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.

Four Questions About the Israeli Election

Less than a week to go to the Israeli election on March 17, and it’s still too early to call. I don’t think this is the election that will decide Israel’s fate, but it does appear that several trends may be converging at this moment. This means the election could leave a lasting legacy in many different areas of Israeli politics, though as usual much depends on what happens on the 17th, how the coalition bargaining plays out, and how long the next government lasts.

Here are some things we should consider regarding the aftermath of the election:

Is Avigdor Liberman, and by extension his party Yisrael Beiteinu, on his way out? There was a time when some observers argued that Liberman was not just the kingmaker, but the likely next king. That seems unlikely now; polls have him barely getting past the electoral threshold, at 5-6 seats. That’s enough to still get him into the coalition, but that’s about it—he won’t get one of the top ministries.

The drop in Liberman’s fortunes raises another interesting question. If Yisrael Beiteinu becomes a minor partner in the government, it’s possible that the next election could see the end of the party. If that happens, then we can ask whether we have seen the last of the ethnic Russian parties.

To be sure, Yisrael Beiteinu and Yisrael B’Aliyah, which is something like its predecessor, were never only Russian parties. Liberman, in particular, has been working hard to get the general secular-hawkish vote. But many Russian Israelis have still seen it as a political home. If there are no more Russian parties, this could mean the Russian community is integrated enough into broader Israeli society that there’s no need for a party that claims to represent its specific interests.

On the other end of the spectrum, this election might see the end of a viable Jewish political left. Meretz, the home for staunch Jewish liberals and doves, is polling at about 6 seats, as well—down from about 10 at the beginning of the campaign. These once-and-potential voters seem to be moving to Labor and to the centrist parties, Yesh Atid and Koolanu, while there is anecdotal evidence that many Jewish leftist intellectuals and activists intend to vote for the Joint List (the alliance between the three Arab parties).

The Jewish left has been limping along for some time now, with Meretz and Labor getting just enough seats together to remain visible, but without much ability to shape policy. That will probably be the minimum outcome after March 17, too, if Meretz doesn’t pick up more voters on election day and a Labor-led government isn’t formed to look after its interests.

Further, are we seeing the start of two new political camps in Israel: the far-right and the center? This is in contrast to the dominance of the right and the left since the late 1970s. As the electorate has started voting rightward, the leftwing parties—despite their appeal on socio-economic issues—have simply been unable to recapture momentum on security issues.

According to current survey data, the rightwing parties—I call them far-right because many of their MKs hold to maximalist land claims, promote illiberal bills in the Knesset designed to shut down differences and criticisms in Israeli society, and promote a military-oriented solution to many of Jerusalem’s foreign policy problems—are outpolling the left about 44 (Likud, Bayit Yehudi, Yisrael Beiteinu, and Yachad) to 30 (Zionist Union and Meretz). The Joint List is certainly on the left, but given its exclusion from policymaking it forms another political cluster altogether.

Meanwhile, the centrist parties are polling at about 20 seats (Yesh Atid and Koolanu). At first glance that’s a significant gap between the center and the left. But the left in this case isn’t as “left” as it seems. Those 30 seats includes six for Meretz, certainly a party on the left. But it includes 24 seats for the Zionist Union, made up primarily of Labor—and Labor has turned center-left in recent years. Part of the reason is that it has dropped its effort to distinguish itself from Likud and the right on foreign policy, particularly toward the peace process. Labor still proclaims its opposition to (most) settlements, but it hardly talks about the importance of ending the occupation, withdrawing from almost all of the West Bank, and dividing Jerusalem. When the right specifically says it won’t do these things, and Labor doesn’t specifically say it will, it’s hard to argue there is a major difference between them.

On economic issues, Yesh Atid and Koolanu—the contemporary manifestations of an old trend of short-lived third parties—are saying much the same thing Labor is. There is talk about looking after citizens’ needs more effectively, but no talk of returning to Labor’s old socialist roots (for good reasons, of course). There isn’t much difference between left and center here, either, then. In short, the Jewish left is really a very small minority; the bulk of the political left occupies a centrist position on both security and social-economic issues.

The left’s weakness on security may be changing. In the past week, especially, there have been heavy attacks on Benjamin Netanyahu’s poor record on foreign and security affairs by several former military and intelligence officials. It remains to be seen whether this will be enough to convince voters.

Finally, is this a new era in Arab politics? The electoral alliance between Balad, Hadash, and Ra’am-Ta’al is unprecedented, and could well prompt a much greater Arab voter turnout than the previous two elections (56% in 2013 and 53% in 2009). Current polling gives the Joint List 12-13 seats, a sizeable bloc. It won’t join or be asked to join the government, but it can play a more important role in Knesset committees and other legislative politics. Its success might also serve to encourage greater mobilization among the Arab minority.

Still, unless this translates into policy outcomes, it’s not clear such momentum can be maintained. And to have a real effect on policy requires working with the Jewish parties. That’s possible with parties like Labor and Meretz, but it may not be easy if a Labor government includes Yesh Atid and/or Koolanu. It’s out of the question if there is a Likud-led rightist government, and it will be very difficult if there is a Labor-Likud national unity government.

Food for thought.

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.