Commentary Magazine


Topic: Israeli politics

Another Netanyahu Rival Eliminated

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Beit Shemesh and the Israeli Culture Wars

The cover story in the latest issue of the New Republic is titled “The Feminists of Zion: An unlikely alliance between Orthodox and progressive women will save Israel from fundamentalism,” which does not lack for ambition. But the virtue of the article itself is that it doesn’t attempt to live up to the headline, almost surely because the authors didn’t choose the headline themselves. One of the essay’s accomplishments, then, is that its subjects are not larger-than-life, comic-book superheroes and villains but everyday people experiencing a new variation on a recurring theme in Israeli life: the ethno-religious compartmentalization of lived society.

The essay revolves around the Israeli city of Beit Shemesh. It was the site of an unambiguously shameful series of incidents brought to the attention of the country, and the wider world, in late 2011. That was when eight-year-old Naama Margolese, a resident of Beit Shemesh, appeared with her mother on an Israeli news program to tell her story: she was being insulted and spit on by Haredi onlookers as she walked to school in the morning. Her family is modern Orthodox, and dresses accordingly, and her story is unfortunately not the only one of its kind. Out of this outrage grew an Orthodox-secular feminist alliance, and the TNR article details what it sees as its triumphs:

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The cover story in the latest issue of the New Republic is titled “The Feminists of Zion: An unlikely alliance between Orthodox and progressive women will save Israel from fundamentalism,” which does not lack for ambition. But the virtue of the article itself is that it doesn’t attempt to live up to the headline, almost surely because the authors didn’t choose the headline themselves. One of the essay’s accomplishments, then, is that its subjects are not larger-than-life, comic-book superheroes and villains but everyday people experiencing a new variation on a recurring theme in Israeli life: the ethno-religious compartmentalization of lived society.

The essay revolves around the Israeli city of Beit Shemesh. It was the site of an unambiguously shameful series of incidents brought to the attention of the country, and the wider world, in late 2011. That was when eight-year-old Naama Margolese, a resident of Beit Shemesh, appeared with her mother on an Israeli news program to tell her story: she was being insulted and spit on by Haredi onlookers as she walked to school in the morning. Her family is modern Orthodox, and dresses accordingly, and her story is unfortunately not the only one of its kind. Out of this outrage grew an Orthodox-secular feminist alliance, and the TNR article details what it sees as its triumphs:

The new public consciousness of women’s treatment had a profound impact on last January’s parliamentary elections. Two newcomers, Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid, deftly forged a modern-Orthodox/secular alliance, pledging to end the special status of Haredi men, including sweeping them into the national draft. Lapid was careful to promote women and women’s issues as an election issue and top priority for his new party, Yesh Atid.

In the 2013 election, for the first time, three women led major parties, and, thanks in no small part to Yesh Atid, the number of women in the legislature rose to a record high of 27—comprising 23 percent of the legislature. Yesh Atid women include new Knesset members Aliza Lavie, a modern-Orthodox feminist activist and university professor, and Ruth Calderon, a secular Jewish academic who founded a non-Orthodox yeshiva. A video of Calderon leading a groundbreaking Talmud study session in the Knesset went viral, showing a female secular scholar discussing Talmud as ultra-Orthodox members of the Knesset nodded respectfully.

And while the ultra-Orthodox parties stayed female-free, for the first time, a woman in that community dared to object. Esti Shoshan, a Haredi journalist, created a Facebook page called, “If we can’t run, we won’t vote,” openly challenging the fact that the ultra-Orthodox parties excluded women from their party lists and declaring that Haredi women should not vote for their sectoral parties as a result.

The most recognizable way Haredim separate themselves in Israeli society is exemption from military service. When Israel was founded in 1948, the devastation of the Holocaust had convinced Israeli leaders that there should be a center of high Jewish study and scholarship under the watchful care of the new Jewish state. Full-time yeshiva students, of which there were a few hundred at the outset, were exempted from service in the Israeli armed forces.

This was not a one-sided concession at the time; Israel’s political leaders thought the establishment of leading yeshivot was crucial to the Jewish state’s identity and its prestige among Diaspora Jewry. The Orthodox oversight of the state levers of halakha-related regulation was also given in this spirit, and it had the effect of truly making Israel a Jewish state even though its citizens were overwhelmingly non-Orthodox. But it also essentially put the Orthodox in a museum of sorts. What happened if and when the Haredi population surged and they left the museum to walk among the modern and largely non-observant State of Israel was anybody’s guess.

That integration was postponed because of another facet of Israeli society: though much of the country’s residents live in large cities such as Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and Haifa, within those ethnically diverse cities exist ethnic and cultural enclaves. Throughout the rest of the country, immigrant groups have tended to establish themselves in certain towns and cities–except for Russian immigrants, whose sheer numbers make such relative isolation impossible.

What is true for Russian immigrants is beginning to be true for Haredim, and some level of integration is essential. The reason army service is so important is because that has been a major source of integration in the past by plucking Israelis from their enclaves and putting their lives–and the survival of the state–in each other’s hands. Not only does this engender cross-cultural affinity but it builds trust and social cohesion. It is debatable whether the Israel Defense Forces actually needs the manpower of mass Haredi army service, but the benefits of social integration and “sharing the burden” are apparent.

Additionally, participation in the army is reasonably assumed to be a gateway to economic integration; the IDF teaches useful skills and enables Israelis to make connections. It gives them options, and not all those Haredi soldiers will go back to the yeshiva.

And that is why one quote in the article, by a Haredi woman named Surie Ackerman, strikes me as the wrong attitude:

Asked whether the prospect of ultra-Orthodox women joining Israel’s workforce in droves won’t change that dynamic, Ackerman is doubtful: “Small groups of like-minded women might make things different for themselves,” she says, citing a group of Haredi women entrepreneurs who created an annual business forum four years ago. “But it doesn’t break any framework. They aren’t staying in the kitchen anymore, but it’s not a revolution.”

Perhaps the term “revolution” is overused and Ackerman is wise not to do so herself. But the entry of Haredi women into the work force is significant because of the compound interest of such integration: they will not only encourage their friends to follow their example, but they may have a Haredi-sized family and teach the next generation the virtues of careers and social integration.

And the aforementioned Haredi journalist who organized a Facebook group to protest the exclusion of women from Haredi politics may very well have its ripple effects. The headline of the TNR essay, in other words, may be right (or at least have a point). But the divisions within Israeli society have taken decades to produce the trends now leading to these conflicts. Moving those trend lines in the right direction is what’s needed. If they can accomplish that, the revolution will take care of itself.

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A Step Closer to a Shared Burden

Those who look at Israel only through the prism of the conflict with the Palestinians have been paying more attention to Secretary of State John Kerry’s doomed attempt to restart the Middle East peace process than it deserves. But for those who understand that Palestinian intransigence doomed that effort even before it started, the real news in Israel has been going on in a negotiation between the country’s political parties, not with Fatah or Hamas. Yesterday’s decision by a Knesset committee to approve a proposal to reform the law governing the military draft could be the first step toward something that the overwhelming majority of the country truly cares about, by adopting a plan to require ultra-Orthodox men to be drafted into the army much the same as other Jewish citizens.

The effort to share the burden of service is at the core of the complaints of the majority of secular, traditional and modern Orthodox Israelis who bitterly resent a situation whereby Haredim are excused from military service and don’t even join the work force. Removing the exemption for all but a handful of men studying in religious seminaries goes a long way toward ending a situation in which one sector of the Jewish community was able to avoid the obligations of citizenship in a nation that remains subject to military threats every day of the year. That the committee approved a version of the legislation that includes potential criminal penalties for Haredim that don’t comply with the requirement to serve is also a triumph for Finance Minister Yair Lapid and his Yesh Atid Party.

While the law is still a long way from final passage let alone implementation, it has the potential to not only change Israeli society but also transform its politics. If Lapid, whose new party vaulted to a surprise second-place finish in the elections held in January on the basis of a pledge to change the draft law as well as his charisma, is actually able to make his promise a reality, it could give him the ability to mount a credible challenge to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu the next time the country goes to the polls.

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Those who look at Israel only through the prism of the conflict with the Palestinians have been paying more attention to Secretary of State John Kerry’s doomed attempt to restart the Middle East peace process than it deserves. But for those who understand that Palestinian intransigence doomed that effort even before it started, the real news in Israel has been going on in a negotiation between the country’s political parties, not with Fatah or Hamas. Yesterday’s decision by a Knesset committee to approve a proposal to reform the law governing the military draft could be the first step toward something that the overwhelming majority of the country truly cares about, by adopting a plan to require ultra-Orthodox men to be drafted into the army much the same as other Jewish citizens.

The effort to share the burden of service is at the core of the complaints of the majority of secular, traditional and modern Orthodox Israelis who bitterly resent a situation whereby Haredim are excused from military service and don’t even join the work force. Removing the exemption for all but a handful of men studying in religious seminaries goes a long way toward ending a situation in which one sector of the Jewish community was able to avoid the obligations of citizenship in a nation that remains subject to military threats every day of the year. That the committee approved a version of the legislation that includes potential criminal penalties for Haredim that don’t comply with the requirement to serve is also a triumph for Finance Minister Yair Lapid and his Yesh Atid Party.

While the law is still a long way from final passage let alone implementation, it has the potential to not only change Israeli society but also transform its politics. If Lapid, whose new party vaulted to a surprise second-place finish in the elections held in January on the basis of a pledge to change the draft law as well as his charisma, is actually able to make his promise a reality, it could give him the ability to mount a credible challenge to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu the next time the country goes to the polls.

Lapid’s is not the first centrist party that campaigned on a platform of draft reform to achieve success in its first try for the Knesset. But every one that came before him crashed and burned because it was compromised by taking office alongside one of the dominant parties of the left or the right and failed to make progress toward equalizing the burden of national service.

But this time may really be different.

The last election was the first ever to be held in Israel that was not fought on issues of war and peace. After 20 years of attempts to trade land for peace, the overwhelming majority of Israelis have rightly given up on the negotiations with a Palestinian leadership that has proved that it doesn’t want peace. Instead, they are concentrating on domestic concerns and the economy. Lapid, who got stuck with the short straw in coalition negotiations and wound up with the unenviable task of having to balance the budget, won’t earn any glory in making the tough decisions about the country’s finances. But if Haredim really are drafted by the time of the election, he will have done what no other Israeli politician before him has ever come close to achieving.

If so, Yesh Atid will not only not be yet another “one and done” political flash in the pan, but could become the natural party of government rather than a partner to Netanyahu’s Likud.

There could still be plenty of pitfalls for Lapid and his law before it is enforced.

The new law will face constitutional changes on the grounds that it still affords the Haredim unequal treatment, albeit in a far less unfair manner than the status quo.

Even more seriously, Haredi protests and draft resistance could test the resolve of Netanyahu to keep his promise to both Lapid and Naftali Bennett, the head of the right-wing Habayit Hayehudi Party to change the draft law. Earlier this week when Lapid had to threaten to bolt the government in order to get the committee to include sanctions against draft dodgers, Haredi leaders threatened to “fill the prisons” en masse rather than serve.

But these problems notwithstanding, Lapid has already taken a giant step toward doing what most Israelis have been begging their government to do for decades. If he can follow through, the sky is the limit for him and his party.

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Why Israelis Have Moved On

Former New York Times Jerusalem bureau chief Ethan Bronner returned to the country after a year away and is confounded by the change in the political atmosphere. The journalist takes the temperature of the Jewish state and finds it almost completely disinterested in the issue that drove most of his reporting and, indeed, was the overriding issue in every Israeli election up until the one conducted this past January: the peace process with the Palestinians.

Though a few old political warhorses claim the peace process must remain the country’s priority, most Israelis are having none of it. The guests at a wedding Bronner attended comprising a surprisingly broad cross-section of society had many differences, but all were united on one point: they never even mentioned the Palestinians. While Bronner devotes considerable space in his Sunday review column on this situation to explaining why he thinks this is troubling or wrong, he gives short shrift to the reason for it. If, as one of his sources noted to Bronner, “debating the peace process to most Israelis is the equivalent of debating the color of the shirt you will wear when landing on Mars,” then his readers deserve more than a throwaway line about Israelis thinking the Palestinians have no interest in peace.

Presented without even a smidgeon of historical context or even a brief summary of a strategic equation that leads Israelis to think this way makes the widespread indifference to peace negotiations seem callous at best. If Americans are to understand the shift in Israeli politics that led to an election fought on domestic issues or why most there think Secretary of State John Kerry’s effort to revive the peace process is a fool’s errand, then it is incumbent on the Times to lay out the facts about the Palestinians’ consistent rejection of peace offers and the inability of either Fatah or Hamas to recognize a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn.

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Former New York Times Jerusalem bureau chief Ethan Bronner returned to the country after a year away and is confounded by the change in the political atmosphere. The journalist takes the temperature of the Jewish state and finds it almost completely disinterested in the issue that drove most of his reporting and, indeed, was the overriding issue in every Israeli election up until the one conducted this past January: the peace process with the Palestinians.

Though a few old political warhorses claim the peace process must remain the country’s priority, most Israelis are having none of it. The guests at a wedding Bronner attended comprising a surprisingly broad cross-section of society had many differences, but all were united on one point: they never even mentioned the Palestinians. While Bronner devotes considerable space in his Sunday review column on this situation to explaining why he thinks this is troubling or wrong, he gives short shrift to the reason for it. If, as one of his sources noted to Bronner, “debating the peace process to most Israelis is the equivalent of debating the color of the shirt you will wear when landing on Mars,” then his readers deserve more than a throwaway line about Israelis thinking the Palestinians have no interest in peace.

Presented without even a smidgeon of historical context or even a brief summary of a strategic equation that leads Israelis to think this way makes the widespread indifference to peace negotiations seem callous at best. If Americans are to understand the shift in Israeli politics that led to an election fought on domestic issues or why most there think Secretary of State John Kerry’s effort to revive the peace process is a fool’s errand, then it is incumbent on the Times to lay out the facts about the Palestinians’ consistent rejection of peace offers and the inability of either Fatah or Hamas to recognize a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn.

Journalists rightly complain that it is unfair to expect short articles about complex subjects to encompass the entire history of their topic. But if you are going to write a piece whose sole purpose is to illustrate the fact that the overwhelming majority of Israelis have given up on the peace process for the foreseeable future, you are obligated to give at least a thumbnail sketch of the events that created this consensus.

That doesn’t mean that Bronner has to go back through 100 years of conflict between Jews and Arabs to detail every event that showed how Palestinians “never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity,” as Abba Eban summed it up. Nor did he even have to note that prior to June 1967—when the borders of Israel were exactly as the Palestinians and their supporters claim they ought to be—there was no peace and the whole country was considered to be the “occupied territories,” not the West Bank.

All Bronner needed to do was to note that Israeli governments offered the Palestinians an independent state in almost all of the West Bank, Gaza and a share of Jerusalem in 2000, 2001 and 2008 and were rejected. As I wrote on Friday about Ehud Olmert’s recollection of the failure of the Palestinians to answer a proposal that would have led to Israel not just agreeing to a partition of Jerusalem but one in which it would have abandoned sovereignty over the Old City and Jewish sacred places including the Western Wall, if the Palestinians wouldn’t take that deal, what exactly are they asking for short of Israel’s complete dissolution?

Bronner could have also mentioned, at least in passing, the spectacle of Israel’s complete withdrawal from Gaza in 2005 which led not to peace but the creation of an independent Palestinian state in all but name there run by Hamas and which is little more than an Islamist terror base.

Contrary to his assertion, outsiders don’t want peace more than the Israelis. They want it very much. But unlike naïve or ill-intentioned Westerners they have paid attention to what has happened in the 20 years since Oslo and recognized what has actually happened. They haven’t traded land for peace as they hoped. Instead, they have traded land for terror. Should a sea change in Palestinian political culture ever occur that produces a leadership ready to permanently end the conflict and live in peace alongside Israel, they will discover the Israelis willing to do whatever is necessary to secure the agreement. But until then, most Israelis are not going to waste their time or endanger their lives on a futile quest.

Far from Israel being a Titanic waiting to hit the next iceberg, the changes Bronner describes illustrates that most there have their eyes wide open and are determined not to let their country be sunk by a foolish and blind attachment to a peace process that has no chance of success. Briefly explaining why that is so shouldn’t be too much to ask of a piece that is more than 1,200 words in length. 

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Whatever Happened to Yair Lapid?

The biggest winner of Israel’s January Knesset elections was Yair Lapid, the former TV personality who led his Yesh Atid Party to a tremendous showing, gaining 19 Knesset seats in its first try for office. In the aftermath of that victory and prior to his joining Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition government, I speculated as to whether Lapid could survive success since every previous such newcomer to Israeli electoral politics who had such a good showing was soon brought to grief. The definitive answer to that question will have to wait until at least after the next Israeli election. But four months later the tentative response would have to be that he appears on track to be felled by the same sin that every other “centrist” new voice has committed: accepting the responsibility of government.

Lapid’s personal popularity has plummeted as a result of him getting the short straw when Netanyahu handed out Cabinet posts. As finance minister, Lapid, whose party was catapulted to a second place finish by capitalizing on middle class discontent, has had the unfortunate responsibility of paying the bills in a country where most people and their government live on credit. There was no rational alternative to the austerity budget that he presented to the Knesset, but the tax increases and budget cuts in it were not exactly what his voters had in mind when they put him in office. Polls show half of those who backed Yesh Atid won’t do so again and that has left Lapid, who has not given interviews in recent months, with the need to reboot his personality cult. As part of this effort, he gave an interview to the New York Times to talk about his political education in terms that seem painfully familiar for those who remember how other centrist leaders were schooled by reality once they took office.

But what’s fascinating about the interview isn’t his confession that he “used to have so many opinions before I learned the facts.” Nor is it his bold prediction that all will come right in the end for him. It’s that despite the best efforts of the Times to entice him to win some popularity abroad by separating himself from Netanyahu on the peace process, Lapid’s positions remain virtually identical to those of the prime minster. For all of his current political problems, Lapid understands there’s no future in Israel for those who curry favor with the country’s foreign critics.

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The biggest winner of Israel’s January Knesset elections was Yair Lapid, the former TV personality who led his Yesh Atid Party to a tremendous showing, gaining 19 Knesset seats in its first try for office. In the aftermath of that victory and prior to his joining Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition government, I speculated as to whether Lapid could survive success since every previous such newcomer to Israeli electoral politics who had such a good showing was soon brought to grief. The definitive answer to that question will have to wait until at least after the next Israeli election. But four months later the tentative response would have to be that he appears on track to be felled by the same sin that every other “centrist” new voice has committed: accepting the responsibility of government.

Lapid’s personal popularity has plummeted as a result of him getting the short straw when Netanyahu handed out Cabinet posts. As finance minister, Lapid, whose party was catapulted to a second place finish by capitalizing on middle class discontent, has had the unfortunate responsibility of paying the bills in a country where most people and their government live on credit. There was no rational alternative to the austerity budget that he presented to the Knesset, but the tax increases and budget cuts in it were not exactly what his voters had in mind when they put him in office. Polls show half of those who backed Yesh Atid won’t do so again and that has left Lapid, who has not given interviews in recent months, with the need to reboot his personality cult. As part of this effort, he gave an interview to the New York Times to talk about his political education in terms that seem painfully familiar for those who remember how other centrist leaders were schooled by reality once they took office.

But what’s fascinating about the interview isn’t his confession that he “used to have so many opinions before I learned the facts.” Nor is it his bold prediction that all will come right in the end for him. It’s that despite the best efforts of the Times to entice him to win some popularity abroad by separating himself from Netanyahu on the peace process, Lapid’s positions remain virtually identical to those of the prime minster. For all of his current political problems, Lapid understands there’s no future in Israel for those who curry favor with the country’s foreign critics.

Lapid’s great showing was rooted in the fact that the election was largely fought on economic issues rather than the traditional left/right lines on the peace process. As such, his appeal was to a middle class that feels it has not benefited from the country’s prosperous economy. But while it’s easy to represent the views of those Israelis who complain about the high price of cottage cheese on TV or on the campaign trail, it’s impossible to do so from an office in the Finance Ministry. Lapid may still be the coolest politician in Israel with his trademark black T-shirts and good looks, but all the charisma in the world can’t produce cheap cottage cheese that has become the Israeli equivalent of the free lunch that American libertarians talk about.

Having taken on the job of running the economy, Lapid has assumed a post that breaks most politicians. Indeed, other than Shimon Peres and Benjamin Netanyahu, both of whom were the rara avis of Israeli politics in that they actually understood economics, virtually every person who has shuttled in and out of Lapid’s current office has failed. So that gives him every chance to wind up as his predecessors from the Dash, Tzomet, Center, Third Way and Shinui and be a one-election wonder rather than challenging Netanyahu for prime minister the next time Israelis head to the polls.

Yet in his favor is the same basic fact that earned Yesh Atid its big win: Israeli voters are no longer divided so easily between the two competing camps of left and right about the peace process. Lapid’s big showing was made possible by the collapse of the traditional left and a willingness by many Israelis to cast their vote on other issues. While his star has been dimmed by his inability to play the outsider anymore, there will still be a large constituency for a centrist alternative to Netanyahu that isn’t compromised by leftist illusions about the Palestinians.

And that is the thing about Lapid that seems most interesting to the Times. Rather than looking to separate himself from the prime minister in a way that would make him look good to the Times and other critics of the country’s security policies, Lapid stuck to the hard line he espoused during the election:

While he described the two-state solution as “crucial” to preserving Israel as a Jewish nation, he offered no hints of Israeli concessions that could break the stalemate in the peace process. Instead, he repeatedly said he hoped that Secretary of State John Kerry, who is scheduled to arrive here this week for his fourth visit in two months, would “jump-start” it.

And he expressed extreme skepticism about the likelihood of reaching a deal with President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority, saying, “He’s one of the founding fathers of the victimizing concept of the Palestinians.”

He also questioned whether Palestinians truly wanted a state.

Also of interest to the Times was the fact that Lapid doesn’t share the sensibilities of Americans liberals and the far left of the Israeli political spectrum in another fashion:

One of the things that led some to turn on Mr. Lapid was the revelation that he met in April with Sheldon Adelson, the ultraconservative financier who backs Mr. Netanyahu and owns the Israel Hayom newspaper that loyally supports him. Mr. Lapid said Thursday that Mr. Adelson requested the meeting to ensure that the government would continue its matching grant of about $40 million to Birthright, a program that brings young Jews to Israel, and that “there was nothing political about it.”

While Adelson has been thoroughly demonized in the Times for backing Republicans, bureau chief Jodi Rudoren seems blissfully unaware that his Israeli paper is the best-read publication (approximately 40 percent read it) in a country where newspaper readership is still high. Only in the Times could there be anything remotely controversial about an Israeli finance minister meeting with the one of the world’s leading donors to Jewish philanthropies.

Yair Lapid is a savvy politician and if anyone can break the curse of Israeli centrism it will be him. But whether he does survive past the next election or not, he has made the wise determination that anyone who wants a future in his country’s politics can’t bet their careers on the myth that the Palestinians want peace. Those who hope he will challenge Netanyahu on the peace process are barking up the wrong tree.

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Obama Visit Signals Nadir of Israeli Left

Many on Israel’s right are viewing the arrival of President Obama in their country with suspicion. They look at his record of antagonism toward the Netanyahu government and his past attempts to tilt the diplomatic playing field in the direction of the Palestinians and think no good can possibly come from an event that will give someone they view as inherently hostile to the Jewish state a bully pulpit from which to put forward his ideas. They may be right about Obama’s long-term intentions toward Israel. But for a better idea of who are the real losers as the president puts the country in the spotlight, it might be better to look at what pundits on the left are saying about it. As unhappy as some right-wingers might be about the arrival of what has undoubtedly been the least sympathetic toward Israel of any president in the last generation, it is the left that is really unhappy.

Look at just about any one of the many opinion columnists writing in the left-wing Haaretz or read the lament of veteran journalist and author Gershom Gorenberg in The American Prospect and you quickly realize that the left understands that the presidential agenda signals the nadir of their influence in Israeli politics and policymaking. A couple of years ago they would have cheered an Obama visit, certain that the president would use the occasion to bash the Netanyahu government and strong-arm it into far-reaching concessions to the Palestinians. Now they read of his decision to put the peace process on the back burner and concentrate instead on making sure the two countries are on the same page on Iran, and tell him to go home. The uncontroversial nature of the Obama visit and the lack of expectations that it will do a thing to advance the moribund peace process means the decades-old hope of the Israeli left (cheered on by Jewish liberals in the United States like the J Street lobby) that America will “save Israel from itself” is officially dead.

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Many on Israel’s right are viewing the arrival of President Obama in their country with suspicion. They look at his record of antagonism toward the Netanyahu government and his past attempts to tilt the diplomatic playing field in the direction of the Palestinians and think no good can possibly come from an event that will give someone they view as inherently hostile to the Jewish state a bully pulpit from which to put forward his ideas. They may be right about Obama’s long-term intentions toward Israel. But for a better idea of who are the real losers as the president puts the country in the spotlight, it might be better to look at what pundits on the left are saying about it. As unhappy as some right-wingers might be about the arrival of what has undoubtedly been the least sympathetic toward Israel of any president in the last generation, it is the left that is really unhappy.

Look at just about any one of the many opinion columnists writing in the left-wing Haaretz or read the lament of veteran journalist and author Gershom Gorenberg in The American Prospect and you quickly realize that the left understands that the presidential agenda signals the nadir of their influence in Israeli politics and policymaking. A couple of years ago they would have cheered an Obama visit, certain that the president would use the occasion to bash the Netanyahu government and strong-arm it into far-reaching concessions to the Palestinians. Now they read of his decision to put the peace process on the back burner and concentrate instead on making sure the two countries are on the same page on Iran, and tell him to go home. The uncontroversial nature of the Obama visit and the lack of expectations that it will do a thing to advance the moribund peace process means the decades-old hope of the Israeli left (cheered on by Jewish liberals in the United States like the J Street lobby) that America will “save Israel from itself” is officially dead.

Obama will undoubtedly pay lip service to the two-state solution, say he’s against settlements and call for a return to the peace table. Some of that will grate on Israeli ears, since the vast majority of the country understands the Palestinians (either the “moderate” Palestinian Authority or the “extremists” of Hamas) have shown they have no interest in peace and won’t recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn.

But they will also enjoy the symbolism of the reaffirmation of the alliance that the visit will accomplish. And they will also pick up on the fact that whatever the president might say about peace, he isn’t there to pressure Netanyahu on the subject. Right-wingers will lament the government’s decision to go along with Obama on the question of giving more time to diplomacy to deal with the Iranian nuclear threat. That may, as Jeffrey Goldberg rightly points out in Bloomberg News, place Israel’s fate in his hands rather than those of its government. But even there Obama will be going out of his way to reassure Israelis that he means what he says about stopping Iran even if it’s not clear the Iranians believe him. 

Yet the main takeaway from this visit may well be the absence of rancor on the peace process that has so divided the two governments for the past four years. For most Israelis, this is a blessing. But for an Israeli left that has long cherished the dream of having an American president force the nation to accept policies that its voters have rejected, it’s a nightmare. The recent election was almost entirely fought on domestic issues, with even the Labor Party de-emphasizing the peace process. Today, the advocates of the “peace now” agenda that roughly correlates with the J Street crowd in America are marginalized in the Knesset. Obama might be sorry about that, but this week he will show that he won’t lift a finger to do anything about it.

This means that although the president will underwhelm many Israelis, his visit will be a symbolic acceptance of the concept that the U.S. can’t dictate policy to its Israeli ally. That’s a boost for Israeli democracy, but very bad news for Israelis and their American cheerleaders who want Obama to override the verdict of the electorate.

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Olmert’s No Threat to Netanyahu

American critics of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have spent the time since his election in early 2009 longing for someone who could knock the Likud leader off his perch. But luckily for Netanyahu, his most likely rivals, such as former Kadima Party leader Tzipi Livni, have crashed and burned in the intervening years. Ironically, the latest figure to raise the hopes of American Bibi-bashers is someone who actually crashed and burned before Netanyahu’s second term as prime minister began. His predecessor Ehud Olmert has been the subject of a mini-boomlet among some Americans desperate for a new challenger to the incumbent, but you have to take a pretty cynical view of Israeli society to believe that the suspended sentence and fine he was given today by a judge for his conviction for breach of public trust will act as a springboard for a comeback.

Though left-wing American groups like J Street have treated him like a hero, his checkered ethical record as well as the fact that he is widely considered his country’s least successful leader in history are the sort of handicaps that ought to daunt even the boldest of politicians. Though Netanyahu is going through a rough patch right now after a few years of being unchallenged, if the best his liberal American detractors can come up with is someone like Olmert, then he has little to worry about at the next election.

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American critics of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have spent the time since his election in early 2009 longing for someone who could knock the Likud leader off his perch. But luckily for Netanyahu, his most likely rivals, such as former Kadima Party leader Tzipi Livni, have crashed and burned in the intervening years. Ironically, the latest figure to raise the hopes of American Bibi-bashers is someone who actually crashed and burned before Netanyahu’s second term as prime minister began. His predecessor Ehud Olmert has been the subject of a mini-boomlet among some Americans desperate for a new challenger to the incumbent, but you have to take a pretty cynical view of Israeli society to believe that the suspended sentence and fine he was given today by a judge for his conviction for breach of public trust will act as a springboard for a comeback.

Though left-wing American groups like J Street have treated him like a hero, his checkered ethical record as well as the fact that he is widely considered his country’s least successful leader in history are the sort of handicaps that ought to daunt even the boldest of politicians. Though Netanyahu is going through a rough patch right now after a few years of being unchallenged, if the best his liberal American detractors can come up with is someone like Olmert, then he has little to worry about at the next election.

It is true that Olmert is attempting to spin his evasion of jail time on corruption charges as a vindication. But even by the rough and tumble standards of Israeli politics, it’s hard to imagine that his public apology for misbehavior will be seen as a good reason to put him back into the prime minister’s office. As the judge said at his sentencing, the reason he got such a light sentence (which may be appealed by prosecutors) was because he had already suffered the serious penalty of being driven from office under an ethical cloud.

The fact that his suspended sentence will almost certainly be still in effect when Israeli voters go to the polls sometime next year is also a problem. So, too, is the fact that he faces trial on other serious corruption charges relating to bribery and influence peddling during his years as mayor of Jerusalem. Olmert is a slippery character and his luck may hold in the coming trial as it did in the last one when, despite a large body of evidence pointing to his guilt, he was only convicted on a lesser charge. But as much as he may pretend to be the victim of a political witch-hunt, these are not the sorts of resume items that help you win elections.

Those who speak of an Olmert comeback can point to the way Benjamin Netanyahu rose from the political dead after his ignominious defeat in 1999 after three not terribly popular years as prime minister. It’s true that given time, all political sins might be forgiven. But Netanyahu spent the interim between his two terms rebuilding his reputation with a successful term as finance minister, not dodging jail. For all of his drawbacks, it should also be pointed out that unlike Olmert, Netanyahu did not preside over a disastrous military campaign such as the 2006 Lebanon War. Nor did his poll numbers ever drop as low as those of Olmert, who at one point had a favorability rating that was so miniscule it was actually within the survey’s margin of error raising the theoretical possibility that no one in the country thought he was doing a good job.

Netanyahu probably made a mistake this past spring when he chose to create a grand coalition with the remnants of Kadima rather than going straight to new elections on his own. That alliance didn’t last and he is now locked in a difficult fight with President Obama over Iran that, while not politically fatal, is certainly not to his advantage. But no one currently on the Israeli political scene, like Kadima’s Shaul Mofaz, or those who are currently off it, like Olmert and Tzipi Livni–another failed Kadima leader–have much of a shot to beat him at the next election. While a resurgent Labor is bound to replace Kadima as the main opposition, its head Shelly Yachimovich isn’t seen as someone who’s ready to be prime minister.

Like it or not, American Jewish liberals who loathe Netanyahu are still probably going to be stuck with him as Israel’s leader for the foreseeable future. Though his missteps in recent months show he isn’t bulletproof, potential challengers like Olmert show how puny his opposition has become.

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Israel Continues to Politically Inspire

In recent decades it became a common trope to bemoan Israel’s inability to inspire politically. As opposed to the state’s early decades of scrappy existence against long odds, the images of Israeli tanks staring down Arab rock-throwers supposedly denuded Israel’s capacity to arouse anything much other than discomfort.

Yesterday’s late night political drama at the Knesset is a shining counterpoint. It demonstrates the continued ability of Israel’s politicians not to be victims of their circumstances but to actively shape them, something we in the United States (and the entire Western world for that matter) should take heed of.

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In recent decades it became a common trope to bemoan Israel’s inability to inspire politically. As opposed to the state’s early decades of scrappy existence against long odds, the images of Israeli tanks staring down Arab rock-throwers supposedly denuded Israel’s capacity to arouse anything much other than discomfort.

Yesterday’s late night political drama at the Knesset is a shining counterpoint. It demonstrates the continued ability of Israel’s politicians not to be victims of their circumstances but to actively shape them, something we in the United States (and the entire Western world for that matter) should take heed of.

The most important issue the new super coalition government headed by Likud and Kadima (the largest party in the current government by seats) allows Israeli Premier Benjamin Netanyahu to confront is the draft exemption for haredi youth. Currently known as the Tal Law, it is an element of a range of concessions first made by David Ben-Gurion (Israel’s first prime minister) with religious parties that enabled the dominant Israeli left to form a government without including their rivals on the right. The basic premise of the provision is that 18-year-old Jewish males who would normally be eligible for conscription into the Israeli army can receive an exemption if they are studying in a religious yeshiva.

At the time the original deal was struck, the law exempted only around 400 people. Ben-Gurion was also likely comforted by his belief in the eventual extinction of traditional religious life in the new Jewish state, which would over time make the issue moot.

On this point however he proved shortsighted, as the exempted population has grown to now around 60,000. Moreover, haredi Jews make up an increasing percentage of Israeli society that remains in many ways disconnected from the larger public, precisely because they do not participate in the Israeli-identity forming experience of IDF service. Despite a growing recognition that the exemption is no longer tenable (and even after the Israeli Supreme Court’s recent decision that the law in its current form is unconstitutional) there was widespread feeling the situation could not be changed, because to do so would require the main competing political factions to partner together, thereby forming a government that could exclude the still relatively small religious parties and make changes to the exemption whether or not they approve.

This has created a sense of impending doom in the country, as it seemed destined to watch a growing haredi population capture ever larger shares of government support without contributing to or sharing in the burdens of the larger society.

The coalition deal is a big deal because it potentially breaks that doom. There is now a sufficiently large coalition that it can pass legislation without any support from religious parties. In fact, the three largest parties (Kadima, Likud, and Yisrael Beitenu, which has gained in support in part because of its focus on changing the draft exemption) now have a majority on their own.

From a country with its own intractable problems that seem insolvable due to the inability of the two major political parties to work substantively together, the example set last night by Israel’s leaders should inspire.

No doubt there are less then pristine factors at play. Shaul Mofaz, Kadima’s leader, delays impending electoral calamity by entering the government. Netanyahu for his part delays the entrance of Yair Lapid, a potential rival, to the Knesset. One cannot hope for politics to be entirely noble.

Nevertheless, American Jews, Americans, and the West should take note and find inspiration in Israel’s demonstration today that no political problem does not have its solution.

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The Fall of Obama’s Favorite Israeli

For the past three years, figures in America’s foreign policy establishment as well as media kibbitzers who knew little about Israel had a constant refrain: Tzipi Livni, the glamorous head of the Kadmia Party, should replace Benjamin Netanyahu as Israel’s prime minister. In the aftermath of Netanyahu’s election in February 2009, the Obama administration openly plotted to topple the new leader and replace him with Livni, whom they viewed as more pliable on the Palestinian issue. Once that ploy failed as President Obama’s attacks on Netanyahu only strengthened him at home, Netanyahu’s American critics could only sit back and wait patiently until Livni defeated him on her own. But the wait is going to be a lot longer than many in Washington thought.

Last night, Livni lost her perch as opposition leader as the members of her rapidly shrinking party rejected her in favor of former General Shaul Mofaz in a primary to determine who will top the party’s list in  the next election that is currently scheduled for October 2013. That Livni, who was feted abroad and was prominently placed on lists of the world’s most important women, was defeated at all will come as a shock to her foreign admirers. But this was no ordinary defeat. The lady who only a couple of weeks ago was lauded as Israel’s “voice of reason” in a fawning piece by John Avlon in the Daily Beast, was slaughtered by Mofaz, 62-38 percent. The question now is whether Americans who were under the delusion that Livni represented a viable alternative to Netanyahu’s popular government will get the message.

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For the past three years, figures in America’s foreign policy establishment as well as media kibbitzers who knew little about Israel had a constant refrain: Tzipi Livni, the glamorous head of the Kadmia Party, should replace Benjamin Netanyahu as Israel’s prime minister. In the aftermath of Netanyahu’s election in February 2009, the Obama administration openly plotted to topple the new leader and replace him with Livni, whom they viewed as more pliable on the Palestinian issue. Once that ploy failed as President Obama’s attacks on Netanyahu only strengthened him at home, Netanyahu’s American critics could only sit back and wait patiently until Livni defeated him on her own. But the wait is going to be a lot longer than many in Washington thought.

Last night, Livni lost her perch as opposition leader as the members of her rapidly shrinking party rejected her in favor of former General Shaul Mofaz in a primary to determine who will top the party’s list in  the next election that is currently scheduled for October 2013. That Livni, who was feted abroad and was prominently placed on lists of the world’s most important women, was defeated at all will come as a shock to her foreign admirers. But this was no ordinary defeat. The lady who only a couple of weeks ago was lauded as Israel’s “voice of reason” in a fawning piece by John Avlon in the Daily Beast, was slaughtered by Mofaz, 62-38 percent. The question now is whether Americans who were under the delusion that Livni represented a viable alternative to Netanyahu’s popular government will get the message.

The Kadima that Mofaz will lead into the next election is vastly diminished from the juggernaut formed by Ariel Sharon when he left Likud in the wake of the withdrawal from Gaza in 2005. Sharon skimmed the biggest opportunists in Labor and Likud to create what many imagined to be the first viable centrist political grouping in the country’s history. But after its bigger-than-life leader was removed from the scene by a stroke, Kadima was seen to be an empty shell whose only purpose was to find government posts for its leading personalities. Ehud Olmert led it to an election victory in 2006 in the immediate aftermath of Sharon’s illness but was soon proved to be hopelessly over his head.

Livni served as his foreign minister and hoped to replace him after the disastrous Lebanon war but was outmaneuvered by Olmert. That was an early sign she had no capacity for leadership. She got her chance to run for prime minister in 2009. As a fresh face with no corruption charges currently pending against her, Livni ran a good campaign and enabled Kadima to win the most seats. However Netanyahu’s coalition of center-right parties far eclipsed its total. But rather than serve under another rival, she made the fatal mistake of leading Kadima into the opposition. The problem was that Livni and Kadima lacked any coherent vision of a different approach to Israel’s problems. Though Americans who disliked Netanyahu saw her as the pro-peace alternative, Israelis were aware her views on the issues were almost indistinguishable from those of the Likud leader. Her only real disagreement with him was based in her conviction that she ought to be Israel’s prime minister, a point on which few of her countrymen, even the members of her own party, agreed.

Some Israeli pundits think the selection of Mofaz is a blow to Netanyahu, as he was obviously relishing a chance to trounce her at the polls. But the former general will be another disappointment to American Bibi-haters. The gruff former military man won’t win the hearts of Westerners longing for a weak Israeli leader. He will try to carve out a position slightly to the left of Netanyahu, but Israelis understand the Palestinians have no interest in negotiating a two-state solution under any terms they can live with. Though he may prevent Kadima from collapsing at the next ballot, the party is facing stiff competition from a newly revived Labor and another new centrist party led by Yair Lapid. Polls show that none have a ghost’s chance of beating Netanyahu and Likud.

Livni will, no doubt, have a successful career ahead of her speaking to liberal American Jewish groups for large speaking fees much as her former boss Olmert got cheers at the J Street conference last week that the former PM, who is a pariah in Israel, could never hope to get at home. But the lesson here is that Israelis who are more popular in Washington than in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv are not to be taken seriously.

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