Commentary Magazine


Topic: Ehud Olmert

Should Obama Care Who Wins Israel’s Knesset Elections?

The latest polls out of Israel show basically a dead heat between Labor and Likud in the upcoming Knesset elections. Likud still has the advantage, because it will likely be easier for Likud to assemble a blocking coalition than for Labor to assemble a governing coalition should they win. But a Labor-Likud race is, in some ways, just like old times. And in the past, when there has been a close left-right election and a Democrat in the White House, the American president tended to dive into the Israeli election and seek to manipulate the outcome in favor of the left. Which raises the question: Will Barack Obama do the same this time around?

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The latest polls out of Israel show basically a dead heat between Labor and Likud in the upcoming Knesset elections. Likud still has the advantage, because it will likely be easier for Likud to assemble a blocking coalition than for Labor to assemble a governing coalition should they win. But a Labor-Likud race is, in some ways, just like old times. And in the past, when there has been a close left-right election and a Democrat in the White House, the American president tended to dive into the Israeli election and seek to manipulate the outcome in favor of the left. Which raises the question: Will Barack Obama do the same this time around?

Actually, the more interesting question is: Should Obama care who wins? Obviously we know he does care. He hates Netanyahu, and Obama and co-president Valerie Jarrett tend to make policy based on personal grievances and petty grudges rather than on basic rationality. So Obama will care who wins, and perhaps even seek to, yet again, influence the results.

But he shouldn’t care. (Even if he did, he shouldn’t meddle, but the days when Obama could be convinced to respect the sovereignty and democracy of allies are over, if they ever existed.) Bibi Derangement Syndrome has caused American politicos and commentators to do very strange things. For Obama, this has meant downgrading the U.S.-Israel military alliance while Israel was at war. For commentators, this has meant trying to recruit the corrupt and unpopular Ehud Olmert to return to politics.

So, being that the results of the Western left’s interaction with Israeli politics range from terrible to awful, it would benefit everyone involved if Obama gave up on trying to sabotage Israeli governments. And perhaps one way to convince him of that is to explain very clearly why it would be futile for him to meddle anyway.

That’s not because the left doesn’t have a chance to unseat Bibi; indeed it does (though still a longshot). Rather, it’s because the outcome of a Labor victory is unlikely to fundamentally change anything about the peace process.

Obama’s interest in Israel starts and ends with his attempts to get the Jewish state to give away land so he can boost his own presidential legacy. This is in part why Israelis have never come to trust Obama. He doesn’t know much about Israel, and he doesn’t show any interest in learning. For all his mistakes, this was simply not true of Bill Clinton. It was the opposite of true for George W. Bush, who gave moving speeches in Israel that testified to his love of the country and his deep knowledge and appreciation of its people and its history. Obama’s lack of intellectual curiosity is not limited to Israel, of course, but it certainly applies to it.

And so if his interest in Israel starts and ends with the peace process, his interest in Israeli national elections starts and ends there too. Thus Obama might assume that since Labor is traditionally more supportive of the peace process than Likud, and since Labor has added Tzipi Livni, who was Netanyahu’s peace envoy, to its combined electoral slate, therefore this election presents a stark choice between those Obama can manipulate and those Obama cannot. The reality, however, is more complicated, as reality tends to be.

The Israeli right is still benefiting from the collapse in public confidence in the left’s prosecution of national-security policy. Labor has recovered somewhat, but in recent years economic issues have hovered pretty close to the surface for Israeli voters. If Labor wins the election, it almost certainly won’t be seen as a mandate for giving away land to the Palestinians.

This is not only because Labor has less room to maneuver on this issue than the more security-trusted Likud. It’s also because the peace process is at a low point of the modern era, and it’s there because of Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry. The Clinton administration made some progress on this front, even if the ultimate failure of the Clinton initiative led to a wave of Palestinian violence. The Bush administration made more genuine progress on this front with the Gaza disengagement and the eventual proffer of a generous peace deal from Olmert to Mahmoud Abbas.

The Obama era has seen the resort to a wave of Palestinian violence but no progress leading up to it. In fact, the two sides have been pushed by Obama and Kerry farther apart than they’ve been in decades. When Obama gets involved in the peace process, there is simply no upside, only downside. If Labor wins, there is no room right now for a renewed peace process, and Obama only has two years left in office anyway.

Additionally, Labor would have to do more than just win the election. They would have to put together a governing coalition, and the math is aligned against them. This also mitigates against the Obama agenda; any coalition Labor could put together would probably have to include Avigdor Lieberman and/or the ultra-Orthodox.

It is doubtful that anything significant will change after the Knesset elections in March. That may be disappointing to Obama, but it also might stop him from once again recklessly meddling in the messy world of Israeli politics.

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Terror in Jerusalem: Nir Barkat’s Moment of Truth

Yesterday, after a Palestinian terrorist murdered a Jewish baby at a Jerusalem rail stop, the reaction that mattered most was that of Palestinians in Jerusalem: would they see the killing of an innocent baby as an indication they should tone down their recent campaign of incitement and violence? And the next reaction to look for was that of a man facing his toughest challenge yet as mayor of Jerusalem: Nir Barkat.

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Yesterday, after a Palestinian terrorist murdered a Jewish baby at a Jerusalem rail stop, the reaction that mattered most was that of Palestinians in Jerusalem: would they see the killing of an innocent baby as an indication they should tone down their recent campaign of incitement and violence? And the next reaction to look for was that of a man facing his toughest challenge yet as mayor of Jerusalem: Nir Barkat.

The Palestinians answered by not only continuing to riot but actually stepping up their targeting of young children, attacking a Jewish kindergarten. Barkat responded by touring the area and promising a crackdown:

“We must restore quiet to Jerusalem,” Barkat declared. “I have been saying for months that the situation here is intolerable, and we must act decisively to stop the violence. It is clearer than ever that we must place police inside Arab neighborhoods to prevent unrest, with a large presence and well-equipped forces, acting to restore order to the city.

Jerusalem’s stability is in some ways quite an achievement. Considering its religious significance, the disputed claims on its sovereignty, its ethnic diversity, its high profile, and its history, governing Jerusalem requires a deft touch. That’s more or less how former Jerusalem mayor (and later prime minister) Ehud Olmert described it in a 2002 interview with the Houston Chronicle that is worth re-reading now, especially since it took place just as the Jerusalem light rail was about to be constructed and during the second intifada. Here’s Olmert on the challenge of being mayor of Jerusalem:

Q: Is it stressful being the mayor of Jerusalem right now?

A: Oh, it’s a very pleasant job. It’s boring. There’s nothing to do. Sometimes you ask yourself, what am I going to do next?

I’m kidding. This is a difficult job. Very difficult, but humanly possible. You just have to know how to work with people and to understand their needs and their sensitivities and their fears and pains. That, I think, was my main job in the past couple of years — to understand the fears and pains of people in the community. Both Jews and Palestinians, by the way.

That question ends the interview. Earlier he had been asked about the fact that on top of everything, he had to deal with union strikes during an intifada and at a time when the city’s already suffering financially. He was asked how he managed to make budget. His answer is–well, it’s pretty Olmertian:

Q: Has terrorism affected sales tax and other local tax revenue?

A: I have losses. And I don’t quite make up for all of them. That’s part of the reason I say we have a going crisis, because I can’t make up all of them. What I try to do is to get revenues from the (national) government. I think over the years I’ve developed some techniques for how to pull in a lot of money from the government, without the government knowing it sometimes.

I’m one of very few mayors in Israel’s history who was first in the national government. I was a Cabinet minister, I was a member of Parliament for many, many years before I became mayor, so I know all the ins and outs.

It’s an improvisational job. But the most interesting part of the interview is about the light rail. Amidst all the unrest, Olmert was pushing to better integrate the city’s Arab population. It was a logical approach to the tension and alienation in Israel’s capital, and it was also a gracious note to strike while the city seemed to be boiling over:

Q: I understand you are about to construct light rail in Jerusalem. Has it been controversial?

A: No, I must say that from day one we have put enormous emphasis on building up relationships with the communities in order to go one step ahead by sharing with them the constraints, the difficulties, (but also) the possible ramifications if a serious, comprehensive answer to transportation will not be provided.

Q: No one thinks it’s too much more expensive than running buses?

A: No. Everyone knows that the main street in Jerusalem, the Jaffa Road, you have — sometimes during the rush hour — 250 buses in one hour. If you understand what it means in terms of the traffic jam and the impact on the environment, you’d understand why so many people are looking with hope that light rail will make a big difference.

This is one of the most discouraging aspects of the current strife in Jerusalem. The light rail, with its stops throughout the city, was–or should have been–a symbol of coexistence. Instead it’s been the target of repeated Palestinian attacks.

It’s important not to exaggerate the significance, of course. Transportation hubs are always going to be targets, so the lesson here is less about judging the light rail to be a failure of some sort (it’s clearly not) than the echoes of past violence. Mahmoud Abbas was famously opposed to Yasser Arafat’s decision to launch the second intifada, but there are real questions as to how much Abbas can control. If he does have control, then what’s happening now is truly ominous. He can’t have it both ways.

Of course, one thing Abbas does have control over is his own rhetoric, not to mention that of the PA’s media organs. As he has counseled violence, Palestinians have listened. As he has sought to outlaw coexistence with Jews, Palestinians have listened. And as his government’s media outlets have dehumanized Jews, Palestinians have listened. Maybe Abbas can prevent a new intifada, maybe not. But he almost certainly can start one. And Barkat appears to be taking no chances.

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Why Exposing the Facts Doesn’t Change the Media’s Anti-Israel Narrative

Anybody who has worked in an actual newsroom knows that mainstream media bias–most pungently against conservative cultural mores and the State of Israel–is real and pervasive. The question that crops up time and again is: Why? Where does the bias come from, why can’t it be corrected? Yesterday Matti Friedman, in an in-depth piece on media coverage and the Arab-Israeli conflict, gave an answer, at least with regard to media bias against Israel. He’s right. And much of the pro-Israel world wishes he weren’t.

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Anybody who has worked in an actual newsroom knows that mainstream media bias–most pungently against conservative cultural mores and the State of Israel–is real and pervasive. The question that crops up time and again is: Why? Where does the bias come from, why can’t it be corrected? Yesterday Matti Friedman, in an in-depth piece on media coverage and the Arab-Israeli conflict, gave an answer, at least with regard to media bias against Israel. He’s right. And much of the pro-Israel world wishes he weren’t.

Friedman worked for the Associated Press, and saw firsthand how the Western media operates when the subject turns to Israel. It’s an experience shared by all but the most liberal reporters, who don’t notice the bias because of their cloistered worldview. In fact, Friedman considers himself “a liberal, and a critic of many of my country’s policies.” It’s just that he has an affinity for the truth and a belief in the noble role the media can and should play in disseminating the facts.

As a prelude to a rundown of examples of how the AP and other major news organizations omit much of importance in service to their blame-Israel narrative, Friedman writes:

A reporter working in the international press corps here understands quickly that what is important in the Israel-Palestinian story is Israel. If you follow mainstream coverage, you will find nearly no real analysis of Palestinian society or ideologies, profiles of armed Palestinian groups, or investigation of Palestinian government. Palestinians are not taken seriously as agents of their own fate. The West has decided that Palestinians should want a state alongside Israel, so that opinion is attributed to them as fact, though anyone who has spent time with actual Palestinians understands that things are (understandably, in my opinion) more complicated. Who they are and what they want is not important: The story mandates that they exist as passive victims of the party that matters.

After listing much of what is missing from coverage of the conflict, he gives a particularly glaring example:

The fact that Israelis quite recently elected moderate governments that sought reconciliation with the Palestinians, and which were undermined by the Palestinians, is considered unimportant and rarely mentioned. These lacunae are often not oversights but a matter of policy. In early 2009, for example, two colleagues of mine obtained information that Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert had made a significant peace offer to the Palestinian Authority several months earlier, and that the Palestinians had deemed it insufficient. This had not been reported yet and it was—or should have been—one of the biggest stories of the year. The reporters obtained confirmation from both sides and one even saw a map, but the top editors at the bureau decided that they would not publish the story.

Some staffers were furious, but it didn’t help. Our narrative was that the Palestinians were moderate and the Israelis recalcitrant and increasingly extreme. Reporting the Olmert offer—like delving too deeply into the subject of Hamas—would make that narrative look like nonsense. And so we were instructed to ignore it, and did, for more than a year and a half.

This decision taught me a lesson that should be clear to consumers of the Israel story: Many of the people deciding what you will read and see from here view their role not as explanatory but as political. Coverage is a weapon to be placed at the disposal of the side they like.

It was a big story (when it was finally revealed), and it really would have been quite a scoop. Many observers would be frankly shocked to learn about the proclivity of editors to lose out on an important scoop because the facts of the story aren’t anti-Israel enough. But that’s the reality of the international, especially Western, media.

And seemingly minor stories can also make a big difference. A good example came in late 2012 from New York Times Jerusalem bureau chief Jodi Rudoren, whose tenure thus far has been undeniably disastrous. Slanting a story is one thing, but Rudoren has taken to simply redrawing maps. She wrote a patently ridiculous story asserting that building in the E-1 corridor near Jerusalem would divide the West Bank in two. The article contained even more errors than that, and they were mistakes that could have been prevented by glancing at a map.

Does the Times have access to a map? Has anyone at the Times looked out a window while in Jerusalem? Of course. What’s happening is not a series of slip-ups–no one with any experience in the matter could possibly make Rudoren’s claims with a straight face. What’s happening is bias-as-policy, as Friedman points out.

Rudoren’s story is just one of many examples. But the point is that while defenders of the anti-Israel press tend to think Israel’s defenders read the coverage of the conflict in the hopes of finding bias wherever and whenever possible, the opposite is true. Israel and her defenders, in general, wish fervently that Friedman’s assessment is wrong.

That’s because if the unreliable reporting were simply a matter of inexperience and ignorance, it could be remedied. Israel has made far more effort in recent years to get its side of the story out. If the media were truly interested in getting the story right, this would make a difference. It isn’t, and so it hasn’t. That’s the bleak reality of the mainstream media’s coverage of Israel.

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To Play the King: Bibi’s Gamble

The second season of the original House of Cards trilogy revolves around the British prime minister’s open feud with the king of England. The Crown is supposed to be apolitical, or at least nonpartisan, and eventually Prime Minister Francis Urquhart bests the king in the court of public opinion. The plot culminates in Urquhart visiting the king to demand he abdicate the throne.

The plot would be more realistic (though less dramatic) if it took place in a parliamentary democracy that is not a monarchical system, where the ceremonial head of state may very well clash with the head of government because he is likely to come from within the political sphere, not hover above it like a royal figurehead. Such is the case in Israel, where the president–currently Shimon Peres–hasn’t much power except one important decision: his blessing must be sought and received for the formation of a governing coalition.

The general practice is that the party that wins the most seats in the preceding Knesset election gets the nod. But the fragmentation of Israeli party politics has made this less than a sure thing. Peres is retiring after his term is up, and the race to succeed him has taken a strange turn. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wants to avoid a House of Cards-like situation where he must contend with a political animal. Yet while Urquhart’s ploy was to dethrone a king to “save” the monarchy, Netanyahu had a different idea: get rid of the presidency altogether.

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The second season of the original House of Cards trilogy revolves around the British prime minister’s open feud with the king of England. The Crown is supposed to be apolitical, or at least nonpartisan, and eventually Prime Minister Francis Urquhart bests the king in the court of public opinion. The plot culminates in Urquhart visiting the king to demand he abdicate the throne.

The plot would be more realistic (though less dramatic) if it took place in a parliamentary democracy that is not a monarchical system, where the ceremonial head of state may very well clash with the head of government because he is likely to come from within the political sphere, not hover above it like a royal figurehead. Such is the case in Israel, where the president–currently Shimon Peres–hasn’t much power except one important decision: his blessing must be sought and received for the formation of a governing coalition.

The general practice is that the party that wins the most seats in the preceding Knesset election gets the nod. But the fragmentation of Israeli party politics has made this less than a sure thing. Peres is retiring after his term is up, and the race to succeed him has taken a strange turn. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wants to avoid a House of Cards-like situation where he must contend with a political animal. Yet while Urquhart’s ploy was to dethrone a king to “save” the monarchy, Netanyahu had a different idea: get rid of the presidency altogether.

This was too clever by half, but there was logic to it. Netanyahu has presided over an unusually stable term as prime minister. Part of that is due to his political instincts and part to the fact that his Likud resides at the precise point on Israel’s ideological spectrum so as to maximize public support. The country is center-right, and so is Likud. The Israeli left has been in freefall since the collapse of the Clinton parameters and the second intifada, and the effort to draft disgraced former prime minister Ehud Olmert–egged on by American journalists who suffer from Bibi Derangement Syndrome far more than the Israelis who would actually have to live under another Olmert administration–collapsed as expected.

That means the main intrigue has been who Bibi’s coalition partners will be. The truth is, he doesn’t care too much, because the Israeli political equilibrium virtually guarantees that his coalition partners will usually include some religious/ethnic minority representation and a secular nationalist party, with some room for token peace processers like Tzipi Livni. All Netanyahu really cares about is that he presides over that coalition, the outlines of which have remained remarkably stable in recent elections.

That leaves one real threat to Netanyahu’s premiership: the president, because theoretically the president could simply offer the ability to form a governing coalition to the head of one of the other major parties. This can be more democratic than it sounds: Livni, after all, bested Netanyahu in the vote count in 2009 but couldn’t form a coalition. Yet the only reason she won the election was because the public assumed Bibi’s Likud had it in the bag and so they shifted some votes to other right-of-center parties to ensure a center-right coalition led by Likud. And that’s what they got.

Netanyahu is apparently concerned that he could be a victim of the right’s own success. That is, there are so many right-of-center vote-getters that it’s conceivable a coalition could be formed without Netanyahu’s Likud at the head of it. It’s probably a long shot, but it’s the one way a restless right wing could get around Netanyahu’s hold on power.

His plan, then, was to find a way to delay the presidential election so he could get through the Knesset a bill that would abolish the presidency and make the leading vote-getter automatically the prime minister. Just a few years ago, such a move would have kept Netanyahu out of the Prime Minister’s Office. Not so today.

But in practice, the plan ran aground. Such a bill would have approximately zero percent chance of passing. So while it’s understandable that Netanyahu would want this, it’s difficult to picture a way for it to happen. It should be noted that an Israeli president meddling in party politics is far from unheard of. This is easily forgotten because the post is currently held by elder statesman extraordinaire Shimon Peres, who is 90 and has been fighting for Israel since before Netanyahu was born. Peres revels in the ceremonial job, and he’s more than earned it. He is also a man of the left.

The primary threat to Netanyahu comes from the right, not the left. That is, if a right-winger with an axe to grind were to win the presidency, he might be tempted to empower one of Netanyahu’s rivals. Peres has no desire to elevate anyone to Bibi’s right. The race thus far has been a bit nasty, with allegations of long-ago misconduct already chasing Likud’s Silvan Shalom from the contest. Likud’s Reuven Rivlin, Labor’s Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, and Hatnua’s Meir Sheetrit are among the candidates for the election, currently scheduled for June 10.

Netanyahu’s gamble will probably not do him any lasting damage. But neither does it seem to have been worth the trouble. Bibi is no Francis Urquhart, and he is not up against royalty. The man most likely to get in Benjamin Netanyahu’s way remains, it seems, Benjamin Netanyahu.

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The Rule of Law in the Middle East

A reminder of why Israel is the United States’ only genuine democratic ally in the Middle East came today in the form of a story that is thought to be a black eye for the Jewish state. Ehud Olmert, the former prime minister of Israel and favorite of peace processors everywhere, was sentenced to six years in prison on corruption charges. Olmert’s downfall was as precipitous as it was unexpected. Political corruption is not unknown in Israel, but accusations against other political leaders had, with a few exceptions, rarely led to jail terms for those involved. Most savvy Israeli political observers seemed to have thought Olmert would also escape, especially since an earlier trial had resulted in a legal slap on the wrist for the slippery former PM rather than jail. But when his former top assistant dating back to his time as mayor of Jerusalem dropped the proverbial dime on him, it was clear that he had run out of “get out of jail free” cards.

This is good news for Israel since Olmert’s fate stands as a warning to the other members of the country’s political class that there are consequences for stealing. But it is also heartening for Americans to see again that although, like their own country, Israel is not perfect, it is still a nation where the rule of law prevails. Though the spectacle of a man with the Israeli equivalent of a Secret Service detail being hauled off to jail is sobering, the ability of the nation’s legal system to successfully prosecute a man who was not only powerful but well liked by its media as well as by the leaders of its sole superpower ally is proof that the Jewish state walks the walk about democracy and the rule of law. This provides not only a stark contrast to its undemocratic neighbors, but also gives the lie to the assumptions that are the foundation of the canards about it being an “apartheid state.”

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A reminder of why Israel is the United States’ only genuine democratic ally in the Middle East came today in the form of a story that is thought to be a black eye for the Jewish state. Ehud Olmert, the former prime minister of Israel and favorite of peace processors everywhere, was sentenced to six years in prison on corruption charges. Olmert’s downfall was as precipitous as it was unexpected. Political corruption is not unknown in Israel, but accusations against other political leaders had, with a few exceptions, rarely led to jail terms for those involved. Most savvy Israeli political observers seemed to have thought Olmert would also escape, especially since an earlier trial had resulted in a legal slap on the wrist for the slippery former PM rather than jail. But when his former top assistant dating back to his time as mayor of Jerusalem dropped the proverbial dime on him, it was clear that he had run out of “get out of jail free” cards.

This is good news for Israel since Olmert’s fate stands as a warning to the other members of the country’s political class that there are consequences for stealing. But it is also heartening for Americans to see again that although, like their own country, Israel is not perfect, it is still a nation where the rule of law prevails. Though the spectacle of a man with the Israeli equivalent of a Secret Service detail being hauled off to jail is sobering, the ability of the nation’s legal system to successfully prosecute a man who was not only powerful but well liked by its media as well as by the leaders of its sole superpower ally is proof that the Jewish state walks the walk about democracy and the rule of law. This provides not only a stark contrast to its undemocratic neighbors, but also gives the lie to the assumptions that are the foundation of the canards about it being an “apartheid state.”

The comparison between Israel and the surrounding Arab countries, including Hamas-ruled Gaza and the autonomous Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, is all too obvious. In a region of the world where governments are only changed via coups and murder and where concepts about the rule of law are often seen as an alien Western innovation, Israeli democracy stands out as a beacon that attracts even the admiration of those who profess to wish to destroy it.

But let’s understand that the claims that Israel is, in effect, a limited democracy that doesn’t afford equal rights under the law for all of its citizens is also undermined by what happened to Olmert. For all of the imperfections that are part of any democracy, Israel is a country with an independent judiciary and laws that are applied across the board. The false charges that it discriminates against Arabs are given the lie by the fact that even West Bank Arabs—who remain governed by the Jordanian laws that existed before 1967 or Palestinian Authority regulations—can appeal to the Israeli courts for justice against the Israeli army and government.

The rule of law in Israel is, as is also the case for the United States, a foundation for its democratic governance and its successful economy. Stating this seems obvious to the country’s friends and admirers. But at a time when it is increasingly under assault from those advocating boycotts against it, the reality of life in democratic Israel is often being obscured by the “apartheid” libels wielded by critics whose purpose is not reform but to destroy it. That is especially true on college campuses, where, as I wrote last week, BDS (boycott, divest, sanctions) advocates are seeking to stigmatize those who visit the country because those who do so learn the truth.

So rather than mourning the fall of a sleazy politician who behaved in the manner that we associate with American urban political machines rather than the heroic “warrior” culture we generally associate with Israeli leaders, the country’s friends should be celebrating this story. Whenever the rule of law triumphs, democracy is strengthened.

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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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The Silver Lining in Israel’s Legal Dramas

The conviction of former Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert on corruption charges, stemming from his tenure as mayor of Jerusalem, no doubt dismays his supporters who were hoping he would stage a political comeback. It also, no doubt, dismays many Israelis who must be wondering about the quality of their political leaders.

Olmert is, of course, just the latest senior Israeli figure to be convicted of crimes. Former president Moshe Katsav is now serving a prison sentence for rape. Former finance minister Abraham Hirschson was sent to jail for five years in 2009 for “stealing more than $500,000 from a trade union he led before becoming a cabinet member.” Another former cabinet minister, Shlomo Benizri, was sentenced the same year for taking tribes. Former defense minister and general Yitzhak Mordechai was convicted in 2001 of two counts of sexual assault. Others, such as former foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman, have been tried and acquitted.

So should Israelis be worried that they are being governed by a pack of crooks and predators? Undoubtedly corruption is a problem in Israeli politics–as it is everywhere. But Israel still ranks head and shoulders above its neighbors on any measure of governance and (no coincidence) on economic performance.

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The conviction of former Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert on corruption charges, stemming from his tenure as mayor of Jerusalem, no doubt dismays his supporters who were hoping he would stage a political comeback. It also, no doubt, dismays many Israelis who must be wondering about the quality of their political leaders.

Olmert is, of course, just the latest senior Israeli figure to be convicted of crimes. Former president Moshe Katsav is now serving a prison sentence for rape. Former finance minister Abraham Hirschson was sent to jail for five years in 2009 for “stealing more than $500,000 from a trade union he led before becoming a cabinet member.” Another former cabinet minister, Shlomo Benizri, was sentenced the same year for taking tribes. Former defense minister and general Yitzhak Mordechai was convicted in 2001 of two counts of sexual assault. Others, such as former foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman, have been tried and acquitted.

So should Israelis be worried that they are being governed by a pack of crooks and predators? Undoubtedly corruption is a problem in Israeli politics–as it is everywhere. But Israel still ranks head and shoulders above its neighbors on any measure of governance and (no coincidence) on economic performance.

The latest Transparency International survey of global corruption puts Israel at No. 36 out of 177 countries. It is far behind clean government leaders Denmark and New Zealand, but it is ahead of every other country in the Middle East except for UAE and Qatar, where corruption is a lot more difficult to measure because it is hard to know where public revenues end and royal family income begins.

The fact that Israel is actually able to prosecute and convict former prime ministers and presidents is a stunning achievement which would be unthinkable in most countries where leaders wind up in the dock only when their regime is overthrown. (Think Egypt.) While Israelis do have some cause for concern about the quality of their politics, on the whole, I would argue that they should take pride in their ability to hold political leaders to account. While the neighboring Arab states may well crow over Olmert’s conviction–there is no love lost for him because of his role in directing the 2006 war against Hezbollah–their populations, reading the news, may well wonder why their own politicians aren’t being exposed for their far greater thievery.

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Another Netanyahu Rival Eliminated

Today brought another piece of bad news for Israelis and Americans who have been desperately searching for someone, anyone, to pose a credible challenge to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The plea bargain agreed to by a top aide to former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert seems to put a bow on the case that state prosecutors have been trying to build against him for years. Shula Zaken, who ran Olmert’s office when he was mayor of Jerusalem as well as prime minister, has reportedly agreed to tell all about his corrupt dealings, both in the Holyland affair, which is currently being tried, and on other charges, including those on which the former PM had either drawn a slap on the wrist or been acquitted. Even worse than detailing the way he diverted money illegally into his own accounts, Zaken allegedly has a tape of Olmert pressuring her to clam up about his crimes in exchange for money that will undoubtedly lead to an obstruction of justice charge.

This is hardly good news for Israelis who have already seen a president sent to jail for rape (Moshe Katsav) and a leading candidate for that largely symbolic office (Silvan Shalom, a member of Netanyahu’s cabinet), disqualified by similar charges just this month. But aside from the dismal spectacle of someone who is protected by the Shin Bet much in the way former U.S. presidents are guarded by the Secret Service being hauled off to jail, Olmert’s fate also makes it just a little more difficult to imagine anyone mounting an effective challenge to Netanyahu in 2017 when he will be up for reelection.

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Today brought another piece of bad news for Israelis and Americans who have been desperately searching for someone, anyone, to pose a credible challenge to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The plea bargain agreed to by a top aide to former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert seems to put a bow on the case that state prosecutors have been trying to build against him for years. Shula Zaken, who ran Olmert’s office when he was mayor of Jerusalem as well as prime minister, has reportedly agreed to tell all about his corrupt dealings, both in the Holyland affair, which is currently being tried, and on other charges, including those on which the former PM had either drawn a slap on the wrist or been acquitted. Even worse than detailing the way he diverted money illegally into his own accounts, Zaken allegedly has a tape of Olmert pressuring her to clam up about his crimes in exchange for money that will undoubtedly lead to an obstruction of justice charge.

This is hardly good news for Israelis who have already seen a president sent to jail for rape (Moshe Katsav) and a leading candidate for that largely symbolic office (Silvan Shalom, a member of Netanyahu’s cabinet), disqualified by similar charges just this month. But aside from the dismal spectacle of someone who is protected by the Shin Bet much in the way former U.S. presidents are guarded by the Secret Service being hauled off to jail, Olmert’s fate also makes it just a little more difficult to imagine anyone mounting an effective challenge to Netanyahu in 2017 when he will be up for reelection.

I have always been skeptical about the notion that Olmert had any chance to return to the prime minister’s office or even a leading role in the Knesset. Even if you assumed, as many Israelis did, that state prosecutors would never be able to secure a conviction on any of the many corruption charges lodged against Olmert, the main problem he faced was the public’s memory of his inglorious record as prime minister.

Like most of the leading opportunists of both the Likud and Labor who joined the late Ariel Sharon’s Kadima Party in 2005, Olmert thought it was a ticket to office. But few Israelis were thinking that the creation of the centrist group (formed to back Sharon’s disastrous Gaza withdrawal plan) would lead to Olmert’s becoming prime minister. But that’s what happened when Sharon was felled by a cerebral hemorrhage in January 2006. Olmert won the election that followed on the basis of Sharon’s memory. But within months the outbreak of a war with Hezbollah along Israel’s northern border exposed him as unready for power.

His weak leadership contributed to the disastrous outcome of that conflict as well as the worsening of the situation along the border with Gaza as Gilad Shalit’s kidnapping and the ceaseless bombardment of southern Israel by Hamas missiles showed. In the waning months of his three-year administration (he chose not to seek reelection because of the pending corruption cases against him) Olmert redeemed his reputation somewhat by ordering the Cast Lead offensive into Gaza to stop the rockets. He also gained applause in the U.S. and among Israeli left-wingers by making a peace offer to the Palestinians of independence and statehood that exceeded even the ones made by Ehud Barak to Yasir Arafat. But Mahmoud Abbas fled the negotiations rather than give him an answer.

Nevertheless, Olmert was deeply unpopular for almost his entire term in office. At one point his favorability ratings were actually in the single digits and overlapped with the pollsters’ margin of error, opening up the possibility that almost no one in the country approved of his job performance. Nevertheless, Olmert’s ability to escape punishment on the first charges on which he was tried led some to believe he could mount a comeback. With none of the heads of Israel’s various parties other than Netanyahu thought to be ready for the post of prime minister, Olmert’s experience made him a possibility to lead a center-left coalition against the Likud leader. Frequent speaking engagements where liberal American Jews applauded him for his criticisms of Netanyahu convinced some that he had a political future as a peace candidate.

That’s all over now. Left-wing critics of Netanyahu must hope that one of the PM’s rivals, such as Labor Party head Isaac Herzog, will emerge as a genuine competitor in the next three years. But whatever happens in the coming months and years—and Israeli politics will remain deeply influenced by the refusal of the Palestinians to make peace—Netanyahu needn’t worry about Olmert anymore.  

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Don’t Ignore Olmert’s Lesson in Futility

Those who choose to absolve the Palestinians of any responsibility for their own plight are faced with a difficult dilemma. After 20 years of peace processing that have included enormous concessions on the part of Israel, including the empowerment of the PLO in the West Bank and Gaza via Oslo, the withdrawal from Gaza and three separate offers of an independent Palestinian state that the Palestinian Authority rejected, it ought to be impossible for an objective observer to argue that Israel has not tried to make peace. But that hasn’t the stopped the Arab and Muslim worlds as well as American and Jewish apologists for the Palestinians from still trying to portray them as the victims of an intransigent Israel. When confronted with the chance for statehood they were given in 2000, 2001 and 2008, they argue that the offers were insufficient even if it isn’t clear what, short of Israel’s dissolution, would satisfy them.

These are important facts to remember as Secretary of State John Kerry tries to restart the peace talks the Palestinians have boycotted for four and half years. Though the political realities of Palestinian life—the most stark of which is the fact that the Islamists of Hamas control Gaza and exercise an effective veto over peace—make it clear his effort is a fool’s errand, Kerry and those inclined to blame Israel for the lack of peace are hoping to get the Palestinians back to the table and to agree to what they’ve already repeatedly rejected. It is in that context that we should understand the importance of former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s recollections of his 2008 attempt to make a deal with Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas. Olmert gives a detailed accounting of his negotiations with Abbas in an interview in The Tower, which is important not just as a matter of historical detail and the curious fact that he and Abbas sketched out the proposed borders of a deal on a napkin and then on a piece of stationery. By explaining just how far-reaching the Israeli offer was, Olmert demonstrates just how empty the Palestinian excuses for their refusal to make peace really are.

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Those who choose to absolve the Palestinians of any responsibility for their own plight are faced with a difficult dilemma. After 20 years of peace processing that have included enormous concessions on the part of Israel, including the empowerment of the PLO in the West Bank and Gaza via Oslo, the withdrawal from Gaza and three separate offers of an independent Palestinian state that the Palestinian Authority rejected, it ought to be impossible for an objective observer to argue that Israel has not tried to make peace. But that hasn’t the stopped the Arab and Muslim worlds as well as American and Jewish apologists for the Palestinians from still trying to portray them as the victims of an intransigent Israel. When confronted with the chance for statehood they were given in 2000, 2001 and 2008, they argue that the offers were insufficient even if it isn’t clear what, short of Israel’s dissolution, would satisfy them.

These are important facts to remember as Secretary of State John Kerry tries to restart the peace talks the Palestinians have boycotted for four and half years. Though the political realities of Palestinian life—the most stark of which is the fact that the Islamists of Hamas control Gaza and exercise an effective veto over peace—make it clear his effort is a fool’s errand, Kerry and those inclined to blame Israel for the lack of peace are hoping to get the Palestinians back to the table and to agree to what they’ve already repeatedly rejected. It is in that context that we should understand the importance of former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s recollections of his 2008 attempt to make a deal with Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas. Olmert gives a detailed accounting of his negotiations with Abbas in an interview in The Tower, which is important not just as a matter of historical detail and the curious fact that he and Abbas sketched out the proposed borders of a deal on a napkin and then on a piece of stationery. By explaining just how far-reaching the Israeli offer was, Olmert demonstrates just how empty the Palestinian excuses for their refusal to make peace really are.

The offer was every bit as far-reaching as previously reported. Olmert was not just prepared to sanction Palestinian independence in almost all of the West Bank, Gaza and a share of Jerusalem. He was also prepared not just to partition the capital; He agreed to relinquish Israeli sovereignty over the center of Jewish religious and historical memory: the Old City of Jerusalem. Though the only period in history in which Jews or members of all faiths have had full access to the holy sites has been the 46 years that it has been under Israel’s control, Olmert was prepared to abandon that in favor of a special committee made up of representatives from Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the United States, Israel and the Palestinians that would jointly administer the Old City. He also agreed to take thousands of Palestinian refugees into Israel as a symbolic bow to the Palestinian “right of return.” In order to keep some of its major settlement blocs in the West Bank, he was also prepared to hand over large chunks of Israel to make it an even swap.

But Abbas couldn’t take yes for an answer.

Indeed, the Palestinian leader wouldn’t even initial the hand-drawn map of the deal. Nor did he ever dignify this generous offer with a response. As Olmert puts it, he’s still waiting for a phone call from Abbas with his answer.

The reason for that is not exactly a secret. Abbas could not say yes because doing so meant recognizing the legitimacy of the Jewish state that would remain in the parts of the country Olmert had agreed to give up. And that is not something he could do and survive in the violent world of Palestinian politics. Since Palestinian nationalism was founded out of the desire to reject Zionism, it is simply impossible for it to make its peace with a Jewish state no matter where its borders might be drawn.

Olmert’s proposal is vulnerable to criticism because it creates a new divided Jerusalem that would be an unbearable mess. So, too, would his limited right of return for Palestinians and the tunnel he wanted to dig between Gaza and the West Bank. But the real problem is that, like Ehud Barak, who also tried to give the Palestinians almost everything they said they wanted, he got nothing in exchange for offers that compromised Israel’s rights.

In Olmert’s view the only conclusion to be drawn from this failure is that Abbas is, “no hero.” He’s right about that, but the lesson from this episode goes deeper than Abbas’s lack of heroism. If a Palestinian leader couldn’t bring himself to take an offer like that—one, I might add, that gives up far more in Jerusalem than most Israelis thought acceptable—than what this shows is that the 36 meetings Olmert had with Abbas was a charade. The only point of this process for the Palestinians is to use any concessions they get as the floor for future negotiations and demands. The result is that Israel continues to abandon its rights—including not just West Bank settlements but the most sacred places in Judaism—while getting neither peace nor security.

Olmert says he’s proud of his efforts, but all he really accomplished was to demonstrate once again that real peace with the Palestinians remains an illusion for the foreseeable future. 

Those expecting Kerry to improve on this record are in for a disappointment. 

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The Misplaced Faith in Abbas

Ben Birnbaum’s thoughtful, well-reported piece on the Israeli peace process is one of those articles that can easily be interpreted as in accordance with anyone’s preexisting worldview: it’s a Rorschach. If you think Mahmoud Abbas is primarily responsible for the lack of peace, that will be confirmed by the description of Ehud Olmert practically begging him to take an incredibly generous deal and Abbas walking away. If you think Olmert is to blame for offering a peace plan on which he could not follow through simply to save his reputation as he prepared to leave office under a cloud of scandal and an approval rating close to zero, you will shake your head at the desperation he showed.

If you think Olmert and Abbas were peacemakers surrounded by petty schemers, you will not be convinced otherwise as you read of Tzipi Livni’s advisors telling Abbas not to take the deal so she could swoop in and claim the glory for herself, or by the same old mindless and manipulative game being played by “advisors” and “negotiators” on the Palestinian side who have been there forever and a day. (The Israeli names change over time, but the Palestinian names are always Mahmoud Abbas, Saeb Erekat, and Hanan Ashrawi.) So that’s the politicians; what about the people? In Israel, the people support peace, Birnbaum reports. The Palestinian people, however–that’s another story. Birnbaum chooses a delicate framing when he references a recent poll that “showed Palestinians preferred Hamas’s approach to ending the Israeli occupation over that of Abbas by a two-to-one margin.” I’m sure everyone can imagine what “Hamas’s approach” would mean, but for the record here’s the actual question from that poll (results, from left to right, are: total, in the West Bank, and in Gaza):

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Ben Birnbaum’s thoughtful, well-reported piece on the Israeli peace process is one of those articles that can easily be interpreted as in accordance with anyone’s preexisting worldview: it’s a Rorschach. If you think Mahmoud Abbas is primarily responsible for the lack of peace, that will be confirmed by the description of Ehud Olmert practically begging him to take an incredibly generous deal and Abbas walking away. If you think Olmert is to blame for offering a peace plan on which he could not follow through simply to save his reputation as he prepared to leave office under a cloud of scandal and an approval rating close to zero, you will shake your head at the desperation he showed.

If you think Olmert and Abbas were peacemakers surrounded by petty schemers, you will not be convinced otherwise as you read of Tzipi Livni’s advisors telling Abbas not to take the deal so she could swoop in and claim the glory for herself, or by the same old mindless and manipulative game being played by “advisors” and “negotiators” on the Palestinian side who have been there forever and a day. (The Israeli names change over time, but the Palestinian names are always Mahmoud Abbas, Saeb Erekat, and Hanan Ashrawi.) So that’s the politicians; what about the people? In Israel, the people support peace, Birnbaum reports. The Palestinian people, however–that’s another story. Birnbaum chooses a delicate framing when he references a recent poll that “showed Palestinians preferred Hamas’s approach to ending the Israeli occupation over that of Abbas by a two-to-one margin.” I’m sure everyone can imagine what “Hamas’s approach” would mean, but for the record here’s the actual question from that poll (results, from left to right, are: total, in the West Bank, and in Gaza):

birnbaum

Given the success of Israel’s military counteroffensives against Hamas in Gaza, this is not simply a vote of no confidence. No confidence would be eight or nine steps up from where Abbas and negotiations currently rank among the Palestinians in both the West Bank and Gaza.

Though the article lays out the case that Abbas is the last chance for peace between the two peoples, it really ends up making a slightly different point: Arafat ruined his would-be country; Abbas is finishing it off for good. That’s because, as Jonathan Schanzer has reported and Birnbaum echoes here, Abbas has no successor. Hamas is waiting in the wings, which is why it may not even matter. Birnbaum went to Gaza, he said, to find the elusive moderate Hamasnik. Here is a quote from the single most moderate Hamas person he spoke to, Ahmed Yousef, when Birnbaum raised the issue of the Jews needing and deserving a safe haven:

“Go to Germany,” he replied curtly. “All the Jews of Europe should go back to their countries. Jews of the Arab world should go back to their towns and cities in the Arab world. We are ready to help them even, to prepare ships.”

Keep that in mind as we are told again and again that there are moderate, pragmatic Hamasniks who understand political reality and need only be given the chance to participate in the process. “Go to Germany” is the nicest thing Hamas has to say.

Abbas’s health is failing, Birnbaum reports, though it’s unclear how quickly. And Fatah is a mess. And Hamas is willing to let the Jews live on the condition they go back to Germany. And yet it is unclear why this is such a compelling case to sign a deal with Abbas. He appears to represent virtually no one, which means there is no one to uphold any deal after Abbas. What could such an agreement be worth, even if miraculously signed?

In fact, for those who said Olmert couldn’t possibly muster the political capital to follow through on his deal–and rightly so–what’s the argument that Abbas could follow through on his end? Sharon at least had Olmert, who tried to keep making concessions. And Olmert had Livni, who tried foolishly to oust Olmert when his back was turned but at least was willing to pick up the peacemaking mantle she attempted to pry from his hands.

Arafat could enforce an agreement, though he’d never sign one. Abbas can’t do either. Birnbaum’s piece makes clear Abbas is avoiding negotiations with Netanyahu, who American advisors told Birnbaum is much more willing to make peace than his critics say. But we already knew that. Abbas has no desire for a true, lasting peace. But we already knew that too.

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Ma’ale Adumim, E-1, and the Two-State Solution

Ma’ale Adumim, located immediately east of Jerusalem, and the E-1 corridor that connects it to the city, have always been (as Jonathan noted) part of the “Everyone Knows Two-State Solution”–“everyone knows” it will remain in Israel while the Palestinians get close to 95 percent of the disputed territory. In an editorial yesterday entitled “The Logic of E-1,” the Jerusalem Post shows that the Netanyahu government’s decision to authorize planning for E-1 “follows in the footsteps of a long chain of governments – both left wing and right wing,” going all the way back to Yitzhak Rabin; its retention was endorsed by Shimon Peres when he was prime minister; was allocated to Israel in the 2000 “Clinton Parameters;” and was retained in the 2008 Olmert offer.

Ma’ale Adumim is not going to be dismantled in any conceivable peace agreement – not only because there are nearly 40,000 Israelis living there, but because it is located on the hills that overlook Jerusalem and the Jordan Valley. It is one of the most strategic areas in the Land. Whoever holds it commands the high ground, which is why no Israeli prime minister will ever yield it. Its retention (along with other major settlement blocs) would not preclude a contiguous Palestinian state on land equal to about 95 percent of the West Bank, as David Makovsky proved last year in his extensive report for the Washington Institute; and it is obviously part of defensible borders for Israel.

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Ma’ale Adumim, located immediately east of Jerusalem, and the E-1 corridor that connects it to the city, have always been (as Jonathan noted) part of the “Everyone Knows Two-State Solution”–“everyone knows” it will remain in Israel while the Palestinians get close to 95 percent of the disputed territory. In an editorial yesterday entitled “The Logic of E-1,” the Jerusalem Post shows that the Netanyahu government’s decision to authorize planning for E-1 “follows in the footsteps of a long chain of governments – both left wing and right wing,” going all the way back to Yitzhak Rabin; its retention was endorsed by Shimon Peres when he was prime minister; was allocated to Israel in the 2000 “Clinton Parameters;” and was retained in the 2008 Olmert offer.

Ma’ale Adumim is not going to be dismantled in any conceivable peace agreement – not only because there are nearly 40,000 Israelis living there, but because it is located on the hills that overlook Jerusalem and the Jordan Valley. It is one of the most strategic areas in the Land. Whoever holds it commands the high ground, which is why no Israeli prime minister will ever yield it. Its retention (along with other major settlement blocs) would not preclude a contiguous Palestinian state on land equal to about 95 percent of the West Bank, as David Makovsky proved last year in his extensive report for the Washington Institute; and it is obviously part of defensible borders for Israel.

Back in 2008, in the midst of the year-long Annapolis Process–which eventually produced the third Israeli offer within eight years of a Palestinian state on substantially all the West Bank and Gaza–Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met with Ahmed Qurei, who was then the Palestinian prime minister leading the Palestinian negotiating team. According to Al Jazeera, in a report on the “Palestine Papers” leaked in 2011, the following conversation took place:

Rice: I don’t think that any Israeli leader is going to cede Ma’ale Adumim.

Qurei: Or any Palestinian leader.

Rice: Then you won’t have a state!

No Israeli prime minister is ever going to trade Ma’ale Adumim and E-1 for the magic beans of a Palestinian peace agreement, particularly now that the Palestinians have broken the one they already signed, which prohibited them (as Alana Goodman showed) from taking “any step” to change the legal status of the disputed territories outside of final status negotiations.

In going to the UN for a symbolic state (they don’t qualify for a real one), the Palestinians not only violated their central commitment under the governing document of the “peace process,” but enshrined in their resolution a demand for land Israel will obviously retain if there is ever a peace agreement that can be enforced, as opposed to merely signed. Assuming a (second) state is their goal, the Palestinians set it back, and now are predictably complaining about the consequences of their own action.

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Did Bibi Slap Obama in the Face?

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.

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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.

It should be remembered that Olmert offered the Palestinian Authority a state in almost all of the West Bank, Gaza and a share in Jerusalem with the PA to be compensated for Israel’s retention of the settlement blocs with swaps of territory. Among those areas to be held by Israel was the Maale Adumim bloc of suburbs just outside of Jerusalem.

Whenever he is in America earning speaking honorariums from liberal groups, Olmert is always careful to praise PA head Mahmoud Abbas as a genuine partner for peace, even though he didn’t accept Olmert’s proposal just as his predecessor Yasir Arafat rejected Ehud Barak’s offers. Olmert claims that if he had just had a few more months in office, the two could have crafted a deal and brought about peace. But such assertions are either delusional or mendacious.

It is true that Abbas didn’t definitively turn down Olmert’s offer. He was so afraid of the political consequences of making a deal that recognized the legitimacy of a Jewish state that he fled the negotiations without saying anything. That left Olmert free to pretend that if he hadn’t been driven from office by both corruption charges and crushing unpopularity (at one point during his dismal tenure in office, his poll ratings were so low they were within the survey’s margin of error), he could have made a peace that Netanyahu has failed to achieve. But anyone who has paid the slightest attention to the situation knows this is utterly false.

The point here is not just that Olmert’s self-promotion is both deceptive and in bad taste. It is that his own vision of peace with the Palestinians would have left Israel in control of Maale Adumim and the E1 area that is supposedly so controversial that any Jewish building there is both an obstacle to peace and an insult to Obama. Had Abbas not sped away from the talks with Olmert and actually signed the deal he was offered, Israel would have had the right to build in these areas. That leaves us asking how Netanyahu’s decision to treat areas that would be held by Israel even after it surrendered both the Arab areas of Jerusalem and most of the West Bank would somehow prevent an accord.

This “slap” to Obama is much the same as the trumped-up “insult” to Vice President Joe Biden in 2010 when another housing project in a 40-year-old Jewish neighborhood in Jerusalem was approved while he was visiting the city. Unless the United States were to take the position that those neighborhoods must also be handed over to the Palestinians, how could building there prevent a deal that would divide the city by the handing over of the predominantly Arab portions of the city?

Few Israelis share Olmert’s high opinion of his own record or his belief in Abbas’s devotion to peace. But their evaluation of the former PM hasn’t penetrated into the thinking of many American Jewish liberals who cling to the notion that Israel can magically produce peace via concessions despite the fact that even Palestinian “moderates” have demonstrated they have no interest in signing a peace deal.

President Obama needs no help from Olmert in finding reasons to dislike Netanyahu, even though he is almost certainly fated to spend the next four years dealing with him. However, for any Israeli to try and exacerbate the situation in order to feather their own nest ought to be beyond the pale. Netanyahu’s decision was no insult to Obama. Olmert is welcome to come here as often as he likes and to bolster his legal defense fund. But it is outrageous for him to use these junkets to try and undermine the delicate relationship between the U.S. and Israel by making misleading statements about the peace process that contradict his own past stands.

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Palestinian UN Bid Not About Peace

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.

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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.

The decision of most European countries to line up behind the PA seems to be based on the same reasoning put forward by Olmert. They think that after Hamas’s attention-getting terrorist missile offensive against Israel it is necessary for those who would prefer the PA to lead the Palestinians rather than the Islamists to give Abbas a shot in the arm. The win today in New York will give him that, but the vote shouldn’t be mistaken for anything that will advance peace. In fact, the whole point of the exercise is to help Abbas avoid being cornered into a negotiation like the one he abandoned with Olmert.

Understanding this requires observers to stop their myopic obsession with Israel and to focus on the real obstacle to a two-state solution: the inability of the PA to ever sign an accord that will accept the legitimacy of a Jewish state alongside a Palestinian state no matter where its borders are drawn.

Netanyahu’s critics consistently decry his lack of a long-term strategy for dealing with the Palestinians and achieving peace. In a sense they’re right, since the prime minister and most Israelis don’t believe peace is possible in the immediate or perhaps even the foreseeable future because of the PA’s refusal to negotiate or to contemplate the sort of compromises needed for an agreement.

But the PA can justly be accused of the same thing. Abbas has no long-term strategy, since he won’t or can’t make peace with even an Israeli leader like Olmert who was willing to make drastic concessions, and doesn’t want to return to fighting the Israelis as his predecessor Yasir Arafat did during the second intifada and as Hamas continues to do.

All Abbas can do is to hang on in the West Bank. His strategy is to avoid elections that he might lose to the increasingly popular Hamas while also evading peace talks with the Israelis while also seeking to maintain a security relationship with the Jewish state that keeps his corrupt and discredited regime in place.

The show at the UN is perfect for Abbas since it does nothing to hinder those objects, especially since the Israelis have wisely decided not to retaliate for his stunt.

The problem for the PA will come next year as a re-elected President Obama will likely attempt to revive a peace process that Abbas has spent the last four years dodging. By then, the UN vote will be just one more propaganda move that will heighten Israel’s diplomatic isolation but achieve nothing tangible for Palestinians. Meanwhile, Hamas continues to rule a real independent Palestinian state in all but name that makes Abbas’s Ramallah outfit look like Israeli puppets.

Those expecting today’s vote will do anything to advance the moribund talks are dreaming, and not just because the upgrade will make mischief for Israel in international forums. Peace talks are the last thing Abbas wants.

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For Israel’s Critics, Reality Intervenes Again

Ever since Israel ceased to be dominated by one political party, when Menachem Begin’s Likud finally won the 1977 national elections, there has been a striking and ever-increasing disconnect between the Israeli left and the Western, especially American, left. The Israeli leftist establishment was not innocent this disconnect; they in fact planted the seeds. As the Columbia Journalism Review recently noted in an article about Israel and American media bias, Israeli establishment figures like Abba Eban were very close with the New York Times and other American outlets, and after Begin’s victory they worked assiduously to sabotage Israeli relations with American media figures.

The American press bought it hook, line and sinker, and their coverage reflected it: the Likud was not to be taken seriously as an electoral force, for they would disappear soon, but they were to be taken seriously as a threat to the moral order, for they were dangerous warmongers who could not be trusted. Not much has changed in the way the Israeli right has been portrayed in the press, but this behavior has poisoned relations with Israel in part because the Israeli electorate has now overwhelmingly embraced Likudnik politics. So it is no longer just the Likud portrayed as racists and fascists; it is the Israeli Jewish population on the whole.

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Ever since Israel ceased to be dominated by one political party, when Menachem Begin’s Likud finally won the 1977 national elections, there has been a striking and ever-increasing disconnect between the Israeli left and the Western, especially American, left. The Israeli leftist establishment was not innocent this disconnect; they in fact planted the seeds. As the Columbia Journalism Review recently noted in an article about Israel and American media bias, Israeli establishment figures like Abba Eban were very close with the New York Times and other American outlets, and after Begin’s victory they worked assiduously to sabotage Israeli relations with American media figures.

The American press bought it hook, line and sinker, and their coverage reflected it: the Likud was not to be taken seriously as an electoral force, for they would disappear soon, but they were to be taken seriously as a threat to the moral order, for they were dangerous warmongers who could not be trusted. Not much has changed in the way the Israeli right has been portrayed in the press, but this behavior has poisoned relations with Israel in part because the Israeli electorate has now overwhelmingly embraced Likudnik politics. So it is no longer just the Likud portrayed as racists and fascists; it is the Israeli Jewish population on the whole.

Of course, this caricature of the Likud in particular, and Israelis in general, is nothing more than a fantasy. But this fantasy world is the one inhabited by the Western press, and Israeli publications viewed with suspicion in Israel but eagerly absorbed in America and Europe, like Haaretz. And we see the effects of this delusion every day: Should Ehud Olmert, the failed ex-prime minister just convicted of breach of trust while premier, return to lead the Israeli opposition to Benjamin Netanyahu? Yes, say the fantasists. Are you crazy? say those with memories longer than a week or so.

And it was only a matter of time before the American media backers of Olmert were blindsided by reality, and the folly of their choices; as Sheldon Adelson wrote here on Friday, Olmert has now taken to spreading conspiracy theories of powerful Jews like Adelson manipulating world leaders to exert control in the name of right-wing Zionism. Olmert’s behavior is: 1.) Gobsmackingly offensive to both countries; 2.) The behavior of a man who should clearly not be in charge of the Jewish state; and 3.) Entirely predictable.

Do Olmert’s backers in Washington- and New York-based publications think it wise for an aspiring Israeli prime minister to target leading Jewish philanthropic actors for character assassination in the name of leftist party politics?

The conversation around Netanyahu is perhaps less reality-based than even the talk about Olmert. There is a visceral hatred of Netanyahu in the press that colors and distorts a very observable reality. In 2010, after Peter Beinart had written his New York Review of Books attack on the “American Jewish establishment,” the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg pitched him a series of questions challenging some of Beinart’s assertions in the piece. The Israeli historian Yaacov Lozowick wrote a blog post after reading the third round of the interview, during which Beinart flatly asserted that Netanyahu came to power in 1996 explicitly opposing the Oslo process, and this curious fact went unchallenged by Goldberg. Lozowick wondered what country the two could have been talking about, because it sure wasn’t Israel. He explained that, leading up the elections, Likud held a series of meetings about its approach to Oslo that culminated in Netanyahu offering “an unequivocal acceptance of the fundamental structure of the Oslo process,” in Lozowick’s formulation. He continued:

When we went to the polls in May 1996, there were parties that were campaigning on platforms of rejection of the Oslo process, but the Likud wasn’t one of them. Since Netanyahu won the elections by less than one percent of the vote, it’s safe to say that had he not repositioned his party, he’d have lost.

Once he won he never (never: not once) rejected the Oslo process. He slowed it down, he added conditions, he did all sorts of things. But the leader of Likud was elected in 1996 on a platform that explicitly accepted the principle of partition.

14 years later – that’s all – a noticeable voice in American Jewry can glibly invent a story about Israel that contradicts the facts, and no-one calls him out on it because no-one knows any better, or if they do they join him in preferring to imagine a fantasy world rather than face reality.

Lozowick added that he did not vote for Netanyahu in any elections preceding that blog post, so he was not speaking as Likud’s defender or a partisan voice. He just didn’t understand the utter lack of interest in the truth.

If you believe what Beinart said about Netanyahu in 1996, Netanyahu’s entire career has been misconstrued and misrepresented, nearly from the beginning. But it surely goes back further, as CJR notes—it goes back to Likud’s first victory. From the moment Likud became a player in world politics by winning in 1977, it has been falsely presented to readers of the American press. And in the media’s desperation to stop Netanyahu, they have now turned to whitewashing the career of Olmert—a plan that was ill conceived and is already backfiring. Reality can only be kept at bay for so long.

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Ehud Olmert’s Conspiracy Theory

Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert recently advanced a curious conspiracy theory about me—a theory that would almost be flattering if it weren’t so absurd.

Olmert charged that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “intervened in the U.S. elections in the name of an American billionaire with a clear interest in the vote.” Without a shred of evidence, Olmert pontificated that the “very same billionaire used Israel’s prime minister to advance a nominee of his own for president.”

Think about what Olmert is claiming. He is not suggesting the typical nonsense that the Likud government used me to influence the American election. No, Olmert’s conspiracy theory is even more outlandish: he’s asserting that Netanyahu—who isn’t exactly known to be a pushover—somehow agreed to be my puppet during the U.S. presidential campaign.

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Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert recently advanced a curious conspiracy theory about me—a theory that would almost be flattering if it weren’t so absurd.

Olmert charged that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “intervened in the U.S. elections in the name of an American billionaire with a clear interest in the vote.” Without a shred of evidence, Olmert pontificated that the “very same billionaire used Israel’s prime minister to advance a nominee of his own for president.”

Think about what Olmert is claiming. He is not suggesting the typical nonsense that the Likud government used me to influence the American election. No, Olmert’s conspiracy theory is even more outlandish: he’s asserting that Netanyahu—who isn’t exactly known to be a pushover—somehow agreed to be my puppet during the U.S. presidential campaign.

When I read Olmert’s comments, it reminded me of the old joke about the Jewish man who preferred reading anti-Semitic newspapers because they tell such good news: how Jews control Congress, how Jews run the media, how Jews pull the strings of international politics. I’m not saying Olmert is being anti-Semitic, but he is crediting me with a degree of power that I simply don’t have. The prime minister of Israel is very much his own man. I can also attest that Bibi has always maintained a neutral position vis-à-vis the U.S. presidential election, as would any sensible Israeli leader.

In trying to make sense of Mr. Olmert’s claims, I can only conclude that he still bears a grudge. Before he left office under a host of corruption charges in 2009, his approval ratings plunged to single digits. It is widely known that he blames an investigative reporter at Israel Hayom for prompting the legal investigations which ultimately led not only to Olmert’s political downfall but also, sadly, his conviction this summer for breach of trust.

Much is made about my friendship with Benjamin Netanyahu, especially by Olmert and the Israeli newspaper Yediot Ahronot, which is a competitor of Israel Hayom. Conveniently forgotten is that I’m also a close friend with Shimon Peres, Elie Wiesel and Alan Dershowitz, the last of whom is an articulate and thoughtful supporter of President Obama. Netanyahu no more does my bidding than any of these other friends of mine.

Mr. Olmert, who is rumored to have his eye on political office, has every right to run a spirited campaign. But he’ll have to come up with more than conspiracy theories if he hopes to unseat Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

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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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How to Reset U.S.-Israel Relations?

The Washington Post poses an excellent question in its editorial today in which it ponders how best to “reset” relations between the United States and Israel. Though Democrats have spent the last year trying to pretend that all is well in the alliance, the distance that the Obama administration sought to put between the two nations from its first days in office has resulted in tension and an ongoing series of fights over settlements, Jerusalem, borders and how to deal with Iran. The president’s open dislike for Prime Minister Netanyahu while secondary to their policy disputes has also become a major impediment to amity.

While we don’t know who will be sitting in the Oval Office next year, there isn’t much doubt that the winner of the U.S. election will still have to deal with Netanyahu. That means both the president and Mitt Romney need to think how best to repair the damage that has been caused in the last four years. While many foreign policy experts scoff at Romney’s rhetoric about eliminating the “daylight” between the countries that Obama sought, he’s on the right track. Though the Post speculates (probably incorrectly) that Romney is as desirous of Netanyahu’s defeat in the Israeli elections scheduled for just after the U.S. inauguration festivities as Obama, the problem between the two countries is deeper than a personality conflict. It stems from a wrongheaded administration that continues to buy into the delusion that it understands Israel’s security needs and dilemmas better than the Israelis.

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The Washington Post poses an excellent question in its editorial today in which it ponders how best to “reset” relations between the United States and Israel. Though Democrats have spent the last year trying to pretend that all is well in the alliance, the distance that the Obama administration sought to put between the two nations from its first days in office has resulted in tension and an ongoing series of fights over settlements, Jerusalem, borders and how to deal with Iran. The president’s open dislike for Prime Minister Netanyahu while secondary to their policy disputes has also become a major impediment to amity.

While we don’t know who will be sitting in the Oval Office next year, there isn’t much doubt that the winner of the U.S. election will still have to deal with Netanyahu. That means both the president and Mitt Romney need to think how best to repair the damage that has been caused in the last four years. While many foreign policy experts scoff at Romney’s rhetoric about eliminating the “daylight” between the countries that Obama sought, he’s on the right track. Though the Post speculates (probably incorrectly) that Romney is as desirous of Netanyahu’s defeat in the Israeli elections scheduled for just after the U.S. inauguration festivities as Obama, the problem between the two countries is deeper than a personality conflict. It stems from a wrongheaded administration that continues to buy into the delusion that it understands Israel’s security needs and dilemmas better than the Israelis.

As much as many Americans desire Netanyahu’s defeat, that isn’t in the cards. The prime minister was already an overwhelming favorite to be re-elected but the odds of unseating him got a little slimmer today when Israeli prosecutors announced they would appeal former PM Ehud Olmert’s acquittals on corruption charges. Olmert got off with only one ethics conviction that brought no jail time and hoped to mount a political comeback by crafting an unlikely coalition of all of Netanyahu’s rivals. It would never have worked but with the threat of more trials (including one corruption charge on which he has yet to face a jury), the chances that Olmert can pull it off have gone from miniscule to virtually non-existent.

The Post notes that Netanyahu’s conflicts with the United States could cost him votes in January but that ignores the evidence of the last four years in which his popularity has increased every time he battled with Obama. That’s a stark contrast to his first term in office in the 1990s when his problem was Bill Clinton. The reason for the difference is that most Israelis understood Clinton was a genuine friend of the Jewish State. By contrast, polls have consistently shown that the majority of Israelis don’t trust Obama and view with less favor and trust than any of his predecessors. That the president chose to pick fights with Netanyahu on issues of Israeli consensus such as the status of Jerusalem made his defiance of Obama a lot easier.

Those who imagine that Romney would have no conflicts with Netanyahu are almost certainly wrong. The Israeli and American frames of references about some issues are always going to be slightly different even where there is broad agreement. No daylight is a good principle but it will be tested in the future even with the best of wills in Washington and Jerusalem.

That said there isn’t much mystery about what a productive reset would entail. The real problem isn’t Netanyahu’s prickly personality it is the unrealistic assumptions about the Middle East that passes for “realism” in much of the U.S. foreign policy establishment.

The irony here is that four years of battles between Obama and Israel were all unnecessary. They were predicated on the delusion that if only the U.S. pressured Israel to make concessions to the Palestinians, peace would be possible. It was obvious in January 2009 that the Palestinian Authority and its leader Mahmoud Abbas would never agree to a peace that would recognize legitimacy of the Jewish state no matter where its borders were drawn. Obama only made things worse by setting conditions for negotiations that only caused the Palestinians to be more intransigent and made it less likely that they would come to their senses about a realistic deal.

Similarly, the spats about setting “red lines” about Iran’s nuclear program was also the product of American illusions about negotiations succeeding when there was no reasonable hope for this to happen.

If the next president is able to discard these foolish ideas and take a cold hard look at the Middle East as it really is, he will see that the points of conflict with Netanyahu will be minimized.

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Can Abbas Resurrect Olmert’s Career?

The mini-boomlet fueling the attempted comeback of former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert got a boost yesterday from an unlikely source: Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas. As Haaretz reported, Abbas claims that had Olmert remained in office only a couple of months longer, peace might have been possible. Abbas praised Olmert in a meeting with a group of Israeli politicians in his Ramallah headquarters. This says more about Abbas’s desire to avoid blame for his walking away from Olmert’s offer of an independent Palestinian state in exchange for peace than it does about the latter’s political future. But even though Abbas has zero credibility with the Israeli public, this is a message that is integral to Olmert’s far-fetched hopes to replace Benjamin Netanyahu.

The Olmert scenario, promoted by such otherwise savvy observers like the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, is based on the idea that the Israeli people can be made to forget just how rotten a prime minister Olmert was and how unpopular he became during his three years in office because he can persuade the Palestinians to make peace. If what’s left of his Kadima Party backs him along with other opposition centrists as well as the left-wing Labor Party, then it is theoretically possible that this coalition can hold its own against incumbent Prime Minister Netanyahu and his center-right and religious party allies. The problem with this scenario is not just that Olmert might not be eligible to run for the Knesset because of ongoing legal problems or even how utterly unlikely it is that such a coalition could be cobbled together. The real fallacy at the heart of the Olmert comeback is that the Israeli people are not so stupid as to forget what actually happened in 2008 no matter what Olmert and Abbas say.

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The mini-boomlet fueling the attempted comeback of former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert got a boost yesterday from an unlikely source: Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas. As Haaretz reported, Abbas claims that had Olmert remained in office only a couple of months longer, peace might have been possible. Abbas praised Olmert in a meeting with a group of Israeli politicians in his Ramallah headquarters. This says more about Abbas’s desire to avoid blame for his walking away from Olmert’s offer of an independent Palestinian state in exchange for peace than it does about the latter’s political future. But even though Abbas has zero credibility with the Israeli public, this is a message that is integral to Olmert’s far-fetched hopes to replace Benjamin Netanyahu.

The Olmert scenario, promoted by such otherwise savvy observers like the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, is based on the idea that the Israeli people can be made to forget just how rotten a prime minister Olmert was and how unpopular he became during his three years in office because he can persuade the Palestinians to make peace. If what’s left of his Kadima Party backs him along with other opposition centrists as well as the left-wing Labor Party, then it is theoretically possible that this coalition can hold its own against incumbent Prime Minister Netanyahu and his center-right and religious party allies. The problem with this scenario is not just that Olmert might not be eligible to run for the Knesset because of ongoing legal problems or even how utterly unlikely it is that such a coalition could be cobbled together. The real fallacy at the heart of the Olmert comeback is that the Israeli people are not so stupid as to forget what actually happened in 2008 no matter what Olmert and Abbas say.

It bears recalling that after the restart to the peace process provided by the Annapolis Conference in November 2007, Olmert pursued a peace deal with Abbas. The following year he made an offer to the Palestinians that exceeded even the generous terms put to Yasir Arafat by Ehud Barak at Camp David in 2000. The Palestinians were to be given an independent state in Gaza, almost all of the West Bank (with the parts retained by Israel to be offset by land swaps from pre-1967 Israel) as well as a large share of Jerusalem. As was the case in 2000 (and 2001 when Barak repeated his similar offer to Arafat at a conference at Taba), these were not terms that most Israelis supported, but Olmert felt he could have sold any deal to them were peace in the offing. He may not have been wrong about that, but he never got the chance to do so since Abbas fled from Olmert’s outstretched hand like a thief in the night.

It is true, as the Palestinians have insisted since then, that unlike Arafat Abbas did not formally turn down Olmert’s offer. Instead, he simply walked away from it and never responded. Like his terrorist predecessor, Abbas knew the Palestinian people would never accept a deal that recognized the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders would be drawn.

Olmert was driven from office by scandal that year and eventually replaced by Benjamin Netanyahu who was elected prime minister in February 2009. At that point, Abbas began to spin his decision to walk away from peace as a reaction to Olmert’s successor rather than the futility of the Israeli attempt to entice him to agree to end the conflict. As part of an effort to re-sell himself to an Israeli public that regarded him as responsible for the failure in the 2006 Lebanon War and much else, Olmert now seeks to burnish the myth that he was close to making peace, and perhaps he thinks Abbas can help.

But it won’t work. The vast majority of Israelis would happily embrace just about any peace deal, but have come to understand that Abbas has no interest in such an outcome. They have been suckered before and won’t fall for it again or at least not until the Palestinians change their political culture in order to make peace possible. If that happens, perhaps it will allow a Palestinian leader to emerge that will eclipse Abbas (who is currently serving the eighth year of his four-year presidential term) and his ilk.

As for Olmert, the Israeli justice system isn’t through adjudicating his scandals, and the courts may rule that even the slap on the wrist he got for one ethical conviction makes him ineligible for the Knesset election. Even if he can run, the rest of the opposition to Netanyahu knows that Olmert can’t come close to beating the prime minister and probably will prefer to run without him in order to prepare for a better result in the future. But whatever happens, nothing Mahmoud Abbas can say is going to persuade Israelis to drag Olmert out of the political dustbin.

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