New Book on Israeli Politics

Harold Waller and I have co-authored a text on Israeli Politics, due out with Oxford University Press in February 2016. The Politics of Israel: Governing a Complex Society serves as an introduction to the topic, and covers a wide range of issues and areas, including the impact of Zionism on Israel’s political culture, religion in politics, the politics of the Arab minority, interest groups and public protest, and debates over the meaning of Israel as a Jewish state.

Danny Danon at the UN

There is no doubt that the appointment of Danny Danon as Israel’s next ambassador to the United Nations is a bad move. Danon is belligerent, uninterested in hearing alternative views about issues he cares about, and exhibits a disdain for the international community, which he seems to think is generally hostile to Israel. He is a member of Israel’s younger generation of secular ultra-nationalists, and as such is unapologetic about anything Israel does. He is also staunchly opposed to a Palestinian state.

All of that is fine for Israel’s domestic arena, particularly in the current political climate. But it’s highly problematic for an envoy to the world’s premier multilateral body—one dominated by countries that already view Israel’s international policy with skepticism and support a Palestinian state. At a time when his prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has ticked off much of the international community (partly on the basis of policy, partly because people like to dislike Netanyahu) even while concern over Israel’s occupation is transforming into active policies against it, Danon is not the man to repair Israel’s relations with the outside world.

The thing is, it doesn’t matter all that much. Netanyahu, and most of his government, already views the world as at best indifferent, at worst inimical to Israel. That’s doubly true of the United Nations specifically. Netanyahu’s policy on settlements and on Israeli control over the West Bank isn’t going to change. The best chance of that—the John Kerry talks—has passed and won’t come around again.

While Netanyahu does care what other governments think, I think he prefers direct diplomacy to public pressure. The only place where he is willing to use public diplomacy is in America, where he thinks he can sway public opinion to his side. He doesn’t think he’ll be able to sway public sentiments in Europe, Africa, or Asia. Trade and direct humanitarian aid in the latter two places are more likely to matter than speeches at the United Nations.

The days when Israel could change minds in the General Assembly are gone, probably by the 1980s if not earlier. And even then Israel needed the help of the United States and other allies to help persuade others.

Today Netanyahu has pushed many of Israel’s traditional allies away. At the same time his settlement building and public statements overshadow anything his UN ambassador might say. Danon’s predecessor, Ron Prosor, was far more articulate and sympathetic, and yet even he couldn’t do much for Israel’s case.

Danon might be able to push Israel’s interests further in the quieter interactions that take place out of the spotlight of the General Assembly. He certainly won’t be deterred by polite rejections and brush-offs. But even here Danon is up against a wall of concern about Israeli policy, and he simply can’t allay those concerns because he doesn’t view these policies as problematic. If anything, they aren’t forceful enough for him. I mean policy regarding the expansion of Israeli sovereignty over the West Bank, toward Hamas in Gaza, toward Iran, and so on.

Maybe Danon’s views about the occupation, about the UN, and about the world have changed, and maybe they haven’t. It doesn’t matter. Even Abba Eban would have trouble making Israel’s case at the UN today.

On Iran, Don’t Just Blame Bibi

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has failed to stop the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. He just doesn’t know it yet. That’s dangerous for Israel, because it undermines Israel’s ability to react proactively to the agreement, putting the ball in Iran’s court to carry or drop.

But while observers love to blame Netanyahu for Israel’s foreign policy problems, they should also hold Israel’s Jewish opposition parties accountable for their role in Israel’s unwillingness to address the aftermath of the deal. Not only have they consistently failed to challenge Netanyahu on his foreign policies and to propose new ideas for dealing with a resurgent Iran, but they have actively supported his claims.

It’s understandable why Netanyahu holds to his position. He believes in the biblical maxim that Israel is a “nation that dwells alone,” and that the world is a hostile place for Jews and for Israel—and always will be. So the deal is only one event in a long line of iniquities the Jews have suffered their entire existence. Most members of his government share this worldview.

But we should expect Israel’s Jewish opposition parties to hold a different view; at a minimum they should at least challenge Netanyahu for political gain. While crass, this would still mean a public debate on a security issue of critical importance. Instead they have failed to put forward any alternate proposals for reacting to the agreement, compounding the government’s failures with their own.

Their silence is all the more striking given that several former and serving security officials have publicly stated that the deal, while not perfect, does contribute to Israel’s security and can serve as the core element of a broader regional strategy. Israeli public opinion is also skeptical but there are hints of tolerance for the deal. The foundation for a challenge to the prevailing mindset is there; but no-one is opening their eyes to it.

Instead they’ve hewed to Netanyahu’s line. Yair Lapid, leader of the center-right Yesh Atid party, has criticized the prime minister’s handling of the crisis, but he committed to “fighting to the last minute so that the whole world and the US Congress understand that lifting sanctions without changing the issue of inspections would be wrong.”

Avigdor Liberman, of Yisrael Beiteinu, repeated the Netanyahu line and called the deal “a total surrender to terrorism.”

Labor leader Isaac Herzog even decided to travel to Washington to convince the Obama Administration that the deal is a terrible one and should be re-negotiated. It’s hard to avoid the impression that the leader of the main opposition party is acting as Netanyahu’s personal envoy. This might be appropriate during wartime, but it’s hardly suitable as a reaction against an international treaty.

The reason for their submission is that most of them, with the exception of the leftwing Meretz, are competing for the same electorate. They think there is no room in the public’s mind for a different position on Iran.

Surveys seem to bear their concerns out. On political and security issues, 29.1 percent of the Israeli public identifies as “right,” while 20.7 percent identity as “moderate right,” 23.9 percent as “center” and only 8.3 percent as “moderate left.” Also, 45 percent of the Jewish public identifies to varying degrees with the national religious camp in Israel—the sector of the population that is more nationalist, more rightist, and more suspicious of the outside world.

The proliferation of smaller, centrist parties in 2000s and the Labor Party’s shift toward the center has intensified the competition for these voters. Given these voters’ skepticism toward the Palestinians, Obama, and most of all Iran, the parties believe they need to avoid saying anything that might be construed as positive about these issues.

Only Meretz head Zahava Gal-On has unconditionally taken Netanyahu to task. But her party is marginalized within Israeli Jewish politics. Only 7.8 percent of Israeli Jews identify as “left” and therefore would be likely supporters. In the 2015 election Meretz received only 3.93 percent of the vote, barely above the 3.25 percent threshold for entry into the Knesset. She is considered naïve on foreign policy, too.

But looking at surveys tells only one part of the story. A broader view suggests that there is space to present different ideas. Historically, on major issues of security and peace, the Israeli public has followed its leaders. Even when polls indicate Israelis oppose a particular policy, once the government decides to pursue it, support increases—particularly when the prime ministers works to sell it.

This was true of the Yitzhak Rabin’s Oslo Accords and the major concessions it entailed to the Palestine Liberation Organization, and it was true of Ariel Sharon’s disengagement from Gaza.

This “follow the leader” position stems from the country’s history. Its precarious security situation for the first two decades of its existence facilitated a trust in and tolerance for secretive government decisions, without public debate. While that has diminished over time, Israelis have retained their sense that government decisions necessarily should be supported in major security decisions outside of war. Israel’s wars have, since the invasion of Lebanon in 1982, increasingly been challenged by its citizens.

With Israel’s Jewish opposition parties accepting Netanyahu’s limits on the terms of the public debate over the JCPOA, Iran is free to react as it pleases. Its ability to expand its regional activities and its influence is its own to lose. It seems most of Israel’s leaders have forgotten the ultimate purpose of Zionism: for the Jews to exert their own agency, rather than be subject to history.

Labor Chooses an Electoral Slate

Israel’s Labor Party has selected its electoral list. It has provided for a strong role for women, and a concentration on social-economic issues. After party head Isaac Herzog, in second place is Shelly Yacimovich; in third is Stav Shaffir; in fourth is Itzik Shmuli; and in ninth is Merav Michaeli. The slate will be combined with Tzipi Livni’s Hatnua, and Livni herself will be in second place on the joint list.

A few thoughts on what the results might mean for the election:

It’s a bit weak on security and foreign policy issues. In sixth place is Omer Bar-Lev, who has considerable experience in both. But I am not sure he commands the wide respect other prominent former military and intelligence leaders have in order to make up for the death of security people on the list. The twelfth spot is reserved for a candidate of Herzog’s choice, so the person appointed there could bolster the party’s security credentials. Combined with Livni’s obvious focus on the peace process, it could provide a strong basis on which to assert a foreign policy message.

But with no foreign policy crisis on the agenda, and economic issues continuing to be of great concern to Israelis, at this point it is likely that social justice, rather than foreign policy issues, will be the core issue of the campaign. The prominent role of women on the list will also enhance Labor’s claims to better represent Israeli society. These are Benjamin Netanyahu and Likud’s weaknesses, and Labor could hammer at them on these domestic issues.

That said, in 2013 Labor also had an electoral list strong on social and economic issues. But several other factors intervened to prevent Labor from taking full advantage of it. This included a general suspicion among voters that the left is naïve and irresponsible on security issues; the appearance of Livni and Yesh Atid, who fought for the same leftwing and centrist votes; a surge of support for Bayit Yehudi; and a shift away from what has become its traditional policy issue—the peace process. A crowded political field is bad for Labor.

All of these factors remain in place today. Though Livni is now tied to Labor, the center is still crowded: Despite a drop in the polls, Yesh Atid is still around; Koolanu has appeared as the new Yesh Atid; and even Avigdor Liberman has been reimagining his image as a centrist. Bayit Yehudi is continuing to poll better than its 2013 showing, and is still making an intense play for non-religious Zionist votes. And, as mentioned above, Labor is still a bit weak on security issues, while Herzog hasn’t been able—or willing—to craft a simple and consistent message about the peace process or the occupation that is all that different from Likud’s position.

That brings us back to foreign policy. It’s possible Herzog will let Livni talk up security in the form of peace talks while he focuses on social justice. But Israeli leaders don’t compartmentalize well; they normally like to retain ultimate control over events. That Livni is seen as a political equal to Herzog, while Herzog doesn’t exhibit the same high level of ego most Israeli politicians do, might mean they could pull it off. In addition, they could combine their messages: Problems in the relationships with Europe and, to a lesser extent, with the United States could be tied to social and economic issues through the effects of Israel’s presence in the West Bank, while spending on housing and security in the West Bank could also be tied to problems in government development of cities, towns, and regions within the Green Line.

It’s still a long way to the end of the election campaign, and lots can—and probably will—happen before March 17. It’s become a cliché to say that we cannot predict anything about the Israeli election, and that’s true. But identifying trends during the campaign is useful, and can tell us something about Israeli political parties and the contours of its politics.

What To Read on Gaza

The ongoing fighting between Israel and Hamas is causing enormous suffering, and the human toll the war has taken is horrible and getting worse. But for a sense of the “bigger picture,” here are some good pieces written by smart analysts. I don’t agree with all of their conclusions (except the ones written by me), but they are well thought-out and provide a larger, necessary, context to the fighting. I’ll update as new analyses become available.

In no particular order:

Nathan Thrall in the New York Times: “How the West Chose War in Gaza,” on the effects of broader regional politics leading up to the conflict.

Hussein Ibish in Foreign Affairs: “Bibi’s First War,” on why Netanyahu has been reluctant to use force in Gaza, and why that changed now.

Haviv Rettig Gur in the Times of Israel: “The Tragic Self-Delusion behind the Hamas War,” on Israeli and Hamas conceptualization of their own weakness and how this informs their decisions about war, and comparisons to the Algerian War of Independence.

Hugh Naylor in The National: “Hamas Home-Made Rockets No Match for Israel,” on Hamas’ efforts to construct a domestic missile industry.

Allison Beth Hodgkins in Political Violence @ a Glance: “Why Hamas Escalated, When Before They Didn’t,” on the motivations behind Hamas’ decisions to escalate the fighting.

Yossi Melman in The Forward: “Hamas Has Nothing to Lose,” on Israel’s military and tactical goals in Gaza.

Me in The National Interest: “Israel’s Real Problem: It Has No Strategy,” on Israel’s lack of a strategic agenda and how that undermines its ability to defeat Hamas.

Me in The Monkey Cage/Washington Post: “Does the Gaza Operation Threaten Netanyahu’s Political Future,” on the politics of elections and war in Israel.

Update: New, additional readings

Me in Politico Magazine: “Israel Is Winning This War,” on the wrong measurements analysts have used to argue Hamas will ultimately win the Gaza war.

J.J. Goldberg in The Forward: “Gaza Tunnels: How They Work, What Israel Knew.”

Nathan Thrall in London Review of Books: “Hamas’s Chances,” on why Hamas went to war and what’s driving it during the war.

Michael Walzer in The New Republic: “Israel Must Defeat Hamas, But Also Must Do More to Limit Civilian Deaths.” Walzer’s work on just war is among the best out there; he applies his finding to the Gaza war.

Interview with Amos Oz in DW: “Oz: Lose-Lose Situation for Israel.” Given that Oz is one of Israel’s most prominent doves, this interview captures well the general mood in Israel regarding the Gaza war and Palestinian casualties.

Dean Obeidallah in The Daily Beast: “Do Palestinian Really Exist,” a personal story tied into a national story, with implications for the Gaza war.

Dahlia Scheindlin in +972: “Who Are the Israelis Fighting This War?” a glimpse into the lives of Israeli soldiers fighting in Gaza. “Every day that goes by – I’m different.”

Elisheva Goldberg in The Atlantic: “Israel’s Bedouin: Caught Between the Iron Dome and Hamas,” on the in-between place the Bedouin in Israel seem to have fallen–with no protection.

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…

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.