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.

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.

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.

Some Thoughts on the EU Decision to Separate Israel from the West Bank

Barak Ravid has a blockbuster story in Haaretz: The European Union will now require all its member states to forbid “any funding, cooperation, awarding of scholarships, research funds or prizes to anyone residing in the Jewish settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.” Even more importantly, the guidelines declare that “any agreement or contract signed by an EU country with Israel include a clause stating that the settlements are not part of the State of Israel and therefore are not part of the agreement.” (Some reports suggest the guidelines will also apply to the Golan Heights.)

In other words, the EU will now explicitly distinguish between Israel and the occupied West Bank; and if Israel wants to continue doing any business with the supra-national organization, it will have to admit to this division and lay the groundwork for a genuine separation of sovereignty.

The details of the guidelines have yet to be published, and Israel’s response could change things a little, too. But it’s hard to imagine the EU throwing out its new directives now. It seems to be something Israel will have to accept and adapt to. Here are some quick thoughts, then, on the implications of the EU decision.

1. It’s another signal that the international community is fed up with simply noting the Israeli occupation, and is taking concrete political, economic, and legal action to try and end it. (See also: Palestinian statehood efforts at the United Nations.) Unless Israel wants to be like North Korea, it will have to start recognizing and abiding by these changes.

2. Given that the European Union is Israel’s largest trading partner, Israel will have no choice but to comply with the guidelines—that is, it will have to admit, in legally binding contracts, that the West Bank don’t belong to Israel and will be excluded from the economic transactions. This builds the foundation for continued international efforts to separate Israel from the West Bank.

3. It’s hard to know exact figures when it comes to the place of settlement products in Israeli trade—one estimate put exports from the settlements to the EU at only about 2% of the overall trading relationship. That still adds up to $300 million; the loss isn’t something to sneeze at. The shortfall will have to be made up, either by increasing trade with other actors or by Israeli government subsidies. This, in turn, will have a negative effect on the government budget, which is already in dire straits, forcing Jerusalem to confront some serious financial and budgetary discrepancies.

4. I don’t think this was part of the EU’s intention, but an EU boycott of the settlements will probably energize the BDS movement—which seeks to isolate Israel (not just the settlements) in all of the areas covered by the new guidelines.

5. Paradoxically, at the same time the EU boycott of settlements might energize domestic forces in Israel and American Jewish or other external groups fighting against the occupation. Ravid quotes EU officials as noting that part of the motivation behind the exclusion of settlements is “to be sure that Israel’s participation is not put in question”—in other words, to make sure that Israel is not boycotted or excluded. The EU’s separation of the West Bank from Israel could be used as proof that the settlements are an albatross around Jerusalem’s neck, but that the country itself isn’t in danger just because others oppose the settlements.

6. Also on the Israeli domestic front, the EU decision might galvanize politicians and parties already predisposed to view the settlements as a major political problem. Yesh Atid’s leader Yair Lapid has already said that the decision “will enhance Israel’s isolation” and that time isn’t on Israel’s side. They may be more willing to take a more active position against the settlement enterprise, and in doing so add further pressure on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to make a serious effort to restart peace talks with the Palestinians. Similarly, it might breathe new life into the recent efforts by the Labor Party and Meretz to use the occupation as a stick with which to beat the government.

Update: Damien Cristofari, an EU official dealing with the Middle East, tweeted that the directives apply only to EU-funded programs, and won’t affect bilateral agreements between member states and Israel.

Update 2: The EU guidelines are now publicly available. See here.

Blaming Shelly Yacimovich

Uri Misgav has written a scathing post taking apart Shelly Yacimovich’s leadership of Israel’s Labor Party. He raises a number of good points, but I think he’s also a little unfair to her. But most important, I think he mistakes Yacimovich’s problems at the helm for problems in party itself. Put another way, if Labor—and Laborites—commit to some serious changes, Yacimovich’s “faults” will appear less tragic and self-induced.

Misgav starts off criticizing Yacimovich for wanting to move the party’s primaries up in order to avoid potential competition from potentially attractive candidates like Gabi Ashkenazi. By doing so he seems to want to tar her with an unprecedented cynicism and lust for power—as though all of Labor’s leaders were not driven by the same motivations.

But consider what the party’s most recent leaders have done. Ehud Barak literally broke the party up so he could remain in government. Amir Peretz and Amram Mitzna abandoned the party when they couldn’t get everything they wanted and went over to Tzipi Livni’s center-right party, where they thought they’d have more influence. Shimon Peres, too, left the party to join Ariel Sharon’s center-right Kadima. Does it sound like Yacimovich is doing anything out of the ordinary?

Misgav then critiques Yacimovich’s decisions during the recent electoral campaign, faulting her for Labor’s meager improvement of only two seats out of what he calculates to be 32 up for grabs. As I’ve argued before, not all of Labor’s less-than-stellar results are Yacimovich’s fault.

Importantly, I’m not sure that Mizgav’s assumption of 32 seats available to Labor is accurate under the conditions of the election. The appearance of Hatnua and Yesh Atid were beyond Yacimovich’s control, and the Israeli public likes to throw some votes to third parties, at least for a single election.

In addition, polling data told the party that the public was simply less interested in talking about the conflict with the Palestinians or the settlements; their top concerns were domestic social and economic problems. While talking mostly about these matters, she also reinvigorated the party by bringing in new candidates who were known to be focused on these issues. But I do agree with Misgav that Yacimovich’s mistake on this issue was, when she became willing to talk about it, to try to seem more rightwing than Labor has been in recent years in order to siphon off potential Yesh Atid and then Hatnua voters. It’s not clear how convincing she could be, and she lost some leftwing voters who were turned off by her seeming turn to the center-right.

In short, it’s not Yacimovich that is the problem here, but the party’s internal laws that threaten a leader so soon after elections. And it’s the fault of its top politicians who always see themselves as the more competent, even rightful, leader of the party.

Labor’s power has been in decline for many years, and it’s simply not realistic to expect one person to change all of that around over the course of one election. What the party needs is a long period of unity so that it can work on expanding its grassroots organization, craft a clear and consistent message to the Israeli public, and accept its leader’s right to remain in the position for a significant period of time. Until that happens, Laborites and pundits will continue to blame the leader for the party’s deeper problems.