Four Questions About the Israeli Election

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Food for thought.

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.



In Thinking about New Israeli-Palestinian Peace Talks

John Kerry has just announced a basis for restarting talks between Israelis and Palestinians in Washington. More specifically: “We have reached an agreement that establishes a basis for resuming direct final status negotiations between the Palestinians and the Israelis.” He added that “The agreement is still in the process of being formalized.”

This probably doesn’t sound all that exciting or new to most. But it needs to be remembered that, under the current conditions in the Middle East, with Benjamin Netanyahu struggling with a rightist party and government coalition, and with Abbas struggling against Hamas, institutional decay, and growing dissatisfaction among the Palestinian population, it’s no easy thing to bring the two sides together for direct talks at a high level.

That said, lots can still happen to derail things, including even before the talks start. Here are some other things we should bear in mind as the process moves forward:

1. Most people expected Netanyahu to keep putting this off and not be serious about it. As I’ve been arguing for many months now, Bibi can be pushed into talks. He isn’t an ideologue; he’s a pragmatic opportunist. He does believe, deeply, that Jews have a historical and biblical claim to the West Bank, and if nothing were standing in his way he probably would do his utmost to extend Jewish sovereignty over it all. But there are obstacles, and more than anything Bibi wants to remain in power and focus on external threats to Israel (primarily Iran). Under these conditions, getting him to talk was always more possible than many presumed.

2. Similarly, most people assumed Mahmoud Abbas was too weak or uninterested to agree to genuine talks. If we didn’t already realize it with the Oslo negotiations, that both he and Netanyahu have been able to—thus far, anyway—tells us something about Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking: namely, avoiding deterministic assumptions.

3. Importantly, this is only a beginning to talks, not an agreement. There are plenty of material and emotional obstacles blocking an easy pathway to success. Building on the point above, I’m not convinced Bibi would be willing to sign a final agreement ending all Jewish claims to the West Bank. (I’m not so sure Mahmoud Abbas wants to be the one to end it all, either.) But making progress is important and highly relevant. It will set positive conditions for the continuation of talks, build confidence, and make it easier for the next Israeli and Palestinian leaders to finish the work begun here.

4. It seems that Tzipi Livni and Saeb Erekat will be leading the talks. I’m not so sure how useful that is. Both are experienced, and both have proven—despite some backpeddling at times—genuinely interested in a deal. But it’s not clear how much support from their political masters either has. Both are politically weak, without much of their own power base, and so will be limited by the specific instructions Bibi and Abbas give them. Time will tell if that’s enough to construct a stable platform for continuing.

5. Kerry expended enormous energy to make this happen, devoting most of his time to this one issue even while developments elsewhere in the Middle East require urgent attention. It remains to be seen whether he can maintain that level of determination and pressure to help the talks along. Without it, I’m less optimistic the process will move forward.

6. Hamas won’t be happy.

7. On Israel’s domestic front, there are lots of questions remaining about what Naftali Bennett (leader of Jewish Home) and Yair Lapid (leader of Yesh Atid) will do. Neither has been all that enthusiastic about the peace process. (I realize that’s a gross understatement about Bennett.) They’ll be put to the test now: will they support the talks and anything that comes out of it? It’s likely that Livni will have to report back to Bibi (either directly or through his personal emissaries to the peace talks) on any substantive issues, no matter how minor. How much support his coalition gives him will help determine how likely Bibi is to keep the talks going.

Bennett had previously said he wouldn’t break the coalition apart over talks; just yesterday he reversed himself. That’s not surprising. In addition to being ideologically opposed to any withdrawals from the West Bank (he wants to outright annex all of Area C), Bennett’s party is made up of at least a couple factions that struggled against each other before being united into Jewish Home; and all are opposed to giving up Jewish control over the West Bank. Bennett’s election as party leader was never a sure thing, and was contested from the beginning. His institutional position is threatened as well, then; he can’t afford to agree to anything that might endanger his place at the top of the party. Either he’d be forced out (and it wouldn’t be easy to find another institutional home), or he’d remain but the party would break apart, weakening Bennett’s ability to win seats in the next election.

As for Lapid, nobody knows what he might do. His party has many doves in it, but his ambition to become prime minister means he needs to play more to the right for votes. If he sees the population is increasingly in favor of talks, though, he’ll probably go with it.

8. This could be Shelly Yachimovich’s opportunity to seize the mantle of promoter of the peace process. Assuming Bennett pulls out of the government, Labor could fill the gap. Even if he doesn’t, Bibi might be thinking about bringing Labor in for extra insurance.

9. Look what Israel has been able to accomplish without Avigdor Lieberman in the government: the apology to Turkey, and now progress in peace talks. Just saying.

10. All of what I’ve just written could well prove to be meaningless. This is, after, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Some Thoughts on the EU Decision to Separate Israel from the West Bank

Barak Ravid has a blockbuster story in Haaretz: The European Union will now require all its member states to forbid “any funding, cooperation, awarding of scholarships, research funds or prizes to anyone residing in the Jewish settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.” Even more importantly, the guidelines declare that “any agreement or contract signed by an EU country with Israel include a clause stating that the settlements are not part of the State of Israel and therefore are not part of the agreement.” (Some reports suggest the guidelines will also apply to the Golan Heights.)

In other words, the EU will now explicitly distinguish between Israel and the occupied West Bank; and if Israel wants to continue doing any business with the supra-national organization, it will have to admit to this division and lay the groundwork for a genuine separation of sovereignty.

The details of the guidelines have yet to be published, and Israel’s response could change things a little, too. But it’s hard to imagine the EU throwing out its new directives now. It seems to be something Israel will have to accept and adapt to. Here are some quick thoughts, then, on the implications of the EU decision.

1. It’s another signal that the international community is fed up with simply noting the Israeli occupation, and is taking concrete political, economic, and legal action to try and end it. (See also: Palestinian statehood efforts at the United Nations.) Unless Israel wants to be like North Korea, it will have to start recognizing and abiding by these changes.

2. Given that the European Union is Israel’s largest trading partner, Israel will have no choice but to comply with the guidelines—that is, it will have to admit, in legally binding contracts, that the West Bank don’t belong to Israel and will be excluded from the economic transactions. This builds the foundation for continued international efforts to separate Israel from the West Bank.

3. It’s hard to know exact figures when it comes to the place of settlement products in Israeli trade—one estimate put exports from the settlements to the EU at only about 2% of the overall trading relationship. That still adds up to $300 million; the loss isn’t something to sneeze at. The shortfall will have to be made up, either by increasing trade with other actors or by Israeli government subsidies. This, in turn, will have a negative effect on the government budget, which is already in dire straits, forcing Jerusalem to confront some serious financial and budgetary discrepancies.

4. I don’t think this was part of the EU’s intention, but an EU boycott of the settlements will probably energize the BDS movement—which seeks to isolate Israel (not just the settlements) in all of the areas covered by the new guidelines.

5. Paradoxically, at the same time the EU boycott of settlements might energize domestic forces in Israel and American Jewish or other external groups fighting against the occupation. Ravid quotes EU officials as noting that part of the motivation behind the exclusion of settlements is “to be sure that Israel’s participation is not put in question”—in other words, to make sure that Israel is not boycotted or excluded. The EU’s separation of the West Bank from Israel could be used as proof that the settlements are an albatross around Jerusalem’s neck, but that the country itself isn’t in danger just because others oppose the settlements.

6. Also on the Israeli domestic front, the EU decision might galvanize politicians and parties already predisposed to view the settlements as a major political problem. Yesh Atid’s leader Yair Lapid has already said that the decision “will enhance Israel’s isolation” and that time isn’t on Israel’s side. They may be more willing to take a more active position against the settlement enterprise, and in doing so add further pressure on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to make a serious effort to restart peace talks with the Palestinians. Similarly, it might breathe new life into the recent efforts by the Labor Party and Meretz to use the occupation as a stick with which to beat the government.

Update: Damien Cristofari, an EU official dealing with the Middle East, tweeted that the directives apply only to EU-funded programs, and won’t affect bilateral agreements between member states and Israel.

Update 2: The EU guidelines are now publicly available. See here.

Blaming Shelly Yacimovich

Uri Misgav has written a scathing post taking apart Shelly Yacimovich’s leadership of Israel’s Labor Party. He raises a number of good points, but I think he’s also a little unfair to her. But most important, I think he mistakes Yacimovich’s problems at the helm for problems in party itself. Put another way, if Labor—and Laborites—commit to some serious changes, Yacimovich’s “faults” will appear less tragic and self-induced.

Misgav starts off criticizing Yacimovich for wanting to move the party’s primaries up in order to avoid potential competition from potentially attractive candidates like Gabi Ashkenazi. By doing so he seems to want to tar her with an unprecedented cynicism and lust for power—as though all of Labor’s leaders were not driven by the same motivations.

But consider what the party’s most recent leaders have done. Ehud Barak literally broke the party up so he could remain in government. Amir Peretz and Amram Mitzna abandoned the party when they couldn’t get everything they wanted and went over to Tzipi Livni’s center-right party, where they thought they’d have more influence. Shimon Peres, too, left the party to join Ariel Sharon’s center-right Kadima. Does it sound like Yacimovich is doing anything out of the ordinary?

Misgav then critiques Yacimovich’s decisions during the recent electoral campaign, faulting her for Labor’s meager improvement of only two seats out of what he calculates to be 32 up for grabs. As I’ve argued before, not all of Labor’s less-than-stellar results are Yacimovich’s fault.

Importantly, I’m not sure that Mizgav’s assumption of 32 seats available to Labor is accurate under the conditions of the election. The appearance of Hatnua and Yesh Atid were beyond Yacimovich’s control, and the Israeli public likes to throw some votes to third parties, at least for a single election.

In addition, polling data told the party that the public was simply less interested in talking about the conflict with the Palestinians or the settlements; their top concerns were domestic social and economic problems. While talking mostly about these matters, she also reinvigorated the party by bringing in new candidates who were known to be focused on these issues. But I do agree with Misgav that Yacimovich’s mistake on this issue was, when she became willing to talk about it, to try to seem more rightwing than Labor has been in recent years in order to siphon off potential Yesh Atid and then Hatnua voters. It’s not clear how convincing she could be, and she lost some leftwing voters who were turned off by her seeming turn to the center-right.

In short, it’s not Yacimovich that is the problem here, but the party’s internal laws that threaten a leader so soon after elections. And it’s the fault of its top politicians who always see themselves as the more competent, even rightful, leader of the party.

Labor’s power has been in decline for many years, and it’s simply not realistic to expect one person to change all of that around over the course of one election. What the party needs is a long period of unity so that it can work on expanding its grassroots organization, craft a clear and consistent message to the Israeli public, and accept its leader’s right to remain in the position for a significant period of time. Until that happens, Laborites and pundits will continue to blame the leader for the party’s deeper problems.

Taksim Square Meets Rothschild Boulevard

When the Gezi Park and Taksim Square protests first broke out, analysts immediately thought of the Arab Awakening. The comparison might seem obvious at first glance—Tahrir and Taksim can also make for a nice alliteration. I suggested that the better comparison might be Israel’s social justice protests (better known as J14).

Over at Ottomans and Zionists, Michael Koplow does a good job of exploring why such a comparison might be the appropriate way to go—including the nature of democracy and the popularity of the ruling party in Israel compared to the Arab states. I think he’s right: both the Israeli and the Turkish protests were driven by middle-class voters, who demanded/demand greater public accountability and participation in governmental decision-making. Few were/are advocating for a wholesale change in the system.

If J14 is the model, then we also need to think more about how the protests might end.

Israel’s social protests began in 2011, and continue into 2013. But the momentum has diminished considerably, for a number of reasons. Analysts of the Turkish protests and the demonstrators themselves might take note of these reasons, and learn from the Israeli experience.

First, because the protests were driven by middle class voters, it was hard to keep the momentum going for too long. Protestors need to work, take care of their families, and so on. By the end of the first year, rallies were held on the weekend and had taken on more of a party-like atmosphere, a place to hang out, than an effort to effect genuine political change.

Second, there was a concerned government effort to shut the Israeli rallies down, including the use of force. While this alone isn’t necessarily enough to put an end to protests, it certainly dampens enthusiasm for all but the most die-hard. In the Arab states, it was extreme police violence, including the killing of demonstrators, which helped galvanize the masses. One might even argue that the Israeli police—and the Turkish police thus far—are inadvertently maintaining a “proper” balance between “light” and extreme violence, and thus depriving the protestors of another spark.

[Update: It’s been pointed out, particularly by Gabriel Mitchell and Dahlia Scheindlin, that the Israeli police’s use of force was either minimal or more in line with the coercion used against Palestinians rather than Jewish-Israeli protestors. Both points are well taken. My purpose was to note some common use of force in both cases (beatings, arrests), but yes, the Turkish police response has certainly been far more violence.]

Third, the government co-opted many of the demands of J14 by appointing the Trajtenberg Committee to look into the reasons behind the unrest and to suggest plausible ways of accounting for their concerns. The Committee took its role seriously, meeting with protest leaders (at least in the big cities) and trying to offer some solutions. These tended to fall within the government’s neoliberal priorities, but it was genuine. Showing itself willing to meet protestors’ demands took some of the wind out of J14’s sails.

Fourth, in a political system that boasts strong parties and a strong executive—particularly where the government has considerable control in the parliament—extra-parliamentary movements have a difficult time translating their activities into political gains. This was certainly the case in Israel, which apart from the settler movement does not have a tradition of powerful interest groups operating outside the political arena. There’s no indication that Turkey is much different.

Fifth, some of the main leaders of the social protests had political aspirations. Whether they were intentionally using J14 as specific vehicles or not, after the first year and a half they started to move into the political arena, particularly into the Labor Party, which they argued was the next stage in achieving real social-economic change.

Finally, Israel held an election in January 2013. While it was some time after the start of J14, it was close enough that protestors could manifest some of their concerns and demands into voting—which again removed some of the impetus for keeping the rallies going. That the Labor Party and Meretz (traditionally associated with more government involvement in society) gained seats and the centrist Yesh Atid absorbed many of the middle class votes that reflected the J14 demands may have satisfied the base of the demonstrations for now.

It’s too early to say definitively that J14 had a major effect on policy in Israel. Now that the government budget has been presented in Israel and it’s proven tough on the middle class—to be fair, a tough budget was necessary given Israel’s deficit—protests might regain the momentum they had two years ago. But then again, they might not; that many of their demands have not been met could be an indication that the system has simply absorbed them without any lasting change.

Are similar conditions emerging in Turkey?

A Referendum On Peace Is A Bad Idea

Over at Open Zion, I argued that a referendum in Israel on a final peace treaty with the Palestinians is a bad idea. While there are arguments to be made in favor of one, there are strong counter-points that, I think, demonstrate the real problems inherent in a referendum. For example:

“there was no referendum on the 1947 Partition Plan, the decision to accept the 1949 armistice lines, the 1979 treaty with Egypt, 1981’s annexation of east Jerusalem and the Golan, the Oslo Accords in 1993, the agreement with Jordan in 1994, the 2000 withdrawal from Lebanon, or the Gaza withdrawal in summer 2005. In short, on none of the big issues of peace and security—all of which directly impacted on the personal safety of individuals as well as the security of the state itself—was the public asked to decide.”

Follow the link for more.