Netanyahu’s Coalition of the Unwilling

After Benjamin Netanyahu’s surprising victory in Israel’s national elections in March, he took until the last possible Bennettminute to complete the process of forming the government for his fourth term as Israel’s prime minister. For all the time he invested, despite making it just under the wire, Netanyahu ended up with a fragile, ultra-right-wing coalition and more work ahead of him to bring in at least one more party.

The government Netanyahu presented to Israeli President Reuven Rivlin was a bare majority of 61 seats out of the 120-seat Knesset. There are no fig leafs in this coalition, no Tzipi Livni or Ehud Barak for Netanyahu to send to talk fruitlessly with the Palestinians. One might think this would make the coalition more stable, since it consists entirely of the right wing. In this, one would be wrong.

Netanyahu is, in fact, desperate to add another party to the coalition because there is so much tension in the current majority, most visibly between Netanyahu’s Likud party and Naftali Bennett’s HaBayit HaYehudi. Likud leaders, including Netanyahu, feel that Bennett essentially held the coalition hostage to his demands. They are quite right about that, but the gambit paid off handsomely for Bennett.

HaBayit HaYehudi holds a mere eight seats in the Knesset. Yet Bennett and his party will get four ministries, the deputy defense minister post, as well as the chairs of two key Knesset committees dealing with Israel’s legal system. That is what you get when you play hardball with Netanyahu, a man who likes to talk tough but who is a political creature first and foremost and quickly backs off from a high-stakes fight he is not sure he can win.

As things stand, this coalition might not last the year. That is why, after Avigdor Lieberman quit his post as foreign minister and took his greatly diminished party into the opposition, Netanyahu left the post open by keeping that portfolio for himself. In reality, Netanyahu has been the foreign minister all along, so it is not an added burden for him.

Leaving the position open gives him a tempting carrot with which to try to lure Zionist Union leader Isaac Herzog into a unity government (see my piece here for why that would be a terrible idea for all concerned) or to tempt Lieberman back in. Without one of those parties, the government is too fragile to last very long. Even if Lieberman does rejoin, the mere six seats he would bring offer only token stability. Herzog is the man Netanyahu needs.

Bennett’s Gamble

On the day that Netanyahu was supposed to present his government, he was still eight seats short of a majority. Luckily for Bennett, that was the exact number of seats he controlled and he let Netanyahu know just how lucky he was.

Bennett played a game of chicken with Netanyahu, pushing for more and more power within the government and knowing that Bibi was going to have a hard time saying no to anything. Bennett won, and the spoils were vast. The far-right HaBayit HaYehudi party now controls the ministries of education, agriculture, justice, and diaspora affairs. The position of deputy defense minister will also be theirs.

It is even worse than it sounds. With the ministry of agriculture comes control over the World Zionist Organization’s Settlement Division, which funds the expansion of settlements. Uri Ariel, perhaps the most extreme pro-settler member of the Knesset, will have that portfolio.

It gets worse yet. Bennett gave the justice ministry to Ayelet Shaked. Shaked is a notorious racist who once proudly posted an article by a speechwriter named Uri Elitzur that named the entire Palestinian nation as enemies. Elitzur further agued that Palestinian mothers “must go” if their sons commit acts of violence because they raised a “snake” and would raise more “snakes.” In the context of calling every single Palestinian “the enemy,” this is clearly hate speech. Shaked tried to deny the contents of the post, saying it was mistranslated. Hebrew readers can judge for themselves here, where the post is archived. Although it is not quite a call for genocide, as some have suggested, it is clearly incitement and hate speech. This is the new minister of justice in Israel.

Lest there be any doubt about how much Shaked agrees with Elitzur, she said the following just before the full-scale war on Gaza last summer: “This is not a war against terror, and not a war against extremists, and not even a war against the Palestinian Authority. The reality is that this is a war between two people. Who is the enemy? The Palestinian people. Why? Ask them, they started it.”

Shaked is certain to work hard to undermine Israel’s fragile legal system. She will also be heading the powerful Ministerial Committee for Legislation and the Judicial Appointments Committee, giving her even more leverage to eliminate a legal system that she sees as a bastion of the left. Moreover, she is very likely to be minister of justice when the next attorney general is appointed.

Uri Ariel can be equally certain to press hard for as much settlement expansion—all over the West Bank and, especially, in East Jerusalem—as the available shekels and the defense minister, who will still be Moshe Ya’alon, will allow. I would rather not even think about what Bennett, the new minister of education, is going to do to the minds of Israeli students. Academia is also thought of as a bastion of the left in Israel, and the climate for free thought in Israeli institutions is certainly threatened now.

A Question of Longevity

The real question about all of this is how long it will last. An ultra-right government like this one is not going to get along well with the Obama administration or most of Europe, although the Republican-led Congress is likely to fall in love with it. Some may hope that this will be a case of things getting so bad that political pressure for improvement must come. Sadly, such is not the history of Israel or of this conflict.

Netanyahu will be spending the next few months trying to woo Isaac Herzog into the government, and this is what the whole game comes down to. If Herzog joins and creates a national unity government of 85 seats, this government will survive. The Labor Party, which makes up most of the Zionist Union, is unlikely to provide much of a counter to the right-wing majority. Much more likely is that, as has happened in the past, many of Labor’s Knesset members and other leaders will bolt the party rather than serve as a fig leaf for such a far-right government.

If Herzog does not join the government, this fourth Netanyahu government will not outlast Barack Obama’s presidency, and might not even come close. The right wing does not play well together, and it will take nothing more than a few well-timed votes of no-confidence to take down this government even if none of the parties bolts. Even that scenario, however, offers little hope. The last elections were hailed as a comeback for Labor, but the center and left still cannot form a coalition without the Joint List (a coalition of mostly Arab parties), and that remains anathema in Israeli politics. In fact, little changed in the left-right balance in the last elections, and that is showing no signs of turning around.

It has never been clearer that positive change in Israel is going to require some sort of meaningful action by the United States and/or Europe. If that does not come, and it does not seem to be on the horizon, disaster looms.

A Poison Pill For AIPAC

Today, I’m asking my readers to please support the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). The group has been working hard on some new legislation and it’s really important to help get this bill to the floor of the Senate and the House.

According to a report in Buzzfeed, AIPAC has been working with congressional staff members for months on the bill, trying to find the formula for success. The bill would “…aim to prevent U.S. companies from participating in the (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions against Israel) campaign without infringing on Americans’ First Amendment rights to political speech. It would also try to make the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership being negotiated between the U.S. and E.U. conditional on whether the E.U. takes action to stop BDS.”

And how would they prevent US companies from participating in BDS? By “…authorizing states and local governments to divest from companies deemed to be participating in BDS,” and by denying “…federal contracts to such companies.” This bill should be at the top of the agenda for American activists in the United States who wish to see our country change its policies towards Israel and Palestine.

AIPAC hasn’t been doing very well of late. Their attempt to weasel a provision into another bill that would have allowed Israelis to enter the United States without a visa while Israel refused to make the same arrangement for US citizens raised a lot of hackles on Capitol Hill, even in some offices that are very AIPAC-friendly. The proposed provision was killed. AIPAC was unable to sway the Senate against the nomination of former Senator Chuck Hagel for Secretary of Defense. Nor has it been able to significantly impact the Obama administration’s efforts to reach an agreement with Iran on its nuclear program.

There have been a lot of failures lately, including the failure to get Congress to push hard for an attack on Syria last year. But this bill, if it ever reaches the floor, could be the biggest bust of all, with some serious ramifications for the powerful lobbying group.

Let’s just start with the First Amendment issues this raises. If this bill ever sees the light of day, AIPAC is going to try to convince people that it is similar to the laws passed forty years ago in response to the Arab League’s boycott of Israel. Put simply, it isn’t.

Those laws–the 1977 amendments to the Export Administration Act (EAA) and the Ribicoff Amendment to the 1976 Tax Reform Act (TRA)–were drawn up narrowly, to apply only in the case of abetting or cooperating with a boycott directed at Israel by other countries. The mentions of boycott “by a foreign nation” or similar words are so frequent that the meaning cannot be missed. This is no surprise, of course; Congress is loath to dictate to US businesses, and it is especially tricky where a national interest is not clearly and immediately at stake. So these laws were contrived so that they only barred supporting boycotts by foreign countries against Israel.

In the case of BDS, no government is running this program, not even the pseudo-governments of the Palestinian Territories. The Palestinian Authority (PA) has not endorsed boycotts of Israel and is, itself, completely incapable of boycotting Israeli goods and services. It is in most ways a captive market to Israel. Hamas has, frankly, paid little attention to such measures, though they have encouraged them rhetorically from time to time.

There is a call for BDS from Palestinian civil society, but that is not covered by the 1970s laws. Moreover, any law that would target BDS would need to be constructed in such a way so that it would not have made boycotts of Apartheid South Africa illegal. Those boycotts also came in response to a call from the African National Congress. If businesses could not engage in such activities, there would be great outrage.

So the Arab League boycott is moot as a basis for anti-BDS legislation. The right to boycott is also not limited by what the government decides is an acceptable boycott and what is not. People, and businesses, are free to choose with whom they will do business. Congress making such decisions violates the very essence of the First Amendment, and it is highly unlikely that such a law could pass as a result and, if it could, even less likely that it could withstand legal challenges.

The bit about the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) is even more toxic. The point of TTIP is to make international trade between the United States and European Union easier, to reduce tariffs and lessen bureaucracy. The idea is to significantly improve the speed, and thus the volume and value, of trade between the two economic giants. Adding stipulations like ensuring that EU states are working against BDS is precisely what TTIP is designed to avoid. Whatever my own objections to TTIP (and they are many), it clearly holds great appeal for businesses on both sides of the Atlantic.

It is one thing for US citizens with influence in Washington to go along with the powerful lobbying forces defending Israel’s ability to act with impunity in the region; for the most part, that has not had a negative effect on trade. But this would be a very different matter. Now we are talking about AIPAC going up against powerful, domestic business interests. That is a whole new ballgame.

Even bringing the bill to the floor would demonstrate in a clearer way than ever before that AIPAC is willing to compromise US commercial interests and even one of the most cherished and basic freedoms the US prides itself on for the sake of Israeli interests.

Consider also that the overwhelming majority of boycott actions, divestment decisions and even popular proposals for sanctions against Israel have focused squarely on Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. They have not targeted Israel as a whole, with the exception of some of the attempts at cultural and academic boycott. But these are not major concerns for Israel nor do they have the same impact potential as economic boycotts and divestment. So, the threat to free speech and to international trade that this bill represents would be demonstrably in the service of the settlement enterprise, the siege of Gaza and the occupation regime more generally. The mask would be off.

In reality, I very much doubt any such legislation is ever going to move forward, at least not from AIPAC. They know the problems as well as anyone and, while I don’t doubt that they are working constantly with their closest friends in Congress to see if something could work, I don’t think they’ll be successful. But if you want to see AIPAC suffer major damage, such a bill would do it. I can’t think of a better strategy to oppose AIPAC than to do everything we can to make sure this sort of doomed anti-BDS legislation hits the floor in Congress with a resounding thud.

Lost in the Desert

The various UN General Assembly speeches this week, along with some other recent developments in Israel, Iran and the Occupied Palestinian Territories indicate some shifts in the US approach to the Middle East. Among other things, these events have certainly shown that the “pivot to Asia” has moved far to the back burner. I explore where things are going with regard to Iran, Israel-Palestine and the United States in this week’s column at Souciant.