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.

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.

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.

The Legacy of Ariel Sharon

Ariel Sharon, in a coma since January 2006, has fallen into critical condition and likely won’t live much longer. But his impact on Israel will last much longer. For most of the world he will always be a villain, but his legacy in Israel is more complicated. He had a catalytic effect on Israeli politics at least twice: in 1973 and in 1982. His formation of Kadima as a breakaway from Likud might be considered as contributing to a third major shift in Israeli politics.

Sharon was regarded as a war hero for a long time. Like most of Israel’s early leaders, he participated in the 1947-19 War. In the early 1950s he formed the famous/infamous Unit 101, a small guerilla unit whose mission was to retaliate against attacks by Palestinian terrorists and militants. It was, like all of Sharon’s activities, an aggressive enterprise. In 1953 he led Unit 101 on a retaliatory raid into Qibya, the West Bank (at the time part of Jordan). Scores of civilians were killed, solidifying Sharon’s reputation as someone who simply did what he believed he had to do, regardless of the consequences. Unit 101 was disbanded soon after, but some have argued that it was a major step in the process leading to the 1967 War.

As a commander in the 1956 Sinai Campaign, he was daring, insubordinate, and—again—aggressive (critics would say reckless). He performed similarly in the 1973 War, engineering a crossing of the Suez Canal that many believe turned the tide of the war in Israel’s favor. All of this earned him a well-respected and even admired reputation in Israel that he later built on for his political career.

It was about the same time that Sharon played an important role in his first shifting of Israeli politics. He was instrumental in the formation of Likud in 1973, an amalgamation of several parties on the right end of the political and economic spectrums. Until then, the leftist Mapai (the forerunner of Labor) had dominated the Israeli political system, serving as the senior partner in every government since 1948. Part of the reason the right had been unable to challenge Mapai/Labor was because it was divided into many smaller parties.

But Likud’s formation changed the political equation. Pushed by a series of social, demographic, and economic changes within the Israeli population and facilitated by the capture of the West Bank in 1967 and then the 1973 War, which clinched for many Israelis the sense that Mapai/Labor had stagnated and was out of touch with contemporary Israel, Likud’s founding made the right a viable political contender. In a shock to the political system, Likud won the 1977 elections with 43 seats to Labor’s 32, inaugurating an era of rightwing prominence that—despite National Unity Governments in the 1980s and Labor wins in 1992 and 1999—continues to this day.

Likud’s victory also served as the vehicle for religious Zionists and secular nationalists to more easily pursue their dreams of Greater Israel. Sharon, of course, played a critical role in this process, too, encouraging Israelis of all ideological and political stripes to move to the West Bank and Gaza.

Sharon’s second legacy was to change the sense of Israel’s security position. Prior to the 1982 invasion of Lebanon, Israelis widely perceived their conflicts to be wars of “no choice” (ein breira). That is, they were forced into them in order to defend their security and even survival. 1982 was different: it was the first war of choice, and as such changed the perception of the Israeli military and of Israel’s own behavior and, indeed, its very identity.

Launched ostensibly in response to an assassination attempt on the Israeli ambassador to the UK, it was really an effort by Sharon as Defense Minister, Raful Eitan as IDF Chief of Staff, and perhaps a few others (questions remain about how much Prime Minister Menachem Begin knew or suspected) to reorder the Lebanese political system and elevate the Maronite Christians to unchallenged leadership in the country. The Maronites would, it was presumed, be staunch allies of Israel and thus close down part of its northern border to Arab attack.

But the messy unfolding of the war—which included a direct invasion of Beirut, Israel’s indirect responsibility for the massacre of Palestinian civilians in the Sabra and Shatila refugees camps, and the occupation of a strip of southern Lebanon until 2000—galvanized opposition to the war. It led to the largest demonstration to that point in Israel’s history against the war. With the IDF’s actions bleeding into riot control and policing in the first intifada soon after (1987), the conceptualization of Israeli security policy was irrevocably changed.

One could add that Sharon’s third legacy was the formation of Kadima as a breakaway from Likud in November 2005, after the summer withdrawal from Gaza. Designed to be a vehicle for Sharon’s plans for partial withdrawal from the West Bank, it would be too much to say that Kadima upended the Israeli political system. But in 2006 it became the first party that wasn’t Mapai/Labor or Likud to form the government. Its electoral strength and popularity have declined sharply since then (it’s currently at two seats in the Knesset), but it might be said to have facilitated the decline of Labor and, to a lesser extent, Likud.

Much ink will be spent on analyzing Sharon’s personality and policies. He was certainly a polarizing figure, disliked and mistrusted even in Israel. But there is no denying the effect he had on Israeli politics.

Some Implications of the Geneva Deal

An interim deal between the P5+1 powers and Iran has just been signed. There is certainly a lot to talk about, but here are some implications for Israel and the American Jewish community.

1. From Israel’s perspective, there are some pretty big holes in the agreement. But that was to be expected: it’s an interim deal only, and could not have addressed all the big issues. The question that Jerusalem will be thinking about for the next six to 12 months is whether it’s a genuinely strong foundation for a final deal, or whether it’s just a façade for Iran to build a nuclear bomb.

2. Given these holes, what does this say about Washington’s commitment to Israeli security? I don’t expect the American-Israeli relationship to stumble or collapse. It’s simply too strong, rooted in too many areas (public opinion, shared interests, strategic cooperation, and more) to fall apart over this single issue.

Nor is there anywhere else Israel can turn for military aid or diplomatic cover. The notion that France could ever have replaced the United States was simply silly; not only are those ties not as intense, but you cannot replace the genuinely special relationship between the U.S. and Israel overnight with a country that is as interested in building ties with Iran as it might be in building them with Israel. And Israeli politics and society is oriented toward the United States, and has been for a long time; shifting such attitudes isn’t easy.

3. It’s unclear how Israel will react in concrete terms to the deal. The choice is between sitting back and letting the deal take its course, with some independent monitoring of the Iranian nuclear program; or continuing to take action against it, through covert means. It’s not an easy choice—doing the latter could prompt Iran to end up pulling out of the agreement, leaving Israel to blame and further isolating it in the international community on this issue.

4. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu handled the process leading up the Iran deal badly. In Raphael Ahren’s terms, he gambled and lost. He was belligerent and condescending; he threatened; and he directly called on both Congress and the U.S. Jewish community to fight against their president’s policy because he, Bibi, told them it was wrong.

It’s not clear he would have gotten much better terms, but he would have been more intimately involved in the process, demonstrated Israel is a responsible actor on an issue of critical importance, and been in a stronger position to make demands in the aftermath of the deal. He also would likely have garnered more sympathy for Israel’s position. It’s not that he cried wolf too often, but rather that he did it so belligerently and derisively, even hysterically. He doesn’t care that others started to roll their eyes by the end, but it is a problem if they start to think Israel isn’t being constructive but just obstructive; then it gets shut out of the process. This is important as Iran is now seen as a full partner in this process, rather than just the enemy against which sanctions and threats had to be applied.

Still, Bibi should be content that at least one part of his strategy paid off. It seems clear that without the severe economic sanctions and believable threat of military action, Iran wouldn’t have come to the table. Bibi can build on these in the time leading up to negotiations over a final deal.

5. Don’t expect this to change Israel’s domestic political conditions. Israelis might not be happy with a deal, but plenty of analysts and security officials have said it’s a good deal to begin with; it’s not at all clear that Israelis would vote Bibi out on this issue alone; and there’s still no serious challenger to him and to Likud. And there’s still some time to go before the consequences of the deal will be known and before the outcome of bargaining over a final deal; lots can happen in Israel between now and then to change Israelis’ minds one way or the other. That said, Bibi would be coming up on his fourth term—which would be unprecedented. It’s just as likely that he decision to step down before then or to lose an election would be the result of too much time at the top, rather than Iran.

6. Expect Israel to take a harder line in talks with the Palestinians. Bibi is angry and frustrated with Obama, and already thinks he’s been ignoring Israel’s concerns. It’s not that Bibi will stop the talks, but that he’s likely to become more intransigent.

7. Israel’s and AIPAC’s failure to change President Barack Obama’s mind on the negotiations underlines what serious observers of Jewish lobbying have long know: that the ability to “win” is conditioned by several factors, including external conditions and the determination of the president. Congress has always been more open to AIPAC’s (and other groups’) advocacy; but because Congress’s role in foreign policy is limited, so, too, is the ability to change the president’s mind when he is set on something. The Iran deal and the failure to get Congress to vote yes on Syria strikes are some good recent case studies to use in discussions of how American policy toward the Middle East gets made.

8. On the dynamics in Jewish advocacy more generally: The political polarization of the last several years hasn’t diminished, and that has made it easier for groups on the left and on the right to fight against each other, putting the big centrist groups in the difficult position of trying to maintain a balance between them. But I think the far-right groups (like the Zionist Organization of America and the Emergency Committee for Israel) will be weaker for it. Their loud and ultimately futile opposition to much of the Obama Administration’s agenda has demonstrated that while they get notice (see how often their claims are cited in news accounts), they don’t get results. The big question is whether groups like AIPAC and the ADL will recognize this and adjust their tactics accordingly. The evidence isn’t clear at this point. But like Bibi, they will have much to reflect on in the coming months.