Israel’s enemies. In the past Israel has sometimes been able to convince Moscow to stop or slow down such sales, but lately it hasn’t had much success. Closing that door entirely makes no sense at this point, especially given that Israel’s security establishment has become concerned with a gathering jihadist storm on its borders.

Third, Israeli-Russian trade is important to Israel. They have already begun to negotiate a free trade agreement as part of Israel’s strategy of diversifying its relationships in the world in the face of concerns over European boycotts of the settlements.

Fourth, there are some worries in the Israeli government about anti-Semitism in Crimea and Ukraine more broadly. Despite what I said above, Benjamin Netanyahu does keep an eye on developments related to anti-Semitism abroad, and does want to be able to offer whatever protection he can to diaspora Jews. It may be that he has decided not to antagonize Putin in case he decides to call on Russian troops to protect the Jewish communities in the area. This, at the same time that Israel is trying to maintain ties to Ukrainian nationalists and pro-Western elements to expand business links.

The Crimean crisis is, then, another example of US-Israeli interests diverging. It should not be surprising, then, that the two see no necessary reasons to coordinate policy or public statements.

Recognizing Israel as Jewish Won’t Protect It

John Kerry’s focus of late has been to convince the Palestinians to recognize Israel as a Jewish state (or some version of one) as part of the framework for continuing negotiations. Many in Israel and in the U.S. have picked up on this call as a necessary component to achieving real peace, because it would convince Israelis that the Palestinians have truly given up all claims on the State of Israel.

In addition to what such a recognition would do to Palestinian citizens of Israel and to Palestinian identity (both concerns are, I think, dismissed too easily), formal Palestinian identification of Israel as Jewish won’t protect it against future claims. In Haaretz I explain why, with an emphasis on international law and the ingredients for successful settlement of border disputes.

Here’s the basic point:

But asserting that Israelis’ concerns might be eased because Mahmoud Abbas says so is questionable. Even more importantly, there are no legal or political mechanisms that can translate such recognition into protection against future claims. But there are legal and political mechanisms, as well as historical precedents, that can protect the State of Israel against claims on its territory—which is the real issue.

Follow the link for the complete piece.

Banning Nazi Analogies and Symbols in Israel

At The Forward I argued that Israel should not–as a new bill being considered proposes–ban the use of Nazi analogies and symbols. It is, I contend, a restriction on freedom of expression, and simply unnecessary.

Here’s a snippet:

One of Israel’s greatest strengths is its democracy. Elections are contested by tens of parties representing a wide range of interests and ideas, while Israelis’ ability to critique, disagree, and dissent has long been nearly unlimited. Indeed, it’s a regular comment that Israelis can say things about their politics that American Jews can’t.

Follow the link for more.

The Legacy of Ariel Sharon

Ariel Sharon, in a coma since January 2006, has fallen into critical condition and likely won’t live much longer. But his impact on Israel will last much longer. For most of the world he will always be a villain, but his legacy in Israel is more complicated. He had a catalytic effect on Israeli politics at least twice: in 1973 and in 1982. His formation of Kadima as a breakaway from Likud might be considered as contributing to a third major shift in Israeli politics.

Sharon was regarded as a war hero for a long time. Like most of Israel’s early leaders, he participated in the 1947-19 War. In the early 1950s he formed the famous/infamous Unit 101, a small guerilla unit whose mission was to retaliate against attacks by Palestinian terrorists and militants. It was, like all of Sharon’s activities, an aggressive enterprise. In 1953 he led Unit 101 on a retaliatory raid into Qibya, the West Bank (at the time part of Jordan). Scores of civilians were killed, solidifying Sharon’s reputation as someone who simply did what he believed he had to do, regardless of the consequences. Unit 101 was disbanded soon after, but some have argued that it was a major step in the process leading to the 1967 War.

As a commander in the 1956 Sinai Campaign, he was daring, insubordinate, and—again—aggressive (critics would say reckless). He performed similarly in the 1973 War, engineering a crossing of the Suez Canal that many believe turned the tide of the war in Israel’s favor. All of this earned him a well-respected and even admired reputation in Israel that he later built on for his political career.

It was about the same time that Sharon played an important role in his first shifting of Israeli politics. He was instrumental in the formation of Likud in 1973, an amalgamation of several parties on the right end of the political and economic spectrums. Until then, the leftist Mapai (the forerunner of Labor) had dominated the Israeli political system, serving as the senior partner in every government since 1948. Part of the reason the right had been unable to challenge Mapai/Labor was because it was divided into many smaller parties.

But Likud’s formation changed the political equation. Pushed by a series of social, demographic, and economic changes within the Israeli population and facilitated by the capture of the West Bank in 1967 and then the 1973 War, which clinched for many Israelis the sense that Mapai/Labor had stagnated and was out of touch with contemporary Israel, Likud’s founding made the right a viable political contender. In a shock to the political system, Likud won the 1977 elections with 43 seats to Labor’s 32, inaugurating an era of rightwing prominence that—despite National Unity Governments in the 1980s and Labor wins in 1992 and 1999—continues to this day.

Likud’s victory also served as the vehicle for religious Zionists and secular nationalists to more easily pursue their dreams of Greater Israel. Sharon, of course, played a critical role in this process, too, encouraging Israelis of all ideological and political stripes to move to the West Bank and Gaza.

Sharon’s second legacy was to change the sense of Israel’s security position. Prior to the 1982 invasion of Lebanon, Israelis widely perceived their conflicts to be wars of “no choice” (ein breira). That is, they were forced into them in order to defend their security and even survival. 1982 was different: it was the first war of choice, and as such changed the perception of the Israeli military and of Israel’s own behavior and, indeed, its very identity.

Launched ostensibly in response to an assassination attempt on the Israeli ambassador to the UK, it was really an effort by Sharon as Defense Minister, Raful Eitan as IDF Chief of Staff, and perhaps a few others (questions remain about how much Prime Minister Menachem Begin knew or suspected) to reorder the Lebanese political system and elevate the Maronite Christians to unchallenged leadership in the country. The Maronites would, it was presumed, be staunch allies of Israel and thus close down part of its northern border to Arab attack.

But the messy unfolding of the war—which included a direct invasion of Beirut, Israel’s indirect responsibility for the massacre of Palestinian civilians in the Sabra and Shatila refugees camps, and the occupation of a strip of southern Lebanon until 2000—galvanized opposition to the war. It led to the largest demonstration to that point in Israel’s history against the war. With the IDF’s actions bleeding into riot control and policing in the first intifada soon after (1987), the conceptualization of Israeli security policy was irrevocably changed.

One could add that Sharon’s third legacy was the formation of Kadima as a breakaway from Likud in November 2005, after the summer withdrawal from Gaza. Designed to be a vehicle for Sharon’s plans for partial withdrawal from the West Bank, it would be too much to say that Kadima upended the Israeli political system. But in 2006 it became the first party that wasn’t Mapai/Labor or Likud to form the government. Its electoral strength and popularity have declined sharply since then (it’s currently at two seats in the Knesset), but it might be said to have facilitated the decline of Labor and, to a lesser extent, Likud.

Much ink will be spent on analyzing Sharon’s personality and policies. He was certainly a polarizing figure, disliked and mistrusted even in Israel. But there is no denying the effect he had on Israeli politics.

How Erdoğan Has Reshaped Turkish Politics

Over at The Monkey Cage I have a piece on what the corruption scandals in Turkey mean for Turkish politics. A brief snippet:

Leaders who see themselves as infallible and who have no institutional constraints on their ability to make policy don’t leave power willingly. This can include leaders elected democratically. They weaken political institutions in their campaign to fend off challengers and remain in office. So whether or not Erdoğan survives is less important for Turkey than the damage being done to Turkish institutions, which in turn poses a real challenge for American interests in the Middle East that depend heavily on a strong Turkey.

Follow the link for more.

Turkish Politics is Exciting Again

From about 2002 to 2013, Turkish politics was boring. The AKP had come to dominate the political system, and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had come to dominate the AKP. The Turkish Armed Forces, having seemingly expended its last strength pushing Necmettin Erbakan out in 1997, was moving in slow motion, unable or unwilling to confront the AKP government and stop the hemorrhaging of its own autonomy and power. No credible political alternative existed to either Erdoğan or the AKP, leaving elections to be more about how much stronger the two might get than a real contest for power.

The outbreak of the Gezi protests in May followed by this week’s anti-corruption probe turns everything on its head. The latter, in particular, represents the most serious threat to Erdoğan’s power since 2002. It’s clear now that the AKP’s dominance has its limits; significant and various groups within Turkish society and politics don’t accept the increasing authoritarianism of the party or its leader. What’s not clear is how long opposition to the AKP can be maintained, and what the outcome of this very public clash might be. But some things that bear watching are:

1. It is, as Michael Koplow reminds us, part of a long-simmering rivalry between the Justice and Development Party and the Gülen movement. Both are powerful and entrenched in the Turkish polity and in society, which potentially makes this struggle very destructive of Turkey’s institutions. Erdoğan’s decision to eliminate the dershanes (preparatory schools designed to help Turks study for university entrance exams but run by Gülen), the anti-corruption investigation itself (which is looking into banks, politicians, and business enterprises), and the AKP’s campaign of dismissing police chiefs and investigators (widely seen as a response to the anti-corruption probe) will leave some gaps in important Turkish institutions. How—or whether—they are filled could have long-term effects.

2. Was 2002-2013 an incubation period? The rise to power of Erdoğan and the AKP was facilitated by the infighting and self-inflicted, mortal wounds of the secular parties, most of which vanished by 2002, and the unrepentant radicalism of Erbakan and the Welfare Party. This left the political field open to the AKP, without any serious challengers. It might be that rivals and opposition parties needed that time to recharge and re-form. I’m skeptical of such a process, since neither of the two existing non-AKP parties (The Republican People’s Party and the Nationalist Action Party) have the public support, organizational reach, or political savvy necessary to directly challenge the AKP and its leaders; and there aren’t any viable alternatives on the horizon either. But maybe in retrospect something else will be obvious.

3. The economy. I think that while both Gezi and the current anti-corruption probe pose serious challenges to the AKP and Erdoğan, there is still a long way to go before either loses power. These political processes might undermine their ability to protect their interests and promote loyal allies, but per my second point, it won’t matter without a political alternative. But the economic fallout of this instability could have a larger, longer, and more immediate effect. And because much of Erdoğan’s popularity rests on economic development and the economic gains that Turks have reaped since the 2000s, his and the AKP’s allure will be tarnished if these trends stall significantly or are reversed.

4. Is there hope for Abdullah Gül? Observers have long wondered about the polite rivalry between Erdoğan and Gül, the two preeminent leaders of the AKP. Conventional wisdom is that their respective powers are locked into a zero-sum game. On this point, Henri Barkey has a very interesting piece at Al-Monitor discussing whether Gül will, in fact, be the ultimate beneficiary of the Erdoğan-Gülen spat.

5. Finally, how will all of this affect Turkish foreign policy? Ankara’s international policy is in flux since the outbreak of the Arab uprisings, but it hasn’t been stable since the end of the Cold War. Given Erdoğan’s tendency to see international conspiracies everywhere, he is likely to emphasize this point as part of his reaction to the anti-corruption probe. But more worrisome is how distracting this will be to Turkey’s efforts to construct a viable foreign policy in the region. Given Turkey’s economic and diplomatic weight in the Middle East, a Turkey that staggers around without a clear sense of direction will make resolving the region’s problems that much more difficult. And as Turkey has trouble getting others to take it seriously again, it will continue to feed Turkish perceptions of Otherness, superiority, and wounded pride, undermining its ability to look after its own interests and work constructively with allies.

Still Going Strong

At Foreign Affairs, I argue that many American commentators who write on Israel fail to account for processes of change within its domestic politics, leading to incomplete analyses on how Israel reacts to the Iran deal. A close examination of shifts within Israel’s security establishment yields a more complete picture:

Most depictions of how Israel sees the recent nuclear accord with Iran are consistently shallow. When explaining what the deal means for Israel, Western analysts and journalists tend to focus on the differences between close political allies of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who denounced it as a “historic mistake,” and the Israeli security establishment (that is, serving and retired officials from the military and intelligence agencies), which is generally more tolerant of the deal. But it is misleading to think of Israeli policymaking just as a tug of war between those two camps, because disagreements between civilian and security leaders are normal, and because the public rhetoric on which such assumptions rest doesn’t allow for a consideration of wider trends and changes. Such a view leads to needlessly alarmist predictions about a coming split between Israel and the United States.

Follow the link for the full piece.