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.

A Big Week in Israeli Politics

This week Israel’s Knesset is set to pass three sets of major legislative changes. At The Forward I look at the positives and negatives of them:

This is a big week in Israeli politics. Three sets of bills are being introduced into the Knesset for their second and third readings, and all of them have far-reaching consequences. Though there has been much handwringing over them, over fears that Israeli democracy is being ruined, there is no doubt that the Israeli electoral and governance systems need to be fixed. Israel has had 33 governments since 1949 — an average of about one every two years. This makes for unstable government, increases coalition infighting, and undermines coherent policymaking. Still, the manner in which these bills are being passed is what makes them problematic.

In reality, two of the three bills are actually packages of bills, some of them long and detailed. Most contain some positive changes, but because they were passed relatively quickly and without as much opposition input as necessary, without a broader, comprehensive package of reforms, and because they were essentially trade-offs between various parties that make up the coalition (except Hatnua, which just wanted to remain in the government) they will have an overall negative effect on Israeli governance.

Follow the link for the full piece.

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.

 

 

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.

Why Is Obama Going to Israel?

Yesterday I tweeted that I was pre-empting speculation and that no, Obama’s coming trip to Israel wasn’t about Iran. It was a response to the conventional wisdom that seems to always assume everything about Israel is about Iran—from last year’s short-lived Likud-Kadima government to the recent elections. But I did receive some pushback on the point, so here’s a fuller accounting of why I made the remark.

It should, though, be obvious that Iran will be near the top of the agenda. It’s a major issue for Israelis, including security officials, and despite the progress made on convergence of their positions, there are still gaps between the American and the Israeli understanding of how to deal with Iran. An Obama trip to the country gives him a direct sense of what the government is thinking and why, which could close some of this distance.

Beyond that, there is the fact that Colin Kahl, who worked for Obama during the election campaign, all but promised during a conference call with the media last July that there would be a visit if Obama was re-elected. Not following through would raise serious questions about Obama himself and his administration at a time when he’s facing all sorts of domestic pressure from pro-Israel Jewish groups and politicians to Republicans.

At the same time, the rest of Obama itinerary provides clues to his motivations. He’ll also be visiting with Palestinian and Jordanian leaders. These countries aren’t important for the confrontation against Iran, but they are for the peace process. Jordan’s domestic problems and its proximity to the Syrian civil war highlight its importance in other ways. In fact, given Israel’s growing concern about the consequences of the breakdown of central authority in Syria, that country is likely to be as high as Iran on the agenda.

The optics count, too. It’s the diplomatic version of smoothing things over and establishing a more personal basis with Benjamin Netanyahu on which to conduct the next four years of policy.

All of this raises the question of timing. In theory Obama could have gone later in the year. But reports are that he is going in March or April. I can think of several reasons.

His new Secretary of State, John Kerry, has already called Israeli and Palestinian leaders to tell them the peace process is one of his priorities. He’ll be visiting the region possibly within the month. An Obama follow-up will underline the importance of the relationship and demonstrate commitment to issues of concern to both countries.

Also, it’s likely that the new Israeli government will have been formed by the time of the visit. The weakening of Likud-Beiteinu and the strengthening of the soft right (Yesh Atid) and the left (Labor, Meretz) have opened up space for a different kind of government than the previous one. Although there is some debate over whether the likely inclusion of Yesh Atid can kick start the peace process, the unexpected priority that the administration has placed on this issue indicates that the president sees this as an opportune moment to remind Israel and Israelis that the US has their back, that peace is necessary for Palestinians and Israelis, and to provide some cover for Netanyahu on this issue against members of his own party, Yisrael Beiteinu, and possibly Jewish Home (if it’s included in the coalition).

Finally, Obama has been stung by accusations that his administration is at best insensitive to Israel and at worst anti-Israel. A visit to Israel is the most effective visible way to counter these attacks. We are constantly reminded by the president’s supporters that only four sitting presidents have ever visited Israel. Joining this small club is an effective way for Obama to address these kinds of domestic and Israeli concerns.

More specifically, the AIPAC conference is scheduled for March 3-5. It’s not clear yet whether Obama will be again speaking to the convention. If he does, he’ll be able to claim not only that he continues to show his commitment to Israeli security through military support, but can demonstrate a personal interest as well—the all-important kishkes factor. And if he’s not speaking at the conference, a visit to Israel is surely the next best thing.

Coordinating against Iran will be an important topic of discussion during Obama’s visit. But the president doesn’t have to travel to Israel for that; his political and defense officials can and do exchange visits with their Israeli counterparts for such purposes. I think, rather, that this convergence of factors explains the motivation and the timing of Obama’s visit.

Bibi and Bennett Break Up?

It’s becoming increasingly common to assume that Naftali Bennett and Jewish Home will join a Benjamin Netanyahu-led coalition government after the election. I’m not sure it’s a done deal, and this piece from Open Zion explains why:

Last week Jonathan Tobin wrote a piece in Commentary explaining the rise of Israel’s right. He focused on Jewish Home, the religious Zionist party set to become the third largest party in the Knesset, and its leader Naftali Bennett. After listing Bennett’s “advantages” (including being “savvy”), Tobin assumed that Bennett, because he was in a powerful position, would be brought into the next government coalition and “demand and get” a Cabinet position.

The problem with Tobin’s assumption about Bennett is just that—it’s an assumption. In fact, the evidence suggests the opposite of what Tobin concluded. There’s every reason to believe that its Bennett’s very strength that will make Bibi nervous and therefore just as likely to exclude Bennett from any coalition. Tobin neglects to mention, for instance, that Netanyahu and Bennett had a major falling out a few years ago, and only recently started speaking again. It’s not clear their personal relationship is a strong enough foundation to build on.

Of course, in politics personalities alone don’t founder political alliances. But Bibi is in Likud, and he wants his party to maintain control over whatever coalition emerges from the election. A powerful Jewish Home serving in the government, with its own agenda, could derail Bibi’s efforts to maintain a stable coalition and endanger his own position.

There is also the image problem. David Horovitz correctly notes that—despite popular misconceptions—Bibi hasn’t been building settlements throughout the entire West Bank. But Bennett would—at least throughout Area C, which he wants to annex—while maintaining security control over the rest of the territory. And unlike Bibi, who has publicly said he supports the two-state solution, Bennett has been explicit that the Palestinians won’t get their own state.

Bringing Jewish Home into the government will also distract from other issues, particularly social and economic ones—which Israelis have said are their top concerns. Expending resources on settlements at this time might even bring back the ghost of Yitzhak Shamir to haunt Bibi. In the 1992 election, Shamir insisted on defending expenditures on settlements even while Israelis were telling pollsters they wanted the government to focus on issues within the Green Line. Shamir’s West Bank focus cost him the election.

Because of all this, Bibi is less comfortable with Bennett than Tobin, and others, assume. He’s always had other coalition options, but it’s been hard for Bibi to directly attack Bennett. Bennett is very popular, and many among the right and religious Zionist community see him as a savior-type figure. And Bibi’s own Likud party’s shift to the nationalist right has constrained him.

But Bibi now has his opening. Last Thursday, Bennett said in an interview that if given an order from the army to evacuate settlers from their West Bank homes, he would ask to be excused from carrying it out on the grounds of conscientious objection because “to kick people off of this land is a terrible thing.” Bennett added that he wasn’t calling for widespread disobedience, but if he personally could ask for an exemption on these grounds, others could as well. He opened the door to mass refusal of IDF orders.

Reactions across the political spectrum came quickly. The leader of a Zionist party contending he’d ignore orders from the military set a dangerous precedent—alternate sources of power and refusal to acknowledge the authority of the state are some of the components that make for a failed state. It’s also an unpopular position among rightists and the national-religious for whom the state is an important vehicle for realizing (their understanding of) the Zionist dream.

It took some time for Bennett to fully clarify that he wouldn’t disobey the order if his request was rejected. But the point was already made, and for Bibi this was a bigger opportunity: to castigate Jewish Home, and Bennett himself, for its extremist priorities and the damage they would cause Israel in the international arena.

“Anyone who upholds insubordination will not serve in my Cabinet,” Netanyahu responded in an interview. Some of his ministers took more direct aim at Bennett. But Bennett then gave Bibi further opportunity by reacting harshly to the criticism, accusing Likud of being behind a series of ads attacking Bennett (and comparing his comment on IDF orders to a similar one made by Labor candidate Merav Michaeli), and claiming Bibi himself opened the “gates of hell” on him.

Painting Bennett as an extremist who will undermine the state itself while strengthening international condemnations of Israel will probably be a new Likud tactic in the days to come. Since Bibi can’t attack Jewish Home or Bennett for their lack of dedication to the Land of Israel, hitting them for their lack of dedication to the State of Israel appears to be the next best thing.

Coalition Math

The talk on Twitter this morning is of Naftali Bennett and the sudden surge his Jewish Home is making at the polls. The fear is that if Bennett is included in a coalition government under Bibi, he’ll drag Bibi further to the right. As Michael Koplow has already shown, even before the bargaining over government spoils has begun, Bibi has been announcing settlement expansions all over the place. It will, conventional wisdom suggests, only get worse after January 22.

But the coalition math indicates that a Likud-Beiteinu-Jewish Home government is not a sure thing. As I’ve argued before, Bibi isn’t an extreme rightist who wants to build and build in the West Bank and damn the international consequences. If he think Bennett is pulling him too much in that direction, he’ll think twice about such a coalition.

It’s true that right-religious bloc is maintaining its majority. But it’s malleable; Jewish Home could easily be replaced with Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid and Tzipi Livni’s Tzipi Livni Party. Both are more centrist than leftist. Lapid’s election program has been more vague than anything else, and although Livni has a history of hostility with Bibi, she’s a natural fit for a rightwing government.

In addition, both have worked hard for centrist and center-right votes by staying within the Israeli consensus on settlements: keeping the main settlement blocs (probably including Ariel) but willing to evacuate the rest.

“Third” or “centrist” parties such as theirs’ don’t last long in Israeli politics. And neither of them entered the race in order to stay in the opposition; they both want a piece of the action, which they believe is in the government. They’ll make themselves available, and Bibi will know this.

None of this is to say either a far-right government or a centrist government is a done deal. The joint ticket with Yisrael Beiteinu might have leaned Bibi toward the latter. But this is why the Likud primaries are so important: the staunch pro-settlement, illiberal-leaning rightists who now occupy top positions on the list will constrain Bibi from moving toward the center. It’s one thing to leave Jewish Home out of a coalition; it’s another to go against the politics and trends within his own party.

We’ll have to wait and see what happens: Jewish Home’s momentum might not last; Bibi might be stronger than most assume when it comes to dealing with other Likudniks; or Shas or Avigdor Lieberman might upset the balance one way or another. But at this point we shouldn’t assume outcomes. Israeli politics is fluid, and this election is no exception.