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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Tears for My Judaism

Today, another piece on Gaza. This one, though, is more emotional and personal. I see too much of my own background, too much of

Israeli soldiers lounge outside the museum of the Zionist militant group, the Irgun Zvai Leumi.

Israeli soldiers lounge outside the museum of the Zionist militant group, the Irgun Zvai Leumi.

how I was raised to understand Judaism in Israel’s actions. I stress, this is far from any kind of “real” Judaism. It is one of a great many kinds of Judaism, many understandings of what being Jewish means. the one I was raised with was, well, simply not a very nice version. And on some level, no matter how much I may embrace other Judaisms, this version will always be the most visceral for me. And, luck me Israel reflects it back at me on a regular basis. I explore in Souciant today.

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

The Hamas-Likud Double Standard

This piece originally appeared at LobeLog

The Palestinian Authority installed its unity government today. The responses have been as telling as they were expected.unity

For Palestinians, the development is welcomed news, but it’s being greeted with caution. Palestinians have seen unity proposals collapse before and, while this one has gone further in terms of implementation than any of the preceding efforts, it is still far from certain that this attempt will succeed. The response this elicits from Israel, the US, the EU and other parties will also have a lot to do with whether this unity move will improve the lives of Palestinians in the short-term. Unity has long been the top priority of Palestinians living in the Occupied Territories, but they’ve been disappointed too many times to rejoice before the reunification is more certain.

 

Israel, not surprisingly, rejected any cooperation with the new Palestinian government out of hand. Demonstrating once again how weak Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas really is, the one thing they will happily continue is security coordination, which Abbas called a “sacred” and untouchable arrangement. This one piece of leverage Abbas has is admittedly problematic; a breakdown of security in the West Bank is a much greater threat to the Palestinian Authority than to Israel. Still, Abbas did not need to guarantee that he would never play this card. He has, apparently, still not learned that attempts to reassure Israelis fall on deaf ears. 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