Commentary Magazine


Topic: Israeli election

Misunderstanding Israel’s Election

Just as we already know the broad outlines of today’s Israeli election, we also know pretty much what the international and American media will say about the results. They will tell us that the victory of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the parties that make up his current coalition represents a sharp step to the right for Israel. It will be portrayed as a rejection of peace and a blow to the chance of a two-state solution to the conflict. Sadly, it will almost certainly lead to editorials and op-eds calling for a reevaluation of the U.S.-Israel alliance and even for American Jews to question the ties between their community and the Jewish state. The narrative of a cruel Israel that is indifferent to the suffering of the Palestinians will be endlessly rehearsed and the vote will be used to justify the isolation of Israel and to garner support for the BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) movement. But while it is true that the likely outcome of the vote will show gains for Israel’s right-wing and nationalist parties, the reason for this, as well as the sentiments of the voters, will be misunderstood and falsely construed.

Netanyahu’s victory as well as the major gains that will be scored by the party to his right, led by Naftali Bennett, will not be largely the result of a philosophical shift to embrace right-wing ideology. It is not the charms of the notoriously unlikeable Netanyahu or even the undeniable attraction that Bennett has for many Israelis who like his modern outlook as well as his military and business record. The change in the Israeli electorate from an evenly divided electorate between left and right is due entirely to the experience of the last 20 years, during which Israel has tried to make peace with the Palestinians. It is the Palestinians’ consistent rejection of peace and embrace of terror and violence that has changed the minds of so many Israelis and convinced them that even though they want a two-state solution, there is no partner for peace with whom they can make such a deal. Rather than damn Israelis for turning their backs on peace, the rest of the world, and especially Americans who think of themselves as friends of Israel, should be asking themselves what it is that Israelis know about their neighborhood that they have preferred to ignore.

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Just as we already know the broad outlines of today’s Israeli election, we also know pretty much what the international and American media will say about the results. They will tell us that the victory of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the parties that make up his current coalition represents a sharp step to the right for Israel. It will be portrayed as a rejection of peace and a blow to the chance of a two-state solution to the conflict. Sadly, it will almost certainly lead to editorials and op-eds calling for a reevaluation of the U.S.-Israel alliance and even for American Jews to question the ties between their community and the Jewish state. The narrative of a cruel Israel that is indifferent to the suffering of the Palestinians will be endlessly rehearsed and the vote will be used to justify the isolation of Israel and to garner support for the BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) movement. But while it is true that the likely outcome of the vote will show gains for Israel’s right-wing and nationalist parties, the reason for this, as well as the sentiments of the voters, will be misunderstood and falsely construed.

Netanyahu’s victory as well as the major gains that will be scored by the party to his right, led by Naftali Bennett, will not be largely the result of a philosophical shift to embrace right-wing ideology. It is not the charms of the notoriously unlikeable Netanyahu or even the undeniable attraction that Bennett has for many Israelis who like his modern outlook as well as his military and business record. The change in the Israeli electorate from an evenly divided electorate between left and right is due entirely to the experience of the last 20 years, during which Israel has tried to make peace with the Palestinians. It is the Palestinians’ consistent rejection of peace and embrace of terror and violence that has changed the minds of so many Israelis and convinced them that even though they want a two-state solution, there is no partner for peace with whom they can make such a deal. Rather than damn Israelis for turning their backs on peace, the rest of the world, and especially Americans who think of themselves as friends of Israel, should be asking themselves what it is that Israelis know about their neighborhood that they have preferred to ignore.

Bennett’s rise is the big story in this election, and there’s little doubt that his mix of traditional Zionist sentiment and hardheaded thinking about the Palestinians is generating a surge for his Jewish Home Party that puzzles liberal Americans. It is true that many in his party represent hard-core settlers and illiberal religious leaders who have little in common with Americans. But his appeal is also the product of a realization on the part of some more secular Israelis that his approach is a throwback to a more heroic era in Israeli thought. Though the tension between Netanyahu and Bennett, who once worked for the prime minister, is palpable, he is a mainstream figure whose future in his country’s politics is likely to eventually find him back in the Likud rather than leading a smaller party.

But while some insist that this is a “Seinfeld” election that is about nothing, that nothing is a context in which the country’s once-dominant left-wing parties and traditional left have been essentially marginalized or forced to drop peace as a major issue, as is the case with Labor. Where once there was a consensus that Israel needed to try to trade land for peace with the Palestinians, after Oslo, the withdrawal from Gaza, and the rejection by both Yasir Arafat and his successor Mahmoud Abbas of Israeli offers of statehood that included a share of Jerusalem, only a mindless ideologue can pretend that the lack of peace is due to Israel’s failure to make concessions. The fact that the Likud and its nationalist competitors have shifted even more to the right on peace is rooted in a widespread understanding that, as Bennett’s TV ads say, the Palestinians are no more likely to ever accept a two-state solution (no matter where Israel’s borders would be drawn) than for “The Sopranos” to make a comeback.

If many Americans not otherwise prejudiced against Jews and Israel nevertheless blame the Jewish state for the standoff in the Middle East, it is largely due to ignorance of the context of events in the Middle East and the history of the conflict. Rather than thinking, as President Obama reportedly does, that we understand Israel’s “best interests” better than the country’s voters, Americans should show a little humility. If Netanyahu and the right are winning, it is not because Israelis don’t want peace but because they have paid attention to the events of the last two decades and drawn the only possible conclusion.

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Why Netanyahu Will Be Re-Elected

Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu announced yesterday that he would seek to move up the date of his country’s next election from October 2013 to either January or February. While nothing is certain in a democratic system, the odds that Netanyahu will emerge triumphant from the next test at the ballot box are overwhelming. While the prime minister is widely disliked by international elites, American Jewish liberals, and the Obama administration, he stands alone at the pinnacle of Israeli politics with no credible challenger. Though this state of affairs is deplored by Bibi-bashers, this would be an apt moment for them to ponder why exactly Netanyahu is virtually a lock to hold onto power.

The answer has little to do with his personal charms (of which he has few) or his political acumen (which is considerable). Nor is it solely the product of an unimpressive array of potential challengers that few in Israel think are fit to lead the country in his place. Rather, it is the result of the fact that the majority of Israelis share his pragmatic view of the strategic challenges that face the country as well as his grasp of economic reality. For all of the fact that many in the West regard Netanyahu as an ideologue, he will retain his office because he is a voice of common-sense wisdom that ordinary Israelis respect, even if they don’t love him.

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Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu announced yesterday that he would seek to move up the date of his country’s next election from October 2013 to either January or February. While nothing is certain in a democratic system, the odds that Netanyahu will emerge triumphant from the next test at the ballot box are overwhelming. While the prime minister is widely disliked by international elites, American Jewish liberals, and the Obama administration, he stands alone at the pinnacle of Israeli politics with no credible challenger. Though this state of affairs is deplored by Bibi-bashers, this would be an apt moment for them to ponder why exactly Netanyahu is virtually a lock to hold onto power.

The answer has little to do with his personal charms (of which he has few) or his political acumen (which is considerable). Nor is it solely the product of an unimpressive array of potential challengers that few in Israel think are fit to lead the country in his place. Rather, it is the result of the fact that the majority of Israelis share his pragmatic view of the strategic challenges that face the country as well as his grasp of economic reality. For all of the fact that many in the West regard Netanyahu as an ideologue, he will retain his office because he is a voice of common-sense wisdom that ordinary Israelis respect, even if they don’t love him.

It is true that had Netanyahu chosen to go directly to new elections last May rather than attempting to create a “super coalition” with the leading opposition party, he might well be in an even stronger position today. Ever the cautious tactician, Netanyahu thought putting Kadima in his camp and putting off elections till next fall would neuter his foes. But the onetime centrist juggernaut was in no condition to be a partner and its leader, Shaul Mofaz, jumped ship at the first opportunity.

In the ensuing months, Netanyahu has been buffeted by bitter criticism about his confrontation with President Obama over the Iranian nuclear threat both at home and abroad, leaving him a bit weaker than he was in May. But even when these recent blows are taken into consideration, Netanyahu’s confidence in his ability to outfox his opponents is justified.

Kadima is a shell of its former self and is certain to lose much of its strength at the next election. It’s roster of former and present leaders — Ehud Olmert, Tzipi Livni and Mofaz — may seek to combine forces with a new party led by journalist Yair Lapid or cut a deal with Netanyahu’s erstwhile partner, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who is something of a man without a party. But whatever configuration their machinations produce, it is more likely to resemble a political island of lost toys than a viable opposition party.

The one opponent of Netanyahu’s Likud that can be said to be on the rise is the Labor Party. Labor has abandoned its old obsession with land-for-peace deals with the Palestinians that nearly destroyed the one-time perennial party of government. Instead it is now concentrating on exploiting discontent with the economy. Labor’s social democratic prescriptions make no economic sense — especially since the country has thrived under Netanyahu’s stewardship — but its seizure of the banner of social justice makes it a clear favorite to wind up as the leader of the opposition in the next Knesset. But though Labor is once again a force to be reckoned with, few believe its leader, Shelly Yachimovich, has the credentials to deal with the country’s security challenges.

But Netanyahu’s good luck in being opposed by an array of opponents who are either inexperienced, discredited or merely unsuitable (such as his coalition ally Avigdor Lieberman as well as Olmert) would be nothing if not for the fact that Israelis happen to agree with the prime minister on the big questions facing the country.

The majority of Israelis agree with him that peace with the Palestinians is not possible until they undergo a sea change in their political culture that will allow them to recognize the legitimacy of the Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn. And though much of the world (including President Obama) may be tired of Netanyahu’s warnings about Iran, they resonate with an Israeli public that understands that they face existential threats that can’t be wished away.

As Haaretz columnist Ari Shavit ruefully noted, Netanyahu has rejected the false hopes of the peace processors and opted instead for stability and management of the country’s conflicts. With the Arab Spring producing more danger for Israel in the form of Islamist governments, the Palestinians locked in internecine conflict and a culture of violence, and Iran more dangerous than ever, Netanyahu’s approach is the only one that makes any sense. Leftists and liberals may long for the lost hopes of Oslo or pine for the socialism of Israel’s past, but most Israelis sensibly reject such foolishness. That makes him, as Shavit puts it, “virtually the sole candidate to head the government of Israel.”

Like it or not, Americans need to make their peace with Netanyahu. The odds are, he will not only remain in office throughout the next U.S. presidential term but also possibly still be there when the next inauguration rolls around in 2017. That’s a reflection not so much of his political skill as it is a reflection of the realism of the Israeli electorate.

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Heads: Bibi Wins; Tails: His Rivals Lose

For Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the last-minute deal concluded yesterday to put off elections and bring the Kadima Party into his coalition is another instance of his crafty strategy producing a heads, I win, tails, you lose moment in Israeli politics. Though the scenario in which he went to the polls in September to get a new and larger mandate from the people would have put him in a very strong position, adding Kadima and its new leader Shaul Mofaz to the Cabinet serves him just as well. The 94-seat majority (out of 120 seats in the Knesset) that he will now have for the next year and a half with elections postponed until the originally scheduled date in October 2013 will be strong enough to withstand any possible challenge from both allies like Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and his Yisrael Beitenu Party and foes on the left.

Though most foreign observers will jump to the conclusion that the Tehran-born Mofaz will provide Netanyahu with the internal backing needed to attack Iranian nuclear targets sometime in the next year, most Israelis are thinking more about the possibility of the largest secular parties now being able to unite to deal with question of military service for the ultra-Orthodox. This ought to make clear to even the dimmest of American observers of the Middle East — especially those so-called “liberal Zionists” who harbor unrealistic ambitions to remake the Jewish state in the image of American Jewry —not only the strength of Netanyahu’s ascendancy but how little the left counts in Israeli politics anymore.

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For Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the last-minute deal concluded yesterday to put off elections and bring the Kadima Party into his coalition is another instance of his crafty strategy producing a heads, I win, tails, you lose moment in Israeli politics. Though the scenario in which he went to the polls in September to get a new and larger mandate from the people would have put him in a very strong position, adding Kadima and its new leader Shaul Mofaz to the Cabinet serves him just as well. The 94-seat majority (out of 120 seats in the Knesset) that he will now have for the next year and a half with elections postponed until the originally scheduled date in October 2013 will be strong enough to withstand any possible challenge from both allies like Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and his Yisrael Beitenu Party and foes on the left.

Though most foreign observers will jump to the conclusion that the Tehran-born Mofaz will provide Netanyahu with the internal backing needed to attack Iranian nuclear targets sometime in the next year, most Israelis are thinking more about the possibility of the largest secular parties now being able to unite to deal with question of military service for the ultra-Orthodox. This ought to make clear to even the dimmest of American observers of the Middle East — especially those so-called “liberal Zionists” who harbor unrealistic ambitions to remake the Jewish state in the image of American Jewry —not only the strength of Netanyahu’s ascendancy but how little the left counts in Israeli politics anymore.

This will make Labor the main opposition party, a position it would likely have assumed after September elections anyway. But it does so in a position of tremendous weakness in which its voice will count for next to nothing. The new Yesh Atid Party led by former TV journalist Yair Lapid that would probably have stolen many of Kadima’s centrist voters will similarly have to wait to get its moment in the sun.

As for Mofaz, the move will set off speculation that his ultimate goal is to integrate what’s left of the party Ariel Sharon founded back into the Likud. Whether that happens or not, the new coalition reflects the basic consensus that has emerged in Israeli politics over the peace process. While there are some differences between Netanyahu, Mofaz and Lieberman and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, the four have much more in common on the question of dealing with the Palestinians than they differ. All support in principle a two-state solution and all understand that the only real obstacle to such a deal is the Palestinian refusal to recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn. The creation of the unity government in which the supposedly pro-peace Kadima (at least that’s what some Americans though while it was led by Tzipi Livni before Mofaz defeated her in a primary) joins the government should remind liberal American critics of Netanyahu just how far out of step they are with political reality in Israel.

Similarly, the current government is generally on the same page on the need to head off a nuclear Iran, giving Netanyahu the domestic backing he will need no matter what decision he ultimately makes on whether the country should strike on its own.

As for relations with the United States, while this development puts an end to the October surprise scenario in which a re-elected Netanyahu would have had two months to hit Iran while President Obama was still running for re-election, as I had already written, there wasn’t much chance that would happen. But with a unity government and the polls giving him overwhelming approval, Netanyahu has all the backing he needs to fend off any pressure from Washington in the next year and a half on either the Palestinian or the Iranian front. Liberal Zionists and Obama administration officials who have dreamed of Netanyahu’s defeat are just going to need to learn to live with him.

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Iran, Obama and Bibi’s October Surprise

On Friday, a commentator on Israel’s Channel 2 said aloud what others had been whispering in recent days. The Times of Israel reports that commentator Amnon Abramovich claimed today’s announcement that new Israeli elections will be scheduled for September 4 may set in motion a chain of events that could lead to an Israeli attack on Iran sometime between that date and the U.S. presidential election in November. The scenario makes sense on the surface in that if, as expected, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu wins an easy victory in September, he theoretically would have two months to strike Iran while President Obama was campaigning for re-election and therefore unlikely to condemn or punish Israel for ignoring his wishes about the use of force to fend off Tehran’s nuclear threat.

That isn’t likely to happen for a number of reasons, but the mere fact that it might is a positive development. As much as there is good reason to doubt that even under such seemingly favorable circumstances Israel would attack Iran on its own, the election announcement will have the salubrious effect of concentrating the minds of President Obama and his shaky allies in the P5+1 nuclear talks with Iran. The only reason the West has stepped up its previously weak sanctions on Iran that led to the current lackluster negotiations is that they believed Israel would act unless they started behaving as if they cared about the problem. As most informed observers have noted, the chances of the talks achieving anything that would actually lessen the danger are slim. But if the Iranians as well as Obama and his partners think Israel will strike in the fall that could put tremendous pressure on both sides to do more than diplomatic game playing.

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On Friday, a commentator on Israel’s Channel 2 said aloud what others had been whispering in recent days. The Times of Israel reports that commentator Amnon Abramovich claimed today’s announcement that new Israeli elections will be scheduled for September 4 may set in motion a chain of events that could lead to an Israeli attack on Iran sometime between that date and the U.S. presidential election in November. The scenario makes sense on the surface in that if, as expected, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu wins an easy victory in September, he theoretically would have two months to strike Iran while President Obama was campaigning for re-election and therefore unlikely to condemn or punish Israel for ignoring his wishes about the use of force to fend off Tehran’s nuclear threat.

That isn’t likely to happen for a number of reasons, but the mere fact that it might is a positive development. As much as there is good reason to doubt that even under such seemingly favorable circumstances Israel would attack Iran on its own, the election announcement will have the salubrious effect of concentrating the minds of President Obama and his shaky allies in the P5+1 nuclear talks with Iran. The only reason the West has stepped up its previously weak sanctions on Iran that led to the current lackluster negotiations is that they believed Israel would act unless they started behaving as if they cared about the problem. As most informed observers have noted, the chances of the talks achieving anything that would actually lessen the danger are slim. But if the Iranians as well as Obama and his partners think Israel will strike in the fall that could put tremendous pressure on both sides to do more than diplomatic game playing.

For all of the hysterical criticism being aimed at Netanyahu and Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak for their supposed messianism about dealing with Iran, they have actually gone about their business on this issue in a rational manner. By making it clear to the world that Israel would not allow the Islamist regime to pose an existential threat to its existence, they have forced Obama to ratchet up his own rhetoric and to foreswear any policy of “containing” a nuclear Iran. They have also managed to pressure the European Union to threaten an oil embargo of Iran that would have been unimaginable without their fear that an Israeli attack would overturn the entire Middle East chessboard.

But Netanyahu and Barak are also keenly aware of the danger of pushing too far. That’s why it is equally unimaginable they would order a strike on Iran while the West was actively conducting nuclear negotiations. Though no one should think they would not use force as a last resort, they have throughout this crisis made it clear they understood it is far better for the West — whose interests are involved in this matter as much as that of Israel — to deal with the Iranian nuclear threat.

However, once the talks started last month, it seemed as if Israel had lost its leverage. The Iranians are past masters of playing diplomatic hide and seek with credulous Western negotiators. This round of talks started off no different than previous futile attempts to make the ayatollahs see reason. With European Union foreign policy chief Catherin Ashton in charge of the negotiations, there seemed little chance the West would push the Iranians hard. With both sides more intent on preventing an Israeli attack than on actually coming up with a deal that would shut down Iran’s nuclear program, it seemed likely that they would be dragged out until the end of the year when a re-elected President Obama might have the “flexibility” to take a less harsh view of the issue than when the votes of the pro-Israel community were up for grabs.

But if Obama believes there is a window for an Israeli attack in the fall prior to November, that might scare him into forcing Ashton and the negotiators to get tough. Though there is no reason to believe any amount of Western pressure, sanctions or threats will persuade Iran to give up its ambition of a nuclear weapon, Netanyahu’s election schedule might be enough to get the West to follow through on its oil embargo and to refuse to allow the Islamist regime to play them for the suckers in the P5+1 talks. Rather than the September 4 election making a unilateral Israeli strike more likely, it just might be the thing that could stiffen the spines of Obama and his European partners during the next six months.

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