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):
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.
Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s political options at home are limited. His breach-of-trust conviction and his pending corruption trial are preventing him from running in next month’s Knesset election. But even if he could run, the fact that the overwhelming majority of Israelis reject his position on the peace process would give him no chance to defeat Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. So he has done what he and other Israeli political has-beens always do: go to the United States and receive applause from their country’s critics.
To that end, he was in Washington yesterday criticizing his country’s government and saying that Netanyahu’s decision to approve building projects in Jerusalem and its suburb was a “slap in the face” to President Obama. He believes the project to build in the so-called E1 area that connects Maale Adumim with the city was an insult to the president, especially after the United States stood by Israel during the conflict with Gaza and at the United Nations. Olmert is right to say that Obama’s recent support for the alliance has been exemplary and there’s little doubt the administration would have preferred if Israel would have taken its punishment at the UN meekly rather than by showing that it would stick up for its rights. But Olmert’s assertion that the building in the E1 area undermines a two-state solution is belied by his own behavior while in office.
With the Palestinian Authority all but certain to have its status at the United Nations upgraded this evening to nonmember observer state, some who call themselves friends of Israel as well as some prominent Israelis are applauding the initiative. In particular, former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has said he does not oppose the move by his former negotiating partner, PA head Mahmoud Abbas. Olmert says the vote will promote a two-state solution and help Palestinian moderates in their quest to make peace with Israel. But Olmert, whose attempt to give Abbas pretty much everything he had asked for in 2008 resulted in the Palestinian fleeing the U.S.-sponsored talks without even responding to the offer of a state, seems more interested in vainly seeking to undermine his successor Benjamin Netanyahu than drawing conclusions from his own experience.
The show at the UN is about a number of things, but advancing the chances for peace between Israel and the Palestinians isn’t one of them.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
The worst thing to happen to the Israeli left was not the rise of Benjamin Netanyahu, who managed somehow to win the first Israeli election after Oslo and then find the political acumen to take Likud back to power after Ariel Sharon bolted the party. It was not the eventual end of the Israeli left’s one-party rule, for such a political monopoly could not have gone on forever in a democracy, and if it had it would have corrupted the movement from unaccountability. No, the worst thing to happen to the Israeli left was the Palestinian leadership, which humiliated Israeli peacemaker after Israeli peacemaker until the country could no longer watch the ritual humiliations.
The last such humiliation wasn’t all that long ago. It was when, battered by a failed premiership, a mistake-ridden war effort, unpopularity that seemed to have no floor, and the murmurings of corruption scandals, Kadima leader Ehud Olmert offered Mahmoud Abbas the store. And the final indignity was that Abbas didn’t even attempt to renegotiate or engage the offer in any way. He simply walked away. Now that Netanyahu has called for early elections to take place this winter, Olmert has returned—maybe—as the great hope of those on the Israeli left who cannot bear the thought of another four years of Netanyahu, who has presided over relative peace, security, and tranquility, but who they don’t like, with his perfect English and his Republican friends.
Parliamentary democracy makes for strange alliances, and nowhere is this truer than Israel. Minor parties hold disproportionate sway, and the fragmentation of party politics means that even the largest parties rarely even get halfway to the number of Knesset seats they need to form a governing coalition. The other hard and fast rule of Israeli politics is that is that careers are never over; unlikely comebacks are a staple of the country’s political sphere, and often happen more quickly than expected.
But just how quickly Israeli politicians can return from the brink will seemingly be tested this winter en masse in a political experiment that sounds more like the pitch for an Israeli reality TV show than electoral strategy. Arutz Sheva is reporting that Tzipi Livni, Ehud Olmert, and Yair Lapid are strongly considering joining forces now that early Knesset elections appear likely—probably some time in February. Olmert was found guilty on one count in the corruption case against him just last month; Livni lost her Kadima party primary in the spring and resigned from the Knesset five months ago; and Lapid, a former journalist, looked ready to make a serious play for the Knesset in April until Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu struck a coalition deal (that promptly fell apart) with Kadima in May. All three were written off—at least for the time being.
American critics of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have spent the time since his election in early 2009 longing for someone who could knock the Likud leader off his perch. But luckily for Netanyahu, his most likely rivals, such as former Kadima Party leader Tzipi Livni, have crashed and burned in the intervening years. Ironically, the latest figure to raise the hopes of American Bibi-bashers is someone who actually crashed and burned before Netanyahu’s second term as prime minister began. His predecessor Ehud Olmert has been the subject of a mini-boomlet among some Americans desperate for a new challenger to the incumbent, but you have to take a pretty cynical view of Israeli society to believe that the suspended sentence and fine he was given today by a judge for his conviction for breach of public trust will act as a springboard for a comeback.
Though left-wing American groups like J Street have treated him like a hero, his checkered ethical record as well as the fact that he is widely considered his country’s least successful leader in history are the sort of handicaps that ought to daunt even the boldest of politicians. Though Netanyahu is going through a rough patch right now after a few years of being unchallenged, if the best his liberal American detractors can come up with is someone like Olmert, then he has little to worry about at the next election.
The collapse of the short-lived supermajority who presided over Israel’s ruling coalition since May has given critics of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu the best couple of days they’ve had in years. But anyone who expects this setback to change the political equation in which Netanyahu is not only an overwhelming favorite to win re-election but to stay in power for years to come doesn’t understand what has happened.
The end of the coalition is a disappointment for those friends of Israel who hoped the supermajority could help create some much-needed fundamental changes. But though the failure is not something that will burnish Netanyahu’s reputation, it will do far more damage to his junior partner Kadima and its leader Shaul Mofaz than it will to the prime minister or his Likud. At the end of the day, Netanyahu can be said to have his reputation dented a bit, but he remains on top of Israeli politics with no credible rival for the post of prime minister in sight.
Former opposition leader Tzipi Livni’s resignation from the Knesset today offers a good opportunity to reflect on just how unreliable mainstream media reporting about Israel often is.
Just two months ago, Newsweek and The Daily Beast put Livni on their lists of “150 women who shake the world,” describing her as “one of the most powerful women in the country.” Yet while that was undoubtedly true a few years ago, by the time the Newsweek list came out in March 2012, Livni was almost universally regarded as a has-been even by her erstwhile supporters.
In an editorial published later that month, for instance, Haaretz mourned that in the three years since her “praiseworthy” decision not to join Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government in 2009, “she has not missed a single opportunity to make a mistake: She did not function as an opposition leader, she did not offer an alternative to the government’s policies and she did not lead her party wisely and set clear policy.” In a poll published just four days after the Newsweek list, the public ranked Livni dead last among 16 leading Israeli political figures, behind even such nonentities as Histadrut labor federation chairman Ofer Eini. And three weeks later, Livni’s own party unceremoniously dumped her: She lost Kadima’s leadership race by a landslide 25-point margin. Now, her political career in ruins, she is even quitting the Knesset.
Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert spoke in New York yesterday at a conference organized by the Jerusalem Post. In his speech, Olmert attacked the policies of his successor Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, defended President Obama against criticism and also called for dividing Jerusalem, which he once served as mayor. According to the New York Times, this is yet another blow to Netanyahu, coming as it did after similar statements from disgruntled former security officials who also trashed Israel’s current government. The Times devoted a fair amount of space to the story this morning and even speculated that Olmert’s remarks “reflected domestic political calculations of his own.”
But the idea that Olmert’s criticism means much in Israel is farcical. As the Times noted in a sentence tucked away in the middle of the story, Olmert is under indictment for corruption charges and faces prison if convicted. What they left out is that he left office in 2009 without even attempting to run for re-election not just because of his legal problems but because he was widely perceived as perhaps the most incompetent and unpopular prime minister in the country’s history. At a time when Netanyahu is riding high in the polls at home and considering moving up elections to strengthen his already tight grip on power for another four years, Olmert is a political pariah with no influence, no following and no future in public life. The only place he can get a hearing these days is in the United States where left-wing audiences enjoy his carping about those who do enjoy the confidence of the Israeli public who rejected him. The general lack of interest in this story on the part of the Israeli press confirms this.
For the past three years, figures in America’s foreign policy establishment as well as media kibbitzers who knew little about Israel had a constant refrain: Tzipi Livni, the glamorous head of the Kadmia Party, should replace Benjamin Netanyahu as Israel’s prime minister. In the aftermath of Netanyahu’s election in February 2009, the Obama administration openly plotted to topple the new leader and replace him with Livni, whom they viewed as more pliable on the Palestinian issue. Once that ploy failed as President Obama’s attacks on Netanyahu only strengthened him at home, Netanyahu’s American critics could only sit back and wait patiently until Livni defeated him on her own. But the wait is going to be a lot longer than many in Washington thought.
Last night, Livni lost her perch as opposition leader as the members of her rapidly shrinking party rejected her in favor of former General Shaul Mofaz in a primary to determine who will top the party’s list in the next election that is currently scheduled for October 2013. That Livni, who was feted abroad and was prominently placed on lists of the world’s most important women, was defeated at all will come as a shock to her foreign admirers. But this was no ordinary defeat. The lady who only a couple of weeks ago was lauded as Israel’s “voice of reason” in a fawning piece by John Avlon in the Daily Beast, was slaughtered by Mofaz, 62-38 percent. The question now is whether Americans who were under the delusion that Livni represented a viable alternative to Netanyahu’s popular government will get the message.