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.

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.

A Referendum On Peace Is A Bad Idea

Over at Open Zion, I argued that a referendum in Israel on a final peace treaty with the Palestinians is a bad idea. While there are arguments to be made in favor of one, there are strong counter-points that, I think, demonstrate the real problems inherent in a referendum. For example:

“there was no referendum on the 1947 Partition Plan, the decision to accept the 1949 armistice lines, the 1979 treaty with Egypt, 1981’s annexation of east Jerusalem and the Golan, the Oslo Accords in 1993, the agreement with Jordan in 1994, the 2000 withdrawal from Lebanon, or the Gaza withdrawal in summer 2005. In short, on none of the big issues of peace and security—all of which directly impacted on the personal safety of individuals as well as the security of the state itself—was the public asked to decide.”

Follow the link for more.

What Did Labor Do Wrong?

As I noted yesterday, there’s some dispute over whether Labor should be called a winner of the Israeli election in any sense of the word or whether it’s a clear loser. The answer should probably be some combination: it did better than it had in the previous election (even if only by a couple seats), while at the beginning of the campaign it was polling into the low 20s but ended up with only 15 seats.

The more important underlying question, then, is why did it only get 15 seats—third place—when it was widely expected to be in second place with at least 17-18 mandates. It’s true there are some concerns over the methodology and practice of public opinion polling in Israel, but it’s also true that surveys were often within their margins of error on most of the parties. Let’s look, rather, at the campaign itself.

I’ll start off by repeating that Labor leader Shelly Yachimovich made a clear choice not to talk about the occupation or foreign affairs, and I think it was a solid decision. All indications were that Israelis simply didn’t want to talk about these things either, but they were highly interested in domestic issues, especially socio-economic ones.

Factors beyond Labor’s control

First, the appearance of Tzipi Livni and Yair Lapid clearly undermined Yachimovich’s claim to represent the only new face in the campaign. Lapid was obviously the “freshest,” especially with continuous comments about his appearance, but his was a totally brand new party. As dynamic as Yachimovich tried to seem, Labor still represented something old.

Labor, Livni, and Yesh Atid fought for the same electorate of centrist, undecided voters. Such a crowded field certainly meant a division of votes, since there was so much choice. At the same time, Labor was competing with Meretz, as usual, for those further on the Zionist left. That Meretz explicitly talked about the occupation but Labor didn’t was bound to lead to some shift in votes.

Second, Labor was operating among an electorate that was still very much interested in the right. There are some claims that Israel isn’t the right-leaning country everybody feared it was. Israel was never about to descend into a long winter of theocracy, authoritarianism, and violent militarism. Still, while it’s true the right and religious parties didn’t do as well as widely expected, demographic and public opinion trends indicate there really is a slow right-religious shift among the Jewish population. Moreover, the right and religious parties still did well (Jewish Home) or held their own (Shas, UTJ). Likud-Beiteinu is the only list that dropped, but many of their voters went to Yesh Atid—a center-right party.

Factors in Labor’s control

First, as I said, Yachimovich—against the advice of some within the party—made a conscious decision not to talk about the Palestinians, the settlements, or the occupation. This was fine as far as it went, but it was inevitable that the issues would come up during the campaign, forcing her to give some response. When she did, though, it came across as too forced, and made it seem as though she was ducking the issue as much as possible.

Again, this isn’t a big deal as far as it goes given what Israelis were saying they wanted to talk about—and Lapid himself said pretty much the same things she did—but for some it came across as deceptive. Labor was seemingly held to a higher standard because it’s the traditional party of doves, and is expected to focus on the peace process. That it wasn’t a major party issue was seen as a betrayal—even Haaretz and +972 writers were arguing that Livni was the better choice because at least she was talking about this most important of issues.

Second, Yachimovich seemed to close the door on joining a Benjamin Netanyahu-led coalition. It was clear to everybody that Bibi would become prime minister again. Closing off options before the results were even in seemed petulant to some, bad strategy to others, and inexperience to many.

Third, Yachimovich didn’t have enough security officials on her list. Labor has been a traditional home for military officers once they left the army, and the gap at the top of the list was glaring. Binyamin Ben-Eliezer was there, but he’s an older, more tired version of the crop of young recruits that have long seemed to populate Labor at every election. Instead, her list was filled with dynamic, creative individuals who worked in a range of other areas. This was, again, good for the focus on domestic issues but not on security affairs.

That Lapid’s list was similar to Yachimovich’s, in that his top security official held the number 5 slot (Yaakov Peri) but the rest of his list had a variety of non-security candidates, didn’t mean anything since Lapid was not expected to campaign to foreign affairs. He could get away with things she couldn’t.

Fourth, Yachimovich angered some within the party by bringing in lots of new people, but also changing some of the voting procedures of the primary process. This led to some perceptions of infighting, which may not have played well.

Labor has been struggling for many years to rebuild itself into the party that founded the state and posed a serious alternative to Likud in the 1980s and 1990s. Some of the lessons to be learned from this campaign may not be relevant for the next one, but clearly Labor still has a long way to go.

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.

Shelly Yachimovich’s Balancing Act

This analysis of the Labor Party primary results in Israel appeared earlier today in Open Zion:

The Labor Party held its primaries on Thursday. The results give leader Shelly Yachimovich an opportunity to continue claiming the center by playing off the rightward shift in Likud, but they also pose some difficulties for her internally and on foreign policy.

I’ve argued before in these pages that Yachimovich is playing a smart long game, carefully reconstructing Labor and avoiding issues that are overly controversial and of less interest to the Israeli public at this moment. She has channeled Israelis’ disenchantment over growing income inequality, rising prices, and a general sense that the country’s drift from its former collectivist ethos is not necessarily a good thing (a feeling not shared by everyone, to be sure). These sentiments were best captured by last year’s “tent” protests, and Yachimovich has successfully built on them.

The primary enhanced her ability to campaign on this issue in a way no other party can. In second place on the electoral list is Isaac Herzog, who’s long been identified with the more liberal social wing of the party. In third spot is Amir Peretz, former chairman of the Histadrut, the giant labor federation.

Cementing the image of Labor as now focused on socio-economic issues are the spots given to two young leaders of the social protests: Stav Shaffir was elected to ninth place and Itzik Shmuli, former president of the National Union of Students, took 12th. Supplementing them are Merav Michaeli, a feminist activist, in fifth place and Mickey Rosenthal, a well-known journalist, in 13th place.

All of this allows Yachimovich to claim her party is the only genuine alternative to Likud. But Israeli party politics is known for being a sharp-elbowed game. Particularly since the 1990s, parties have become unstable in the sense that challengers are always campaigning against the contemporary leader.

This undermines party unity, shifts everyone’s attention away from policy, and contributes to a poor image of the party in the popular mind. Although Yachimovich has retained a strong grip on party politics, even she has suffered from this: Amir Peretz is considered a rival for control over the party’s ideas—she wants to keep the party centrist, while he wants to move it more left. There have also been reports of tensions between Yachimovich and Michaeli.

Indeed, Israeli journalist Lahav Harkov tweeted as the results came in that “A lot of people [Yachimovich] didn’t want got in high spots.” It’s not clear that Yachimovich will be able to avoid these internal disputes, or that potential rivals and dissidents won’t challenge her. Ari Shavit, writing at the start of the Labor leadership campaign last year, noted that Yachimovich has enough drawbacks—such as being too confrontational or ill-informed about policy issues—that raise concerns about whether she can manage domestic party affairs.

At the same time, Yachimovich has generally avoided commenting on the peace process or conflict with the Palestinians. But if she’s going to remain successful she’ll have to address it sooner rather than later. The U.N. General Assembly’s recognition of Palestine as a non-member state yesterday along with the Likud’s rightward shift will make it a more important policy issue than it would otherwise have been.

So far, when she has commented on it, she’s tried to stay within the current consensus: no Right of Return, annexation of major settlement blocs, and Jerusalem as Israel’s undivided capital. But Yariv Oppenheimer, director of Peace Now, was elected to the unrealistic 27th slot, making it unlikely he’ll enter the Knesset. This means Labor has fewer people with credibility and a record on the issue. While Peace Now has long been associated with the “delusional” left, it’s more careful policies in recent years have put it in a good position to make stronger arguments.

Yachimovich still has her work cut out for her. Yesh Atid and the Tzipi Livni Party, her main contenders in the center and center-left, have not been polling so well. But to be a real challenge or opposition to a Likud government, she’ll have to maintain party unity and continue to attract the bulk of the centrist and leftist vote. Not an easy task in the rough-and-tumble world of the Israeli political system.