Diaspora Jews Won’t Force Netanyahu to Pay Any Price

The idea that the non-Orthodox segments of American Jewry—however incensed it is—will force Israel to pay a price for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s cancellation of the Western Wall compromise is unfounded. Rather, a convergence of factors makes the bulk of the American Jewish community unwilling to put material pressure on Netanyahu. And since Netanyahu responds only to actual threats to his position, this means he can continue to thumb his nose at diaspora Jewry and focus on his own priorities: remaining in power and maintaining the status quo—with some increases in settlements—in the West Bank.

First, most American Jews do not donate funds or direct their political activity to Israel, but to specific ideological, cultural, religious, or policy causes in Israel close to their hearts. As Theodore Sasson, a prominent researcher of American Jewry, has noted, 78% of Jewish Federations’ campaign fundraising was allocated directly to Israel in 1967; that percentage fell to 23% in 2004. Funds have increasingly been oriented toward local Jewish communities. Filling the gap, today there are several “friends of” groups that direct their activities to, for example, universities, liberal causes, or the Israeli military. Orthodox and conservative Jews focus their donations on West Bank settlements or their religious kin.

Second, the Western Wall controversy is not a crisis in diaspora-Israel relations. To see what a real crisis looks like, one needs to go back to the “who is a Jew”? disputes of the 1980s and early 1990s. While Israel’s understanding of Jew uses both a religious (Orthodox rabbinical authorities control personal status issues in Israel) and a non-religious (the Law of Return allows for any Jew to become an Israeli citizen but there is no reference to religious determination) foundation, it also recognizes conversations to Judaism performed abroad. Jewish Orthodox parties have tried for decades to enshrine the religious definition—born to a Jewish mother or converted under Orthodox standards—in Israeli law.

In 1988 the Orthodox parties pushed for an amendment in the Law of Return that would stipulate Orthodox-approved conversions. What made such change more likely (it did not ultimately pass) was that in the aftermath of an election, Likud and Labor were jostling for support of the Orthodox parties and so trying to entice them with promises to pass (Likud) or review (Labor) such legislation. For American Jewry there was a real chance the status quo would change, which would directly affect American Jews who wanted to move to Israel. The scrapping of the Western Wall compromise means a return to the status quo, and does not materially affect diaspora Jews.

Yet as tense as those moments were, American Jews quickly rallied around Israeli governments and put aside their misgivings. They did so because events quickly became more important than intra-Jewish disputes: the First Intifada in 1987, the Oslo process in the mid to late 1990s, and the Second Intifada in 2000.

Third, American Jews are increasingly fractured in their attitudes toward Israel. But while criticisms of Israel by prominent Jewish leaders and headlines by an assertive grassroots movement against both the occupation of Palestine and the policies of the Netanyahu governments make it seem as though American Jewry is on the verge of breaking with Israel, the majority of American Jews want no such thing.

According to a 2016 survey by the Pew Research Center, 66% of American Jews think security is Israel’s biggest long-term problem. In practice this has meant American Jews rally around Israel when its safety is under threat. This is what happened in 1967, 1990, 2000, and during the Gaza wars of 2008-09, 2012, and 2014. In such moments diaspora criticism of Israel was muted or shouted down within the community.

None of the national Jewish organizations that consider themselves Zionist and are usually labeled “pro-Israel” want such a break, either. While they might disagree with and even publicly critique Israel on specific issues, advocacy that supports the existence of a Jewish state is part of their mandates—even the essence of their existence.

These reasons indicate that Israel under Netanyahu is unlikely to consider warm relations with American Jewry as a priority. The Islamic State, the Syrian war, the continuing Iranian threat, among other security concerns, are of much more immediate concern. In addition, Netanyahu and his rightwing government are keenly interested in either precluding the establishment of a Palestinian state or continuing to avoid negotiations that could lead substantively toward such an end—both policies that the non-Orthodox American Jewish population generally opposes.

Finally, political trends in Israel suggest that the left is not likely to win power in the near future. The right and the center, which leans right, are too strong.

The spate of illiberal bills and laws that Netanyahu has promoted, facilitated, or let pass combined with the breaking of the Wall compromise are proof that American Jews have less power over Israeli policy even on issues of great importance to them. Without an alternative to Netanyahu or his government, they have little leverage over either.

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Peres, Nuclear Weapons, and Avoiding Responsibility

One of the arguments put forward by those criticizing Shimon Peres’ legacy as well as excusing Arab leaders’ decision not to attend his funeral focuses on Peres’ critical role in developing Israel’s nuclear arsenal. This includes the leader of the Joint List, Ayman Odeh, who gave as one of his reasons for not paying his respects to Peres as, among other things, “strong opposition in Arab society to the architect of the occupation who introduced nukes to the Middle East.”

The argument is at best tendentious, and dismisses the context in which Peres operated at the time.

Along with David Ben-Gurion and Ernst Bergmann, Peres was the primary architect of Israel’s nuclear program. He was also the main driver of the French-Israeli alliance in the 1950s and 1960s. He also launched the creation of the country’s defense industry, promoted the development of Israeli technology, and laid the foundation for the shift from a socialist to a free market economy, which contributed to further developments in defense and high tech.

All of this makes Peres one of the giants in Israeli history; he developed and strengthened the country, making it the secure and prosperous state it is today. But I don’t see how it makes him unfit to be remembered and grieved.

For Israeli leaders in the 1950s and 1960s, the Holocaust was a real event. By the 1967 war Israel had engaged in 2 major wars with its neighbors (1948 and 1956), and was under constant attack from Palestinian guerillas and terrorists. Israeli reprisal raids and efforts to undermine the capacity of its enemies to attack broadened the scope of the violence. In addition, Arab leaders were consistently threatening Israel not only with attack but with destruction.

To claim that Israeli leaders at the time should have dismissed these attacks and threats as un-implementable or easily fended off is to apply today’s conditions to that period. It also assumes Israeli leaders had perfect information, could accurately assess the outcomes of their actions all the time, and could predict whether nuclear weapons would or would not come to the region without Israel’s own nuclear program. In fact, Israeli leaders and others did debate amongst themselves many of these issues; but the decision to move forward with a nuclear program was ultimately made as the safest course of action.

In addition, the claim that Peres’ introduction of nuclear weapons to the Middle East means he should be remembered poorly also assumes, without evidence, that the decision to do so was made with malicious intent.

One can certainly criticize the decision, and consider what did in fact occur in the wake of the nuclear program. But to contend that it was, without qualification, the wrong decision is ahistorical and decontextualized and therefore any conclusions drawn from that decision are skewed and misleading.

Finally, to also claim that Peres’ efforts to protect his people, which did not involve attacking or repressing other people, mean he is undeserving of last respects is just an excuse to avoid making hard choices about coexistence. That, of course, says much more about those making the excuse than it does about Peres.

New Book on Israeli Politics

Harold Waller and I have co-authored a text on Israeli Politics, due out with Oxford University Press in February 2016. The Politics of Israel: Governing a Complex Society serves as an introduction to the topic, and covers a wide range of issues and areas, including the impact of Zionism on Israel’s political culture, religion in politics, the politics of the Arab minority, interest groups and public protest, and debates over the meaning of Israel as a Jewish state.

Don’t Be So Quick To Count AIPAC Out

Given AIPAC’s prominent role in the fight against the Iran deal, questions have already been raised about the impact of its defeat—it won’t convince enough Democratic members of Congress to vote against the agreement—on its influence in DC. It’s a perhaps inevitable question to ask, but the answer should be obvious: the effect will be minimal. The influence of interest groups like AIPAC can’t be measured by a single political fight.

It was never likely that AIPAC could derail the deal in Congress. Presidents are the dominant players in the making of foreign policy. When they are committed to a specific policy, there is little that can push them back. Since the mid-twentieth century Congress and the Supreme Court have generally accepted that preeminent role.

So AIPAC was starting at a disadvantage. Add to that the fact that this Democratic President sees the Iran accord as his signature piece of foreign policy, and the chance of lining up Democratic Senators and Representatives became even slimmer.

The incline was made steeper by the fact that a lot of security and nuclear proliferation experts—both in the United States and in Israel—contended that the deal wasn’t so bad, or was good enough to build on. This made the case for opposing it weaker.

Nobody with any experience in DC who drops their ideological blinders thinks that under these conditions, a failure to gather enough opposition votes means AIPAC is losing influence.

More important is the fact that AIPAC is embedded in the policymaking system. That’s what gives it influence, not its wins or losses in specific cases. It’s the fundamentals of participation that matter.

AIPAC’s ability to influence Congress stems from Israel’s place in the political game, and the conflation (as inaccurate as it is) between Israel and American Jewry. Jewish voters are concentrated in key electoral districts; public sympathy and support for Israel is consistently high, and politicians don’t pick unnecessary fights; Republicans have for the last few presidential cycles worked under the assumption that US Jews are about to migrate en masse to their party; and both Democrats and Republicans think taking a position on Israeli security wins Jewish votes.

Elected officials are open to hearing the ideas of an organization claiming to represent the Jewish community on Israel-related issues. AIPAC officials regularly participate in the writing of bills that touch on the American-Israeli relationship, even if indirectly (such as aid to third parties in the region).

AIPAC officials and board members have regular access to politicians and their staff. AIPAC-approved donors are courted during election campaigns.

So to judge the influence of AIPAC, or any lobby group, look to its daily operations and to policy outcomes over time. On the most important issues that define its mandate, such as military aid to Israel and a close American-Israeli relationship, AIPAC “wins” all the time. Partly that’s because the issues are easy for politicians to endorse, and partly because AIPAC has successfully built its capacity over time.

AIPAC picked a losing issue to spend its money on this time. But nobody in Congress is going to ignore AIPAC when it comes to thinking about the next foreign aid bill or funding for an Israeli anti-missile system. Nobody is going to refuse an invitation to its annual policy conference. Nobody did any of these things after previous defeats to American presidents on specific issues.

Where AIPAC might be constrained is the growth of other Jewish advocacy organizations making claims on the community’s resources and representation and intensifying divisions within the community at large. The fight over the Iran deal might represent an example of how this process play out, but it’s not a cause of it.

These divisions are related not just to expanding fractures in the community across religious, denominational, political, and generational lines, but also due to changes in Israel itself. The community’s once-famous ability to mobilize in support of Israel during moments of crisis is declining as individuals and specialized organizations now donate to and work on behalf of specific social, religious, or political issues in Israel that fit with their narrow mandates.

This is a long term process. We need more time, and more political fights, before the outcome becomes clear.

Predicting the Israeli Election

Israel’s election is almost upon us. There’s been no shortage of analysis of its trends, but most of these have rightly come with the caveat that polling in Israel is subject to several methodological problems. In addition, the outcome in several past elections (e.g., 1977, 2006, 2013) has been a surprise to both analysts and pollsters in part because many people only make up their minds on the day they vote.

Bearing this in mind, Michael Koplow, Guy Ziv, and I thought it might be fun–which is not to say stake our professional reputations on it–to try to predict the vote, and then to compare our predictions. The results are interesting.

Note that voting in Israel closes the night of Tuesday, March 17. It will take an extra couple of days to count all the ballots, including those from abroad (diplomats and soldiers).

Comments welcome!

Party Michael

Koplow

 Brent

Sasley

    Guy

     Ziv

Likud     23     20       20
Zionist Union     22     24       25
Yesh Atid     15     13       13
Joint Arab List     12     13       12
Koolanu     12      9        9
Bayit Yehudi     11     13       12
United Torah Judaism      7      7        7
Shas      6      8        8
Yisrael Beiteinu      4      4        5
Meretz      4      5        5
Yachad      4      4        4
TOTAL    120    120      120

Four Questions About the Israeli Election

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Food for thought.

Labor Chooses an Electoral Slate

Israel’s Labor Party has selected its electoral list. It has provided for a strong role for women, and a concentration on social-economic issues. After party head Isaac Herzog, in second place is Shelly Yacimovich; in third is Stav Shaffir; in fourth is Itzik Shmuli; and in ninth is Merav Michaeli. The slate will be combined with Tzipi Livni’s Hatnua, and Livni herself will be in second place on the joint list.

A few thoughts on what the results might mean for the election:

It’s a bit weak on security and foreign policy issues. In sixth place is Omer Bar-Lev, who has considerable experience in both. But I am not sure he commands the wide respect other prominent former military and intelligence leaders have in order to make up for the death of security people on the list. The twelfth spot is reserved for a candidate of Herzog’s choice, so the person appointed there could bolster the party’s security credentials. Combined with Livni’s obvious focus on the peace process, it could provide a strong basis on which to assert a foreign policy message.

But with no foreign policy crisis on the agenda, and economic issues continuing to be of great concern to Israelis, at this point it is likely that social justice, rather than foreign policy issues, will be the core issue of the campaign. The prominent role of women on the list will also enhance Labor’s claims to better represent Israeli society. These are Benjamin Netanyahu and Likud’s weaknesses, and Labor could hammer at them on these domestic issues.

That said, in 2013 Labor also had an electoral list strong on social and economic issues. But several other factors intervened to prevent Labor from taking full advantage of it. This included a general suspicion among voters that the left is naïve and irresponsible on security issues; the appearance of Livni and Yesh Atid, who fought for the same leftwing and centrist votes; a surge of support for Bayit Yehudi; and a shift away from what has become its traditional policy issue—the peace process. A crowded political field is bad for Labor.

All of these factors remain in place today. Though Livni is now tied to Labor, the center is still crowded: Despite a drop in the polls, Yesh Atid is still around; Koolanu has appeared as the new Yesh Atid; and even Avigdor Liberman has been reimagining his image as a centrist. Bayit Yehudi is continuing to poll better than its 2013 showing, and is still making an intense play for non-religious Zionist votes. And, as mentioned above, Labor is still a bit weak on security issues, while Herzog hasn’t been able—or willing—to craft a simple and consistent message about the peace process or the occupation that is all that different from Likud’s position.

That brings us back to foreign policy. It’s possible Herzog will let Livni talk up security in the form of peace talks while he focuses on social justice. But Israeli leaders don’t compartmentalize well; they normally like to retain ultimate control over events. That Livni is seen as a political equal to Herzog, while Herzog doesn’t exhibit the same high level of ego most Israeli politicians do, might mean they could pull it off. In addition, they could combine their messages: Problems in the relationships with Europe and, to a lesser extent, with the United States could be tied to social and economic issues through the effects of Israel’s presence in the West Bank, while spending on housing and security in the West Bank could also be tied to problems in government development of cities, towns, and regions within the Green Line.

It’s still a long way to the end of the election campaign, and lots can—and probably will—happen before March 17. It’s become a cliché to say that we cannot predict anything about the Israeli election, and that’s true. But identifying trends during the campaign is useful, and can tell us something about Israeli political parties and the contours of its politics.