Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pulled an “October surprise” out of his hat when he announced his Likud party would form a joint list in the upcoming election with Avigdor Lieberman’s fascist Yisrael Beiteinu party. This is more of a partnership than a merger, but it has profound implications.
In partnering with Lieberman, Netanyahu is likely chasing moderate voices out of his cabinet, his coalition and his own party. The outcome will surely mean an even harder line stance against the international community, especially the European Union.
Netanyahu obviously believes that increasing Israel’s already significant isolation is worth what he thinks will be increased impunity in dealing with the Palestinians and neighboring Arab states. He hopes that the merger will better equip him in defending against any potential comeuppance from Barack Obama if he wins re-election. If Romney wins, Bibi believes he will have a government ready and willing to take full advantage of a neoconservatives return to foreign policy power in the US. He is certain that his lobby in the US will keep Israel kosher enough, even though this move is going to alienate large numbers of US Jews and will likely increase growing tensions between the US Jewish and Protestant communities.
The effects will be even more profound within Israel. The expanding racism and xenophobia will kick into overdrive and, unless Labor or some new centrist party can truly capture an anti-racist spirit — which seems unlikely — the Israeli public will shift even farther right, and more liberals will be leaving.
But one thing this move will not affect is Iran, at least in the short run. Ha’aretz editor Aluf Benn believes that Netanyahu just created a war cabinet, one which will hasten an Israeli attack, and possibly even frighten the United States into attacking Iran itself before Israel does. I doubt it.
To start with, Benn does make some important points. He writes:
…Netanyahu has finally renounced his attempt to portray himself as a centrist, as a statesmanlike and moderate leader. The mask that he put on before the previous election has finally been tossed into the trash. With Lieberman as second in command and heir to the throne, and his supporters in prominent spots on the joint ticket, Likud will become a radical right-wing party, aggressive and xenophobic, that revels in Israel’s isolation and sees the Arab community as a domestic enemy and a danger to the state.
Quite true, and he later points out that the level of western-style democracy that was defended even by hawks like Benny Begin and others in Likud like Dan Meridor was just put in the crosshairs. What is left of that idealism in centrist Israel won’t survive.
But if, as Benn frames it (correctly, I think), Lieberman essentially replaces Ehud Barak as Bibi’s right hand man, this hardly shifts hard toward war. The final makeup of the next cabinet is still unclear. This joint list idea is going to narrow support for Netanyahu, not broaden it. The influential Shas party is no longer a realistic partner for Bibi, as they are strongly opposed to Yisrael Beiteinu. That’s a big loss. The joint list is almost certain to secure fewer seats than the parties would have separately, but this was a price Netanyahu was willing to pay to lead the biggest party in the Knesset next time (Kadima has the most seats in the current Knesset). But Bibi will have to offer someone, perhaps Yair Lapid’s new Yesh Atid party, some serious carrots to form a majority coalition without Shas. So the makeup of the cabinet and whether it will really be myopic enough to ignore what could become a growing movement against a unilateral strike in the public sphere remains to be seen.
But Benn’s calculation misses important points. First, Barak was a pro-attack force, and a powerful one, until the last few weeks, when he seemed to break with Netanyahu and strike a more moderate tone. Many analysts, as well as several people I’ve spoken to with some inside knowledge, believe this was pure theater to make Barak more electable. If that was the idea, it failed, and few expect Barak’s Atzmaut party to get enough votes in January to gain any seats at all in the Knesset. In any case, Barak is not the voice of moderation Benn makes him out to be.
More importantly, while cabinet opposition to a unilateral Israeli strike was certainly important, the major impediment remains: the military and intelligence establishment. Much like in the United States, where an AIPAC-influenced Congress has been beating the drums for war, the actual soldiers and commanders recognize the ramifications and difficulties of an attack on Iran. That’s not to say in either case that these military leaders would refuse an explicit order from their respective commanders-in-chief. But in both countries, the opposition has been much more important in preventing an attack to date than political forces.
Benn is correct in one sense: having Lieberman as deputy to Bibi’s sheriff is a war time configuration. It’s meant to strengthen the central government, to enable a greater degree of martial law in the event of war and to continue more of it when the war ends. It’s meant to diminish the influence of the military and intelligence leaders who have had the temerity to raise concerns about a war Netanyahu desperately wants.
But at this moment, it does not bring a war with Iran any closer than it was before. We can be thankful for that, at least. And, in a number of other ways, this move may backfire on Bibi in both the short and long terms. That would be more hopeful if there were a viable alternative in Israel or a president in the United States who was willing to take advantage of Israel’s radicalized image to exert real pressure (like that suggested by Protestant leaders earlier this month) for a regional peace agreement. Maybe that’s a second-term Obama, but I’m not holding my breath for that one. In an era of grim outlooks, I’ll content myself with knowing that this move by Netanyahu will not bring war with Iran any closer.