Recent Developments in Israeli Politics

In the last couple weeks there have been some important developments in Israeli politics, with the potential to have short- and medium-term effects on policy. It’s hard to speak of these with certainty, since the outcome of talks to restart Israeli-Palestinian peace talks could easily shift things around and make some of the points below irrelevant.

First, Moshe Kahlon—the former Likudnik, Sephardic champion of social justice—has announced he’s returning to politics. The mere announcement, before he has even formed an actual party, has already sent ripples through the system. Polls give him 10 or 11 seats, drawing largely from Likud, Yesh Atid, and Labor.

Kahlon is another white knight who has the potential to disrupt the political system, but probably won’t have any staying power. What he will do is weaken both Likud and Labor, because he’ll represent voters from both. It’s not completely clear how hawkish or dovish he would be on the peace process. Most likely, he’ll be like Yair Lapid, trying to stay within the Israeli consensus (an independent Palestinian state but with main settlement blocs going to Israel, reluctant but somewhat willing to divide Jerusalem). Like Lapid, he’ll be known for his position on economic issues primarily, only moving on security-foreign affairs when he has to.

But what his presence will do undermine whatever comeback Labor was foretold to make under new leader Isaac Herzog. I’m skeptical of the claim that by focusing a lot more on the peace process and the settlements, Labor can reclaim the mantle of the party of peace and will suddenly bump up in the polls and pose a serious challenge to Likud. But even assuming this is possible, Labor can’t do it anymore without also maintaining a strong lead on social and economic issues. Kahlon undercuts Labor’s ability to do so.

Second, the big news on the right is that Ronen Shoval, a founder of the rightist Im Tirzu organization, has joined Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu. Though he won’t be running in Israeli elections, he will be running as a Yisrael Beiteinu candidate in the World Zionist Congress. It’s a signal, I think, that Lieberman is starting to ramp up his campaign to be prime minister by amassing credentials on the right and by obtaining more strength in Zionist and Israeli institutions.

While this is primarily a challenge to Benjamin Netanyahu, it’s also a challenge to Naftali Bennett’s position as a leader of the right. Bennett is already in a difficult position—his threat to leave the government over the release of Palestinian prisoners who are citizens of Israel might be put to the test. I think he’ll have trouble out of government, since his party is already factionalized. And while he might be able to represent the national-religious, he’s already facing a challenge from the far-right Strong Israel. Lieberman is angling to claim representation of the secular nationalists. It’s a two-front threat (within the party and among the right), and it’s not clear Bennett has enough strength to fight both.

Finally, despite the ups and downs of the peace process, Labor’s new leader, and polls showing Labor and Meretz increasing their representation in the Knesset, I still don’t see that the left has a strong, appealing alternate message to Netanyahu and the right. Noam Sheizaf writes that if Netanyahu falls, there will be several people rushing to replace him, on the left, right, and in the center. It’s possible, but they’d be temporarily filling a gap. Without an attractive platform that combines security issues with socio-economic concerns, the left—whose best chance at regaining power is still Labor—won’t have any staying power.

And even that won’t be enough. Israelis’ attitudes toward peace reflect a duality. On the one hand, they support negotiations and two states; on the other, they don’t trust the Palestinians and are skeptical talks will lead to a final resolution of the conflict. They aren’t coming out in the streets or at the grassroots level to do anything about it. If the left can’t mobilize these doubting-yet-hopeful voters, and keep them mobilized, they cannot take and hold power from the right.

The Domestic Politics of Israeli Peacemaking

At Foreign Policy’s The Middle East Channel I have a piece on how Israel’s domestic politics might facilitate a genuine Israeli effort in peace talks with the Palestinians. Here’s a teaser:

The (possible) resumption of direct and high-level talks between Israel and Palestine has generated a wide range of reactions among analysts and pundits. Much of it has been negative, particularly when it comes to presumptions about Israeli intentions. The standard assumption among observers is of a stronger rightwing government, with a couple maybe-centrists here and there, facing off against a weaker leftwing opposition — a formula that many assume can only mean the continuation of the status quo.

Things may turn out that way, but we simply cannot know at this point. Information is contradictory and incomplete. More importantly, the domestic politics of peacemaking in Israel encompasses multiple considerations among a variety of parties. It is too simplistic to contend that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is a rightwing ideologue who is only stalling for time, while Israel’s intra- and inter-party struggles and politicians’ personal ambitions will exert considerable influence over how committed Israel is to talks.

Follow the link for the rest of the piece.

 

 

In Thinking about New Israeli-Palestinian Peace Talks

John Kerry has just announced a basis for restarting talks between Israelis and Palestinians in Washington. More specifically: “We have reached an agreement that establishes a basis for resuming direct final status negotiations between the Palestinians and the Israelis.” He added that “The agreement is still in the process of being formalized.”

This probably doesn’t sound all that exciting or new to most. But it needs to be remembered that, under the current conditions in the Middle East, with Benjamin Netanyahu struggling with a rightist party and government coalition, and with Abbas struggling against Hamas, institutional decay, and growing dissatisfaction among the Palestinian population, it’s no easy thing to bring the two sides together for direct talks at a high level.

That said, lots can still happen to derail things, including even before the talks start. Here are some other things we should bear in mind as the process moves forward:

1. Most people expected Netanyahu to keep putting this off and not be serious about it. As I’ve been arguing for many months now, Bibi can be pushed into talks. He isn’t an ideologue; he’s a pragmatic opportunist. He does believe, deeply, that Jews have a historical and biblical claim to the West Bank, and if nothing were standing in his way he probably would do his utmost to extend Jewish sovereignty over it all. But there are obstacles, and more than anything Bibi wants to remain in power and focus on external threats to Israel (primarily Iran). Under these conditions, getting him to talk was always more possible than many presumed.

2. Similarly, most people assumed Mahmoud Abbas was too weak or uninterested to agree to genuine talks. If we didn’t already realize it with the Oslo negotiations, that both he and Netanyahu have been able to—thus far, anyway—tells us something about Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking: namely, avoiding deterministic assumptions.

3. Importantly, this is only a beginning to talks, not an agreement. There are plenty of material and emotional obstacles blocking an easy pathway to success. Building on the point above, I’m not convinced Bibi would be willing to sign a final agreement ending all Jewish claims to the West Bank. (I’m not so sure Mahmoud Abbas wants to be the one to end it all, either.) But making progress is important and highly relevant. It will set positive conditions for the continuation of talks, build confidence, and make it easier for the next Israeli and Palestinian leaders to finish the work begun here.

4. It seems that Tzipi Livni and Saeb Erekat will be leading the talks. I’m not so sure how useful that is. Both are experienced, and both have proven—despite some backpeddling at times—genuinely interested in a deal. But it’s not clear how much support from their political masters either has. Both are politically weak, without much of their own power base, and so will be limited by the specific instructions Bibi and Abbas give them. Time will tell if that’s enough to construct a stable platform for continuing.

5. Kerry expended enormous energy to make this happen, devoting most of his time to this one issue even while developments elsewhere in the Middle East require urgent attention. It remains to be seen whether he can maintain that level of determination and pressure to help the talks along. Without it, I’m less optimistic the process will move forward.

6. Hamas won’t be happy.

7. On Israel’s domestic front, there are lots of questions remaining about what Naftali Bennett (leader of Jewish Home) and Yair Lapid (leader of Yesh Atid) will do. Neither has been all that enthusiastic about the peace process. (I realize that’s a gross understatement about Bennett.) They’ll be put to the test now: will they support the talks and anything that comes out of it? It’s likely that Livni will have to report back to Bibi (either directly or through his personal emissaries to the peace talks) on any substantive issues, no matter how minor. How much support his coalition gives him will help determine how likely Bibi is to keep the talks going.

Bennett had previously said he wouldn’t break the coalition apart over talks; just yesterday he reversed himself. That’s not surprising. In addition to being ideologically opposed to any withdrawals from the West Bank (he wants to outright annex all of Area C), Bennett’s party is made up of at least a couple factions that struggled against each other before being united into Jewish Home; and all are opposed to giving up Jewish control over the West Bank. Bennett’s election as party leader was never a sure thing, and was contested from the beginning. His institutional position is threatened as well, then; he can’t afford to agree to anything that might endanger his place at the top of the party. Either he’d be forced out (and it wouldn’t be easy to find another institutional home), or he’d remain but the party would break apart, weakening Bennett’s ability to win seats in the next election.

As for Lapid, nobody knows what he might do. His party has many doves in it, but his ambition to become prime minister means he needs to play more to the right for votes. If he sees the population is increasingly in favor of talks, though, he’ll probably go with it.

8. This could be Shelly Yachimovich’s opportunity to seize the mantle of promoter of the peace process. Assuming Bennett pulls out of the government, Labor could fill the gap. Even if he doesn’t, Bibi might be thinking about bringing Labor in for extra insurance.

9. Look what Israel has been able to accomplish without Avigdor Lieberman in the government: the apology to Turkey, and now progress in peace talks. Just saying.

10. All of what I’ve just written could well prove to be meaningless. This is, after, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.