Shas after Ovadia Yosef

Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, spiritual and political head of Shas and one of the greatest Torah sages in a generation, has passed away; he was 93 years old. Yosef was a controversial figure, whose words and deeds garnered both praise and condemnation (for quick takes, see these Times of Israel and New York Times stories on his life, work, and legacy).

His death will have implications for Shas and, from there, for Israeli politics. It’s too soon to say with any certainty what these might be, but we can identify some possibilities. Here are three quick takes on what these might be:

1. The most obvious one is a split in the party, between doves—call it the pro-Aryeh Deri camp—and hawks—call it the Eli Yishai camp. (In reality it’s more complex, composed of several moving parts, including familial and religious divisions, but this simplification works well enough for now.) The former is more open to peace talks (if still suspicious of Palestinian motives and trustworthiness), and more tolerant and inclusive of who can live within the Israeli polity. The latter takes a more hardline approach to peace talks (ranging from opposing them altogether to not seeing a need for them right now), and more intolerant and even xenophobic toward different social groups within Israel.

I think Shas has institutional momentum, and probably won’t split or collapse right away. Leaders will also want to present a unified front in the immediate aftermath of Yosef’s death. Still, a split would be perfectly normal for Israeli religious parties, all of which (Shas, United Torah Judaism, and Jewish Home) are the product of a series of splits and mergers going back to the founding of the state itself; Shas is a breakaway party from Agudat Israel, itself a faction of UTJ. Indeed, all three of today’s religious parties are composed of different factions.

2. Yosef was a towering and unifying figure; he commanded a level of respect and even adoration among his immediate followers and among the broader Sephardi-Mizrachi population that formed Shas’s voter base. In the 1970s and early 1980s, most of these voters supported Likud; their shift away from it helps explain Likud’s decline at the polls. It’s not clear how many of these voters will stay with Shas, particularly given the party’s exclusion from government and its inability to look after its constituents’ needs.

Sephardi voters also tend to be a little more hawkish than not. If Likud, and especially its own hardliners, make a play for these votes, they could well move back to Likud in large enough numbers to gain two or three seats for the party.

3. A broken-down Shas would weaken prospects for a two state solution, if the party falls under the control of hardliners like Yishai and Shlomo Amar or if the party becomes too disorganized to play an important role in politics. In the past Shas’s political and moral support for peace talks was an important legitimizer of them; today, with a rightwing government in power and most peace-oriented parties in the opposition, the latter needs as much support as it can get. Without Shas, they will have a harder time convincing Benjamin Netanyahu that they have the momentum in the Knesset and among the public to actively pursue a final agreement.


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.



Bibi’s Coming Unstable Coalition

Over at Open Zion I argue that the coalition government Bibi is about to bring together will have tensions automatically built into it. This will likely cause the coalition to collapse before it serves out its full term:

By all accounts, the coalition negotiations in Israel will conclude in the next day or two, with a government in place by the end of the week. It’s been expected for some time now that the government will be composed of Likud-Beiteinu, Tzipi Livni’s HaTnua (which has already signed a coalition agreement with Benjamin Netanyahu), Yesh Atid, Jewish Home, and Kadima.

With a total of 70 votes in the Knesset such a coalition would be—in theory at least—very stable. But it’s more likely that the coalition will build into itself the very conditions for its early demise.

Netanyahu could well be the only one involved in the coalition discussions who isn’t happy about leaving the haredi parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism, out in the cold. Though it might seem as though general agreement on leaving them out is a stabilizing factor, it could instead lead to a greater effort by these parties and their constituents to push hard to change the calculus of voting and politicking in the next round of elections, or even before then.

After all, despite the fact that they have already begun preparing for their exclusion, the haredi parties aren’t out of the game yet. There are enormous implications to their absence from government, including a redistribution of the resources that used to go to their communities; the nature of the military draft; the status of halacha in personal status issues ranging from marriage to divorce to citizenship; and genuine reform of the electoral and political systems. Because all of these would directly affect their political power, they can be expected to continue to fight even after the agreement is signed to return to power. This includes enticing Netanyahu away from Jewish Home, the party they apparently now see as their primary obstacle if not enemy.

There are still some issues to be hammered out in the coalition bargaining, including which party gets how many and which ministries and the framework that will govern Israeli policy toward the peace process (which may require a renegotiation of Bibi’s agreement with Livni). It’s likely the intense discussions between Likud, Yesh Atid, and Jewish Home continuing to take place will resolve at least most of these issues, but it’s just as likely they’ll paper over the differences. Signing an agreement on these policy problems and actually following through on them are not the same thing. The latter will be even harder than the former. In other words, any of these issues could crack open the coalition.

Personal ambitions and differing party objectives will probably also serve to make the coalition more fragile than it might appear on the surface. Yesh Atid’s leader Yair Lapid is skeptical about taking on the Finance portfolio. Given the necessity of major changes to the economy and the budget, whoever takes that Ministry will be extremely unpopular among much of the population and will be subject to intense and competing demands from other ministers for a share of the shrinking pie. Whatever comes out of such reforms could well affect his party’s ability to compete as successfully in the next election, and thus change the distribution of votes. He’ll be very much aware of these implications.

Similarly, Jewish Home’s position on settlements and Israeli sovereignty over the West Bank is at odds with all of its coming coalition partners except Likud-Beitinu. Despite Naftali Bennett’s insistence that the peace process should not lead to any serious change in the status quo (unless it’s to annex parts of the West Bank), Livni’s presence in the government, President Barack Obama’s coming visit to Israel, and a host of other conditions all point to a renewed interest in the peace process. If Obama is successful at convincing Israel to adopt his position regarding Iran, he’ll be able to demand something in return.

Similar to George H.W. Bush’s trading of Iraq for Madrid, Obama could well demand something concrete on negotiations with the Palestinians, and Netanyahu will be open to such pressure. This, in turn, would likely push Bennett out of the coalition.

A successful conclusion to the negotiations would be welcome so that the government can get back to the process of governing. But the fact that it was so difficult to get to this point, and that there are plenty of issues requiring urgent attention but with no easy solutions, indicates that plenty of uncertainty will remain even after the agreement is signed.

Coalition Considerations after the Vote

The Israeli election is upon us, or at least upon them. There have been lots of good analyses about the campaign and likely results of the voting—though there has been less discussion of possible outcomes of coalition bargaining. But this is important—the voting itself will heavily influence what government eventually emerges after several weeks of discussions, but several other factors will come into play, including how the parties determine their interests, the number of seats each got, and the regular give-and-take of politics.

Most of those who have considered what a post-election government will look like have assumed it will be a right-religious one. This is entirely plausible, but as I’ve argued already I don’t think it’s a given. Here are some of what I think are these other factors, all predicated on the assumption Netanyahu will be asked to form the government:

– Benjamin Netanyahu is more interested in stability and maintaining his position than anything else. He’s a pragmatic opportunist, and he can be pushed (through domestic and international pressure). He’s very committed to making Israel a free market economy, as his work in the 1990s and 2000s and his spinning away from promises to account for the demands of the 2011 tent protests have demonstrated. But he is open, I think, to moving around on other domestic issues like electoral reform, the haredi draft, and religious freedom. On the peace front, while I don’t think he wants to actively pursue an independent Palestinian state and does believe settlements are a legitimate expression of Jewish identity, he has in the past signed agreements (Wye River, Hebron) under the right conditions. In other words, his conceptualization of interests opens the door to more potential coalition partners than it seems.

– Tzipi Livni is desperate to make something of herself out of this election. I won’t say it’s her last chance, but she did nothing constructive when she served as leader of Kadima. Her perhaps surprising ability to garner 7-10 mandates, according to polls, is an indication that her name still matters. Look for her to try to enter the coalition; if she doesn’t, she’ll have nothing to show for two election cycles, which could well end her political career.

– Yair Lapid seems to have surged toward the end of the campaign, again according to polls. He, too, isn’t interested in remaining outside of government. Look for him to get in so that he can work on his credibility, legitimacy, and experience.

– The coalition negotiations will prove trying for Shas. In addition to competing with another religious party (Jewish Home), it will have to compete on the social-economic front with Yesh Atid, Labor, and possibly Am Shalem as well. Its position is the weakest it’s been in for a long time because of the emergence of so many rivals to its key positions.

– Final thought for now: whatever coalition does emerge, don’t get too excited or lose hope (depending on your views of it). It would not be a surprise if the coalition doesn’t stay together for four years. Bibi has a lot more choice than usual, but this also makes whatever government he puts together more unstable in the sense that the more parties there are inside and the more waiting for their chance in the wings, the more he and they can play everybody off everybody else.

There are some shared ideas between different sets of parties, but each of them still represents a set of very narrow interests. Those parties in government will have to stay true to them if they want to remain credible to their constituencies—and that includes those with narrow constituencies and those that are fighting for the same ones. But if they stay too true to them, in the face of competing demands from coalition partners and policies they don’t like, they can lose their position in the government. I suspect these dynamics will very much matter.

For other good posts about things to consider at this point in the election, read Michael Koplow’s piece and Noam Sheizaf’s analysis.

Coalition Math

The talk on Twitter this morning is of Naftali Bennett and the sudden surge his Jewish Home is making at the polls. The fear is that if Bennett is included in a coalition government under Bibi, he’ll drag Bibi further to the right. As Michael Koplow has already shown, even before the bargaining over government spoils has begun, Bibi has been announcing settlement expansions all over the place. It will, conventional wisdom suggests, only get worse after January 22.

But the coalition math indicates that a Likud-Beiteinu-Jewish Home government is not a sure thing. As I’ve argued before, Bibi isn’t an extreme rightist who wants to build and build in the West Bank and damn the international consequences. If he think Bennett is pulling him too much in that direction, he’ll think twice about such a coalition.

It’s true that right-religious bloc is maintaining its majority. But it’s malleable; Jewish Home could easily be replaced with Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid and Tzipi Livni’s Tzipi Livni Party. Both are more centrist than leftist. Lapid’s election program has been more vague than anything else, and although Livni has a history of hostility with Bibi, she’s a natural fit for a rightwing government.

In addition, both have worked hard for centrist and center-right votes by staying within the Israeli consensus on settlements: keeping the main settlement blocs (probably including Ariel) but willing to evacuate the rest.

“Third” or “centrist” parties such as theirs’ don’t last long in Israeli politics. And neither of them entered the race in order to stay in the opposition; they both want a piece of the action, which they believe is in the government. They’ll make themselves available, and Bibi will know this.

None of this is to say either a far-right government or a centrist government is a done deal. The joint ticket with Yisrael Beiteinu might have leaned Bibi toward the latter. But this is why the Likud primaries are so important: the staunch pro-settlement, illiberal-leaning rightists who now occupy top positions on the list will constrain Bibi from moving toward the center. It’s one thing to leave Jewish Home out of a coalition; it’s another to go against the politics and trends within his own party.

We’ll have to wait and see what happens: Jewish Home’s momentum might not last; Bibi might be stronger than most assume when it comes to dealing with other Likudniks; or Shas or Avigdor Lieberman might upset the balance one way or another. But at this point we shouldn’t assume outcomes. Israeli politics is fluid, and this election is no exception.

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.

Of Phobias and White Knights

My second piece on the elections in Israel in Open Zion is out. This time I argue that while the campaign is facilitating the creation of new parties and electoral tickets, most of these aren’t likely to last. The history of the Israeli party system indicates that the major parties in each cluster (among Jewish parties, the left, right, and religious) were consolidated long ago; any new “challengers” to them have tended not to last past one or two elections.

Read the full piece here.

A Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu Joint Ticket

So it appears that while I was away from my computer, Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu (YB) decided to run on a single list for the upcoming elections in Israel. Thus I can only give a quick reaction now.

This isn’t really a surprise, and provides considerable benefits for the two parties, but at the same time has several implications for Israeli parties and politics.

Israeli political parties merge and split all the time. Likud itself is an amalgam of several parties. Yisrael Beiteinu ran as part of the ticket of National Union in 2003, and there have been rumors in the past about a merger with Likud.

On the surface a unified faction makes lots of sense. It helps protect both Benjamin Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman from internal party rivals. It allows for a concentration of resources and voters, particularly as the left and the center are emerging as serious challenges in the campaign.

On the other hand, a super-right party would draw voters from some of the smaller right secular parties. These aren’t likely to be happy about this, and may fight to keep their share of the vote. It’s also not clear all Likud members are happy about this. There was already substantial discontent among some with Netanyahu; a joint ticket will be seen as a way of silencing them, and they may intensify their anti-Bibi activities, and work to undermine the union.

Nor will YB members be all that happy. The Russian and secular constituencies that voted for it will see their issues diluted within a larger party. Netanyahu was careful to give YB more or less equality with Likud on the ticket (which I take as a sign of his perception of his weak position), but Likud is still bigger and stronger and will dominate the agenda more than YB will.

The haredi parties will not be happy, whatever they say in public. YB, and Lieberman particularly, is considered to be staunchly secular. For example, it harped on the haredi draft as major policy issue for a long time, and seemed less inclined to compromise than Bibi was. This opens the door a little more for the religious parties, especially Shas, to consider a government with the left and center-left, should the latter obtain enough seats in the Knesset to form a plausible core to the coalition.

I understand Lieberman may have been offered his choice of ministry should the ticket form the coalition. This would be disastrous for Israel. As a Foreign Minister, Lieberman has been one of the least productive and biggest liabilities Israel has even had in that position (with a possible except of David Levy). If Lieberman chooses the Defense Ministry, he’ll be in an even more powerful position to shape Israeli security and foreign policy (assuming they are not the same thing, which isn’t a safe assumption) along his confused, incoherent, and belligerent preferences. In such an event, expect a downward spiral in relations with the US, the Palestinians, Turkey, and Egypt.

Finally, don’t expect the ticket to last. Israeli politicians are known for their large egos, and Lieberman and Netanyahu are no different: neither will want to play second fiddle to the other for long, particularly as Lieberman will now see himself as being in a stronger position. There are also real policy disagreements between the two parties, including differences over the role of religion in politics and society. They share some, but not all, of the same type of voters. And other parties, among the left, the right, and the religious will prefer Likud over YB; they’ll see YB as an obstacle to overcome more than anything else. This will push Likud, including Bibi, to leave the ticket as soon as is feasible or the pressure gets too great.