Commentary Magazine


Topic: Kadima

The Rise and Fall of Tzipi Livni

Early this morning the Times of Israel noted in passing, in a story without so much as a byline and whose main source was a public Facebook posting, one of the underappreciated but potentially most interesting aspects of the Hamas-Fatah unity deal. “Chief Israeli negotiator and Justice Minister Tzipi Livni struck a solemn tone on Facebook Wednesday night,” the paper reported, “calling the reconciliation agreement signed between Hamas and Fatah ‘a bad step.’”

It’s not that the Israeli public seems at all interested in Livni’s comments on Mahmoud Abbas’s latest efforts to scuttle the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. It’s that the public probably doesn’t care, raising questions about the plummeting political career of a once-promising Israeli politician whose party won the most seats in Knesset elections only five years ago. That election nearly made Livni prime minister, an accomplishment that would have given the party she led at the time three consecutive premierships and established her as the rightful heir of Kadima’s creator and first prime minister, Ariel Sharon. (Sharon’s immediate successor, Ehud Olmert, resigned in disgrace.)

Instead of carrying forth this serial political victor, Livni was unable to form a governing coalition, went into opposition, saw her party’s support drop precipitously, and lost a leadership fight to Shaul Mofaz in 2012. She left Kadima to form her own party that won just six seats in the 2013 Knesset elections. She was put in charge of peace negotiations with the Palestinians as her consolation prize from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose Likud party she bested in 2009 but which formed the governing coalition instead of her. Her career trajectory has been heading in one direction, so: does she have a future?

Read More

Early this morning the Times of Israel noted in passing, in a story without so much as a byline and whose main source was a public Facebook posting, one of the underappreciated but potentially most interesting aspects of the Hamas-Fatah unity deal. “Chief Israeli negotiator and Justice Minister Tzipi Livni struck a solemn tone on Facebook Wednesday night,” the paper reported, “calling the reconciliation agreement signed between Hamas and Fatah ‘a bad step.’”

It’s not that the Israeli public seems at all interested in Livni’s comments on Mahmoud Abbas’s latest efforts to scuttle the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. It’s that the public probably doesn’t care, raising questions about the plummeting political career of a once-promising Israeli politician whose party won the most seats in Knesset elections only five years ago. That election nearly made Livni prime minister, an accomplishment that would have given the party she led at the time three consecutive premierships and established her as the rightful heir of Kadima’s creator and first prime minister, Ariel Sharon. (Sharon’s immediate successor, Ehud Olmert, resigned in disgrace.)

Instead of carrying forth this serial political victor, Livni was unable to form a governing coalition, went into opposition, saw her party’s support drop precipitously, and lost a leadership fight to Shaul Mofaz in 2012. She left Kadima to form her own party that won just six seats in the 2013 Knesset elections. She was put in charge of peace negotiations with the Palestinians as her consolation prize from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose Likud party she bested in 2009 but which formed the governing coalition instead of her. Her career trajectory has been heading in one direction, so: does she have a future?

In Livni’s admittedly limited defense, her fall from grace was not as steep as it seems. The phrase “so close but yet so far” is perfectly applicable to her 2009 electoral victory. Yes, her party won the most seats. But winning the election paradoxically removed none of the obstacles to her premiership. This is one of the quirks of Israeli electoral politics.

It was widely assumed that Livni’s victory by a few seats was due in part to the fact that Israel’s center-right voters–a clear majority–believed Netanyahu was a shoo-in, and thus enough of them shifted their votes to other right-of-center parties to ensure an agreeable governing coalition. The primary beneficiary of this was Avigdor Lieberman, who now had fifteen seats in the Knesset in large part because of the public’s desire to see Netanyahu in the Prime Minister’s Office.

Lieberman was a kingmaker, but his choice of Likud, despite its silver medal, was eminently logical and consistent with the will of the voters. It sounds strange, but Livni may have won the election because of the public’s desire to prevent her from becoming prime minister. When she was unable to form a governing coalition, it seemed almost predetermined.

And this helps us understand Livni’s career a bit better. Why does she lose even when she wins? It’s not because she isn’t well liked; she did, after all, win all those votes and her personality practically shines in comparison to some of Israel’s more, shall we say, prickly politicians. (We like to say that American politics ain’t beanbag, but the Israeli Knesset is an even more rambunctious place than Congress these days.) What’s really been holding Livni back is the durable political consensus that has persisted in Israel.

The country is center-right, willing to make peace but skeptical of Palestinian intentions and clear-eyed about the need to prioritize national security and antiterrorism. It’s also appreciative of the economic benefits from Israel’s two major deregulatory bursts (the latter by Netanyahu personally, both overseen by Likud) and reluctant to allow its populist instincts to give the state back too much power. The politicians who leave this consensus tend to find themselves on the outside of power looking in. The cast of characters may change–witness the rising stars who came out of nowhere in the last election–but the script hasn’t.

Does this leave room for Livni? Yes, it does. But she’s pigeonholed by her attempts to differentiate herself from Netanyahu and his governing coalition. Her only real role is the one she’s got now: “chief negotiator.” That means the impending collapse of peace talks leaves her without much to do. It also doesn’t help that Israeli-Palestinian negotiations continually and predictably fail, meaning anyone in charge racks up the losses without any wins. It’s not a great record to have in politics, but Livni can take heart: given the enthusiasm of the West for this peace process, she’s guaranteed at least to have to the chance to fail again–and probably soon.

Read Less

Why Likud Wants to Absorb Israel Beiteinu

The Times of Israel is reporting that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party will merge with Avigdor Lieberman’s Israel Beiteinu party in advance of the January Knesset elections. There are four reasons for this.

First, as I wrote recently, in the 2009 elections Tzipi Livni’s Kadima party won the election by a single seat, but was unable to form a governing coalition, thereby enabling Netanyahu’s Likud, the runner-up, to form the current coalition. Polls have shown that such an outcome could repeat itself in January. However, if the Labor party continues its revival in the polls, it’s possible there would be enough seats to Likud’s left for Kadima to put together a governing coalition, especially if Aryeh Deri’s return to the Orthodox Shas party enables it to drain some votes from Likud, as polls have suggested it might.

Netanyahu wants to avoid any chance of this outcome, and the only way to do that is to win the election outright. Likud and Israel Beiteinu currently have 42 Knesset seats between them.

Read More

The Times of Israel is reporting that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party will merge with Avigdor Lieberman’s Israel Beiteinu party in advance of the January Knesset elections. There are four reasons for this.

First, as I wrote recently, in the 2009 elections Tzipi Livni’s Kadima party won the election by a single seat, but was unable to form a governing coalition, thereby enabling Netanyahu’s Likud, the runner-up, to form the current coalition. Polls have shown that such an outcome could repeat itself in January. However, if the Labor party continues its revival in the polls, it’s possible there would be enough seats to Likud’s left for Kadima to put together a governing coalition, especially if Aryeh Deri’s return to the Orthodox Shas party enables it to drain some votes from Likud, as polls have suggested it might.

Netanyahu wants to avoid any chance of this outcome, and the only way to do that is to win the election outright. Likud and Israel Beiteinu currently have 42 Knesset seats between them.

Second, the looming threat of a dominant Likud victory may ward off an attempted return by Ehud Olmert. Third, Yair Lapid’s new party, Yesh Atid, has finally made clear that it is a rightist party much in the mold of Israel Beiteinu—pro-two state solution but protective of major settlement blocs and a unified Jerusalem, with a secular political outlook. That revelation enables Netanyahu to absorb Israel Beiteinu and replace it with a nearly identical party, thus preserving the structure of the current governing coalition without making any major ideological changes or having to accommodate extraneous parties.

And fourth, demographics. Part of Likud’s success over the years was due to the fact that Mizrahi Jews–Jews from Arab lands, primarily, and their descendants–found a home in Likud. Labor tried clumsily to win them over about five years ago, but failed. Netanyahu is now hoping to secure the loyalty and partisan affiliation of Israel’s Russian immigrant community, which is over 1 million strong and represented by Lieberman and Israel Beiteinu.

Assuming the merger comes through and then the marriage withstands the test of time (and raucous, factional Israeli politics), what would Lieberman get out of this? When I profiled Lieberman and his impact on the Israeli political scene for COMMENTARY in the summer of 2011, I wrote the following:

There is one way in which Lieberman’s political career represents a new paradigm in Israeli politics: he is a heterodox political figure for the 21st century in Israel, a secular nationalist immigrant. His base is within the enormous Russian community, but, unlike previous ethnic politicians, he has interests and goals far more ambitious than bringing home the kosher bacon to his constituents through the use of government largesse. And unlike his predecessors in the ethnic political game, like the Moroccan populist David Levy or the religious Sephardi leader Aryeh Deri, he is playing on a far larger field.

Lieberman wants to be prime minister someday. And he happens to be almost a full decade younger than Netanyahu (Lieberman is only 54). It’s possible Lieberman–whose political instincts have always been vastly underestimated—sees the possibility of inheriting what would be the political party with the largest Knesset vote share since Yitzhak Rabin’s Labor party in 1992, if its electoral success continues at this rate.

But that is looking a bit far into the future. The truth is, such mergers are almost always unstable, and Lieberman has split from Likud before. But the Israeli left will take some encouragement from this if they believe they have spooked Netanyahu into thinking he could lose the January elections after all.

Read Less

Israeli Political Parties Find Their Voices

One of the more interesting aspects of the current Israeli political pre-election shuffling is the unsettled nature of every major political party to the left of Likud. Kadima and Labor, the two largest parties outside the current governing coalition, have each been going through identity crises. The third wild card, Yair Lapid’s new Yesh Atid party, has no record and Lapid has no real political experience, leaving the public guessing as to where they fit on the ideological spectrum.

But now, it seems, there is suddenly a great degree of clarity. Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert may be back in court, as the state is strongly considering appealing some of the acquittals in his corruption case, and such legal action may make it impossible for him to run. That would make it much more likely that Tzipi Livni would return to the political stage without having to compete with Olmert. (Though the two reached some sort of agreement not to compete against each other anyway. No one, however, seems to know exactly what that means in practice.) But even more interesting–if not surprising–is the emergence of an identity for Labor and for Lapid’s Yesh Atid.

Read More

One of the more interesting aspects of the current Israeli political pre-election shuffling is the unsettled nature of every major political party to the left of Likud. Kadima and Labor, the two largest parties outside the current governing coalition, have each been going through identity crises. The third wild card, Yair Lapid’s new Yesh Atid party, has no record and Lapid has no real political experience, leaving the public guessing as to where they fit on the ideological spectrum.

But now, it seems, there is suddenly a great degree of clarity. Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert may be back in court, as the state is strongly considering appealing some of the acquittals in his corruption case, and such legal action may make it impossible for him to run. That would make it much more likely that Tzipi Livni would return to the political stage without having to compete with Olmert. (Though the two reached some sort of agreement not to compete against each other anyway. No one, however, seems to know exactly what that means in practice.) But even more interesting–if not surprising–is the emergence of an identity for Labor and for Lapid’s Yesh Atid.

Labor’s new leader, Shelly Yachimovich, has been hinting that her slate of candidates will move Labor to the left and incorporate leaders of Israel’s social protest movement. But it has also been courting the military to burnish the party’s national security credentials. The strategy of moving to the left is, as I wrote last week, a risky one, since the Israeli electorate has moved to the right on the peace process and has been in the habit of punishing Labor at the polls repeatedly.

But the ideological outlook of the party took another step to the left, as Peace Now Executive Director Yariv Oppenheimer announced he’ll run for a seat on the Labor slate. The Jerusalem Post reports:

“In addition to the social agenda, the Labor Party must raise the diplomatic flag and fight against the expansion of settlement construction and waves of anti-democratic legislation that the Israeli Right is leading,” Oppenheimer said after resigning from his post in Peace Now on Monday.

Thus far, Labor leader Shelly Yacimovich has focused almost exclusively on social issues.

An overwhelming focus on social issues with a dash of anti-settler, land-for-peace moral thundering is a recipe for a full reengagement of the culture wars. For Lapid, on the other hand, accommodation with Palestinians must be found without uprooting large Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria:

The Yesh Atid leader courted rightwing voters, saying “I’m not a lefty,” that settlement blocs, including the city of Ariel, must stay under Israeli sovereignty, and Jerusalem should not be divided.

As for the lack of peace talks in recent years, Lapid said “the Palestinians brought this upon themselves. If after the disengagement [from Gaza] they didn’t build hospitals and schools, but training sites, there is no doubt that it is their responsibility – but we also need negotiations for ourselves.”

Lapid quipped that his late father, former justice minister and Shinui leader Tommy Lapid, “did not leave the ghetto to live in a binational state.

This is the land of the Jews, and we have the right to finally get rid of the Palestinians. There won’t be a new Middle East, but we won’t have 3.5 million Palestinians in Israeli territory.”

I’m sure pundits will glom onto the typically nuanced phrase “get rid of the Palestinians,” but the overall sentiment—peace negotiations are stalled because of the Palestinians’ rejectionism, but necessary in the end to disentangle the two sides—is a common attitude among the Israeli electorate, and perfectly sums up the outlook of Avigdor Lieberman’s increasingly successful Israel Beiteinu party. Lapid also noted that he would not rule out sitting in a coalition with Orthodox parties, something his father refused to do. If Lapid even gains the seats he is projected to win in early polling (a big “if”), the right would be an absolutely dominant force in the Knesset. And that doesn’t even count Kadima, which began as a center-right party as well.

Lapid, by being so explicit about his views, is betting that despite the existence of a broad, center-right governing coalition, there are still more votes to be had for another rightist party. Labor is betting that if it can swell its ranks to include everyone to the left of the current governing coalition, it can at least return to prominence as the main, if not the only, electoral vehicle for left-leaning Israelis. That might mean a Labor that is increasingly successful electorally and increasingly marginal politically at the same time.

Read Less

Israeli Poll Shows Labor at a Crossroads

Earlier this month, I wrote about an Israeli news report suggesting former Kadima party leaders Ehud Olmert and Tzipi Livni were considering teaming up with former Israeli TV journalist Yair Lapid for the upcoming Knesset elections. One detail in that report was that Lapid had created his own party and was unwilling to leave it to join Kadima, no matter who leads the centrist opposition party. But what if he were willing to join Kadima?

That is the subject of a story in Haaretz today. The Israeli daily reports the results of a poll taken to determine how all the major parties would perform in January’s elections in three different possible scenarios. One of those scenarios had Lapid, Olmert, and Livni together in a “super-party.” And Haaretz reports that such a super-party would win the election. Sort of:

Read More

Earlier this month, I wrote about an Israeli news report suggesting former Kadima party leaders Ehud Olmert and Tzipi Livni were considering teaming up with former Israeli TV journalist Yair Lapid for the upcoming Knesset elections. One detail in that report was that Lapid had created his own party and was unwilling to leave it to join Kadima, no matter who leads the centrist opposition party. But what if he were willing to join Kadima?

That is the subject of a story in Haaretz today. The Israeli daily reports the results of a poll taken to determine how all the major parties would perform in January’s elections in three different possible scenarios. One of those scenarios had Lapid, Olmert, and Livni together in a “super-party.” And Haaretz reports that such a super-party would win the election. Sort of:

A new centrist party formed by Ehud Olmert, Tzipi Livni and Yair Lapid would win more seats in the next Knesset than the Likud, according to a new Haaretz poll. Were such a party to be formed, it would grab 25 seats, compared to Likud’s 24. However, the survey also indicates that, whatever its composition, a right-wing bloc would not lose its Knesset majority….

According to the poll, even if former Prime Minister Olmert and former Kadima leader Livni join forces, or if Livni instead links up with Labor leader Shelly Yacimovich, they would face a right-wing bloc, a bloc of “natural partners,” that would retain its majority – meaning that Benjamin Netanyahu would remain prime minister after the January 22 elections. In a worst-case scenario from his perspective, he would just have to sweat a little more before reaching the finish line.

The third scenario would be if the current party composition remains unchanged. In that case, the poll projects a 65-seat governing coalition for the rightist bloc led by Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud, Avigdor Lieberman’s Israel Beiteinu, and the Orthodox Shas party.

That first scenario, which projects a one-vote win for the centrist supergroup but a failure to form a coalition, leading Netanyahu’s Likud to put his coalition back together, is an almost exact replay of what actually happened the last time Livni led a party that challenged Netanyahu. In 2009, Livni’s Kadima garnered one more Knesset seat than Netanyahu’s Likud, but was unable to form a coalition. (The Kadima win was less than it seemed; voters wanted a rightist coalition, and they got one.)

But there is a fascinating side story to compliment this one, also on Haaretz’s website. The paper reports that the Labor party, now led by Shelly Yachimovich, is working hard to recruit young talent, leaders from Israel’s social protest movement, and popular military and media figures to run in this winter’s election on the Labor slate. This is fascinating in part because it stands in such contrast not only to the first story, but also to conventional wisdom. As the first Haaretz story shows, in Israel the electoral success of a political party is overwhelmingly dependent on the popularity of its leader. (Just for fun, ask a Western media personality who rails against the Orthodox and Russian immigrant parties to name anyone besides the leader of those parties. They probably can’t.)

And in fact, a Livni-Olmert-Lapid party is considered a supergroup despite the fact that poll respondents were given only three names. Who else is on the ticket? Who cares? Yet the Labor party, which until recently was led by Ehud Barak, is rebuilding from the ground up. It cannot trade on Yachimovich’s name or fame. And the strategy represents an honest grappling with the Israeli left’s freefall. Yachimovich is saying, in effect, this isn’t your father’s Labor party.

It is also, however, risky. The Israeli left has had its clock cleaned in Knesset elections over the past decade because the electorate has moved to the right–at least on the peace process. Yachimovich is branding Labor as being further to the left than it has been under the hawkish Barak. It she is successful, it will be a big victory for a rejuvenated left. If not, it will have been a massive missed opportunity to grab what’s left of the political center before someone else does.

Read Less

Coalition Shift Leaves Netanyahu on Top

The collapse of the short-lived supermajority who presided over Israel’s ruling coalition since May has given critics of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu the best couple of days they’ve had in years. But anyone who expects this setback to change the political equation in which Netanyahu is not only an overwhelming favorite to win re-election but to stay in power for years to come doesn’t understand what has happened.

The end of the coalition is a disappointment for those friends of Israel who hoped the supermajority could help create some much-needed fundamental changes. But though the failure is not something that will burnish Netanyahu’s reputation, it will do far more damage to his junior partner Kadima and its leader Shaul Mofaz than it will to the prime minister or his Likud. At the end of the day, Netanyahu can be said to have his reputation dented a bit, but he remains on top of Israeli politics with no credible rival for the post of prime minister in sight.

Read More

The collapse of the short-lived supermajority who presided over Israel’s ruling coalition since May has given critics of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu the best couple of days they’ve had in years. But anyone who expects this setback to change the political equation in which Netanyahu is not only an overwhelming favorite to win re-election but to stay in power for years to come doesn’t understand what has happened.

The end of the coalition is a disappointment for those friends of Israel who hoped the supermajority could help create some much-needed fundamental changes. But though the failure is not something that will burnish Netanyahu’s reputation, it will do far more damage to his junior partner Kadima and its leader Shaul Mofaz than it will to the prime minister or his Likud. At the end of the day, Netanyahu can be said to have his reputation dented a bit, but he remains on top of Israeli politics with no credible rival for the post of prime minister in sight.

Netanyahu was hailed as the “king” of Israeli politics for the adroit maneuver by which he enticed the Kadima party into his tent and for giving very little in return for padding his majority to more than 90 members of the 120-seat Knesset. The coalition could have achieved great things, including a reform of Israel’s draft laws that could have required the ultra-Orthodox and even Arabs to do national service along with the rest of the country. Even more importantly, it could have worked on election reform proposals that might have ended the tyranny of small parties and taken the nation to a more rational and stable model. But perhaps it was too much to expect Israeli politicians, especially those in Kadima, a feckless assembly of the worst opportunists in Israel, to behave rationally, let alone courageously and the experiment has ended.

But it should be remembered that Netanyahu already had a stable and strong governing majority even before the Kadima deal. Some of his critics (a group that included President Obama) hoped that he would not last long in office after his February 2009 election victory. But in contrast to his first unsuccessful term as prime minister in the 1990s, Netanyahu would not make the same mistakes this time. He not only kept his coalition together but gained rather than lost popularity by standing up to U.S. pressure. The end of the peace process destroyed Israel’s left-wing parties and the Likud’s smart stewardship of Israel’s growing economy has also retained the confidence of the country despite the attention given to protesters.

Mofaz has criticized Netanyahu for proposing a gradual move towards drafting the ultra-Orthodox rather than a plan that would have done so more quickly. But, as Haaretz’s Yossi Verter reports, Mofaz’s decision to bolt the government probably had more to do with his worry that former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert (who was acquitted on corruption charges last week) was thinking about getting back into politics. Netanyahu is widely accused of making an astute political calculation that he was better off retaining an alliance with the ultra-Orthodox parties rather than Kadima. This may be true because, like everyone else in Israel, Netanyahu knows that after the dust has settled after the next election (which may take place early next year), Kadima will be history, but the Orthodox will still be standing.

But even those who sympathize and agree with the majority of Israelis who bitterly resent Haredi draft-dodging must concede this is not a problem that can be solved overnight. As soon became apparent once the possibility of draft reform came in sight this year, the Israel Defense Forces are unprepared for a huge influx of reluctant ultra-Orthodox recruits. It is far more important that the Haredim who are currently allowed to be unemployed and undrafted Torah scholars (or at least pretending to be scholars) are pressured or guided to enter Israel’s economy than its army. Netanyahu’s proposal that Mofaz has rejected might have fallen short of expectations but it was a reasonable start that the prime minister will have no trouble defending when he faces the voters.

The end of the coalition will likely hasten the exit of Kadima from the Knesset at the next election where it will be replaced by a revived though still weak Labor Party as the principal opposition to Netanyahu. Mofaz and Olmert will join Tzippi Livni, another former Kadima leader, may continue to try to maneuver, but they are destined to wind up on the dustheap of Israeli politics. Other, smaller parties will fill the place that Kadima thought to occupy in Israel’s center. But the one thing that will not change is Netanyahu’s ascendancy. For all of his problems and occasional missteps, his position on the peace process and security issues represents the consensus of the Israeli people. Though American liberals and the Obama administration may long for him to be replaced, Netanyahu is likely to remain prime minister throughout the term of the next American president.

Read Less

Kadima Back to the Likud?

A day is a long time in politics. In Israel, apparently so are a few hours. Prime Minister Netanyahu’s new coalition, comprising an extraordinary 94 MKs (of 120), leaves Israel’s unprecedented election campaign…unprecedented. Inevitably, the flights of these fowl have been scrutinized to divine the causes and forecast the effects of this rather stunning development.

One regrettable feature of the coverage is the tiresome obsession of the punditocracy with interpreting every move Netanyahu makes as clearing the path to attack Iran (holding elections makes it easier; cancelling elections makes it easier). There is more to Israel than Iran.

Read More

A day is a long time in politics. In Israel, apparently so are a few hours. Prime Minister Netanyahu’s new coalition, comprising an extraordinary 94 MKs (of 120), leaves Israel’s unprecedented election campaign…unprecedented. Inevitably, the flights of these fowl have been scrutinized to divine the causes and forecast the effects of this rather stunning development.

One regrettable feature of the coverage is the tiresome obsession of the punditocracy with interpreting every move Netanyahu makes as clearing the path to attack Iran (holding elections makes it easier; cancelling elections makes it easier). There is more to Israel than Iran.

Indeed, the new grand-super-uber coalition is a big opportunity for Netanyahu. He is now the king of Israeli politics (as if he wasn’t before), and with an irredeemably opportunistic and vacuous Kadima behind him, he can do great things: the Tal Law, the power of the rabbinate, the budget deficits, the socio-economic inequality, electoral reform, the Supreme Court, the basic laws, religion and state – conversations on each of these were going to take place during the election campaign. Instead, they can take place within the government.

But – speculation warning! – there may be an ulterior factor at play here. And it concerns Kadima, the centrist party founded by Ariel Sharon and populated mainly by then-Likudniks to implement his Disengagement Plan back in 2005. A darling of Western liberals, it is a party born of necessity and lived by opportunism. Indeed, by the admission of one of its own MKs, whether due to its members or its centrism, it ‘’has no clear ideology on almost any topic.’’ Such a faction is a wonderfully malleable addition to any coalition, as far as any prime minister is concerned.

But Netanyahu may have something else in mind. The rightist factions in Israeli politics, recognizing their limited success with fringe parties, have set their eyes on the Likud, looking to increase their power within that mainstream party. (This has also been going on with the Arabs and fringe Left in the Labor Party.) Netanyahu knew he would have to face this Likud Party at the party’s convention before the general election, and, though his own position was not in doubt, he was concerned about what sort of list his party would elect for him to lead to elections and bring to the Knesset. Even on the night this last minute coalition deal was struck, there was some indication of this schism: upon being pressed to assert sovereignty over the Ulpana Hill neighborhood of Bet-El in the West Bank which the Supreme Court has opposed, he responded that the elections have been postponed. That is, without impending elections, he has no need to pander to his more conservative base.

But he knows the time will soon come that he will have to face that base again. Is it possible he would prefer to do so with the old Likudniks of Kadima (including Shaul Mofaz) at his side back within the party? It is obvious why Mofaz wanted to delay elections – because he and his party would be consigned to the margin. But is it possible that Netanyahu sees an opportunity to moderate his party by – in Israeli political parlance – ‘‘bringing home’’ its unfaithful?

Read Less

New Unity Government Is Smart Politics

Though Benjamin Netanyahu’s opponents were quick to dub his latest political move a cynical ploy, the Israeli prime minister’s surprise formation of a unity government with Kadima, just days after announcing that early elections would be called in September, was neither cynical nor a ploy. Without Kadima, he truly had no choice but to call new elections. With Kadima, new elections are a costly waste of time.

Netanyahu faced two critical issues his government couldn’t resolve in its existing composition. One was the need to pass new legislation on drafting ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students by August 1, when the Supreme Court’s invalidation of a law exempting them from service takes effect. There is no solution to this problem that would be acceptable to both of Netanyahu’s main coalition partners: Yisrael Beiteinu wouldn’t accept anything that continues the exemptions, while the ultra-Orthodox Shas party wouldn’t accept anything that doesn’t. Yet if either of them quit, Netanyahu would lose his parliamentary majority.

Read More

Though Benjamin Netanyahu’s opponents were quick to dub his latest political move a cynical ploy, the Israeli prime minister’s surprise formation of a unity government with Kadima, just days after announcing that early elections would be called in September, was neither cynical nor a ploy. Without Kadima, he truly had no choice but to call new elections. With Kadima, new elections are a costly waste of time.

Netanyahu faced two critical issues his government couldn’t resolve in its existing composition. One was the need to pass new legislation on drafting ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students by August 1, when the Supreme Court’s invalidation of a law exempting them from service takes effect. There is no solution to this problem that would be acceptable to both of Netanyahu’s main coalition partners: Yisrael Beiteinu wouldn’t accept anything that continues the exemptions, while the ultra-Orthodox Shas party wouldn’t accept anything that doesn’t. Yet if either of them quit, Netanyahu would lose his parliamentary majority.

The other issue, as economic analyst Nehemia Shtrasler noted, is the 2013 budget, which must be passed by December 31. Though Israel is still doing well by Western standards, its export-driven economy has inevitably been hurt by the global crisis, and particularly the downturn in Europe, its largest export market. It therefore faces a larger-than-expected deficit that necessitates budget cuts.

But when elections seem imminent – as they did, due to the crisis over the draft issue – it’s impossible to get Knesset members to agree to cuts; in fact, it’s usually impossible even to keep them from legislating hefty new expenditures. Hence, the only solution was new elections: A new government, with years yet to serve, could afford to make the necessary cuts.

With Kadima on board, however, both these issues become solvable. Netanyahu now has a solid majority even without Shas, enabling him to tackle the draft exemptions issue. And the government is now stable enough to survive the remaining 18 months of its term, so passing a responsible budget becomes feasible.

The unity government is clearly a better option than new elections, which not only cost a lot of money, but would largely put the government on hold during a potentially critical period: The Knesset would be dissolved, and MKs and ministers would be devoting most of their time and energy to campaigning. It’s possible that Netanyahu was hoping for this outcome all along.

Yet it was only the credible threat of new elections that persuaded Kadima to join him: With polls showing it would lose almost two-thirds of its Knesset seats if elections were held today, the party desperately needed more time to rehabilitate itself. New party chairman Shaul Mofaz had hoped to do so as leader of the opposition. But by announcing new elections, Netanyahu essentially gave him an ultimatum: If you want more time, you’ll have to join my government.

That may have been smart politics, but it was no cynical ploy: Had Mofaz not blinked, new elections would indeed have been held in September. And they would have been necessary.

Read Less

Heads: Bibi Wins; Tails: His Rivals Lose

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

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

Read More

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read Less

Israeli Shakeup Another Setback for Obama

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak’s decision to break away from the Labor Party and form his own centrist faction is a boost to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government. With the remaining members of Labor now shifted to the opposition, Netanyahu has rid his coalition of several Knesset members who are opposed to his policies. In the long run, Barak’s new party will, as David Hazony noted yesterday, provide unwanted competition for the largest opposition party, Kadima, making the path to power for it and its leader, Tzipi Livni, far more difficult.

Livni is understandably upset about this development and vented her spleen today in some over-the-top comments when she complained that Barak’s decision was “the dirtiest act in history.” Given the fact that party-jumping has been a staple of Israeli politics throughout the country’s short history, it’s hard to make an argument that this understandable breakup between the centrists and the old leftists in Labor is any kind of a scandal. It is just the belated recognition on the part of Barak that he is better off letting Labor’s far-left activists merge with what remains of those factions that were to Labor’s left rather than sticking with them. Labor was once Israel’s dominant and natural party of government, but today it is as bankrupt — and obsolete — as the kibbutzim that symbolized the country’s socialist dreams.

But while Livni is the biggest Israeli loser in this transaction, there’s little doubt that it is just as much of a blow to President Barak Obama and his unrealistic approach to the Middle East. Read More

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak’s decision to break away from the Labor Party and form his own centrist faction is a boost to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government. With the remaining members of Labor now shifted to the opposition, Netanyahu has rid his coalition of several Knesset members who are opposed to his policies. In the long run, Barak’s new party will, as David Hazony noted yesterday, provide unwanted competition for the largest opposition party, Kadima, making the path to power for it and its leader, Tzipi Livni, far more difficult.

Livni is understandably upset about this development and vented her spleen today in some over-the-top comments when she complained that Barak’s decision was “the dirtiest act in history.” Given the fact that party-jumping has been a staple of Israeli politics throughout the country’s short history, it’s hard to make an argument that this understandable breakup between the centrists and the old leftists in Labor is any kind of a scandal. It is just the belated recognition on the part of Barak that he is better off letting Labor’s far-left activists merge with what remains of those factions that were to Labor’s left rather than sticking with them. Labor was once Israel’s dominant and natural party of government, but today it is as bankrupt — and obsolete — as the kibbutzim that symbolized the country’s socialist dreams.

But while Livni is the biggest Israeli loser in this transaction, there’s little doubt that it is just as much of a blow to President Barak Obama and his unrealistic approach to the Middle East.

From the moment he took office, Obama has sought to overturn the cozier relationship that existed between Washington and Jerusalem under his predecessor. Throughout his first year in office, Obama seemed to be aiming at unseating Netanyahu, who had been elected weeks after the president was sworn in. By picking pointless fights over settlements and Jewish building in Jerusalem, Obama sought to destabilize Netanyahu’s coalition and hoped Livni would soon replace him. But his ill-considered attacks merely strengthened Netanyahu, who wisely sought to avoid a direct confrontation with his country’s only ally. It was already obvious that, far from collapsing, Netanyahu’s government would survive to the end of its four-year term or close to it. While the outcome of the next Israeli election that will probably occur in 2013 is as difficult to predict as that of Obama’s own re-election effort in 2012, Barak’s move renders the hopes of Livni — the Israeli leader whom both Obama and Secretary of State Clinton continue to treat as America’s favorite Israeli — less likely.

That means Obama is going to have to spend the rest of his term continuing to try to learn to live with the wily Netanyahu. Both Obama and the Palestinian Authority have spent the past two years acting as if they were just waiting around for a new weaker-willed Israeli government to materialize that would then magically create the circumstances under which peace would be achieved. As Barak-faction member Einat Wilf told the New York Times today, “I don’t belong to the camp that believes Israel is solely responsible for the failure of these negotiations. The Palestinians bear responsibility for not entering the talks. Some people have sent them a message to wait around for a new government.”

Barak’s move makes it clear that isn’t going to happen. While Israel’s critics will lament this development, it is high time that Americans accept the fact that the verdict of the Jewish state’s voters must be respected and that the Israeli consensus that has developed about the futility of further unilateral concessions to the Palestinians is entirely justified.

Read Less

Barak Pulls a Sharon

As Evelyn has noted, and in a move that surprised nobody except members of his own party, Ehud Barak today took a page from Ariel Sharon’s playbook, splitting from the ideologically founded movement he was leading to create a new centrist political party. Along with four other Labor members, the new party — it still doesn’t have a name — will remain committed to the current government, while in all likelihood the remaining members of Labor will, sooner or later, leave the coalition.

Before we dismiss the new party as yet another soon-forgotten splinter in Israeli politics, it’s worth considering the electoral reality Ehud Barak currently faces. When Sharon broke from Likud in 2005, he founded Kadima as a new centrist faction that would approve the disengagement from Gaza. Although he was joined by a few Labor icons like Shimon Peres and Chaim Ramon, many people saw in Kadima an incoherent collection of mostly moderate right-wingers and a few from the left. After Sharon’s stroke-induced departure from politics in early 2006, most people thought the party wouldn’t survive the next election.

They were wrong. Two leaders later, Kadima’s 28 seats is the largest single faction in the Knesset. This despite having few ranking members with serious governing experience, and despite the disgrace of its second leader, Ehud Olmert, and its finance minister, Avraham Hirschson, on corruption charges.

Why has Kadima survived? The answer should give pause to those who think Ehud Barak is on his last legs as an Israeli politician. For despite being essentially a Likud spin-off, Kadima has survived on the strength of a fairly large base of voters who traditionally saw themselves on the left — not the peace-process left of Yossi Beilin and Yossi Sarid, but rather the enlightened, heavily Ashkenazic, traditionally social-leaning yet nationalist left of David Ben-Gurion and Yitzhak Rabin. These are the voters who turned to Kadima in droves after the intifada made security more pressing, and more plausible, than peace — people who could never vote Likud for cultural reasons, even if they embraced most of its principles.

Nobody stands to lose more votes to Barak’s new party than Kadima. For if disaffected Laborites turned to Kadima as the closest expression of their political will, they may find a far more congenial home in the new party. As former IDF chief of staff and current defense minister, Barak suddenly embodies the pro-security, classic-Labor stance that neither the more dovish, pro-business, still-in-Labor types nor Kadima’s leader, Tzipi Livni, can hope to offer. To emphasize this, he’s taken with him a top former IDF general, Matan Vilnai. And he’s declared that his party “will follow David Ben-Gurion’s legacy.”

Much of how this turns out depends on the kind of people Barak can pull together around himself before the next election. If former-Labor people in Kadima start defecting to his new party, Israeli politics may see a major shift on the center-left. Barak’s personality has historically made it hard to keep the loyalty of those around him. But the field is open for him. Stay tuned.

As Evelyn has noted, and in a move that surprised nobody except members of his own party, Ehud Barak today took a page from Ariel Sharon’s playbook, splitting from the ideologically founded movement he was leading to create a new centrist political party. Along with four other Labor members, the new party — it still doesn’t have a name — will remain committed to the current government, while in all likelihood the remaining members of Labor will, sooner or later, leave the coalition.

Before we dismiss the new party as yet another soon-forgotten splinter in Israeli politics, it’s worth considering the electoral reality Ehud Barak currently faces. When Sharon broke from Likud in 2005, he founded Kadima as a new centrist faction that would approve the disengagement from Gaza. Although he was joined by a few Labor icons like Shimon Peres and Chaim Ramon, many people saw in Kadima an incoherent collection of mostly moderate right-wingers and a few from the left. After Sharon’s stroke-induced departure from politics in early 2006, most people thought the party wouldn’t survive the next election.

They were wrong. Two leaders later, Kadima’s 28 seats is the largest single faction in the Knesset. This despite having few ranking members with serious governing experience, and despite the disgrace of its second leader, Ehud Olmert, and its finance minister, Avraham Hirschson, on corruption charges.

Why has Kadima survived? The answer should give pause to those who think Ehud Barak is on his last legs as an Israeli politician. For despite being essentially a Likud spin-off, Kadima has survived on the strength of a fairly large base of voters who traditionally saw themselves on the left — not the peace-process left of Yossi Beilin and Yossi Sarid, but rather the enlightened, heavily Ashkenazic, traditionally social-leaning yet nationalist left of David Ben-Gurion and Yitzhak Rabin. These are the voters who turned to Kadima in droves after the intifada made security more pressing, and more plausible, than peace — people who could never vote Likud for cultural reasons, even if they embraced most of its principles.

Nobody stands to lose more votes to Barak’s new party than Kadima. For if disaffected Laborites turned to Kadima as the closest expression of their political will, they may find a far more congenial home in the new party. As former IDF chief of staff and current defense minister, Barak suddenly embodies the pro-security, classic-Labor stance that neither the more dovish, pro-business, still-in-Labor types nor Kadima’s leader, Tzipi Livni, can hope to offer. To emphasize this, he’s taken with him a top former IDF general, Matan Vilnai. And he’s declared that his party “will follow David Ben-Gurion’s legacy.”

Much of how this turns out depends on the kind of people Barak can pull together around himself before the next election. If former-Labor people in Kadima start defecting to his new party, Israeli politics may see a major shift on the center-left. Barak’s personality has historically made it hard to keep the loyalty of those around him. But the field is open for him. Stay tuned.

Read Less

New Israeli Faction Launches a Revolution

Internal party politics aren’t normally the stuff of groundbreaking revolutions. But the Israeli Labor Party’s split this morning could prove to be exactly that.

Like most such splits, this one stemmed partly from personal animosities. But it also had a substantive reason: as one member of the breakaway faction explained, the government will now be able to conduct peace talks “without a stopwatch,” instead of under constant threat that a key coalition faction would quit if Israel didn’t capitulate to Palestinian demands.

For weeks, various Labor ministers have threatened that the party would leave the government if Israeli-Palestinian talks didn’t resume soon. At yesterday’s cabinet meeting, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu lashed out at these threats, saying they merely encouraged the Palestinians to up their demands and refuse to negotiate unless they are met.

This isn’t the only reason for Palestinian intransigence, but it’s certainly a contributory factor. Why should the Palestinians negotiate when they can let Israel’s Labor Party do the work for them? And that’s basically what Labor has been doing: demanding that Netanyahu offer ever more concessions to tempt the Palestinians back to the table, on pain of having his government collapse if he refuses. Most Labor MKs never blamed the Palestinians for the impasse or demanded any concessions of them; they put the onus entirely on Netanyahu.

The same is true of Israel’s main opposition party, Kadima. It, too, blamed the impasse entirely on the government, giving the Palestinians a pass, and demanded more concessions only of Israel, not the Palestinians.

This behavior didn’t just increase Palestinian intransigence; it also increased international pressure on and opprobrium for Israel. After all, if even members of Israel’s government deemed Israel the guilty party, why should non-Israelis doubt it?

But finally, a contingent of Israel’s left has said “enough”: As Israelis, it’s our job to negotiate the best deal for Israel, not the Palestinians. And it’s our job to promote Israel’s positions overseas, not to besmirch our own country by promoting the Palestinian narrative.

Right now, it’s a small contingent — five of Labor’s 13 MKs — spearheaded by a widely disliked leader, Defense Minister Ehud Barak. Thus its capacity for growth is unclear. But it does give the government stability, as these five are enough to ensure its majority (especially since many of the others never voted with it anyway). So at least the government is now better positioned to fight the diplomatic battles ahead.

More important, however, five MKs from the heart of the left have openly challenged the leftist parties’ destructive behavior. And if their challenge catches on, it could revolutionize Israel’s diplomatic position. For while many of the reasons for Israel’s growing pariah status have nothing to do with Israel, the chorus of Israelis blaming the ongoing conflict entirely on Israel clearly plays a role. If additional swathes of the left started advocating for their own country rather than its adversaries, Israel could fight back much more effectively.

There are plenty of reasons to dislike Barak and his allies. But in this effort, they deserve support from everyone who cares about Israel.

Internal party politics aren’t normally the stuff of groundbreaking revolutions. But the Israeli Labor Party’s split this morning could prove to be exactly that.

Like most such splits, this one stemmed partly from personal animosities. But it also had a substantive reason: as one member of the breakaway faction explained, the government will now be able to conduct peace talks “without a stopwatch,” instead of under constant threat that a key coalition faction would quit if Israel didn’t capitulate to Palestinian demands.

For weeks, various Labor ministers have threatened that the party would leave the government if Israeli-Palestinian talks didn’t resume soon. At yesterday’s cabinet meeting, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu lashed out at these threats, saying they merely encouraged the Palestinians to up their demands and refuse to negotiate unless they are met.

This isn’t the only reason for Palestinian intransigence, but it’s certainly a contributory factor. Why should the Palestinians negotiate when they can let Israel’s Labor Party do the work for them? And that’s basically what Labor has been doing: demanding that Netanyahu offer ever more concessions to tempt the Palestinians back to the table, on pain of having his government collapse if he refuses. Most Labor MKs never blamed the Palestinians for the impasse or demanded any concessions of them; they put the onus entirely on Netanyahu.

The same is true of Israel’s main opposition party, Kadima. It, too, blamed the impasse entirely on the government, giving the Palestinians a pass, and demanded more concessions only of Israel, not the Palestinians.

This behavior didn’t just increase Palestinian intransigence; it also increased international pressure on and opprobrium for Israel. After all, if even members of Israel’s government deemed Israel the guilty party, why should non-Israelis doubt it?

But finally, a contingent of Israel’s left has said “enough”: As Israelis, it’s our job to negotiate the best deal for Israel, not the Palestinians. And it’s our job to promote Israel’s positions overseas, not to besmirch our own country by promoting the Palestinian narrative.

Right now, it’s a small contingent — five of Labor’s 13 MKs — spearheaded by a widely disliked leader, Defense Minister Ehud Barak. Thus its capacity for growth is unclear. But it does give the government stability, as these five are enough to ensure its majority (especially since many of the others never voted with it anyway). So at least the government is now better positioned to fight the diplomatic battles ahead.

More important, however, five MKs from the heart of the left have openly challenged the leftist parties’ destructive behavior. And if their challenge catches on, it could revolutionize Israel’s diplomatic position. For while many of the reasons for Israel’s growing pariah status have nothing to do with Israel, the chorus of Israelis blaming the ongoing conflict entirely on Israel clearly plays a role. If additional swathes of the left started advocating for their own country rather than its adversaries, Israel could fight back much more effectively.

There are plenty of reasons to dislike Barak and his allies. But in this effort, they deserve support from everyone who cares about Israel.

Read Less

The Perils of Freelance Diplomacy

Shaul Mofaz has spent the past two weeks hawking his peace plan overseas. He has met with Obama administration officials Dennis Ross, Dan Shapiro, and Jeffrey Feltman; U.S. congressmen; UN officials; and the American, Turkish, Russian, Egyptian, and Jordanian ambassadors to Israel. But unless you follow Israeli politics closely, you’re probably wondering, “Who?”

And that’s the point: Mofaz isn’t a member of Israel’s government or even a party leader; he’s the No. 2 man in the largest opposition party, Kadima — which has yet to even discuss his plan. In other words, the plan he’s marketing abroad is one he hasn’t yet managed to sell even to his own party, much less to the Israeli public; moreover, he occupies no post that would enable him to implement it.

Nor is this unprecedented: other freelance Israeli diplomats have received equal or greater attention overseas. Yossi Beilin, for instance, met with high-ranking officials worldwide about his Geneva Initiative (a proposed Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement) in 2003, though he held no public office at the time. And when he did run for the Knesset three years later, the party he headed won five seats in the 120-seat Knesset. Not exactly a resounding vote of confidence from Israel’s public.

Were these foreign officials merely wasting their time, nobody would care. But this behavior has two pernicious effects.

First, it feeds the illusion among overseas governments that they don’t have to contend seriously with the positions of actual Israeli governments elected by actual Israeli voters; they can just sit and wait until the inconvenient incumbents are replaced by their pet opposition politician. Barack Obama’s failure to realize that treating Israel’s capital as a “settlement” would bolster Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rather than weaken him, since Netanyahu’s positions on Jerusalem in fact reflect those of Israel’s majority, is a classic example of the pitfalls of such illusions.

In reality, people freelance precisely because they are unable to convince their own public to put them in power. Beilin, for instance, went freelance after failing to make it into the Knesset in 2003; Mofaz is freelancing now because he lost Kadima’s leadership contest last fall. And there is no reason to believe such freelancers will be more electable in the future.

Second, international backing for freelancers can panic Israeli governments into moves that undermine the world’s stated goals. Global enthusiasm for the Geneva Initiative, for instance, helped push Ariel Sharon to unilaterally quit Gaza: he considered Geneva disastrous and wanted to distract attention from it. Yet the disengagement, which Palestinians considered a victory for terror, led to Hamas’s electoral victory in 2006 and its subsequent takeover of Gaza in 2007, both of which complicated peacemaking efforts.

Thus the proper response to freelance diplomats should be “first, convince your own public; then we’ll talk.” Granted, that would force world leaders to deal with actual Israeli positions rather than unelectable fantasies. But since Israel must ultimately approve any deal, a plan that can’t command an Israeli majority isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on anyway.

Shaul Mofaz has spent the past two weeks hawking his peace plan overseas. He has met with Obama administration officials Dennis Ross, Dan Shapiro, and Jeffrey Feltman; U.S. congressmen; UN officials; and the American, Turkish, Russian, Egyptian, and Jordanian ambassadors to Israel. But unless you follow Israeli politics closely, you’re probably wondering, “Who?”

And that’s the point: Mofaz isn’t a member of Israel’s government or even a party leader; he’s the No. 2 man in the largest opposition party, Kadima — which has yet to even discuss his plan. In other words, the plan he’s marketing abroad is one he hasn’t yet managed to sell even to his own party, much less to the Israeli public; moreover, he occupies no post that would enable him to implement it.

Nor is this unprecedented: other freelance Israeli diplomats have received equal or greater attention overseas. Yossi Beilin, for instance, met with high-ranking officials worldwide about his Geneva Initiative (a proposed Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement) in 2003, though he held no public office at the time. And when he did run for the Knesset three years later, the party he headed won five seats in the 120-seat Knesset. Not exactly a resounding vote of confidence from Israel’s public.

Were these foreign officials merely wasting their time, nobody would care. But this behavior has two pernicious effects.

First, it feeds the illusion among overseas governments that they don’t have to contend seriously with the positions of actual Israeli governments elected by actual Israeli voters; they can just sit and wait until the inconvenient incumbents are replaced by their pet opposition politician. Barack Obama’s failure to realize that treating Israel’s capital as a “settlement” would bolster Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rather than weaken him, since Netanyahu’s positions on Jerusalem in fact reflect those of Israel’s majority, is a classic example of the pitfalls of such illusions.

In reality, people freelance precisely because they are unable to convince their own public to put them in power. Beilin, for instance, went freelance after failing to make it into the Knesset in 2003; Mofaz is freelancing now because he lost Kadima’s leadership contest last fall. And there is no reason to believe such freelancers will be more electable in the future.

Second, international backing for freelancers can panic Israeli governments into moves that undermine the world’s stated goals. Global enthusiasm for the Geneva Initiative, for instance, helped push Ariel Sharon to unilaterally quit Gaza: he considered Geneva disastrous and wanted to distract attention from it. Yet the disengagement, which Palestinians considered a victory for terror, led to Hamas’s electoral victory in 2006 and its subsequent takeover of Gaza in 2007, both of which complicated peacemaking efforts.

Thus the proper response to freelance diplomats should be “first, convince your own public; then we’ll talk.” Granted, that would force world leaders to deal with actual Israeli positions rather than unelectable fantasies. But since Israel must ultimately approve any deal, a plan that can’t command an Israeli majority isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on anyway.

Read Less

Going, Going . . .

This is really not how prime ministers should behave. According to Haaretz, Israel’s prime minister, Ehud Olmert, has been handling his interrogations relating to the corruption charges facing him rather poorly: He granted police investigators precisely one hour for the latest questioning, and he did his best to make sure police could get in as few new questions as possible. He starts by launching into an extended tirade against leaks of the details of the investigation. Then he changes his testimony, asking that he re-answer questions from previous rounds. (Especially the part where he denies taking money from Morris Talansky.) According to another report, he also insisted that all his answers be written down, not just audio-recorded. “It was clear Olmert was taking up interrogation time deliberately,” said one source. “He knew well that the detectives asked for only one hour, and he felt he was waging a power struggle.”

In the meantime, Olmert’s Kadima party is already fighting over the spoils of their leader’s demise. Olmert has  promised to quit if indicted, a prospect that seems increasingly likely: Even if they can’t prove a quid pro quo for Talansky’s cash-in-envelopes donations that would be required for a bribery charge to stick, the donations themselves were apparently unreported and therefore in apparent flagrant breach of campaign-finance and money-laundering laws. Ehud Barak, head of the Labor party, Kadima’s main coalition partner, has already told Olmert that either he quits or Labor pulls out, bringing on elections. Meanwhile, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, front-runner to replace Olmert, has already started pushing for primaries in the party, to give Kadima a head-start in preparing for elections.

According to inside sources, Olmert himself is stalling, trying to figure out the most graceful way to step down. He could start by behaving himself with the police.

This is really not how prime ministers should behave. According to Haaretz, Israel’s prime minister, Ehud Olmert, has been handling his interrogations relating to the corruption charges facing him rather poorly: He granted police investigators precisely one hour for the latest questioning, and he did his best to make sure police could get in as few new questions as possible. He starts by launching into an extended tirade against leaks of the details of the investigation. Then he changes his testimony, asking that he re-answer questions from previous rounds. (Especially the part where he denies taking money from Morris Talansky.) According to another report, he also insisted that all his answers be written down, not just audio-recorded. “It was clear Olmert was taking up interrogation time deliberately,” said one source. “He knew well that the detectives asked for only one hour, and he felt he was waging a power struggle.”

In the meantime, Olmert’s Kadima party is already fighting over the spoils of their leader’s demise. Olmert has  promised to quit if indicted, a prospect that seems increasingly likely: Even if they can’t prove a quid pro quo for Talansky’s cash-in-envelopes donations that would be required for a bribery charge to stick, the donations themselves were apparently unreported and therefore in apparent flagrant breach of campaign-finance and money-laundering laws. Ehud Barak, head of the Labor party, Kadima’s main coalition partner, has already told Olmert that either he quits or Labor pulls out, bringing on elections. Meanwhile, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, front-runner to replace Olmert, has already started pushing for primaries in the party, to give Kadima a head-start in preparing for elections.

According to inside sources, Olmert himself is stalling, trying to figure out the most graceful way to step down. He could start by behaving himself with the police.

Read Less

Cambridge University of Saud

England’s Cambridge University and Edinburgh University have accepted a £16 million endowment from Saudi Prince Al-Walid to create Islamic study centers that “aim to carry out research and public engagements designed to increase understanding between the Muslim world and the West.”

What exactly does “understanding” mean? A month after 9/11, when the same Prince Al-Walid tried to purchase New York City’s “understanding” for $10 million, he said it meant the attacks were to cause the United States to “re-examine its policies in the Middle East and adopt a more balanced stand toward the Palestinian cause.” Then Mayor Rudy Giuliani made himself understood by rejecting the “re-examination,” the “balance,”and the check.

No such luck in England. And now two of the West’s finest universities have been bankrolled in the “understanding” racket.

But perhaps we shouldn’t worry, after all. In Al-Walid’s 2001 check memo to the U.S., he called for Israel to withdraw from Gaza and the West Bank. It’s been almost three years since Israel has withdrawn from Gaza and two years since Kadima–the Israeli political party founded on the very basis of giving land to Palestinians–became the largest party in the Knesset. With that out of the way, maybe Al-Walid just wants the West to “understand” why teenage Muslim girls go missing from Bradford, England, or what it is that offends British Muslim pupils about their teachers assertion that the Holocaust happened, or why British Muslim clerics say “We have to rule ourselves and we have to rule the others.” You know, Islam/West “understanding” stuff.

England’s Cambridge University and Edinburgh University have accepted a £16 million endowment from Saudi Prince Al-Walid to create Islamic study centers that “aim to carry out research and public engagements designed to increase understanding between the Muslim world and the West.”

What exactly does “understanding” mean? A month after 9/11, when the same Prince Al-Walid tried to purchase New York City’s “understanding” for $10 million, he said it meant the attacks were to cause the United States to “re-examine its policies in the Middle East and adopt a more balanced stand toward the Palestinian cause.” Then Mayor Rudy Giuliani made himself understood by rejecting the “re-examination,” the “balance,”and the check.

No such luck in England. And now two of the West’s finest universities have been bankrolled in the “understanding” racket.

But perhaps we shouldn’t worry, after all. In Al-Walid’s 2001 check memo to the U.S., he called for Israel to withdraw from Gaza and the West Bank. It’s been almost three years since Israel has withdrawn from Gaza and two years since Kadima–the Israeli political party founded on the very basis of giving land to Palestinians–became the largest party in the Knesset. With that out of the way, maybe Al-Walid just wants the West to “understand” why teenage Muslim girls go missing from Bradford, England, or what it is that offends British Muslim pupils about their teachers assertion that the Holocaust happened, or why British Muslim clerics say “We have to rule ourselves and we have to rule the others.” You know, Islam/West “understanding” stuff.

Read Less

Olmert’s House of Cards

On Monday, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert survived three no-confidence motions in the Knesset: one after the Winograd Report (only the executive summary is available in English) pronounced him a failure, another after his second-in-command, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, called on him to resign, and a third after over 100,000 people filled Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square to send him the same message.

Clearly, extreme unpopularity will not in itself induce Olmert to step down. He will only resign when forced to do so by the Knesset or by his own party, Kadima. His Kadima colleagues, at least for the time being, seem content to go down with Olmert’s ship. And Kadima’s coalition partners also would rather risk being tainted by Olmert than facing the voters in new elections.

And so the government continues to stand, like a house of cards waiting to fall. Or more specifically, waiting for the completion of the Winograd Report this summer. The current report covered the period between Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000 and Hezbollah’s deadly attack on July 12, 2006, as well as the first five days of the war. This was the period during which Olmert still had full public and even international support. But the report was scathing on his government’s complete lack of tactical and strategic planning, a lack that became rapidly evident from day one of the war.

Read More

On Monday, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert survived three no-confidence motions in the Knesset: one after the Winograd Report (only the executive summary is available in English) pronounced him a failure, another after his second-in-command, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, called on him to resign, and a third after over 100,000 people filled Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square to send him the same message.

Clearly, extreme unpopularity will not in itself induce Olmert to step down. He will only resign when forced to do so by the Knesset or by his own party, Kadima. His Kadima colleagues, at least for the time being, seem content to go down with Olmert’s ship. And Kadima’s coalition partners also would rather risk being tainted by Olmert than facing the voters in new elections.

And so the government continues to stand, like a house of cards waiting to fall. Or more specifically, waiting for the completion of the Winograd Report this summer. The current report covered the period between Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000 and Hezbollah’s deadly attack on July 12, 2006, as well as the first five days of the war. This was the period during which Olmert still had full public and even international support. But the report was scathing on his government’s complete lack of tactical and strategic planning, a lack that became rapidly evident from day one of the war.

The next part of the report will cover the even more problematic period when Israel’s military and political leadership created expectations it could not fulfill: destroying Hezbollah and ending the daily missile barrages against northern Israel. This second part is likely to be even more painful: it will make clear that a last-ditch ground offensive was ordered with no real military objective, but rather was aimed at restoring Israel’s collapsing position in the UN Security Council.

Worst of all for Olmert, Judge Winograd more than hinted that, unlike the interim report, the final document could well contain “personal recommendations”—a euphemism for a direct call for the prime minister to resign. In Israel’s political tradition, such a “recommendation” is more or less binding. (One forced Ariel Sharon to step down as defense minister after the 1982 war in Lebanon.)

The recent resignation of IDF Chief of Staff Dan Halutz, who bore the brunt of Winograd’s criticisms, has allowed his successor Gaby Ashkenazi to usher in a back-to-basics training regimen, so that the military is not caught flat-footed during the next crisis. And this is good news: when it comes to deterring Israel’s belligerent neighbors, the IDF’s readiness is the key factor. The bad news is that Olmert’s decision to postpone the inevitable and stay in office also delays similar, much-needed renewal and recovery in the political sphere.

Read Less

Missing Sharon

I was thinking this morning of Ariel Sharon, who has just finished his first year in a coma at Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem. It’s a funny thing. One misses him, wishes he still were prime minister, almost physically longs for the broad, unflappable bulk of him to protect Israel from its current political unraveling—and knows he is to blame for a good part of it.

It was Sharon, after all, who threw a bomb, called “the big bang” by political commentators, into Israel’s political scene by bolting the Likud and creating a new centrist party, Kadima, that went on, after his stroke, to win the March 2006 elections under the leadership of Ehud Olmert.

New centrist parties in Israel indeed have a long record of starting with a bang and ending, being ex nihilo creations with no political infrastructure, with a whoosh of escaping air. This is almost certain to happen to Kadima too, especially if Olmert is forced to resign on corruption charges in the coming months—the difference being that this time, precisely because of Kadima’s electoral victory, unprecedented for a first-time-around party, its blow-out will leave a gaping hole in the middle of the Israeli political scene. A veteran politician like Ariel Sharon should have known better.

He also should have known better than to found Kadima as a single-issue party, with unilateral disengagement as the only real plank in its platform. Unilateral disengagement is now dead in the water, killed by last summer’s unsuccessful war against Hizbullah and the specter of a Lebanon-like West Bank, and Kadima has been a rudderless ship ever since. And although the outbreak and conduct of the war in Lebanon can’t be pinned on Sharon, the years of Hizbullah’s build-up in the Lebanese south after Israel’s withdrawal from there in 2000 took place entirely on his watch. So did the lack of coherent military planning for a major confrontation with Hizbullah that was the main reason for last summer’s botched campaign, which has now resulted in chief of staff Dan Halutz’s resignation. An old general like Sharon should have known better, too.

One wishes he were back. There’s no other Israeli politician large enough to make up for his blunders.

I was thinking this morning of Ariel Sharon, who has just finished his first year in a coma at Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem. It’s a funny thing. One misses him, wishes he still were prime minister, almost physically longs for the broad, unflappable bulk of him to protect Israel from its current political unraveling—and knows he is to blame for a good part of it.

It was Sharon, after all, who threw a bomb, called “the big bang” by political commentators, into Israel’s political scene by bolting the Likud and creating a new centrist party, Kadima, that went on, after his stroke, to win the March 2006 elections under the leadership of Ehud Olmert.

New centrist parties in Israel indeed have a long record of starting with a bang and ending, being ex nihilo creations with no political infrastructure, with a whoosh of escaping air. This is almost certain to happen to Kadima too, especially if Olmert is forced to resign on corruption charges in the coming months—the difference being that this time, precisely because of Kadima’s electoral victory, unprecedented for a first-time-around party, its blow-out will leave a gaping hole in the middle of the Israeli political scene. A veteran politician like Ariel Sharon should have known better.

He also should have known better than to found Kadima as a single-issue party, with unilateral disengagement as the only real plank in its platform. Unilateral disengagement is now dead in the water, killed by last summer’s unsuccessful war against Hizbullah and the specter of a Lebanon-like West Bank, and Kadima has been a rudderless ship ever since. And although the outbreak and conduct of the war in Lebanon can’t be pinned on Sharon, the years of Hizbullah’s build-up in the Lebanese south after Israel’s withdrawal from there in 2000 took place entirely on his watch. So did the lack of coherent military planning for a major confrontation with Hizbullah that was the main reason for last summer’s botched campaign, which has now resulted in chief of staff Dan Halutz’s resignation. An old general like Sharon should have known better, too.

One wishes he were back. There’s no other Israeli politician large enough to make up for his blunders.

Read Less




Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
YOU HAVE READ 8 OF 8
FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
for full access to
CommentaryMagazine.com
INCLUDES FULL ACCESS TO:
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
CommentaryMagazine.com.
LOG IN WITH YOUR
COMMENTARY MAGAZINE ID
Don't have a CommentaryMagazine.com log in?
CREATE A COMMENTARY
LOG IN ID
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.