The White House Warning That Wasn’t

Given the frequently bombastic rhetoric that has come from the new President of the United States in his first two weeks in office, it is not trumpsurprising that many observers are reading the statement from the White House about Israeli settlements as being much sterner than it is. Expectations (and fears) have been raised in some quarters that President Donald Trump would be even more supportive of settlements than Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and the statement has been read by many in that context. Read more at Facts On the Ground

Israeli Elections Q&A

New York Magazine’s Q&A with me yesterday:

Tomorrow, Israelis will go to the polls and decide whether they want Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his 675px-Kalpi_israel_18allies to continue to run the Knesset, or whether they would like Isaac Herzog and the Zionist Union to change things up. The race looks impossibly close, and because this is a parliamentary election and there’s no chance that either of the possible prime ministers can form a government alone, there are a host of smaller parties that hold the government’s future in their grasp. Daily Intel talked to Mitchell Plitnick, program director at the Foundation for Middle East Peace, who explained some of the most important variables to keep an eye on tomorrow — and what potential electoral outcomes could mean for Israel’s relationship with the United States, peace talks with Palestinians, and nuclear talks with Iran. Read More at New York Magazine.

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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Israel-Palestine Without A Peace Process

In the past, people have speculated about what Israel and the Occupied Territories would look like if the United States stopped trying to broker the mythical kind of solution that the Oslo process envisioned. Well, now we have an example.

The most radically right-wing government in Israel’s brief history was simply waiting for an opportunity to deliver the most intense and widespread blow to the West Bank. The kidnapping of three young Israelis provided that opportunity and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seized it with a vengeance. Under the cover of searching for the kidnapped youths, Netanyahu launched a massive operation to cripple Hamas in the West Bank, further humiliate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, and punish the entire Palestinian population for calling for a halt to the charade of the “peace process” and, worse, moving toward a unified leadership.

On the Palestinian side, the fundamental lack of strategy has become ever more apparent. Ditching the US-brokered process has been, for a very long time, the right move, but sloughing it off in a half-hearted way and without a substitute was unconscionably foolish. That’s especially true when you consider how much time there was to devise an alternative strategy to the US-brokered process over so many years. The result is that the Palestinian unity agreement was imperiled before it was signed by the essential incompatibility of the strategies and ideologies of Fatah and Hamas.

This is being played out on a daily basis now: Abbas appears not only weak, but like a traitor as he cooperates with Netanyahu in this massive operation that has yielded nothing with regard to the three kidnapped Israelis but has resulted in hundreds of arrested Palestinians without cause, disruption of work, school and health services throughout the West Bank, hundreds of injuries and, to date, five deaths. Hamas is fanning the flames of anger while denouncing Abbas for his quisling behavior, but it also offers no alternative, unless one foolhardily believes that yet another intifada is going to soften Israeli stances. The last intifada may have shaken up Israelis, and certainly resulted in numerous deaths and injuries in Israel, but it did no harm to Israel’s stability while killing and harming a great many Palestinians. In fact, it only hardened Israel’s positions and worsened conditions for the Palestinians. This suggests that violence, on top of being deplorable, is a foolish course for the Palestinians.

For his part, Netanyahu is playing this to the hilt. It is far from certain that Hamas, as an organization, is responsible for the kidnapping. Right now, it seems much more likely that this was a small group whose members might also have been members of Hamas, but were not acting in concert with the organization. Netanyahu, however, insists he has “unequivocal” proof that Hamas was responsible. The credibility of that claim erodes with each passing day that Bibi refuses to offer evidence for his claim.

Netanyahu’s brand of politics, like most right-wingers, functions best when the country he runs is either angry, scared, or better yet, both. The current situation creates such an atmosphere. The problem will come when and if the tension in the West Bank boils over. And that problem is going to be one that neither the United States nor much of the rest of the world will be able to ignore. They will have to choose a side.

In looking at where we’re headed right now, we must start by understanding that the US is not removed from these events. While the Obama administration has decided to take a “pause” from this conflict and certainly has other matters like Iraq and the advances of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) to occupy its time, it is still Israel’s benefactor, providing arms and, quite likely, the omnipresent protective veto in the UN Security Council. So, the US is still there, whether it wants to be or not.

It will also be drawn further in if the Palestinian Authority collapses and violence in the West Bank is renewed. This seems very much to be the direction Israel is pressing matters towards. If that is the case, then it also stands to reason that the Israeli government intends to annex some part of the West Bank, using the violence as a pretext. Israel, especially given its budgetary constraints these days, is certainly not prepared to supplant the Palestinian Authority in administering the West Bank. The remainder of the West Bank would be surrounded by “Israel” and would be easily contained. From there, local councils or some such arrangements are probably what is envisioned for the lands Israel decides to leave to the Palestinians.

Netanyahu and his cohorts like Naftali Bennett, Avigdor Lieberman and Moshe Ya’alon are gambling that the violence of a third intifada will be enough to convince key governments — particularly, the US, UK and Germany — to tolerate the annexation. By “tolerate” I mean that they would object and “refuse to recognize” the action, much as they have with East Jerusalem, but would take no other action.

That is a huge gamble. It is far from certain that even the United States would acquiesce to such actions, and less so that Britain and Germany would. Even if they did, there would surely be a great uproar from other countries, in Europe and throughout the Muslim world, as well as from Russia, France and China. Even governments like Egypt and Saudi Arabia, which are largely indifferent to the Palestinians’ plight would be unable to stay silent.

But the gambit has a few things working in Bibi’s favor as well. First, as much as the Israeli de facto annexation of East Jerusalem in 1980 outraged many, the reality of the whole city functioning as an “undivided” capital, however restlessly, has survived for over three decades since then. And that’s Jerusalem, the hottest of hotspots in this conflict. Netanyahu surely reasons that if Jerusalem didn’t start a war, there’s a good chance that annexing the Jordan Valley in a similar manner won’t either.

Moreover, the timing is very good for the annexationists. Not only are all eyes on Iraq with a few still lingering over Ukraine, but the specter of ISIS has renewed the sense of fright that the West feels toward Arabs. These will combine, Bibi surely hopes, to encourage a similar clucking of tongues while doing nothing that has greeted the excesses, both pre- and post-election, of the al-Sisi government in Egypt. Netanyahu’s assessment that he can take an outrageous step and get away with it is thus not without recent precedent. The annexation vision, if that is what Bibi is pursuing, would require years of violence to set the stage for it, or at least many months of intense fighting and bloodshed on both sides (though, as always, the Palestinians will bleed a lot more than Israel).

Abbas, however unwittingly, is helping that process along by working with Israel. Netanyahu is not allowing the Palestinian forces to do much of anything in the current operation, but Abbas is also doing nothing to support his own people. Hamas’ strategy isn’t entirely clear yet, but its obviously trying to capitalize on the Palestinian rage that fuels its support. In Hamas’ view, escalating violence plays into its basic strategy of confrontation rather than collaboration. But the question of whether or not Hamas actually has some endgame vision of how it can make any headway against the might of Israel’s forces, let alone triumph, remains yet to be answered.

So, this is what Israel-Palestine looks like without a sham peace process. Does that mean the sham is preferable? Is it better to have a normalized occupation, with all the banality of its entrenched administration and gradual assimilation of more and more Palestinian land into Israel; or is a possibly long period of bloodshed preferable? Only Israelis and Palestinians can answer that question. That said, the shameful behavior of the US, the international community, the Quartet, the Israeli government, and the Palestinian leadership has left few other options.

Israelis can alter this situation, of course, any time they want by electing a government that wants to make a peace deal. Palestinians can also affect change by developing, organizing and executing a strategy that wins them both attention and increased support in the international arena. At this point, however, both sides seem unwilling and unable to take these paths, which increases the odds of Israel-Palestine spiraling back into extreme violence.

A Desperate cry for help from Abbas

As President Barack Obama’s first trip to Israel approaches, one senses desperation from the Ramallah headquarters of the Palestinian Authority. Obama’s scheduled stop in the West Bank has all the trappings of an empty gesture masking the real goal of creating coordination between the President and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the issues of Iran and Syria. Meanwhile, protests in the West Bank are spreading as Palestinian hunger strikers inspire defiance against Israel’s ongoing occupation.

In that context, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is seriously trying to convince Obama to focus attention back on the question of Palestine and the occupation. Abbas’ advisor Muhammad Ashtiya told the Israeli daily Ha’aretz on Monday that the PA is trying to get Obama to jumpstart the peace process by putting forth a formula for talks that “…will guarantee the end of the occupation in the territories of ’67.” Such a formula would make it unrealistic to talk “…while the Israeli government continues to build settlements and establish facts on the ground that will thwart a future agreement.”

In other words, the Palestinians would drop their (entirely reasonable) “preconditions” in favor of the US setting them. It’s hard to see Obama doing this to say the least. But Ashtiya is right in saying this is the only way for talks to resume. That’s why they won’t.

The very next day, US Secretary of State John Kerry revealed the itinerary for his first trip overseas in his new job. The Middle East leg will include Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Qatar, but not Israel. State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland explained that Kerry did not want to disrupt Netanyahu’s coalition-building process. While that may be true, an Obama Administration that would even consider the sort of steps the PA is currently suggesting would want to push Netanyahu toward a coalition that would accept a US framework. Any notion that Obama was considering a step like that at this time is contradicted by Kerry’s demurral.

Perhaps at some point later in his second term Obama will try to fix the mess we call the Israel-Palestine conflict. But right now the task involves too many pitfalls and too few promises. Obama knows Netanyahu will buck any serious effort at US mediation, just as he knows that former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni taking the reins of talks with the Palestinians is nothing more than window dressing. Netanyahu has some incentive to appear more reasonable than he has for the past four years, but very little to actually try to forge a deal with the Palestinians. The Israeli public is nervous about the status quo, but that has more to do with their view that their government is isolating them from the rest of the world through brash statements and provocative actions than any sense of urgency to end the occupation.

Obama knows that Congress will revolt at the behest of AIPAC at any perceived pressure on Israel. With major battles over taxes and budget cuts looming, nuclear issues with Iran and now North Korea coming back to the fore and a Republican contingent determined to undermine his every move, Obama is not going to risk aggravating the Democrats in Congress that he absolutely must keep in line.

So Abbas is shouting into the wind here. The same sense of calm that keeps Israelis comfortable enough to refrain from pushing their government toward a resolution of the conflict also makes contemporary crises like Syria and the disposition of Hezbollah in Lebanon seem far more urgent. Yet this too, like Iran, is a bone of contention with congressional Republicans. Obama has no wish to increase his foreign policy difficulties.

Abbas’ options are becoming very limited. Israel has quietly and slowly been easing the siege on Gaza and while the situation there remains grim, there can be little doubt that even incremental improvements (which have largely consisted of some small imports of building materials and considerably larger imports of Israeli products) strengthen Hamas’ hand. As Palestinian reconciliation remains far off, Abbas is feeling domestic pressure from his political rivals. Add to that increasing protests, hunger strikers and the continuing, gradual growth of the global Boycott/Divestment/Sanctions movement (BDS), and Abbas is getting boxed in. Without some opening which only Obama can create, the credibility of Abbas’ program of negotiating with and reassuring Israel is dwindling to zero.

The Palestinians need the United States to bring forth a plan — Abbas and Ashtiya are not wrong about that. But Obama is not going to do that and risk alienating many in his own party unless it turns into something Israel wants. Netanyahu obviously doesn’t want it, and it’s not immediately apparent what Israeli leader would. But if the Palestinians — through non-violent but firm means such as the International Criminal Court, the BDS movement and continued appeals to Europe and Arab and Muslim countries that have relations with Israel — can increase pressure and make Israel’s populace less comfortable with the status quo, perhaps Israel will put forth a new leader with a peace mandate along the lines of that which they gave to Yitzhak Rabin and Ehud Barak.

In that context, a president like Obama might have more options. But as it stands now, the Palestinian strategy should be based on the US being an obstacle, not a help.