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.

 

 

Laying The Groundwork For A Rightist Government?

This piece was published in Open Zion on November 8. It is reprinted here in full.

Arutz Sheva reported today that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called Naftali Bennett to congratulate him on his election as the new leader of Jewish Home, the reincarnation of the old religious Zionist party, Mafdal. The story speculated that this was a signal of a reconciliation between the two leaders, who hadn’t spoken in three years, which in turn likely paves the way for Jewish Home to enter a Likud-led coalition after the January election.

This assumption shouldn’t be a surprise. After all, Jewish Home joined the coalition in 2009, and its leader Daniel Hershkowitz became a minister in the government. Bennett was previously the chairman of the Yesha Council, the umbrella organization of Jewish settlements in the West Bank; the continuing expansion of settlements under the Likud government makes him a natural fit for a new rightist government.

Moreover, Bennett’s plan for resolving the conflict with the Palestinians includes nothing less than the annexation of all of Area C, the extension of Israeli security control over the entire West Bank, and (only) autonomy for the Palestinians—and damn the world, which will get used to it. This certainly jives with some of the views of Netanyahu himself and many fellow Likudniks, who see Jewish settlements as appropriate and necessary; and it fits with their belief that Israel must stand firm in the face of the siege the world is laying to it. And it resembles some of the priorities of Avigdor Lieberman, whose Yisrael Beiteinu is now running on a joint ticket with Likud.

Whether such a relationship survives the realities of governing is a different story. According to current polling, the right-wing bloc is likely to get between 63 and 66 seats in the Knesset. Depending on how strong the center left and leftwing parties do, that might not be enough to easily form a coalition.

Assuming Netanyahu is asked to form a coalition government, it will need either Shas, or Yesh Atid or Labor. But Aryeh Deri’s return to the party means that Shas’s commitment to both a right-wing government and the settlement enterprise is less firm, and a rightist coalition therefore less stable overall. If Netanyahu replaces Shas with Yesh Atid or Labor, Jewish Home won’t be needed or wanted.

If Netanyahu does form a right-wing coalition that includes Jewish Home, he’ll have to move fast on settlement building and avoid negotiations with the Palestinians that entail compromise over the West Bank. But this will clash with Israelis’ preference for a focus on social and economic issues. Jewish Home’s uncompromising position on settlements, then, will strain Netanyahu’s ability to manage societal demands and fend off the leftist opposition’s attacks.

Depending on what the other far right parties—National Union, set to merge with Jewish Home, and Michael Ben Ari’s new party, assuming it survives—do, this might not topple the coalition. But it will certainly make for a more difficult balancing act.

In other words, having an inflexible religious Zionist party in the government isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. This is why Netanyahu is probably far more leery of Bennett that the Arutz Sheva story indicates.

This Week in Israeli Electoral Politics

In the past week three distinct elements have emerged that might impact on the Israeli elections on January 22. I say “might” because there is still some uncertainty about who the eventual players in the campaign will be, and because of the possibility that external events (war with Iran, a Palestinian uprising, the Syrian civil war, collapse of the Palestinian Authority, and so on) could alter the calculations of Israeli voters in ways we haven’t seen yet.

The first element is really a continuation of existing trends: according to polls, the “right” is still coming out stronger than the “left” (though as I’ve argued these aren’t necessarily helpful groupings). That is, the rightwing bloc (composed of secular and religious parties) is still doing better than the leftwing bloc (composed of Jewish parties and Arab parties).

Within this framework, though, surveys indicate that if the leftist Jewish parties can work together—particularly the main figures still thinking about whether to join the campaign—then a “super” left party could actually get more seats than Likud. Ehud Olmert, Tzipi Livni, and Yair Lapid would have to form a single party. Olmert and Livni have worked together before, so that is possible. But Lapid has already said he wants to run on his own. And it’s not clear yet whether Olmert is able to run, since the State Attorney has announced it will appeal the acquittal in Olmert’s corruption cases. If that happens, it is doubtful Livni could muster as much appeal and support on her own.

The second interesting development is the return of Aryeh Deri to Shas, the haredi party he helped found. Deri had been convicted of bribery, but he is still very popular and considered to be very, very smart; his return is a boon to Shas. The problem is that while he was gone, management of the party fell to Eli Yishai. An agreement seems to have been reached in which the two share power with Ariel Atias.

It’s good for Shas to present a united front—and polls show the party gaining seats now with Deri at its head. But because the final decision on who will lead the party has been put off until after the election, the party could well undermine its win by infighting.

The other interesting implication of Deri’s return is that he’s considered to be more dovish on policy toward the peace process, and more willing to consider withdrawal from the West Bank. Yishai is more hawkish, and closer to the nationalist right on the issue of settlements and the West Bank. Notwithstanding the question of ultimate authority in the party, Deri’s position there—he was given responsibility for coalition negotiations—puts Shas’ support for a left or right government in play. It is, of course, contingent on the leftwing parties getting their own act together, and it’s not clear Shas’ traditionalist and Sephardi constituencies would tolerate it, but new possibilities are now opened up.

Finally, it looks like that the smaller far right parties are consolidating—for now, anyway. National Union (more secular) and Jewish Home (more religious Zionist) have signed a deal to merge (again). A single party will allow the two to pool their resources and votes, and make it stronger in the Knesset, while fewer parties on the right will make it easier for Likud to construct a stable coalition government. Still, the history of far right parties in Israel has been one of fragmentation rather than unity, and this most recent deal is being challenged by members from both parties.

It remains to be seen whether these trends will hold or change. Stay tuned.

Re-Crunching the Israeli Poll Numbers

The surveys of Israeli voters are coming fast and furious, and they all pretty much say the same thing: Likud and the rightwing bloc have more seats in the Knesset than the left and/or center-left bloc. (See here, here, here, here, and here for the most recent polls.) But while the right-left division is a useful analytical tool, it might also be somewhat misleading.

First, it doesn’t capture the specific goals of the religious parties. It’s widely assumed that the religious parties are part of the political right, but many students of Israeli politics put them on a different spectrum than the secular continuum. This is because their priorities tend to be different from the left-right distinction, which is centered on foreign policy and economic differences.

Second, even assuming the outcomes the polls are suggesting come true, the historical record demonstrates how fluid Israeli politics can be. Over the years, coalition governments have been composed of all sorts of parties along all kinds of spectrums. Shas has served in coalitions led by Likud, Labor, and Kadima, while the National Religious Party has done so with Likud and Labor, and different factions now in United Torah Judaism (UTJ) have entered governments under Labor and Likud.

Third, the size of the two blocs most analysts construct out of the surveys might be too inclusive. Most polls give the “right” bloc about 65-68 seats, and the left about 52-55 seats, or thereabouts. But “right” includes Shas and UTJ. Given these parties’ greater concern with domestic social and economic issues, particularly the need to ensure resources for their respective communities, and the fact that they are not opposed in principle to serving in leftwing governments, it’s not clear they should be so firmly placed in this bloc.

At the same time, the Arab parties are classified as “left.” But no Arab party has ever served in a coalition; while they can form a blocking faction in the Knesset they cannot count toward a leftwing government.

So if Shas (10-11 seats), UTJ (5-6 seats), and the Arab parties (10-11 seats) are removed from the calculation, the results look more like this: rightwing bloc: about 50-53 mandates, leftwing bloc: about 42-45 mandates. These numbers make it harder for Netanyahu and Likud to get a clear majority in the Knesset, and if Shas’ support is in play, and the Arab parties do agree to support a leftist government from the outside, then the left’s chances of forming a coalition increase considerably. Since the peace process hasn’t been on the campaign agenda, Yisrael Beiteinu might be brought on board if other issues were dealt with beforehand, or it might even be that Likud, Labor, and whatever center-left party emerges form a national unity government.

That’s a lot of “ifs,” and there are good reasons to expect that the patterns identified by all the polls will maintain themselves down to election day. But the nature of the electoral and party systems make Israeli politics less rigid than, say, the winner-take-all and two-party system in the United States. Rethinking the polling numbers makes for some interesting estimates.

Jostling in the Religious Parties

I was going to write Part II of Who Are the Religious in Israel, but Benjamin Netanyahu’s call for early elections has sparked intense speculation about who will ally with whom and which party and bloc will come out on top. And I can’t help participating in these prognostications.

Two new polls are out today, detailing where each party stands. They more or less tell the same story—the rightwing bloc continues to gain more seats in the Knesset than the leftwing bloc. According to a Haaretz/Dialog survey, the former gets 68 seats while the latter gets 52.

A Teleseker/Maariv poll has the right at 64 Knesset seats and the left (or, more properly, the center-left) at 56. Interestingly, the same poll then asks about likely voting based on whether Ehud Olmert and Tzipi Livni form a new party. Under these conditions, the right wins only 62 mandates while the left gets 58, making the election much closer. It also puts the left in contention for forming the government, though it would require some tricky coalition bargaining with the religious parties.

It is what’s going on in these parties that is interesting. Although today there are three main religious parties/tickets (Shas, United Torah Judaism, and a new-ish National Religious Party), they are internally divided along ideological and personal lines. There are also intense differences over religious identity and norms, and it is a constant effort for each party to remain united.

For a long time there were four or five religious parties: a religious Zionist, a socialist-religious Zionist, a haredi, a socialist haredi, and often a minor breakaway from one of these four. By the mid-1950s these parties were consolidating: both religious Zionist parties became the National Religious Party (Mafdal), while the haredi parties were merging into Agudat Israel—though that didn’t become permanent until 1981, and by the beginning of the 1990s had merged more or less permanently with another haredi party to become United Torah Judaism (UTJ). In 1984 Shas entered the political scene, a breakaway from Agudat Israel that sought to represent haredi Sephardic Jews.

In the current Knesset, Shas holds 11 seats, UTJ has 5, and Mafdal—reincarnated as Jewish Home—has 3.

Shas is divided along personality and individual lines. Though it is still guided by the very old Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the party’s daily business is governed by several managers. The party was initially led by Aryeh Deri, considered a brilliant strategist. He was later convicted of corruption and replaced by Eli Yishai. Where Deri was open to working with others, Yishai is bombastic and has offended many with his seemingly uncompromising positions. Yet since Deri announced his return to politics, speculation has been focused on whether he will form his own party, while there are rumors
he might rejoin Shas. Either way he is a threat to Yishai. We can anticipate friction between them, especially if the secular parties start playing them off one another.

But both Deri and Yishai had joined coalition governments led by left and center-left parties. Given the right amount of incentives, Shas under either leader (or both) could support a Likud-led coalition or a center-left coalition. It remains, as it has since the early 1990s, in the role of kingmaker.

United Torah Judaism is composed of Agudat Israel, a party of Ashkenazi haredim and hasidim, and Degel HaTorah, a party of Ashkenazi haredim but that has problems with hasidism. In 1988, Chabad (a hasidic group) under the direction of its leader Rabbi Menachem Schneerson became involved in Israeli elections to help Agudat. Many groups and rabbinical leaders within Agudat do not think hasidism is an appropriate movement; the involvement of one of the major hasidic sects exacerbated these tensions, highlighting the different spiritual practices and theological ideas. One of Agudat’s long time leaders, Rabbi Eliezer Shach, had long had tense relations with Rabbi Schneerson and his followers. The intervention of Chabad in the election made a break political, and Rabbi Shach created Degel HaTorah as a new party out of Agudat.

Degel HaTorah and Agudat Israel have an on-again, off-again relationship. They combined in time for the 1992 elections, and have struggled to maintain unity since then. Currently at five seats, polls have UTJ staying at five or winning one more, but reports are circulating again about internal differences. The party likely won’t be a significant player in coalition politics, though it’s also likely to be in almost any government that is formed.

Jewish Home is a shadow of its former National Religious Party self. The most prominent religious Zionist party, it served in almost all governments since the establishment of the state. It began to break down in the 1970s, with the emergence of Gush Emunim and a post-1967 commitment to settling the newly-conquered West Bank, Gaza, and Sinai that put the radicalized younger generation at odds with the older one.

By the 2000s most of the party shared an increasingly hardline commitment to settlement in the territories. But the 2005 Gaza disengagement brought internal differences over tactics to the fore, and the party split over the best way to influence Israeli policy. Though it ran on a joint ticket with some smaller secular far right parties in the 2006 election, talks to officially merge into a new party fell apart and the party split again over personalities and tactics: Jewish Home, basically a new version of Mafdal, and National Union, which contains more members from the now-defunct far right secular parties.

Despite internal disputes within Jewish Home, efforts to merge with National Union continue as they had from 2006. Naftali Bennett, a newcomer to party politics, has sought to unite the two parties under his leadership. Bennett is well-connected among the settlers and the rightwing in Israel, and could prove an important force on the political right should he win Jewish Home’s leadership on November 6.

But polls show Jewish Home and National Union together still only getting seven seats, and Bennett is being challenged within Jewish Home by its current chair Daniel Hershkowitz as well as Zevulun Orlev, both of whom are at odds with National Union leader Yaakov Katz. Katz has proclaimed on more than one occasion that Israel would return to Gaza, and though Hershkowitz and Orlev are no softies when it comes to settlements, both are concerned about losing their leadership positions in a party under Naftali and which the larger National Union will probably dominate. At the same time, Katz himself doesn’t have the full support of his party; Arieh Eldad has expressed discontent with both Katz and Bennett. Finally, National Union takes a less compromising position on how to move the settlement enterprise forward than Jewish Home members have.

It’s likely that these three parties will continue on the divided path they’ve been on since the 2000s. Whether they can have an effect on coalition bargaining remains to be seen, but because the possibility exists it’s worth watching to see what they do.

Who Are the Religious In Israel? Part I

I have been reminded lately that “the religious” in Israel are not always clearly understood—their distinctions, divisions, and politics. But understanding these differences is important, because different groups within this broad social category want different things from the State of Israel. Moreover, considering them to be one large grouping is not helpful for understanding Israel, Israeli politics, or Israeli policymaking; or for comparing to religious groups in other countries.

The most recent Israeli Democracy Index (p.177) captures these differences well. Of self-identification among Israeli Jews, 6% classify themselves as ultra-Orthodox (haredi); 2.2% as Haredi-leumi (Orthodox-nationalist—the convergence between the haredim and the Zionists, sometimes called hardal); 11.8% as Orthodox; 12.7% as Traditional-religious; and 20.7% as Traditional-non-religious. (An additional 45.6% self-identify as secular.)

The traditional categories have been the haredim, the Hasidim,and the religious Zionists. The IDI question mentioned above doesn’t ask specifically about Zionism across this spectrum, but what is commonly called religious Zionism encompasses the Orthodox, the Haredi-leumi, and some portions of the haredi and the Traditional-religious. (Thanks to Dahlia Scheindlin for a clarifying discussion on this.)

The late and very keen observer of Israeli politics, Asher Arian, argued that the politics of the religious parties can be considered along three spectrums: the Zionist dimension (how Zionist), the ethnic dimension (Ashkenazi-Sephardic; indeed, each community has its own rabbinical structures), and the territorial dimension (position regarding the West Bank).

The haredi are sometimes called the ultra-Orthodox (though they reject that term—if you’re Orthodox, you’re already observing the customs and rules of halacha, Jewish law). Conservative in their social norms, they follow a narrow interpretation of Jewish law and scripture. They are further divided into several different sects and denominations, some of which are stricter in their beliefs and practices than others.

In general they are anti- or non-Zionists. Their worldview is categorized into two broad states of being: exile and redemption. Until the Temple is rebuilt and the Jewish people are reconstituted in the Land of Israel, Jews remain in exile. Redemption—a divinely-inspired and –driven process—occurs when these things fall into place. Because of this, some don’t support the state since it was created by human actions.

The haredim are further divided into Hasidic and non-Hasidic groups. Hasidic groups tend to be non-Zionist, though some, like Chabad, do engage in a more practical Zionism that allows for participation in state activities (like serving in the military). There are several different Hasidic groups, each of which operates according to its own dynastic leadership: a main rabbi or small group of rabbis governs the community, apart from the state religious officials.

Haredi politics is complex. Some haredi groups are so completely anti-Zionist and opposed to the state that they don’t recognize it in any way, including through taxes or participation in elections, or by obeying state religious authorities. Their social-political organization, the Edah HaHaredit, works to serve their needs so that the state doesn’t have to. It also maintains its own system of rabbis who look after the community’s spiritual needs. In recent years, the Edah has itself been divided over personality and organizational disagreements.

More extremist in its anti-Zionism is Neteuri Karta—its members are the ones who will meet with Iranian President Ahmadinejad at Holocaust-denial conferences. By some estimates it’s composed only of a few hundred families. It plays virtually no role in Israeli politics, trying to stay apart from the state as much as possible. Its unity, too, has broken down over increasing radicalism among some members

Others are non-Zionist—they don’t actively recognize the validity of the state (or its representatives) but they will recognize the reality of it, and they will participate in its politics. In the current Knesset there are three parties that represent this strain. Shas is the most well-known: it operates according to haredi guidelines but claims to specifically represent the Orthodox and traditional Sephardic community.

The other two parties are Agudat Israel, which is Ashkenazi with some Hasidism, and Degel HaTorah, which is also Ashkenazi but opposed to Hasidism. Despite their tension and bickering, they run in national elections on a single ticket called United Torah Judaism.

The demands of these three parties have always been focused on their own needs: obtaining resources for their community’s social and educational structures. They have successfully played off the secular parties against each other toward this end, offering to serve in a coalition government under one or the other in return for more money and more consideration of their demands.

Sometimes these parties have pressed hard for their secondary goal: to make Jewish law the law of the state. This is represented best by their efforts to enforce a halachic definition of “who is a Jew”—who can immigrate to Israel, who can control conversion processes, and who can dominant personal status issues like marriage. They have been less successful in this arena. The secular parties, sometimes under pressure from diaspora Jews, have resisted most of their efforts and even worked together at times to resist them, though the general trend toward religiosity and the political right in Israel has facilitated greater acceptance of their preferences among the population.

On foreign policy, these parties have been more agnostic than anything else. The major exception is the West Bank. In the past, only the religious Zionists held a strong political and policy position on this subject. After 1967 they pushed hard for settlements across the Green Line, in line with their understanding of the Land of Israel as sovereign Jewish territory. Indeed, the increasing radicalization among the religious Zionist youth has been one of the main drivers of the settlement enterprise.

Most non-Zionists were content to wait for the divine plan to reveal itself, and where they did take positions, this was contingent on other factors. At its beginnings in the 1980s, for example, Shas’s spiritual leader, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, often proclaimed that giving up territory was acceptable for the sake of Jewish lives. His position has changed over time, and it’s not clear what his final ruling will be in the event of a genuine peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.

Mostly, apart from the staunch anti-Zionists who call for Palestinian rule over the entire Land of Israel, haredi groups have simply mistrusted the Palestinians. Chabad, in particular, has been active in opposing land-for-peace formulae on this basis. Their role in foreign policymaking, then, is limited.