Commentary Magazine


Topic: Avigdor Lieberman

New Israeli Elections Highlight Obama’s Missed Opportunities

Yesterday it was announced that new Israeli Knesset elections will be held in March. That means today there were rumors, and tomorrow there will be rumors, and so on and so forth until March, of various electoral strategies and party slate maneuverings that could change everything or nothing at all. Today’s rumor started the great Season of Speculation off with a bang: Gideon Sa’ar, Benjamin Netanyahu’s recently-resigned second in command, is reportedly considering challenging Bibi for the Likud leadership in the party’s early-January primary.

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Yesterday it was announced that new Israeli Knesset elections will be held in March. That means today there were rumors, and tomorrow there will be rumors, and so on and so forth until March, of various electoral strategies and party slate maneuverings that could change everything or nothing at all. Today’s rumor started the great Season of Speculation off with a bang: Gideon Sa’ar, Benjamin Netanyahu’s recently-resigned second in command, is reportedly considering challenging Bibi for the Likud leadership in the party’s early-January primary.

There are also rumors that Tzipi Livni, in need of a life raft, will join Labor to bring along enough seats to top a stagnant Likud. Livni has also been acting as though she’s angling for a combined slate with Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid, which was the great centrist hope and therefore, like all great centrist hopes before it, has been fading precipitously since its debut election. Could Livni be some sort of kingmaker for a centrist party? Could she–would she–turn heel on her pedigree and help crown Labor? Will Elijah the Prophet appear from the mists and announce a joint slate with Naftali Bennett’s Habayit Hayehudi? Hey, it’s the Season of Speculation; anything’s possible.

Americans often find Israeli politics perplexing, and this goes double for the American members of the press. Early elections, and the silly season they inspire, are a fixture of Israeli democracy. Americans are used to a de facto two-party system. But for Israelis looking for an alternative there always seems to be another option or two or ten. So it’s easy for a foreign observer to get caught up in the endless possibilities, even if those possibilities rarely transform into reality.

But the belief in the wide-open character of Israeli leadership at any moment has been a huge mistake for the Obama administration. That’s because the Israeli electorate tends to care less about which specific party has how many seats and more about the general shape of the government.

The key moment that established this pattern in recent years was, not coincidentally, the beginning of the second Netanyahu era. I’ve referred to it before: the 2009 elections saw Israeli voters give Livni’s party one more seat in the Knesset than Bibi’s. But she had no one to form a government with because her potential coalition partners were rightists who didn’t want her at the head of the government. She won the popular vote because Israelis assumed Netanyahu had it in the bag and voted instead for other parties to Bibi’s right to ensure the shape of the ruling coalition would be a center-right government. And that’s what they got.

The Obama White House learned precisely the wrong lesson from it. They saw what looked like the two-party system of old–Labor and Likud hovering over the polity, with only minor satellites rotating in orbit around them. But the fact that Labor wasn’t involved–that this time it was Likud vs. a splinter faction–should have told them something. They thought Livni was a genuine rival to Netanyahu, and that she was an alternative waiting in the wings. Livni supported the peace process so Washington desperately wanted to believe she was personally more popular than she really was.

Fast-forward almost six years. Livni had six seats in the dissolved Knesset, with polls showing her getting as few as four in the next elections. It wasn’t Livni that was popular in Kadima (a party she left anyway to found Hatnua); it was the remnant of Ariel Sharon’s popularity. The delusions of the Obama White House required completely ignoring the will and intent of the Israeli people. And so it has been six years of missed opportunities.

The Sa’ar rumors illustrate that perfectly. Sa’ar has been at odds with Netanyahu, but he also didn’t believe he could beat Bibi in a primary. When he abruptly announced his retirement from the Knesset in September (but not until he could help Ruby Rivlin win the presidency–a not-insignificant footnote), it was not to start his own party. The broad speculation was that he would wait Bibi out and then return to reclaim the Likud.

Sa’ar was one of the few who could afford to do so. The other Likud bigwigs are around Netanyahu’s age (65); Sa’ar is 47. It’s possible he now believes he has a chance to beat Netanyahu in a primary, though. This prospect is being taken seriously. While Sa’ar is still the underdog, such an upset is not totally unthinkable.

And what would the fallout be? Well, you’d have a transfer of power from Likud to … Likud. This is what Obama never understood about Bibi: the most likely alternatives have been Lieberman, then briefly Bennett, now possibly Sa’ar. Of those three, Sa’ar is the furthest left, yet he is no squish. Obama wants Shimon Peres (the one Israeli he might actually like) and Tzipi Livni (the one Israeli he believes he can control).

It’s always possible the left will make a comeback, and it might be sooner than anyone thinks. Who knows. But six years of delusional American policy toward Israel have revolved around trying to undermine a prime minister who has been in office this entire time, and who heads a democratically elected coalition that has been trying to pull him right, almost completely unsuccessfully. It turns out that all this time, the Obama White House had an ally in the Prime Minister’s Office, if only they would have been willing to admit it.

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Dream of Rivals: Why Bibi’s Still On Top

Two terrorist attacks today in Israel have already claimed one life–that of a young woman–and left a soldier in critical condition, in addition to the others less seriously wounded in the attacks. The incidents extend the spasm of violence by Palestinians who have flirted with igniting a full-blown intifada, though the security fence and other precautions have thus far prevented a comparable terror campaign. They also put the spotlight on the Israeli leadership, highlighting an interesting political phenomenon.

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Two terrorist attacks today in Israel have already claimed one life–that of a young woman–and left a soldier in critical condition, in addition to the others less seriously wounded in the attacks. The incidents extend the spasm of violence by Palestinians who have flirted with igniting a full-blown intifada, though the security fence and other precautions have thus far prevented a comparable terror campaign. They also put the spotlight on the Israeli leadership, highlighting an interesting political phenomenon.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has studiously, if not always successfully, attempted to avoid scenarios that could be destabilizing to Israeli politics, knowing as he does that governing coalitions are almost always more fragile than they look and that one perceived failure could bring them down. The Palestinians have, of course, not always played along. Case in point: Netanyahu is far more hesitant to go to war than most of his predecessors; this past summer, Hamas made avoiding a ground war impossible.

Netanyahu’s government survived the Gaza war, and now must deal with terror from within–a far greater challenge than calling on the IDF to win a ground war in Palestinian territory. Additionally, Netanyahu continues to deal with fluctuating Israeli public opinion polls and the fact that in the new reality of Israel’s fragmented party politics, rival parties are seemingly perpetually in striking distance. On top of all this, Netanyahu tends to get under the skin of even those who would agree with him politically, and has no natural ideological base since he’s much more of a pragmatist than an ideologue.

So why is Netanyahu still standing, and why do the latest Knesset polls show him in the lead once again if new elections were to be held? There are two answers. The first is the underappreciated maturity of Israeli democracy. Bibi may not be well liked personally, and the political scene may feature a constant casting-about for alternatives, but in the end Israeli voters are still keeping their priorities straight by refusing to turn national elections into pure popularity contests.

Security crises often turn into political crises. But the prevalence of security concerns and the failure of the Palestinians to produce a serious peace partner have kept the Israeli electorate fairly steady. Having oriented their national government with security concerns in mind, a desire for a reorientation isn’t likely to produce one: to whom would they turn?

That question leads to the second reason for the Netanyahu government’s relative stability. The Israeli electorate has, as I’ve written in the past, achieved a kind of ideological equilibrium–and it’s one that leaves the left mostly out of the loop. Once upon a time, when the Israeli left was viewed as less naïve and fanciful than its current iteration (Ehud Barak was, after all, leader of the Labor Party just four years ago, though the marriage was by then an unhappy one), you could imagine a swing of the pendulum from right to left and back again in Knesset elections. That’s not the case today.

So where would the pendulum swing, then? In the Times of Israel, editor David Horovitz writes that for those who have really had it with Bibi, desperate times are calling for desperate measures:

So who is this alternative to Netanyahu, considered by at least some in the middle ground of Israeli politics?

Step forward Avigdor Liberman, Israel’s minister of foreign affairs and the head of the Yisrael Beytenu coalition faction.

Horovitz notes, with record-obliterating understatement, that Lieberman (whose surname is often transliterated in Israel without the first “e”) “is not a man usually highlighted as the embodiment of Israeli political moderation.” No kidding. He continues:

And yet there are those among the coalition’s unhappy centrists who see Liberman as a pragmatist — at least relative to Netanyahu; as someone who would initiate policy rather than defensively respond, as Netanyahu is deemed by his critics to do; and as the possible key piece of a future coalition jigsaw built around Yesh Atid (19 seats), Labor (15), Hatnua (6) and Kadima (2).

As a consequence of various comings and goings in what was the joint Likud-Yisrael Beytenu slate in the 2013 elections, Liberman’s party now holds 13 seats in the Knesset. If you add in Meretz (six seats), and/or one or both of the ultra-Orthodox parties (Shas with its 11 seats, and United Torah Judaism 7), the arithmetic starts to look interesting.

OK, I’ll take the bait. I did, after all, write an essay in COMMENTARY three summers ago explaining how the Knesset math made Lieberman a force to be reckoned with and a perennial kingmaker with his eye on the ultimate prize. But what do the numbers say? Here’s the latest Knesset Channel poll. It finds Likud with 22 seats (up from 19), Naftali Bennett’s Habayit Hayehudi with 18 (up from 12), Labor at 15, Yesh Atid at nine, Meretz at nine, and Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu at … seven seats.

An outlier? Does not appear to be. More like a trend. Here’s the NRG poll from six days earlier. It found Likud with 21, Bennett with 17, Labor with 15, and Yesh Atid and Yisrael Beiteinu with nine each.

That raises a different question: Is Netanyahu vulnerable from within Likud? The answer there seems to be no as well. Had there been a real chance to unseat Netanyahu as Likud leader, current Israeli President Ruby Rivlin would have been more likely to stay and challenge Bibi. The presidency is a ceremonial role. The premiership is where the power is. And don’t forget that Lieberman himself recently split from Likud.

The palace intrigue in Jerusalem has become noticeably unintriguing of late. That’s because the Israeli electorate has more or less arranged their Knesset representation to manage a status quo that hasn’t changed much either. Bibi is always instinctively looking over his shoulder. But it’s doubtful that when he does, he sees Avigdor Lieberman.

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How Sweden Ended Up Proving Israel Right

The diplomatic fallout from Sweden’s vote to recognize the state of Palestine continues. Israel recalled its ambassador to Sweden along with an explanation from the Foreign Ministry. It followed Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s criticism of the Swedish recognition, in which he included a not-so-diplomatic dig at IKEA. Yet both responses from Israel to the Palestine recognition were not only defensible, but appropriate, especially if you follow Sweden’s own official statements about the matter.

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The diplomatic fallout from Sweden’s vote to recognize the state of Palestine continues. Israel recalled its ambassador to Sweden along with an explanation from the Foreign Ministry. It followed Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s criticism of the Swedish recognition, in which he included a not-so-diplomatic dig at IKEA. Yet both responses from Israel to the Palestine recognition were not only defensible, but appropriate, especially if you follow Sweden’s own official statements about the matter.

One of the aspects of Lieberman’s rise through Israeli politics is that he drives non-Israelis, especially leftist American Jews, insane. What they don’t understand about Israeli politics could fill a bookshelf, but what they don’t understand about Lieberman is basically this: he’s among the most politically savvy figures in Israel, perhaps even topping the list. And he’s also, therefore, something of a realist. He supports the two-state solution and land swaps, and he’s used his knowledge of Eurasia (he’s Moldovan) to expand Israel’s alliances–a strategy that looks increasingly wise as the Obama administration throws temper tantrums at the Israeli leadership (and public) and downgrades the U.S.-Israel military alliance.

Here was Lieberman’s initial response to the Swedish recognition:

Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman called the recognition “unfortunate” and said in a statement that it would only serve to strengthen the Palestinians’ “unrealistic demands.”

“The Swedish government needs to understand that the Middle East is more complicated than self-assembly furniture from Ikea and to act on the issue responsibly and with sensitivity,” he said, getting in a dig at the Sweden-based retail giant.

So there are two elements to this response: first, that it will essentially reward Palestinian intransigence, and second, that it oversimplifies what real peace requires. Lieberman, then, is quite obviously correct on both counts. The Swedes did not take kindly to the IKEA dig, and responded thus:

To which the Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallström replied, “I will be happy to send him a flat pack of IKEA furniture and he will also see that what you need to put it together is, first of all, a partner. And you also need to cooperate and you need a good manual and I think we have most of those elements,” the Times of Israel reported.

This was intended as a rebuttal; instead, however, it proved Lieberman’s point better than even Lieberman could. Wallström says to put together the furniture you need a partner. Lieberman would agree, and the lack of a true Palestinian partner (Mahmoud Abbas sparked what may turn into the third intifada in Jerusalem this week) is a good reason why Swedish recognition now was a terrible idea and also explains why the lack of a two-state solution thus far is not Israel’s fault.

Wallström then says you need cooperation. This is correct, and demonstrates the foolishness of recognizing Palestine, since unilateral moves have long been considered obstacles to negotiations. In this case, Sweden has supported unilateral moves in direct contravention of the concept of cooperation.

Wallström concludes by saying “you need a good manual.” Perhaps. The Israeli-Palestinian peace process has now produced two such manuals, though it’s arguable how “good” they are: the Oslo Accords and the Roadmap. Both of these manuals impose certain requirements on each side, but the central theme is that a peace agreement will come about through negotiations and that intransigence and violence should not be rewarded by each side being encouraged to go its own way and do what it pleases. Sweden’s recognition of Palestine violates this as well.

Wallström might have been better off researching what we in the West refer to as a “sense of humor,” and not responded so seriously to an obvious joke. Not only does Wallström look humorless, but her response perfectly illustrated why Sweden was wrong–according to Sweden! (Or at least according to its Foreign Ministry.)

Western liberals are probably getting accustomed to being outsmarted by Avigdor Lieberman, though I don’t imagine it reduces the sting all that much. As for recalling the Israeli ambassador to Sweden, that too is at least understandable. Israel is facing a bit of a European fad of late to recognize Palestine, though it’s usually symbolic. Israel can be expected to try to prevent the spread of this gesture by showing that it at least is not without repercussions.

Additionally, Israel is currently facing down the possibility of another intifada. Even if it doesn’t arrive–Jerusalem’s stability seems to thankfully be holding for the moment, which is a very good sign–there has been a spate of violence in Jerusalem against Jewish civilians and continued threats from Iranian Palestinian proxies. To reward Palestinian behavior such as this, and at this precise time, is to signal to the Palestinians that violence against Jews is the way to impress the international community and get what they want. Such behavior will be the death of peace, no matter how many states European politicians feel like recognizing.

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The Western Enablers of Abbas’s Incitement

It was not a quiet holiday weekend in Jerusalem, though all things considered the violence and anti-Semitism against Jews in their eternal home and capital was not as vicious as Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas might have hoped. Abbas, Israel’s supposed “peace partner” and raving anti-Semite, echoed some of the ugliest moments in the modern history of the land when he explicitly attempted to incite violence against Jews seeking to enter the Temple Mount and resorted to the kind of fear mongering over Jerusalem that has long been a prelude to anti-Jewish rioting.

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It was not a quiet holiday weekend in Jerusalem, though all things considered the violence and anti-Semitism against Jews in their eternal home and capital was not as vicious as Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas might have hoped. Abbas, Israel’s supposed “peace partner” and raving anti-Semite, echoed some of the ugliest moments in the modern history of the land when he explicitly attempted to incite violence against Jews seeking to enter the Temple Mount and resorted to the kind of fear mongering over Jerusalem that has long been a prelude to anti-Jewish rioting.

And yet the revolting persona Abbas has adopted more publicly of late is an indictment of the international community as well. Here is a brief rundown of Abbas’s Jew hate over the weekend:

Abbas said it was not enough for Palestinians to say that “settlers” have come to the Temple Mount.

“We should all remain present at the Noble Sanctuary [Temple Mount],” he added.

“We must prevent them from entering the Noble Sanctuary in any way. This is our Al-Aksa and our church. They have no right to enter and desecrate them. We must confront them and defend our holy sites.”

Abbas said Palestinians must be united to defend Jerusalem.

“Jerusalem has a special flavor and taste not only in our hearts, but also in the hearts of all Arabs and Muslims and Christians,” he said. “Jerusalem is the eternal capital of the Palestinian state and without it there will be no state.”

What Abbas wants is to enforce by terror and rioting a full-fledged ethnic and religious apartheid against Jews on the Jewish holy site. He won’t be the target of “apartheid weeks” the way Israel is on college campuses because most young leftists are ignorant hypocrites, and their defense of “human rights” in the Middle East has always had precisely zero to do with human rights. But Abbas would be a good candidate for such opprobrium, were the Western left to at any point develop a degree of intellectual integrity.

Avigdor Lieberman responded to Abbas:

Later on Saturday, Lieberman said that Abbas had again revealed his true face as a “Holocaust denier who speaks about a Palestinian state free of Jews.” The foreign minister added that Abbas was and remains an anti-Semite.

“Behind the suit and the pleasantries aimed at the international community, he is raising the level of incitement against Israel and the Jews and is calling for a religious war,” Lieberman said.

That is correct. And it continued: graffiti comparing the Jews to Nazis was painted at the Temple Mount. But the return of Abbas the Pogromist is not happening in a vacuum. The previous weekend, the Gaza reconstruction racket commenced in earnest, with a donor conference pledging billions in new cash for the terrorist-controlled Gaza Strip after Hamas’s war against Israel over the summer. The most risible, yet predictable, aspect of the AP’s story on that donor conference was this:

Norwegian Foreign Minister Borge Brende, who co-chaired the one-day meeting with Egypt, said pledges of $5.4 billion have been made, but that only half of that money would be “dedicated” to the reconstruction of the coastal strip.

Brende did not say what the other half of the funds would be spent on. Other delegates have spoken of budgetary support, boosting economic activity, emergency relief and other projects.

It’s a toss-up as to which part is more ridiculous: the fact that they wouldn’t even say where half of the money goes or that they pretended half the cash would go toward reconstruction. In all likelihood, half will be earmarked for rockets and the other half for terror tunnels, though it’s always unclear how much money the terrorist funders of Qatar will seek to add to the pot above and beyond their conference pledge.

What does this have to do with Abbas’s incitement? Quite a bit, actually. The competition between Hamas and Abbas’s Fatah/PA is generally a race to the bottom. Until there is a sea change in the culture of the Palestinian polity, appealing to the Palestinian public’s attraction to “resistance” against Israel will always be a key battleground between the two governing factions.

Hamas may have lost its summer war against Israel, but it scored a few key victories. Chief among those victories was the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration’s temporary flight ban imposed on Israel’s Ben-Gurion airport. Ben-Gurion is the country’s gateway to the outside world, and banning flights to it isolates Israel physically from the international community (not to mention the global Jewish community). For that ban to have come from the United States was especially dispiriting.

And why was that ban enacted? Because of a Hamas rocket that escaped Israeli missile defense systems and landed about a mile outside of the airport. Hamas showed the Palestinians that all of Abbas’s bad-faith negotiating is basically a delaying tactic that enables the further deterioration of Israeli-European relations but amounts to a slow bleed of public opinion. Meanwhile Hamas, the resisters, can shut down the Israeli economy and its contact with the outside world with a few rockets.

Hamas gets results, in other words, though they may come at a high price. Abbas does not spill enough Jewish blood and he does not put enough fear into the hearts of Israeli civilians to compare favorably to the genocidal murderers of Hamas. Therefore, he has to step up his game. If the international community were to do the right thing and isolate Hamas while refusing to fund the next war on Israel, Abbas could plausibly have the space to do something other than incite holy war. But they won’t do the right thing, and Abbas predictably resorts to terror and incitement. I hope the humanitarians of Washington and Brussels are proud of themselves.

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Unsatisfactory Cease-Fire Won’t Doom Bibi

Even before his acceptance of cease-fire terms that brought down criticism him on his head from across Israel’s political spectrum, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s popularity had dropped precipitately from the across-the-board backing he received at the height of the fighting in Gaza. But those thinking that dissatisfaction with his acceptance of what amounts to a draw with Hamas will hasten the end of the current government or cut short his time in office are mistaken. The choices facing Netanyahu’s critics are as constrained as those that were facing the prime minister when he swallowed hard and allowed Hamas to issue bogus boasts of victory today.

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Even before his acceptance of cease-fire terms that brought down criticism him on his head from across Israel’s political spectrum, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s popularity had dropped precipitately from the across-the-board backing he received at the height of the fighting in Gaza. But those thinking that dissatisfaction with his acceptance of what amounts to a draw with Hamas will hasten the end of the current government or cut short his time in office are mistaken. The choices facing Netanyahu’s critics are as constrained as those that were facing the prime minister when he swallowed hard and allowed Hamas to issue bogus boasts of victory today.

The big drop in Netanyahu’s popularity in a poll published yesterday indicated unhappiness with the reality that Israel faced in Gaza. Netanyahu’s decision to scale back offensive operations against Hamas weeks ago after the Israel Defense Forces destroyed the tunnels it had found was not rewarded with an end to the fighting. The massive missile barrage from Hamas in the last week that caused two civilian deaths was seen as a setback for Netanyahu’s policy of restraint.

Though international public opinion blasted Israel for hitting Hamas targets hard and causing civilian casualties in Gaza, Netanyahu’s public understood that his attempts to avoid a massive escalation in the fighting until he was dragged into it by Hamas attacks was the result of his trademark cautious behavior. But taking out the tunnels didn’t end the rocket attacks or undermine Hamas’s hold on Gaza. With his right-wing coalition allies calling for a re-occupation of Gaza in order to enforce the demilitarization of the strip that Israel needs to really ensure calm, Netanyahu finds himself branded as a right-winger abroad but also denounced as a centrist temporizer at home by many of his erstwhile allies.

The unhappy truth about the conflict is that nothing short of an all-out war to eliminate Hamas will guarantee that Israel won’t face another round of fighting anytime the Islamists choose to up the ante in the conflict. It’s also true that so long as Hamas is still left in charge there, any talk of a two-state solution in the West Bank is also effectively shelved. Despite his threats of going back to the United Nations to force Israel to withdraw from the West Bank without a peace treaty, the fighting demonstrated anew the irrelevance of Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas. Even if Israelis were willing to believe Abbas is a credible peace partner—a dubious assumption even in the best of times—no Israeli government of any political stripe would ever give up that more strategic territory so long as there was a chance that it would mean another, larger and more dangerous Hamasistan on the country’s doorstep.

Abbas survives in the West Bank solely due to Israeli security protections for him. The notion that the PA can parachute into Gaza and ensure that construction materials aren’t used to build Hamas tunnels or to prevent it from bringing in more arms is ludicrous. Notwithstanding the promises of the United States and other sponsors of the cease-fire, the only thing it guarantees is that Israel will soon be facing another conflict with Hamas under perhaps less favorable circumstances than those that exist today.

But those who are blasting Netanyahu for his cowardice today must also realize that a decision to deal with Hamas once and for a while would incur a higher price than most Israelis are currently willing to pay, including many of those grumbling today about the prime minister’s choice. Taking down the Islamists would certainly cost the IDF hundreds of lives and result in thousands more Palestinian casualties, not to mention increasing Israel’s diplomatic isolation and worsening the already tense relations with the Obama administration. And that’s not even considering the cost of being forced to reassume the administration of Gaza and dealing with what would almost certainly be an ongoing terror campaign by Hamas and other Islamist groups.

Would it have been worth it? It’s easy to answer that question in the abstract since answering yes provides the only logical path to a better chance of calm as well as to a two-state solution. But Netanyahu can hardly be blamed for hesitating to pay such an egregious price in blood and treasure.

Nor should anyone imagine that this dismal result will — poll numbers withstanding — result in the collapse of Netanyahu’s government or a new election in the short term that might produce a new prime minister. There is no reason to believe that Netanyahu’s rivals on the right will be so foolish as to leave the Cabinet since that will leave the path open for the prime minister to assemble a new, more centrist government. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Economics Minister Naftali Bennett will continue sniping at Netanyahu and will score points with their own followers as well as Likud voters who are disappointed that the prime minister won’t follow his own arguments about Hamas to their logical conclusion. But beyond venting their spleen at him, the PM’s right-wing critics have few options.

Just as important, nothing that has happened this summer altered the basic equation of Israeli politics of the last few years. For all of the grousing thrown in his direction, which is in part the function of dissatisfaction with the choices facing the country and the prime minister’s personal unpopularity, Netanyahu’s positions represent a clear consensus of Israeli public opinion. As much as most Israelis would be happy to be rid of most of the West Bank, few believe it makes sense to leave it in the absence of a Palestinian decision to end the conflict that Hamas’s survival makes impossible.

Even more to the point, no one either in the government or outside it emerged this summer as a credible alternative to Netanyahu. He remains the only possible choice for prime minister even if few people like him and even fewer are happy with the alternatives he must choose between.

Those who would like Israel to have easy answers to an ongoing security threat—whether by accepting more concessions or by taking out Hamas—are dissatisfied with Netanyahu. That’s a group that includes most Israelis. But at the same time most Israelis also understand that his answers are probably the lesser of a number of possible evils.

Even if Hamas really does observe this cease-fire, the coming months will be rough for the prime minister. But talk about re-occupying Gaza or a bold stroke that will make peace possible is just that: talk. The reality of the Middle East is such that Netanyahu’s unsavory choices are the only viable ones for a nation whose only real option remains doing what it must to ensure its survival until the day when its enemies are prepared to make peace. As such, the unheroic and cautious Netanyahu is still the only realistic choice to go on leading Israel for the foreseeable future.

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For Netanyahu and Lieberman, Breaking Up Is Easy to Do

The first thing to understand about Avigdor Lieberman’s move to dissolve his party’s pact with Likud over the correct response to Gaza is this: it’s not about the correct response to Gaza. Or anything else about Gaza. The Gaza Strip is close to irrelevant to the split between Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu, though it does serve as a convenient pretext.

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The first thing to understand about Avigdor Lieberman’s move to dissolve his party’s pact with Likud over the correct response to Gaza is this: it’s not about the correct response to Gaza. Or anything else about Gaza. The Gaza Strip is close to irrelevant to the split between Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu, though it does serve as a convenient pretext.

This is Lieberman’s second departure from Likud. He was close to Benjamin Netanyahu in the 1990s, managing his campaigns and soon becoming an incredibly influential figure once Netanyahu won the premiership the first time around. Then Lieberman tapped into the Russian immigrant community’s desire to have its representation in the Knesset more closely align with its demographic muscle. (The community also matured politically, having integrated without completely assimilating.) He formed a party to do just that.

Lieberman became a kingmaker by eventually garnering 15 seats in the Knesset in 2009–enough to make or break a coalition but not enough to lead one. Lieberman is both politically shrewd and hugely ambitious, so when he hit Yisrael Beiteinu’s ceiling he went back to the Likud, this time with an embarrassment of electoral riches.

The point was to eventually become prime minister. Netanyahu is a decade older than Lieberman and, crucially, so are Likud’s brightest and most experienced contemporaries. Lieberman understood that he’d have to wait out Bibi but that was probably it. As the last election showed, there are younger, bright stars in the Israeli political solar system, but they formed their own parties. Lieberman would have real competition in the future, but not from within Likud.

So why leave Likud (again)? Lieberman must have seen signs either that he wouldn’t inherit Likud after all or that it wouldn’t matter. The most likely answer is that it was a combination of the two, but more the latter. Lieberman has seen that there is still no serious challenge from the left; it’s other center-right or right-wing parties breathing down Likud’s neck. That means that if he can pull enough votes away from Likud, there is suddenly no real frontrunner, and there might be enough of a vacuum for another party to win now (or soon) instead of waiting out the Likud old guard.

The Likud-Beiteinu union was always an engagement that never turned into a marriage. And it was designed that way. Lieberman obviously learned plenty from his time as Netanyahu’s right-hand man: the two are by far the most politically adroit figures on the Israeli scene. They are not without flaws, of course, and this latest maneuver from Lieberman exposes his greatest weakness: he is a brilliant political operator behind the scenes, but will never have the charismatic command not only of a Yair Lapid or even Naftali Bennett but of any number of politicians who may crop up in the future.

In a parliamentary system, that charisma is less important than in a presidential system, and the ability to operate behind the scenes correspondingly more beneficial. But it is far from clear that it would be enough, in Lieberman’s case. The other potential mistake Lieberman is making has to do with the shifting math of seats in the Knesset. He should not assume that Likud’s vote total will remain stagnant at the number of seats it holds when he officially departs the party.

Likud has the advantage of brand. It’s true, this hasn’t helped Israel’s Labor Party. But the country is center-right, and so is Likud. That means Likud has the ability to attract politicians and voters in a way that other parties don’t: witness, for example, Lieberman’s ceiling at Yisrael Beiteinu, and the consistent disintegration of new parties. It’s also possible that Likud could win back voters who left when the party merged with Lieberman.

In that respect the union between the two parties may have been holding back both leaders. Netanyahu was losing out to voters who liked Lapid’s big-tent message and Bennett’s Anglo relatability more than Lieberman’s gruff polarizing rhetoric and shifting alliances. Lieberman, in turn, may have seen others threatening to do what he thought couldn’t (yet) be done: eclipse the establishment figures while they were still in power, and while he had tied his fortunes to them.

It’s an amicable split, as far as these things go, and it is unlikely to shake up Israeli politics at the moment. The real test will be the next election. In the meantime, it’s quite possible the public will barely notice the breakup of its largest political party.

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The Rise and Fall of Tzipi Livni

Early this morning the Times of Israel noted in passing, in a story without so much as a byline and whose main source was a public Facebook posting, one of the underappreciated but potentially most interesting aspects of the Hamas-Fatah unity deal. “Chief Israeli negotiator and Justice Minister Tzipi Livni struck a solemn tone on Facebook Wednesday night,” the paper reported, “calling the reconciliation agreement signed between Hamas and Fatah ‘a bad step.’”

It’s not that the Israeli public seems at all interested in Livni’s comments on Mahmoud Abbas’s latest efforts to scuttle the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. It’s that the public probably doesn’t care, raising questions about the plummeting political career of a once-promising Israeli politician whose party won the most seats in Knesset elections only five years ago. That election nearly made Livni prime minister, an accomplishment that would have given the party she led at the time three consecutive premierships and established her as the rightful heir of Kadima’s creator and first prime minister, Ariel Sharon. (Sharon’s immediate successor, Ehud Olmert, resigned in disgrace.)

Instead of carrying forth this serial political victor, Livni was unable to form a governing coalition, went into opposition, saw her party’s support drop precipitously, and lost a leadership fight to Shaul Mofaz in 2012. She left Kadima to form her own party that won just six seats in the 2013 Knesset elections. She was put in charge of peace negotiations with the Palestinians as her consolation prize from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose Likud party she bested in 2009 but which formed the governing coalition instead of her. Her career trajectory has been heading in one direction, so: does she have a future?

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Early this morning the Times of Israel noted in passing, in a story without so much as a byline and whose main source was a public Facebook posting, one of the underappreciated but potentially most interesting aspects of the Hamas-Fatah unity deal. “Chief Israeli negotiator and Justice Minister Tzipi Livni struck a solemn tone on Facebook Wednesday night,” the paper reported, “calling the reconciliation agreement signed between Hamas and Fatah ‘a bad step.’”

It’s not that the Israeli public seems at all interested in Livni’s comments on Mahmoud Abbas’s latest efforts to scuttle the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. It’s that the public probably doesn’t care, raising questions about the plummeting political career of a once-promising Israeli politician whose party won the most seats in Knesset elections only five years ago. That election nearly made Livni prime minister, an accomplishment that would have given the party she led at the time three consecutive premierships and established her as the rightful heir of Kadima’s creator and first prime minister, Ariel Sharon. (Sharon’s immediate successor, Ehud Olmert, resigned in disgrace.)

Instead of carrying forth this serial political victor, Livni was unable to form a governing coalition, went into opposition, saw her party’s support drop precipitously, and lost a leadership fight to Shaul Mofaz in 2012. She left Kadima to form her own party that won just six seats in the 2013 Knesset elections. She was put in charge of peace negotiations with the Palestinians as her consolation prize from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose Likud party she bested in 2009 but which formed the governing coalition instead of her. Her career trajectory has been heading in one direction, so: does she have a future?

In Livni’s admittedly limited defense, her fall from grace was not as steep as it seems. The phrase “so close but yet so far” is perfectly applicable to her 2009 electoral victory. Yes, her party won the most seats. But winning the election paradoxically removed none of the obstacles to her premiership. This is one of the quirks of Israeli electoral politics.

It was widely assumed that Livni’s victory by a few seats was due in part to the fact that Israel’s center-right voters–a clear majority–believed Netanyahu was a shoo-in, and thus enough of them shifted their votes to other right-of-center parties to ensure an agreeable governing coalition. The primary beneficiary of this was Avigdor Lieberman, who now had fifteen seats in the Knesset in large part because of the public’s desire to see Netanyahu in the Prime Minister’s Office.

Lieberman was a kingmaker, but his choice of Likud, despite its silver medal, was eminently logical and consistent with the will of the voters. It sounds strange, but Livni may have won the election because of the public’s desire to prevent her from becoming prime minister. When she was unable to form a governing coalition, it seemed almost predetermined.

And this helps us understand Livni’s career a bit better. Why does she lose even when she wins? It’s not because she isn’t well liked; she did, after all, win all those votes and her personality practically shines in comparison to some of Israel’s more, shall we say, prickly politicians. (We like to say that American politics ain’t beanbag, but the Israeli Knesset is an even more rambunctious place than Congress these days.) What’s really been holding Livni back is the durable political consensus that has persisted in Israel.

The country is center-right, willing to make peace but skeptical of Palestinian intentions and clear-eyed about the need to prioritize national security and antiterrorism. It’s also appreciative of the economic benefits from Israel’s two major deregulatory bursts (the latter by Netanyahu personally, both overseen by Likud) and reluctant to allow its populist instincts to give the state back too much power. The politicians who leave this consensus tend to find themselves on the outside of power looking in. The cast of characters may change–witness the rising stars who came out of nowhere in the last election–but the script hasn’t.

Does this leave room for Livni? Yes, it does. But she’s pigeonholed by her attempts to differentiate herself from Netanyahu and his governing coalition. Her only real role is the one she’s got now: “chief negotiator.” That means the impending collapse of peace talks leaves her without much to do. It also doesn’t help that Israeli-Palestinian negotiations continually and predictably fail, meaning anyone in charge racks up the losses without any wins. It’s not a great record to have in politics, but Livni can take heart: given the enthusiasm of the West for this peace process, she’s guaranteed at least to have to the chance to fail again–and probably soon.

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Kerry’s Motives Are Beside the Point

Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman had a point when he chided those Israelis—especially some of his Cabinet colleagues—who have been attacking U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. Though he has a well-earned reputation as the political equivalent of a bull in a china shop, Lieberman played the diplomat to help calm a growing dispute after the Obama administration took umbrage when Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon and then Economics and Trade Minister Naftali Bennett tore into Kerry for his “obsessive” pursuit of a deal with the Palestinians and his warning that the Jewish state would be boycotted if his quest failed. Lieberman vouched for Kerry’s bona fides as “a true friend of Israel” and even praised the secretary for behaving appropriately in seeking to create a framework of principles on which the parties could negotiate.

What is Lieberman—who is every bit as right-wing on settlements and security as either Yaalon or Bennett—up to? First, there’s Lieberman’s desire to be viewed as a credible successor to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, rather than just an ideologue. He also relished the chance to take a swipe at Bennett (another would-be Netanyahu successor) and to mock him for the fact that his response to the peace process hasn’t caused him to abandon the governing coalition.

But there’s another important reason that Israelis shouldn’t succumb to the temptation to personalize the dispute with Kerry. Making the secretary’s personality or statements the issue is a distraction from the substance of the major differences between the U.S. and Israel. Reducing those differences to accusations of anti-Semitism undermines the arguments against Kerry’s positions since it turns him into a victim. The greater problem with John Kerry’s policies is not that his intentions are evil; it’s that the process he advocates—and the threats he’s made to America’s only democratic ally in the region—and which he’s determined to pursue regardless of the obstacles or his dim chances of success is setting into motion a series of events that are deeply damaging to Israel. If Israel is to minimize the harm he’s doing while also maintain its alliance with the United States, the wisest course is to keep this from becoming a personal quarrel.

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Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman had a point when he chided those Israelis—especially some of his Cabinet colleagues—who have been attacking U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. Though he has a well-earned reputation as the political equivalent of a bull in a china shop, Lieberman played the diplomat to help calm a growing dispute after the Obama administration took umbrage when Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon and then Economics and Trade Minister Naftali Bennett tore into Kerry for his “obsessive” pursuit of a deal with the Palestinians and his warning that the Jewish state would be boycotted if his quest failed. Lieberman vouched for Kerry’s bona fides as “a true friend of Israel” and even praised the secretary for behaving appropriately in seeking to create a framework of principles on which the parties could negotiate.

What is Lieberman—who is every bit as right-wing on settlements and security as either Yaalon or Bennett—up to? First, there’s Lieberman’s desire to be viewed as a credible successor to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, rather than just an ideologue. He also relished the chance to take a swipe at Bennett (another would-be Netanyahu successor) and to mock him for the fact that his response to the peace process hasn’t caused him to abandon the governing coalition.

But there’s another important reason that Israelis shouldn’t succumb to the temptation to personalize the dispute with Kerry. Making the secretary’s personality or statements the issue is a distraction from the substance of the major differences between the U.S. and Israel. Reducing those differences to accusations of anti-Semitism undermines the arguments against Kerry’s positions since it turns him into a victim. The greater problem with John Kerry’s policies is not that his intentions are evil; it’s that the process he advocates—and the threats he’s made to America’s only democratic ally in the region—and which he’s determined to pursue regardless of the obstacles or his dim chances of success is setting into motion a series of events that are deeply damaging to Israel. If Israel is to minimize the harm he’s doing while also maintain its alliance with the United States, the wisest course is to keep this from becoming a personal quarrel.

Many Israelis and their friends abroad tend to treat all American advocacy for land-for-peace deals, concessions to the Palestinians, or opposition to settlements as prima facie evidence of hatred for Israel. Some of those who do take those positions are, in fact, hostile to Israel. Yet many of those who believe it is in Israel’s interest to divest itself of the West Bank do so in good faith. Like some Israelis, they believe the country must be saved from itself. When stands such as theirs are expressed in terms as if they’re unquestionably right and therefore should override the views of those elected by the Israeli people to run their own government, it is highly offensive. But it is not the same as being a supporter of boycotts of Israel or an opponent of the existence of the state.

What Kerry has done and said in the last six months provides ample of evidence for those who think he’s no friend to Israel. His evident indifference to the violence of Palestinian incitement and to the spectacle of terrorist murderers being freed by Israel at his behest being embraced as heroes by the Palestinian Authority was deeply offensive. The same could be said of his recent rationalization, if not endorsement, of those seeking to boycott Israel when he said such efforts would succeed if his peace treaty weren’t signed by the Israelis. After such statements, it’s clear that Kerry’s affection for Israel seems dependent on Israeli obedience to him rather than on the common values that bind the U.S. and the Jewish state.

But making Kerry’s personality or any implied animus on his part the issue does little to help Israel navigate this crisis.

Fortunately, Lieberman, like the prime minister, has understood that Israel’s government does better by keeping as close as it can to the Obama administration. That’s why they have apparently decided to make to the Palestinians what amounts to a fourth offer of an independent state that would include 90 percent of the West Bank and are even willing to accept a framework of principles that would allow the negotiations Kerry is sponsoring to continue beyond the original nine-month period originally envisioned. Netanyahu and Lieberman are, as I wrote earlier this week, clearly betting on a Palestinian rejection of their peace offer. Though this won’t convince Israel’s foes and critics to change their minds, Netanyahu and Lieberman are correct in believing that as long as the Obama administration and Kerry know that they weren’t the ones to say no, they will be able both to preserve Israel’s security and its alliance with the United States.

The success of this gambit depends not so much on the Palestinians playing their familiar rejectionist role in this drama but on Kerry’s psychological makeup. The hope is that, like Bill Clinton, who never forgave Yasir Arafat for rejecting peace at Camp David in 2000 thus denying him a Nobel Peace Prize, Kerry will have no choice but to feel the same after he fails. It is a matter of opinion whether Kerry is as good a friend of Israel as Lieberman says. But the odds that he will react rationally after the ultimate and inevitable failure of his mission won’t be hurt by Israel’s senior leaders behaving as if his motives are as untainted as they would like them to be.

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Insights on Peace From Avigdor Lieberman?

Since he returned to his post as Israel’s foreign minister after a break to fend off failed attempts to prosecute him on corruption charges, Avigdor Lieberman has been treated with the same disdain by the international media and many of Israel’s foreign friends as he got before he was finally acquitted after a decade-long prosecution. Even in Israel’s roughhouse political scene, Lieberman is the proverbial bull in a china shop. The general assumption is that Lieberman, who does not speak fluent English and has a tough-guy political fixer image dating back to his origins in the former Soviet Union, can’t be trusted to deal with nuanced issues. Prime Minister Netanyahu stripped him of any responsibility for relations with the United States as well as the peace process with the Palestinians since he first assumed this crucial Cabinet post. But though Lieberman’s significance has more to do with domestic Israeli politics, occasionally he utters statements that show us he has a better grasp of the situation than the wise guys who often put him down as being out of his depth.

That happened yesterday when Lieberman addressed a conference of Israeli diplomats in Jerusalem and said something that you wouldn’t have expected from someone associated (at least in the view of many of his country’s critics) with something quite so sensible. As Barak Ravid wrote in Haaretz:

Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said on Sunday that Israel must accept U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s proposal for a framework agreement with the Palestinians since “any other proposal from the international community won’t be as good.”

Though that is not what much of the Israeli right—with whose views he is usually associated and for whose votes he will be seeking in the next election when his Yisrael Beitenu Party competes against Netanyahu’s Likud rather than running as its partner as it did in the last two Knesset elections—wants to hear, Lieberman is correct. This does not mean, however, that he is drifting to the left. The minister also noted that although he supports Kerry’s efforts to achieve a comprehensive peace, he and his party will never support an agreement that does not involve an Israeli surrender of territory inside the 1967 lines where Arabs predominate, a position that has been called racist by his opponents. But rather than dismissing this as a poison pill that will, like the Palestinian claim to the “right of return” for the descendants of the 1948 refugees, ensure that peace will never be achieved, Lieberman’s critics should listen closely to what he says.

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Since he returned to his post as Israel’s foreign minister after a break to fend off failed attempts to prosecute him on corruption charges, Avigdor Lieberman has been treated with the same disdain by the international media and many of Israel’s foreign friends as he got before he was finally acquitted after a decade-long prosecution. Even in Israel’s roughhouse political scene, Lieberman is the proverbial bull in a china shop. The general assumption is that Lieberman, who does not speak fluent English and has a tough-guy political fixer image dating back to his origins in the former Soviet Union, can’t be trusted to deal with nuanced issues. Prime Minister Netanyahu stripped him of any responsibility for relations with the United States as well as the peace process with the Palestinians since he first assumed this crucial Cabinet post. But though Lieberman’s significance has more to do with domestic Israeli politics, occasionally he utters statements that show us he has a better grasp of the situation than the wise guys who often put him down as being out of his depth.

That happened yesterday when Lieberman addressed a conference of Israeli diplomats in Jerusalem and said something that you wouldn’t have expected from someone associated (at least in the view of many of his country’s critics) with something quite so sensible. As Barak Ravid wrote in Haaretz:

Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said on Sunday that Israel must accept U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s proposal for a framework agreement with the Palestinians since “any other proposal from the international community won’t be as good.”

Though that is not what much of the Israeli right—with whose views he is usually associated and for whose votes he will be seeking in the next election when his Yisrael Beitenu Party competes against Netanyahu’s Likud rather than running as its partner as it did in the last two Knesset elections—wants to hear, Lieberman is correct. This does not mean, however, that he is drifting to the left. The minister also noted that although he supports Kerry’s efforts to achieve a comprehensive peace, he and his party will never support an agreement that does not involve an Israeli surrender of territory inside the 1967 lines where Arabs predominate, a position that has been called racist by his opponents. But rather than dismissing this as a poison pill that will, like the Palestinian claim to the “right of return” for the descendants of the 1948 refugees, ensure that peace will never be achieved, Lieberman’s critics should listen closely to what he says.

Lieberman has repeatedly dismissed the Palestinian Authority and its leadership as not being a peace partner, yet he praised the secretary of state for his work in trying to get them to recognize Israel as a Jewish state—a formulation that is synonymous with accepting the end of the conflict. Kerry’s pursuit of an agreement is a mistake at this point because of the division between the Fatah-controlled West Bank and Hamas-controlled Gaza. It’s also foolish to think that any group of Palestinian leaders can sell their people on genuine peace on any terms in the absence of a sea change in opinion that will enable them to let go of an existential conflict that is integral to their identity as a people. Nor should Israelis regard the Obama administration’s clear tilt toward the Palestinians on the issues of territory and Jerusalem with complacency.

Peace process enthusiasts who prefer to ignore the truth about the Palestinians consider such views intemperate. Yet Lieberman is correct when he notes that Kerry’s acceptance of Israel’s demand that the PA accept Israel as a Jewish state—something that its leader Mahmoud Abbas has sworn he will never do—is a victory of sorts. That is something Israel cannot expect to hear, as Lieberman notes, from anyone else in the international community.

Yet it is likely that Lieberman’s resurrection of his party’s proposal for trading the “triangle” of Arab towns adjacent to the “green line” in Israel’s central region will cause his usual detractors to dismiss him as someone seeking to sabotage chances for peace. But while it is difficult to imagine this ever happening, it is possible that this seemingly radical idea may not be as unreasonable as some think.

After all, if it is a given that peace requires some Israelis to be turned out of their homes in communities in the West Bank and that other such settlements in blocs close to the pre-1967 lines should be incorporated into the Jewish state in exchange for other Israeli territory, why should that swap involve areas where people who now call themselves Palestinians rather than “Israeli Arabs” predominate?

There are two reasons that explain why the Palestinians refuse even to consider, must less to discuss this proposal.

One is that their notion of swaps—a concept specifically endorsed by President Obama—is so minimal as to be insignificant. Even if one assumes that the PA is serious about wanting peace—something that its ongoing policy of honoring terrorists who have murdered Israeli civilians and fomenting hatred against Israel and Jews renders not credible—it has shown little willingness to accept a map based more on demographic reality than a rigid insistence on the 1967 lines.

The other is that their goal is not to have two states for two peoples—the concept that Obama, Kerry, and the Israelis have discussed—but a Jew-free Palestinian Arab state on one side of the border and a mixed Jewish-Arab nation on the other whose balance would be altered by an influx of millions of Arabs, vastly overwhelming the Jewish majority and, in the bargain, expunging the explicitly Jewish state the United Nations voted to establish in 1947. While some Israelis have spoken of accepting a token number of these so-called refugees, Lieberman is right to refuse a single one, a stance justified by the international community’s unwillingness to recognize the fact that an equal number of Jewish refugees from the Arab and Muslim world lost their homes after 1948.

Of course, it is understandable that the Arab citizens of the triangle would prefer to stay inside Israel where, despite their complaints and alienation from the Jewish state, they enjoy its democracy and equal rights that no Palestinian enjoys under the rule of either Fatah or Hamas. But the very fact that Arabs would prefer to live in a majority Jewish state than to be incorporated into the putative Palestinian one tells us a lot about what kind of country that would be.

No one should expect Netanyahu, let alone Kerry, to start listening to Lieberman. But rather than dismissing him, perhaps the secretary should be listening closely to the foreign minister’s insights. Until he can convince the Palestinians to recognize Israel as a Jewish state and negotiate a deal that would truly be a solution of two states for two peoples, Kerry’s peace efforts will remain a fool’s errand.

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Avigdor Lieberman Returns

The most unpopular popular Israeli politician has returned to center stage. Avigdor Lieberman, the former foreign minister and deputy prime minister, was acquitted this morning in Jerusalem on fraud charges that have been following the Moldova-born firebrand around for the latter part of his political career. The case involved a former ambassador who passed to Lieberman information he had on a police investigation, who Lieberman was then accused of promoting. Though the shadow of scandal never deprived Lieberman of advancement in his own meteoric career–he gave the huge Russian immigrant community a party to rally around, making him a kingmaker in the Knesset–it appeared that his legal trouble had finally caught up with him.

That’s because his former deputy at the Foreign Ministry, Danny Ayalon, had agreed to testify against Lieberman. (Ayalon, who had previously been Israeli ambassador to the U.S. and made a habit of running circles around his leftist antagonists on Twitter, was dropped by Lieberman from the party slate before the last round of elections.) But Lieberman won this battle too–and, it seems, his protracted war with the Israeli legal system. When he was finally hit with the latest charges, in late 2012, Lieberman stepped away from Benjamin Netanyahu’s government and the Foreign Ministry. Netanyahu has held the position of foreign minister for Lieberman in the event he would return. And now he has.

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The most unpopular popular Israeli politician has returned to center stage. Avigdor Lieberman, the former foreign minister and deputy prime minister, was acquitted this morning in Jerusalem on fraud charges that have been following the Moldova-born firebrand around for the latter part of his political career. The case involved a former ambassador who passed to Lieberman information he had on a police investigation, who Lieberman was then accused of promoting. Though the shadow of scandal never deprived Lieberman of advancement in his own meteoric career–he gave the huge Russian immigrant community a party to rally around, making him a kingmaker in the Knesset–it appeared that his legal trouble had finally caught up with him.

That’s because his former deputy at the Foreign Ministry, Danny Ayalon, had agreed to testify against Lieberman. (Ayalon, who had previously been Israeli ambassador to the U.S. and made a habit of running circles around his leftist antagonists on Twitter, was dropped by Lieberman from the party slate before the last round of elections.) But Lieberman won this battle too–and, it seems, his protracted war with the Israeli legal system. When he was finally hit with the latest charges, in late 2012, Lieberman stepped away from Benjamin Netanyahu’s government and the Foreign Ministry. Netanyahu has held the position of foreign minister for Lieberman in the event he would return. And now he has.

“This chapter is behind me,” Haaretz quotes Lieberman as saying after the acquittal. “I am now focusing on the challenges ahead.”

Lieberman’s political power does not stem from his job title; it’s the other way around. Yet his relative political independence has always been something of a barometer of his electoral strength, and the argument can be made that it’s on the wane, acquittal or no acquittal.

Lieberman started out managing Netanyahu’s campaigns in the early 1990s, and when Netanyahu became prime minister, Lieberman was arguably the Likud Party’s second most powerful member. Yet Lieberman had found a way to tap into the Russian immigrant community’s desire for authentic political representation–Lieberman was himself a Soviet immigrant–in a way that others, like Natan Sharansky, didn’t. In 1999 he formed his own party, Yisrael Beiteinu. As his domestic constituency grew in influence, prime ministers made it a point to find a place for him in their governments, until they started needing Lieberman more than he needed them.

There was always going to be a ceiling of support over Lieberman for demographic reasons. But it was a high ceiling: Russian immigrants account for about 20 percent of Jewish Israelis. Additionally, in an age of fragmented party politics in Israel, Lieberman’s ability to garner 15 or so seats per Knesset was worth steadily more as it became rare for the winning party to even break the 30-seat barrier.

But it also meant Yisrael Beiteinu was perpetually a bridesmaid, and so a year ago Lieberman merged with Likud. He did so because he is younger than the Likud old guard and was positioning himself to one day inherit the Prime Minister’s Office. But Israeli politics is governed by a centripetal force that keeps the Knesset consistently close to the Israeli political center (which is to the right of where most Westerners think it is) and thus militates against the accumulation of overwhelming power in any one party’s hands. Minor parties are also disproportionately powerful in Israel, so larger parties tend to produce diminishing returns after a while.

Because of all that, the new Likud-Beiteinu party did not gain the vote share of the two parties combined; it simply fell into place as a strangely throwback version of Likud, with Bibi and Lieberman at the helm. It is to that party that Lieberman now returns.

Lieberman’s portfolio remains a powerful one, and self-styled “centrist” flash-in-the-pan parties tend to fizzle, so Lieberman may still be better positioned for the long haul than his political rivals. But oh how he has political rivals! In his absence, Israel saw the rise of another secular nationalist–albeit slightly less nationalist–who is seen as far more palatable to the West in Yair Lapid. And the Israeli political scene welcomed the charismatic tech entrepreneur and pro-settlement politician Naftali Bennett, whose new party won 12 seats in the last elections (and briefly made liberal American journalists lose their minds–something he has in common with Lieberman).

On the left, the Israeli Labor Party is showing signs of life with a new leader, Shelly Yachimovich. Tzipi Livni is still hanging around, and her work on the peace negotiations arguably enabled Netanyahu to let her act as foreign minister the way Ehud Barak did when he was defense minister. Speaking of defense minister, Barak’s departure from government opened the space for Moshe Ya’alon to take the defense portfolio, giving Lieberman another powerful rival within Likud.

And yet, Lieberman doesn’t appear too concerned, perhaps because his career has acquired a reputation for indestructibility. Indeed, there is something comical about the way Lieberman’s political career rolls along like a tank despite the scandals, intrigue, and alienation associated with it. His adversaries have always underestimated his toughness and political skills, a mistake that has consistently served him well and may yet continue to do so.

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Israel’s Next Defense Minister

In 1974, when Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres were locked in an internal battle for the leadership of the Labor party and the Israeli premiership, Rabin reached out for an unlikely endorsement. “A declaration of support from Arik matters more than one from anyone else,” Rabin told the journalist Uri Dan, referring to the Likud’s Ariel Sharon. Dan relayed the request to Sharon, and Sharon agreed; he got up from his meeting with Dan, went over to a phone booth in the hotel lobby, and began calling journalists to tell them.

The endorsement made headlines, and Rabin became prime minister. Though that incident took place soon after the Yom Kippur War and years before Egypt and Israel signed a peace agreement, there is a cultural aspect to this story that remains relevant in 2013. To most of the world the there isn’t much difference between a “peacemaker” and a “peacenik”; to Israelis there is a Grand Canyon between them. And although the political parties are reversed, this distinction goes a long way to explaining the seeming indispensability of Ehud Barak to the man that took over the Likud after Sharon left it: Benjamin Netanyahu.

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In 1974, when Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres were locked in an internal battle for the leadership of the Labor party and the Israeli premiership, Rabin reached out for an unlikely endorsement. “A declaration of support from Arik matters more than one from anyone else,” Rabin told the journalist Uri Dan, referring to the Likud’s Ariel Sharon. Dan relayed the request to Sharon, and Sharon agreed; he got up from his meeting with Dan, went over to a phone booth in the hotel lobby, and began calling journalists to tell them.

The endorsement made headlines, and Rabin became prime minister. Though that incident took place soon after the Yom Kippur War and years before Egypt and Israel signed a peace agreement, there is a cultural aspect to this story that remains relevant in 2013. To most of the world the there isn’t much difference between a “peacemaker” and a “peacenik”; to Israelis there is a Grand Canyon between them. And although the political parties are reversed, this distinction goes a long way to explaining the seeming indispensability of Ehud Barak to the man that took over the Likud after Sharon left it: Benjamin Netanyahu.

When Netanyahu earned the opportunity to form a governing coalition after the 2009 Israeli Knesset elections, he offered the major party leaders he vanquished an opportunity to join an expansive coalition, headed by his Likud. But it was universally understood that Netanyahu desperately wanted as his defense minister Barak, one of Israel’s most highly decorated soldiers and Netanyahu’s former commander in the elite unit known as Sayeret Matkal. Barak, at the time, was running the Labor party. Though Likud had a stronger reputation among foreign policy hawks than Labor, Netanyahu wanted–in addition to the appearance of bipartisanship–Barak’s stamp of approval for his own administration’s foreign policy. It would–as Sharon’s endorsement had done for Rabin four decades earlier–do much to put the public’s mind at ease.

Barak joined the coalition, but the party used that decision as the final straw to expel its leader (Barak technically “left” Labor, but the divorce was a long time coming). Barak took a few Laborites with him and formed a minor party. That party has disappeared, as did Barak’s chance to win a Knesset seat in this month’s elections. So he “retired” from political life. If Netanyahu’s party wins the elections, it would surprise exactly no one if Netanyahu reappoints Barak to be his defense minister–Barak wouldn’t have to own a Knesset seat to take the position–coaxing the supposedly reluctant old bull out of retirement to once again serve his country. (One can easily imagine how this will play out in the mind of the famously haughty Barak. The people need you, Hudi; how can you say no?)

One of the reasons Israelis expect this coming charade is because there are very few people, if any, who could provide the both the cross-party credibility and the public’s trust to serve as defense minister at a time when resolution of the Iranian threat one way or another seems right around the corner. But perhaps there is one obstacle, however remote, to this scenario. Times of Israel editor David Horovitz writes today that when blending his party with Likud, Israel Beiteinu head Avigdor Lieberman believed he could have his choice of plum portfolios if and when he is legally permitted to return to the government (it could be within months–but there is an outside chance it could be years). Horovitz writes:

Publicly, this least diplomatic of politicians had assured the electorate that he liked being foreign minister just fine, and would probably stay at the ministry after the elections as well. Privately, it was apparently vouchsafed to certain privileged journalists, he actually had his sights on the powerful Finance Ministry job. However, it has also been quite credibly suggested to me, Liberman didn’t want Finance and didn’t want Foreign. He intended to take the post of defense minister.

We should know immediately after the election where Lieberman intends to end up; as Horovitz writes, if Netanyahu, when doling out portfolios, keeps any of the important ones for himself, it may be a strong clue he’s safeguarding it for Lieberman. Additionally, Barak is no placeholder. If he’s offered the defense ministry and takes it, that’s exactly where he’ll stay.

Just because Lieberman wants the defense ministry doesn’t mean he’ll get it. Netanyahu presumably understands that giving that job to Lieberman would be the exact opposite of appointing Barak to the defense ministry. Rather than reaching across the isle, it would be viewed as a sop to those to Netanyahu’s right. And rather than the defense ministry being guided by a trusted hand, it would be run by an unpredictable and brusque politician a decade and a half younger than Barak. That age difference, however, is also why Lieberman can afford to be patient and not push for the defense portfolio. A savvy politician, Lieberman is more likely to bide his time than challenge Barak and Netanyahu. But the alternative will only increase the hopes of many Israelis–not to mention Western leaders–that Barak’s “retirement” is just for show.

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Avigdor Lieberman’s Future

This morning, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s resignation from the Knesset went into effect. Lieberman’s rise and sustained popularity have always puzzled both his domestic political opponents and foreign observers. In part this is because Lieberman’s political persona is one paradox after another. He is a fervent secular nationalist in an age when Israelis tend to be either one or the other. In this, he is a modern rightist much in the mold of Israel’s founding Laborite fathers–another contradiction. And he is most powerful and influential in post-election coalition forming; far less so in his actual duties as foreign minister and deputy prime minister.

That helps explain why they don’t understand him; it’s far easier to explain why his opponents don’t like him. Among those reasons is why he is resigning now: the cloud of potential scandal and accusations of corruption have followed Lieberman for the better part of a decade now. Israeli Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein has announced that Lieberman will be indicted on breach of trust charges–the same charges on which former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was convicted. Lieberman will not, however, be charged with the more serious corruption charges, likely bringing an end to a long ordeal. (Lieberman was under suspicion of profiting from a business registered in his daughter’s name while he served in Knesset.) The actual indictment will only be accusing Lieberman of the lesser, but still serious, charge that he promoted Israel’s ambassador to Belarus in exchange for information on an investigation on him by Belarus authorities.

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This morning, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s resignation from the Knesset went into effect. Lieberman’s rise and sustained popularity have always puzzled both his domestic political opponents and foreign observers. In part this is because Lieberman’s political persona is one paradox after another. He is a fervent secular nationalist in an age when Israelis tend to be either one or the other. In this, he is a modern rightist much in the mold of Israel’s founding Laborite fathers–another contradiction. And he is most powerful and influential in post-election coalition forming; far less so in his actual duties as foreign minister and deputy prime minister.

That helps explain why they don’t understand him; it’s far easier to explain why his opponents don’t like him. Among those reasons is why he is resigning now: the cloud of potential scandal and accusations of corruption have followed Lieberman for the better part of a decade now. Israeli Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein has announced that Lieberman will be indicted on breach of trust charges–the same charges on which former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was convicted. Lieberman will not, however, be charged with the more serious corruption charges, likely bringing an end to a long ordeal. (Lieberman was under suspicion of profiting from a business registered in his daughter’s name while he served in Knesset.) The actual indictment will only be accusing Lieberman of the lesser, but still serious, charge that he promoted Israel’s ambassador to Belarus in exchange for information on an investigation on him by Belarus authorities.

As for Lieberman’s political future, there is one variable that will make a big difference. If he is charged with what Israeli authorities rather solemnly call “moral turpitude,” it greatly complicates the controversy for him. Haaretz explains:

If Lieberman is convicted of a crime involving moral turpitude after he is presumably elected to the next Knesset, he would have to resign immediately. If he were convicted and also sentenced to a prison term of three months or more, he would be prevented from running for the Knesset for seven years after completing his sentence.

However, if the Yisrael Beiteinu chairman is convicted of a crime involving moral turpitude before the January 22 election without being sentenced to jail, he would be able to run in the election for the next Knesset. He would also be forced to resign from the current Knesset….

Lieberman has a significant interest in signing a plea bargain if it includes agreements with the State Prosecutor’s Office on the issue of moral turpitude. According to the Basic Law on the Government (1992), a person cannot be appointed minister for seven years after completion of a sentence for an offense bearing moral turpitude. A plea bargain stating that Lieberman’s offenses do not constitute moral turpitude would allow him to return to the cabinet even if he were convicted.

What happens if Lieberman is banned from the Knesset for seven years? Lieberman’s party, prior to its recent merger with Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud, was first and foremost a party to represent the Russian immigrant community, which now numbers about 13 percent of Israel’s population (which helps explain how he is able to garner so many seats in the Knesset–15, currently). Lieberman’s success with Israel Beiteinu was something of a watershed in Israeli electoral politics. As I explained in a July 2011 piece for COMMENTARY, ethnic and minority groups rarely held so much clout; the Mizrahi community–Jews from Arab lands–eventually threw its lot in with Menachem Begin and the Likud to achieve maximum representation in the Knesset, rather than form a minority party itself.

But that was at a time when Israeli politics were dominated by two major parties–Labor and Likud. The fragmentation of Israeli party politics means Lieberman’s vote total actually makes him a kingmaker, since it is nearly impossible to form a coalition–and even more difficult to form a stable coalition–without him.

Had Lieberman’s party remained independent, a conviction on “moral turpitude” would be devastating for Israel Beiteinu. It would be less so now that the party’s Knesset slate has merged with Likud. Netanyahu needs those votes to stay with Likud to win the next election, and possibly future elections as well. But a threat to bolt the party from the Russians–something Lieberman has done before–would seem to be empty without Lieberman at the helm.

That’s because Lieberman provides leadership and cohesion to the group. The Russian immigrant community has never been able to successfully mobilize for elections without Lieberman. Natan Sharansky was considered a revolutionary among Russians and a hero in Israel, yet he was unable to lead a party of Russians with anything close to success. There are cultural reasons for this, and there are political reasons as well. Sharansky was just not a very good politician; Lieberman, on the other hand, is close to masterful at navigating the Israeli political scene. He is a tough-talking populist but a pragmatic legislator who knows how to advocate for his ethnic community while folding its story into the larger narrative of Israeli history.

But he is also brusque, undiplomatic, too dismissive of the Jewish Diaspora and can be as reckless on foreign policy (reportedly suggesting Israel consider toppling Mahmoud Abbas’s government, for example) as he is pragmatic on the home front. His domestic opponents, and a fair number of American Jews, want his political career to be finished by these charges. Lieberman can be a headache for Netanyahu as well, though he doesn’t want to push Lieberman’s constituents into the arms of the center-left–with whom they often vigorously agree on social and religious policy.

So it’s too early to tell if this will change everything or change nothing. But it’s doubtful it will be anywhere in between.

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Why Likud Wants to Absorb Israel Beiteinu

The Times of Israel is reporting that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party will merge with Avigdor Lieberman’s Israel Beiteinu party in advance of the January Knesset elections. There are four reasons for this.

First, as I wrote recently, in the 2009 elections Tzipi Livni’s Kadima party won the election by a single seat, but was unable to form a governing coalition, thereby enabling Netanyahu’s Likud, the runner-up, to form the current coalition. Polls have shown that such an outcome could repeat itself in January. However, if the Labor party continues its revival in the polls, it’s possible there would be enough seats to Likud’s left for Kadima to put together a governing coalition, especially if Aryeh Deri’s return to the Orthodox Shas party enables it to drain some votes from Likud, as polls have suggested it might.

Netanyahu wants to avoid any chance of this outcome, and the only way to do that is to win the election outright. Likud and Israel Beiteinu currently have 42 Knesset seats between them.

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The Times of Israel is reporting that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party will merge with Avigdor Lieberman’s Israel Beiteinu party in advance of the January Knesset elections. There are four reasons for this.

First, as I wrote recently, in the 2009 elections Tzipi Livni’s Kadima party won the election by a single seat, but was unable to form a governing coalition, thereby enabling Netanyahu’s Likud, the runner-up, to form the current coalition. Polls have shown that such an outcome could repeat itself in January. However, if the Labor party continues its revival in the polls, it’s possible there would be enough seats to Likud’s left for Kadima to put together a governing coalition, especially if Aryeh Deri’s return to the Orthodox Shas party enables it to drain some votes from Likud, as polls have suggested it might.

Netanyahu wants to avoid any chance of this outcome, and the only way to do that is to win the election outright. Likud and Israel Beiteinu currently have 42 Knesset seats between them.

Second, the looming threat of a dominant Likud victory may ward off an attempted return by Ehud Olmert. Third, Yair Lapid’s new party, Yesh Atid, has finally made clear that it is a rightist party much in the mold of Israel Beiteinu—pro-two state solution but protective of major settlement blocs and a unified Jerusalem, with a secular political outlook. That revelation enables Netanyahu to absorb Israel Beiteinu and replace it with a nearly identical party, thus preserving the structure of the current governing coalition without making any major ideological changes or having to accommodate extraneous parties.

And fourth, demographics. Part of Likud’s success over the years was due to the fact that Mizrahi Jews–Jews from Arab lands, primarily, and their descendants–found a home in Likud. Labor tried clumsily to win them over about five years ago, but failed. Netanyahu is now hoping to secure the loyalty and partisan affiliation of Israel’s Russian immigrant community, which is over 1 million strong and represented by Lieberman and Israel Beiteinu.

Assuming the merger comes through and then the marriage withstands the test of time (and raucous, factional Israeli politics), what would Lieberman get out of this? When I profiled Lieberman and his impact on the Israeli political scene for COMMENTARY in the summer of 2011, I wrote the following:

There is one way in which Lieberman’s political career represents a new paradigm in Israeli politics: he is a heterodox political figure for the 21st century in Israel, a secular nationalist immigrant. His base is within the enormous Russian community, but, unlike previous ethnic politicians, he has interests and goals far more ambitious than bringing home the kosher bacon to his constituents through the use of government largesse. And unlike his predecessors in the ethnic political game, like the Moroccan populist David Levy or the religious Sephardi leader Aryeh Deri, he is playing on a far larger field.

Lieberman wants to be prime minister someday. And he happens to be almost a full decade younger than Netanyahu (Lieberman is only 54). It’s possible Lieberman–whose political instincts have always been vastly underestimated—sees the possibility of inheriting what would be the political party with the largest Knesset vote share since Yitzhak Rabin’s Labor party in 1992, if its electoral success continues at this rate.

But that is looking a bit far into the future. The truth is, such mergers are almost always unstable, and Lieberman has split from Likud before. But the Israeli left will take some encouragement from this if they believe they have spooked Netanyahu into thinking he could lose the January elections after all.

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Israeli Political Parties Find Their Voices

One of the more interesting aspects of the current Israeli political pre-election shuffling is the unsettled nature of every major political party to the left of Likud. Kadima and Labor, the two largest parties outside the current governing coalition, have each been going through identity crises. The third wild card, Yair Lapid’s new Yesh Atid party, has no record and Lapid has no real political experience, leaving the public guessing as to where they fit on the ideological spectrum.

But now, it seems, there is suddenly a great degree of clarity. Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert may be back in court, as the state is strongly considering appealing some of the acquittals in his corruption case, and such legal action may make it impossible for him to run. That would make it much more likely that Tzipi Livni would return to the political stage without having to compete with Olmert. (Though the two reached some sort of agreement not to compete against each other anyway. No one, however, seems to know exactly what that means in practice.) But even more interesting–if not surprising–is the emergence of an identity for Labor and for Lapid’s Yesh Atid.

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One of the more interesting aspects of the current Israeli political pre-election shuffling is the unsettled nature of every major political party to the left of Likud. Kadima and Labor, the two largest parties outside the current governing coalition, have each been going through identity crises. The third wild card, Yair Lapid’s new Yesh Atid party, has no record and Lapid has no real political experience, leaving the public guessing as to where they fit on the ideological spectrum.

But now, it seems, there is suddenly a great degree of clarity. Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert may be back in court, as the state is strongly considering appealing some of the acquittals in his corruption case, and such legal action may make it impossible for him to run. That would make it much more likely that Tzipi Livni would return to the political stage without having to compete with Olmert. (Though the two reached some sort of agreement not to compete against each other anyway. No one, however, seems to know exactly what that means in practice.) But even more interesting–if not surprising–is the emergence of an identity for Labor and for Lapid’s Yesh Atid.

Labor’s new leader, Shelly Yachimovich, has been hinting that her slate of candidates will move Labor to the left and incorporate leaders of Israel’s social protest movement. But it has also been courting the military to burnish the party’s national security credentials. The strategy of moving to the left is, as I wrote last week, a risky one, since the Israeli electorate has moved to the right on the peace process and has been in the habit of punishing Labor at the polls repeatedly.

But the ideological outlook of the party took another step to the left, as Peace Now Executive Director Yariv Oppenheimer announced he’ll run for a seat on the Labor slate. The Jerusalem Post reports:

“In addition to the social agenda, the Labor Party must raise the diplomatic flag and fight against the expansion of settlement construction and waves of anti-democratic legislation that the Israeli Right is leading,” Oppenheimer said after resigning from his post in Peace Now on Monday.

Thus far, Labor leader Shelly Yacimovich has focused almost exclusively on social issues.

An overwhelming focus on social issues with a dash of anti-settler, land-for-peace moral thundering is a recipe for a full reengagement of the culture wars. For Lapid, on the other hand, accommodation with Palestinians must be found without uprooting large Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria:

The Yesh Atid leader courted rightwing voters, saying “I’m not a lefty,” that settlement blocs, including the city of Ariel, must stay under Israeli sovereignty, and Jerusalem should not be divided.

As for the lack of peace talks in recent years, Lapid said “the Palestinians brought this upon themselves. If after the disengagement [from Gaza] they didn’t build hospitals and schools, but training sites, there is no doubt that it is their responsibility – but we also need negotiations for ourselves.”

Lapid quipped that his late father, former justice minister and Shinui leader Tommy Lapid, “did not leave the ghetto to live in a binational state.

This is the land of the Jews, and we have the right to finally get rid of the Palestinians. There won’t be a new Middle East, but we won’t have 3.5 million Palestinians in Israeli territory.”

I’m sure pundits will glom onto the typically nuanced phrase “get rid of the Palestinians,” but the overall sentiment—peace negotiations are stalled because of the Palestinians’ rejectionism, but necessary in the end to disentangle the two sides—is a common attitude among the Israeli electorate, and perfectly sums up the outlook of Avigdor Lieberman’s increasingly successful Israel Beiteinu party. Lapid also noted that he would not rule out sitting in a coalition with Orthodox parties, something his father refused to do. If Lapid even gains the seats he is projected to win in early polling (a big “if”), the right would be an absolutely dominant force in the Knesset. And that doesn’t even count Kadima, which began as a center-right party as well.

Lapid, by being so explicit about his views, is betting that despite the existence of a broad, center-right governing coalition, there are still more votes to be had for another rightist party. Labor is betting that if it can swell its ranks to include everyone to the left of the current governing coalition, it can at least return to prominence as the main, if not the only, electoral vehicle for left-leaning Israelis. That might mean a Labor that is increasingly successful electorally and increasingly marginal politically at the same time.

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Israeli Poll Shows Labor at a Crossroads

Earlier this month, I wrote about an Israeli news report suggesting former Kadima party leaders Ehud Olmert and Tzipi Livni were considering teaming up with former Israeli TV journalist Yair Lapid for the upcoming Knesset elections. One detail in that report was that Lapid had created his own party and was unwilling to leave it to join Kadima, no matter who leads the centrist opposition party. But what if he were willing to join Kadima?

That is the subject of a story in Haaretz today. The Israeli daily reports the results of a poll taken to determine how all the major parties would perform in January’s elections in three different possible scenarios. One of those scenarios had Lapid, Olmert, and Livni together in a “super-party.” And Haaretz reports that such a super-party would win the election. Sort of:

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Earlier this month, I wrote about an Israeli news report suggesting former Kadima party leaders Ehud Olmert and Tzipi Livni were considering teaming up with former Israeli TV journalist Yair Lapid for the upcoming Knesset elections. One detail in that report was that Lapid had created his own party and was unwilling to leave it to join Kadima, no matter who leads the centrist opposition party. But what if he were willing to join Kadima?

That is the subject of a story in Haaretz today. The Israeli daily reports the results of a poll taken to determine how all the major parties would perform in January’s elections in three different possible scenarios. One of those scenarios had Lapid, Olmert, and Livni together in a “super-party.” And Haaretz reports that such a super-party would win the election. Sort of:

A new centrist party formed by Ehud Olmert, Tzipi Livni and Yair Lapid would win more seats in the next Knesset than the Likud, according to a new Haaretz poll. Were such a party to be formed, it would grab 25 seats, compared to Likud’s 24. However, the survey also indicates that, whatever its composition, a right-wing bloc would not lose its Knesset majority….

According to the poll, even if former Prime Minister Olmert and former Kadima leader Livni join forces, or if Livni instead links up with Labor leader Shelly Yacimovich, they would face a right-wing bloc, a bloc of “natural partners,” that would retain its majority – meaning that Benjamin Netanyahu would remain prime minister after the January 22 elections. In a worst-case scenario from his perspective, he would just have to sweat a little more before reaching the finish line.

The third scenario would be if the current party composition remains unchanged. In that case, the poll projects a 65-seat governing coalition for the rightist bloc led by Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud, Avigdor Lieberman’s Israel Beiteinu, and the Orthodox Shas party.

That first scenario, which projects a one-vote win for the centrist supergroup but a failure to form a coalition, leading Netanyahu’s Likud to put his coalition back together, is an almost exact replay of what actually happened the last time Livni led a party that challenged Netanyahu. In 2009, Livni’s Kadima garnered one more Knesset seat than Netanyahu’s Likud, but was unable to form a coalition. (The Kadima win was less than it seemed; voters wanted a rightist coalition, and they got one.)

But there is a fascinating side story to compliment this one, also on Haaretz’s website. The paper reports that the Labor party, now led by Shelly Yachimovich, is working hard to recruit young talent, leaders from Israel’s social protest movement, and popular military and media figures to run in this winter’s election on the Labor slate. This is fascinating in part because it stands in such contrast not only to the first story, but also to conventional wisdom. As the first Haaretz story shows, in Israel the electoral success of a political party is overwhelmingly dependent on the popularity of its leader. (Just for fun, ask a Western media personality who rails against the Orthodox and Russian immigrant parties to name anyone besides the leader of those parties. They probably can’t.)

And in fact, a Livni-Olmert-Lapid party is considered a supergroup despite the fact that poll respondents were given only three names. Who else is on the ticket? Who cares? Yet the Labor party, which until recently was led by Ehud Barak, is rebuilding from the ground up. It cannot trade on Yachimovich’s name or fame. And the strategy represents an honest grappling with the Israeli left’s freefall. Yachimovich is saying, in effect, this isn’t your father’s Labor party.

It is also, however, risky. The Israeli left has had its clock cleaned in Knesset elections over the past decade because the electorate has moved to the right–at least on the peace process. Yachimovich is branding Labor as being further to the left than it has been under the hawkish Barak. It she is successful, it will be a big victory for a rejuvenated left. If not, it will have been a massive missed opportunity to grab what’s left of the political center before someone else does.

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The Predictably Unpredictable Israeli Political Scene

Parliamentary democracy makes for strange alliances, and nowhere is this truer than Israel. Minor parties hold disproportionate sway, and the fragmentation of party politics means that even the largest parties rarely even get halfway to the number of Knesset seats they need to form a governing coalition. The other hard and fast rule of Israeli politics is that is that careers are never over; unlikely comebacks are a staple of the country’s political sphere, and often happen more quickly than expected.

But just how quickly Israeli politicians can return from the brink will seemingly be tested this winter en masse in a political experiment that sounds more like the pitch for an Israeli reality TV show than electoral strategy. Arutz Sheva is reporting that Tzipi Livni, Ehud Olmert, and Yair Lapid are strongly considering joining forces now that early Knesset elections appear likely—probably some time in February. Olmert was found guilty on one count in the corruption case against him just last month; Livni lost her Kadima party primary in the spring and resigned from the Knesset five months ago; and Lapid, a former journalist, looked ready to make a serious play for the Knesset in April until Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu struck a coalition deal (that promptly fell apart) with Kadima in May. All three were written off—at least for the time being.

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Parliamentary democracy makes for strange alliances, and nowhere is this truer than Israel. Minor parties hold disproportionate sway, and the fragmentation of party politics means that even the largest parties rarely even get halfway to the number of Knesset seats they need to form a governing coalition. The other hard and fast rule of Israeli politics is that is that careers are never over; unlikely comebacks are a staple of the country’s political sphere, and often happen more quickly than expected.

But just how quickly Israeli politicians can return from the brink will seemingly be tested this winter en masse in a political experiment that sounds more like the pitch for an Israeli reality TV show than electoral strategy. Arutz Sheva is reporting that Tzipi Livni, Ehud Olmert, and Yair Lapid are strongly considering joining forces now that early Knesset elections appear likely—probably some time in February. Olmert was found guilty on one count in the corruption case against him just last month; Livni lost her Kadima party primary in the spring and resigned from the Knesset five months ago; and Lapid, a former journalist, looked ready to make a serious play for the Knesset in April until Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu struck a coalition deal (that promptly fell apart) with Kadima in May. All three were written off—at least for the time being.

There is also the question of capability. Livni has always been well liked, but never evolved into a natural leader or even a particularly good politician. (She even tried, and failed, to oust Olmert when he seemed most politically vulnerable.) Since her rivals were Ehud Barak, Netanyahu, and Avigdor Lieberman–three masterful politicians–even winning national elections couldn’t get Livni into the prime minister’s office. As for Olmert: Jonathan noted recently that Olmert’s entire approval rating was once within the margin of error. In other words, it was statistically possible that zero percent of those polled approved of Olmert. And Lapid is a newcomer; he only registered his party in the spring, and it’s unclear how well he can play the game. Faced with the same Netanyahu-Barak-Lieberman competition that swept Livni out of the political scene, it’s entirely possible Lapid will have a welcome-to-the-NFL moment this year.

But there’s one caveat to that: Barak is now something of a wild card. In order to stay in Netanyahu’s government, in which he is defense minister and at times appears to be both co-premier and co-foreign minister, Barak had to leave the Labor party he led for years. He didn’t take enough Labor defectors with him to form a competitive party, so he is something of a paradox: tremendously powerful and influential but possibly without a party that could keep him in the Knesset.

It seemed that Barak’s initial strategy when defecting was to ingratiate himself enough with Netanyahu to earn a spot on the Likud’s next Knesset roster. But in order to do so and ensure he gets a Knesset seat and retains an influential portfolio, he would have to be given very high placement on that list (some speculated he was even angling for the No. 2 spot). But Likud has its own primary and internal elections, and Netanyahu would never risk his own position as leader of the Likud to face down the rebellion that Barak’s plan would surely bring.

Seen in that light, Barak’s decision to meet with Livni two weeks ago, and the evident displeasure it brought Netanyahu, begin to make more sense. Without his own party and without Likud, Barak stands to lose the most in early elections. So he needs a home, or at least a coalition partner. Would Livni and Olmert return to Kadima? Could they even return to Kadima after Shaul Mofaz’s commanding primary victory over Livni and given Olmert’s unpopularity and legal troubles? Would they form a new party?

In order to stop Netanyahu, they may have to form a blocking coalition–which is what Netanyahu did to Livni in 2009–to prevent Likud from being able to form a government even if it wins the elections outright. They would have to ally with Labor to do that, and would need Kadima as well. But without Lieberman, who has been something of a coalition kingmaker for years now, they would probably still fail. (Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party has held steady at about 15 seats; the Orthodox Shas party at about 10.)

But if Labor outpaces expectations, and Kadima puts the band back together, even the unlikely is still possible.

If this all sounds confusing now, just wait until it gets going. As Netanyahu and Mofaz demonstrated a few months ago, in Israel the political scene can change on a dime–and then change again before anyone has caught his breath. Considering the histories of Olmert and Livni, it could also all fall apart. But the player to watch will continue to be Barak—the most powerful defense minister since Ariel Sharon with a four-front foreign policy crisis looming and in search of a political home with elections four months away. Yet considering Barak’s clout and his recent ability to attract enough stragglers for a modest following, it’s entirely possible that despite everything, the governing coalition that emerges in February will be identical to the one currently governing Israel.

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Is Abbas Israel’s Necessary Enemy?

As we noted on Thursday, the main point to be gleaned from Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas’s address to the General Assembly of the United Nations was his utter irrelevance. That Abbas was reduced to pleading with a friendly audience not to ignore his cause was both pathetic and a clear sign he is painfully aware that the international community has lost interest in him, if not the Palestinians as a whole. Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, who spoke from the same podium shortly after Abbas spoke, confirmed Abbas’s insignificance by only briefly mentioning the Palestinians in remarks that were centered on the Iranian nuclear threat. But the PA head’s latest insults directed at Israel did not go completely unanswered by Israel. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, never one to pull his punches, pointed out the obvious when he said, as Haaretz reports:

Lieberman characterized Abbas as “the biggest obstacle to peace…everyone who heard Abbas’s speech understands that he does not intend, and does not want, to be a partner in a peace agreement,” while in a meeting in New York with foreign ministers of France, Spain, Russia and others.

Lieberman is right about all of this, but his desire to see Abbas replaced as head of the Palestinian Authority generated a response from his cabinet colleague, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who characterized Lieberman’s statement as detrimental to Israel’s interests. Barak said the alternative to Abbas’s rule in the West Bank is Hamas. That both men are basically right about Abbas sums up Israel’s peace process dilemma in a nutshell.

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As we noted on Thursday, the main point to be gleaned from Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas’s address to the General Assembly of the United Nations was his utter irrelevance. That Abbas was reduced to pleading with a friendly audience not to ignore his cause was both pathetic and a clear sign he is painfully aware that the international community has lost interest in him, if not the Palestinians as a whole. Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, who spoke from the same podium shortly after Abbas spoke, confirmed Abbas’s insignificance by only briefly mentioning the Palestinians in remarks that were centered on the Iranian nuclear threat. But the PA head’s latest insults directed at Israel did not go completely unanswered by Israel. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, never one to pull his punches, pointed out the obvious when he said, as Haaretz reports:

Lieberman characterized Abbas as “the biggest obstacle to peace…everyone who heard Abbas’s speech understands that he does not intend, and does not want, to be a partner in a peace agreement,” while in a meeting in New York with foreign ministers of France, Spain, Russia and others.

Lieberman is right about all of this, but his desire to see Abbas replaced as head of the Palestinian Authority generated a response from his cabinet colleague, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who characterized Lieberman’s statement as detrimental to Israel’s interests. Barak said the alternative to Abbas’s rule in the West Bank is Hamas. That both men are basically right about Abbas sums up Israel’s peace process dilemma in a nutshell.

Though Lieberman is generally dismissed as a bull in the diplomatic china shop, his disgust with Abbas is entirely justified. The Palestinian’s stated desire for negotiations is given the lie by the fact that he has refused to negotiate for the past four years, even during a period when Israel adopted a West Bank settlement freeze. That followed his refusal even to discuss a generous peace offer from Israel in 2008 that would have given the Palestinians an independent state in almost the entire West Bank, Gaza and a share of Jerusalem. Abbas has neither the interest nor the will to make peace. Whatever his personal inclinations, he knows the Palestinians won’t accept any accord that legitimizes a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn, and he will never sign any treaty that would conclusively end the conflict. The PA leader sanctions the fomenting of anti-Semitism and hatred for Israel in his official media. Abbas is also corrupt and undemocratic, as he is currently serving in the eighth year of a four-year presidential term because he is afraid of facing his Hamas rivals in a free election.

But Barak is right when he notes that the alternative to Abbas is far worse. Were the Islamists of Hamas who currently run Gaza to extend their rule to the West Bank, it would produce a security nightmare for Israel. Abbas is an obstacle to a peace settlement. But the choice for Israel is not between peace with the PA or war with Hamas, but between the unsatisfactory status quo and a worsening security situation with a Hamas that has gained strength at Abbas’s expense.

The notion of a “Palestinian Spring” in which West Bankers would rise up and throw out a corrupt Fatah would not lead to either democracy or peace, but a Hamas government that would be a formula for further instability and violence.

Critics of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu like to blame him and Israel for the stalemate in the peace process, but Israelis understand that peace simply isn’t an option until there is a sea change in the political culture of the Palestinians that might make it a possibility. The best scenario they can hope for is a continuation of a situation where terrorism is under control. For that, as Barak argues, they need Abbas and Fatah. He may be an enemy, but under the current circumstances, he appears to be a necessary one. That’s a hard truth that both left-wing Israel-haters and Israeli right-wingers must make their peace with.

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Abbas, Not Lieberman, is Obstacle to Peace

Avigdor Lieberman is back in trouble today. His boss, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, had to distance himself from a letter the foreign minister sent to the diplomatic Quartet urging the ouster of Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas. Netanyahu agreed with Lieberman “Abu Mazen” — Abbas’s nom de guerre — “creates difficulties in negotiations” but said he was dedicated to trying to work for peace with the Palestinians and had no interest in interfering in their internal politics. That was the appropriate response, but Abbas latest foray into “peacemaking” illustrates why many Israelis think Lieberman is right.

The PA president, who is currently serving the eighth year of a four-year presidential term, spoke today on the anniversary of an attack on the mosques of Jerusalem’s Temple Mount by a deranged Australian Christian in 1969. The man started a fire that was quickly put out. He was tried and found to be clinically insane and eventually deported. But the Palestinians, who have deliberately desecrated Jewish holy sites such as the Tomb of Joseph in Nablus, are still milking the unfortunate incident for all its worth. Abbas falsely alleged that Israel is plotting to destroy the mosques and then demanded that all Jews be thrown out of the parts of the city that were illegally occupied by Jordan from 1949 to 1967. That means over a quarter of a million Jewish Jerusalemites are, according to him, scheduled for eviction from their homes. This shows that Abbas’s vision of peace bears a strange resemblance to Hamas’s vision of unending war on Israel.

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Avigdor Lieberman is back in trouble today. His boss, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, had to distance himself from a letter the foreign minister sent to the diplomatic Quartet urging the ouster of Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas. Netanyahu agreed with Lieberman “Abu Mazen” — Abbas’s nom de guerre — “creates difficulties in negotiations” but said he was dedicated to trying to work for peace with the Palestinians and had no interest in interfering in their internal politics. That was the appropriate response, but Abbas latest foray into “peacemaking” illustrates why many Israelis think Lieberman is right.

The PA president, who is currently serving the eighth year of a four-year presidential term, spoke today on the anniversary of an attack on the mosques of Jerusalem’s Temple Mount by a deranged Australian Christian in 1969. The man started a fire that was quickly put out. He was tried and found to be clinically insane and eventually deported. But the Palestinians, who have deliberately desecrated Jewish holy sites such as the Tomb of Joseph in Nablus, are still milking the unfortunate incident for all its worth. Abbas falsely alleged that Israel is plotting to destroy the mosques and then demanded that all Jews be thrown out of the parts of the city that were illegally occupied by Jordan from 1949 to 1967. That means over a quarter of a million Jewish Jerusalemites are, according to him, scheduled for eviction from their homes. This shows that Abbas’s vision of peace bears a strange resemblance to Hamas’s vision of unending war on Israel.

Abbas knows very well that Israel offered the Palestinians a state including a share of Jerusalem three times. The first two offers in 2000 and 2001 were made to Abbas’ predecessor Yasir Arafat but the latter was given to Abbas in 2008. While his apologists continue to insist he never formally turned it down, that was only because he never replied and shut down the talks with Israel as soon it was clear that he would be put on the spot and asked to choose between peace and continuing conflict.

Abbas also knows that in those formulas or even in the more generous terms outlined by Israeli left-wingers in Geneva or the ideas mooted by the Obama administration, the Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem built since 1967, including the Jewish Quarter of the Old City, would be left intact, as would Arab neighborhoods. Those areas, like most of the West Bank settlements, are never going to be demolished, and as even President Obama has said, would be left inside Israel and swapped with the Palestinians for other areas.

But Abbas doesn’t want a territorial swap any more than he wanted to sign on to a peace agreement that would give his people another independent state (since they already have one in all but name in Gaza where Hamas rules a sovereign terrorist enclave). Rather than make peace or even negotiate for it (which he has refused to do for four years), he is satisfied with vilifying Israel, appealing for more foreign aid for his bankrupt and corrupt government and carrying on with the status quo.

Lieberman thinks the Palestinians ought to hold new elections. It’s a nice idea but Abbas wants no part of it since elections might bring Hamas to power in the West Bank as well as Gaza. He also has no interest in any process that might bring some level of accountability to his ramshackle excuse for a government.

Lieberman was being provocative when he sent his letter to the Quartet but what he was also doing was drawing attention to the fact that peace will be impossible so long as the Palestinians are saddled with this kind of a leader. But given the nature of the political culture of the Palestinians, which still regards rejection of the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn, it’s not likely that any alternative to Abbas in the foreseeable future would be any better. For all of the condemnation being showered on Lieberman, Abbas and the mindset he represents remains the real obstacle to peace.

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Can Israel Afford a Moral Foreign Policy?

Earlier this week, I noted the fact that while President Obama has chosen not to visit Israel since taking office even when visiting the Middle East, Russia’s Vladimir Putin will be making his second trip to the Jewish state this month. The fact that Obama is still so resentful of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that he couldn’t bring himself to go to Jerusalem even when it would clearly be in his political interests to do so, while Putin thinks it is good politics to go there, struck me as interesting. But our friends at the Forward have a very different take on the story. In an editorial published this week, they think it is wrong for Israel to receive Putin and urge it to cancel the visit.

In assessing this position, we need to start by saying this is the sort of editorial that explains why there is a difference between government and journalism. In seizing the moral high ground on Putin, the Forward editorialist is taking a stand that no Israeli government, no matter how righteous or devoted to the cause of human rights in Russia, Syria and Iran it might be, can possibly take. Israel has enough enemies without picking a fight with Putin even the United States would be wary of starting. This is the sort of unrealistic moral preening that we journalists love to indulge in. There is also the fact that the Forward, whose idolatry of Barack Obama seems to be boundless, has been noticeably quiet in expressing criticism of the administration’s desire for a “reset” with Putin or his appeasement of Russia on a number of different fronts.

But having said that, I’m prepared to concede the editorial has a point, especially with regard to the egregious praise of Putin on the part of Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, and that the question of how moral Israel’s foreign policy should be is not solely a matter for idle journalistic posturing.

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Earlier this week, I noted the fact that while President Obama has chosen not to visit Israel since taking office even when visiting the Middle East, Russia’s Vladimir Putin will be making his second trip to the Jewish state this month. The fact that Obama is still so resentful of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that he couldn’t bring himself to go to Jerusalem even when it would clearly be in his political interests to do so, while Putin thinks it is good politics to go there, struck me as interesting. But our friends at the Forward have a very different take on the story. In an editorial published this week, they think it is wrong for Israel to receive Putin and urge it to cancel the visit.

In assessing this position, we need to start by saying this is the sort of editorial that explains why there is a difference between government and journalism. In seizing the moral high ground on Putin, the Forward editorialist is taking a stand that no Israeli government, no matter how righteous or devoted to the cause of human rights in Russia, Syria and Iran it might be, can possibly take. Israel has enough enemies without picking a fight with Putin even the United States would be wary of starting. This is the sort of unrealistic moral preening that we journalists love to indulge in. There is also the fact that the Forward, whose idolatry of Barack Obama seems to be boundless, has been noticeably quiet in expressing criticism of the administration’s desire for a “reset” with Putin or his appeasement of Russia on a number of different fronts.

But having said that, I’m prepared to concede the editorial has a point, especially with regard to the egregious praise of Putin on the part of Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, and that the question of how moral Israel’s foreign policy should be is not solely a matter for idle journalistic posturing.

Since its birth in 1948, the State of Israel has been under siege and has almost never been in a position to pick its friends with impunity. Indeed, so desperate has it been for any sign of friendship from other countries, let alone genuine cooperation or alliance, that it led to the development of a deep cynicism about its place in the world, which led it to be willing to sometimes take the hands of some unsavory regimes. Friends of Israel were right to take umbrage at the notion that an embattled nation was expected to be more punctilious about its foreign policy than greater and far more secure nations. Nevertheless, as Israel’s position grew stronger in recent decades, it was fair to say that its willingness to embrace apartheid-era South Africa or any Third World dictator who would stand apart from the global chorus of Israel-haters was often ill-considered and sometimes counter-productive.

Though Israel’s governments were justified in prioritizing security and defense, a public posture of moral blindness ill befit a nation that also sought to play upon the international community’s sense of justice. Even if it could not expect fair play for itself, brazen cynicism on such questions did nothing to enhance its position. Israeli leaders of both the left and the right have generally been uncomfortable taking stands on disputes elsewhere in the globe. But this shyness about defending human rights when Jews were not the victims only fueled the unfair comparisons of its own complex problems vis-à-vis the Palestinians to real tyrannies that are often voiced by anti-Semites and other Israel-haters.

So while it is clearly unreasonable to expect Israel to attack Putin directly or to rebuff his overtures, it is not wrong to point out that Lieberman’s coziness with the Moscow regime is an embarrassment.

In his defense, it should be noted that although he was widely considered unsuitable for his task when he took office in 2009, Lieberman has been as good a practitioner of cynical realpolitik on his country’s behalf as any of his seemingly more accomplished predecessors. Though he gets little credit for it, it was his diplomatic skills — often exercised with unsavory Third World governments — that helped stave off the so-called Palestinian “diplomatic tsunami” at the United Nations last year.

But behind the scenes diplomacy is one thing; public endorsements of Putin’s tyranny are quite another. Though only a fool would think it is not in Israel’s interests to keep Russia from sliding back to the open hostility that characterized relations during the era of the Soviet Union, there is no need for Israel to go as far as that.

As much as Israelis have vainly hoped for a normal existence, the Jewish state has also always aspired to stand for Jewish values and the Jewish people. As such, it is far from wrong to expect it to support not merely democracy for itself but the rights of all peoples.

I should add that I myself have written in the past to chide some Israelis — even those whom I greatly admired — for being willing to treat the question of human rights as somehow not being their business. In February of 1997, I even tweaked Natan Sharansky, a man whom I consider a genuine hero and then serving as Israel’s Trade Minister— for not using a meeting with his Chinese counterparts to raise the topic of the status of prisoners in the Chinese gulag. The piece (written originally for the Jerusalem Post under the headline “Say it Ain’t So, Natan,” is not available on their website, but can be read here on the site of San Francisco’s J Weekly which subsequently picked it up) motivated Sharansky to use a second meeting with the Chinese to do exactly as I had asked him to do. That earned him a rebuke from Israel’s Foreign Ministry but confirmed my high opinion of his integrity.

The standard here should not be, as the Forward’s piece seems to want, to demand that Israel be tougher on Russia than even the United States, but that it must be prepared to speak up about human rights, even when it is inconvenient. The Jewish state may still be beleaguered, but it is not so weak that it must be compelled to prostitute itself on behalf of Putin, as Lieberman appears willing to do. A completely moral foreign policy is a luxury that not even a superpower can always afford, but we have a right to expect that Israel’s approach to the world should consist of more than raw cynicism.

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Lieberman Plays the Optimist on Egypt

In what may well be one more ominous sign of the impending collapse of the 1979 peace treaty, Egypt announced that it was abrogating a 2005 deal to ship natural gas to Israel. Coming as it does in the midst of an Egyptian presidential election in which the Muslim Brotherhood’s remaining candidate in the race is the favorite and with virtually all sides in the country’s political system expressing hostility to Israel, it’s hard to take the stated reason for the decision — a payment dispute — at face value.

But while some in Israel are taking a dark view of the situation, one person who might be expected to see things in the harshest possible terms is sounding an optimistic note. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, a man regarded by most foreign observers as an extreme reactionary as well as a bull in a china shop, downplayed the Egyptian decision and said it was just a business dispute that could be resolved. This reaction tell us a lot about how badly the chattering classes have underestimated Lieberman as well as perhaps providing some basis for optimism that despite the grim political situation in Egypt, there is some hope that the peace with Israel can be salvaged. Lieberman clearly understands that the pipeline deal is the nexus of two unpopular yet unrelated issues: peace and the corruption of the Mubarak regime.

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In what may well be one more ominous sign of the impending collapse of the 1979 peace treaty, Egypt announced that it was abrogating a 2005 deal to ship natural gas to Israel. Coming as it does in the midst of an Egyptian presidential election in which the Muslim Brotherhood’s remaining candidate in the race is the favorite and with virtually all sides in the country’s political system expressing hostility to Israel, it’s hard to take the stated reason for the decision — a payment dispute — at face value.

But while some in Israel are taking a dark view of the situation, one person who might be expected to see things in the harshest possible terms is sounding an optimistic note. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, a man regarded by most foreign observers as an extreme reactionary as well as a bull in a china shop, downplayed the Egyptian decision and said it was just a business dispute that could be resolved. This reaction tell us a lot about how badly the chattering classes have underestimated Lieberman as well as perhaps providing some basis for optimism that despite the grim political situation in Egypt, there is some hope that the peace with Israel can be salvaged. Lieberman clearly understands that the pipeline deal is the nexus of two unpopular yet unrelated issues: peace and the corruption of the Mubarak regime.

The pipeline, which has been repeatedly sabotaged by terrorists, is a symbol of the close economic relations that were developed between Israel and Egypt. But the gas deal also cannot be properly understood outside of the context of the kleptocracy that operated under the aegis of the former dictator. Egyptians have good reason to believe that Mubarak’s cronies were skimming the profits of the commerce and that the state was cheated. Lieberman may well believe it is in Israel’s interest to try to renegotiate so as to disassociate itself from the old regime.

The equanimity with which Israeli leaders regard the gas shutoff — which provided 40 percent of its natural gas and approximately a third of its overall fuel supply — is also testimony to their confidence in projects that are aimed at bolstering the Jewish state’s energy independence. With its own plans to exploit natural gas fields as well as shale oil deposits, some believe Israel will be able to eventually shed its dependence on foreign supplies.

But whether or not that optimistic scenario will play out any time soon, Lieberman deserves credit for not flying off the handle and for demonstrating a nuanced view of the problem. While Americans disdained him as a foreign policy nonentity and an obstacle to diplomacy, Lieberman has actually demonstrated some real skill during his three-year tenure at the ministry. His handling of the so-called “diplomatic tsunami” that was supposed to hit Israel because of the Palestinians’ independence initiative at the United Nations was masterful. Where possible, he has strengthened unilateral relations with a wide variety of nations as well as speaking up strongly on Israel’s behalf when challenged. Though he is still operating under a cloud of corruption investigations rather than his service at the Foreign Ministry exposing him as an incompetent as his detractors hoped, it has served to burnish his reputation as a smart operator.

That said, confidence in the ability or the willingness of the Egyptian government that will emerge from the coming elections to sign a new gas deal with Israel seems misplaced. Though Israeli leaders are right to say nothing right now that could exacerbate the situation, there is little reason to believe that the deterioration in what was already an ice-cold peace will reverse itself. Egypt’s new Islamist government may well stop short of formally breaking the peace treaty with Israel because of the consequences that would generate in terms of the billions they get in U.S. aid, but there is no question the hostility in Cairo toward Israel is going to get much worse.

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