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.

Bibi: Keep Barak

In this piece for Open Zion, I argue that, not withstanding his announcement to retire, Ehud Barak is needed at the Defense Ministry as a necessary balance against other ministerial hawks. The full piece is below.

In a surprise move, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak has announced he’ll be leaving politics after the election on January 22. That doesn’t mean his political career is done: in an Israeli political constellation of large egos, Barak’s outshone all the others. Despite improved public opinion surveys for his Independence party after Operation Pillar of Cloud, though, it’s clear that the party won’t be a vehicle for a grand re-entrance. Labor won’t have him, after he cannibalized the party for personal gain. Likud doesn’t want him either: he’s a threat to prominent individuals’ own positions and to many he still represents the left and its delusions about peace. He has no viable political home.

But Israel, the Palestinians, and the rest of the world should hope that Barak somehow finds his way back to Defense, even if that means Benjamin Netanyahu, still likely to remain at the head of a coalition government, has to appoint him to the position. This would entail a fight: there are others in Likud who covet the position, particularly Moshe Ya’alon, and while Avigdor Lieberman says he’ll retain the Foreign Ministry, rumors persist that Netanyahu offered him his choice of ministries to run on a joint ticket with Likud; the second most powerful office in Israel has got to be a real temptation. The price of incurring those figures’ anger is worth it.

his isn’t because Barak’s a pacifist who will avoid war with Hamas or Iran, or because he has a grand plan for Israel that will bring peace to the region. It’s because he’ll be needed to balance out the hawkish, even reckless, preferences of Lieberman, Eli Yishai, and others.

In Haaretz’s account of decision-making behind Operation Pillar of Defense, Barak cautioned against widening the air war into a ground invasion while Lieberman pressed for one. Netanyahu was uncertain—he could have gone either way. It was Barak’s convincing explanation and insistence on the correctness of his analysis—backed by his real security credentials—that eventually swayed Netanyahu.

In the larger ministerial security forum, Yishai, Yuval Steinitz, and others also thought a ground invasion was a good idea. While Benny Begin and Dan Meridor opposed it, their influence is at an all-time low, and it’s not even clear they’ll be around come January 23. Without Ehud Barak to balance the unreconstructed hawks, Netanyahu is more likely to follow their advice.

Barak would have gone into Gaza with ground troops if he thought it was necessary, but he was well aware of the costs of doing so, and he was comfortable taking Israel’s gains and moving on. This is his modus operandi: during his own tenure as Prime Minister, he shifted easily and rapidly between pursuing talks with the Syrians and the Palestinians as he saw fit. At Camp David, he broke the sacredness of Jerusalem as Israel’s undivided and eternal capital. He doesn’t chase a military or diplomatic goal out of ideology, pride, revenge, or justice—he does it out of necessity.

Barak will do what he thinks is right for Israel. Of course, so will Lieberman and Yishai. But they have a hard time separating their perception of what’s right from what’s achievable and what is costly. Barak doesn’t. Israel could use that kind of clear thinking as the challenges of Hamas, the Palestinian bid at the U.N., Egypt, Syria, and Iran converge

Laying The Groundwork For A Rightist Government?

This piece was published in Open Zion on November 8. It is reprinted here in full.

Arutz Sheva reported today that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called Naftali Bennett to congratulate him on his election as the new leader of Jewish Home, the reincarnation of the old religious Zionist party, Mafdal. The story speculated that this was a signal of a reconciliation between the two leaders, who hadn’t spoken in three years, which in turn likely paves the way for Jewish Home to enter a Likud-led coalition after the January election.

This assumption shouldn’t be a surprise. After all, Jewish Home joined the coalition in 2009, and its leader Daniel Hershkowitz became a minister in the government. Bennett was previously the chairman of the Yesha Council, the umbrella organization of Jewish settlements in the West Bank; the continuing expansion of settlements under the Likud government makes him a natural fit for a new rightist government.

Moreover, Bennett’s plan for resolving the conflict with the Palestinians includes nothing less than the annexation of all of Area C, the extension of Israeli security control over the entire West Bank, and (only) autonomy for the Palestinians—and damn the world, which will get used to it. This certainly jives with some of the views of Netanyahu himself and many fellow Likudniks, who see Jewish settlements as appropriate and necessary; and it fits with their belief that Israel must stand firm in the face of the siege the world is laying to it. And it resembles some of the priorities of Avigdor Lieberman, whose Yisrael Beiteinu is now running on a joint ticket with Likud.

Whether such a relationship survives the realities of governing is a different story. According to current polling, the right-wing bloc is likely to get between 63 and 66 seats in the Knesset. Depending on how strong the center left and leftwing parties do, that might not be enough to easily form a coalition.

Assuming Netanyahu is asked to form a coalition government, it will need either Shas, or Yesh Atid or Labor. But Aryeh Deri’s return to the party means that Shas’s commitment to both a right-wing government and the settlement enterprise is less firm, and a rightist coalition therefore less stable overall. If Netanyahu replaces Shas with Yesh Atid or Labor, Jewish Home won’t be needed or wanted.

If Netanyahu does form a right-wing coalition that includes Jewish Home, he’ll have to move fast on settlement building and avoid negotiations with the Palestinians that entail compromise over the West Bank. But this will clash with Israelis’ preference for a focus on social and economic issues. Jewish Home’s uncompromising position on settlements, then, will strain Netanyahu’s ability to manage societal demands and fend off the leftist opposition’s attacks.

Depending on what the other far right parties—National Union, set to merge with Jewish Home, and Michael Ben Ari’s new party, assuming it survives—do, this might not topple the coalition. But it will certainly make for a more difficult balancing act.

In other words, having an inflexible religious Zionist party in the government isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. This is why Netanyahu is probably far more leery of Bennett that the Arutz Sheva story indicates.

The Return Of Labor

I wrote a piece for Open Zion on how the leader of Israel’s Labor Party has been carefully rebuilding the party throughout this election season.

Here’s a teaser:

Noam Sheizaf argues that this election campaign is all about continuity: the right-wing bloc, led by Benjamin Netanyahu and Likud, will win—again—a majority of seats in the Knesset and then form the government. He may be right about the outcome, but for the Labor Party, the election is all about change. Seth Mandel recognizes this but contends that Labor is engaged in a risky gamble that might or might not work, moving further left while the electorate has shifted right.

Both Sheizaf and Mandel miss the long game that Labor leader Shelly Yachimovich is playing, and the opportunity this election provided her to do so. She has carefully rebuilt the party by adding dynamic new members and concentrated on social and economic issues. In fact, the sudden alliance between Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu strengthens her hand by allowing her to claim centrist and center-right voters who’ll be turned off by the joint ticket.

Check out the piece in the original at Open Zion for more…

A Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu Joint Ticket

So it appears that while I was away from my computer, Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu (YB) decided to run on a single list for the upcoming elections in Israel. Thus I can only give a quick reaction now.

This isn’t really a surprise, and provides considerable benefits for the two parties, but at the same time has several implications for Israeli parties and politics.

Israeli political parties merge and split all the time. Likud itself is an amalgam of several parties. Yisrael Beiteinu ran as part of the ticket of National Union in 2003, and there have been rumors in the past about a merger with Likud.

On the surface a unified faction makes lots of sense. It helps protect both Benjamin Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman from internal party rivals. It allows for a concentration of resources and voters, particularly as the left and the center are emerging as serious challenges in the campaign.

On the other hand, a super-right party would draw voters from some of the smaller right secular parties. These aren’t likely to be happy about this, and may fight to keep their share of the vote. It’s also not clear all Likud members are happy about this. There was already substantial discontent among some with Netanyahu; a joint ticket will be seen as a way of silencing them, and they may intensify their anti-Bibi activities, and work to undermine the union.

Nor will YB members be all that happy. The Russian and secular constituencies that voted for it will see their issues diluted within a larger party. Netanyahu was careful to give YB more or less equality with Likud on the ticket (which I take as a sign of his perception of his weak position), but Likud is still bigger and stronger and will dominate the agenda more than YB will.

The haredi parties will not be happy, whatever they say in public. YB, and Lieberman particularly, is considered to be staunchly secular. For example, it harped on the haredi draft as major policy issue for a long time, and seemed less inclined to compromise than Bibi was. This opens the door a little more for the religious parties, especially Shas, to consider a government with the left and center-left, should the latter obtain enough seats in the Knesset to form a plausible core to the coalition.

I understand Lieberman may have been offered his choice of ministry should the ticket form the coalition. This would be disastrous for Israel. As a Foreign Minister, Lieberman has been one of the least productive and biggest liabilities Israel has even had in that position (with a possible except of David Levy). If Lieberman chooses the Defense Ministry, he’ll be in an even more powerful position to shape Israeli security and foreign policy (assuming they are not the same thing, which isn’t a safe assumption) along his confused, incoherent, and belligerent preferences. In such an event, expect a downward spiral in relations with the US, the Palestinians, Turkey, and Egypt.

Finally, don’t expect the ticket to last. Israeli politicians are known for their large egos, and Lieberman and Netanyahu are no different: neither will want to play second fiddle to the other for long, particularly as Lieberman will now see himself as being in a stronger position. There are also real policy disagreements between the two parties, including differences over the role of religion in politics and society. They share some, but not all, of the same type of voters. And other parties, among the left, the right, and the religious will prefer Likud over YB; they’ll see YB as an obstacle to overcome more than anything else. This will push Likud, including Bibi, to leave the ticket as soon as is feasible or the pressure gets too great.