Doves in Israel’s Security Network?

Yesterday, Israel’s outgoing National Security Advisor, Yaakov Amidror, said that if peace talks with the Palestinians fail, Israel’s international standing will worsen. Though he didn’t lay it out specifically, the logical extension of his argument is that the talks need to succeed if Israel is to be in a stronger regional and global position; and to succeed, Jerusalem will need to take them more seriously and be prepared to offer serious concessions.

Amidror is no lefty. He is a member of the religious Zionist community, which believes that the Land of Israel was given to the Jews by God, and therefore should not—indeed, cannot—be given up to an independent Palestinian state. But his comments reflect similar comments made by many, many former security officials once they’ve left their work in the military and intelligence communities. Out of office, they’ve all publicly mused—and some have been downright accusatory—about whether Israel’s policy toward the West Bank and settlements is creating unnecessary threats and leading Israel into moral corruption and physical danger.

• Former Chief of Staff Ehud Barak said that without a Palestinian state, Israel risked becoming an apartheid regime.

• Former Mossad head Meir Dagan argued that Israel’s needs to present a viable peace initiative, and that the Netanyahu government isn’t doing so.

• Former Mossad head Efraim Halevy has criticized Israel’s insistence that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state as a non-starter.

• And, of course, there are the highly critical comments by all of the living former chiefs of the Shin Bet.

These are only the most recent prominent examples. Before them, there was Shimon Peres (a notable hawk during his time in the Defense Ministry), Moshe Dayan, Yitzhak Rabin, Amram Mitzna, and others.

What gives? Do all these hard men, who have engaged in deception and violence during their careers, suddenly become soft and dovish out of office? Is there something about being a member of the security network that makes one a dove?

The short answer is “no.” But the long answer is “yes.”

To some extent it’s about personality and individual beliefs. Plenty of former security officials have become rightwing politicians: Rechavam Ze’evi joined Moledet and Rafael Eitan founded Tzomet, both far-right political parties. Effi Eitam joined the protests at the settlement of Amona in 2006, which tried to prevent the Israel Defense Forces from demolishing the buildings in accordance with government policy. Moshe Ya’alon became the pro-settlement Likudnik and current Defense Minister.

But there are also some structural and bureaucratic forces at play here that “hide” what are widely considered leftwing views among security officials while they are active, so that by the time they are able to speak publicly and freely it seems as though they have been “converted” to leftist ideology.

I’d argue that being privy to all kinds of detailed information about threats, challenges, and enemies’ intentions and capabilities certainly makes these security officials aware of the problem, but also aware that a range of policies is needed to both lessen the burden on the military/security forces as the primary or only units able to respond to these particular policy problems, and to undermine the ability of enemies and challengers to expand operations, gain supporters, and weaken Israel in the broader regional and global structures.

In other words, these officials understand that serious peace initiatives by Israel and an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank-Gaza are important policies that need to be pursued and have a good chance of diminishing threats to Israel.

Outside observers, though, don’t realize that many security chiefs might already be thinking these are necessary responses while they are on active duty because they aren’t going to publicly call out the government of Israel for not trying (or at least, most officials won’t do that). Thus working in agencies by nature secretive (like intelligence and defense) doesn’t allow for a comparison of their views during and after their service.

At the same time, there is the question why these officials cannot make such policies happen, if they really are convinced these are valid policy options. Part of it has to do with the nature of security decision-making in Israel, which—like in other states—is such that agencies often have to struggle for resources, attention, and influence. They have less ability to focus on already-difficult policy options when the process of decision-making takes up so much time.

There is also, of course, the nature of civilian leadership and the seeming lack of commitment to a serious peace process. This isn’t a Bibi thing, though many critics like to hold him accountable for the problem today. All civilian governments since before Bibi have had a difficult time moving forward on the peace process, including, in recent years, under Labor and Kadima governments.

Finally, I think there’s a process of prioritization that pushes serious efforts at peace to a secondary or subordinate position to more immediate physical-military threats to Israel. These security officials are the individuals responsible for the frontline defense of Israel; failure to protect Israel will result in the killing of Israeli citizens and the weakening of Israel’s borders and defenses. It seems likely that compared to negotiations with the Palestinian Authority, which has its own host of issues and problems, figuring out how to undermine terrorist organizations, defend against missiles, or disrupt enemies’ military capabilities are much “easier,” producing quicker and more obvious results.

Only after they leave active service might these officials have the breathing space to look back and wonder if they—and the country itself—have missed an opportunity to take a longer view.


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.



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.

Re-Crunching the Israeli Poll Numbers

The surveys of Israeli voters are coming fast and furious, and they all pretty much say the same thing: Likud and the rightwing bloc have more seats in the Knesset than the left and/or center-left bloc. (See here, here, here, here, and here for the most recent polls.) But while the right-left division is a useful analytical tool, it might also be somewhat misleading.

First, it doesn’t capture the specific goals of the religious parties. It’s widely assumed that the religious parties are part of the political right, but many students of Israeli politics put them on a different spectrum than the secular continuum. This is because their priorities tend to be different from the left-right distinction, which is centered on foreign policy and economic differences.

Second, even assuming the outcomes the polls are suggesting come true, the historical record demonstrates how fluid Israeli politics can be. Over the years, coalition governments have been composed of all sorts of parties along all kinds of spectrums. Shas has served in coalitions led by Likud, Labor, and Kadima, while the National Religious Party has done so with Likud and Labor, and different factions now in United Torah Judaism (UTJ) have entered governments under Labor and Likud.

Third, the size of the two blocs most analysts construct out of the surveys might be too inclusive. Most polls give the “right” bloc about 65-68 seats, and the left about 52-55 seats, or thereabouts. But “right” includes Shas and UTJ. Given these parties’ greater concern with domestic social and economic issues, particularly the need to ensure resources for their respective communities, and the fact that they are not opposed in principle to serving in leftwing governments, it’s not clear they should be so firmly placed in this bloc.

At the same time, the Arab parties are classified as “left.” But no Arab party has ever served in a coalition; while they can form a blocking faction in the Knesset they cannot count toward a leftwing government.

So if Shas (10-11 seats), UTJ (5-6 seats), and the Arab parties (10-11 seats) are removed from the calculation, the results look more like this: rightwing bloc: about 50-53 mandates, leftwing bloc: about 42-45 mandates. These numbers make it harder for Netanyahu and Likud to get a clear majority in the Knesset, and if Shas’ support is in play, and the Arab parties do agree to support a leftist government from the outside, then the left’s chances of forming a coalition increase considerably. Since the peace process hasn’t been on the campaign agenda, Yisrael Beiteinu might be brought on board if other issues were dealt with beforehand, or it might even be that Likud, Labor, and whatever center-left party emerges form a national unity government.

That’s a lot of “ifs,” and there are good reasons to expect that the patterns identified by all the polls will maintain themselves down to election day. But the nature of the electoral and party systems make Israeli politics less rigid than, say, the winner-take-all and two-party system in the United States. Rethinking the polling numbers makes for some interesting estimates.

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.

Who Are the Religious In Israel? Part I

I have been reminded lately that “the religious” in Israel are not always clearly understood—their distinctions, divisions, and politics. But understanding these differences is important, because different groups within this broad social category want different things from the State of Israel. Moreover, considering them to be one large grouping is not helpful for understanding Israel, Israeli politics, or Israeli policymaking; or for comparing to religious groups in other countries.

The most recent Israeli Democracy Index (p.177) captures these differences well. Of self-identification among Israeli Jews, 6% classify themselves as ultra-Orthodox (haredi); 2.2% as Haredi-leumi (Orthodox-nationalist—the convergence between the haredim and the Zionists, sometimes called hardal); 11.8% as Orthodox; 12.7% as Traditional-religious; and 20.7% as Traditional-non-religious. (An additional 45.6% self-identify as secular.)

The traditional categories have been the haredim, the Hasidim,and the religious Zionists. The IDI question mentioned above doesn’t ask specifically about Zionism across this spectrum, but what is commonly called religious Zionism encompasses the Orthodox, the Haredi-leumi, and some portions of the haredi and the Traditional-religious. (Thanks to Dahlia Scheindlin for a clarifying discussion on this.)

The late and very keen observer of Israeli politics, Asher Arian, argued that the politics of the religious parties can be considered along three spectrums: the Zionist dimension (how Zionist), the ethnic dimension (Ashkenazi-Sephardic; indeed, each community has its own rabbinical structures), and the territorial dimension (position regarding the West Bank).

The haredi are sometimes called the ultra-Orthodox (though they reject that term—if you’re Orthodox, you’re already observing the customs and rules of halacha, Jewish law). Conservative in their social norms, they follow a narrow interpretation of Jewish law and scripture. They are further divided into several different sects and denominations, some of which are stricter in their beliefs and practices than others.

In general they are anti- or non-Zionists. Their worldview is categorized into two broad states of being: exile and redemption. Until the Temple is rebuilt and the Jewish people are reconstituted in the Land of Israel, Jews remain in exile. Redemption—a divinely-inspired and –driven process—occurs when these things fall into place. Because of this, some don’t support the state since it was created by human actions.

The haredim are further divided into Hasidic and non-Hasidic groups. Hasidic groups tend to be non-Zionist, though some, like Chabad, do engage in a more practical Zionism that allows for participation in state activities (like serving in the military). There are several different Hasidic groups, each of which operates according to its own dynastic leadership: a main rabbi or small group of rabbis governs the community, apart from the state religious officials.

Haredi politics is complex. Some haredi groups are so completely anti-Zionist and opposed to the state that they don’t recognize it in any way, including through taxes or participation in elections, or by obeying state religious authorities. Their social-political organization, the Edah HaHaredit, works to serve their needs so that the state doesn’t have to. It also maintains its own system of rabbis who look after the community’s spiritual needs. In recent years, the Edah has itself been divided over personality and organizational disagreements.

More extremist in its anti-Zionism is Neteuri Karta—its members are the ones who will meet with Iranian President Ahmadinejad at Holocaust-denial conferences. By some estimates it’s composed only of a few hundred families. It plays virtually no role in Israeli politics, trying to stay apart from the state as much as possible. Its unity, too, has broken down over increasing radicalism among some members

Others are non-Zionist—they don’t actively recognize the validity of the state (or its representatives) but they will recognize the reality of it, and they will participate in its politics. In the current Knesset there are three parties that represent this strain. Shas is the most well-known: it operates according to haredi guidelines but claims to specifically represent the Orthodox and traditional Sephardic community.

The other two parties are Agudat Israel, which is Ashkenazi with some Hasidism, and Degel HaTorah, which is also Ashkenazi but opposed to Hasidism. Despite their tension and bickering, they run in national elections on a single ticket called United Torah Judaism.

The demands of these three parties have always been focused on their own needs: obtaining resources for their community’s social and educational structures. They have successfully played off the secular parties against each other toward this end, offering to serve in a coalition government under one or the other in return for more money and more consideration of their demands.

Sometimes these parties have pressed hard for their secondary goal: to make Jewish law the law of the state. This is represented best by their efforts to enforce a halachic definition of “who is a Jew”—who can immigrate to Israel, who can control conversion processes, and who can dominant personal status issues like marriage. They have been less successful in this arena. The secular parties, sometimes under pressure from diaspora Jews, have resisted most of their efforts and even worked together at times to resist them, though the general trend toward religiosity and the political right in Israel has facilitated greater acceptance of their preferences among the population.

On foreign policy, these parties have been more agnostic than anything else. The major exception is the West Bank. In the past, only the religious Zionists held a strong political and policy position on this subject. After 1967 they pushed hard for settlements across the Green Line, in line with their understanding of the Land of Israel as sovereign Jewish territory. Indeed, the increasing radicalization among the religious Zionist youth has been one of the main drivers of the settlement enterprise.

Most non-Zionists were content to wait for the divine plan to reveal itself, and where they did take positions, this was contingent on other factors. At its beginnings in the 1980s, for example, Shas’s spiritual leader, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, often proclaimed that giving up territory was acceptable for the sake of Jewish lives. His position has changed over time, and it’s not clear what his final ruling will be in the event of a genuine peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.

Mostly, apart from the staunch anti-Zionists who call for Palestinian rule over the entire Land of Israel, haredi groups have simply mistrusted the Palestinians. Chabad, in particular, has been active in opposing land-for-peace formulae on this basis. Their role in foreign policymaking, then, is limited.

Israel’s Dysfunctional Political System

Like other Israel-watchers, after the bombshell news that Benjamin Netanyahu suddenly crafted a new coalition government to avoid early elections, I now have to change what I originally intended to write about Israeli politics.

But I’m going to continue with the broad theme—that of the dysfunctional nature of Israel’s political system—because it matters beyond this short-term development, and because it’s this very troubled system that allowed Bibi to pull off what is clearly a stroke of genius.

First, though, a few words on who won and lost. Bibi is the big winner: he avoided the uncertainty of elections and having to fight off a renewed Labor, still-relevant Kadima, and fresh Yesh Atid (Yair Lapid’s new party).

Ehud Barak also won big. Michael Koplow over at Ottomans and Zionists has a nice explanation why, but in a nutshell he staved off the strong possibility that his faction, Atzmaut, would have disappeared in the election without enough votes to enter the Knesset.

Shaul Mofaz also comes out a winner: he managed to enter the government without having to worry about an election; he did what Tzipi Livni was unable to do (join the coalition); and as a former senior general will now help shape the discussion over Iran and the peace process (he doesn’t care that much about the social justice issues sparked by the J14 protests).

The biggest losers are: Tzipi Livni (having never met the expectations set out of her, she lost the leadership of Kadima to Mofaz, who then did what she couldn’t do and took the party into government); public confidence in the political process (since Mofaz had railed against Bibi’s leadership and insisted he wouldn’t join a Bibi-led government); and Yair Lapid (because he had his legs completely cut out from under him).

Beyond this, it’s hard to predict at this point how things will go. Much depends on whether the coalition partners can keep it together; on the American elections; on developments in Iran; and so on. We need a little more time to make durable arguments about the future.

Now to Israel’s political system. In some ways, it’s a bit of a surprise that it hasn’t collapsed of its own weight. The thing that keeps saving it from doing so is developments like tonight: when individuals and parties put aside their mutual antipathy, their electoral promises, and sometimes even their principles to jump into the government.

Here are four major issues that weaken the system.

Hyper-democracy: Israel is a hyper-democracy, by which I mean a multitude of parties—and a party can mean no more than a tiny handful of individuals—always compete in elections. Barring a platform that negates Israel as a Jewish state, incites racism, or supports armed struggle against Israel, any party can register. It’s normal for tens of parties to compete in each election, and for over 10 to be represented in the Knesset, provided they pass a threshold of 2% of the national vote.

Because of this, no party has ever gotten a majority of Knesset seats (61 out of 120). Every government has, therefore, been a coalition of several parties. Until the 1970s this wasn’t a major problem, but as Labor’s dominance in the political system waned and Likud grew stronger, this system encouraged these two big parties, the ones closest to the center of the political spectrum, to forgo a governing alliance with each other in favor of fighting over the support of the multiple small parties (except for a brief—and successful—national unity government from 1984-1988). This, in turn, dilutes policy as the senior coalition partner “sells” its preferences in return for small parties’ agreement to join its coalition rather than the opposition’s.

Voting system: Closely related is the voting system: proportional representation, with the country designed as a single district. This has strengthened the role of the party in elections and policymaking, and undermined the relevance of individual candidates.

At the same time this has been coupled with the rising power of central committees in the major parties. Here, influential party officials are able to barter for votes for party leadership and to determine which candidates will be placed where on the party’s electoral list (the higher up on the list, the more likely that candidate will make it into the Knesset). Politicians and policy platforms, then, are determined more by the rough-and-tumble politics of bargaining than serious policy discussion.

Power of the religious parties: A “religious” party has served in almost every government since the establishment of the state. For a long time it was the National Religious Party (NRP), a staunchly Zionist party. In the 1980s, the non-Zionist Shas party burst onto the scene, determined to trade its political support in return for resources for its religious and Sephardic electorates (funds for social services).

As Labor and Likud tried to avoid sharing a government, they each sought to buy the support of Shas, so that they could form the coalition. This pushed both the NRP and, later, the third religious party, United Torah Judaism (itself a merger of two other parties) to follow Shas’s example, strengthening the centrifugal forces in the political system. Moreover, both NRP and its contemporary off-shoots (National Union, Jewish Home) and UTJ take a harder line on settlements and relations with the Palestinians, posing a constant threat to a government in which they sit and which advocates more movement on those issues.

Personalization of politics: An over-focus on individuals has undermined normalization, stability, serious policy debate, and institutional memory. In the non-religious parties, personalities have come to play an out-sized role in determining party politics, particularly in terms of stability and coalition bargaining. Since the 1980s, but especially the 1990s, party leaders have faced struggles to maintain their position in the face of consistent challenges from would-be leaders. Labor is the worst: between 2001 and today, the party had six leaders. All of them were forced to defend their tenures in the face of challengers’ efforts (usually successful) to unseat them.

At the same time, party leaders have made it their priority, in the face of party principles and public declarations, to enter government. Hence Mofaz’s agreement tonight; Ehud Barak’s splitting off from Labor in 2011 to form a smaller faction so he could take up Netanyahu’s offer of Minister of Defense; and so on.

The religious parties are not run by central committees but rather subject to the individual authority and direction of their prominent rabbis. And, of course, there is the tendency to form new parties around individuals, rather than ideologies or policy goals: Lapid, Barak, Yitzhak Mordecai, Ariel Sharon—they’ve all believed that they represent something new in politics, and can drive, by sheer force of their will and their appeal, their parties and their goals. Their record is primarily one of weakening the bigger parties, by siphoning off their votes; typically they don’t last more than an election or two. Freud would have had a large pool of subjects to study.

There are reports that the new coalition is working to change the political system, presumably to strengthen the big parties and undermine the smaller ones. If so, this would go a long way to stabilizing and de-politicizing the system. If that happens, tonight will have been worth it.

Israel Under Bibi: A Failed State?

Bibi Netanyahu is no fascist, and Israel will not become a totalitarian state tomorrow. The country certainly has drifted rightward in politics, conservative in social and religious ideas, and toward a low tolerance for difference and opposition; but this is in line with similar shifts in many other countries around the world.

What Israel should be concerned about is Bibi’s approach to governance. After his shortened first term from 1996-1999, the widespread perception was that Bibi had mishandled just about every important issue his government faced.

When he returned to politics by winning leadership of the Likud in 2005 and then the premiership in 2009, he did seem a little different: more mature, more experienced, more willing to think before acting, and so on. But it was an illusion, and everything from the increasing visibility of extreme religious coercion, to settlers running wild across the West Bank and attacking both the state itself and Palestinians, to the efforts of coalition members to impose an ethnocentric and illiberal rule can be laid in part, though certainly not in total, at Bibi’s feet.

These worrisome trends are facilitated by Bibi’s inabilities. He is more concerned with holding on to power because he likes that position (with a lesser concern that he must ensure the country stays on the “proper” path); and he simply isn’t politically brave. (Unfortunately for Israel, many of the country’s politicians fit that same description.)

Bibi has refused to make tough choices regarding relations with the Palestinians. Worse, though, he has refused to do so regarding Israel’s domestic political and societal spheres, preferring instead to let matters drift toward their own conclusions. The Israeli state is certainly constrained in some areas. The ability of workers to strike seemingly everywhere and at will, and the influence that the military-security sector has in decision-making in foreign and security matters is more than normal for a liberal democracy.

But Israel remains a powerful state, as a set of authoritative institutions. Bibi has not used these institutions to maintain the rule of the state above all others.

Instead of meeting with settlers and haredi to discuss how to tone down their rhetoric, or telling his cabinet that he opposes the recent attacks by these groups, he should—he must—instruct his police, the justice system, and the security forces to immediately arrest and bring to trial anyone who violates Israel’s laws and norms. He should make multiple appearances on national television and radio to assert the state’s authority to do this; to loudly proclaim his government’s and his own personal commitment to Israel’s democratic norms and rule of law; and he should instruct his ministers to do the same—and if they don’t, to sanction them.

Bibi’s refusal to use the force of his own stature as Prime Minister and the state’s laws to denounce and censure those who consistently break it has facilitated an opening for tolerance of such acts of religious coercion, the exercise of violence by sub-state groups, and moves to change the accepted norms of liberal democracy. By not personally and consistently condemning such incidents, and then backing these condemnations up with direct action, Bibi has created the impression that things that used to be considered beyond the pale are now tolerable and even acceptable.

The lack of state authority in these matters is what positioned Israel (including the West Bank) at number 53 on a prominent list of failed states, in the “borderline” zone. Israel’s ranking has been rising—in 2009 it was 58, and 2010 it was at 54. The current trajectory will only put Israel higher in future rankings. The bulk of the countries listed above Israel is in Africa, Central Asia, and include other states such as Haiti, Iraq, and Afghanistan. This should not be the community that Israel puts itself in.

Israeli democracy is not on the precipice, but it is weakening. Certainly even if Bibi did the above it would not be enough—there are plenty of other issues and divisions in Israel that need to be resolved. But it is an important and strong start, and is necessary in a state that prizes its membership in the club of industrialized democracies.

Talking to the Wall

Let’s hope it’s a sign that the American Jewish community is coming together on the issue of Israel: Jeffrey Goldberg actively agrees with Peter Beinart on the only logical outcomes of the current trajectory of Israeli occupation and settlement-building in the West Bank (I suspect they’ve shared that same assumption for awhile now).

The biggest problem that the left and non-Zionists in both the United States and Israel face on the issue of Israel’s control of the West Bank is that they project their own perceptions and concerns onto the secular nationalists, religious Zionists, and increasingly the haredi who remain firmly in control of the settlement/occupation agenda.

While they might regret it, the nationalists and religious are not susceptible to arguments that Israel will become isolated in the world, losing even its closest allies. They remain tied to the biblical notion that Israel is a nation that “dwells alone.”

Much of Israeli history since 1948 also bears this out for them, including (but by no means limited to): The breaking of the American promise to ensure freedom in the Straits of Tiran in 1967, the harsh world condemnation Israel received when it destroyed the Iraqi nuclear facility in 1981, the absolute and relative number of resolutions at the United Nations focused on its behavior, lack of support in the face of regular terrorism against civilians, and so on. To these groups, Israel already is alone and forced to defend itself without much help.

Neither do the hardliners among these three groups worry much about the one-state solution. They don’t see any correlation between holding on to the West Bank and a decline in the quality of Israeli democracy. Israel is meant, after all, to be a Jewish state. No matter how many non-Jews live in it, they simply aren’t concerned about their political rights, since they aren’t Jews. At best, as one prominent settler leader noted to me, their politics can be realized in Jordan.

Finally, it’s not even clear that they care all that much that Israel remains a Western-style liberal democracy. The Israel Democracy Institute’s 2011 Israeli Democracy Index captures what can only be called, in a hopeful manner, the ambivalence many Israelis across the spectrum demonstrate toward liberal democratic values. (Which also helps explain society’s passivity in the face of the slew of bills discussed in government and the Knesset regarding the advocacy of ideas and organizations considered falling on the left end of the spectrum.)

At first glimpse, this liberalism seems evident: only 22.9% of those who self-identify as secular believe “Israel as a Jewish state” connotes a religious marker, compared to 63.8% who say the term connotes a national marker (p.51). But among the secular, those who identify with the political right lean 42.9% toward the religious marker, compared to 24.1% on the left. Combined with the haredi’s 87.4% and the Orthodox’s 57.1%, that’s a lot of Israelis who believe in the religious element and, among the haredi especially, are likely to invoke trust in God’s plan to resolve the issue to (Jews’) satisfaction.

At the same time, the preference for Israel as a Jewish state ranks very high among all Israelis (p.53): 46.1% want Israel to be both Jewish and democratic, while 29.5% prefer a Jewish state and 22.9% prefer the democratic emphasis.

On the question of which should take precedence when there is a conflict between democratic principles and Jewish law (halacha): almost 100% of the haredi prefer halacha, and about half the Orthodox prefer halacha. This is, of course, to be expected. But perhaps more surprisingly, and certainly of greater political importance, among those who identify themselves on the political spectrum, 15.1% of the left said priority should go to halacha, while 42.4% of those on the right said halacha (and 14.2% of those who identify as the center) (pp.57-58).

In short, the hand-wringing that everybody else engages in while they wonder why the arguments for ending the occupation and working more actively toward a Palestinian state don’t sink in for the secular nationalists, religious Zionists, and haredi is a waste of time. These communities will not reconcile themselves to such concerns.

They need, instead, to be convinced of the value of Israel itself, and what living within the Green Line can do for both their identity and for Israeli identity as a whole. Instead of focusing on the dangers they pose to Israel by their actions, the positive benefits they can bring to Israel in its pre-1967 borders (with lands swaps, if that’s how negotiations go) should be emphasized.

Some among these populations will never be convinced, and the hard truth is that they will have to either be forced out of the West Bank or left in a Palestinian state as Palestinian citizens. But for the rest, it’s clearly time for new ideas.

Talk has always focused on creative solutions between Israelis and Palestinians; we also need creative solutions between Israelis themselves (and, for that matter, between Palestinians as well). Here’s a start.