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.

 

 

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.

Taksim Square Meets Rothschild Boulevard

When the Gezi Park and Taksim Square protests first broke out, analysts immediately thought of the Arab Awakening. The comparison might seem obvious at first glance—Tahrir and Taksim can also make for a nice alliteration. I suggested that the better comparison might be Israel’s social justice protests (better known as J14).

Over at Ottomans and Zionists, Michael Koplow does a good job of exploring why such a comparison might be the appropriate way to go—including the nature of democracy and the popularity of the ruling party in Israel compared to the Arab states. I think he’s right: both the Israeli and the Turkish protests were driven by middle-class voters, who demanded/demand greater public accountability and participation in governmental decision-making. Few were/are advocating for a wholesale change in the system.

If J14 is the model, then we also need to think more about how the protests might end.

Israel’s social protests began in 2011, and continue into 2013. But the momentum has diminished considerably, for a number of reasons. Analysts of the Turkish protests and the demonstrators themselves might take note of these reasons, and learn from the Israeli experience.

First, because the protests were driven by middle class voters, it was hard to keep the momentum going for too long. Protestors need to work, take care of their families, and so on. By the end of the first year, rallies were held on the weekend and had taken on more of a party-like atmosphere, a place to hang out, than an effort to effect genuine political change.

Second, there was a concerned government effort to shut the Israeli rallies down, including the use of force. While this alone isn’t necessarily enough to put an end to protests, it certainly dampens enthusiasm for all but the most die-hard. In the Arab states, it was extreme police violence, including the killing of demonstrators, which helped galvanize the masses. One might even argue that the Israeli police—and the Turkish police thus far—are inadvertently maintaining a “proper” balance between “light” and extreme violence, and thus depriving the protestors of another spark.

[Update: It's been pointed out, particularly by Gabriel Mitchell and Dahlia Scheindlin, that the Israeli police's use of force was either minimal or more in line with the coercion used against Palestinians rather than Jewish-Israeli protestors. Both points are well taken. My purpose was to note some common use of force in both cases (beatings, arrests), but yes, the Turkish police response has certainly been far more violence.]

Third, the government co-opted many of the demands of J14 by appointing the Trajtenberg Committee to look into the reasons behind the unrest and to suggest plausible ways of accounting for their concerns. The Committee took its role seriously, meeting with protest leaders (at least in the big cities) and trying to offer some solutions. These tended to fall within the government’s neoliberal priorities, but it was genuine. Showing itself willing to meet protestors’ demands took some of the wind out of J14’s sails.

Fourth, in a political system that boasts strong parties and a strong executive—particularly where the government has considerable control in the parliament—extra-parliamentary movements have a difficult time translating their activities into political gains. This was certainly the case in Israel, which apart from the settler movement does not have a tradition of powerful interest groups operating outside the political arena. There’s no indication that Turkey is much different.

Fifth, some of the main leaders of the social protests had political aspirations. Whether they were intentionally using J14 as specific vehicles or not, after the first year and a half they started to move into the political arena, particularly into the Labor Party, which they argued was the next stage in achieving real social-economic change.

Finally, Israel held an election in January 2013. While it was some time after the start of J14, it was close enough that protestors could manifest some of their concerns and demands into voting—which again removed some of the impetus for keeping the rallies going. That the Labor Party and Meretz (traditionally associated with more government involvement in society) gained seats and the centrist Yesh Atid absorbed many of the middle class votes that reflected the J14 demands may have satisfied the base of the demonstrations for now.

It’s too early to say definitively that J14 had a major effect on policy in Israel. Now that the government budget has been presented in Israel and it’s proven tough on the middle class—to be fair, a tough budget was necessary given Israel’s deficit—protests might regain the momentum they had two years ago. But then again, they might not; that many of their demands have not been met could be an indication that the system has simply absorbed them without any lasting change.

Are similar conditions emerging in Turkey?

The Knesset’s Opportunity

Amir Mizroch has smartly laid out what Israeli party leaders, especially Yair Lapid, need to do for the good of the country. But today the Knesset also has an opportunity to effect real change in Israel.

Historically Israel’s parliament has not been very strong vis-à-vis the government. The structure of the electoral system, the nature of coalition governments, the sheer variety of parties in the Knesset, and the security situation (which privileges government secrecy and allows for lots of latitude in decision-making) all combine to strengthen the executive at the expense of the legislature.

But if enough of its members work together on specific issues, the Knesset can, I think, push for important changes on a wide range of domestic issues. Of course some members will be inside the government and some outside of it. But with coalition agreements always resting on a knife’s edge, and many new activists now in parliament, there are several issues they can find common ground on, even apart from the most prominent one (sharing the burden). There is a real need for changing societal attitudes about race and ethnicity, improving the status of women, reforming the education system, developing infrastructure, finding a more equitable distribution of resources, and teaching tolerance between communal and sectarian groups.

Yesh Atid’s list is filled with people who have worked in these and other areas. So is Labor’s. Even Tzipi Livni’s Hatnua has Amir Peretz and Amram Mitzna. A strengthened Meretz and a bloc of Arab parties that are also concerned with the same issues could add further votes to any such efforts.

Moreover, Livni and the Arab parties could leverage their support for domestic issues into reinforcement for their other concern, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This, in turn, has a feedback loop for the reduction in militarism in Israeli society, the clamping down on dissent, and a decline in the politics of fear.

The obstacles to this kind of cooperation are numerous, obviously. That doesn’t make it any less important to try. If the speeches that many Knesset members have given at their inauguration are anything to go by, and individuals can put aside their own political ambitions and petty squabbling, there is a chance.

More Flawed than Normal?

The Israeli electoral and party systems have long been broken. Political parties were always breaking apart and merging—indeed, both Labor and Likud are themselves amalgamations of several factions, some of which have over time left the party and then returned to it. Up until the late 1990s it still functioned relatively well.

But this year’s election process seems more flawed than usual. Or maybe it’s because the process is more exposed than usual. Tzipi Livni, for instance, has been making political announcements on her Facebook page since she left Kadima. And there are a number of really good Israeli journalists tweeting from virtually every public meeting the parties have been holding.

First, the center/center-left is far more fragmented than ever before. It makes no electoral sense for there to be a Labor, a Tzipi Livni Party, a Yesh Atid, and a Kadima. It’s true that in the past there have been several parties clumped on a particular spot on the political spectrum. What’s different this time is that none of these parties show any sign of willingness to work closely with each other. Worse, they’ve all given indications that they’ll jump into a government with Bibi and Likud at the first opportunity.

Second, the sheer ego that’s been driving the electoral process is more staggering than normal. Individuals have been forming and leaving parties seemingly on a whim. Tzipi Livni didn’t want to play second fiddle to anybody else, so she formed a brand new party named after her. Yair Lapid didn’t want to be in second place either, so he, too, formed his own party.

Ehud Barak abandoned the party he specifically formed to enter government because he couldn’t handle the embarrassment of staying with it to the bitter end. Amir Peretz sulked because he was at number three in Labor and couldn’t get Shelly Yachimovich to give in to his demands, so he left the party he had once led and went to Livni.

Haim Amsalem was kicked out of Shas for dissenting from the party’s rabbinical line, and formed Am Shalem. Michael Ben Ari and Aryeh Eldad didn’t like the new leadership in National Union, so they left to form Strong Israel.

If the stakes for Israelis and Palestinians weren’t so high, this would make for a good drama—or comedy. (Michael Koplow appropriately compared Israeli politics to an HBO series.)

But weighty issues remain to be adequately dealt with. Hamas and Hezbollah are clearly much stronger than ever before; relations with Turkey and Egypt are persistently stagnant, with no sign of potential improvement any time soon; the Iranian nuclear question is coming to a head within the next six to 12 months; the Syrian endgame looks to be here; and the recognition of Palestine as a non-member state at the UN is raising new questions about political and legal maneuvers and putting renewed emphasis on Israeli policies toward the West Bank.

Israel is distracted from dealing with these issues because parties and politicians are busy fighting for what they see as their rightful share of the political pie. The saddest part of it all is that the outcome of the elections is unlikely to change things all that much. The right is likely to still get between 65 and 68 seats, or more (the most recent poll gives it 73 Knesset seats—though I should repeat that I’m not convinced “left” and “right” are necessarily helpful categories). Bibi will probably still be prime minister. And, as I said, most parties would join Bibi’s coalition if they could—except the Arab parties (which won’t be asked) and Meretz (which seems most likely to stand more on principle than any other party).

The silver lining is that the electoral lists are now set, by law. We’ll see less overt and public plotting and scheming…at least until January 23.