If liberal American Jews weren’t already dismayed about the fact that Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu is a shoe-in to be re-elected in next month’s election, the latest political news out of Israel may give them conniption fits. The results of new polls show that Netanyahu’s Likud and its coalition partners are set to exceed the strong governing majority they had in the current Knesset. But the really interesting numbers are those that show that the main party to the right of the Likud—the Habeyit Hayehudi or Jewish Home Party–is on track to be the third largest in the next parliament with only Likud and Labor (set to finish a distant second) ahead of it.
This will give residents and supporters of the settlement movement an even louder voice in the next Knesset than their already healthy contingent in the current one. This will be interpreted by some on the left as a sign of Israel’s depravity or indifference to peace. But the reason for it is clear. Whereas in Israel’s past it could be asserted that the Likud represented Israel’s right-wing constituency, it has, to the shock and dismay of many in the left-wing Israeli media, become the center. That is not because more Israelis are supporters of increasing settlement throughout the West Bank. They are not. Rather it is due to the fact that the Israeli center as well as even many on what we used to call the Israeli left have given up on the Palestinians. They know that neither Fatah in the West Bank nor Hamas in Gaza will ever recognize Israel’s legitimacy no matter where its borders are drawn. So they have abandoned those parties that hold onto the illusion of peace in favor of those with a more realistic vision while those on the right are now embracing parties like Habeyit Hayehudi in order to hold Netanyahu’s feet to the fire and prevent him from making concessions that will neither entice the Palestinians to the negotiating table nor increase its popularity abroad.
Israel’s current government, led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, has never shied away from engaging its critics abroad, as is evident by the numerous op-eds authored by Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren. Oren was considered an inspired choice for ambassador to the U.S. in part because he is one of the leading historians on the Middle East and has written perhaps the definitive history of America’s involvement in the Middle East from its founding.
Oren was also teaching at Georgetown before being asked to represent Israel’s government in Washington, and he had previously worked as an IDF spokesman as well. Netanyahu himself speaks in flawless, almost accentless English, having spent so many years in top-flight American schools. It seemed that Netanyahu had recognized Israel’s weakness in communication, and sought to rectify that. Netanyahu himself stresses the history of Israel and of the Jewish people when he talks about the challenges confronting the Jewish state–a feature of his diplomatic style that often annoys the media in part because of their sometimes-staggering ignorance of that very history.
And on that topic, with Israel embroiled in just such a diplomatic controversy over building in Jerusalem, the city’s mayor has joined the effort with an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal today. Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat takes readers on a historical journey through the ages, explaining the Jewish people’s thousands-year-old connection to the city and its existence as a united capital (until Jordan’s occupation of the city from 1948-67). Barkat also makes the important point that Jewish sovereignty over the city has been its only reliable guarantor of religious openness, access, and equality.
Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren had lunch with reporters today in Washington. What was the most newsworthy bit? According to Buzzfeed’s write-up, it’s that Oren made the unambiguously true statement that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did not interfere in the recent American presidential election. “Prime Minister Netanyahu went to extraordinary lengths not to be dragged into the U.S. presidential elections,” Rosie Gray quotes Oren as saying.
That this is considered news is a good demonstration of how hysterical some reporters (not Gray, I should be clear) became during the election when Netanyahu didn’t spend enough time, in their minds, praising President Obama. But Oren’s words were actually chosen carefully here, it seems. Of course Netanyahu didn’t interfere in the election, and a great many members of the press embarrassed themselves by accusing him repeatedly and falsely of doing so. But Oren is right: it’s not just that Netanyahu didn’t interfere. It’s that he had to work especially hard not to get dragged into the election. And those dragging Netanyahu into the election were none other than the media personalities accusing Netanyahu of interfering.
It is to be expected that whenever something alters the dynamic of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the world wonders aloud how this change will affect the peace process. And so it is with Israel’s Iron Dome, the missile defense system that kept so many Israelis safe during the recent rocket blizzard from the terrorist enclave of Gaza. But I wrote at the time that it was wishful thinking to assume that Iron Dome would fundamentally change the course of the conflict.
“It isn’t perfect, it’s expensive, and living under constant threat of rocket fire would still be hellish—it cannot be easy to get used to bombs exploding over your head all day long. The best solution, without a doubt, would be for the Palestinians to eschew terrorism and give up their mission to destroy Israel,” I wrote. Over the weekend, the Washington Post tackled this question at greater length, but still misses the point. The paper asks whether the relative safety brought about by systems like Iron Dome will make Israel more likely to agree to territorial compromise or more likely instead to ignore the conflict and the cause of peace and negotiations altogether. The answer, of course, is neither.
The conventional wisdom about the Israeli government’s decision to allow new building projects in Jerusalem in the E1 area between the city and the Ma’ale Adumim suburb is that it was a blunder. Critics of Prime Minister Netanyahu claim the move has worsened relations with the United States, alienated European nations and heightened the country’s diplomatic isolation. Others claim that in doing so he has “distracted” the world from concentrating on the nuclear threat from Iran. Even worse, most of his detractors are sure that the only reason he did it was to appease more extreme members of his party so as to secure their support in the upcoming Knesset election. Seen in that light, calling it a blunder would seem to be charitable.
But like most pieces of conventional wisdom, the assumption that Netanyahu has hurt his country is not accurate. Even if shovels went in the ground in the E1 area tomorrow — something that actually won’t happen for a long time, if ever — Israel would be no more or less isolated than it was the day before the announcement. Nor would relations with the Obama administration be any better. All Netanyahu has done is to remind his country’s critics that Israel isn’t willing to lie down and accept the false narrative about the West Bank and Jerusalem that was swallowed whole at the United Nations last week. As Seth wrote earlier, this won’t change Israel’s relationship with Europe. The focus on the European and American positions on settlements has obscured the fact that the primary audience for this move is in Ramallah, not Paris, London or Washington. The E1 decision sends a necessary signal to the Palestinians lest they be deceived by their triumph in the General Assembly. What Netanyahu has done is to show Israel won’t give up an inch of territory unless the Palestinians return to the negotiating table and even then, only if they agree to end the conflict for all time.
It’s no secret that President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu don’t trust each other. Personality conflicts are slightly less troubling–they can dislike each other and still respect and even trust each other. But trust is seemingly nowhere to be found in the distressed relationship between the two leaders. (We got another reminder of this at the Saban Forum, when Ehud Olmert restated on the record comments that Rahm Emanuel, once Obama’s chief of staff, had made at the forum off the record. The comments were tinged with anger and resentment at Netanyahu.)
And that’s why the issue of Iran will always be the greatest source of friction between the two. Arguments over settlements are mostly background noise; Iran represents an existential threat to Israel, a major security threat to Europe, an ongoing security threat to the United States, and is in pursuit of what would be perhaps the bitterest of Obama administration failures–a nuclear-armed Iran setting off a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. Obama has repeatedly said he won’t let this happen, so why doesn’t Netanyahu trust him? One answer is something that cropped up again almost unnoticed just before the weekend: Obama’s consistent opposition to tough Iran sanctions. The president has repeatedly tried to kill sanctions, then delay them, then water them down, then as a last resort attach so many waivers as to leave the sanctions looking like Swiss cheese.
Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s political options at home are limited. His breach-of-trust conviction and his pending corruption trial are preventing him from running in next month’s Knesset election. But even if he could run, the fact that the overwhelming majority of Israelis reject his position on the peace process would give him no chance to defeat Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. So he has done what he and other Israeli political has-beens always do: go to the United States and receive applause from their country’s critics.
To that end, he was in Washington yesterday criticizing his country’s government and saying that Netanyahu’s decision to approve building projects in Jerusalem and its suburb was a “slap in the face” to President Obama. He believes the project to build in the so-called E1 area that connects Maale Adumim with the city was an insult to the president, especially after the United States stood by Israel during the conflict with Gaza and at the United Nations. Olmert is right to say that Obama’s recent support for the alliance has been exemplary and there’s little doubt the administration would have preferred if Israel would have taken its punishment at the UN meekly rather than by showing that it would stick up for its rights. But Olmert’s assertion that the building in the E1 area undermines a two-state solution is belied by his own behavior while in office.
With the Palestinian Authority all but certain to have its status at the United Nations upgraded this evening to nonmember observer state, some who call themselves friends of Israel as well as some prominent Israelis are applauding the initiative. In particular, former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has said he does not oppose the move by his former negotiating partner, PA head Mahmoud Abbas. Olmert says the vote will promote a two-state solution and help Palestinian moderates in their quest to make peace with Israel. But Olmert, whose attempt to give Abbas pretty much everything he had asked for in 2008 resulted in the Palestinian fleeing the U.S.-sponsored talks without even responding to the offer of a state, seems more interested in vainly seeking to undermine his successor Benjamin Netanyahu than drawing conclusions from his own experience.
The show at the UN is about a number of things, but advancing the chances for peace between Israel and the Palestinians isn’t one of them.
From the Israeli Prime Minister’s statement this morning at the Menachim Begin Heritage Center in Jerusalem:
“Israel is prepared to live in peace with a Palestinian state, but for peace to endure, Israel’s security must be protected. The Palestinians must recognize the Jewish state and they must be prepared to end the conflict with Israel once and for all. None of these vital interests, these vital interests of peace, none of them appear in the resolution that will be put forward before the General Assembly today and that is why Israel cannot accept it. The only way to achieve peace is through agreements that are reached by the parties directly; through valid negotiations between themselves, and not through UN resolutions that completely ignore Israel’s vital security and national interests. And because this resolution is so one-sided, it doesn’t advance peace, it pushes it backwards.
As for the rights of the Jewish people in this land, I have a simple message for those people gathered in the General Assembly today: No decision by the UN can break the 4,000-year-old bond between the people of Israel and the land of Israel.”
The headlines in the left-wing Israeli daily Haaretz summed up the reaction of opponents of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to the latest twist in the lead-up to the country’s January Knesset elections. The consensus on the left is that the victory of right-wing candidates in the Likud’s primary to determine their Knesset slate spells doom for the PM. “Has the Likud gone too far right for Netanyahu?” was one. “Likud’s sharp shift to the right is political suicide for Netanyahu” was another, while a third read “Likud’s hawkish earthquake sparks new hopes for centrist alternatives.” Combined with the other major story in Israeli politics today — the return to electoral politics of former foreign minister Tzipi Livni, who is leading a new party called “The Movement” — you might think that Netanyahu’s critics are right to assert that he is in big trouble.
But despite the hoopla over Livni and the worries about the changing of the guard in Likud, Israel’s electoral math appears unchanged. Netanyahu and his newly enlarged Likud and its coalition partners remain on course to win a smashing victory next month.
When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu decided that Israel would finally respond to Hamas’s rocket barrage from Gaza, his knee-jerk critics issued two very silly judgments almost immediately. They said Netanyahu was ordering this counteroffensive to boost his reelection chances in January, and that his decision was an open challenge to newly reelected President Barack Obama.
Though neither of these theories made much sense from the outset, Operation Pillar of Defense conclusively debunked them once and for all. Netanyahu’s cautious, limited approach to the conflict was panned in opinion polls; Israelis wanted to see Hamas more thoroughly beaten, perhaps through a ground invasion by troops already called up for service just in case. And though more hawkish elements in his cabinet wanted either more favorable cease-fire terms for Israel or no cease-fire at all, Netanyahu sided with the Obama administration in its desire to see the end of hostilities as soon as possible. And Tzipi Livni removed all doubt about public opinion toward Pillar of Defense when announcing her new political party today in Tel Aviv:
Today’s announcement that Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak will not compete in the country’s upcoming election in January can’t be considered much of a surprise. Barak, who broke away from the Labor Party in 2011, knows that the odds are against his small Independence Party gaining enough votes to send him back to the Knesset. Thus, his statement that he is stepping down from electoral politics is more of a concession to reality than anything else. But this doesn’t mean he won’t continue in his current job.
Since the law allows the prime minister to appoint individuals who are not members of the Knesset to cabinet posts, it is more than likely that Barak will still be giving the orders at the Kirya in Tel Aviv next year. Yet, as Aluf Benn notes in Haaretz, even if Prime Minister Netanyahu does bring him back, his influence in the next government will be diminished since, unlike cabinet colleagues like Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, he will have no political constituency at his back. This means that although the 70-year-old former prime minister and chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces is probably not actually retiring from public life, it is an appropriate moment to ponder the significance of his career.
Barak is one of the most decorated soldiers in Israel’s history and his legacy as chief of staff and then later as defense minister is one that has generated wide and deserved praise. But he has also been the author of some of the biggest blunders in the country’s history without which his political failures would not have been explicable. While Barak will hope to be remembered chiefly for his exploits as a commando and then for successful military operations like the recently completed Operation Pillar of Defense, his role in ordering the IDF’s precipitate retreat from Lebanon and the diplomatic fiasco at Camp David in 2000 that led to the second intifada continue to loom large in his biography. Those who lament the demise of the peace process need look no further than Barak’s experiences as prime minister to understand why the country has rejected the policies of the left.
If the cease-fire holds, the second Gaza war produced two clear winners: Mohamed Morsi and Barack Obama. Together, they brought peace after just eight days of fighting, thus showing their diplomatic clout. Morsi behaved not like a Muslim Brotherhood hothead but like a statesman–in fact playing much the same role as his predecessor, Hosni Mubarak, did in (somewhat) reining in Hamas and serving as a bridge between the Palestinians and Israel.
Morsi did not use this new round of fighting to break relations with Israel, as many had feared, but rather cooperated constructively with President Obama to bring peace. Obama, for his part, avoided his first-term mistake of publicly criticizing Israel; he seems to have learned that his ability to press Israel for concessions (in this case, to avoid a ground incursion into Gaza that Israeli hard-liners thought was needed to enhance their country’s long-term security) increases when he shows no daylight between himself and Israel’s leader.
At the beginning of this year, as speculation over whether Israel was preparing to strike Iran’s nuclear program reached something of a crescendo, one of Israel’s most respected journalists sat down with Defense Minister Ehud Barak. The journalist, Ronen Bergman, asked Barak about the former political and military figures who had begun to publicly argue against a strike. Barak responded with a reminder about the burden of responsibility he carries along with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
“It’s good to have diversity in thinking and for people to voice their opinions,” Barak said. “But at the end of the day, when the military command looks up, it sees us — the minister of defense and the prime minister. When we look up, we see nothing but the sky above us.” Barak wasn’t trying to be dramatic; rather, he was making make a point about the historical weight that rests on nearly every major decision made by the Israeli leadership. Many in the press took this as a declaration by Barak that he would always err on the side of the hawks—why take any chances? But in reality, as we saw this week with Operation Pillar of Defense, it can often mean just the opposite. Barak Ravid reports:
This week’s flare-up between Israel and Hamas in Gaza has rekindled the discussion about Israel’s 2005 withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. But amid all the debate over the wisdom of that withdrawal, one point seems to have been lost. The administration of George W. Bush put in writing its full support of Israel’s right to security and defensible borders as the disengagement approached.
Though the Obama administration pointedly rejected the notion that it was bound by that agreement, the Gaza withdrawal was yet another item of proof that Israeli leaders are willing to make sacrifices for peace when there is no “daylight” between the Israeli and American leaders. Yet in July 2009, President Obama held a meeting with American Jewish leaders to explain to them that daylight was needed after all. Here is how the Washington Post reported on that meeting:
Standing beside the UN secretary general yesterday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu noted again that every rocket from Gaza is a double war crime, since each reflects: (1) an intentional indiscriminate attack on civilians, while (2) hiding behind a civilian population for protection.
It is actually a triple war crime, because the use of civilians as shields is intended not simply for protection of the terrorists, but to ensure that Palestinian civilians are killed — to produce the response from the UN, the New York Times, and others in the “international community” necessary to win the media war that is conducted alongside the military one. In a phone call late last night in Israel, a noted Israeli commentator described the situation that Israel faces as Kafkaesque:
“The most bizarre part is that Israel is in the position of protecting the Gaza public from its own leadership that is trying to get them killed in order to win points with the New York Times.”
Bret Stephens had a thought-provoking column Tuesday in the Wall Street Journal in which he recanted his previous support for the Gaza pullout. It made me wonder whether I too was wrong to support Sharon’s disengagement in 2005.
Like Bret, I went back to look at what I wrote at the time. In August 2005 I published an article in the Los Angeles Times entitled, “Hamastan? Gaza Pullout Worth the Risk.” As the title implies, I freely acknowledged that Gaza would likely become a breeding ground of terrorism, possibly even of international terrorism. But I nevertheless argued that “on balance” the pullout was worth the risk because it would allow Israel “to regain the initiative — moral and political,” and that “if the Palestinians fire rockets from Gaza, Israel will be free to mount a military response — more free, in fact, when the threat comes from a sovereign Palestinian state than when it emanates from Israeli-occupied territory.”
Last week I discussed the potential impact of Senator Rand Paul’s growing influence on the Republican Party. That prompted an exchange with the senator that we subsequently published. The senator has now written again to correct the record on one point. We’re happy to let him do so.
Last week, I responded to Mr. Tobin’s article, and I am grateful to COMMENTARY for allowing this exchange on their pages. I think it is important people realize disagreements on some particular policy points, like foreign aid, is not a disagreement on our relationship with our ally Israel. In fact, it hurts the pro-Israel cause to state otherwise.
During his response to my letter, Mr. Tobin brings up one glaring and obvious error that I simply must correct. I did not “skip” the address to Congress by Prime Minister Netanyahu. I was trapped on the Senate floor by Harry Reid. You see, all week I had been leading a filibuster in defense of the Fourth Amendment and against certain onerous provisions of the Patriot Act. At that moment, I was attempting to force a vote on my amendment to protect gun owners, as provisions of the Patriot Act have harsh Second Amendment problems that Republican supporters try to hide.
Hamas’s decision not to go along with their patron Iran’s determination to keep Bashar Assad in power in Syria broke up a profitable alliance that had worked well for both parties. But though the two may no longer be working in tandem, Hamas’s decision to launch a rocket offensive against Israel did a favor for the country that had supplied the terror group with cash and weapons for a decade: it diverted international attention away from the release of a new report from the International Atomic Energy Agency about the Iranian nuclear program.
That’s fortuitous for Iran, since the IAEA’s latest findings about Tehran’s project more or less confirm the warnings that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu issued from the podium of the General Assembly of the United Nations in September. As Britain’s Guardian reports, all those pundits and kibitzers who mocked Netanyahu’s rhetoric and graphic display at the UN may need to rethink their position: