Commentary Magazine


Topic: Israeli elections

Israel’s Critics and the Next Election

The drumbeat of incitement against Israel in Europe reached a fever pitch this past summer as the war in Gaza raged. But though the anti-Semitic tinged demonstrations in support of a “free Gaza” — albeit one that was ruled by Islamist terrorists raining down thousands of rockets on Israeli cities — have ceased, the incitement continues as does the diplomatic initiatives seeking to pressure Jerusalem to make concessions. But rather than aiding the tiny minority of Israelis who oppose the war, criticism from abroad has seemingly only solidified a national consensus that opposes further territorial withdrawals under the current circumstances. And that is something its foreign detractors as well as American Jews who are bitterly opposed to Israel’s government should try to understand.

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The drumbeat of incitement against Israel in Europe reached a fever pitch this past summer as the war in Gaza raged. But though the anti-Semitic tinged demonstrations in support of a “free Gaza” — albeit one that was ruled by Islamist terrorists raining down thousands of rockets on Israeli cities — have ceased, the incitement continues as does the diplomatic initiatives seeking to pressure Jerusalem to make concessions. But rather than aiding the tiny minority of Israelis who oppose the war, criticism from abroad has seemingly only solidified a national consensus that opposes further territorial withdrawals under the current circumstances. And that is something its foreign detractors as well as American Jews who are bitterly opposed to Israel’s government should try to understand.

Judging by developments in the last week, Israel is more isolated than ever. A new Swedish government announced that it would grant formal recognition to the Palestinian Authority as a state while the European Union made clear it planned to reevaluate bilateral ties with Israel unless it stopped building beyond the 1967 lines and failed to make progress in negotiations with the Palestinians. But rather than acting as a prod to Israel’s government or its people to rethink their stands on the dead-in-the-water peace process, there is no sign that Prime Minister Netanyahu’s government is worried about its future or rethinking its actions. The events of the past summer have had the opposite effect on Israelis and that is reflected in the moves the prime minister is making toward moving up the dates of the next scheduled parliamentary election.

Having won a second consecutive term (and third overall) as prime minister in January 2013, no elections need be held in the country until at least 2017. But according to the Times of Israel, the prime minister’s decision to move up the date of his party’s primaries and to change procedures for selecting Knesset candidates all indicate that he intends to call for new elections sometime in the next year.

The reasons for this are obvious. In the wake of the war, what remains of Israel’s left-wing pro-peace camp is more discredited than ever. The centrist faction led by Finance Minister Yair Lapid that did so well in the last elections look to be badly beaten the next time voters have their say. Just as important is that Netanyahu is eager to shed what is left of the merger of his Likud Party with that of Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael B’Aliya Party that has since been dissolved. Likud will win far more seats on its own next time out while its major right-wing partners Lieberman’s party and Economics Minister Naphtali Bennett’s Jewish Home Party will also likely be a big winner.

While a year is a lifetime in politics, there is little doubt the political landscape is shifting in favor of Netanyahu. While there is plenty of competition for the role of his eventual successor, no one, including Lapid, Lieberman, Bennett or Yitzhak Herzog, leader of the opposition Labor Party, seem to be credible alternatives to Netanyahu as prime minister. Which means that barring some unforeseen cataclysm, the prime minister and his party will be heavily favored to gain a third consecutive term that will place him in the same historic context as the nation’s founding father, David Ben Gurion.

In analyzing the reason for this it should be remembered that Netanyahu has never been personally popular and his party remains beset by what sometimes seem like more popular competitors for the votes of right-wingers.

But despite this, Netanyahu represents what is now a centrist consensus about the prospects of peace with the Palestinians. While a majority of Israelis still favor a two-state solution in theory and many would be happy to be rid of much of the West Bank, the Gaza war, they also recognize that in the absence of a sea change in the political culture of the Palestinians, such moves are impossible.

With the Palestinian Authority and its leader Mahmoud Abbas still unable and/or unwilling to recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn, few believe more talks with the PA will accomplish anything. Moreover the growing popularity of Hamas after its futile war reflects support for its desire to destroy Israel and to go on fighting until that goal is accomplished. Given that the Islamist movement leads Abbas in polls of West Bankers that ensures that the PA will not be holding another election anytime in the near future. But it also signals Israelis that any theoretical deal concluded with Abbas would be meaningless if he is succeeded, either by election or coup, by Hamas.

While Israelis are drawing appropriate conclusions from these events, many American Jews and other erstwhile supporters of Israel are not. They continue to attack Netanyahu and, like the left-wing J Street lobby, think that Israel should be saved from itself. But instead of carping about a government that looks to be in power for the foreseeable future, those who claim to be both pro-Israel and pro-peace should think about the need to respect the judgment of the people who were under fire last summer. Israelis don’t want peace any less than Americans but unlike some of their critics, they have been paying attention to what Palestinians say and do. The terror tunnels and the rockets and the support for those who shoot them, not to mention the Palestinian rejection of peace offers, have convinced them that they have no peace partner. In the absence of proof they are wrong, American critics of Israeli democracy should pipe down.

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Coalition Talks Show Israeli Election Preserved Foreign Policy Status Quo

In the week since Israelis went to the polls the consistent narrative about the election in the Western press has been that the vote was a setback for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. This was understandable since expectations for his Likud Party were so high going into the campaign. The 31 seats it won was fewer than the total that both the Likud and the Israel Beitenu Party led by Avigdor Lieberman, which had merged with Netanyahu’s faction, got in 2009 so it’s fair to interpret the result as being something less than a personal triumph for the prime minister. But many commentators have gone much farther than that and claimed the impressive showing for Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid Party shows Israeli voters were dissatisfied with Netanyahu’s foreign policy. The spin coming out of much of the liberal press is to depict the vote as one that will mandate a change in Israeli policy toward the Palestinians and force Netanyahu to return to peace talks.

The problem with this theory is that Lapid made it clear he had virtually no disagreements with Netanyahu on the peace process. That makes the talk about an Israeli shift to the left on peace a transparent attempt to misinterpret an election in which security issues were not important. But recent developments in the subsequent negotiations to put together a new government make it even more clear the influence of the right in the next cabinet will continue to be strong. As Haaretz reports, Lapid is coordinating his positions on the talks with Naftali Bennett, the head of the pro-settlement Habayit Hayehudi Party that also did well last week. The consensus appears to be that the two are aiming to create a new coalition between Likud and their two parties that will unite around the issue of changing the draft system and excluding the ultra-Orthodox factions that sat in Netanyahu’s last government. If that’s the way it plays out, it will be a defeat for the religious parties and their stranglehold on aspects of the country’s budget as well as their ability to ensure that Haredim don’t have to serve in the army. But Bennett’s prominent role in the next cabinet means that the chatter about a more centrist or even left-leaning approach to the Palestinians is more a matter of wishful thinking on the part of the Obama administration and the international press than Israeli reality.

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In the week since Israelis went to the polls the consistent narrative about the election in the Western press has been that the vote was a setback for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. This was understandable since expectations for his Likud Party were so high going into the campaign. The 31 seats it won was fewer than the total that both the Likud and the Israel Beitenu Party led by Avigdor Lieberman, which had merged with Netanyahu’s faction, got in 2009 so it’s fair to interpret the result as being something less than a personal triumph for the prime minister. But many commentators have gone much farther than that and claimed the impressive showing for Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid Party shows Israeli voters were dissatisfied with Netanyahu’s foreign policy. The spin coming out of much of the liberal press is to depict the vote as one that will mandate a change in Israeli policy toward the Palestinians and force Netanyahu to return to peace talks.

The problem with this theory is that Lapid made it clear he had virtually no disagreements with Netanyahu on the peace process. That makes the talk about an Israeli shift to the left on peace a transparent attempt to misinterpret an election in which security issues were not important. But recent developments in the subsequent negotiations to put together a new government make it even more clear the influence of the right in the next cabinet will continue to be strong. As Haaretz reports, Lapid is coordinating his positions on the talks with Naftali Bennett, the head of the pro-settlement Habayit Hayehudi Party that also did well last week. The consensus appears to be that the two are aiming to create a new coalition between Likud and their two parties that will unite around the issue of changing the draft system and excluding the ultra-Orthodox factions that sat in Netanyahu’s last government. If that’s the way it plays out, it will be a defeat for the religious parties and their stranglehold on aspects of the country’s budget as well as their ability to ensure that Haredim don’t have to serve in the army. But Bennett’s prominent role in the next cabinet means that the chatter about a more centrist or even left-leaning approach to the Palestinians is more a matter of wishful thinking on the part of the Obama administration and the international press than Israeli reality.

The strong link between Lapid and Bennett may surprise foreign observers, but it makes perfect sense since both the secular backers of Yesh Atid and the modern Orthodox and pro-settlement voters of Habayit Hayehudi are united by their desire for a more equitable conscription system. Lapid won his 19 seats in the new Knesset by running on domestic issues like the draft as well as wresting control of the budget from the ultra-Orthodox, not by agreeing with the New York Times editorial page about dividing Jerusalem and other contentious peace process issues where his positions are virtually indistinguishable from those of Netanyahu.

Bennett has publicly disparaged the idea of a two-state solution that both Netanyahu and Lapid endorse. But given the continued refusal of the Palestinians to negotiate with Israel despite Netanyahu’s pleas for them to return to talks, it’s not likely that this disagreement will be seen as either meaningful or an obstacle to the creation of a new coalition.

Indeed, as Haaretz points out, it is Lapid who is eager to get Bennett into the Cabinet over Netanyahu’s objections since the prime minister publicly quarreled with the nationalist leader who was once his top aide. With Bennett supporting Lapid’s desire to pry control of the Knesset Finance Committee from the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism, the real change from the vote will be in the allocations of government funds to yeshivas and other Haredi institutions, not a shift toward more concessions on territory that American liberals think will be Israel’s salvation.

A government led by Netanyahu, Lapid and Bennett will make for an interesting personal dynamic around the cabinet table but it won’t mean that Israelis have rejected the prime minister’s philosophy about security. To the contrary, the election demonstrated that the national consensus about the peace process is so strong that Israelis felt free to cast their ballots on other issues. And since it was always a given that Netanyahu would remain prime minister, the vote was about who would serve with him, not rejecting his philosophy. That isn’t what the Western press or the Obama administration wants to hear. But as the coalition talks illustrate, most Israelis consider American ideas about what is in their country’s “best interests” as irrelevant to their real concerns.

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The Israeli Election and the Media’s Teachable Moment

After the 2012 presidential election, liberals gave conservatives a piece of advice: do some soul searching, and get out of your media bubble. Conservatives were wrong about the election, they were told, because they turned their assumptions into predictions. So it will be interesting to find out if the leftist foreign-policy press is ready to take its own advice, after a colossally botched year of coverage leading up to this week’s Israeli Knesset election.

In his wrap-up of just how wrong the media was, Walter Russell Mead gives his readers the following tip: “As negotiations to form a coalition government unfold in the next few weeks, expect more of the same from the MSM”–referring to the mainstream media. I imagine he’s right about that; the liberal press in America got the Israeli election so wrong because they get Israel itself so wrong. But it’s easy to understand how this happens by reading the article that Mead singles out as the “piece of journalism that got furthest away from the facts”–David Remnick’s essay in the New Yorker, dated for this week to coincide with the elections, on the rise of Israel’s right. Remnick writes:

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After the 2012 presidential election, liberals gave conservatives a piece of advice: do some soul searching, and get out of your media bubble. Conservatives were wrong about the election, they were told, because they turned their assumptions into predictions. So it will be interesting to find out if the leftist foreign-policy press is ready to take its own advice, after a colossally botched year of coverage leading up to this week’s Israeli Knesset election.

In his wrap-up of just how wrong the media was, Walter Russell Mead gives his readers the following tip: “As negotiations to form a coalition government unfold in the next few weeks, expect more of the same from the MSM”–referring to the mainstream media. I imagine he’s right about that; the liberal press in America got the Israeli election so wrong because they get Israel itself so wrong. But it’s easy to understand how this happens by reading the article that Mead singles out as the “piece of journalism that got furthest away from the facts”–David Remnick’s essay in the New Yorker, dated for this week to coincide with the elections, on the rise of Israel’s right. Remnick writes:

More broadly, the story of the election is the implosion of the center-left and the vivid and growing strength of the radical right. What Bennett’s rise, in particular, represents is the attempt of the settlers to cement the occupation and to establish themselves as a vanguard party, the ideological and spiritual core of the entire country. Just as a small coterie of socialist kibbutzniks dominated the ethos and the public institutions of Israel in the first decades of the state’s existence, the religious nationalists, led by the settlers, intend to do so now and in the years ahead. In the liberal tribune Haaretz, the columnist Ari Shavit wrote, “What is now happening is impossible to view as anything but the takeover by a colonial province of its mother country.”

If that strikes you as a bit overdone, and maybe a conclusion that should have been subjected to rigorous cynicism before endorsing it, what follows that in the article offers a map for how this came to be published with such certainty. The next paragraph begins with a contemptuous dismissal of the Labor Party’s election platform and its focus on domestic issues, without even a quote from the party. But those aren’t important issues, we are told, and Remnick knows this because in the next paragraph he quotes Tzipi Livni telling him so. Livni’s old party was almost shut out of the next Knesset completely, holding on to what looks to be two Knesset seats (down from 28 in the 2009 elections). It’s fair to say that Livni was wrong about the “core issues.”

Remnick’s pessimism about the settlements continues, as he follows Livni’s section of the story with quotes from the director of Peace Now’s “Settlement Watch” project. And that is followed by former Palestinian legislator Ghassan Khatib, who is then followed in the story by the pro-settlement politician Danny Danon. After that, Remnick talks about the left’s favoritoe Israeli bogeyman, Avigdor Lieberman, and moves on to how Theodor Herzl would disapprove.

You’ll notice one thing missing from all this: the Israeli voter. There is no discussion of what was actually bothering Israelis about the Netanyahu government or their rejection of Livni’s attempts to lead a credible opposition. Remnick deserves credit for much about the piece: he interviews people with whom he vehemently disagrees at length, and lets them speak for themselves. He doesn’t simply bring up old quotes from the rightist Moshe Feiglin, for example, but talks to Feiglin himself to see if that’s where he still stands on the issues. He does not seem to cherry-pick statements or conceal the context of his conversations from the reader.

But it’s an article full of politicians whose beliefs dovetail with Remnick’s own expectations. Yair Lapid, who was the big story of the election by leading his party to 19 seats, is mentioned exactly once. Labor, the other party that improved its standing greatly by addressing the kitchen-table issues that regular Israelis had been talking and fretting about, is virtually absent; Labor Party head Shelly Yachimovich is not mentioned at all.

So should we expect more of this type of coverage from the media? History tells us that the writers and pundits who get Israel wrong do so consistently. But there’s a real opportunity here for a “teachable moment,” as our president might say. If you want to know what everyday Israelis think, just ask them. Trust me, they’ll tell you.

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It’s the Cost of Living, Stupid

As Jonathan noted, Benjamin Netanyahu’s unexpectedly poor electoral showing resulted partly from his abysmal campaign. But it was also a clear vote of no-confidence in his policies. The problem, from the world’s perspective, is that what voters rejected wasn’t his foreign and defense policies. Rather, it was his domestic ones.

The Jerusalem Post’s Herb Keinon has an excellent analysis of just how dominant domestic considerations were in this election. As he noted, the parties that significantly increased their parliamentary representation–Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid, Shelly Yacimovich’s Labor and Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home–campaigned almost exclusively on domestic issues. Even Bennett, who is unfairly caricatured overseas as representing “the extreme right,” ran mainly on domestic issues, capitalizing on his record as a successful high-tech entrepreneur. In contrast, parties that ran on diplomatic/security issues–Netanyahu’s Likud, Tzipi Livni’s Hatnuah and Shaul Mofaz’s Kadima–did poorly, aside from one exception: Meretz picked up the diehard peacenik votes Labor lost by focusing on domestic issues.

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As Jonathan noted, Benjamin Netanyahu’s unexpectedly poor electoral showing resulted partly from his abysmal campaign. But it was also a clear vote of no-confidence in his policies. The problem, from the world’s perspective, is that what voters rejected wasn’t his foreign and defense policies. Rather, it was his domestic ones.

The Jerusalem Post’s Herb Keinon has an excellent analysis of just how dominant domestic considerations were in this election. As he noted, the parties that significantly increased their parliamentary representation–Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid, Shelly Yacimovich’s Labor and Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home–campaigned almost exclusively on domestic issues. Even Bennett, who is unfairly caricatured overseas as representing “the extreme right,” ran mainly on domestic issues, capitalizing on his record as a successful high-tech entrepreneur. In contrast, parties that ran on diplomatic/security issues–Netanyahu’s Likud, Tzipi Livni’s Hatnuah and Shaul Mofaz’s Kadima–did poorly, aside from one exception: Meretz picked up the diehard peacenik votes Labor lost by focusing on domestic issues.

The same conclusion emerged from another Post reporter’s visit to the former Likud stronghold of south Tel Aviv (the city’s poorer neighborhoods): Person after person praised Netanyahu on security issues but panned him on bread-and-butter ones, and cited that as their reason for abandoning his party.

In an article for Commentary following the socioeconomic protests of summer 2011, I detailed the many pressing domestic issues Israel faced and warned that Netanyahu would be judged on whether he exploited the protests’ momentum to address them. As it turns out, he didn’t–and especially not the one most important to Israelis, the high cost of living. That partly explains how Lapid could come from nowhere to win 19 seats by running on pledges such as “Our children will be able to buy apartments” and “We’ll pay less for gasoline and electricity.”

Equally important, however, is that Israeli voters tend to vote tactically. And with Netanyahu seemingly a shoo-in for the next prime minister, they primarily focused on trying to ensure that his next coalition would be both willing and able to carry out the needed domestic reforms.

For this, a party that could replace the ultra-Orthodox in his coalition was essential. It’s not just that the ultra-Orthodox would block any attempt to make them serve in the army–something Israelis care about, but not as top priority. Far more important is that they’d block any other reforms aimed at benefiting the middle class. When the outgoing government proposed an initiative to create affordable middle-class housing, for instance, the ultra-Orthodox parties demanded that the criteria be altered to favor ultra-Orthodox applicants. And since he had no government without them, Netanyahu capitulated.

Yacimovich, having pledged not to join the government, couldn’t fill this role–and in any case, her economic views were too different from Netanyahu’s to make a partnership likely. Livni cared only about the nonexistent peace process, and would cheerfully sacrifice domestic reforms for freedom to pursue that goal (which the ultra-Orthodox would grant). But Lapid repeatedly promised his voters two things: He would join any government if at all possible, but not a government dependent on the ultra-Orthodox and incapable of carrying out reforms.

In short, he promised exactly the tactical solution that domestic-oriented voters were seeking. And in the final days of the campaign, when it became clear there were no better options, voters flocked to his banner.

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Netanyahu Rebuked But Still on Top

The consensus of most pundits in the aftermath of yesterday’s Israeli election is that the voters rebuked Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Given that polls showed him winning re-election in a landslide last summer, the gradual slide from that high point to a vote in which his current coalition got just half of the seats in the Knesset is a comedown. It reflects several mistakes that he made during this period and led to his Likud getting just 31 seats. That was the largest total won by any party, but far short of expectations. Thus, while Netanyahu is still the only possible person to fill the post of prime minister, he is faced with a tricky problem putting together a new coalition.

Netanyahu’s critics will make a meal out of this, and to some extent they are justified in doing so. His campaign was inept and fraught with misjudgments. But while the result does reflect a lack of affection for the prime minister, those attempting to argue that it reflects a vote of no confidence in his foreign policy are misinterpreting the vote. The big winner in yesterday’s vote was the centrist Yesh Atid led by Yair Lapid. But Lapid’s positions on the peace process were virtually indistinguishable from those of Netanyahu since while he favors peace negotiations with the Palestinians, he wants to retain the major settlement blocs and opposes the division of Jerusalem. Nor are his positions on domestic issues, including lowering taxes and a more equitable draft system that would lead to the conscription of the ultra-Orthodox, incompatible with those of the prime minister. What follows now will be a difficult set of negotiations to create a new government. But there’s no doubt that when the dust settles, Netanyahu will still be on top and he will have a cabinet that may enable him to carry on the same policies that he implemented in the last four years. As defeats go, it isn’t too bad a result.

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The consensus of most pundits in the aftermath of yesterday’s Israeli election is that the voters rebuked Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Given that polls showed him winning re-election in a landslide last summer, the gradual slide from that high point to a vote in which his current coalition got just half of the seats in the Knesset is a comedown. It reflects several mistakes that he made during this period and led to his Likud getting just 31 seats. That was the largest total won by any party, but far short of expectations. Thus, while Netanyahu is still the only possible person to fill the post of prime minister, he is faced with a tricky problem putting together a new coalition.

Netanyahu’s critics will make a meal out of this, and to some extent they are justified in doing so. His campaign was inept and fraught with misjudgments. But while the result does reflect a lack of affection for the prime minister, those attempting to argue that it reflects a vote of no confidence in his foreign policy are misinterpreting the vote. The big winner in yesterday’s vote was the centrist Yesh Atid led by Yair Lapid. But Lapid’s positions on the peace process were virtually indistinguishable from those of Netanyahu since while he favors peace negotiations with the Palestinians, he wants to retain the major settlement blocs and opposes the division of Jerusalem. Nor are his positions on domestic issues, including lowering taxes and a more equitable draft system that would lead to the conscription of the ultra-Orthodox, incompatible with those of the prime minister. What follows now will be a difficult set of negotiations to create a new government. But there’s no doubt that when the dust settles, Netanyahu will still be on top and he will have a cabinet that may enable him to carry on the same policies that he implemented in the last four years. As defeats go, it isn’t too bad a result.

The list of Netanyahu’s campaign mistakes begins with his on-again, off-again alliance with the Kadima party last summer. A merger followed that with Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu that would end up being a tactical mistake since it left many Russian-born voters searching for another secular party to back. Many chose Lapid, helping him to a stunning total of 19 seats. A swing to the right by Likud primary voters gave him a more extreme parliamentary list to run with and caused some more bleeding to the center. Yet ironically, many on the right abandoned Netanyahu to embrace Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home Party that also made big gains.

Most of all, Netanyahu’s problem was due to the fact that voters knew they didn’t have to vote for the Likud in order to be assured that he would remain prime minister. The lack of any credible alternative to him meant that many of those who would have pulled the lever for him personally felt that what they were voting for in Israel’s single party vote system was a choice of which party would be his major coalition partner. Though many in the foreign press are claiming that Lapid’s showing is a slap at Netanyahu or even a rejection of his policies, it is more likely that most were just saying that they wanted a Likud-Yesh Atid government, not a different prime minister.

The twists and turns of the coalition negotiations can’t be predicted with any accuracy, but the most likely scenario remains one in which Netanyahu forms a government with Lapid and some other smaller parties with the ultra-Orthodox parties on the sidelines. That will allow a long sought-after change in the draft laws that will be immensely popular. And it will also mean no real change in the country’s position on talks with the Palestinians. Since the Palestinian Authority isn’t likely to return to peace talks no matter who is running Israel, anyone who asserts that the election changes anything on this score is simply wrong.

The bottom line for Netanyahu is that even though the election didn’t go as well for him as he would have liked, the repercussions from the vote don’t really impact his ability to stay in office or continue the policies that are most important to him. No matter which of the possible combinations of parties that will make up the new government wind up in the cabinet, Netanyahu will not be impeded from prioritizing the Iranian nuclear threat or in sticking to his position on the peace process. Nor should he, since nothing in the vote indicates that these policies aren’t popular. That’s something that many of Netanyahu’s critics, including President Obama, should keep in mind as they seek to pressure him to change them.

Though he is battered, that still leaves Netanyahu a winner as he contemplates his third term as prime minister.

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Can Yair Lapid Survive Success?

The big winner of Tuesday’s election in Israel was undoubtedly journalist Yair Lapid. His Yesh Atid party appears to have won 19 seats in the Knesset, coming out of nowhere to become the second-largest faction in the country’s parliament. Lapid capitalized on discontent about the cost of living as well as the resentment of Israel’s secular majority against the power of the ultra-Orthodox.

This is a great achievement for Lapid, and it has likely made him the lynchpin of any government organized by Prime Minister Netanyahu. It gives him the ability to name his price for joining the cabinet and he will undoubtedly influence policy on the economy as well as have the chance to thrill his secular supporters by actually helping to change the system by which most Haredim evade the draft. But it needs to be pointed out that although his success is extraordinary every previous such independent winner has crashed the next time they faced the voters. The interesting question to ask about Lapid in the aftermath of his win is whether he can evade the fate of every other secular/centrist party that has shot to the top in the last few decades of Israeli political history.

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The big winner of Tuesday’s election in Israel was undoubtedly journalist Yair Lapid. His Yesh Atid party appears to have won 19 seats in the Knesset, coming out of nowhere to become the second-largest faction in the country’s parliament. Lapid capitalized on discontent about the cost of living as well as the resentment of Israel’s secular majority against the power of the ultra-Orthodox.

This is a great achievement for Lapid, and it has likely made him the lynchpin of any government organized by Prime Minister Netanyahu. It gives him the ability to name his price for joining the cabinet and he will undoubtedly influence policy on the economy as well as have the chance to thrill his secular supporters by actually helping to change the system by which most Haredim evade the draft. But it needs to be pointed out that although his success is extraordinary every previous such independent winner has crashed the next time they faced the voters. The interesting question to ask about Lapid in the aftermath of his win is whether he can evade the fate of every other secular/centrist party that has shot to the top in the last few decades of Israeli political history.

Starting in 1977 when the Dash Party led by archeologist Yigal Yadin won 15 seats and became part of Menachem Begin’s first government, there have a steady string of such independent centrist groups that won the affection of Israel’s voters. But Dash, like Tzomet in 1992, the Third Way in 1996, the Center Party in 1999, the Shinui Party in 2003 (that won 15 seats under the leadership of Lapid’s father Yosef) and the Pensioners Party in 2006, collapsed at the next election. Each time, the religious parties that were the focus of voter outrage outlasted their would-be tormentors.

The fatal flaw of all these parties was that although they spoke to a desire on the part of Israeli voters to have an alternative to the traditional choices on the left and the right, such groupings inevitably were compromised by a decision to join the new government. Once in the cabinet these parties were able to secure patronage for their followers, but having done so, they could no longer pose as the outsiders looking to hold the establishment accountable. Nor could they maintain the voters’ enthusiasm in a country where war and peace issues are always the most important. And all failed to do the one thing that secular voters have demanded: create a more equitable system of compulsory military service that would no longer exempt the Haredim.

Lapid’s obvious interest in joining the government will leave him open to the charge that he, like his predecessors, is just looking to gain power rather than to stand for principle. Lapid is reportedly urging Labor leader Shelly Yacimovich to join with him in the next government, but she rightly understands that is not the path to future electoral success. The only way to get her once-dominant faction back to the point where it can claim to be one of the country’s two big parties will be to lead the opposition to Netanyahu rather than allow herself to be co-opted by him. That’s exactly the danger that Lapid’s success poses to his party, since if he does join the cabinet no matter how much he is able to influence the course of the government he won’t be able to campaign next time as an agent of change.

The one possible escape for Lapid is the chance that he and Netanyahu will actually be able to pass a new draft law. Doing so will absolve him to some extent from the charge that his party merely cashed in on its victory without accomplishing anything the way all those that came before him did. But even if he does manage to do that, it’s not clear whether it is possible for him to build his party and allow it to maintain its strength while serving as one of Netanyahu’s partners.

Lapid will be able to enjoy playing the kingmaker in the coming days and weeks as negotiations to form the next government unfold. But his real challenge will be trying to ensure that Yesh Atid is not just another one-election wonder.

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Netanyahu Wins, Religious Parties May Lose

The polls are closed in Israel and the counting of the ballots is now being conducted. But if the published exit polls are accurate, there is, as expected, no doubt about who will lead the next government. The exits show Netanyahu’s Likud getting 31 Knesset seats–far more than any other party. The parties making up the current coalition received 61 seats, a clear majority. But Netanyahu will have other options, and the big losers could be the religious parties that could wind up on the outside looking in at the next government.

That’s because the big winner of the election turned out to be journalist Yair Lapid’s secular Yesh Atid Party, whose main platform plank was support for a change in the conscription laws that would mandate the drafting of ultra-Orthodox Jews into the Israel Defense Forces. That’s a proposition on which the Likud as well as the Jewish Home Party led by Naftali Bennett could easily agree. Netanyahu is already reportedly reaching out to Lapid to join him in a broad coalition that he would probably prefer to the current cabinet. It’s also something most non-Haredi Israelis will applaud.

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The polls are closed in Israel and the counting of the ballots is now being conducted. But if the published exit polls are accurate, there is, as expected, no doubt about who will lead the next government. The exits show Netanyahu’s Likud getting 31 Knesset seats–far more than any other party. The parties making up the current coalition received 61 seats, a clear majority. But Netanyahu will have other options, and the big losers could be the religious parties that could wind up on the outside looking in at the next government.

That’s because the big winner of the election turned out to be journalist Yair Lapid’s secular Yesh Atid Party, whose main platform plank was support for a change in the conscription laws that would mandate the drafting of ultra-Orthodox Jews into the Israel Defense Forces. That’s a proposition on which the Likud as well as the Jewish Home Party led by Naftali Bennett could easily agree. Netanyahu is already reportedly reaching out to Lapid to join him in a broad coalition that he would probably prefer to the current cabinet. It’s also something most non-Haredi Israelis will applaud.

It should be remembered that exit polls are not actual votes and even if they do reflect the results, the army vote–which is counted last–could also change the results and tilt the numbers a bit more to the advantage of the nationalist parties.

Lapid has apparently won 18 or 19 seats, far more than the last polls showed him getting. Over the last week it appears Israel’s swing voters, who wanted to keep Netanyahu as prime minister but wanted to register a slight note of protest, went for Lapid’s list in larger numbers than those who voted for Bennett.

Though many, especially in the foreign press, tended to lump Lapid in with Labor as part of a center-left faction, his positions on security and defense issues are quite compatible with those of Netanyahu. His vote cannot be interpreted as a pro-peace protest against Netanyahu. Rather, it is very much in a long tradition of Israeli parties that capitalized on secular resentment against the power of the ultra-Orthodox parties. He ought to be able to exact a high price from Netanyahu, but there’s little doubt the prime minister will be happy to pay it since Lapid might be easier to deal with than the political extortionists at Shas and United Torah Judaism that are always available to sell their votes to the highest bidders. 

As for Bennett, his total fell short of his highest poll numbers. But he is still in a very strong position. His 12 seats make him an essential part of any coalition led by Netanyahu. He will act as a brake on any possible lurch to the left on the peace process, but given the lack of interest on the part of the Palestinian Authority in returning to negotiations, its doubtful that he has much to worry about. Moreover, his religious Zionist party won’t have any trouble supporting a change in the draft laws to ensure more Haredim serve in the army.

Another potential member of the next government would be Tzipi Livni. Her new Hatnua Party won approximately seven seats. There’s no love lost between Livni and Netanyahu, but if she refuses to join a coalition that already included Lapid, she would be effectively marginalized. That’s something Livni probably wouldn’t be able to stand. Of all the party leaders, she is the one left with the toughest choice.

One party that is unlikely to join Netanyahu would be Labor, which finished a disappointing third. Labor leader Shelly Yacimovich knows that the only hope to build her party back to its position as one of Israel’s two biggest is by leading the opposition in the next Knesset. She will stand aside this time and hold onto the not-unreasonable hope that she will do far better the next time.

There will be those who will portray these numbers as something of a rebuke to Netanyahu, and there is something to that. But as I wrote a couple of weeks ago, his biggest problem in this vote was that he couldn’t lose. Since the lack of a serious alternative to him made his re-election a certainty, voters were free to support smaller parties rather than the Likud and therefore register their preference for the kind of coalition he would lead. Though Netanyahu would have liked to have a bigger total for Likud, he can’t be disappointed with the bottom line of this vote: he remains prime minister and will be able to pick and choose his coalition partners. The next government will be fractious and difficult to manage but for all of his problems, Netanyahu remains the only possible choice to be prime minister for the foreseeable future. 

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Netanyahu-Bashers Shouldn’t Rejoice

The buzz in Israel at this hour is that leaked exit polls are showing that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party may be doing far worse than expected in today’s election. The story is that Likud’s total of Knesset seats will drop below 30 and that centrist newcomer Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party will wind up in second place, with right-wing star Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home also doing well and the Labor Party possibly dropping to third or even fourth place.

If true, this would cause a major shake-up in Israeli politics. But President Obama and other American liberal critics of Netanyahu shouldn’t get too excited. Even if the rumors and leaked polls are accurate, there’s no doubt that Netanyahu will still be leading the next Israeli government.

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The buzz in Israel at this hour is that leaked exit polls are showing that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party may be doing far worse than expected in today’s election. The story is that Likud’s total of Knesset seats will drop below 30 and that centrist newcomer Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party will wind up in second place, with right-wing star Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home also doing well and the Labor Party possibly dropping to third or even fourth place.

If true, this would cause a major shake-up in Israeli politics. But President Obama and other American liberal critics of Netanyahu shouldn’t get too excited. Even if the rumors and leaked polls are accurate, there’s no doubt that Netanyahu will still be leading the next Israeli government.

A scenario in which Lapid and Bennett’s parties are big winners would certainly mean that Netanyahu would be weakened. But that was already in the cards, as his own party (which absorbed Avigdor Lieberman’s party prior to the campaign) had become one in which those to the right of the prime minister were going to have more influence.

But even a Likud that scores under 30 would still mean that right-wing and religious parties will wind up with more than a majority, meaning there is no chance of a government led by anyone but Netanyahu. However, the rise of Lapid does give the prime minister a chance to form a government without the religious parties since, if the rumors are correct, Yesh Atid could wind up with as many seats as those parties may get.

While Lapid is put in the same camp as left-wingers like Labor’s Shelly Yacimovich or Tzipi Livni, he has also made it clear that he is largely on the same page as Netanyahu when it comes to issues of war and peace. His priority is domestic politics, and principally in changing the law to ensure that the Haredim are drafted into the Israel Defense Forces like other Israelis. A coalition with Likud, Bennett (whose modern Orthodox and secular supporters also support draft equality) and Lapid is not out of the question. It would be a difficult marriage, but so would any possible collection of Israeli parties. If this happens, there will be no real shift in Israel’s position on borders or settlements.

We’ll find out later today whether the actual results will resemble the rumors (Israel is seven hours ahead of the Eastern United States, meaning that by mid-evening EST, we should have a good idea of what will happen). But even in the worst scenario for the Likud, Netanyahu is still on track to get his third term in the prime minister’s office. 

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The Markets Vote For Netanyahu

Israelis go to the polls tomorrow and, as we’ve noted previously, there’s not any doubt about who will lead their next government. The voters appear poised to give Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a qualified endorsement, and while his own party appears to be getting fewer votes than expected, the factions that made up his current government will collectively get what amounts to a landslide victory over the prime minister’s left-wing and Arab critics in the Knesset. But the financial sector’s approval of his performance in office appears nearly unanimous. As Bloomberg News reports, the country’s bonds have gone up 36 percent in dollar value since he took office in 2009 as opposed to a 22 percent average rise for global government debt. The shekel has also gained 13 percent against the dollar in that period and is, according to financial experts, the second-best performing currency in Europe, Middle East and Africa during this time.

That’s a message that gets drowned out by complaints about the rise in the cost of living that generated street protests in Israel in the summer of 2011. Yet for all of the country’s problems, including a deficit that is fueled by Israel’s need to spend a disproportionate amount on defense, there’s little doubt that Netanyahu’s administration has been economically sound and that the country’s economy has grown by leaps and bounds under his leadership. His commitment to maintain the Jewish state’s commitment to a free-market model and the stability that his leadership has given the nation are not the only factors behind the growth numbers, but Israel has become an even better bet for investors in the past four years. The near-certainty that he will stay in office will ensure that this will continue.

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Israelis go to the polls tomorrow and, as we’ve noted previously, there’s not any doubt about who will lead their next government. The voters appear poised to give Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a qualified endorsement, and while his own party appears to be getting fewer votes than expected, the factions that made up his current government will collectively get what amounts to a landslide victory over the prime minister’s left-wing and Arab critics in the Knesset. But the financial sector’s approval of his performance in office appears nearly unanimous. As Bloomberg News reports, the country’s bonds have gone up 36 percent in dollar value since he took office in 2009 as opposed to a 22 percent average rise for global government debt. The shekel has also gained 13 percent against the dollar in that period and is, according to financial experts, the second-best performing currency in Europe, Middle East and Africa during this time.

That’s a message that gets drowned out by complaints about the rise in the cost of living that generated street protests in Israel in the summer of 2011. Yet for all of the country’s problems, including a deficit that is fueled by Israel’s need to spend a disproportionate amount on defense, there’s little doubt that Netanyahu’s administration has been economically sound and that the country’s economy has grown by leaps and bounds under his leadership. His commitment to maintain the Jewish state’s commitment to a free-market model and the stability that his leadership has given the nation are not the only factors behind the growth numbers, but Israel has become an even better bet for investors in the past four years. The near-certainty that he will stay in office will ensure that this will continue.

Those who only know Israel through stories about the conflict with the Palestinians see the country through a prism that doesn’t take into account the amazing progress it has made in recent decades, as it was transformed from a third-world economy to one of the most dynamic markets in the world. It may be that not all of this has trickled down yet to many of Israel’s citizens who rightly complain about crony capitalism and high prices. But Israel’s strength is not only measured in the vaunted abilities of its armed forces. If it has been able to shrug off the disappointments of a peace process in which the country traded land for more terror rather than peace, it has been because its start-up nation economy has become a model for the world in terms of innovation.

This happened for a number of reasons, but the chief one was a commitment by its leaders to shedding the old socialist Labor Zionist model that helped create the nation but ill prepared it to compete in the global economy. Netanyahu played a key role in this change during his first term as prime minister in the 1990s and his years as finance minister under Ariel Sharon. But as prime minister he has continued this progress, keeping a steady hand on the tiller and avoiding many of the problems experienced elsewhere in a challenging environment.

Stuck in a region with neighbors who won’t make peace and still besieged by terrorist movements that launch missile barrages into the country whenever they want to heat things up, Israel doesn’t have a normal economy or a normal political culture. But in spite of that, Netanyahu has received good marks for keeping the economy sound and largely resisted the demands to reverse course. That might have appeased some of his critics, but it would have set the country back. That took exactly the sort of political courage that, according to Jeffrey Goldberg, President Obama thinks he lacks. As Netanyahu embarks on his third overall and second consecutive term in office, the one certainty amid so many variables is that Israel’s finances are in good hands. 

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Anticipating More Obama-Bibi — Part One

The final polls before Israel’s election were published today and the results will provide little comfort to Benjamin Netanyahu’s many critics in the United States. All the surveys of opinion before next Tuesday’s vote point in one direction: Netanyahu will win. Even the most pessimistic estimates of his party’s vote shows the Likud getting approximately twice as many seats in the next Knesset as the next largest competitor and the parties that make up Netanyahu’s current coalition will gain a decisive majority. Netanyahu will be in charge of a comfortable majority that is, if anything, more right-wing than the government he led for the past four years.

That’s a bitter pill for an Obama administration that believes, as the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg reported earlier this week, that the president knows what is in Israel’s “best interests” better than Netanyahu and which spent much of its time in office battling him. It makes sense to think the two leaders will continue to distrust each other and to quarrel over the peace process and how to deal with the Iranian nuclear threat. The rightward tilt of the next Netanyahu government and what appears to be the aggressive and confident tone of the second Obama administration in which the president appears to be surrounding himself with people who agree with him rather than centrists or those who have different perspectives both seem to argue for more rather than less conflict between Washington and Jerusalem. But the doom and gloom scenarios about four more years of this tandem may be exaggerated. There are three good reasons that may serve to keep tensions from boiling over.

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The final polls before Israel’s election were published today and the results will provide little comfort to Benjamin Netanyahu’s many critics in the United States. All the surveys of opinion before next Tuesday’s vote point in one direction: Netanyahu will win. Even the most pessimistic estimates of his party’s vote shows the Likud getting approximately twice as many seats in the next Knesset as the next largest competitor and the parties that make up Netanyahu’s current coalition will gain a decisive majority. Netanyahu will be in charge of a comfortable majority that is, if anything, more right-wing than the government he led for the past four years.

That’s a bitter pill for an Obama administration that believes, as the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg reported earlier this week, that the president knows what is in Israel’s “best interests” better than Netanyahu and which spent much of its time in office battling him. It makes sense to think the two leaders will continue to distrust each other and to quarrel over the peace process and how to deal with the Iranian nuclear threat. The rightward tilt of the next Netanyahu government and what appears to be the aggressive and confident tone of the second Obama administration in which the president appears to be surrounding himself with people who agree with him rather than centrists or those who have different perspectives both seem to argue for more rather than less conflict between Washington and Jerusalem. But the doom and gloom scenarios about four more years of this tandem may be exaggerated. There are three good reasons that may serve to keep tensions from boiling over.

The first factor that may keep the conflict in check is something that the controversial Goldberg column made clear: the president may have learned his lesson about the peace process. Though Goldberg and the president both wrongly assume that Arab “moderates” want peace and need to be encouraged with “conciliatory gestures,” the writer notes that Obama understands that Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas is weak. He also knows that every attempt by the administration to pressure Netanyahu and to tilt the diplomatic playing field in the Palestinians’ direction on settlements, Jerusalem and border, was met with disinterest by the PA. Nothing Obama could do or say, no matter how damaging to Israel’s cause was enough to tempt Abbas back to the negotiating table. Indeed, the Palestinians’ decision to go to the United Nations to get recognition was not so much aimed at Israel, as it was an end run around the Obama administration.

Though Goldberg frames the president’s reluctance to repeat this cycle of misunderstand as a judgment on Netanyahu’s lack of interest in peace it is actually an indictment of the Palestinians. Had Abbas responded positively to any of Obama’s initiatives, he could have helped the president pin the prime minister down and perhaps even undermined his support at home. Netanyahu has already endorsed a two state solution and frozen settlements for a time to appease Obama and Abbas didn’t respond to either gesture.

Abbas is interested right now in making peace with Hamas, not Israel. He has stayed away from talks not because he thinks he can’t get a deal but because he fears being put in the same uncomfortable situation in which he found himself in 2008 when Ehud Olmert made the last Israeli offer of Palestinian independence including Jerusalem. Abbas knows he can’t recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn and survive so he didn’t so much turn down Olmert as to flee the talks. He won’t allow himself to be that close to political extinction again.

Though, as Goldberg pointed out, incoming Secretary of State John Kerry may be eager to play the peace process game with the help of his European friends, President Obama may understand that heading down that dead end again is not worth any of his precious second term political capital. If the Palestinians go any further toward Fatah-Hamas unity and/or if a third intifada is launched that will effectively spike any hope for new negotiations no matter what Obama may personally want to do.

Obama may believe Israel is dooming itself to isolation but the majority of Israelis have paid closer attention to the last 20 years of attempts to make peace and know that further concessions would only worsen their security without bringing peace. Yet as much as he can’t stand Netanyahu, picking another fight with him over an issue that can’t be resolved due to Palestinian intransigence is bad politics as well as bad policy.

In parts two and three of this post I’ll examine the other factors that may keep U.S.-Israel tension in check.

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Obama Can’t Get Even With Netanyahu

The Israeli reaction to the much talked about Jeffrey Goldberg column that Seth wrote about yesterday wasn’t long in coming. Leading members of the Likud Party claimed that Goldberg’s reporting of critical comments about Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu by President Obama constituted interference in the country’s elections that will be held next week. If true, some might see it as tit-for-tat since the Israeli’s decision to highlight a snub from the president and differences with him over dealing with the Iranian nuclear threat last September was widely seen as an attempt to help Mitt Romney’s doomed presidential campaign. Netanyahu would certainly have preferred to see Obama lose. But rather than intervening, he was probably thinking that putting pressure on Obama during the lead-up to the November election would force the president to take a tougher stand on Iran. Instead, Obama, who despises the prime minister, rebuffed Netanyahu leaving him looking like an incompetent meddler.

However, the accusations that the White House used Goldberg to get even with Netanyahu are probably untrue. As much as the president and his foreign policy team detest Netanyahu, they are probably aware that an American attempt to influence the vote in Israel would backfire. Obama is deeply unpopular in Israel and every time he has picked a fight with Netanyahu it has only strengthened the prime minister’s standing at home. Netanyahu is certain to lead the next government and though the president would probably like to do something to stop that from happening, he knows he can’t. Goldberg was, as he told the Jerusalem Post, only writing what everyone already knew about the president’s feelings. Obama believes he knows what is in Israel’s “best interests” better than the man elected to lead that country. But as much as the ongoing feud between these two personalities rivets our attention, the disconnect isn’t so much between Obama and Netanyahu as it is between the American foreign policy establishment—and many liberal American Jews—and the consensus of the Israeli people. It is that gap between what most Israelis see as obvious about the moribund peace process and the conventional wisdom that is routinely churned out by the mainstream media in the United States that is the real issue.

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The Israeli reaction to the much talked about Jeffrey Goldberg column that Seth wrote about yesterday wasn’t long in coming. Leading members of the Likud Party claimed that Goldberg’s reporting of critical comments about Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu by President Obama constituted interference in the country’s elections that will be held next week. If true, some might see it as tit-for-tat since the Israeli’s decision to highlight a snub from the president and differences with him over dealing with the Iranian nuclear threat last September was widely seen as an attempt to help Mitt Romney’s doomed presidential campaign. Netanyahu would certainly have preferred to see Obama lose. But rather than intervening, he was probably thinking that putting pressure on Obama during the lead-up to the November election would force the president to take a tougher stand on Iran. Instead, Obama, who despises the prime minister, rebuffed Netanyahu leaving him looking like an incompetent meddler.

However, the accusations that the White House used Goldberg to get even with Netanyahu are probably untrue. As much as the president and his foreign policy team detest Netanyahu, they are probably aware that an American attempt to influence the vote in Israel would backfire. Obama is deeply unpopular in Israel and every time he has picked a fight with Netanyahu it has only strengthened the prime minister’s standing at home. Netanyahu is certain to lead the next government and though the president would probably like to do something to stop that from happening, he knows he can’t. Goldberg was, as he told the Jerusalem Post, only writing what everyone already knew about the president’s feelings. Obama believes he knows what is in Israel’s “best interests” better than the man elected to lead that country. But as much as the ongoing feud between these two personalities rivets our attention, the disconnect isn’t so much between Obama and Netanyahu as it is between the American foreign policy establishment—and many liberal American Jews—and the consensus of the Israeli people. It is that gap between what most Israelis see as obvious about the moribund peace process and the conventional wisdom that is routinely churned out by the mainstream media in the United States that is the real issue.

Likud might get some traction by highlighting Obama’s disapproval. Israelis are well aware that in the recent past American presidents have tried to intervene in their elections with mixed results. George H.W. Bush helped sink Yitzhak Shamir in 1992. Bill Clinton’s open rooting for Shimon Peres didn’t stop Netanyahu from winning his first term as prime minister in 1996 but American disapproval was a handicap when he was beaten in 1999. But the main point here is that while Israelis don’t relish the idea of being on the outs in Washington, they are also not interested in listening to advice from Obama.

The assumption underlying Goldberg’s article was that Netanyahu is isolating his country via policies that are not aimed at encouraging “Palestinian moderates.” The decision to allow building in Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem and its suburbs that would be kept by Israel even if there were a two-state solution are seen by Obama and the Europeans as intolerable provocations that should be punished. By not making concessions on security and territory that might tempt the Palestinian Authority back to the negotiating table, Netanyahu is seen as uninterested in peace or as even making an accord impossible. But most Israelis see these issues very differently.

The parties that make up Netanyahu’s current coalition are cruising to what may be a landslide victory next week because, unlike Goldberg’s White House sources and most Western talking heads, the majority of Israeli voters understand that the Palestinians—both Hamas and the supposedly more moderate Fatah-led PA—are not going to make peace no matter what Netanyahu does. They also view the notion of further withdrawals as an invitation to create another terror state like the one in Gaza in the much larger West Bank alongside Israel’s population centers.

Where Israel was once closely divided between right and left on the issue of peace initiatives, the center has shifted in the country’s politics. What Obama and most Americans don’t get about Israel is that Netanyahu is not so much the leader of the right as he is now firmly ensconced in the middle of the political spectrum. That’s why so many on the right are flocking to the banner of Naftali Bennett, the leader of the pro-settlement party that polls show will make huge gains in the upcoming election. The main difference between Netanyahu and Bennett is that the former still pays lip service to a two-state solution as the theoretical best option for Israel even though the Palestinians will never accept it, while the latter’s campaign ads say that it is no more likely to happen than another season of “The Sopranos.”

Like so much commentary about the Middle East, Obama’s evaluation of the situation via Goldberg shows that he is still focusing only on what Israel does and ignoring the reality of a Palestinian political culture that is incapable of accepting peace. If real peace were an option, no Israeli political leader would be able to resist accepting it. Pretending that such a choice is available to Israel is mere posturing, not a policy. Any American who doesn’t understand that fact has no business spouting off about what is in Israel’s best interests.

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Netanyahu’s Only Real Opponent

One of the remarkable aspects of Israeli politics is that even as Benjamin Netanyahu cruises to what is likely to be a landslide re-election later this month, the political figure there who continues to be treated as an international celebrity is not the prime minister. Rather it is Shimon Peres, the 89-year-old veteran of virtually every position in Israel’s government and currently serving in the symbolic post of president that remains the focus of much of the world’s attention. No one enjoys the spotlight more than Peres, something that comes across in spades in Ronen Bergman’s fascinating interview with him in the New York Times Magazine. The piece gives us an excellent summary of his views on the challenges facing Israel. But put in the context of the nation’s upcoming elections, the irony is that his answers also give us a good explanation for Netanyahu’s ascendancy.

As Bergman points out, Peres was the focus of intense pressure from some of the prime minister’s critics to run against Netanyahu at the head of a center-left opposition ticket. He wisely refused, leaving the incumbent without any serious rival. That has only increased the fawning on Peres from foreign observers who can’t stand Netanyahu. But Peres’s stubborn refusal to give up his illusions about the Palestinians tells us all we need to know about the inevitability of a right-wing victory. If Israel’s January 22 vote is one in which Netanyahu’s real rival is a person who won’t be on the ballot, it should be understood that the reason why those who are trying to unseat the Likud are failing has everything to do with Peres’s failed legacy.

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One of the remarkable aspects of Israeli politics is that even as Benjamin Netanyahu cruises to what is likely to be a landslide re-election later this month, the political figure there who continues to be treated as an international celebrity is not the prime minister. Rather it is Shimon Peres, the 89-year-old veteran of virtually every position in Israel’s government and currently serving in the symbolic post of president that remains the focus of much of the world’s attention. No one enjoys the spotlight more than Peres, something that comes across in spades in Ronen Bergman’s fascinating interview with him in the New York Times Magazine. The piece gives us an excellent summary of his views on the challenges facing Israel. But put in the context of the nation’s upcoming elections, the irony is that his answers also give us a good explanation for Netanyahu’s ascendancy.

As Bergman points out, Peres was the focus of intense pressure from some of the prime minister’s critics to run against Netanyahu at the head of a center-left opposition ticket. He wisely refused, leaving the incumbent without any serious rival. That has only increased the fawning on Peres from foreign observers who can’t stand Netanyahu. But Peres’s stubborn refusal to give up his illusions about the Palestinians tells us all we need to know about the inevitability of a right-wing victory. If Israel’s January 22 vote is one in which Netanyahu’s real rival is a person who won’t be on the ballot, it should be understood that the reason why those who are trying to unseat the Likud are failing has everything to do with Peres’s failed legacy.

Any discussion of Peres’s place in Israeli history has to start with the acknowledgment that his many achievements over the last 60 years put him in the first rank of his country’s leaders. As he notes with his characteristic lack of modesty, the record is impressive:

I do not think there are many people in the world who can say they managed to bring down a 600 percent inflation rate, create a nuclear option in a small country, oversee the Entebbe operation, set up an aerospace industry and an arms-development authority, form deep diplomatic relations with France, launch a Sinai campaign to open the Straits of Tiran and put an end to terror from Gaza.

But as much as he deserves as much credit as any person for Israel’s survival and growth, he seems to be one of the few Israelis who haven’t noticed that his Oslo brainchild and the “New Middle East” fantasy that he promoted in the early 1990s at the height of peace process euphoria was a tragic flop that led to much loss of life. Peres rightly points out that the existence of settlements in the West Bank wouldn’t prevent a peace deal if the Palestinians were willing to sign one. But despite all the evidence to the contrary, Peres continues to have faith in the good intentions and desire for peace on the part of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, bizarrely proclaiming him “an excellent partner” for Israel.

While Peres is the darling of Netanyahu-bashers who credit the president with thwarting the prime minister’s moves toward a pre-emptive strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities, his faith in President Obama’s good will toward the Jewish state is equally out of touch with mainstream Israeli opinion. His equanimity about the Arab Spring as well as optimism about Muslim Brotherhood-ruled Egypt also shows that he’s still living in the Oslo bubble.

This disconnect with both the reality of the region and the fact that the overwhelming majority of his countrymen have moved on from the failed Oslo process explains why the talk about a strong center-left opposition to Netanyahu on peace is more science fiction than political science. Of those parties that are supposed to be the core of this mythical anti-Bibi coalition, none actually support Peres’s vision. One, led by Yair Lapid, has explicitly rejected the politics of the left on foreign policy. The Labor Party that Peres once led has also avoided the peace process to concentrate on economic issues. Tzipi Livni’s Hatnuah is mainly about her ambition, not any real alternative to Netanyahu’s ideas.

Let’s also understand that Peres’s current popularity is largely based on the fact that he has abandoned electoral politics. For decades, Peres the politician was, despite his crucial role in so many Israeli successes, personally unpopular. Fairly or unfairly, he was seen as a schemer and the architect of “stinking maneuvers” that led to him losing an astonishing number of national elections. A desire to avoid adding one more to the total of those losses no doubt led to his decision not to challenge Netanyahu.

Though Peres won’t be on the ballot on January 22, his policies are. That they will be firmly rejected by the Israeli people should make it clear to his many admirers that although Peres deserves his place in the country’s history, the failure of his ideas are the primary reason why Netanyahu is about to win big. 

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Media Bias Israeli Style

The liberal bias of the mainstream media played a not inconsiderable role in helping Barack Obama skate to what turned out to be an easy victory last November. But as his longtime antagonist Benjamin Netanyahu coasts toward his own re-election, one of the interesting sidebars in the story of that vote is the way a largely left-wing media has proved unable to do much damage to the prime minister. The leftist cast of most Israeli news outlets is so widely recognized, few even on the left bother to deny it. As Akiva Eldar, the longtime columnist for Haaretz once told me in an interview, the bias of most Israeli journalists is not in doubt but since the right has won most of the elections in the last 30 years, it didn’t matter. It’s certainly true that the tilt against Netanyahu in the media won’t help the dismal chances of Israel’s left-wing parties. But the willingness of some of the leading outlets to hype the complaints of a former security official about the PM has raised the eyebrows of one of Eldar’s colleagues on the self-styled New York Times of Israel.

Anshel Pfeffer, Haaretz’s current lead political columnist, wrote today about the way the Yediot Aharonot newspaper has tried to inflate a filmed interview with former Mossad chief Yuval Diskin in which he blasts Netanyahu into a cause célèbre. That a paper whose own longstanding left-wing bias is as blatant as that of Haaretz would consider this absurd tells you a lot about how off-the-charts the prejudice of the mass market daily Yediot about Netanyahu has become. While the foreign press has picked up this narrative about Netanyahu’s alleged failings, it’s fairly obvious even to Haaretz that there’s nothing particularly noteworthy about the story.

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The liberal bias of the mainstream media played a not inconsiderable role in helping Barack Obama skate to what turned out to be an easy victory last November. But as his longtime antagonist Benjamin Netanyahu coasts toward his own re-election, one of the interesting sidebars in the story of that vote is the way a largely left-wing media has proved unable to do much damage to the prime minister. The leftist cast of most Israeli news outlets is so widely recognized, few even on the left bother to deny it. As Akiva Eldar, the longtime columnist for Haaretz once told me in an interview, the bias of most Israeli journalists is not in doubt but since the right has won most of the elections in the last 30 years, it didn’t matter. It’s certainly true that the tilt against Netanyahu in the media won’t help the dismal chances of Israel’s left-wing parties. But the willingness of some of the leading outlets to hype the complaints of a former security official about the PM has raised the eyebrows of one of Eldar’s colleagues on the self-styled New York Times of Israel.

Anshel Pfeffer, Haaretz’s current lead political columnist, wrote today about the way the Yediot Aharonot newspaper has tried to inflate a filmed interview with former Mossad chief Yuval Diskin in which he blasts Netanyahu into a cause célèbre. That a paper whose own longstanding left-wing bias is as blatant as that of Haaretz would consider this absurd tells you a lot about how off-the-charts the prejudice of the mass market daily Yediot about Netanyahu has become. While the foreign press has picked up this narrative about Netanyahu’s alleged failings, it’s fairly obvious even to Haaretz that there’s nothing particularly noteworthy about the story.

As Pfeffer notes, Diskin’s charges about what he believes are Netanyahu’s irresponsible attempts to push the security services to agree with him about the nuclear threat from Iran and the need for potential action on the issue have already been fully aired and largely ignored by the Israeli public. That’s because they know something that most foreign readers don’t about the political nature of the old boy network that runs the security services. The willingness of Diskin and his colleagues to go public with their carping about Netanyahu’s handling of an issue on which there is a pretty strong consensus within Israel—the need to take the Iranian nuclear threat seriously—tells us more about the way Diskin and his friends feel about the prime minister than anything else.

However, as Pfeffer also writes, one of the other factors driving the brazen Netanyahu-bashing in liberal outlets is the fact that a well-funded competitor with a very different political outlook has overtaken Yediot as the country’s highest circulation newspaper. Much like the way Fox News stole the thunder of the more liberal CNN and the American broadcast networks, Israel Hayom has ended the left-wing monopoly of the major Israeli dailies. Bankrolled by American casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, Israel Hayom has given Israelis a free conservative alternative and they’ve made it the most read paper in the country.

While the influence of Adelson’s paper probably doesn’t equal that of the combined forces of the rest of liberal Israeli media, its pro-Netanyahu bias seems to have help driven that of its competitors over the cliff into what could almost be described as parody. But it appears the Israeli electorate is smart enough to see through the anger of the press and the hysteria about the “Diskin document.”

The ability of Netanyahu to survive the slings and arrows chucked at him by a frustrated Israeli media that knows the only question about the election is the size of his margin of victory shows that in one sense Eldar remains right. Israel’s voters are too sophisticated to be influenced by their biased press. 

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Netanyahu’s Problem: He Can’t Lose

There’s a lot about this month’s election in Israel that is yet to be decided, as the polls indicating the number of Knesset seats the parties will win have fluctuated from day to day. However, the big question as far as the rest of the world is concerned—the identity of the country’s next prime minister—is the one thing that isn’t in any doubt. Current PM Benjamin Netanyahu is certain to form the next government of Israel with his Likud party having the most seats of any in the Knesset. But, in a stroke of irony made possible by Israel’s proportional election system, that is also Netanyahu’s biggest problem. Since there is no scenario in which he will not be the next prime minister, many Israelis who might otherwise be inclined to cast their ballot for Likud will instead vote for one of the smaller parties that will probably form part of Netanyahu’s coalition.

That means that rather than his own list taking more than a third of the 120 seats in the Knesset, his total may be considerably less than the 42 that Likud and Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu (which recently merged with Likud) won in the last election. That won’t stop Netanyahu from staying in office, but it could make his life miserable not only when putting together his next Cabinet but also over the course of the next few years, when he will be forced to cope with the growing strength of parties that are to his right on issues such as settlements and the theoretical terms of peace with the Palestinians.

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There’s a lot about this month’s election in Israel that is yet to be decided, as the polls indicating the number of Knesset seats the parties will win have fluctuated from day to day. However, the big question as far as the rest of the world is concerned—the identity of the country’s next prime minister—is the one thing that isn’t in any doubt. Current PM Benjamin Netanyahu is certain to form the next government of Israel with his Likud party having the most seats of any in the Knesset. But, in a stroke of irony made possible by Israel’s proportional election system, that is also Netanyahu’s biggest problem. Since there is no scenario in which he will not be the next prime minister, many Israelis who might otherwise be inclined to cast their ballot for Likud will instead vote for one of the smaller parties that will probably form part of Netanyahu’s coalition.

That means that rather than his own list taking more than a third of the 120 seats in the Knesset, his total may be considerably less than the 42 that Likud and Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu (which recently merged with Likud) won in the last election. That won’t stop Netanyahu from staying in office, but it could make his life miserable not only when putting together his next Cabinet but also over the course of the next few years, when he will be forced to cope with the growing strength of parties that are to his right on issues such as settlements and the theoretical terms of peace with the Palestinians.

Netanyahu had the same problem four years ago when he won his second term as prime minister. Rather than vote for the Likud, many on the right then gave their votes to Lieberman. This time around those voters are flocking to the new Habayit Yehudi Party of Naftali Bennett as well as to the even more strident Otzma Leyisrael.

Bennett, the son of American immigrants who went on to be a member of the same elite army unit that produced Netanyahu and outgoing Defense Minister Ehud Barak, and then made millions on an Internet company, served as the prime minister’s chief of staff during his last time in opposition before they quarreled. He provides Israel’s right with its first truly charismatic figure since Netanyahu’s emergence a generation ago and his party’s astonishing rise in the polls shows that his appeal is broader than the settler constituency that was thought to be its only source of support.

However, rather than being forced to really choose between Netanyahu or Bennett, Israeli right-wingers can pick the latter without any fear that their defections will result in a left-wing government.

Though the results of the numerous Israeli polls vary to some degree, they all show the various center-right and religious parties that make up Netanyahu’s current government gaining in the vicinity of 70 out of the 120 seats in the Knesset. The only question is what percentage of those will be won directly by Netanyahu rather than Bennett.

The smaller the number gained by Netanyahu’s allies the more likely that he will be able to give them more insignificant Cabinet posts or replace them altogether with centrist lists like the new party led by journalist Yair Lapid or even the one led by Tzipi Livni, an otherwise bitter foe of the prime minister but one whose differences with him are more a matter of posturing and rival ambitions than ideology.

However if, as some surveys now indicate, Bennett’s party becomes the third or even the second biggest party eclipsing Labor’s Shelly Yacimovich, who is likely to lead the opposition in the next Knesset, then Netanyahu’s options will be limited.

The reasons for Bennett’s rise are the same that has led Netanyahu to his preeminent position in his country’s politics. The Palestinians’ rejection of every peace feeler and embrace of violence and Hamas has created a new political reality in which the once predominant left has been marginalized. Though some Americans may wrongly see Netanyahu as an extremist, his views are now firmly in the center of the Israeli spectrum. Those to his right, such as Bennett, are merely slightly right of center rather than being viewed as beyond the pale. Though most Israelis do not share Bennett’s vision of West Bank settlement annexation, they see no reason to think about giving them away to the Palestinians in order to create another terrorist enclave like the one Hamas has in Gaza. 

Netanyahu might prefer to govern without Bennett’s interference, but the same set of circumstances that will keep him firmly in office have made it likely that his former aide will be a major factor in Israeli politics for years to come.

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Israel’s Next Defense Minister

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Why Israel Has Shifted to the Right

If liberal American Jews weren’t already dismayed about the fact that Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu is a shoe-in to be re-elected in next month’s election, the latest political news out of Israel may give them conniption fits. The results of new polls show that Netanyahu’s Likud and its coalition partners are set to exceed the strong governing majority they had in the current Knesset. But the really interesting numbers are those that show that the main party to the right of the Likud—the Habeyit Hayehudi or Jewish Home Party–is on track to be the third largest in the next parliament with only Likud and Labor (set to finish a distant second) ahead of it.

This will give residents and supporters of the settlement movement an even louder voice in the next Knesset than their already healthy contingent in the current one. This will be interpreted by some on the left as a sign of Israel’s depravity or indifference to peace. But the reason for it is clear. Whereas in Israel’s past it could be asserted that the Likud represented Israel’s right-wing constituency, it has, to the shock and dismay of many in the left-wing Israeli media, become the center. That is not because more Israelis are supporters of increasing settlement throughout the West Bank. They are not. Rather it is due to the fact that the Israeli center as well as even many on what we used to call the Israeli left have given up on the Palestinians. They know that neither Fatah in the West Bank nor Hamas in Gaza will ever recognize Israel’s legitimacy no matter where its borders are drawn. So they have abandoned those parties that hold onto the illusion of peace in favor of those with a more realistic vision while those on the right are now embracing parties like Habeyit Hayehudi in order to hold Netanyahu’s feet to the fire and prevent him from making concessions that will neither entice the Palestinians to the negotiating table nor increase its popularity abroad.

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If liberal American Jews weren’t already dismayed about the fact that Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu is a shoe-in to be re-elected in next month’s election, the latest political news out of Israel may give them conniption fits. The results of new polls show that Netanyahu’s Likud and its coalition partners are set to exceed the strong governing majority they had in the current Knesset. But the really interesting numbers are those that show that the main party to the right of the Likud—the Habeyit Hayehudi or Jewish Home Party–is on track to be the third largest in the next parliament with only Likud and Labor (set to finish a distant second) ahead of it.

This will give residents and supporters of the settlement movement an even louder voice in the next Knesset than their already healthy contingent in the current one. This will be interpreted by some on the left as a sign of Israel’s depravity or indifference to peace. But the reason for it is clear. Whereas in Israel’s past it could be asserted that the Likud represented Israel’s right-wing constituency, it has, to the shock and dismay of many in the left-wing Israeli media, become the center. That is not because more Israelis are supporters of increasing settlement throughout the West Bank. They are not. Rather it is due to the fact that the Israeli center as well as even many on what we used to call the Israeli left have given up on the Palestinians. They know that neither Fatah in the West Bank nor Hamas in Gaza will ever recognize Israel’s legitimacy no matter where its borders are drawn. So they have abandoned those parties that hold onto the illusion of peace in favor of those with a more realistic vision while those on the right are now embracing parties like Habeyit Hayehudi in order to hold Netanyahu’s feet to the fire and prevent him from making concessions that will neither entice the Palestinians to the negotiating table nor increase its popularity abroad.

Habeyit Hayehudi is the beneficiary in part of the merger of the Likud with Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu. Rather than polls showing Likud getting as many seats as the two parties got in the last election, it is registering a loss of several places as some nationalist voters abandon the new conglomerate for its more ideological rival to the right. Though the enlarged Likud will still gain several seats from the mark it won in the 2009 vote that brought Netanyahu back into power and make it by far the largest in the Knesset with 35, Habeyit Hayehudi is set to get 12 with another pro-settlement party getting another two. That will double the number of seats those smaller parties won four years ago. Combined with the Orthodox religious parties, that will give Netanyahu nearly 70 seats out of 120 next year even before any of the centrist members join him as some undoubtedly will do.

Habeyit Hayehudi also has the advantage of a new leader in the 40-year-old Naftali Bennett. He is the son of American immigrants who is a former chief of staff to Netanyahu and who earned great wealth through the sale of his Internet security firm. In him, Israel’s nationalist camp now has an articulate and savvy figure who can say things about the Palestinians that Netanyahu, who, as David Horovitz of the Times of Israel pointed out in an insightful analysis, cannot utter for fear of worsening relations with the United States.

Bennett’s powerful position, which will be enhanced by a Cabinet portfolio that he will demand and get, will make the next Knesset harder for Netanyahu to manage. The absence of several Likud moderates who have been replaced by more nationalist and younger figures on the party’s Knesset list will also ensure that the prime minister will not be straying far from the wishes of his voters the way some of his predecessors have done.

This won’t necessarily mean that Netanyahu will move to build throughout the West Bank the way Bennett would like. But it will strengthen his resolve to continue to do so in Jerusalem and its suburbs as well as the major settlement blocs that Israel will hold onto even in the theoretical scenario where the Palestinians finally give in and accept a two-state solution.

That will lead to much gnashing of the teeth on the part of liberal Jews who are uncomfortable with Netanyahu, let alone those to his right. But those who lament this development should understand that the Israeli people are making this choice with their eyes wide open.

Even Labor, the party that is historically associated with the peace process, has more or less abandoned the issue of reconciliation with the Palestinians in this election and instead is concentrating on economic and social justice issues. Those lists that are still devoted to the peace process, including the new party led by former foreign minister Tzipi Livni, have been thoroughly marginalized.

Unlike most Israelis, many if not most American Jews and many non-Jewish friends of Israel haven’t drawn conclusions from the last 20 years of failed peace processing. They cling instead to the fables about the Palestinians that once fueled the post-Oslo euphoria in Israel but which have now been discarded there.

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Neither Livni Nor Likud Vote Will Stop Bibi

The headlines in the left-wing Israeli daily Haaretz summed up the reaction of opponents of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to the latest twist in the lead-up to the country’s January Knesset elections. The consensus on the left is that the victory of right-wing candidates in the Likud’s primary to determine their Knesset slate spells doom for the PM. “Has the Likud gone too far right for Netanyahu?” was one. “Likud’s sharp shift to the right is political suicide for Netanyahu” was another, while a third read “Likud’s hawkish earthquake sparks new hopes for centrist alternatives.” Combined with the other major story in Israeli politics today — the return to electoral politics of former foreign minister Tzipi Livni, who is leading a new party called “The Movement” — you might think that Netanyahu’s critics are right to assert that he is in big trouble.

But despite the hoopla over Livni and the worries about the changing of the guard in Likud, Israel’s electoral math appears unchanged. Netanyahu and his newly enlarged Likud and its coalition partners remain on course to win a smashing victory next month.

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The headlines in the left-wing Israeli daily Haaretz summed up the reaction of opponents of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to the latest twist in the lead-up to the country’s January Knesset elections. The consensus on the left is that the victory of right-wing candidates in the Likud’s primary to determine their Knesset slate spells doom for the PM. “Has the Likud gone too far right for Netanyahu?” was one. “Likud’s sharp shift to the right is political suicide for Netanyahu” was another, while a third read “Likud’s hawkish earthquake sparks new hopes for centrist alternatives.” Combined with the other major story in Israeli politics today — the return to electoral politics of former foreign minister Tzipi Livni, who is leading a new party called “The Movement” — you might think that Netanyahu’s critics are right to assert that he is in big trouble.

But despite the hoopla over Livni and the worries about the changing of the guard in Likud, Israel’s electoral math appears unchanged. Netanyahu and his newly enlarged Likud and its coalition partners remain on course to win a smashing victory next month.

The Likud primary resulted in some well-known figures in the party being booted from “safe slots” on its electoral roster (since the party is only expected to get in the vicinity of 40 seats, any candidate on the party list–whose order is determined by the voters–below that number isn’t going to get elected). That means veterans like Dan Meridor and Benny Begin, the son of Menachem Begin, won’t be back in the Knesset next year. This is because a new movement of younger and more right-wing candidates finished ahead of them. In particular, Moshe Feiglin, a nationalist gadfly who has been trying to take over the Likud from the inside for years, will for the first time gain a seat.

This will, as the Likud-bashers at Haaretz rightly point out, make the party’s parliamentary delegation much less moderate and more likely to make Netanyahu’s life hell as he attempts to keep relations with the Obama administration from collapsing. But the expectation that this will cost Netanyahu the election is merely the wish being father to the thought for his left-wing critics. This may cost Likud some centrist votes, which will go to Yair Lapid’s new party, or Livni or what is left of Kadima. But it could be offset by the votes picked up at the expense of the parties to Likud’s right.

It should also be understood that the driving force in any Knesset election is the person at the top of the ticket, not the one in the number 30 spot. Netanyahu remains the only credible candidate for prime minister in the field, and that is something that no primary will alter.

Even more important is the fact that Livni’s entry into the field will only further splinter the opposition to Netanyahu. Though she hopes to win Likud voters, her platform seems to center on two things only: her personal appeal and her belief that Netanyahu hasn’t done enough to further the peace process. Given her disastrous defeat at the hands of a lackluster rival like Shaul Mofaz in the Kadima primary last year, the idea that the public is clamoring for her doesn’t seem likely. The latest outbreak of fighting with Hamas in Gaza has only increased the perception among most Israelis that the peace process is dead. The Labor Party, which is likely to finish a distant second next month to Likud, has completely abandoned this issue and with good reason. It is hard to see how any candidate can win on such a platform. Nor, as Seth pointed out earlier today, is she likely to score points by trying simultaneously to run to Netanyahu’s right.

As the Times of Israel’s Raphael Ahren points out, Israeli politics remains divided between two camps. On the one hand there is Netanyahu’s Likud and its right-wing and religious allies that form the current government. On the other is the so-called center-left as well as the anti-Zionist Arab parties. According to all the polls, the former’s strength should net them anywhere from 66 to 70 seats out of the 120 in the Knesset. The latter can’t seem to do better than 50-54.

This means that it doesn’t really matter whether Labor’s Shelly Yachimovich or Livni or Lapid or some other outlier emerges from the wreckage of the Israeli center-left after the next election as the head of the opposition. As Ahren says, it would take an “earthquake” or some completely unforeseen event to shake the country’s electoral math. Though the Haaretz pundits and American liberals who despise Netanyahu and reject the Israeli consensus about peace are hoping that Livni or someone else will pull an upset, the prime minister remains on cruise control. His next term will probably be stormy and his party will give him plenty of headaches. But so long as most Israelis agree with his stands on the Palestinians and Iran, and understand that his steady hand on the country’s economic rudder is exactly what is needed, the Likud’s hold on office is not in question.

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Gaza Conflict Wasn’t Launched to Help Bibi

Hamas rockets reached Jerusalem today as the terrorist barrage on Israel continued. Rather than being silenced by Israeli counter-attacks, the Islamists have apparently been emboldened by the ardent support they have received from both Egypt and Turkey and have raised the ante in the conflict. That leaves Israel’s government having to choose between a cease-fire that will give Hamas a victory or to launch a costly ground invasion of Gaza that might inflict serious damage on the terrorists and perhaps restore some measure of deterrence. But looming over all of the discussions about the country’s options is the accusation that the fighting this week has been motivated more by Prime Minister Netanyahu’s re-election campaign than Israel’s security.

That’s the theme being sounded by a chorus of leftist critics of the PM on the Haaretz op-ed page and is even being echoed by President Obama’s good friend and Hamas ally Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan today according to Ynet. Leaving aside Erdoğan’s fantastic claim that the several hundred rockets that have been fired at Israel are a “fabrication,” the notion that the decision to try and stop the rocket attacks is connected to Israel’s parliamentary election scheduled for January.

Considering how unpopular Netanyahu is outside of his own country as well as with Israel’s media, it’s hardly surprising that this sort of thing would be said. But it should also be understood that it is complete nonsense. The timing of the conflict was determined by Hamas, not Israel, and far from boosting Netanyahu’s chances of winning re-election, the growing violence is much more of a liability than it is an opportunity to win votes.

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Hamas rockets reached Jerusalem today as the terrorist barrage on Israel continued. Rather than being silenced by Israeli counter-attacks, the Islamists have apparently been emboldened by the ardent support they have received from both Egypt and Turkey and have raised the ante in the conflict. That leaves Israel’s government having to choose between a cease-fire that will give Hamas a victory or to launch a costly ground invasion of Gaza that might inflict serious damage on the terrorists and perhaps restore some measure of deterrence. But looming over all of the discussions about the country’s options is the accusation that the fighting this week has been motivated more by Prime Minister Netanyahu’s re-election campaign than Israel’s security.

That’s the theme being sounded by a chorus of leftist critics of the PM on the Haaretz op-ed page and is even being echoed by President Obama’s good friend and Hamas ally Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan today according to Ynet. Leaving aside Erdoğan’s fantastic claim that the several hundred rockets that have been fired at Israel are a “fabrication,” the notion that the decision to try and stop the rocket attacks is connected to Israel’s parliamentary election scheduled for January.

Considering how unpopular Netanyahu is outside of his own country as well as with Israel’s media, it’s hardly surprising that this sort of thing would be said. But it should also be understood that it is complete nonsense. The timing of the conflict was determined by Hamas, not Israel, and far from boosting Netanyahu’s chances of winning re-election, the growing violence is much more of a liability than it is an opportunity to win votes.

First of all, the notion that Netanyahu needs a “wag the dog” style war to be assured of winning in January is absurd. The prime minister’s Likud has been a prohibitive favorite for months. While there has been virtual unanimity about the fact that Likud will form the next coalition, any doubts that his party would receive the most votes was erased by the merger with Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitienu group. Though the expanded Likud may not dominate as much as Netanyahu hopes, it’s probably a lock to receive more Knesset seats than any party has won in 20 years.

A war may boost Netanyahu’s personal popularity while the fighting is going on, but that isn’t likely to translate into extra votes for his party in January. After all, centrist voters who are uncomfortable with Lieberman or even the prime minister are more likely than not to stick with Yair Lapid or any of the other alternatives that will probably wind up in Netanyahu’s coalition anyway.

Far more important to these calculations is that there may be more votes lost than won from a conflict.

It is true that had Netanyahu allowed Hamas to go on pounding the south as they did this past weekend, it would have undermined his credibility as a leader. Nor would the approximately one million Israelis who live in proximity to Gaza appreciate him leaving them unprotected. But the counter-attack exposes him to criticism on a number of key points.

Having set out this week to clip Hamas’s wings and restore Israel’s deterrence factor, how will it look if the fighting stops with the Islamist group’s power intact and in position to declare a victory? Indeed, with more than half of the hundreds of rockets launched by Hamas getting through Israel’s vaunted Iron Dome anti-missile system and with rockets landing in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem since the offensive started, it’s hard to argue that even the hard blows administered to the terrorists this week have made a dent in their ability to threaten the Jewish state.

If Netanyahu decides not to accept a cease fire under these conditions and launches a ground attack on Gaza of some sort, that will satisfy some Israelis. But the heavy casualties that will be suffered by both sides will also be held against him as well as heightening foreign pressure to stand down before Hamas’s infrastructure is significantly damaged. While a clear success would make him look good, does anyone really believe that under the circumstances and the advantages Hamas has in asymmetrical warfare it is likely that such an outcome is likely?

Most important, it should be remembered that Hamas launched this conflict for its own purposes. It was Hamas that dug the tunnel under the border with Israel to facilitate future terror attacks and whose discovery set the first attacks in motion. It was Hamas that chose to fire at an Israeli army vehicle across the border. And it was Hamas that decided that rather than instead of a limited exchange of fire after these incidents, it would launch a barrage of over 150 missiles into Israel on Sunday and Monday.

This decision was related to Hamas’s desire to upstage the Palestinian Authority and its bid for United Nations recognition. The flexing of their muscles was also about their desire to bolster the group’s popularity, something that required them to re-establish their reputation as the Palestinian group that was best at killing Israelis. None of that had much to do with Israel’s election, let alone Netanyahu’s political interests.

The long-term impact of the conflict that Hamas has fomented has yet to be determined. But whatever it turns out to be, ascribing it to a plot to re-elect Benjamin Netanyahu reflects the malice that many observers have for the prime minister, not a clear-headed analysis of the situation.

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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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Bibi and Main Rival Agree on Peace Process

Now that the elections are over and President Barack Obama is returning to business, one person he should pay some serious attention to is the new head of Israel’s Labor Party, Shelly Yacimovich. All polls show Labor becoming the second-largest party by a large margin after Israel’s January 22 election. Thus, if Obama is hoping for an alternative to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, she’s the only serious possibility.

So here, according to Israeli embassy reports on her meetings with French officials in July, is what she thinks on diplomatic issues: She thinks the Palestinians should negotiate without preconditions – just like Netanyahu. She thinks they must recognize Israel as a Jewish state – again like Netanyahu. She thinks Israel should retain the major settlement blocs, and shouldn’t withdraw to the 1967 lines – yet again like Netanyahu.

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Now that the elections are over and President Barack Obama is returning to business, one person he should pay some serious attention to is the new head of Israel’s Labor Party, Shelly Yacimovich. All polls show Labor becoming the second-largest party by a large margin after Israel’s January 22 election. Thus, if Obama is hoping for an alternative to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, she’s the only serious possibility.

So here, according to Israeli embassy reports on her meetings with French officials in July, is what she thinks on diplomatic issues: She thinks the Palestinians should negotiate without preconditions – just like Netanyahu. She thinks they must recognize Israel as a Jewish state – again like Netanyahu. She thinks Israel should retain the major settlement blocs, and shouldn’t withdraw to the 1967 lines – yet again like Netanyahu.

And, from an interview last year: While she thinks most settlements will have to go under any deal with the Palestinians, she, like Netanyahu, doesn’t consider them “a sin and a crime.” Moreover, again like Netanyahu, she doesn’t think the “peace process” should top Israel’s agenda (though she disagrees with him over what should). In fact, as she herself said just last week, she is “fighting for” the cause of “ending the dichotomy between left and right in foreign affairs. There are no longer two blocs … it’s all a fixation.”

In short, contrary to the media’s persistent portrayal of Netanyahu as a “hardline right-winger” heading a “far right” coalition, his positions on the Palestinian issue are shared by almost all Israelis – not only supporters of his coalition, but also supporters of what is likely to be the main opposition party come January, assuming Netanyahu (as expected) forms the next government. What will probably keep Yacimovich out of his coalition aren’t her diplomatic views, but his economic ones.

Hence if Obama is hoping for an Israeli leader whose positions on the “peace process” will be closer to his own than Netanyahu’s, he should think again: There isn’t one.

It’s not that they don’t exist in theory: Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni both deem an agreement with the Palestinians top priority, fall somewhere to the left of Netanyahu and Yacimovich on specific final-status issues, and are reportedly considering running. There’s only one problem: They have virtually no support. Between them, they have held almost every senior cabinet portfolio, whereas Yacimovich is a second-term MK with no cabinet experience whatsoever. Yet when pollsters asked Israelis last week who should lead the center-left bloc, Yacimovich got more votes than Olmert and Livni combined.

That’s no accident, any more than the fact that Labor – the party that signed the Oslo Accords and has traditionally headed Israel’s self-described “peace camp” – overwhelmingly voted to be led by a woman who deems socioeconomic issues more important than peace talks (“Before we … engage in a struggle for peace, we need to have a state,” as she put it). As I’ve written before, this has been the mainstream Israeli view for years. It just took a while to produce mainstream party leaders who agreed.

Today, Israel has two: Netanyahu and Yacimovich. One of them will be running Israel for the next four years. And the sooner Obama comes to terms with that fact, the better.

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