The Domestic Politics of Israeli Peacemaking

At Foreign Policy’s The Middle East Channel I have a piece on how Israel’s domestic politics might facilitate a genuine Israeli effort in peace talks with the Palestinians. Here’s a teaser:

The (possible) resumption of direct and high-level talks between Israel and Palestine has generated a wide range of reactions among analysts and pundits. Much of it has been negative, particularly when it comes to presumptions about Israeli intentions. The standard assumption among observers is of a stronger rightwing government, with a couple maybe-centrists here and there, facing off against a weaker leftwing opposition — a formula that many assume can only mean the continuation of the status quo.

Things may turn out that way, but we simply cannot know at this point. Information is contradictory and incomplete. More importantly, the domestic politics of peacemaking in Israel encompasses multiple considerations among a variety of parties. It is too simplistic to contend that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is a rightwing ideologue who is only stalling for time, while Israel’s intra- and inter-party struggles and politicians’ personal ambitions will exert considerable influence over how committed Israel is to talks.

Follow the link for the rest of the piece.



More Flawed than Normal?

The Israeli electoral and party systems have long been broken. Political parties were always breaking apart and merging—indeed, both Labor and Likud are themselves amalgamations of several factions, some of which have over time left the party and then returned to it. Up until the late 1990s it still functioned relatively well.

But this year’s election process seems more flawed than usual. Or maybe it’s because the process is more exposed than usual. Tzipi Livni, for instance, has been making political announcements on her Facebook page since she left Kadima. And there are a number of really good Israeli journalists tweeting from virtually every public meeting the parties have been holding.

First, the center/center-left is far more fragmented than ever before. It makes no electoral sense for there to be a Labor, a Tzipi Livni Party, a Yesh Atid, and a Kadima. It’s true that in the past there have been several parties clumped on a particular spot on the political spectrum. What’s different this time is that none of these parties show any sign of willingness to work closely with each other. Worse, they’ve all given indications that they’ll jump into a government with Bibi and Likud at the first opportunity.

Second, the sheer ego that’s been driving the electoral process is more staggering than normal. Individuals have been forming and leaving parties seemingly on a whim. Tzipi Livni didn’t want to play second fiddle to anybody else, so she formed a brand new party named after her. Yair Lapid didn’t want to be in second place either, so he, too, formed his own party.

Ehud Barak abandoned the party he specifically formed to enter government because he couldn’t handle the embarrassment of staying with it to the bitter end. Amir Peretz sulked because he was at number three in Labor and couldn’t get Shelly Yachimovich to give in to his demands, so he left the party he had once led and went to Livni.

Haim Amsalem was kicked out of Shas for dissenting from the party’s rabbinical line, and formed Am Shalem. Michael Ben Ari and Aryeh Eldad didn’t like the new leadership in National Union, so they left to form Strong Israel.

If the stakes for Israelis and Palestinians weren’t so high, this would make for a good drama—or comedy. (Michael Koplow appropriately compared Israeli politics to an HBO series.)

But weighty issues remain to be adequately dealt with. Hamas and Hezbollah are clearly much stronger than ever before; relations with Turkey and Egypt are persistently stagnant, with no sign of potential improvement any time soon; the Iranian nuclear question is coming to a head within the next six to 12 months; the Syrian endgame looks to be here; and the recognition of Palestine as a non-member state at the UN is raising new questions about political and legal maneuvers and putting renewed emphasis on Israeli policies toward the West Bank.

Israel is distracted from dealing with these issues because parties and politicians are busy fighting for what they see as their rightful share of the political pie. The saddest part of it all is that the outcome of the elections is unlikely to change things all that much. The right is likely to still get between 65 and 68 seats, or more (the most recent poll gives it 73 Knesset seats—though I should repeat that I’m not convinced “left” and “right” are necessarily helpful categories). Bibi will probably still be prime minister. And, as I said, most parties would join Bibi’s coalition if they could—except the Arab parties (which won’t be asked) and Meretz (which seems most likely to stand more on principle than any other party).

The silver lining is that the electoral lists are now set, by law. We’ll see less overt and public plotting and scheming…at least until January 23.

The Multiplying Effect in Israeli Politics

The party system in Israel is fragmenting more and more, as new parties continue to emerge. In theory, this is good for the voter, since it offers more choice. But in reality, this will have the effect of strengthening Benjamin Netanyahu’s chances of forming a coalition government with Likud Beiteinu at its core.

First, the operation in Gaza appears to have strengthened the far right parties. A Knesset Channel poll, for instance, immediately after the ceasefire gave Likud Beiteinu only 33 seats, from the 42 it currently has. More importantly, it gave the merged party of Jewish Home and National Union 13 mandates, up from the five it has now. And it had the new far right party of Michael Ben Ari and Aryeh Eldad (Strong Israel) reaching four seats.

I’m not sure these smaller rightist parties will maintain this momentum. In the immediate aftermath of the ceasefire, rockets were still falling on Israel. And while many Israelis are dissatisfied with what seems to them to be an inconclusive ending, this sentiment will diminish as time moves away from the conflict and relative quiet returns to the south. But the parties themselves will likely still be around come January.

Second, perhaps unsurprisingly, Tzipi Livni is now expected to announce next week the formation of a brand new party, National Responsibility Party. First reactions are good: A Channel 2 poll gives her nine seats, drawing some support from Labor and, especially, from Yesh Atid—which is decimated and left with four mandates. In this poll, too, the far right parties don’t do as well: Jewish Home/National Union only gets nine seats, and Strong Israel doesn’t get any.

It’s still too soon to know which of these estimates holds true in January. But in many ways it doesn’t matter: both of these processes will strengthen Netanyahu. The far right, regardless of how many parties compose it, won’t join a coalition with Labor. And given that Livni is identified with having focused on the peace process at the expense of, well, everything else, it would be difficult for them to work with her, as well.

At the same time, Livni’s party will split the center and center-left vote. Yair Lapid’s efforts to appeal to right-leaning voters will have been undermined, and there will be another party jostling for influence and another ego to be appeased—making it difficult for the center and center-left to come together (or more importantly, to stay together) to balance against Likud.

Alternately, Livni will, despite her protestations against his policies, be more likely to join a coalition with Bibi, putting off his need for the far right parties. Livni and those Kadima members who will be joining her party are more likely to garner rightwing voters, which makes her more of a natural fit in a Likud Beiteinu coalition than Labor or Yesh Atid.

In addition, all of this will undermine Shas’s ability to project a new image and pursue a new direction under Aryeh Deri. It will now have to compete with the far right and Livni for right-leaning voters. In the bargaining that comes after the election, it will have to fight them for a share of the coalition pie. Acting dovish, either on foreign policy (the West Bank) or domestic policy (African migrants and asylum-seekers) won’t work under these conditions.

In short, it looks right now as though Bibi and Likud Beiteinu come out on top in any scenario. It was always the most likely to form the coalition, but all of the changes that continue to occur in Israeli politics seem to strengthen its position of having more choice, more parties to play off each other, and to get the best coalition deal possible.

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.

This Week in Israeli Electoral Politics

In the past week three distinct elements have emerged that might impact on the Israeli elections on January 22. I say “might” because there is still some uncertainty about who the eventual players in the campaign will be, and because of the possibility that external events (war with Iran, a Palestinian uprising, the Syrian civil war, collapse of the Palestinian Authority, and so on) could alter the calculations of Israeli voters in ways we haven’t seen yet.

The first element is really a continuation of existing trends: according to polls, the “right” is still coming out stronger than the “left” (though as I’ve argued these aren’t necessarily helpful groupings). That is, the rightwing bloc (composed of secular and religious parties) is still doing better than the leftwing bloc (composed of Jewish parties and Arab parties).

Within this framework, though, surveys indicate that if the leftist Jewish parties can work together—particularly the main figures still thinking about whether to join the campaign—then a “super” left party could actually get more seats than Likud. Ehud Olmert, Tzipi Livni, and Yair Lapid would have to form a single party. Olmert and Livni have worked together before, so that is possible. But Lapid has already said he wants to run on his own. And it’s not clear yet whether Olmert is able to run, since the State Attorney has announced it will appeal the acquittal in Olmert’s corruption cases. If that happens, it is doubtful Livni could muster as much appeal and support on her own.

The second interesting development is the return of Aryeh Deri to Shas, the haredi party he helped found. Deri had been convicted of bribery, but he is still very popular and considered to be very, very smart; his return is a boon to Shas. The problem is that while he was gone, management of the party fell to Eli Yishai. An agreement seems to have been reached in which the two share power with Ariel Atias.

It’s good for Shas to present a united front—and polls show the party gaining seats now with Deri at its head. But because the final decision on who will lead the party has been put off until after the election, the party could well undermine its win by infighting.

The other interesting implication of Deri’s return is that he’s considered to be more dovish on policy toward the peace process, and more willing to consider withdrawal from the West Bank. Yishai is more hawkish, and closer to the nationalist right on the issue of settlements and the West Bank. Notwithstanding the question of ultimate authority in the party, Deri’s position there—he was given responsibility for coalition negotiations—puts Shas’ support for a left or right government in play. It is, of course, contingent on the leftwing parties getting their own act together, and it’s not clear Shas’ traditionalist and Sephardi constituencies would tolerate it, but new possibilities are now opened up.

Finally, it looks like that the smaller far right parties are consolidating—for now, anyway. National Union (more secular) and Jewish Home (more religious Zionist) have signed a deal to merge (again). A single party will allow the two to pool their resources and votes, and make it stronger in the Knesset, while fewer parties on the right will make it easier for Likud to construct a stable coalition government. Still, the history of far right parties in Israel has been one of fragmentation rather than unity, and this most recent deal is being challenged by members from both parties.

It remains to be seen whether these trends will hold or change. Stay tuned.

Jostling in the Religious Parties

I was going to write Part II of Who Are the Religious in Israel, but Benjamin Netanyahu’s call for early elections has sparked intense speculation about who will ally with whom and which party and bloc will come out on top. And I can’t help participating in these prognostications.

Two new polls are out today, detailing where each party stands. They more or less tell the same story—the rightwing bloc continues to gain more seats in the Knesset than the leftwing bloc. According to a Haaretz/Dialog survey, the former gets 68 seats while the latter gets 52.

A Teleseker/Maariv poll has the right at 64 Knesset seats and the left (or, more properly, the center-left) at 56. Interestingly, the same poll then asks about likely voting based on whether Ehud Olmert and Tzipi Livni form a new party. Under these conditions, the right wins only 62 mandates while the left gets 58, making the election much closer. It also puts the left in contention for forming the government, though it would require some tricky coalition bargaining with the religious parties.

It is what’s going on in these parties that is interesting. Although today there are three main religious parties/tickets (Shas, United Torah Judaism, and a new-ish National Religious Party), they are internally divided along ideological and personal lines. There are also intense differences over religious identity and norms, and it is a constant effort for each party to remain united.

For a long time there were four or five religious parties: a religious Zionist, a socialist-religious Zionist, a haredi, a socialist haredi, and often a minor breakaway from one of these four. By the mid-1950s these parties were consolidating: both religious Zionist parties became the National Religious Party (Mafdal), while the haredi parties were merging into Agudat Israel—though that didn’t become permanent until 1981, and by the beginning of the 1990s had merged more or less permanently with another haredi party to become United Torah Judaism (UTJ). In 1984 Shas entered the political scene, a breakaway from Agudat Israel that sought to represent haredi Sephardic Jews.

In the current Knesset, Shas holds 11 seats, UTJ has 5, and Mafdal—reincarnated as Jewish Home—has 3.

Shas is divided along personality and individual lines. Though it is still guided by the very old Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the party’s daily business is governed by several managers. The party was initially led by Aryeh Deri, considered a brilliant strategist. He was later convicted of corruption and replaced by Eli Yishai. Where Deri was open to working with others, Yishai is bombastic and has offended many with his seemingly uncompromising positions. Yet since Deri announced his return to politics, speculation has been focused on whether he will form his own party, while there are rumors
he might rejoin Shas. Either way he is a threat to Yishai. We can anticipate friction between them, especially if the secular parties start playing them off one another.

But both Deri and Yishai had joined coalition governments led by left and center-left parties. Given the right amount of incentives, Shas under either leader (or both) could support a Likud-led coalition or a center-left coalition. It remains, as it has since the early 1990s, in the role of kingmaker.

United Torah Judaism is composed of Agudat Israel, a party of Ashkenazi haredim and hasidim, and Degel HaTorah, a party of Ashkenazi haredim but that has problems with hasidism. In 1988, Chabad (a hasidic group) under the direction of its leader Rabbi Menachem Schneerson became involved in Israeli elections to help Agudat. Many groups and rabbinical leaders within Agudat do not think hasidism is an appropriate movement; the involvement of one of the major hasidic sects exacerbated these tensions, highlighting the different spiritual practices and theological ideas. One of Agudat’s long time leaders, Rabbi Eliezer Shach, had long had tense relations with Rabbi Schneerson and his followers. The intervention of Chabad in the election made a break political, and Rabbi Shach created Degel HaTorah as a new party out of Agudat.

Degel HaTorah and Agudat Israel have an on-again, off-again relationship. They combined in time for the 1992 elections, and have struggled to maintain unity since then. Currently at five seats, polls have UTJ staying at five or winning one more, but reports are circulating again about internal differences. The party likely won’t be a significant player in coalition politics, though it’s also likely to be in almost any government that is formed.

Jewish Home is a shadow of its former National Religious Party self. The most prominent religious Zionist party, it served in almost all governments since the establishment of the state. It began to break down in the 1970s, with the emergence of Gush Emunim and a post-1967 commitment to settling the newly-conquered West Bank, Gaza, and Sinai that put the radicalized younger generation at odds with the older one.

By the 2000s most of the party shared an increasingly hardline commitment to settlement in the territories. But the 2005 Gaza disengagement brought internal differences over tactics to the fore, and the party split over the best way to influence Israeli policy. Though it ran on a joint ticket with some smaller secular far right parties in the 2006 election, talks to officially merge into a new party fell apart and the party split again over personalities and tactics: Jewish Home, basically a new version of Mafdal, and National Union, which contains more members from the now-defunct far right secular parties.

Despite internal disputes within Jewish Home, efforts to merge with National Union continue as they had from 2006. Naftali Bennett, a newcomer to party politics, has sought to unite the two parties under his leadership. Bennett is well-connected among the settlers and the rightwing in Israel, and could prove an important force on the political right should he win Jewish Home’s leadership on November 6.

But polls show Jewish Home and National Union together still only getting seven seats, and Bennett is being challenged within Jewish Home by its current chair Daniel Hershkowitz as well as Zevulun Orlev, both of whom are at odds with National Union leader Yaakov Katz. Katz has proclaimed on more than one occasion that Israel would return to Gaza, and though Hershkowitz and Orlev are no softies when it comes to settlements, both are concerned about losing their leadership positions in a party under Naftali and which the larger National Union will probably dominate. At the same time, Katz himself doesn’t have the full support of his party; Arieh Eldad has expressed discontent with both Katz and Bennett. Finally, National Union takes a less compromising position on how to move the settlement enterprise forward than Jewish Home members have.

It’s likely that these three parties will continue on the divided path they’ve been on since the 2000s. Whether they can have an effect on coalition bargaining remains to be seen, but because the possibility exists it’s worth watching to see what they do.