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.

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.

 

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.

Doves in Israel’s Security Network?

Yesterday, Israel’s outgoing National Security Advisor, Yaakov Amidror, said that if peace talks with the Palestinians fail, Israel’s international standing will worsen. Though he didn’t lay it out specifically, the logical extension of his argument is that the talks need to succeed if Israel is to be in a stronger regional and global position; and to succeed, Jerusalem will need to take them more seriously and be prepared to offer serious concessions.

Amidror is no lefty. He is a member of the religious Zionist community, which believes that the Land of Israel was given to the Jews by God, and therefore should not—indeed, cannot—be given up to an independent Palestinian state. But his comments reflect similar comments made by many, many former security officials once they’ve left their work in the military and intelligence communities. Out of office, they’ve all publicly mused—and some have been downright accusatory—about whether Israel’s policy toward the West Bank and settlements is creating unnecessary threats and leading Israel into moral corruption and physical danger.

• Former Chief of Staff Ehud Barak said that without a Palestinian state, Israel risked becoming an apartheid regime.

• Former Mossad head Meir Dagan argued that Israel’s needs to present a viable peace initiative, and that the Netanyahu government isn’t doing so.

• Former Mossad head Efraim Halevy has criticized Israel’s insistence that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state as a non-starter.

• And, of course, there are the highly critical comments by all of the living former chiefs of the Shin Bet.

These are only the most recent prominent examples. Before them, there was Shimon Peres (a notable hawk during his time in the Defense Ministry), Moshe Dayan, Yitzhak Rabin, Amram Mitzna, and others.

What gives? Do all these hard men, who have engaged in deception and violence during their careers, suddenly become soft and dovish out of office? Is there something about being a member of the security network that makes one a dove?

The short answer is “no.” But the long answer is “yes.”

To some extent it’s about personality and individual beliefs. Plenty of former security officials have become rightwing politicians: Rechavam Ze’evi joined Moledet and Rafael Eitan founded Tzomet, both far-right political parties. Effi Eitam joined the protests at the settlement of Amona in 2006, which tried to prevent the Israel Defense Forces from demolishing the buildings in accordance with government policy. Moshe Ya’alon became the pro-settlement Likudnik and current Defense Minister.

But there are also some structural and bureaucratic forces at play here that “hide” what are widely considered leftwing views among security officials while they are active, so that by the time they are able to speak publicly and freely it seems as though they have been “converted” to leftist ideology.

I’d argue that being privy to all kinds of detailed information about threats, challenges, and enemies’ intentions and capabilities certainly makes these security officials aware of the problem, but also aware that a range of policies is needed to both lessen the burden on the military/security forces as the primary or only units able to respond to these particular policy problems, and to undermine the ability of enemies and challengers to expand operations, gain supporters, and weaken Israel in the broader regional and global structures.

In other words, these officials understand that serious peace initiatives by Israel and an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank-Gaza are important policies that need to be pursued and have a good chance of diminishing threats to Israel.

Outside observers, though, don’t realize that many security chiefs might already be thinking these are necessary responses while they are on active duty because they aren’t going to publicly call out the government of Israel for not trying (or at least, most officials won’t do that). Thus working in agencies by nature secretive (like intelligence and defense) doesn’t allow for a comparison of their views during and after their service.

At the same time, there is the question why these officials cannot make such policies happen, if they really are convinced these are valid policy options. Part of it has to do with the nature of security decision-making in Israel, which—like in other states—is such that agencies often have to struggle for resources, attention, and influence. They have less ability to focus on already-difficult policy options when the process of decision-making takes up so much time.

There is also, of course, the nature of civilian leadership and the seeming lack of commitment to a serious peace process. This isn’t a Bibi thing, though many critics like to hold him accountable for the problem today. All civilian governments since before Bibi have had a difficult time moving forward on the peace process, including, in recent years, under Labor and Kadima governments.

Finally, I think there’s a process of prioritization that pushes serious efforts at peace to a secondary or subordinate position to more immediate physical-military threats to Israel. These security officials are the individuals responsible for the frontline defense of Israel; failure to protect Israel will result in the killing of Israeli citizens and the weakening of Israel’s borders and defenses. It seems likely that compared to negotiations with the Palestinian Authority, which has its own host of issues and problems, figuring out how to undermine terrorist organizations, defend against missiles, or disrupt enemies’ military capabilities are much “easier,” producing quicker and more obvious results.

Only after they leave active service might these officials have the breathing space to look back and wonder if they—and the country itself—have missed an opportunity to take a longer view.