Nationalist Extremism: The Real Threat to Israel

An edited version of this article appeared first at LobeLog.

They were dueling op-eds, one in the New York Times and the other in the Jewish communal magazine, Tablet. The question being

Nationalistic signs at Salute to Israel Day in New York, July 2006 Photo by Rabih/Public Domain

Nationalistic signs at Salute to Israel Day in New York, July 2006
Photo by Rabih/Public Domain

bandied between them was whether Israel is becoming a theocracy. Not surprisingly, both pieces missed the mark. It’s not theocracy but unbridled nationalism that is the threat in Israel.

The Times piece was authored by Abbas Milani, who heads the Iranian Studies program at Stanford University and Israel Waismel-Manor, a lecturer at Haifa University who is currently a visiting associate professor of Political Science at Stanford. Their thesis is that Iran and Israel are moving in opposite directions on a democratic-theocratic scale, and that they might at some point in the future pass each other. Milani and Waismel-Manor are certainly correct about the strengthening forces of secularism and democracy in Iran, along with a good dose of disillusionment and frustration with the revolutionary, Islamic government that Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini ushered in thirty-five years ago. But on Israel, they miss the mark by a pretty wide margin.

Waismel-Manor and MIlani posit that the thirty seats currently held in Israel’s Knesset by religious parties shows growing religious influence on Israeli policies. But, as Yair Rosenberg at Tablet correctly points out, not all the religious parties have the same attitude about separation of religion and the state. Where Rosenberg, unsurprisingly, goes way off course is his complete eliding of the fact that the threat is not Israel’s tilt toward religion, but it’s increasingly radical shift toward right-wing policies, which are often severely discriminatory and militant. Continue reading

Israel’s New Cabinet

This article originally appeared at LobeLog

The new Israeli government features a security braintrust that might be a bit more reasonable on Iran, but is likely to be even more hawkish both in the immediate region

Netanyahu has a new and untested cabinet

Netanyahu has a new and untested cabinet

and within the country itself. Gone are voices from the Israeli right who favored a more reasoned and diplomatic approach to their right-wing agenda. They have been replaced by figures who want more direct action and refuse even the pretense of a two-state solution.

On Iran, the retirement of Ehud Barak removes Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s leading supporter in his effort for a strike on Iran sooner rather than later, whether that be carried out by Israel or, preferably, the United States. He is replaced by Moshe “Bogey” Ya’alon. Bogey is also an Iran hawk, but is not in favor of Israel launching an attack other than as a last resort. He is far more content than Barak to allow the United States to take the lead and wants Israel to act only if it becomes apparent that the US will not. That puts him pretty well in line with the Israeli military and intelligence leadership in practice, though he sees Iran as more of a threat than they do.

In fact, no one in the current or even the outgoing inner circle came close to matching Barak’s eagerness for military action against Iran. Only Netanyahu himself could match him, and he remains daunted by the lack of support for his position in Israel. The ongoing hawkishness in the US Congress and President Barack Obama’s repeated statements holding firm to a military option and refusing a policy of containment also blunt Netanyahu’s resolve. It would seem that, at least for the time being, the calls for war on Iran will be fueled more in the United States than in Israel.

Ya’alon is a former Chief of Staff of the Israel Defense Forces, but he did not have a distinguished term of service there, was not well-liked and returns without a great deal of good will among the military and intelligence services’ leadership. In fact, colleagues in Israel tell me there is a good deal of consternation in those services regarding Bogey’s appointment. But for now, they will wait and see how he acts. For a deeper look at Ya’alon, see my recent piece on him here. 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.

Panicked Bibi Shoots Himself In the Foot in Merger with Lieberman

I’ve long suspected it, but now I’m convinced: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has lost his mind. His announcement todayof forming a joint list with Yisrael Beiteinu and Avigdor Lieberman reeks of a panic not rooted in any sense of reality. And this time, it’s not about “the Arabs” or Iran, but about the upcoming election. It’s proof positive that the man running Israel, and who is going to continue to run Israel for the foreseeable future, is a frightened, perhaps even paranoid, reactionary man.

Consummating their love and uniting the right: Avigdor Lieberman and Benjamin Netanyahu

According to Yediot Akhronot’s web site, YNet, Bibi made the decision to do this because polls indicate Likud would lose a few seats in the next elections (sorry, the report is not available in English at this time). Netanyahu wants to be the leader of the next Knesset’s biggest party, not the second biggest as he currently is. So, he threw in his lot with Lieberman and his explicit fascism.

I think this move is going to backfire on Bibi in a number of ways. First of all, this is going to alienate a number of very high profile Likud members. Some will be seeing this as coming at their expense, especially those in top positions right now who will be bumped at least one rung, perhaps more, lower on the list and in their positions in the next cabinet. Others, like Dan Meridor, Benny Begin and more, are going to bristle sharply at having to work this closely with Lieberman. It would not surprise me to see several prominent Likud figures bolt.

Second, whereas before the so-called super-bloc of “center-left” parties was largely a media invention, Netanyahu has now given it much more impetus. While Yair Lapid and his Yesh Atid may still be more interested in making their own mark on the electorate, the more seasoned Labor and Kadima parties are going to find that they have little choice but to join forces now in some way. That won’t matter to Bibi…unless Ehud Olmert and Tzipi Livni re-enter the fray, which make Kadima meaningful again and would combine well with a Labor Party that Shelly Yachimovitch has kept at a steady second place in polls for months. Continue reading

Acknowledge the Nakba

This week’s piece at Souciant deals with the anniversary of Israel’s independence and the Palestinian Nakba (catastrophe). It takes off from the shameful op-ed the Israeli ambassador to the US, Michael Oren, placed two days ago in the Wall Street Journal, wherein he whines about the world not loving Israel while it holds millions of people under a regime of occupation that denies their basic rights.

It is focused in the need for Israel to acknowledge the Nakba, to recognize it for what it is, and to stop seeing it as mourning Israel’s creation, but as Palestinians mourning their own dispossession. Recognizing that, perhaps Israel can start taking responsibility for that dispossession, a necessary prerequisite for peace, no matter what form an eventual resolution takes.

In that same spirit, I’d also like to recommend two pieces from +972 Magazine. This one, by Lisa Goldman and this one by Larry Derfner.