What’s Different This Time Around

Earlier this week at Open Zion I gave my first, quick reaction to John Kerry’s press conference, at which he announced the rules of the game for Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. I noted there were two things, in particular, that might go some way in helping these talks achieve genuine progress: putting all issues “on the table” and the secret nature of the discussions.

Read the piece in full here.

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.

An Opportune Moment For Peace Talks

Last week I wrote in Open Zion that this is an opportune moment for peace between Israelis and Palestinians, followed by some suggestions for how to take advantage of that opportunity:

I get the exhaustion that everyone feels each time reports of “new” efforts to bring Israelis and Palestinians together emerges. Especially since, as usual, the contradictory statements of Israelis, Palestinians, and Americans make for a confounding experience. But having said that, and while certainly there are plenty of suspicions still in the way, we are at the most opportune moment to restart serious talks in the last five or six years, if not more.

Obama’s recent trip to the Middle East is now paying dividends. Secretary of State John Kerry is pushing hard to create the conditions for a return to negotiations, while the Arab League has revised its Arab Peace Initiative to be more flexible to meet Israel’s demands. More importantly, the political winds in Israel seem to be blowing in the same direction: members of Israel’s government have accepted the change and called for Jerusalem to begin negotiations (not unexpectedly Tzipi Livni, but even the Prime Minister’s Office and Netanyahu himself have hinted at the moment); Labor has publicly stated its willingness to serve as a safety net should the coalition fall on account of real negotiations; and the opposition in the Israeli Knesset has done what it should have been doing all along—critiqued the official government policy and pushed back against it.

Lots of work remains to be done, of course, to overcome serious obstacles. These include: Israel’s insistence on being recognized as a Jewish state; Yair Lapid’s ambivalence on the peace process; the inability to mobilize Israeli public opinion on the issue; Hamas; events in Syria and or Iran; a deflation of will in the Obama Administration in the face of resistance from the Israeli or Palestinian governments; and timidity on Mahmoud Abbas’s part.

We cannot overstate these impediments and difficulties. But if this is an opportune moment to restart genuine peace talks, it’s also time for us to recognize that standard methods must at the least be supplemented by new initiatives and ideas. Let’s be honest: Yes, there are spoilers out there who might derail the process; no, settlement projects won’t be halted beforehand; yes, Palestinian rhetoric in Arabic will continue to rail against Israel; no, the Arab states aren’t going to suddenly love and accept Israel.

But there are some things that can be done outside of existing conditions that might help smooth the process from here.

First, Washington will need to recommit itself, firmly, to the peace process. It seems like it might have done this already, but given new developments in Syria, growing American interest in Africa, and plenty of other foreign policy issues for the administration to deal with, the temptation to put the peace process back on cruise control and leave it “for now” might be strong. American will and commitment are needed to keep Israelis and Palestinians on track.

Second, real American pressure will need to be applied on both Israel and the Palestinian Authority (I think Hamas can be left aside for the moment). Carrots are great and necessary, but if the history of U.S. involvement in the peace process has taught us anything, it’s that sticks are relevant, too. Regarding both, real consequences in the international diplomatic arena (e.g., initiatives in the United Nations or other international organizations) are a good choice: the consequences for either actor are serious (loss of international political support) but won’t be life-threatening.

Third, a genuine and powerful leftist movement in Israel must be constructed outside of existing parties and groups (which is not to say these are irrelevant or should not be part of such a movement). There are already indications that Israeli leftwing groups are aware of this, but I’d argue that this needs to be translated into concrete action: the formation of grassroots movements across the country that will mobilize in the political arena and promote an agenda that calls for an end to the occupation not through dreamy slogans but through awareness of the actual costs to Israelis, which in turn will change the balance of external forces to influence the Knesset and the government.

This is the reality in which we’re operating. It’s time to simply accept it and work around it.

Israel’s New Defense Minister Ain’t Ehud Barak

With the new coalition about to be put in place, the Defense Ministry will go to Likud’s Moshe “Bogie” Ya’alon, the former Minister of Strategic Affairs. In the past I argued that Ehud Barak would be missed as Israel’s Defense Minister, because of the restraint he could exercise on both Iran and settlements. Ben Caspit argues that Ya’alon is moderate, thoughtful, and careful. But I’m skeptical. His recent statements on Iran and the peace process (including the settlements and a Palestinian state) seem more in line with Benjamin Netanyahu, or even more with the hardliners in the party.

On Iran, Ya’alon believes—like most Israeli leaders—that it is the major strategic threat to the country. But where Barak viewed the use of force (against Iran or the Palestinians) as part of a larger foreign policy tool kit, Ya’alon seems bent on a military strike against Iran—sooner rather than later—to prevent it from acquiring a nuclear weapon. He’s said that “The best defense is a good offense.” And he seems to have a less positive view of President Obama’s support for the Israeli position than Barak did, which could cause problems for coordination between Israel and the United States.

On the peace process, Ya’alon is more in line with Netanyahu’s “there is no Palestinian partner” argument, particularly when it comes to the demand to recognize Israel as the Jewish state. Indeed, this past January he ruled out any possibility of a Palestinian state.

Ya’alon is also less interested in the open exchange of ideas and criticism. When he attended a Jewish Leadership conference (a far-right faction within Likud whose head, Moshe Feiglin, advocates for the construction of a Third Temple), he called Peace Now a “virus” and continued that “Jews can and need to live in all of the Land of Israel for all eternity.”

Certainly Barak was no Peace Now member: he authorized “illegal settlements” and allowed his ministry, and the IDF, to facilitate the expansion of “legal” settlements and violent attacks by settlers against Palestinians and their property. But he wasn’t an unrestrained Greater Israel advocate either. This seems to have angered Ya’alon, who once called for Barak’s authority to determine settlements (which belongs to the Defense Minister) to be stripped away and given to others.

All of these hard-right positions will be amplified in the new government, because Ya’alon is not a serious contender for power either in Likud or in government. He can be counted on to support Netanyahu’s policies on the peace process and Iran, and because Bibi doesn’t view him as a threat he’ll be brought in to reinforce Bibi against Yair Lapid and Tzipi Livni.

As I said before, we’ll soon miss Barak.

Bibi’s Coming Unstable Coalition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.