Early Reaction: Winners and Losers in Israeli Elections

This article was published at LobeLog

Well, here it is, the day after. The Israeli elections are over, but the form of the next government is not at all clear. Most likely, Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Beiteinu party

Next to the polling station, photo by Yossi Gurvitz

Next to the polling station, photo by Yossi Gurvitz

will form a government with Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party being the main partner. This is by far the most likely scenario, though others possibilities exist, even a million-to-one long shot that Lapid could form a government. Labor is likely to be leading the opposition, unless Lapid surprises everyone and stays out of a Netanyahu-led government.

The new Knesset will be somewhat less tilted to the right than the last one, but this is not likely to make a big difference in terms of Israel’s approach to the Palestinians. Indeed, in some ways, it might serve Netanyahu to have a friendlier face in Lapid to cover policies that might be slightly different rhetorically but essentially the same on the ground. More than anything else, the shift in government is going to be felt domestically, in terms of greater attention to civic and economic issues. Indeed, no Israeli election in my memory compares to this one for the dominance of domestic over security issues.

Given that there’s still more to see before the full ramifications of the election are known, I’ll engage here with a few winners and losers. Continue reading

Ex-Israeli Intel Chief Says Bibi’s March to Iran War is For His Own Self-Interest

This article was published at Alternet.

The former head of Israel’s General Security Service, commonly known as the Shin Bet, has caused quite a stir with an interview that roasts Prime Minister Benjamin

Former Shin Bet chief, Yuval Diskin

Former Shin Bet chief, Yuval Diskin

Netanyahu alive. Yuval Diskin paints a disturbing picture of Netanyahu as a leader who, far more than most, is motivated by personal political gain rather than by strategy. Cynically, and one might even say appropriately, most of us routinely ascribe such motives to most politicians, but Diskin’s point is that Netanyahu leans much more toward this motivation than most.

When one considers the amount of power an Israeli Prime Minister holds, and the impact Israeli actions have on world events, having someone like the man Diskin describes in that office is alarming even while it explains much about why, even for Middle East affairs, the current status quo is so bleak. But here in the United States, it should also give us pause as we consider who this man is that our Congress, led by the Israel Lobby, is so enthralled with.

Diskin describes all the other Prime Ministers he worked under since Menachem Begin as ultimately being driven by their view of Israel’s best interests. He does not suggest they were immune to personal interest, but that when it came to the really crucial security decisions, it was not their primary motivation. But Netanyahu, and Ehud Barak, are different, says Diskin: “Unfortunately the feeling that I have, and that many senior security officials have, is that when we talk about Netanyahu and Barak, that with them the personal, opportunistic and current interests, are the thing that take precedence over anything else.  And I emphasize that I am reflecting here something that not only I feel, but also many of the colleagues at my level with whom I spoke.” Whether Diskin’s assessment of historical Israeli leadership is on target, the fact remains that he obviously sees a huge difference in the extent to which personal gain motivates the current government’s top decision-makers. Continue reading

Netanyahu-Lieberman Union Won’t Change Iran Timetable

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.

Israel Takes Bigger Gambles To Push Obama Into Iran Attack

This article originally appeared at LobeLog, which is a treasure trove of valuable foreign policy analysis. I hope you will check the site out, I’m sure you’ll find it worth your while. 

Headlines today featured news of a spike in oil prices based on fears of an Israeli strike on Iran. That fear is based on last week’s major uptick in Israeli rhetoric — mostly from Defense Minister Ehud Barak — which was geared toward goading the United States into military action against Iran. While tension has indeed risen, Israel’s tactics could backfire.

Netanyahu and Barak

The most recent surge of tension began with an“anonymous” leak, widely believed to have come from Barak, stating that the US had a new National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) that showed Iran to be a greater threat than previously believed. Barak then told Israeli Radio that there was a new report, perhaps not a NIE, which brought the US assessment closer to “ours.”

The “ours” Barak referred to was that of himself and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose assessment differs not only from the Obama Administration’s, but also from Israel’s own military and intelligence establishment. Netanyahu and Barak’s take also differs from Israeli public opinion about the threat Iran poses. In a poll conducted by Israel’s Channel 10 and announced earlier today (Hebrew only), only 23% of Israelis support a strike on Iran, while 46% oppose it.

But Netanyahu and Barak had indeed attempted to sway public opinion. The day after Barak’s statements, Israeli headlines were devoted to a possible strike on Iran. Netanyahu also proceeded to rekindle Holocaust fears and another article appeared in the Israeli daily, Ha’aretz, with an anonymous “decision maker” — almost certainly Barak again — warning about the unspeakable consequences of a nuclear Iran and urging action.

It’s no surprise that markets are reacting with fear to all of this, but what can we make of recent events with a more sober eye? For one, Netanyahu and Barak are growing more concerned about the potential for an attack on Iran — something they want very badly. They are also now playing a much higher-stakes political game in order to get Iran attacked.

As Ha’aretz editor-in-chief Aluf Benn points out, Netanyahu and Barak have been screaming hysterically about Iran while other world leaders haven’t been all that concerned about their complaints. Israeli rhetoric has been escalating steadily for years now, but there are good reasons to believe that there will not be an Israeli attack. First, there is serious internal opposition. Second, Israel isn’t likely to strike Iran because it doesn’t have, by itself, the capacity to destroy or substantially set back the Iranian nuclear program. In other words, Israel can’t make the minimal gains required to justify the risks and consequences of taking on Iran alone. Continue reading

Ready, Aim, Failure: Bibi Blows It Again

In my latest piece for Babylon Times, hosted by Souciant, I examine the responses to the terrorist attack near Eilat and the subsequent Israeli incursions into Gaza and Egypt. The title says a lot: Ready Aim Failure: Bibi blows it, again.