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.

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.

The Geneva Deal Hasn’t Weakened Netanyahu

If further proof was needed that the P5+1–Iran deal made in Geneva doesn’t much threaten Benjamin Netanyahu’s position in Israeli politics, the Israel Democracy Institute’s November Peace Index provides it.

Two questions stand out for what they can tell us about what Israelis think of their prime minister ’s responsibilities or failures for it. First, when asked to rate “the way in which Prime Minister Netanyahu has dealt so far with the issue of Iran’s nuclear weapons program” on a scale of 1 to 10 (with 10 being excellent): only 28.1% of Israeli Jews gave him a 5 or under. 4.9% don’t know/refused to answer. That leaves 67% at 6 or above (20.4% at 8, 17% at 10). That’s a pretty positive assessment overall.

Second, in the wake of Bibi’s harsh rhetoric against the Iran deal, and worries of another major American-Israeli dust-up, new-old Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman publicly disagreed with Bibi’s handling of the situation, contending that Jerusalem was asking too much of the U.S., which was forcing Washington to distance itself from Israel. The Peace Index asked if “excessive Israeli demands indeed are the main reason for America’s distancing itself from Israel of late?”

Of Israeli Jews, only 6.5% said “I’m sure they are”; 20.6% said “I think they are”; while 37.6% “think they aren’t” and 25.5% is “sure they aren’t.” In other words, a clear majority, closing on two-thirds, don’t believe Bibi is ruining the relationship with the United States.

These findings represent a longstanding trend: Israelis have long been comfortable with Bibi at the helm of the national security ship. In part this is because there hasn’t been a genuine challenger to him in several years, in part it’s because Israelis have more or less had some years of personal security from terrorist attacks, and in part it’s because Bibi has been very successful at balancing out firm public positions and tough rhetoric with an avoidance of armed hostilities. The exception that was the attacks on Hamas in November 2012 seems to prove the rule: Netanyahu was careful to use military force only up to a point because of the unforeseen military and political consequences.

The November poll is only a snapshot of a given moment in time, in the immediate aftermath of the deal, at a moment when Israelis are very likely feeling the need to huddle together in the face of an external threat. That could change as talks on a final deal proceed, if Iran or someone else undermines the Geneva deal, on the fallout of a military attack on Iran, or depending on what happens with peace talks with the Palestinians. But for now, Israelis are—as they have long been—generally satisfied with Netanyahu’s performance in foreign affairs.

Lieberman is Back

Avigdor Lieberman has been acquitted of all charges of fraud and breach of trust. This will have considerable effects on Israeli politics and foreign policy.

As Carlo Strenger writes, Lieberman will now feel emboldened and be in a stronger position to pursue his goal of becoming the top leader of the right in Israel. This will, as Amir Mizroch notes, have a direct impact on coalition politics in Israel.

In foreign policy terms it’s likely the impact will be even starker. A country like Israel—small, in a protracted conflict, surrounded by hostile forces—relies heavily on great power support. Yet Washington is already suspicious of Jerusalem’s intentions, while Europe is increasingly willing to separate Israel from the West Bank. These conditions require Jerusalem to navigate varied and sometimes conflicting interests and pressures with nuance, tact, a long-term perspective, and a commitment to maintaining friendly and close relations with its benefactors. Lieberman is not the man to do this.

He is better known for his bombast and belligerence than his discretion and diplomatic skills. In 2001 he proclaimed that Israel should bomb Egypt’s Aswan Dam if Cairo turned its back on Israel. In 2009, when Shimon Peres and Ehud Olmert apologized to Hosni Mubarak for Lieberman’s comment that Hosni Mubarak can “go to hell,” Lieberman compared their behavior to that of a “battered wife.” In 2010, at a private dinner, he scolded French and Spanish leaders on solving Europe’s problems first before turning to the Middle East; he then gave his comments to the Israeli press. In 2012, he equated Europe’s position toward Israel with its position toward the Jews in the period leading to the Holocaust. This August he compared Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels.

None of this is helpful and there’s no evidence Lieberman has learned to temper his reactions to decisions and events he doesn’t agree with. Take two of Israel’s most urgent foreign policy issues: the peace process and reconciliation with Turkey.

The peace talks with the Palestinians have certainly been difficult from the beginning, and they may be breaking down even sooner than expected. But if Lieberman disdains Arab and European leaders for not adopting Jerusalem’s positions, he seems to hate Palestinian leaders, particularly Mahmoud Abbas. In theory he supports a two-state solution, and has even claimed he’d leave his home in the settlement of Nokdim if it is actually achieved. But in practice his conditions don’t leave much room for progress: he mistrusts the Palestinians, wants a very constrained Palestinian state, opposes the division of Jerusalem, and prefers to exchange Palestinian citizens of Israel for settlers.

Israel is also at a delicate moment in the reconciliation process with Turkey. Granted, the process is stalled because of the Turkish government’s reluctance to move forward. But at least there is a process, a forum for discussion. Lieberman would prefer there be no process at all. Recall that the Israeli apology to Turkey for what happened on the Mavi Marmara took place only after Lieberman left office. He was adamantly opposed to any expression of wrongdoing, and generally thinks apologizing is poor policy and a reflection of weakness.

It is certainly not all Israel’s fault that it’s in the position it is. The Palestinians and Turks deserve their full share of the blame for lack of movement in their negotiations, for instance. But Jerusalem cannot escape its responsibilities, either. With Lieberman as Foreign Minister and a member of the innermost cabinet, Israel’s positions on these and other issues will harden. Even apart from his personal inclinations, his reinvigorated effort to follow Benjamin Netanyahu into the prime ministry will push him and his rivals to adopt more hardline policies as they compete for support from their rightist base. All of this will make it much more difficult to strengthen ties, build trust, and persuade others of the validity of Israel’s position.

Foreign policy—again, especially for small states—requires the ability to adapt to changing conditions, constraints, and opportunities. It’s just not clear Lieberman is interested in doing so.

The Domestic Politics of Israeli Peacemaking

At Foreign Policy’s The Middle East Channel I have a piece on how Israel’s domestic politics might facilitate a genuine Israeli effort in peace talks with the Palestinians. Here’s a teaser:

The (possible) resumption of direct and high-level talks between Israel and Palestine has generated a wide range of reactions among analysts and pundits. Much of it has been negative, particularly when it comes to presumptions about Israeli intentions. The standard assumption among observers is of a stronger rightwing government, with a couple maybe-centrists here and there, facing off against a weaker leftwing opposition — a formula that many assume can only mean the continuation of the status quo.

Things may turn out that way, but we simply cannot know at this point. Information is contradictory and incomplete. More importantly, the domestic politics of peacemaking in Israel encompasses multiple considerations among a variety of parties. It is too simplistic to contend that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is a rightwing ideologue who is only stalling for time, while Israel’s intra- and inter-party struggles and politicians’ personal ambitions will exert considerable influence over how committed Israel is to talks.

Follow the link for the rest of the piece.

 

 

In Thinking about New Israeli-Palestinian Peace Talks

John Kerry has just announced a basis for restarting talks between Israelis and Palestinians in Washington. More specifically: “We have reached an agreement that establishes a basis for resuming direct final status negotiations between the Palestinians and the Israelis.” He added that “The agreement is still in the process of being formalized.”

This probably doesn’t sound all that exciting or new to most. But it needs to be remembered that, under the current conditions in the Middle East, with Benjamin Netanyahu struggling with a rightist party and government coalition, and with Abbas struggling against Hamas, institutional decay, and growing dissatisfaction among the Palestinian population, it’s no easy thing to bring the two sides together for direct talks at a high level.

That said, lots can still happen to derail things, including even before the talks start. Here are some other things we should bear in mind as the process moves forward:

1. Most people expected Netanyahu to keep putting this off and not be serious about it. As I’ve been arguing for many months now, Bibi can be pushed into talks. He isn’t an ideologue; he’s a pragmatic opportunist. He does believe, deeply, that Jews have a historical and biblical claim to the West Bank, and if nothing were standing in his way he probably would do his utmost to extend Jewish sovereignty over it all. But there are obstacles, and more than anything Bibi wants to remain in power and focus on external threats to Israel (primarily Iran). Under these conditions, getting him to talk was always more possible than many presumed.

2. Similarly, most people assumed Mahmoud Abbas was too weak or uninterested to agree to genuine talks. If we didn’t already realize it with the Oslo negotiations, that both he and Netanyahu have been able to—thus far, anyway—tells us something about Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking: namely, avoiding deterministic assumptions.

3. Importantly, this is only a beginning to talks, not an agreement. There are plenty of material and emotional obstacles blocking an easy pathway to success. Building on the point above, I’m not convinced Bibi would be willing to sign a final agreement ending all Jewish claims to the West Bank. (I’m not so sure Mahmoud Abbas wants to be the one to end it all, either.) But making progress is important and highly relevant. It will set positive conditions for the continuation of talks, build confidence, and make it easier for the next Israeli and Palestinian leaders to finish the work begun here.

4. It seems that Tzipi Livni and Saeb Erekat will be leading the talks. I’m not so sure how useful that is. Both are experienced, and both have proven—despite some backpeddling at times—genuinely interested in a deal. But it’s not clear how much support from their political masters either has. Both are politically weak, without much of their own power base, and so will be limited by the specific instructions Bibi and Abbas give them. Time will tell if that’s enough to construct a stable platform for continuing.

5. Kerry expended enormous energy to make this happen, devoting most of his time to this one issue even while developments elsewhere in the Middle East require urgent attention. It remains to be seen whether he can maintain that level of determination and pressure to help the talks along. Without it, I’m less optimistic the process will move forward.

6. Hamas won’t be happy.

7. On Israel’s domestic front, there are lots of questions remaining about what Naftali Bennett (leader of Jewish Home) and Yair Lapid (leader of Yesh Atid) will do. Neither has been all that enthusiastic about the peace process. (I realize that’s a gross understatement about Bennett.) They’ll be put to the test now: will they support the talks and anything that comes out of it? It’s likely that Livni will have to report back to Bibi (either directly or through his personal emissaries to the peace talks) on any substantive issues, no matter how minor. How much support his coalition gives him will help determine how likely Bibi is to keep the talks going.

Bennett had previously said he wouldn’t break the coalition apart over talks; just yesterday he reversed himself. That’s not surprising. In addition to being ideologically opposed to any withdrawals from the West Bank (he wants to outright annex all of Area C), Bennett’s party is made up of at least a couple factions that struggled against each other before being united into Jewish Home; and all are opposed to giving up Jewish control over the West Bank. Bennett’s election as party leader was never a sure thing, and was contested from the beginning. His institutional position is threatened as well, then; he can’t afford to agree to anything that might endanger his place at the top of the party. Either he’d be forced out (and it wouldn’t be easy to find another institutional home), or he’d remain but the party would break apart, weakening Bennett’s ability to win seats in the next election.

As for Lapid, nobody knows what he might do. His party has many doves in it, but his ambition to become prime minister means he needs to play more to the right for votes. If he sees the population is increasingly in favor of talks, though, he’ll probably go with it.

8. This could be Shelly Yachimovich’s opportunity to seize the mantle of promoter of the peace process. Assuming Bennett pulls out of the government, Labor could fill the gap. Even if he doesn’t, Bibi might be thinking about bringing Labor in for extra insurance.

9. Look what Israel has been able to accomplish without Avigdor Lieberman in the government: the apology to Turkey, and now progress in peace talks. Just saying.

10. All of what I’ve just written could well prove to be meaningless. This is, after, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.