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

Stav Shaffir on Labor Party Entering Netanyahu Government

MK Stav Shaffir, the #3 on the Labor Party list in Israel, has long made it clear that she opposes her party’s entry into the governing coalition headed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. She Stavis far from alone in this. Many notable Knesset Members from the Zionist Union party (which is composed of the Labor Party and the smaller Ha’Tnuah party), including #2 Shelly Yachimovich and Ha’Tnuah head Tzipi Livni among others, have made it clear that they oppose such a decision.

MK Shaffir put her statement on her Facebook page. It in Hebrew only, and I have translated it below. Any inaccuracies in translation are fully my own. Continue reading at Medium.com

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.

Livni Joining With Labor: Not A Game-Changer

The media in Israel is abuzz with the news that Tzipi Livni will bring her Ha’Tnuah party into a joint ticket with the 675px-Kalpi_israel_18much larger Labor party. Now there is a tandem that can outpoll Likud, they are saying. The Israeli center just might be able to assert itself in this election.

Permit me to throw some cold water on this excitement. Livni, who has been the lone voice in the current government who has actively supported talks with the Palestinians, is doing this because if she doesn’t, there is a very strong possibility that her party will not get enough votes to remain in the Knesset. Labor leader Isaac Herzog, who has very little international experience, ran for the party leadership based on his commitment to resolving the long-standing conflict with the Palestinians. As the prospective Number Two, Livni gives Herzog some credibility in this regard.

But not only is there a long way to go before the March 17 election; there is also no guarantee that the party that wins the most seats will lead the next Israeli government. Of all people, Livni knows this only too well. In the 2009 election, she led the Kadima party which won the most seats in the Knesset. Then-President Shimon Peres tasked her with forming a governing coalition, but she couldn’t get enough parties to agree to join her to accumulate the requisite 61 seats. So Peres turned to Netanyahu who has occupied the Prime Minister’s office ever since.

Something very similar could happen in 2015. Although the current Israeli President, Reuven Rivlin, is not at all fond of Netanyahu, he is also from the Likud party and, while his domestic policies are relatively liberal, he is no friend of the two-state solution. He might not necessarily want to give Netanyahu the first crack at forming a government, but, if he believes Bibi has the better chance of forming a governing coalition, he will bow to precedent.

And Rivlin may well be forced to that conclusion, whether he likes it or not. Even if Labor wins a seat or two more than Likud, it would likely win no more than 24 seats. Assuming Herzog and Livni could convince all of their potential allies to join a coalition (that would mean Yesh Atid, the new Kulanu party, Shas, United Torah Judaism and Meretz), they would get 40 more seats at most, but that, frankly, is a pretty optimistic projection. They very likely would need at least one other party to join them, but there is only one other realistic possibility: Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party. Lieberman would surely demand a plum cabinet position (probably Defense), and he would be in a position  to bring down the government any time he strongly disapproved of its policies.

Such a government would be exceedingly difficult to cobble together in any case. Lieberman’s party has always been sharply critical of the religious parties who would necessarily have to make up part of the Herzog-Livni coalition. The orthodox parties are themselves unpredictable and share mutual hostility not only with Yisrael Beiteinu but also with other secular parties like Yesh Atid. Meretz, the only left-wing Zionist party remaining these days, would also take some convincing, given the rightward tilt of the remaining members of the coalition.

Despite Livni and Herzog’s own positions, the government outlined above would also be somewhat less than passionate about a two-state solution. Kulanu, led by former Likud minister Moshe Kahlon, is open to some evacuation of land but is unlikely to support a resolution based on the 1967 borders; Yisrael Beiteinu and Shas both theoretically support some kind of two-state solution but both also have a generally hawkish outlook. Together, they constitute nearly half the purported government. Less than a mandate for peace, especially considering that Likud and HaBayit HaYehudi in opposition would fiercely oppose any concessions — perhaps even discussions — with a Palestinian leadership they have repeatedly labelled “terrorist.”

So, an extremely unstable coalition government whose interest in reviving a peace process, let alone striking a deal, would be lukewarm at most is the best-case scenario, even with the news that Labor-plus-Livni might win a plurality in the Knesset.

That analysis presumes that the current polls reflect what will happen in March. Of course, they don’t. The campaign hasn’t even begun yet, and a Herzog-Livni ticket isn’t the most marketable for Israeli television. Israeli supporters of a two-state solution cling to Livni as a last, albeit highly flawed hope. They understand that, as a former prominent Likud member and from a family that was part of the aristocracy of Likud and its predecessors, she is not a peacemaker at heart. Herzog might be one but he is bland and thoroughly Ashkenazi (the most influential and wealthy of the Jewish ethnicities in Israel but no longer the majority). That image will work against him in the popular vote.

Israeli political campaigns are often a contest between preachers of hope and preachers of fear. In unsettled times like these, when Israelis are concerned about a growing number of unpredictable, even random, Palestinian attacks, as well as their growing sense of isolation from Europe, fear tends to do well. Historically, fear has served the Likud and other right-wing parties, especially HaBayit Hayehudi, very well.

There is a chance, albeit a very small one, that the preachers of hope can win. They’re not preaching a very high hope, merely one that is more hopeful than the demagoguery of Netanyahu and Naftali Bennett. And they have found an unexpected ally in Moshe Kahlon.

Kahlon, head of the new Kulanu (“All of Us”) party, appears to be drawing votes away from Likud, as well as from Yesh Atid. Like Livni, he is another of the former Likud pragmatists who do not identify with the extreme nationalist camp in Likud that has come to dominate that party after living for years on its far-right fringes.

It was Ariel Sharon who provoked the Likud split in order to thwart the party’s opposition to his plan to remove settlements from Gaza and a few from the West Bank as part of a larger strategic plan to pre-empt growing international pressure for a comprehensive solution. Others, like Ehud Olmert and Tzipi Livni, went with him. Now Kahlon  is following a similar path. While he says he could support some sort of land-for-peace arrangement, Kahlon, who is more focused on economic issues in any event, has never endorsed a two-state solution. Indeed, in the past he has rejected it as impractical.

The fact that Kahlon is now deemed a suitable partner for the dreamed-of Herzog-Livni government tells you a good deal of what you need to know about how such a government might behave. Nonetheless, Kulanu will appeal strongly to the Likud old guard. For those who supported former Likud ministers like Benny Begin and Dan Meridor — indeed, those who saw Benny’s father Menachem as the exemplar of Likud leadership and reject the fanatic ideologues who dominate the party today — Kahlon offers an alternative, as well as to other centrist voters who are disappointed in parties like Yesh Atid and Kadima before it.

With Kulanu taking some votes from Likud’s centrist flank and HaBayit HaYehudi continuing to gain right-wing votes at Likud’s expense, it is unsurprising that polls give Labor-with-Livni a chance to win the most seats. But does this mean Israel’s steady rightward drift has stopped?

Not necessarily. The overall view that the conflict with the Palestinians is unresolvable remains strong. At the same time, the growing split among Israeli Jews in reaction to the rise in ethnic and religious violence since last spring may prove an important factor in the election. While more Israeli Jews appear to embrace anti-Arab racism of the kind that benefits the far right represented by Bennett, more and more Jews are expressing alarm over that trend, although they, too, are loath to really examine the roots of that tension: the institutional racism and marginalization of Arabs in Israeli society.

Still,  a considerable portion of Israeli society, including some religious and conservative sectors, want to see a reduction in tensions between Jews and Arabs. They are also concerned about the relationships between Israel and the U.S. and between Israel and Europe. While Bennett and his ilk think Israel should act even more defiantly toward the rest of the world, these actors are genuinely worried about the consequences of such an attitude. Many are also concerned about the country’s growing economic stratification.

Those forces of relative reason are confronting a growing wave of nationalist extremism in Israel. As a result, the most hopeful result of the election, at least at this point, is the creation of a center-right government. Of course, if the Herzog-Livni ticket would be willing to bring the non-Zionist, communist party, Hadash, and the Arab Ra’am Ta’al party into the government, along with Meretz, that would indeed change the political trajectory. But that is even less likely  than a sudden and egalitarian Israeli decision to actually end the occupation. So, outside observers must for now cling to faint hope that things will go from incredibly bad to slightly less incredibly bad. Such is the state of Israeli politics.

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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