Commentary Magazine


Topic: LIkud

Should Obama Care Who Wins Israel’s Knesset Elections?

The latest polls out of Israel show basically a dead heat between Labor and Likud in the upcoming Knesset elections. Likud still has the advantage, because it will likely be easier for Likud to assemble a blocking coalition than for Labor to assemble a governing coalition should they win. But a Labor-Likud race is, in some ways, just like old times. And in the past, when there has been a close left-right election and a Democrat in the White House, the American president tended to dive into the Israeli election and seek to manipulate the outcome in favor of the left. Which raises the question: Will Barack Obama do the same this time around?

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The latest polls out of Israel show basically a dead heat between Labor and Likud in the upcoming Knesset elections. Likud still has the advantage, because it will likely be easier for Likud to assemble a blocking coalition than for Labor to assemble a governing coalition should they win. But a Labor-Likud race is, in some ways, just like old times. And in the past, when there has been a close left-right election and a Democrat in the White House, the American president tended to dive into the Israeli election and seek to manipulate the outcome in favor of the left. Which raises the question: Will Barack Obama do the same this time around?

Actually, the more interesting question is: Should Obama care who wins? Obviously we know he does care. He hates Netanyahu, and Obama and co-president Valerie Jarrett tend to make policy based on personal grievances and petty grudges rather than on basic rationality. So Obama will care who wins, and perhaps even seek to, yet again, influence the results.

But he shouldn’t care. (Even if he did, he shouldn’t meddle, but the days when Obama could be convinced to respect the sovereignty and democracy of allies are over, if they ever existed.) Bibi Derangement Syndrome has caused American politicos and commentators to do very strange things. For Obama, this has meant downgrading the U.S.-Israel military alliance while Israel was at war. For commentators, this has meant trying to recruit the corrupt and unpopular Ehud Olmert to return to politics.

So, being that the results of the Western left’s interaction with Israeli politics range from terrible to awful, it would benefit everyone involved if Obama gave up on trying to sabotage Israeli governments. And perhaps one way to convince him of that is to explain very clearly why it would be futile for him to meddle anyway.

That’s not because the left doesn’t have a chance to unseat Bibi; indeed it does (though still a longshot). Rather, it’s because the outcome of a Labor victory is unlikely to fundamentally change anything about the peace process.

Obama’s interest in Israel starts and ends with his attempts to get the Jewish state to give away land so he can boost his own presidential legacy. This is in part why Israelis have never come to trust Obama. He doesn’t know much about Israel, and he doesn’t show any interest in learning. For all his mistakes, this was simply not true of Bill Clinton. It was the opposite of true for George W. Bush, who gave moving speeches in Israel that testified to his love of the country and his deep knowledge and appreciation of its people and its history. Obama’s lack of intellectual curiosity is not limited to Israel, of course, but it certainly applies to it.

And so if his interest in Israel starts and ends with the peace process, his interest in Israeli national elections starts and ends there too. Thus Obama might assume that since Labor is traditionally more supportive of the peace process than Likud, and since Labor has added Tzipi Livni, who was Netanyahu’s peace envoy, to its combined electoral slate, therefore this election presents a stark choice between those Obama can manipulate and those Obama cannot. The reality, however, is more complicated, as reality tends to be.

The Israeli right is still benefiting from the collapse in public confidence in the left’s prosecution of national-security policy. Labor has recovered somewhat, but in recent years economic issues have hovered pretty close to the surface for Israeli voters. If Labor wins the election, it almost certainly won’t be seen as a mandate for giving away land to the Palestinians.

This is not only because Labor has less room to maneuver on this issue than the more security-trusted Likud. It’s also because the peace process is at a low point of the modern era, and it’s there because of Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry. The Clinton administration made some progress on this front, even if the ultimate failure of the Clinton initiative led to a wave of Palestinian violence. The Bush administration made more genuine progress on this front with the Gaza disengagement and the eventual proffer of a generous peace deal from Olmert to Mahmoud Abbas.

The Obama era has seen the resort to a wave of Palestinian violence but no progress leading up to it. In fact, the two sides have been pushed by Obama and Kerry farther apart than they’ve been in decades. When Obama gets involved in the peace process, there is simply no upside, only downside. If Labor wins, there is no room right now for a renewed peace process, and Obama only has two years left in office anyway.

Additionally, Labor would have to do more than just win the election. They would have to put together a governing coalition, and the math is aligned against them. This also mitigates against the Obama agenda; any coalition Labor could put together would probably have to include Avigdor Lieberman and/or the ultra-Orthodox.

It is doubtful that anything significant will change after the Knesset elections in March. That may be disappointing to Obama, but it also might stop him from once again recklessly meddling in the messy world of Israeli politics.

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No “Legacy” Is Asset for Netanyahu

By firing two of his coalition partners from his Cabinet today, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu set in motion a chain of events that will likely result in new elections next March. Since polls show that both Yair Lapid and Tzipi Livni would be badly weakened by a new vote and Netanyahu strengthened, the move seems likely to result in a more stable coalition. But though even his critics must give him credit for outsmarting Lapid and Livni, the end of this government is likely to engender a new round of Netanyahu-bashing in both the Israeli and the foreign press. The prime minister is good at politics, they will argue, but the decision to press forward with what most Israelis rightly consider unnecessary elections shows that he has accomplished nothing but political survival and lacks a legacy, such as a peace treaty with the Palestinians, to justify his long stay at the top. But while the critics will be right when they say Israel didn’t need another election, they’re wrong about Netanyahu’s legacy. As he heads toward his fourth term as prime minister, Netanyahu is showing that what his country needs is a competent leader not someone in search of a dubious place in history.

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By firing two of his coalition partners from his Cabinet today, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu set in motion a chain of events that will likely result in new elections next March. Since polls show that both Yair Lapid and Tzipi Livni would be badly weakened by a new vote and Netanyahu strengthened, the move seems likely to result in a more stable coalition. But though even his critics must give him credit for outsmarting Lapid and Livni, the end of this government is likely to engender a new round of Netanyahu-bashing in both the Israeli and the foreign press. The prime minister is good at politics, they will argue, but the decision to press forward with what most Israelis rightly consider unnecessary elections shows that he has accomplished nothing but political survival and lacks a legacy, such as a peace treaty with the Palestinians, to justify his long stay at the top. But while the critics will be right when they say Israel didn’t need another election, they’re wrong about Netanyahu’s legacy. As he heads toward his fourth term as prime minister, Netanyahu is showing that what his country needs is a competent leader not someone in search of a dubious place in history.

As the Times of Israel reported, in speaking to his nation today, Netanyahu justified his decision to oust Lapid and Livni from office by saying:

“I believe that you, the citizens of Israel, deserve a new, better, more stable government, a broad-based government that can govern,” he said.

And in order to give Israelis that “unified and strong” government, Netanyahu said, “one needs a strong ruling party.”

That means more votes for Likud in order to assure the prime minister of a stronger base within the next coalition. With the parties of the left still marginalized by the aftermath of the Oslo disasters, Netanyahu is effectively competing only against his rivals/allies on, as he put it, on the “right” and the “center right.” Those parties will, if the polls are correct, have between them nearly a majority of the Knesset even before they seek coalition partners from either the religious parties or what remains of the centrists that were just ousted by Netanyahu.

As even those least enamored of Netanyahu must concede he has no credible rivals for the post of prime minister, either among his partners or the opposition. But what Netanyahu’s domestic and foreign critics don’t understand about his dominance of Israeli politics is that it is precisely his eschewing of a vainglorious try for a historic legacy that has earned him the confidence of his people.

This is in marked contrast to every other prime minister since Yitzhak Shamir left office in 1992. Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres, Ehud Barak, Ariel Sharon, Ehud Barak, and Ehud Olmert all took stabs at unraveling the Gordian knot of Middle East peace with peace initiatives. But every one of these efforts, whether it was the Oslo Accords of Rabin and Peres, Barak’s Camp David offer of 2000, Sharon’s Gaza withdrawal, or the third offer of statehood to the Palestinians put forward at Annapolis, Maryland by Olmert, all failed spectacularly. Even worse, each of these efforts weakened Israel’s position for future negotiations while leading to more bloodshed and violence, rather than less.

President Obama and his foreign-policy team consider Netanyahu a cowardly failure (or a “chickensh*t” as he was famously labeled by anonymous senior administration officials) because he won’t match the follies of his predecessors and risk the country’s security with a new territorial withdrawal that could result in the creation of another terror state on Israel’s doorstep. But the people of Israel understand that Netanyahu’s willingness to say no to Obama is all that stands between them and another fiasco like Sharon’s Gaza gambit.

Netanyahu may never do anything that will earn him the applause of his liberal American critics that would be labeled a “legacy” even if it did nothing to achieve a lasting peace. That long-sought goal must await not another bold Israeli but a sea change in Palestinian political culture that will allow their leaders to recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn.

But what Israeli voters value is his ability to stand up to his country’s friends as well as its foes and to avoid more such bold disasters. If he has a legacy it will have to rest on the fact that he presided over a period of unprecedented economic strength and an avoidance of the kind of mistakes that men who hunger for the applause of an amorphous posterity can’t seem to resist. What Netanyahu’s predecessors proved is that the last thing a nation under siege needs is a leader more concerned with legacy than the safety of its citizens. As Israelis prepare to elect him prime minister for a fourth time, his lack of such foolish ambitions is an obvious qualification, not a drawback.

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For Netanyahu and Lieberman, Breaking Up Is Easy to Do

The first thing to understand about Avigdor Lieberman’s move to dissolve his party’s pact with Likud over the correct response to Gaza is this: it’s not about the correct response to Gaza. Or anything else about Gaza. The Gaza Strip is close to irrelevant to the split between Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu, though it does serve as a convenient pretext.

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The first thing to understand about Avigdor Lieberman’s move to dissolve his party’s pact with Likud over the correct response to Gaza is this: it’s not about the correct response to Gaza. Or anything else about Gaza. The Gaza Strip is close to irrelevant to the split between Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu, though it does serve as a convenient pretext.

This is Lieberman’s second departure from Likud. He was close to Benjamin Netanyahu in the 1990s, managing his campaigns and soon becoming an incredibly influential figure once Netanyahu won the premiership the first time around. Then Lieberman tapped into the Russian immigrant community’s desire to have its representation in the Knesset more closely align with its demographic muscle. (The community also matured politically, having integrated without completely assimilating.) He formed a party to do just that.

Lieberman became a kingmaker by eventually garnering 15 seats in the Knesset in 2009–enough to make or break a coalition but not enough to lead one. Lieberman is both politically shrewd and hugely ambitious, so when he hit Yisrael Beiteinu’s ceiling he went back to the Likud, this time with an embarrassment of electoral riches.

The point was to eventually become prime minister. Netanyahu is a decade older than Lieberman and, crucially, so are Likud’s brightest and most experienced contemporaries. Lieberman understood that he’d have to wait out Bibi but that was probably it. As the last election showed, there are younger, bright stars in the Israeli political solar system, but they formed their own parties. Lieberman would have real competition in the future, but not from within Likud.

So why leave Likud (again)? Lieberman must have seen signs either that he wouldn’t inherit Likud after all or that it wouldn’t matter. The most likely answer is that it was a combination of the two, but more the latter. Lieberman has seen that there is still no serious challenge from the left; it’s other center-right or right-wing parties breathing down Likud’s neck. That means that if he can pull enough votes away from Likud, there is suddenly no real frontrunner, and there might be enough of a vacuum for another party to win now (or soon) instead of waiting out the Likud old guard.

The Likud-Beiteinu union was always an engagement that never turned into a marriage. And it was designed that way. Lieberman obviously learned plenty from his time as Netanyahu’s right-hand man: the two are by far the most politically adroit figures on the Israeli scene. They are not without flaws, of course, and this latest maneuver from Lieberman exposes his greatest weakness: he is a brilliant political operator behind the scenes, but will never have the charismatic command not only of a Yair Lapid or even Naftali Bennett but of any number of politicians who may crop up in the future.

In a parliamentary system, that charisma is less important than in a presidential system, and the ability to operate behind the scenes correspondingly more beneficial. But it is far from clear that it would be enough, in Lieberman’s case. The other potential mistake Lieberman is making has to do with the shifting math of seats in the Knesset. He should not assume that Likud’s vote total will remain stagnant at the number of seats it holds when he officially departs the party.

Likud has the advantage of brand. It’s true, this hasn’t helped Israel’s Labor Party. But the country is center-right, and so is Likud. That means Likud has the ability to attract politicians and voters in a way that other parties don’t: witness, for example, Lieberman’s ceiling at Yisrael Beiteinu, and the consistent disintegration of new parties. It’s also possible that Likud could win back voters who left when the party merged with Lieberman.

In that respect the union between the two parties may have been holding back both leaders. Netanyahu was losing out to voters who liked Lapid’s big-tent message and Bennett’s Anglo relatability more than Lieberman’s gruff polarizing rhetoric and shifting alliances. Lieberman, in turn, may have seen others threatening to do what he thought couldn’t (yet) be done: eclipse the establishment figures while they were still in power, and while he had tied his fortunes to them.

It’s an amicable split, as far as these things go, and it is unlikely to shake up Israeli politics at the moment. The real test will be the next election. In the meantime, it’s quite possible the public will barely notice the breakup of its largest political party.

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The Economist’s Revisionist Israeli History

On Friday afternoon, Tablet’s Yair Rosenberg posted a corrective calling the Economist to account for its latest falsehood about Jews. In a review of a book about the British Mandate authorities’ hunt for Avraham Stern, the leader of the “Stern gang,” or Lehi, the reviewer made the following claims:

Stern still commands a striking hold over many of Israel’s ruling right-wingers, including the successors of the mandate-era Jewish underground who continue to perpetrate attacks on Palestinian civilians. Many still choose his nom de guerre, Yair, for their sons, including Israel’s current prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu. One of the most fanatical settlements, Kochav Yair, is named after him.

Rosenberg patiently explains that there are two kinds of falsehoods in this paragraph. The obvious one, which the Economist has since corrected, is its characterization of Kochav Yair as a “fanatical settlement.” Rosenberg notes that readers quickly pushed back on the Economist, since Kochav Yair is neither fanatical nor a settlement. The other falsehood is that Jews named Yair are named for a terrorist.

Rosenberg admits he’s not impartial here; his name is Yair and, as he joked on Twitter, claiming that Yair is not a Jewish terrorist’s name is exactly what you’d expect a Jew named Yair to say. But kidding aside: “To the more literate, however, ‘Yair’–which means ‘will illuminate’–is of course a famous biblical name that has been popular among Jews for centuries,” Rosenberg writes. “It is one of the few names possessed by multiple characters in the Hebrew Bible.”

Rosenberg also notes that the Economist has yet to correct this mistake. But it’s worth pondering why the Economist would pass along an odd and verifiably false smear that paints Jews as the choosing heirs of a terrorist–and which slanders Netanyahu specifically. The answer, I’d wager, is contained in the last three sentences of the review, which demonstrate the potent combination of astounding ignorance and spectacular malice. Here’s the magazine describing Stern’s legacy:

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On Friday afternoon, Tablet’s Yair Rosenberg posted a corrective calling the Economist to account for its latest falsehood about Jews. In a review of a book about the British Mandate authorities’ hunt for Avraham Stern, the leader of the “Stern gang,” or Lehi, the reviewer made the following claims:

Stern still commands a striking hold over many of Israel’s ruling right-wingers, including the successors of the mandate-era Jewish underground who continue to perpetrate attacks on Palestinian civilians. Many still choose his nom de guerre, Yair, for their sons, including Israel’s current prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu. One of the most fanatical settlements, Kochav Yair, is named after him.

Rosenberg patiently explains that there are two kinds of falsehoods in this paragraph. The obvious one, which the Economist has since corrected, is its characterization of Kochav Yair as a “fanatical settlement.” Rosenberg notes that readers quickly pushed back on the Economist, since Kochav Yair is neither fanatical nor a settlement. The other falsehood is that Jews named Yair are named for a terrorist.

Rosenberg admits he’s not impartial here; his name is Yair and, as he joked on Twitter, claiming that Yair is not a Jewish terrorist’s name is exactly what you’d expect a Jew named Yair to say. But kidding aside: “To the more literate, however, ‘Yair’–which means ‘will illuminate’–is of course a famous biblical name that has been popular among Jews for centuries,” Rosenberg writes. “It is one of the few names possessed by multiple characters in the Hebrew Bible.”

Rosenberg also notes that the Economist has yet to correct this mistake. But it’s worth pondering why the Economist would pass along an odd and verifiably false smear that paints Jews as the choosing heirs of a terrorist–and which slanders Netanyahu specifically. The answer, I’d wager, is contained in the last three sentences of the review, which demonstrate the potent combination of astounding ignorance and spectacular malice. Here’s the magazine describing Stern’s legacy:

He called for holy war and the building of a third temple, and espoused a Davidic kingdom rather than a democratic state. And he championed rejection of the prevailing superpower, even when it was a patron. A fringe discourse in the 1940s, Stern’s language is increasingly echoed by the activists on the religious right, Israel’s most potent grassroots force.

The Economist seeks to tar Israel’s right-of-center polity with the brush of Lehi terrorism, and in order to make such a claim you would have to falsify the entire political history of Israel from before its founding to the present day. So that is what the Economist has done.

The magazine wants to warn the United States, it seems, that Israelis are perhaps once again on the verge of “champion[ing] rejection of the prevailing superpower, even when it was a patron.” To characterize the British Mandate as merely a “patron” is, especially by the 1940s, getting more mileage out of the term than its warrantee will cover. But comparing it to the U.S. today (the world’s only “superpower”) is absurd. As the Economist has surely by now heard–to its evident chagrin–Israel is actually an independent state. The government against which pre-state Jews rebelled was Britain; the current Israeli government is the current Israeli government. A rebellion against it in the name of Jewish sovereignty would be strange indeed; it would also have nothing to do with Washington D.C.

More broadly, however, the idea that the Israeli right are the inheritors of Stern’s Lehi is an irredeemable distortion of Israeli history. Here’s what actually happened: Stern’s fringe group was opposed not just by Ben-Gurion (back to him in a moment) and the Haganah; it was opposed by its rival, Menachem Begin’s Irgun. Begin–the actual leader of the Israeli right for most of the state’s first forty years–did not support the indiscriminate violence of Lehi, nor its terroristic attacks on civilians. As such, he did not support Lehi’s assassination of Lord Moyne, for example.

Back to Ben-Gurion. He saw Begin, not Stern, as his true rival. So the crackdown in the wake of Moyne’s assassination cast a net wide enough to be aimed at the Irgun too. After Moyne’s killing, the British wanted both justice and to establish deterrence. Ben-Gurion, however, used the incident as an opportunity to help the British squash Begin and the Irgun. Begin was the one in this particular incident who arguably showed the most restraint, since he neither supported Moyne’s killing nor engaged Ben-Gurion in the civil war Ben-Gurion was intent on starting and winning, with British assistance.

Ben-Gurion surely deserves his hard-earned reputation and gratitude from the Jewish nation. But it’s worth noting that his opportunistic attacks on Begin did lasting damage to the nascent state. The coalition of the left ruled Israel until Begin was able to finally win a national election in 1977. In that time, the Israeli ruling establishment sought to exclude anyone with the slightest connection to Begin or the right. It was antidemocratic, and it was wrong. But either way, Begin’s eventual triumph, which earned the Israeli right its place in the state’s political equilibrium, was the triumph of Stern’s rival, not Stern’s heir.

Of course some moderately less ignorant partisans will claim that Yitzhak Shamir’s succession of Begin in the late 1980s was the rise of a Lehi-nik, since Shamir was part of the group. But as everyone knows, Shamir cast aside the ideology of Lehi for the pragmatism of democratic governance when he joined the Mossad and then the state’s political class in the years after Israel became independent. The Economist’s portrayal of Stern and modern Israel is indefensible, and plainly false.

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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?

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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.

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Israel’s Equilibrium

Because of the consistent participation in Israel’s Knesset elections of new, ill-defined, and self-styled “centrist” parties, it can be difficult to accurately apply the labels “left” and “right” until after each election. Nonetheless, yesterday’s Israeli Knesset elections clearly represent a leftward shift. How far left? That remains to be seen. The election, as Evelyn noted, was about domestic issues and not the peace process. This is beneficial for Israelis, Jewish and Arab alike.

But because the resurgent Labor Party–which performed as well as it did because it has learned to downplay Oslo in favor of bread-and-butter issues–has more to gain long-term by staying out of the next governing coalition and regrouping and recruiting some more, the leftward shift will be most clearly felt on issues of religious identity. Simply put, the ultra-Orthodox will be up against something of a secular mandate. But all this will sort itself out in the coming weeks as coalition forming and its attendant horse-trading begins. The more interesting question for now is: Could the liberal American press, which hysterically predicted that the election would create a suicidally fascistic government, have known all along how wrong they were? The answer is yes–they just needed to learn a bit of Israeli history.

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Because of the consistent participation in Israel’s Knesset elections of new, ill-defined, and self-styled “centrist” parties, it can be difficult to accurately apply the labels “left” and “right” until after each election. Nonetheless, yesterday’s Israeli Knesset elections clearly represent a leftward shift. How far left? That remains to be seen. The election, as Evelyn noted, was about domestic issues and not the peace process. This is beneficial for Israelis, Jewish and Arab alike.

But because the resurgent Labor Party–which performed as well as it did because it has learned to downplay Oslo in favor of bread-and-butter issues–has more to gain long-term by staying out of the next governing coalition and regrouping and recruiting some more, the leftward shift will be most clearly felt on issues of religious identity. Simply put, the ultra-Orthodox will be up against something of a secular mandate. But all this will sort itself out in the coming weeks as coalition forming and its attendant horse-trading begins. The more interesting question for now is: Could the liberal American press, which hysterically predicted that the election would create a suicidally fascistic government, have known all along how wrong they were? The answer is yes–they just needed to learn a bit of Israeli history.

Israeli elections often hover around what amounts to an equilibrium. Two mainstream parties–Likud and Labor, historically–usually compete to form either a center-right government or a center-left government. Floating centrist parties come and go, often within one election cycle. Kadima is the exception that proves the rule. It was created by Ariel Sharon just before he was incapacitated. Once it was out of government and led by Tzipi Livni, it remodeled itself as the peace party–its existence as such only made possible by the struggles of Labor. It is no surprise, then, that in yesterday’s election Labor’s surge back to respectability and the emergence of Yair Lapid’s new centrist party nearly wiped Kadima out completely.

The equilibrium includes an Orthodox party, Shas, and in recent years there’s been more of an effort to include specifically secular representation to make up for the fading of the Israeli left. For a couple of election cycles that has been Avigdor Lieberman’s Israel Beiteinu, which has pushed for conscription for the ultra-Orthodox, civil marriage, and the decentralization of the Rabbinate’s state authority. This is an important point because for all the media’s complaints of the electorate’s rightward shift, thanks to Lieberman the left had many of its policy preferences championed from within a supposedly right-wing government. Space for a new secular party opened up when Israel Beiteinu merged with Likud prior to this election.

And that gets at a broader problem with the “Israel’s lurch to the right” chorus. Israeli politicians have opinions on an array of issues, both foreign and domestic. The Western left elevates any politician’s opinion on the peace process above all others; Israelis are not so myopic or simplistic. A consensus has formed in Israel about Oslo, the peace process, and Jerusalem. Few politicians gain much success by being far beyond the parameters of that consensus–to the right or left. In recent years, the left has been outside those lines, clinging to the memories and legacy of Oslo and stuck in the mid-1990s. Labor has now emerged from that vacation from reality enough to offer coherent thoughts on domestic policy, and has been rewarded by the electorate for joining the country in the 21st century.

This doesn’t mean the country is anti-peace. It’s simply the hardheaded realism that sustains Israel’s electoral equilibrium. The peace process has a way of crowding out everything else–meetings, summits, negotiations, visits to and from every busybody who wants a piece of the action, and the parade of special envoys convinced they’re Kissinger abound. And that leaves no time or energy or political capital–and in Israel, everything takes political capital–to attend to domestic reforms.

The Western press may sneer at an election that was more about the price of cottage cheese than the future of the two-state solution, but that’s because they don’t for one second put themselves in Israelis’ shoes and walk a mile or two. Israelis are not pieces on a chessboard, and yes, the price of cottage cheese makes a difference (though that was really just a stand-in for a general sense of concern over certain household economic trends).

The ability to compartmentalize the issues and leave the peace process in its box every so often is essential for Israel. Liberal journalists don’t seem to have this ability to compartmentalize and thus they cannot see past Oslo. Call it the triumph of Haaretz over experience–the leftist press lives in its own world. The irony of all this is that only by discarding liberal editorial boards’ peace process fantasies has the Israeli left been able to rebound back from relative obscurity. You can be inside the consensus sustained by Israel’s equilibrium or you can have an obsessive focus on the peace process, but not both–as yesterday’s election demonstrated once again.

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Why Israel Has Shifted to the Right

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Avigdor Lieberman’s Future

This morning, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s resignation from the Knesset went into effect. Lieberman’s rise and sustained popularity have always puzzled both his domestic political opponents and foreign observers. In part this is because Lieberman’s political persona is one paradox after another. He is a fervent secular nationalist in an age when Israelis tend to be either one or the other. In this, he is a modern rightist much in the mold of Israel’s founding Laborite fathers–another contradiction. And he is most powerful and influential in post-election coalition forming; far less so in his actual duties as foreign minister and deputy prime minister.

That helps explain why they don’t understand him; it’s far easier to explain why his opponents don’t like him. Among those reasons is why he is resigning now: the cloud of potential scandal and accusations of corruption have followed Lieberman for the better part of a decade now. Israeli Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein has announced that Lieberman will be indicted on breach of trust charges–the same charges on which former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was convicted. Lieberman will not, however, be charged with the more serious corruption charges, likely bringing an end to a long ordeal. (Lieberman was under suspicion of profiting from a business registered in his daughter’s name while he served in Knesset.) The actual indictment will only be accusing Lieberman of the lesser, but still serious, charge that he promoted Israel’s ambassador to Belarus in exchange for information on an investigation on him by Belarus authorities.

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This morning, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s resignation from the Knesset went into effect. Lieberman’s rise and sustained popularity have always puzzled both his domestic political opponents and foreign observers. In part this is because Lieberman’s political persona is one paradox after another. He is a fervent secular nationalist in an age when Israelis tend to be either one or the other. In this, he is a modern rightist much in the mold of Israel’s founding Laborite fathers–another contradiction. And he is most powerful and influential in post-election coalition forming; far less so in his actual duties as foreign minister and deputy prime minister.

That helps explain why they don’t understand him; it’s far easier to explain why his opponents don’t like him. Among those reasons is why he is resigning now: the cloud of potential scandal and accusations of corruption have followed Lieberman for the better part of a decade now. Israeli Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein has announced that Lieberman will be indicted on breach of trust charges–the same charges on which former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was convicted. Lieberman will not, however, be charged with the more serious corruption charges, likely bringing an end to a long ordeal. (Lieberman was under suspicion of profiting from a business registered in his daughter’s name while he served in Knesset.) The actual indictment will only be accusing Lieberman of the lesser, but still serious, charge that he promoted Israel’s ambassador to Belarus in exchange for information on an investigation on him by Belarus authorities.

As for Lieberman’s political future, there is one variable that will make a big difference. If he is charged with what Israeli authorities rather solemnly call “moral turpitude,” it greatly complicates the controversy for him. Haaretz explains:

If Lieberman is convicted of a crime involving moral turpitude after he is presumably elected to the next Knesset, he would have to resign immediately. If he were convicted and also sentenced to a prison term of three months or more, he would be prevented from running for the Knesset for seven years after completing his sentence.

However, if the Yisrael Beiteinu chairman is convicted of a crime involving moral turpitude before the January 22 election without being sentenced to jail, he would be able to run in the election for the next Knesset. He would also be forced to resign from the current Knesset….

Lieberman has a significant interest in signing a plea bargain if it includes agreements with the State Prosecutor’s Office on the issue of moral turpitude. According to the Basic Law on the Government (1992), a person cannot be appointed minister for seven years after completion of a sentence for an offense bearing moral turpitude. A plea bargain stating that Lieberman’s offenses do not constitute moral turpitude would allow him to return to the cabinet even if he were convicted.

What happens if Lieberman is banned from the Knesset for seven years? Lieberman’s party, prior to its recent merger with Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud, was first and foremost a party to represent the Russian immigrant community, which now numbers about 13 percent of Israel’s population (which helps explain how he is able to garner so many seats in the Knesset–15, currently). Lieberman’s success with Israel Beiteinu was something of a watershed in Israeli electoral politics. As I explained in a July 2011 piece for COMMENTARY, ethnic and minority groups rarely held so much clout; the Mizrahi community–Jews from Arab lands–eventually threw its lot in with Menachem Begin and the Likud to achieve maximum representation in the Knesset, rather than form a minority party itself.

But that was at a time when Israeli politics were dominated by two major parties–Labor and Likud. The fragmentation of Israeli party politics means Lieberman’s vote total actually makes him a kingmaker, since it is nearly impossible to form a coalition–and even more difficult to form a stable coalition–without him.

Had Lieberman’s party remained independent, a conviction on “moral turpitude” would be devastating for Israel Beiteinu. It would be less so now that the party’s Knesset slate has merged with Likud. Netanyahu needs those votes to stay with Likud to win the next election, and possibly future elections as well. But a threat to bolt the party from the Russians–something Lieberman has done before–would seem to be empty without Lieberman at the helm.

That’s because Lieberman provides leadership and cohesion to the group. The Russian immigrant community has never been able to successfully mobilize for elections without Lieberman. Natan Sharansky was considered a revolutionary among Russians and a hero in Israel, yet he was unable to lead a party of Russians with anything close to success. There are cultural reasons for this, and there are political reasons as well. Sharansky was just not a very good politician; Lieberman, on the other hand, is close to masterful at navigating the Israeli political scene. He is a tough-talking populist but a pragmatic legislator who knows how to advocate for his ethnic community while folding its story into the larger narrative of Israeli history.

But he is also brusque, undiplomatic, too dismissive of the Jewish Diaspora and can be as reckless on foreign policy (reportedly suggesting Israel consider toppling Mahmoud Abbas’s government, for example) as he is pragmatic on the home front. His domestic opponents, and a fair number of American Jews, want his political career to be finished by these charges. Lieberman can be a headache for Netanyahu as well, though he doesn’t want to push Lieberman’s constituents into the arms of the center-left–with whom they often vigorously agree on social and religious policy.

So it’s too early to tell if this will change everything or change nothing. But it’s doubtful it will be anywhere in between.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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Heads: Bibi Wins; Tails: His Rivals Lose

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Goldberg Interview Can’t Disguise the Divide Between Obama and Israel

The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg was rewarded for years of diligent cheerleading for Barack Obama with an exclusive interview that was published this morning. Goldberg asks some interesting questions as well as some that can be characterized as mere sucking up. But though there’s not much here that we haven’t already heard, the transcript of the exchange provides a summary of the Obama attempt to persuade Israel, American supporters of Israel, Iran and the rest of the world that he means business about stopping Tehran from gaining nuclear weapons.

Obama is at pains to try to assert he doesn’t “bluff” when it comes to threatening the use of force, but after three years of a feckless engagement policy followed by a largely ineffective effort to impose sanctions on Iran, it’s hard to find anyone who really believes he would actually launch a strike to prevent the ayatollahs from getting their hands on a nuclear weapon. Much of what the president says in this interview is exactly what he should be stating. But his credibility is undermined by his disingenuous attempt to deny that until his re-election campaign began the keynote of his Middle East policy was to distance the United States from Israel. Equally false is his attempt to make it seem as if he doesn’t despise Israel’s prime minister.

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The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg was rewarded for years of diligent cheerleading for Barack Obama with an exclusive interview that was published this morning. Goldberg asks some interesting questions as well as some that can be characterized as mere sucking up. But though there’s not much here that we haven’t already heard, the transcript of the exchange provides a summary of the Obama attempt to persuade Israel, American supporters of Israel, Iran and the rest of the world that he means business about stopping Tehran from gaining nuclear weapons.

Obama is at pains to try to assert he doesn’t “bluff” when it comes to threatening the use of force, but after three years of a feckless engagement policy followed by a largely ineffective effort to impose sanctions on Iran, it’s hard to find anyone who really believes he would actually launch a strike to prevent the ayatollahs from getting their hands on a nuclear weapon. Much of what the president says in this interview is exactly what he should be stating. But his credibility is undermined by his disingenuous attempt to deny that until his re-election campaign began the keynote of his Middle East policy was to distance the United States from Israel. Equally false is his attempt to make it seem as if he doesn’t despise Israel’s prime minister.

Obama complains, with Goldberg’s assent, that it is unfair to characterize his administration as unfriendly to Israel. But in order to buy into his assumption, you have to ignore the entire tenor and much of the substance of the U.S.-Israel relationship since January 2009. Though, as I have often written, Barack Obama has not sought to obstruct the decades-old security alliance between the two countries, he has needlessly and repeatedly quarreled with Israel’s government in such a way as to create the justified impression there is a wide gap between America and the Jewish state on a host of issues including borders, security arrangements, Jerusalem and settlements.

More to the point, despite Obama’s statements about an Iranian nuke being as much a danger to the United States and the West as it is to Israel, talk is cheap, and that is all he has ever done on the issue. That has left Israel with the impression Obama will never take action on an issue that is an existential threat to the Jewish state.

The Goldberg interview is, of course, not just one more salvo in the administration’s charm offensive to American Jewish voters. It is part of his effort to head off an Israeli strike on Iran, something he may fear far more than the ayatollahs getting their fingers on the nuclear button. For all of his lip service to the Iranian threat, Obama clearly is still more worried about Israel.

But the problem is Obama is bluffing when he talks about being willing to hit Iran. His halfhearted attempt to force Iran to its knees via sanctions is failing, and the idea that waiting until the end of the year (when, Obama hopes, he will be safely re-elected and thus free from needing to worry about Jewish voters or donors) to see if it works is just hot air. Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, who will be in Washington to meet with Obama following his address to the AIPAC conference, knows this, and that will be focal point of their next confrontation.

Netanyahu knows Obama does not have his country’s back despite Goldberg’s cajoling this promise out of the president. But he will likely smile when he reads Obama’s answer to Goldberg’s question about the relationship between the two men. Though Obama has bragged of his close relationships with other leaders such as the Turkey’s Islamist Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, he makes little effort to disguise his contempt for Netanyahu. He tells Goldberg he and Netanyahu are too busy to discuss anything other than policy. Obama then slips up a bit and attempts to explain their differences as being the result of belonging to “different political traditions,” as if there was some sort of natural tension between being an American Democrat and an Israeli Likudnik. This actually tells us more about Obama than anything else.

The truth is, these two “traditions” are not natural antagonists because they are the result of two entirely different political systems and histories. If Obama sees them as inherently opposed to each other it is because his conception of American liberalism sees an Israeli nationalist faction dedicated to their nation’s security as somehow antithetical to his own view. In fact, the origins of both parties are “liberal” with a small “l” in the sense that they are based on the idea of democracy and opposed to socialism. Indeed, the Likud is far closer to both American major parties because it is dedicated to free market principles the Israeli left abhors.

The divide here is not between a Democrat and a member of the Likud but between an American who is ambivalent about Israel and an Israeli who is deeply sympathetic to the United States. That is why a close reading of Goldberg’s attempt to help Obama to portray himself as Israel’s best friend only reinforces the phony nature of the president’s Jewish charm offensive.

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Israel’s Right Discovers Political Sanity

Anyone familiar with Israeli politics knows that the Israeli right’s worst enemy is itself. Small right-of-center factions toppled both Yitzhak Shamir’s Likud-led government in 1992 and Benjamin Netanyahu’s first government in 1999; those decisions led, respectively, to Yitzhak Rabin’s election and the Oslo Accords, and to Ehud Barak’s election and the second intifada.

Moreover, it was rightist voters who ensured Rabin’s victory by wasting thousands of votes on splinter parties that failed to enter the Knesset. Had all those votes gone to the main center-right party, Likud, Shamir would have formed the next government and not Rabin. Yet instead of learning the lesson, rightists continued wasting thousands of votes on unelectable splinter parties in subsequent elections.

So it was encouraging to read the following notice in a local newsletter (Hebrew only) published by the West Bank settlement of Eli: “After much thought, it has been decided by the [Givat Hayovel neighborhood] committee, the town council and rabbis, with backing from senior officials involved in the matter, to register people for Likud. Likud is the ruling party, and that is where we need to have an influence. … Joining Likud is the most effective way of influencing ministers and Knesset members to work with us on both the court case and other matters of importance to the town.”

Granted, Eli is only one settlement, and its decision stems from a very specific problem: the aforementioned court case, in which Peace Now is seeking a court order to raze Givat Hayovel on the grounds that it was built illegally. Eli contends that the neighborhood, built with massive government support, was always slated for legalization and needs only the final government permits — hence its quest for lobbying clout.

Nevertheless, this is a revolution. During Likud’s last membership drive, in 2008, a party activist who canvassed Eli and other settlements using this very same argument told me despairingly that most people didn’t get it. Now it is being promoted by the town’s entire political and religious leadership.

Moreover, many other settlements face similar problems with permits. So if Eli has reached this conclusion, it’s likely that other settlements are or will be doing the same.

This still doesn’t solve the problem of splinter voting, since joining Likud doesn’t oblige one to vote for it. Yet large-scale party membership carries its own dynamic: if those rightists who previously shunned Likud instead start working from within it, the party will presumably become more responsive to their needs, thus encouraging more of them to vote for it.

That in turn could promote more effective government. Israel’s current governing coalition comprises six different parties, with Likud commanding barely a third of its seats, and these parties’ disagreements have led to paralysis on many issues. A government composed of a larger Likud with fewer coalition partners would presumably find it easier to push through vital domestic initiatives.

That still remains a distant dream. But the first step is for rightists to understand that they need to work from within Likud rather than outside it. And it seems that is finally starting to happen.

Anyone familiar with Israeli politics knows that the Israeli right’s worst enemy is itself. Small right-of-center factions toppled both Yitzhak Shamir’s Likud-led government in 1992 and Benjamin Netanyahu’s first government in 1999; those decisions led, respectively, to Yitzhak Rabin’s election and the Oslo Accords, and to Ehud Barak’s election and the second intifada.

Moreover, it was rightist voters who ensured Rabin’s victory by wasting thousands of votes on splinter parties that failed to enter the Knesset. Had all those votes gone to the main center-right party, Likud, Shamir would have formed the next government and not Rabin. Yet instead of learning the lesson, rightists continued wasting thousands of votes on unelectable splinter parties in subsequent elections.

So it was encouraging to read the following notice in a local newsletter (Hebrew only) published by the West Bank settlement of Eli: “After much thought, it has been decided by the [Givat Hayovel neighborhood] committee, the town council and rabbis, with backing from senior officials involved in the matter, to register people for Likud. Likud is the ruling party, and that is where we need to have an influence. … Joining Likud is the most effective way of influencing ministers and Knesset members to work with us on both the court case and other matters of importance to the town.”

Granted, Eli is only one settlement, and its decision stems from a very specific problem: the aforementioned court case, in which Peace Now is seeking a court order to raze Givat Hayovel on the grounds that it was built illegally. Eli contends that the neighborhood, built with massive government support, was always slated for legalization and needs only the final government permits — hence its quest for lobbying clout.

Nevertheless, this is a revolution. During Likud’s last membership drive, in 2008, a party activist who canvassed Eli and other settlements using this very same argument told me despairingly that most people didn’t get it. Now it is being promoted by the town’s entire political and religious leadership.

Moreover, many other settlements face similar problems with permits. So if Eli has reached this conclusion, it’s likely that other settlements are or will be doing the same.

This still doesn’t solve the problem of splinter voting, since joining Likud doesn’t oblige one to vote for it. Yet large-scale party membership carries its own dynamic: if those rightists who previously shunned Likud instead start working from within it, the party will presumably become more responsive to their needs, thus encouraging more of them to vote for it.

That in turn could promote more effective government. Israel’s current governing coalition comprises six different parties, with Likud commanding barely a third of its seats, and these parties’ disagreements have led to paralysis on many issues. A government composed of a larger Likud with fewer coalition partners would presumably find it easier to push through vital domestic initiatives.

That still remains a distant dream. But the first step is for rightists to understand that they need to work from within Likud rather than outside it. And it seems that is finally starting to happen.

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