Warnings about Israel’s Jewish Future

Humans use language to set out the parameters and boundaries of our ideas, shape the ideas of those who come next, and to transmit emotions and memories to each other. It is how we structure our interactions and behavior, and, at the group level, our policies. To understand the priorities of people or the dominant issues of a given time, then, we can look to the discourse most prominent at that moment.

The dominant discourse changes over time, usually in response to changed conditions or the actions of specific individuals. A glance at the history of Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking demonstrates this well. Until the 1960s, there was almost no sense that Palestinians themselves were independent actors in this process, or that an independent Palestinian state was on the agenda. After Likud came to power in 1977, “autonomy” was the policy idea everyone—including the Americans—focused on. The 1993 Oslo Accords changed the discourse forever, and normalized both the PLO and a Palestinian state in the West Bank-Gaza. Benjamin Netanyahu’s 2009 Bar-Ilan speech formalized even the right’s acceptance of two states.

On settlements, specifically, concerns over their building have been around for a long time. George H.W. Bush’s very public fight with Yitzhak Shamir was about precisely that. But his son’s letter to Ariel Sharon in 2002 promising that “new realities on the ground” (i.e., major settlement blocs) would now be incorporated into the solution meant that Washington officially didn’t see settlements as a problem that would undermine peace efforts.

Martin Indyk’s speech last night at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy represents another turning point. In explaining why the most recent round of talks between Israelis and Palestinians broke down, he focused most of his attention on Israeli settlements. He did put some of the blame for the breakdown on Mahmoud Abbas, and he also blamed broader governing elements in both parties.

But most of the culpability fell on the government that allowed for continued—indeed, unrestrained—settlement activity. In addition to laying out just how much settlement planning and building took place, he was very explicit about the consequences for the breakdown of peace talks. More importantly, he argued that settlements would mean the end of Israel as a Jewish state:

The settlement movement on the other hand may well drive Israel into an irreversible binational reality. If you care about Israel’s future, as I know so many of you do and as I do, you should understand that rampant settlement activity – especially in the midst of negotiations – doesn’t just undermine Palestinian trust in the purpose of the negotiations; it can undermine Israel’s Jewish future. If this continues, it could mortally wound the idea of Israel as a Jewish state – and that would be a tragedy of historic proportions. (My emphasis.)

Though he didn’t use the word “apartheid” or warn of potential delegitimization of Israel in the world, as John Kerry has, both ideas were lurking just behind Indyk’s assessment. And though President Obama himself has warned about these things, that Indyk—accused by many of being too close to the Israelis—used them publicly, to put much of the blame on Israel, in a forum considered very sympathetic to the Israeli position, has helped change the discourse on Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking forevermore.

Warnings about and concern over settlement activity for the future of both Palestine and Israel will now be part of American peacemaking efforts. Leftwing activists and organizations have long been making this same argument, and have laid the groundwork for a rethinking on settlements among the grassroots. The White House’s shift toward their position has strengthened this understanding at a broader level.

Settlements are now on the public agenda in a way they have never been before. Of course, this will only matter if Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking begins again, and I won’t make any predictions on that…

Putting Kerry’s Comments into Context

John Kerry’s use of the a-word (“apartheid”) to warn what Israel might become if a peace agreement establishing two states is not implemented soon has, unsurprisingly, ignited a firestorm from Israeli politicians (though, interestingly, Benjamin Netanyahu has remained quiet) and several American Jewish organizations.

It’s true that this kind of rhetoric really only serves to stoke the flames of intransigence and anger at a delicate moment in the effort to restart Israeli-Palestinian talks. (I actually think the under-reported story here is the diminished ability of leaders to talk openly amongst themselves.) But while I share Kerry’s concerns for the future of Israel, I’m not sure that the argument that Israeli leaders have used the same term to issue similar warnings of what will happen without peace is as strong as it first appears.

It’s to be expected that citizens of one country can say things about their state that is more problematic coming from the leaders of a close ally. It’s considered bad form, particularly when it’s such a sensitive issue and a loaded term—and even more when it’s said to third parties.

This isn’t unique to Israel: Canadians are sometimes very belligerent about Quebec separatism, but Washington doesn’t say much at all about the issue except to support the national government’s position. Similarly, the White House has largely remained silent regarding the Turkish government’s suppression of Turks’ individual and political freedoms. While the West Bank isn’t part of sovereign Israel, and therefore falls into the category of foreign affairs, it’s still closely tied to Jerusalem’s domestic politics.

Having said that, some of the criticism of Kerry—for example, that he should resign, that he’s not “pro-Israel” (whatever that means)—is over the top. The big takeaway here, I think, is that the taboo in the United States of using apartheid to describe a future Israel that maintains legal, political, and military control over the West Bank has been broken. Israelis long ago got over that taboo (which isn’t to say they like the term), but it’s natural that it took time to break down here. Kerry’s comment might just be—for good or bad—the beginning of a new conversation on Israel in Washington.

Bring J Street In

Theodore Sasson is right that while the Conference of Presidents has, in recent years, ceased being the consensus institution it was created to be, admitting J Street as a member-organization is the appropriate thing to do.

J Street’s inclusion will contribute to the Conference’s claim to represent American Jewry—all of the big national organizations are already members (the ADL, AJC, AIPAC, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the Jewish Federations of North America). In addition, leaving J Street out of the communal tent because some consider it too partisan and left-wing ignores the fact that there are already several highly partisan member-groups from both ends of the spectrum (American Friends of Likud, the ZOA, JINSA, Ameinu, Americans for Peace Now).

But there’s another, more instrumental, reason to bring J Street in: it will bring its lobbying machine with it. J Street has close ties to the Democratic Party, including President Obama. Although far-right partisans have tried to tie being pro-Israel with being Republican, it’s a highly problematic and misleading equation. Nor is it an effective way to maintain the ability to advocate in a political system comprised of parties on both the right and the left. J Street also has a large, committed, and active grassroots organization that can be mobilized for advocacy efforts.

As a side note, that grassroots base would provide more legitimacy to the Conference since it incorporates a much larger portion of the Jewish community than some of the other organizations that are already members.

Communal consensus has broken down within the US Jewish community along political, religious, and ideological lines. Excluding J Street with only help harden those divisions, but including it will go some way to helping overcome them.

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.

Bibi’s Not in Trouble

For all the talk that Benjamin Netanyahu doesn’t want to be the one to walk away from peace talks, that he fears the global campaign of delegitimization of Israel, and of the dire consequences of failure for Israel, Bibi’s not in any real trouble at the current impasse (assuming it really is an impasse) in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations at this point. He can coast on the status quo, I think, for some time to come. Indeed, his balking at the release of the fourth group of Palestinian prisoners indicates he thinks there’s room to do so.

I’ve argued before that Bibi is a pragmatic opportunist. He prefers the status quo but everything about his temperament, his history, and his politics demonstrate that he’ll move if pushed. But that push has to be serious, and it has to come from outside as well as from within the country.

Thus far the external pressure in talks has been pretty mild. John Kerry has bent over backwards to accommodate Bibi’s demands, seemingly working to get Bibi’s approval of an issue or proposal first before then taking it to the Palestinians for discussion. There doesn’t appear to have been any serious sticks applied to the Israeli delegation (though to be sure, we do not have a lot of information about the specifics of the negotiations), but there have been a lot of carrots—the Jewish state demand, Israel’s position on the Jordan Valley.

Whether it’s because President Obama is distracted by other events, because he doesn’t think he has the necessary domestic political capital, or because Kerry believes the key to genuine progress lies with Bibi rather than with Abbas, the Americans have simply been unwilling to bring the necessary pressure to bear.

On the domestic front, Bibi is doing well. The rebels in Likud who have been consistently challenging him on policy have not gotten anywhere. They haven’t been able to take control over the party’s governing institutions, and they haven’t been able to stop the talks or the prisoner releases (though it seems some movement on the latter issue is growing). Former Shas member Haim Amsalem has now joined Likud, and while it seems to be because he had nowhere else to go, the move still demonstrates the importance of Likud in Israeli politics. Recent polling has the electoral list of Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu gaining a few seats.

More importantly, the left still does not pose a serious electoral challenge to Bibi. It hasn’t presented an alternate message, and there doesn’t seem to be a coherent strategy to create one. In fact, Labor leader Isaac Herzog, for all the talk of him being able to present a more serious threat to Bibi than Shelly Yachimovich, seems to be agreeing more with Bibi’s bargaining positions than Shelly ever did. His main argument is that he doesn’t think Bibi is willing to go all the way to a peace deal. It’s not a message the electorate can rally around.

Of course a lot can happen to disrupt things and generate pressure on Bibi: a breakdown in talks over Iran’s nuclear program, a sudden uptick in Israeli-Palestinian violence. But these are unplanned developments rather than carefully thought out policies designed to bring the conflict to a resolution. That’s not an effective strategy for such an important issue.

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.