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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The Celebrated Murderer, A Phenomenon on Both Sides of the Israel-Palestine Divide

Yesterday, an old Israeli “war hero” died. His name was Meir Har-Zion. He was a veteran of the Israeli military in its formative

Meir Har-Zion in 1954

Meir Har-Zion in 1954

years after the creation of the state, and we should look very carefully at the re-telling, upon his death, of an incident that took place in 1954.

The incident was an act of vengeance that Har-Zion, along with several accomplices, enacted in response to the killing of his sister, Shoshanna. We’ll get to it in a minute. But first, let’s understand how Har-Zion is viewed in Israel.

Moshe Dayan called Har-Zion “the greatest Jewish warrior since Bar Kochba.” That’s a description we should take a close look at. Bar Kochba is a Zionist icon, and a symbol of the nationalist revision of Jewish history. For most of pre-Zionist Jewish history, Bar Kochba was a very divisive figure, but the majority view of him was negative. He was seen as a false prophet (which he undoubtedly was) who duped the greatest religious figure of his day, Rebbe Akiva ben Yoseph (though some argue that he was not actually involved with Bar Kochba’s revolt) into supporting him and eventually led the Jews to final defeat and exile at the hands of the Romans. Continue reading

The Reprehensible Use of Mandela’s Legacy to Support Oppression

One of the greatest and most repulsive of tactics employed by repressive regimes and bigoted ideologues is the co-opting of the

Mandela's image on a bad held by a San Francisco protester against Israel's assault on Gaza in 2009. [Photo courtesy of Steve Rhodes, published under a Creative Commons license]

Mandela’s image on a bad held by a San Francisco protester against Israel’s assault on Gaza in 2009.
[Photo courtesy of Steve Rhodes, published under a Creative Commons license]

legacies of great figures in the fight for justice and freedom. It never fails to happen, and it is never anything less than morally reprehensible. Not surprisingly, there has been plenty of it since Nelson Mandela’s passing, and equally unsurprising, Israel has been among the leaders in this practice.

Now, let me be clear, Israel is not unique in this regard. Indeed, the lunatic right wing in the United States which has been so influential in destroying US politics and the US economy, which has led the US into disastrous wars that have wreaked havoc on the globe but which, thankfully, is at least losing the social battles in the United States has raised this practice almost to an art form. Consider the recent statement of GOP congressional candidate from Illinois, Ian Bayne, comparing the anti-LGBT, racist and …well, the list of bigotries is too long, statements of Duck Dynasty star Phil Robertson to the actions of none other than Rosa Parks:

“In December 1955, Rosa Parks took a stand against an unjust societal persecution of black people, and in December 2013, Robertson took a stand against persecution of Christians…What Parks did was courageous. What Mr. Robertson did was courageous too.” Continue reading

Little Support in Washington for Kerry’s Mideast Efforts

While Secretary of State John Kerry was in Israel declaring his aim to “exhaust all the possibilities of peace” to try to stop wasting the Obama Administration’s time and energy on the futile effort to find a resolution to the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands, Congress was illustrating once again why the United States cannot play a constructive role in this conflict.

Congressional activity this month has been largely focused on Iran and, to a lesser degree, Syria. But a few events demonstrated that, despite President Barack Obama’s lofty goals and rhetoric about peace, Congress has continued its long-term, bi-partisan shift to the right on this issue. Interestingly, one of the most illustrative examples was actually a bill in support of peace and a two-state solution to the conflict.

That bill, H.Res.238, titled “Expressing the sense of the House of Representatives regarding United States efforts to promote Israeli-Palestinian peace,” was brought by California Democrat Barbara Lee, one of the most ardent pro-peace voices in Congress. The bill is mostly unremarkable; it does nothing more than re-state what is, ostensibly, long-standing US policy. Yet, if anyone was paying any attention to the bill, they would notice that one of the provisions “calls on the Israeli Government to cease support for and to prevent further settlement expansion in the Occupied Territories.”

This is, of course, official US policy, but in practice, it is opposed by most of Congress and the Israel Lobby. Obama found out how difficult it can be to pursue US interests and enforce official US policy early in his first term when he attempted to get Israel to comply with this very idea.

The bulk of Lee’s bill, both in the preamble and the eleven “resolved” clauses, is an unequivocal praise of US peace efforts, from Ronald Reagan through Obama, and an absolute commitment to Israel’s security. Yet the bill has only four co-sponsors and was immediately referred to the House Foreign Affairs Committee, where it will quite certainly die. It is telling that on the same day Lee introduced this bill, she put out two press releases, neither of which mentions H.Res.238.

While Lee has to find a way to bulk up her pro-peace credentials quietly, so she won’t incur the wrath of AIPAC (which, despite Lee representing the very liberal areas of Berkeley and Oakland, California, is very strong in her district), those who oppose any sort of resolution of this conflict operate openly and proudly. The so-called “Israel Allies Foundation,” an ultra-right wing group which opposes any sharing of Jerusalem, will celebrate the anniversary of the Israeli occupation with an event in the Rayburn House office building of the House of Representatives. According to their announcement, the event will include speeches from Congress members while “Jewish and Christian leaders” gather with their assembled flock to pray.

As Lara Friedman of Americans for Peace Now explains, “IAF was ‘pioneered’ by far right-wing Israeli former MK Benny Elon, a longtime opponent of the two-state solution, a strong supporter of the settlement movement, a devotee of the “Jordan is Palestine” approach, and an advocate of “transfer” of Palestinians.  Elon has authored his own “peace plan” whose first point is: “Government Decision: Declaring the Palestinian Autorithy [sic] an enemy.” He and his views have long received a warm welcome from some on Capitol Hill, including as recently as February of this year.”

It is telling that, as Kerry was preparing for his latest excursion to Israel, Congress was very quiet about Israel-Palestine peace. Aside from Lee’s meaningless bill, there was hardly a peep on Capitol Hill about Kerry’s trip. Meanwhile, the Israeli cabinet was debating whether or not the two-state solution is even Israel’s position in the first place.

The situation has grown so dire that J Street, the self-proclaimed “pro-Israel, pro-peace lobby”, issued an alert to its members asking them to demand that Israel “affirm the Israeli government’s commitment to two states for two peoples.” According to their alert, “For there to be any hope of progress, the Israeli government must state unequivocally that support for a two-state solution is a core principle of its foreign policy – as it has been under every Prime Minister since Yitzhak Rabin.”

This is, however, a patent falsehood. Rabin’s position was never a two-state solution. He initiated the Oslo process, but the endgame was, quite intentionally, never defined before his death. Nor did his successor, Shimon Peres, ever affirm support for a two-state solution while in office. The next Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, ran for office on an explicitly anti-Oslo platform, and his party, the Likud Coalition, to this day expresses absolute opposition to a Palestinian state as part of its platform. Ehud Barak proposed a two-state solution of sorts, though its terms were clearly never going to be acceptable to the Palestinians. Ariel Sharon removed Israel’s settlements from Gaza, and his closest advisor, Dov Weisglass, said that the purpose of that withdrawal was to freeze the peace process, a statement Sharon never repudiated. And, while Ehud Olmert seemed to support a two-state solution, when the Palestinians offered almost total capitulation on issues of territory, Jerusalem and refugees, his government still rejected it.

J Street is understandably grasping at straws. Without the Oslo framework of a two-state solution, it has no reason to exist, and is very likely to wither and die. It is therefore desperate to maintain the illusion that the peace process as it has existed for the past twenty years is still alive, even though it is clear to any rational observer that it’s not.

Kerry’s current blitz, whether intentional or not, is going to be the final nail in the coffin. As the entire question of Palestine slips behind an Iranian and Syrian curtain for the summer, it will take a dramatic action to bring attention back to it. But that action will not come from John Kerry or Barack Obama. It might come from an Israeli government that could feel emboldened by the lack of attention on the Palestinian Territories to take the sort of actions that Naftali Bennett, who has called for annexation by Israel of 60% of the West Bank, would recommend. It could come from the Palestinians, if they finally choose to face reality and acknowledge that the United States is incapable, due to its “unshakeable bond” with Israel and the enormous influence of the Israel Lobby, of ever pressuring Israel into even the minimal concessions needed to start talks again, let alone bring them to a conclusion.

Or it could happen because this situation, in all its hopelessness and cynicism, finally erupts into sustained violence again. But whatever the outcome turns out to be, we can be sure that in the near term, the issue will move to the back burner. In the long-term, whenever it emerges, the playing field will no longer reflect acceptance of the Oslo process and its endless negotiations to nowhere.

 

Hawking in Palestine

Stephen Hawking unleashed a storm this week by pulling out of an Israeli conference. I explore the response to the boycott movement more broadly at Souciant this week.