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.

Shas after Ovadia Yosef

Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, spiritual and political head of Shas and one of the greatest Torah sages in a generation, has passed away; he was 93 years old. Yosef was a controversial figure, whose words and deeds garnered both praise and condemnation (for quick takes, see these Times of Israel and New York Times stories on his life, work, and legacy).

His death will have implications for Shas and, from there, for Israeli politics. It’s too soon to say with any certainty what these might be, but we can identify some possibilities. Here are three quick takes on what these might be:

1. The most obvious one is a split in the party, between doves—call it the pro-Aryeh Deri camp—and hawks—call it the Eli Yishai camp. (In reality it’s more complex, composed of several moving parts, including familial and religious divisions, but this simplification works well enough for now.) The former is more open to peace talks (if still suspicious of Palestinian motives and trustworthiness), and more tolerant and inclusive of who can live within the Israeli polity. The latter takes a more hardline approach to peace talks (ranging from opposing them altogether to not seeing a need for them right now), and more intolerant and even xenophobic toward different social groups within Israel.

I think Shas has institutional momentum, and probably won’t split or collapse right away. Leaders will also want to present a unified front in the immediate aftermath of Yosef’s death. Still, a split would be perfectly normal for Israeli religious parties, all of which (Shas, United Torah Judaism, and Jewish Home) are the product of a series of splits and mergers going back to the founding of the state itself; Shas is a breakaway party from Agudat Israel, itself a faction of UTJ. Indeed, all three of today’s religious parties are composed of different factions.

2. Yosef was a towering and unifying figure; he commanded a level of respect and even adoration among his immediate followers and among the broader Sephardi-Mizrachi population that formed Shas’s voter base. In the 1970s and early 1980s, most of these voters supported Likud; their shift away from it helps explain Likud’s decline at the polls. It’s not clear how many of these voters will stay with Shas, particularly given the party’s exclusion from government and its inability to look after its constituents’ needs.

Sephardi voters also tend to be a little more hawkish than not. If Likud, and especially its own hardliners, make a play for these votes, they could well move back to Likud in large enough numbers to gain two or three seats for the party.

3. A broken-down Shas would weaken prospects for a two state solution, if the party falls under the control of hardliners like Yishai and Shlomo Amar or if the party becomes too disorganized to play an important role in politics. In the past Shas’s political and moral support for peace talks was an important legitimizer of them; today, with a rightwing government in power and most peace-oriented parties in the opposition, the latter needs as much support as it can get. Without Shas, they will have a harder time convincing Benjamin Netanyahu that they have the momentum in the Knesset and among the public to actively pursue a final agreement.

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.

Bibi’s Coming Unstable Coalition

Over at Open Zion I argue that the coalition government Bibi is about to bring together will have tensions automatically built into it. This will likely cause the coalition to collapse before it serves out its full term:

By all accounts, the coalition negotiations in Israel will conclude in the next day or two, with a government in place by the end of the week. It’s been expected for some time now that the government will be composed of Likud-Beiteinu, Tzipi Livni’s HaTnua (which has already signed a coalition agreement with Benjamin Netanyahu), Yesh Atid, Jewish Home, and Kadima.

With a total of 70 votes in the Knesset such a coalition would be—in theory at least—very stable. But it’s more likely that the coalition will build into itself the very conditions for its early demise.

Netanyahu could well be the only one involved in the coalition discussions who isn’t happy about leaving the haredi parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism, out in the cold. Though it might seem as though general agreement on leaving them out is a stabilizing factor, it could instead lead to a greater effort by these parties and their constituents to push hard to change the calculus of voting and politicking in the next round of elections, or even before then.

After all, despite the fact that they have already begun preparing for their exclusion, the haredi parties aren’t out of the game yet. There are enormous implications to their absence from government, including a redistribution of the resources that used to go to their communities; the nature of the military draft; the status of halacha in personal status issues ranging from marriage to divorce to citizenship; and genuine reform of the electoral and political systems. Because all of these would directly affect their political power, they can be expected to continue to fight even after the agreement is signed to return to power. This includes enticing Netanyahu away from Jewish Home, the party they apparently now see as their primary obstacle if not enemy.

There are still some issues to be hammered out in the coalition bargaining, including which party gets how many and which ministries and the framework that will govern Israeli policy toward the peace process (which may require a renegotiation of Bibi’s agreement with Livni). It’s likely the intense discussions between Likud, Yesh Atid, and Jewish Home continuing to take place will resolve at least most of these issues, but it’s just as likely they’ll paper over the differences. Signing an agreement on these policy problems and actually following through on them are not the same thing. The latter will be even harder than the former. In other words, any of these issues could crack open the coalition.

Personal ambitions and differing party objectives will probably also serve to make the coalition more fragile than it might appear on the surface. Yesh Atid’s leader Yair Lapid is skeptical about taking on the Finance portfolio. Given the necessity of major changes to the economy and the budget, whoever takes that Ministry will be extremely unpopular among much of the population and will be subject to intense and competing demands from other ministers for a share of the shrinking pie. Whatever comes out of such reforms could well affect his party’s ability to compete as successfully in the next election, and thus change the distribution of votes. He’ll be very much aware of these implications.

Similarly, Jewish Home’s position on settlements and Israeli sovereignty over the West Bank is at odds with all of its coming coalition partners except Likud-Beitinu. Despite Naftali Bennett’s insistence that the peace process should not lead to any serious change in the status quo (unless it’s to annex parts of the West Bank), Livni’s presence in the government, President Barack Obama’s coming visit to Israel, and a host of other conditions all point to a renewed interest in the peace process. If Obama is successful at convincing Israel to adopt his position regarding Iran, he’ll be able to demand something in return.

Similar to George H.W. Bush’s trading of Iraq for Madrid, Obama could well demand something concrete on negotiations with the Palestinians, and Netanyahu will be open to such pressure. This, in turn, would likely push Bennett out of the coalition.

A successful conclusion to the negotiations would be welcome so that the government can get back to the process of governing. But the fact that it was so difficult to get to this point, and that there are plenty of issues requiring urgent attention but with no easy solutions, indicates that plenty of uncertainty will remain even after the agreement is signed.

Why Is Obama Going to Israel?

Yesterday I tweeted that I was pre-empting speculation and that no, Obama’s coming trip to Israel wasn’t about Iran. It was a response to the conventional wisdom that seems to always assume everything about Israel is about Iran—from last year’s short-lived Likud-Kadima government to the recent elections. But I did receive some pushback on the point, so here’s a fuller accounting of why I made the remark.

It should, though, be obvious that Iran will be near the top of the agenda. It’s a major issue for Israelis, including security officials, and despite the progress made on convergence of their positions, there are still gaps between the American and the Israeli understanding of how to deal with Iran. An Obama trip to the country gives him a direct sense of what the government is thinking and why, which could close some of this distance.

Beyond that, there is the fact that Colin Kahl, who worked for Obama during the election campaign, all but promised during a conference call with the media last July that there would be a visit if Obama was re-elected. Not following through would raise serious questions about Obama himself and his administration at a time when he’s facing all sorts of domestic pressure from pro-Israel Jewish groups and politicians to Republicans.

At the same time, the rest of Obama itinerary provides clues to his motivations. He’ll also be visiting with Palestinian and Jordanian leaders. These countries aren’t important for the confrontation against Iran, but they are for the peace process. Jordan’s domestic problems and its proximity to the Syrian civil war highlight its importance in other ways. In fact, given Israel’s growing concern about the consequences of the breakdown of central authority in Syria, that country is likely to be as high as Iran on the agenda.

The optics count, too. It’s the diplomatic version of smoothing things over and establishing a more personal basis with Benjamin Netanyahu on which to conduct the next four years of policy.

All of this raises the question of timing. In theory Obama could have gone later in the year. But reports are that he is going in March or April. I can think of several reasons.

His new Secretary of State, John Kerry, has already called Israeli and Palestinian leaders to tell them the peace process is one of his priorities. He’ll be visiting the region possibly within the month. An Obama follow-up will underline the importance of the relationship and demonstrate commitment to issues of concern to both countries.

Also, it’s likely that the new Israeli government will have been formed by the time of the visit. The weakening of Likud-Beiteinu and the strengthening of the soft right (Yesh Atid) and the left (Labor, Meretz) have opened up space for a different kind of government than the previous one. Although there is some debate over whether the likely inclusion of Yesh Atid can kick start the peace process, the unexpected priority that the administration has placed on this issue indicates that the president sees this as an opportune moment to remind Israel and Israelis that the US has their back, that peace is necessary for Palestinians and Israelis, and to provide some cover for Netanyahu on this issue against members of his own party, Yisrael Beiteinu, and possibly Jewish Home (if it’s included in the coalition).

Finally, Obama has been stung by accusations that his administration is at best insensitive to Israel and at worst anti-Israel. A visit to Israel is the most effective visible way to counter these attacks. We are constantly reminded by the president’s supporters that only four sitting presidents have ever visited Israel. Joining this small club is an effective way for Obama to address these kinds of domestic and Israeli concerns.

More specifically, the AIPAC conference is scheduled for March 3-5. It’s not clear yet whether Obama will be again speaking to the convention. If he does, he’ll be able to claim not only that he continues to show his commitment to Israeli security through military support, but can demonstrate a personal interest as well—the all-important kishkes factor. And if he’s not speaking at the conference, a visit to Israel is surely the next best thing.

Coordinating against Iran will be an important topic of discussion during Obama’s visit. But the president doesn’t have to travel to Israel for that; his political and defense officials can and do exchange visits with their Israeli counterparts for such purposes. I think, rather, that this convergence of factors explains the motivation and the timing of Obama’s visit.

Coalition Considerations after the Vote

The Israeli election is upon us, or at least upon them. There have been lots of good analyses about the campaign and likely results of the voting—though there has been less discussion of possible outcomes of coalition bargaining. But this is important—the voting itself will heavily influence what government eventually emerges after several weeks of discussions, but several other factors will come into play, including how the parties determine their interests, the number of seats each got, and the regular give-and-take of politics.

Most of those who have considered what a post-election government will look like have assumed it will be a right-religious one. This is entirely plausible, but as I’ve argued already I don’t think it’s a given. Here are some of what I think are these other factors, all predicated on the assumption Netanyahu will be asked to form the government:

- Benjamin Netanyahu is more interested in stability and maintaining his position than anything else. He’s a pragmatic opportunist, and he can be pushed (through domestic and international pressure). He’s very committed to making Israel a free market economy, as his work in the 1990s and 2000s and his spinning away from promises to account for the demands of the 2011 tent protests have demonstrated. But he is open, I think, to moving around on other domestic issues like electoral reform, the haredi draft, and religious freedom. On the peace front, while I don’t think he wants to actively pursue an independent Palestinian state and does believe settlements are a legitimate expression of Jewish identity, he has in the past signed agreements (Wye River, Hebron) under the right conditions. In other words, his conceptualization of interests opens the door to more potential coalition partners than it seems.

- Tzipi Livni is desperate to make something of herself out of this election. I won’t say it’s her last chance, but she did nothing constructive when she served as leader of Kadima. Her perhaps surprising ability to garner 7-10 mandates, according to polls, is an indication that her name still matters. Look for her to try to enter the coalition; if she doesn’t, she’ll have nothing to show for two election cycles, which could well end her political career.

- Yair Lapid seems to have surged toward the end of the campaign, again according to polls. He, too, isn’t interested in remaining outside of government. Look for him to get in so that he can work on his credibility, legitimacy, and experience.

- The coalition negotiations will prove trying for Shas. In addition to competing with another religious party (Jewish Home), it will have to compete on the social-economic front with Yesh Atid, Labor, and possibly Am Shalem as well. Its position is the weakest it’s been in for a long time because of the emergence of so many rivals to its key positions.

- Final thought for now: whatever coalition does emerge, don’t get too excited or lose hope (depending on your views of it). It would not be a surprise if the coalition doesn’t stay together for four years. Bibi has a lot more choice than usual, but this also makes whatever government he puts together more unstable in the sense that the more parties there are inside and the more waiting for their chance in the wings, the more he and they can play everybody off everybody else.

There are some shared ideas between different sets of parties, but each of them still represents a set of very narrow interests. Those parties in government will have to stay true to them if they want to remain credible to their constituencies—and that includes those with narrow constituencies and those that are fighting for the same ones. But if they stay too true to them, in the face of competing demands from coalition partners and policies they don’t like, they can lose their position in the government. I suspect these dynamics will very much matter.

For other good posts about things to consider at this point in the election, read Michael Koplow’s piece and Noam Sheizaf’s analysis.