Policing Democrats For Israel

On Wednesday, after days of cajoling and political arm-twisting from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the Jewish Home party agreed to enter into coalition with an extremist party, Otzma Yehudit, or “Jewish Power.” As the name implies, Otzma Yehudit is an explicitly racist party, comfortably akin to the Ku Klux Klan in the United States. It is led by former members of Kach, the party founded by avowed racist Meir Kahane that the Knesset banned in 1988.

The open embrace of such a blatantly racist party elicited anger and dismay from a wide range of Israelis and their supporters, while critics noted that this was the logical result of Israel’s years of rightward drift and Netanyahu’s open embrace in recent years of authoritarians and authoritarianism. That increasing authoritarianism is certainly a major factor in Israel’s severely diminished standing in the United States among liberals, progressives, younger voters, and, crucially, Democrats.

The growing debate among Democrats has been an increasingly hot topic since the 2016 presidential election. It presents a particular problem for Democratic leaders who identify closely with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and similar groups that work to pressure elected officials to support Israeli policies. The decline in Israel’s appeal to Democrats is directly related to the wider awareness of the country’s increasingly authoritarian nature, its treatment of Palestinians, and its reluctance to take substantive steps toward peace. Pro-Israel liberals face a fundamental paradox trying to reconcile Israel’s illiberalism with their political values.

Republicans have a simpler task. There is much less sympathy for things like human rights, international law, and for Arabs in general among their voters. Lobbying and campaign financing are not as crucial for Republicans to secure lock-step support of Israel, as that support is there based on their faith, their view of security, and their view of race and culture.

On the Democratic side, the effort to secure unconditional support for Israel depends much more on spin, marketing, and money. That is the basis on which a new pro-Israel group, the so-called Democratic Majority for Israel (DMFI), operates. Read more at LobeLog

FMEP Policy Brief: Israel’s “Formalization” Law

On Sunday the Israeli cabinet unanimously passed a bill that would legalize settlement outposts in the occupied West Bank that were built on privately owned

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Banner reads “Every house that is demolished is a victory for Hamas.” This refers only to Jewish-owned houses in settlements.

Palestinian land. If passed by the Knesset, the law could potentially be used to raise the status of many outposts all over the West Bank to those of settlements that are legal under Israeli law. That would be a tremendous setback to the already dimming prospects of an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank, and to the two-state solution. Read more at FMEP’s blog, Facts on the Ground

An Early Look at Bibi’s Surprise Victory

It’s been about six hours since the polls closed in Israel. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has scored a obama-netanyahu-300x200dramatic victory, far outpacing the pre-election and exit polls. The consequences for Israelis, Palestinians, and the rest of the world could be very grave.

This surprising result undoubtedly came about because of some combination of the pollsters simply being wrong and Netanyahu’s last minute tactics, which included some blatant racism as well as an appeal to voters to block the possibility of a government led by the Zionist Union. But the why is less important than the results.

Although coalition negotiations could drag on for days, they could also conclude fairly quickly, as it seems clear what the composition of the next governing coalition will be. Likud will dominate, with almost as many Knesset seats as they won in the last election along with Israel Beiteinu (Avigdor Lieberman’s party). In order to seal the deal, Netanyahu will need Moshe Kahlon’s center-right Kulanu party, which will be the most moderate party in the new government.

Kahlon may hold Netanyahu hostage for a while, but he is almost certain to eventually agree to join. Naftali Bennett and his Jewish Home party have already connected with Netanyahu. Bennett was the big loser in this race, largely because Netanyahu went even further right, occupying a lot of Bennett’s political terrain (pun intended). Add in the two ultra-orthodox parties (Shas and United Torah Judaism) and Lieberman’s party, which also lost big due to a massive wave of scandals that hit them over the past months, and Netanyahu looks to have 66 or 67 seats. His majority will be composed entirely of the right and center-right.

Despite one blunder after another in this campaign, Netanyahu scored a smashing victory that no one saw coming. In the end, his strategy of fighting off his right flank and believing that Israel would not vote the center-left into power paid off. He gutted Bennett’s party as right wing voters, surely panicked at the thought of Isaac Herzog in the Prime Minister’s Office, voted Likud instead of Jewish Home.

So, with a right-wing coalition in place, will Netanyahu no longer have to prove his ultra-right, tough-guy bona fides? Some may be hoping so, but it seems unlikely.

The election surely proved to Bibi, once and for all, that his future challengers will come from the right, not the current opposition. His coalition will not only support his belligerence but will push him to sustain it. That is not going to sit well in Washington or Brussels.

Iran

Netanyahu is likely to quit pulling the flashier stunts to try to torpedo a nuclear deal with Iran, but he is likely to continue his efforts. He will encourage congressional Republicans from afar, with statements to the press and in speeches in Israel, rather than on Capitol Hill. Although it may be too late to rally enough Democrats to overcome a veto by President Obama of a new sanctions bill, the real fight for Obama is going to be selling a deal to the American public.

That’s where the more hawkish Democrats will come to the fore. Netanyahu will certainly keep up his anti-deal rhetoric, and he will not let up for a moment. There will be no significant voice in Israel expressing concern about the continuing rupture with the White House. The opposition is likely to be even quieter than it has been up until now.

None of this represents a real change from conditions before the election, of course. The only lingering question for Netanyahu is whether the sharp drop in the polls he experienced reflects real public concern about his handling of the controversy over his speech before Congress. It very likely did, so Netanyahu will opt for less dramatic tactics.

The Palestinians

If things looked hopeless before for any kind of diplomacy, they are absolutely dismal now. Netanyahu is sure to come up with some sort of double-talk to “explain” that he didn’t really mean to disavow the two-state solution, as he clearly did during the campaign. But he won’t walk it back too far, as even the parties in his likely new coalition who want to see talks resume (Kulanu, and to a lesser extent, Israel Beiteinu and possibly Shas) don’t necessarily support a two-state solution that anyone but them would recognize as one.

That’s going to present some difficulties for U.S. politicians. Obama is very likely to opt for some kind of pressure, either in the form of presenting an American framework for a two-state solution or, possibly, through a Security Council resolution pushing for an end to the occupation. How will Congress react?

Republicans will have an opening to fully back Netanyahu against Obama once again. But doing so also means joining him in practical opposition to a two-state solution. For Democrats, it will be very nearly impossible to do that, no matter what domestic pressures are brought to bear on them. The mainstream Jewish community continues to back a two-state solution. If its leading institutions try to follow Netanyahu down his path, the schism in the Jewish community will widen, and a lot more mainstream Jews will be raising their voices in opposition to Israeli policies.

In such a case, the Israeli opposition could conceivably rally. Likud’s dramatic and surprising victory overshadows the fact that the second, third, and fourth largest parties in the next Knesset will be in the opposition. But the number three party, the Joint List, is composed entirely of parties with which no mainstream Israeli party—except Meretz, which looks like it will only have four seats—will join forces. That’s because the Joint List is made up of three small Arab parties and one Jewish-Arab communist party.

So, although the opposition controls some 53 seats, they come out of this election weaker than that because of the way the Arab parties are viewed in Israel. That’s going to blunt the opposition’s already weak influence within the Knesset, making it harder to even slow down settlement construction, let alone find an agreement with the Palestinians and end the occupation.

The only, very thin, hope is that the United States and Europe are finally so fed up with Netanyahu and the Israeli right’s adamant refusal of peace that they are finally willing to exert significant pressure. Although it seems likely that the U.S. and E.U. will do something, it is far less likely that they will do anywhere near enough for either the Israeli government to feel the pressure or for the Israeli populace to grow concerned enough to take action.

US Backing Israeli War of Choice In Gaza

An edited version of this article appeared at LobeLogGaza_house_destroyed

The moral high ground is always a tenuous piece of property. It is difficult to obtain and is easily lost. It is seen, however, as crucial because most people, all over the world, cannot accommodate the notion that life is composed of shades of grey; they desperately need to see black and white, good guys and bad guys, heroes and villains, in every situation. Nowhere is this truer than in the Israel-Palestine conflict.

It has become even more important for Israel to fight this rhetorical battle because, while it can always count on mindless support from Washington and from the most radically nationalistic and zealous Zionists around the world, the current escalation and ugliness is going to be very difficult to defend to even mainstream pro-Israel liberals, let alone the rest of the world. The hasbara (propaganda) has been flowing at a rapid pace, even more so than usual, as Israel struggles to maintain the treasured hold on the “moral high ground” that its own actions have increasingly undermined. Continue reading

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