Commentary Magazine


Topic: Naftali Bennett

Lessons from the Failed Peace Process

There are a few conclusions to be drawn from Ben Birnbaum and Amir Tibon’s deeply reported and engagingly written investigation into the failure of the recent Israeli-Palestinian peace process. The first is that, if the reporting is accurate, there is no longer any doubt that it was the Palestinian side that blew up the talks. They attempted to kill the process twice, but the first time the Israeli negotiators, led by Tzipi Livni, rescued the talks. The second time, the Palestinians ensured nothing could be done to save the process.

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There are a few conclusions to be drawn from Ben Birnbaum and Amir Tibon’s deeply reported and engagingly written investigation into the failure of the recent Israeli-Palestinian peace process. The first is that, if the reporting is accurate, there is no longer any doubt that it was the Palestinian side that blew up the talks. They attempted to kill the process twice, but the first time the Israeli negotiators, led by Tzipi Livni, rescued the talks. The second time, the Palestinians ensured nothing could be done to save the process.

The second conclusion is that the way the Palestinians, led by Mahmoud Abbas and chief negotiator Saeb Erekat, blew up the talks bodes ill for any future peace process:

Over the next three weeks, with April 29 approaching, Indyk would meet nine times with Livni, Molho, Erekat, and Faraj in a bid to salvage the peace talks. He was determined to get everything in writing this time. No more misunderstandings. And by April 23, the sides seemed close to an extension agreement. Indyk drove to Ben Gurion Airport that day to pick up his wife, and while at the baggage claim, he got a call from Livni. She’d heard that the Palestinians had just done something to ruin all the progress they had made. Indyk immediately phoned Erekat, who said he wasn’t aware of the development, but would investigate. Back at the U.S. consulate, the Kerry team was combing over the details of the emerging deal, with the secretary calling periodically to check in. Soon, the news penetrated their office, too. Weeks earlier, they had been surprised by the timing of Abu Mazen’s U.N. ceremony, but not by the act. The Palestinians had put them on notice. But as the American officials huddled around a desktop computer, hungry for actual details about this rumor they were hearing, they couldn’t believe the headline that now flashed across the screen: FATAH, HAMAS END YEARS OF DIVISON, AGREE TO UNITY GOVERNMENT. The next day, the Israeli Cabinet had voted to suspend the talks. John Kerry’s peace process was over.

It’s one thing to threaten action, set a deadline, and then carry it out. That is essentially what the Palestinians did with their UN gambit. But the idea that the process could just end on a Palestinian whim can poison the well (or whatever’s left of it).

That’s because for the Palestinians, once the process begins it’s in the hands of Abbas, Erekat, and some high-level members of Abbas’s cabinet. That is not the case for Israel. As the report details, the day the Palestinians signed their applications to the UN agencies, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was holding meetings throughout the day in his office seeking to reassure skeptics in his coalition without alienating Livni and the peace processors to their left. Additionally, he had to deal with the constant threat of rebellion from Naftali Bennett, leader of the right-wing party that held the third-most seats in the governing coalition.

The unity deal between Hamas and Fatah was an unmitigated disaster for the peace process. It was more than just a setback: it raised the possibility that any Israeli leader who risked his government for a peace process would get a more terroristic Palestinian government than he or she started with and would have imminent war looming. The Palestinians are willing to pull the plug without warning. That’s a lesson their Israeli and American counterparts will learn.

And it is related to the third conclusion to be drawn from the essay. The authors relate a conversation between Kerry and Netanyahu in which Netanyahu raises the issue of Palestinian incitement. Eventually, the following exchange occurs:

Kerry pressed on: “When I fought in Vietnam, I used to look at the faces of the local population and the looks they gave us. I’ll never forget it. It gave me clarity that we saw the situation in completely different ways.”

“This isn’t Vietnam!” Netanyahu shouted. “No one understands Israel but Israel.”

That comment may paint Netanyahu as defensive, but in fact he’s right–and the essay demonstrates that convincingly. Kerry and his negotiating team, as well as the Palestinian leadership, consistently misread the Israeli political scene and Netanyahu’s reaction to it. Autocrats don’t seem to understand democratic politics, and Kerry’s team exhibited no real grasp of what it takes to form a consensus and keep a government intact in Israel.

The reporters themselves even got tripped up by Israeli politics and leaned heavily on trite and completely inaccurate narratives. At one point in the article, they refer to Netanyahu as “a right-wing ideologue”–an absurdly reductionist and patently false claim. If Netanyahu, the famous dealmaker and pragmatist who elicits much Israeli wariness precisely because he is not an ideologue, can be classified as such, then everybody and nobody is an “ideologue.”

Elsewhere in the piece we are told, indefensibly, that “Tea Party types were continuing their slow-motion takeover of the Likud.” This is a common, but no less justifiable, trope. It is a sign either that the writer can only understand politics through shallow American analogies or that the writer assumes that to be true of the reader. Or both, I suppose. Whatever the reason, the “Tea Party” contention is obviously untrue, and those who offer it with regard to Israeli politics are doing their readers a considerable disservice.

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Obama and the Middle East Mess

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict worsened today as Hamas launched more missiles into Israel, including one long-range rocket aimed at Tel Aviv. Israel responded by calling up more reserves and striking back at the terrorist launching points. But while the world reproaches both sides today President Obama reminded us why he deserves a good deal of the blame for the mess.

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The Israeli-Palestinian conflict worsened today as Hamas launched more missiles into Israel, including one long-range rocket aimed at Tel Aviv. Israel responded by calling up more reserves and striking back at the terrorist launching points. But while the world reproaches both sides today President Obama reminded us why he deserves a good deal of the blame for the mess.

Obama has largely held himself aloof from the conflict in recent weeks other than warning Israel to show “restraint” in response to both terror attacks and a missile barrage on its territory. But he did choose to contribute an op-ed to the left-wing Israeli newspaper Haaretz today as part of its “Israel Conference on Peace” in which he extolled the two-state solution and declared “peace is the only true path to security for Israel and the Palestinians.”

Despite the boost from the president and the appearance of Israeli President Shimon Peres, the Haaretz conference will be probably best remembered for proving just how intolerant the left can be. To his credit, Economy Minister Naftali Bennett accepted an invitation to speak to the forum but the leader of the right-wing Jewish Home Party was repeatedly interrupted by insults from the crowd of peaceniks calling him a “murderer” and “fascist.” As the Jerusalem Post reports (Haaretz has yet to file a story on the incident on its website), when he concluded his effort “dozens of people” stormed toward him. While the minister’s bodyguards fended off most of the attackers, one managed to get close enough to punch him in the back before he was whisked away. This is yet another reminder that for the left, especially the Israeli left, tolerance for opposing views is not consistent with their idea of democracy.

But despite these histrionics, Obama’s op-ed provided Israelis with a timely statement of how destructive U.S. policy has been. In the piece, Obama did extol the U.S.-Israel relationship in the same laudatory terms he used during his 2013 trip to the Jewish state. But he also went out of his way to praise Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas as a peace partner while pointedly offering no kind words for Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu. Even more tellingly, especially in the midst of a crisis provoked by a Hamas terror attack and prolonged by the Islamist group’s missile fire from Gaza, he also ignored the role that the Fatah-Hamas unity pact had played in torpedoing peace talks this spring and inspiring the current round of violence.

This is consistent with U.S. policy on Hamas in the months since Abbas embraced his erstwhile Islamist rivals. Though the PA government is now hopelessly compromised by the deal with Hamas, the U.S. has decided to pretend as if Abbas’s decision to make peace with the terror group rather than with Israel has no meaning or consequences. The administration blatantly violated U.S. law by continuing to funnel aid to the Palestinians in spite of provisions that prohibit such transfers in the event of Hamas participation in the PA. It has also made it clear that it believes Israel should treat Abbas’s new coalition as a viable partner in spite of Hamas’s refusal to adhere to the terms of mutual recognition and commitment to peace that Obama repeats in his op-ed.

What has this to do with the current violence? Everything.

Hamas’s decision to escalate the fight with Israel, both by sanctioning the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teens and the subsequent missile attacks, is directly related to its belief that the unity pact marked a turning point in its long struggle with Abbas’s Fatah. Though Hamas was forced to make a deal with Fatah in large measure because of its cash shortages and isolation after its break with Iran and the fall of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood government, it has revived its political fortunes by reverting to violence. If Hamas is allowed to stay in the PA without penalty and Israel is constrained by American demands for “restraint” from the sort of military offensive that will truly make the group pay a heavy price for its behavior, then its prospects for eventual victory over Abbas are improved.

The slide into what may be another intifada or at least another round of fighting in Gaza is blamed on Netanyahu’s supposedly belligerent attitude. But this is exactly what many observers feared would be the inevitable aftermath to another failed U.S. peace initiative. Secretary of State John Kerry’s peace talks were acclaimed as a noble effort even if the odds were always against success. But by raising the stakes in the region at a point when everyone knew the Palestinian leadership was unready for peace, he set the stage for a chance for Hamas to interject itself into the process in this manner.

Even worse, by deciding to treat the Fatah-Hamas pact as no big deal, the U.S. sent exactly the wrong signal to both Abbas and Hamas. While Abbas was allowed to think there would be no price to pay for abandoning the peace process and embracing unreconstructed terrorists, Hamas soon realized that it could literally get away with murder without the U.S. blinking an eye or rethinking its determination to restrain Israeli efforts to deal with the terror group. The result is the current escalation that has damaged Abbas while allowing the Islamists to reclaim their status as the address for “resistance” against Israel.

Barack Obama may not have wanted the current fighting to happen and, indeed, he would very much like it to stop. But the administration’s maneuvering led inevitably to another blowup that had the ironic effect of weakening Abbas, the one figure in this mess the president actually likes.

America’s mixed messages are not the sole reason why the situation has deteriorated but they have played an outsize role in making things worse. If the president really wants to advance the cause of peace, he should forget about more bland pronouncements such as his op-ed, and start reminding both Abbas and Hamas that they will suffer if they don’t embrace the cost of peace. Anything short of that is a continuation of a policy that is exacerbating the conflict rather than solving it.

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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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Did the Oslo Accords Kill the Peace Process?

One of the striking aspects of the last two decades of Shimon Peres’s long career in Israeli public life is how much of a prisoner he was to his own near-success. Peres was a driving force behind the Oslo peace process and the crucial negotiations that led to the Declaration of Principles before the agreement melted under the hot lights of reality. Yet in many ways the deal trapped him, having to carry its banner and defend the possibility of its fulfillment for the rest of his time in office.

Peres was on the Israeli left, sure, but his career had been marked–as so many of his contemporaries in both generations–by partisan fluidity. The AFP analysis Jonathan mentioned yesterday illustrates this: it says Peres was once considered a hawk because, in part, he ordered the shelling of Lebanese territory in 1996. Yet that was after Oslo. By such an accounting, Peres was a pragmatist. But with Oslo only mostly dead, he was never really able, aside from a token move to leave Labor for Kadima under Ariel Sharon, to get out of its shadow.

This is hardly surprising considering the fact that Oslo has trapped, to a large extent, Peres’s country on the whole, including Israeli politicians who don’t support or defend it. Consider the Herzliya conference in Israel this week. While former ambassador Michael Oren’s “Plan B” idea for a new direction in the peace process–something akin to a coordinated unilateralism–has been discussed for months, BuzzFeed reports that Herzliya has seen something of a parade of alternative peace plans.

Finance Minister Yair Lapid, former settlers’ advocate Dani Dayan, and Economy Minister Naftali Bennett have all offered their ideas. Here’s the crux of Dayan’s:

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One of the striking aspects of the last two decades of Shimon Peres’s long career in Israeli public life is how much of a prisoner he was to his own near-success. Peres was a driving force behind the Oslo peace process and the crucial negotiations that led to the Declaration of Principles before the agreement melted under the hot lights of reality. Yet in many ways the deal trapped him, having to carry its banner and defend the possibility of its fulfillment for the rest of his time in office.

Peres was on the Israeli left, sure, but his career had been marked–as so many of his contemporaries in both generations–by partisan fluidity. The AFP analysis Jonathan mentioned yesterday illustrates this: it says Peres was once considered a hawk because, in part, he ordered the shelling of Lebanese territory in 1996. Yet that was after Oslo. By such an accounting, Peres was a pragmatist. But with Oslo only mostly dead, he was never really able, aside from a token move to leave Labor for Kadima under Ariel Sharon, to get out of its shadow.

This is hardly surprising considering the fact that Oslo has trapped, to a large extent, Peres’s country on the whole, including Israeli politicians who don’t support or defend it. Consider the Herzliya conference in Israel this week. While former ambassador Michael Oren’s “Plan B” idea for a new direction in the peace process–something akin to a coordinated unilateralism–has been discussed for months, BuzzFeed reports that Herzliya has seen something of a parade of alternative peace plans.

Finance Minister Yair Lapid, former settlers’ advocate Dani Dayan, and Economy Minister Naftali Bennett have all offered their ideas. Here’s the crux of Dayan’s:

He wants to ignore the peace process entirely and to loosen restrictions on Palestinians and improve their daily lives without waiting for a negotiated solution. Dayan, an advocate of one shared state for Palestinians and Israelis, is pressing the Israeli government to remove the separation barrier — a looming symbol of Israel’s military occupation of the West Bank — that separates Israeli and Palestinian communities. Israelis and Palestinians should be allowed to live wherever they want, he argues, and travel into one another’s territories. …

Many of Israel’s right-wing leadership, including Danny Danon, the deputy defense minister, have also thrown their weight behind the plan.

“In general I think that we should try to find ways to make the lives of the Palestinians easier,” Danon said. “That’s something I support.”

The plan has also been well-received by former Israeli defense officials. Moshe Arens, a former defense minister, has publicly backed the plan.

And here, according to the Wall Street Journal, are Lapid’s and Bennett’s:

Ministers have revived two previously rejected proposals that suggest opposite directions for Israel. One, touted by Economy Minister Naftali Bennett, whose hard-line party represents Jewish settlers in the West Bank, calls for annexing parts of the territory claimed by Palestinians for a future state.

A contrasting proposal made by centrist Finance Minister Yair Lapid on Sunday at a national-security conference envisions a military withdrawal from the West Bank and evacuations of Jewish settlements to spur an eventual peace deal.

Whatever their merits, these plans have two main obstacles. The first is the unity agreement between Fatah and Hamas. The Journal’s headline says it all: “Israel Ministers Press for New West Bank Strategy.” Indeed, West Bank strategy. There is no deal to be had with Hamas in Gaza, which essentially has constructed its own state–Somalia instead of Singapore, as Dayan correctly terms it–and which will seek to export its ideology to the West Bank. It’s possible that if the two are truly separate, a deal can be had with the West Bank. The sense of urgency is there anyway, since Israel left Gaza completely but has a far more integrated relationship with the West Bank.

But the other obstacle is the peace process everyone’s running away from. As Rick Richman likes to point out, the peace processers are beholden to this idea that “everybody knows” what a final-status deal would look like. This belief is strangely impervious to evidence.

Or perhaps not so strangely. The longer this dedication to Oslo goes on, the easier it is to at least understand why its adherents can’t bring themselves to quit cold turkey.

There’s always the chance that a confluence of ideas like what took place at Herzliya will change the calculus–that if left, right, and center all push for a grand rethinking of the peace process it might happen. But that’s not been the case in recent years. And the dedication to the status quo, which ignores changes on the ground and keeps policymakers of the future glued to discredited ideas of the past, negates critical thinking and discourages creative solutions. If that doesn’t change, Oslo will continue to be associated with preventing peace, not presaging it.

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Answering Casual Anti-Israel Libels

Amid the avalanche of anti-Israel incitement from European sources on a daily basis, Martin Schulz’s comments about Israeli water usage and Gaza might not have drawn much attention if he had not uttered them in German when speaking before a session of the Knesset. Schulz, the president of the European Union parliament, was in Israel for a goodwill visit and most of his address to Israel’s lawmakers yesterday was fairly innocuous. He praised Israel’s democracy, decried terrorism, opposed Iran’s attempt to gain nuclear weapons and called for a two-state solution that would end the conflict with the Palestinians. So far, so good. But then, almost as a throwaway line, the German politician, who is a candidate for president of the far more powerful European Commission that runs the EU, claimed that Israel was not only stealing Palestinian water but restricting the supply used by Arabs. He also lamented what he said was Israel’s “blockade” of Gaza, an implicit accusation that it was causing a humanitarian crisis there.

As it turns out, Schultz’s accusation that Israelis use 70 liters of water a day and the Palestinians only 17 was not fact-checked before he uttered it. While there are various estimates of water use, even the lowest figures for the Palestinians are more than four times that number and others as high as six times. Talk about a blockade of Gaza, which is supplied with electricity by Israel as well as daily shipments of food and medicine, is similarly misleading. Why would a high-ranking EU official casually toss of such phrases and then express surprise and anger when some of the Knesset members present responded by angrily walking out? The answer goes deeper than a discussion of the admittedly difficult subject of water allocation or the facts about Gaza. What Schulz’s speech shows is how pervasive anti-Israel invective has become. If even a politician looking to mend fences thinks there’s nothing offensive about saying such things, this should serve as a wake-up call to Israel’s friends that they must redouble their efforts to tell the truth about the Jewish state and the Middle East conflict.

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Amid the avalanche of anti-Israel incitement from European sources on a daily basis, Martin Schulz’s comments about Israeli water usage and Gaza might not have drawn much attention if he had not uttered them in German when speaking before a session of the Knesset. Schulz, the president of the European Union parliament, was in Israel for a goodwill visit and most of his address to Israel’s lawmakers yesterday was fairly innocuous. He praised Israel’s democracy, decried terrorism, opposed Iran’s attempt to gain nuclear weapons and called for a two-state solution that would end the conflict with the Palestinians. So far, so good. But then, almost as a throwaway line, the German politician, who is a candidate for president of the far more powerful European Commission that runs the EU, claimed that Israel was not only stealing Palestinian water but restricting the supply used by Arabs. He also lamented what he said was Israel’s “blockade” of Gaza, an implicit accusation that it was causing a humanitarian crisis there.

As it turns out, Schultz’s accusation that Israelis use 70 liters of water a day and the Palestinians only 17 was not fact-checked before he uttered it. While there are various estimates of water use, even the lowest figures for the Palestinians are more than four times that number and others as high as six times. Talk about a blockade of Gaza, which is supplied with electricity by Israel as well as daily shipments of food and medicine, is similarly misleading. Why would a high-ranking EU official casually toss of such phrases and then express surprise and anger when some of the Knesset members present responded by angrily walking out? The answer goes deeper than a discussion of the admittedly difficult subject of water allocation or the facts about Gaza. What Schulz’s speech shows is how pervasive anti-Israel invective has become. If even a politician looking to mend fences thinks there’s nothing offensive about saying such things, this should serve as a wake-up call to Israel’s friends that they must redouble their efforts to tell the truth about the Jewish state and the Middle East conflict.

As the Times of Israel reported today, Schulz’s comments about water allocation were completely false. While Palestinians have access to far more water than he claimed, it’s true that Israeli consumers are served better because of the country’s vast desalinization efforts. Palestinians are also handicapped by the corruption and incompetence of governments in the West Bank and Gaza that prize confrontation with Israel over development. The situation would be rectified by peace, but this aspect of life in the region, like so many others, has been held hostage by Palestinian intransigence that makes a solution to the conflict impossible.

Nevertheless, many Israelis were embarrassed by the Knesset walkout as well as by the intemperate response of Economy Minister Naftali Bennett, who didn’t hesitate to invoke Germany’s past when be blasted Schulz:

I will not accept a false moralizing narrative against Israel in our parliament, in our Knesset. Certainly not in German.

Bennett’s words probably didn’t win the Jewish state any new friends in Germany. But rather than focus on his lack of diplomatic finesse, the lesson here has to do with a failure of information rather than of good manners.

Many Israelis and their friends abroad have focused in recent years on efforts to “rebrand” their country as an attractive tourist destination or a source of high-tech innovation. Others have insisted that Israel’s image will never be improved until peace with the Palestinians has been reached. These strategies have helped instill a certain degree of complacency, if not apathy in a pro-Israel community that has come to accept slanders and false information about the Jewish state as something that is bad but about which nothing can be done.

It is true that much of the anti-Israeli invective coming out of Europe has its roots in anti-Semitism, whether imported from the Middle East by immigrants or the product of anti-Zionist incitement from intellectual and academic elites. But the offhand nature of Schulz’s utterances should tell us that there is no substitute for an energetic effort on the part of Israelis and their foreign friends to answer any and all such libels. By assuming that intelligent people won’t believe slanders, they let lies like the water statistics become a form of conventional wisdom that is difficult to correct once accepted by the public.

It is not enough to get mad about speeches such as the one given by Schulz. The lies must be actively refuted. That won’t stop the deluge of hate speech directed at the Jewish state but it will make it harder for politicians like Schulz to create diplomatic incidents by passing along widely-held beliefs that are not true. 

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Bennett: Netanyahu’s Annoying Alter Ego

Amidst an escalating high-stakes war of words with one of his primary coalition partners, Naftali Bennett of the Jewish Home party, Israel’s Prime Minister Netanyahu finds himself occupying increasingly foreign and disorienting political territory. For most of his career, Benjamin Netanyahu has functioned as the champion, and indeed the darling, of the nationalist camp in Israel. An opponent of concessions to the Palestinians, Bibi was chief heckler to the Oslo accords, high-profile defector from Ariel Sharon’s government in the wake of the retreat from Gaza.

Now, however, thanks to the unloving embrace of the Obama administration, Netanyahu finds himself being forced to take on a host of positions that it is difficult to imagine are really his own. Worse still for him, while Bibi is being forced to play the part of reluctant and unconvincing centrist, all his best lines are going to some fresh faced young starlet: in this case Bennett. Speaking at the annual defense conference of the Institute for National Security Studies, Bennett lambasted the follies of past peace negotiations, and in so doing poured scorn on the current peace efforts of Netanyahu’s government. He pointed to the rise in terrorism against Israelis that has generally accompanied such talks with the Palestinians, dismissing the idea that any of these negotiations would bring about a peaceful two-state solution.

Conceivably, this is a view that Netanyahu himself shares. Yet, he cannot be seen to say such things publicly and so as a result he is unable to draw the political capital from his own base that would come from doing so. That capital is being claimed by Bennett instead.

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Amidst an escalating high-stakes war of words with one of his primary coalition partners, Naftali Bennett of the Jewish Home party, Israel’s Prime Minister Netanyahu finds himself occupying increasingly foreign and disorienting political territory. For most of his career, Benjamin Netanyahu has functioned as the champion, and indeed the darling, of the nationalist camp in Israel. An opponent of concessions to the Palestinians, Bibi was chief heckler to the Oslo accords, high-profile defector from Ariel Sharon’s government in the wake of the retreat from Gaza.

Now, however, thanks to the unloving embrace of the Obama administration, Netanyahu finds himself being forced to take on a host of positions that it is difficult to imagine are really his own. Worse still for him, while Bibi is being forced to play the part of reluctant and unconvincing centrist, all his best lines are going to some fresh faced young starlet: in this case Bennett. Speaking at the annual defense conference of the Institute for National Security Studies, Bennett lambasted the follies of past peace negotiations, and in so doing poured scorn on the current peace efforts of Netanyahu’s government. He pointed to the rise in terrorism against Israelis that has generally accompanied such talks with the Palestinians, dismissing the idea that any of these negotiations would bring about a peaceful two-state solution.

Conceivably, this is a view that Netanyahu himself shares. Yet, he cannot be seen to say such things publicly and so as a result he is unable to draw the political capital from his own base that would come from doing so. That capital is being claimed by Bennett instead.

The issue that has so far sparked the fiercest exchange between Bennett and Bibi has been the latter’s suggestion that Jewish Israelis living in the West Bank would be left behind as a religious minority in a future Palestinian state. It is highly doubtful that Netanyahu has any serious intention of doing any such thing. Rather, this suggestion was almost certainly put out there as a way of exposing the inherent hostility to Jews prevalent among the Palestinians. Bibi knew that his suggestion would be flatly rejected by the Palestinian Authority, thus clarifying their prejudice for all to see.

Yet, for Bennett, whose core constituency are the understandably alarmed Jewish settlers in question, this was a golden opportunity to rally to their defense and denounce Netanyahu’s suggestion. Given that these same people have in the past represented an important legion within Netanyahu’s own faction, with his Likud party list being strongly linked with the settlers and the nationalist camp, Bibi risks having his own people mobilized against him.

Bennett is increasingly looking and sounding more like Netanyahu than Netanyahu. As such, the message from Netanyahu’s office has been clear and uncompromising. Bennett is to apologize and retract his statements, or get out. Polls suggest that Netanyahu is doing exceptionally well with Israeli voters right now, some suggesting that if elections took place tomorrow his Likud-Beiteinu block would gain another fifteen seats in parliament. That said, it seems unlikely that Netanyahu will seek to go it alone and divorce his party from the national religious camp anytime soon. Judging by trends even within Bibi’s own party, the religious Zionist sentiment may well be the future of the Israeli right.

When talks with the Palestinians inevitably fail, with everything that could mean–from Palestinian terrorism to international condemnation–Bibi will want the smooth English-talking and public-relations savvy Bennett on his side. In the meantime, however, Netanyahu has to find a way to avoid becoming an ever more pale stand in for himself, while Bennett is looking more and more like Bibi with each passing day.         

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Avigdor Lieberman Returns

The most unpopular popular Israeli politician has returned to center stage. Avigdor Lieberman, the former foreign minister and deputy prime minister, was acquitted this morning in Jerusalem on fraud charges that have been following the Moldova-born firebrand around for the latter part of his political career. The case involved a former ambassador who passed to Lieberman information he had on a police investigation, who Lieberman was then accused of promoting. Though the shadow of scandal never deprived Lieberman of advancement in his own meteoric career–he gave the huge Russian immigrant community a party to rally around, making him a kingmaker in the Knesset–it appeared that his legal trouble had finally caught up with him.

That’s because his former deputy at the Foreign Ministry, Danny Ayalon, had agreed to testify against Lieberman. (Ayalon, who had previously been Israeli ambassador to the U.S. and made a habit of running circles around his leftist antagonists on Twitter, was dropped by Lieberman from the party slate before the last round of elections.) But Lieberman won this battle too–and, it seems, his protracted war with the Israeli legal system. When he was finally hit with the latest charges, in late 2012, Lieberman stepped away from Benjamin Netanyahu’s government and the Foreign Ministry. Netanyahu has held the position of foreign minister for Lieberman in the event he would return. And now he has.

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The most unpopular popular Israeli politician has returned to center stage. Avigdor Lieberman, the former foreign minister and deputy prime minister, was acquitted this morning in Jerusalem on fraud charges that have been following the Moldova-born firebrand around for the latter part of his political career. The case involved a former ambassador who passed to Lieberman information he had on a police investigation, who Lieberman was then accused of promoting. Though the shadow of scandal never deprived Lieberman of advancement in his own meteoric career–he gave the huge Russian immigrant community a party to rally around, making him a kingmaker in the Knesset–it appeared that his legal trouble had finally caught up with him.

That’s because his former deputy at the Foreign Ministry, Danny Ayalon, had agreed to testify against Lieberman. (Ayalon, who had previously been Israeli ambassador to the U.S. and made a habit of running circles around his leftist antagonists on Twitter, was dropped by Lieberman from the party slate before the last round of elections.) But Lieberman won this battle too–and, it seems, his protracted war with the Israeli legal system. When he was finally hit with the latest charges, in late 2012, Lieberman stepped away from Benjamin Netanyahu’s government and the Foreign Ministry. Netanyahu has held the position of foreign minister for Lieberman in the event he would return. And now he has.

“This chapter is behind me,” Haaretz quotes Lieberman as saying after the acquittal. “I am now focusing on the challenges ahead.”

Lieberman’s political power does not stem from his job title; it’s the other way around. Yet his relative political independence has always been something of a barometer of his electoral strength, and the argument can be made that it’s on the wane, acquittal or no acquittal.

Lieberman started out managing Netanyahu’s campaigns in the early 1990s, and when Netanyahu became prime minister, Lieberman was arguably the Likud Party’s second most powerful member. Yet Lieberman had found a way to tap into the Russian immigrant community’s desire for authentic political representation–Lieberman was himself a Soviet immigrant–in a way that others, like Natan Sharansky, didn’t. In 1999 he formed his own party, Yisrael Beiteinu. As his domestic constituency grew in influence, prime ministers made it a point to find a place for him in their governments, until they started needing Lieberman more than he needed them.

There was always going to be a ceiling of support over Lieberman for demographic reasons. But it was a high ceiling: Russian immigrants account for about 20 percent of Jewish Israelis. Additionally, in an age of fragmented party politics in Israel, Lieberman’s ability to garner 15 or so seats per Knesset was worth steadily more as it became rare for the winning party to even break the 30-seat barrier.

But it also meant Yisrael Beiteinu was perpetually a bridesmaid, and so a year ago Lieberman merged with Likud. He did so because he is younger than the Likud old guard and was positioning himself to one day inherit the Prime Minister’s Office. But Israeli politics is governed by a centripetal force that keeps the Knesset consistently close to the Israeli political center (which is to the right of where most Westerners think it is) and thus militates against the accumulation of overwhelming power in any one party’s hands. Minor parties are also disproportionately powerful in Israel, so larger parties tend to produce diminishing returns after a while.

Because of all that, the new Likud-Beiteinu party did not gain the vote share of the two parties combined; it simply fell into place as a strangely throwback version of Likud, with Bibi and Lieberman at the helm. It is to that party that Lieberman now returns.

Lieberman’s portfolio remains a powerful one, and self-styled “centrist” flash-in-the-pan parties tend to fizzle, so Lieberman may still be better positioned for the long haul than his political rivals. But oh how he has political rivals! In his absence, Israel saw the rise of another secular nationalist–albeit slightly less nationalist–who is seen as far more palatable to the West in Yair Lapid. And the Israeli political scene welcomed the charismatic tech entrepreneur and pro-settlement politician Naftali Bennett, whose new party won 12 seats in the last elections (and briefly made liberal American journalists lose their minds–something he has in common with Lieberman).

On the left, the Israeli Labor Party is showing signs of life with a new leader, Shelly Yachimovich. Tzipi Livni is still hanging around, and her work on the peace negotiations arguably enabled Netanyahu to let her act as foreign minister the way Ehud Barak did when he was defense minister. Speaking of defense minister, Barak’s departure from government opened the space for Moshe Ya’alon to take the defense portfolio, giving Lieberman another powerful rival within Likud.

And yet, Lieberman doesn’t appear too concerned, perhaps because his career has acquired a reputation for indestructibility. Indeed, there is something comical about the way Lieberman’s political career rolls along like a tank despite the scandals, intrigue, and alienation associated with it. His adversaries have always underestimated his toughness and political skills, a mistake that has consistently served him well and may yet continue to do so.

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The High Price of American Friendship

As the New York Times reports today, Naftali Bennett, the head of the right-wing Habayit Hayehudi Party, is getting blasted in the Israeli media as a hypocrite for opposing the Israeli government’s decision to honor its promise to release more Palestinian terrorist murderers. Bennett happens to be a member of that government and his critics may have a point when they say that if he is as outraged about the release as he purports to be, he can always resign his Cabinet post. It is in that context that the Times and other outlets prefer to view the protests about the freeing of these killers as mere exploitation of the anguish of the families of their victims rather than an expression of genuine outrage, as it probably deserved to be understood.

Whether his detractors like it or not, Bennett can afford to have his cake and eat it too. Netanyahu can’t afford to fire him and probably wouldn’t want to even if he could, since doing so would not make his government any more manageable since that would strengthen Justice Minister Tzipi Livni more than he might like and tilt it farther to the left than he might like. But the hoopla over Bennett’s admittedly futile efforts to derail the release illustrates something a lot more important than the way members of the Israeli Cabinet love to grandstand. Even those who dislike Bennett’s politics and agree with Netanyahu’s decision need to acknowledge that this painful move is far more indicative of the high price of the Obama administration’s good will than the alleged hypocrisy of right-wing politicians. Having forced Netanyahu into a corner by demanding the prisoner release in order to get the Palestinian Authority back to the negotiating table, Washington’s blindness to the consequences of this act is the real issue at stake in this debate.

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As the New York Times reports today, Naftali Bennett, the head of the right-wing Habayit Hayehudi Party, is getting blasted in the Israeli media as a hypocrite for opposing the Israeli government’s decision to honor its promise to release more Palestinian terrorist murderers. Bennett happens to be a member of that government and his critics may have a point when they say that if he is as outraged about the release as he purports to be, he can always resign his Cabinet post. It is in that context that the Times and other outlets prefer to view the protests about the freeing of these killers as mere exploitation of the anguish of the families of their victims rather than an expression of genuine outrage, as it probably deserved to be understood.

Whether his detractors like it or not, Bennett can afford to have his cake and eat it too. Netanyahu can’t afford to fire him and probably wouldn’t want to even if he could, since doing so would not make his government any more manageable since that would strengthen Justice Minister Tzipi Livni more than he might like and tilt it farther to the left than he might like. But the hoopla over Bennett’s admittedly futile efforts to derail the release illustrates something a lot more important than the way members of the Israeli Cabinet love to grandstand. Even those who dislike Bennett’s politics and agree with Netanyahu’s decision need to acknowledge that this painful move is far more indicative of the high price of the Obama administration’s good will than the alleged hypocrisy of right-wing politicians. Having forced Netanyahu into a corner by demanding the prisoner release in order to get the Palestinian Authority back to the negotiating table, Washington’s blindness to the consequences of this act is the real issue at stake in this debate.

The comments from those who are defending what Netanyahu admitted had been one of the toughest decisions he has ever made illustrated the dilemma. Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon, who is often viewed as a hardliner on territorial issues, said the release had to continue because it had to be seen as part of a “long term strategic view” of his country’s position. That might be interpreted as a defense of the peace process. But it is more probably a reference to the fact that Israel’s geostrategic position is largely dependent on its ability to rely on its alliance with the United States.

The one possible benefit to Israel of the release is that it probably strengthens the position of PA leader Mahmoud Abbas vis-à-vis his Hamas rivals. Like the ransom Hamas extracted from Israel in order to gain the freedom of kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit that boosted the Islamist group, it is supposed that this gesture will be seen as a triumph for Abbas and his Fatah Party. But since it is highly unlikely that Abbas would use this advantage to justify genuine progress toward peace, the utility of such tactical moves is limited.

More important for Israel is the fact that releasing the prisoners is really aimed at pacifying President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry. There was little reason to believe reviving peace talks with the Palestinians made any sense when Washington put the screws to Netanyahu to reward Abbas for returning to the talks he abandoned five years ago. And the Palestinians’ continued intransigence and refusal to recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn makes that even clearer three months into the stalled negotiations.

But Netanyahu has little choice but to give the Americans want they want. That is not because he is weak, but because only by letting the talks proceed without Israeli objections or hindrances will he have the ability to say no to demands for more concessions once it is obvious that they have failed. His first obligation is to protect his nation’s security, and he can best do that by standing strong on territory and borders, as well as the Iranian nuclear issue even if that means he must do the unthinkable and let murderers walk free.

The onus for this outrage ought to be on President Obama and Secretary Kerry, who have created this moral dilemma. It is they who should be explaining why they think it is all right to ask Jerusalem to do something that no American leader would dream of doing if the freedom of 9/11 murderers and accomplices were in question, as it is for those who perpetrated similar crimes against Israelis. Doing so encourages terrorism and rewards those who promote violence rather than encouraging peace.

As much as some Israelis like to talk about their independence from American influence, the strategic equation still requires their leaders to stay as close as possible to the president of the United States. That doesn’t mean Netanyahu can’t stand up to Obama if the circumstances require it, but he must pick his fights carefully. That killers with blood on their hands be released and then feted by the Palestinians as heroes is a blot on Netanyahu’s record. But it should remind us that the real problem is the high price Obama has demanded for the maintenance of the U.S. alliance.

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Trying to Help Real Jews Within the Constraints of a Real State

My initial reaction to the latest move in the ongoing conflict over the Western Wall resembled Jonathan’s: I thought the new platform erected at the Robinson’s Arch section of the Wall was an asinine decision which, however well-intentioned, would only upset large swathes of American Jewry. But my view changed after reading this Jerusalem Post column by Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, who serves as executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly, the international association of Conservative rabbis.

What Schonfeld explained is that Religious Services Minister Naftali Bennett was trying–with some success, in her view–to address the real needs of real-life Conservative and Reform Israelis. And what she understood is something too many American Jews fail to understand: that Israel is a real-world country with real-world constraints, not a fantasyland where ideal solutions can be magically implemented overnight. Thus in trying to bridge the gap between these citizens’ real needs and the country’s real constraints, modest steps that can be implemented quickly are often better than doing nothing, even if they don’t provide an ideal solution.

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My initial reaction to the latest move in the ongoing conflict over the Western Wall resembled Jonathan’s: I thought the new platform erected at the Robinson’s Arch section of the Wall was an asinine decision which, however well-intentioned, would only upset large swathes of American Jewry. But my view changed after reading this Jerusalem Post column by Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, who serves as executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly, the international association of Conservative rabbis.

What Schonfeld explained is that Religious Services Minister Naftali Bennett was trying–with some success, in her view–to address the real needs of real-life Conservative and Reform Israelis. And what she understood is something too many American Jews fail to understand: that Israel is a real-world country with real-world constraints, not a fantasyland where ideal solutions can be magically implemented overnight. Thus in trying to bridge the gap between these citizens’ real needs and the country’s real constraints, modest steps that can be implemented quickly are often better than doing nothing, even if they don’t provide an ideal solution.

Schonfeld was quite clear that the new platform wouldn’t satisfy her if that were the government’s final offer. But as an interim solution–which is how Bennett explicitly defined it–she deemed it a major step forward. Though the Sharansky plan, which involves developing the Robinson’s Arch site more fully into a coequal extension of the existing Western Wall Plaza, might be preferable, she recognizes that such a major project would take years to complete (if it happens at all). Meanwhile, there are real Israeli Jews with real needs that have to be taken care of–and Bennett was trying to address those needs within the limits of what could be done right now, in time for next week’s Rosh Hashanah holiday.

As Schonfeld explained, Masorti Jews (the Israeli branch of the Conservative movement) have been quietly holding egalitarian prayer services at Robinson’s Arch for 12 years. But until now, they had no permanent place of worship there, so holding services meant “carrying prayer books, tables and Torah scrolls in and out of the site on their backs without cover from rain or sun.” Now, they will at least have a permanent site with its own ark, Torah scrolls and prayer books, one that can accommodate a sizable number of people. As she put it, “With the government’s construction of this platform, 450 egalitarian worshippers will now be able to pray comfortably at one time in several minyanim.” That’s a real improvement for the real Masorti Jews living in Israel, and consequently, Schonfeld welcomed it, even though she still hopes for additional progress in the future.

As religious services minister, that’s exactly what Bennett is supposed to do: address the real religious needs of real Israelis as best he can within the constraints of what can realistically be done quickly at one of the world’s holiest and most sensitive sites. Perhaps he could have done a better job explaining himself to Americans. But if American Jews find a genuine effort to help real live Masorti Jews objectionable, it may be because, as I’ve written before, too many of them still have trouble accepting a flesh-and-blood state with all its inherent constraints and flaws, rather than the utopia of their dreams, which no real state could ever be.

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The Wall Between Israel and the Diaspora

Perhaps there are some in Israel’s government that thought they were being clever this past weekend when Religious Services Minister Naftali Bennett announced what he hailed as an interim solution for the conflict at Jerusalem’s Western Wall over the right of non-Orthodox women to hold prayer services at the site. Earlier this year Jewish Agency chair Natan Sharansky proposed a far-reaching compromise that would vastly expand the plaza in order to provide a third and theoretically equal space at the Kotel for non-Orthodox services. That would reinforce the idea that the place is a national shrine for all Jews and not, as it has been in practice since it was liberated in 1967, an open-air Orthodox synagogue whose norms reflect the sensibilities of the Haredi world in which a group like the Women of the Wall protest group is seen as provocateurs rather than merely practicing another variant of Judaism. But it is highly unlikely that Sharansky’s ambitious plan will be realized anytime soon, if ever. Which means that those wishing to have egalitarian services will have to be satisfied with Bennett’s idea in which they will be shunted to a temporary platform that doesn’t even touch the Wall away from the main Plaza at the Robinson’s Arch archeological site.

Bennett says his plan is intended as a goodwill gesture toward the non-Orthodox (who make up approximately 90 percent of American Jewry, though an infinitesimal percentage of Israelis) on the eve of the High Holidays next week. Perhaps he’s sincere about that, but this latest chapter in the long-running battle over prayer at the Kotel illustrates once again that the Wall is more than a metaphor when it comes to Diaspora-Israel relations. Many, if not most Israelis, see the Women of the Wall in the way our Evelyn Gordon does in her September 2013 COMMENTARY article on the subject: as part of a splinter group that is attempting to make a left-wing political point undermining Israel’s image rather than seeking redress for a genuine grievance. Non-Orthodox Jews see the issue as one that highlights Israel’s lack of Jewish religious pluralism. Neither seems to understand the other side, let alone listen to each other. That’s why, contrary to Bennett’s expectations, and coming as it does on the eve of the one time of the year when the bulk of the non-Orthodox will be gathered in synagogues, what he has done will only deepen the long-simmering resentment among Reform and Conservative Jews about the non-recognition of their rabbis as well as the way the Women of the Wall are routinely treated. At a moment when the Netanyahu government needs to rally the support of these Jews on the peace process with the Palestinians and the looming conflict with Iran, this was an unforced error.

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Perhaps there are some in Israel’s government that thought they were being clever this past weekend when Religious Services Minister Naftali Bennett announced what he hailed as an interim solution for the conflict at Jerusalem’s Western Wall over the right of non-Orthodox women to hold prayer services at the site. Earlier this year Jewish Agency chair Natan Sharansky proposed a far-reaching compromise that would vastly expand the plaza in order to provide a third and theoretically equal space at the Kotel for non-Orthodox services. That would reinforce the idea that the place is a national shrine for all Jews and not, as it has been in practice since it was liberated in 1967, an open-air Orthodox synagogue whose norms reflect the sensibilities of the Haredi world in which a group like the Women of the Wall protest group is seen as provocateurs rather than merely practicing another variant of Judaism. But it is highly unlikely that Sharansky’s ambitious plan will be realized anytime soon, if ever. Which means that those wishing to have egalitarian services will have to be satisfied with Bennett’s idea in which they will be shunted to a temporary platform that doesn’t even touch the Wall away from the main Plaza at the Robinson’s Arch archeological site.

Bennett says his plan is intended as a goodwill gesture toward the non-Orthodox (who make up approximately 90 percent of American Jewry, though an infinitesimal percentage of Israelis) on the eve of the High Holidays next week. Perhaps he’s sincere about that, but this latest chapter in the long-running battle over prayer at the Kotel illustrates once again that the Wall is more than a metaphor when it comes to Diaspora-Israel relations. Many, if not most Israelis, see the Women of the Wall in the way our Evelyn Gordon does in her September 2013 COMMENTARY article on the subject: as part of a splinter group that is attempting to make a left-wing political point undermining Israel’s image rather than seeking redress for a genuine grievance. Non-Orthodox Jews see the issue as one that highlights Israel’s lack of Jewish religious pluralism. Neither seems to understand the other side, let alone listen to each other. That’s why, contrary to Bennett’s expectations, and coming as it does on the eve of the one time of the year when the bulk of the non-Orthodox will be gathered in synagogues, what he has done will only deepen the long-simmering resentment among Reform and Conservative Jews about the non-recognition of their rabbis as well as the way the Women of the Wall are routinely treated. At a moment when the Netanyahu government needs to rally the support of these Jews on the peace process with the Palestinians and the looming conflict with Iran, this was an unforced error.

It cannot be emphasized enough that most American Jews who are angry about this situation haven’t the slightest idea why most Israelis are so indifferent to their complaints about pluralism. It bears repeating that in a country in which there is no formal division between religion and state and rabbis are paid by the government, the question of who is a rabbi is a political issue. As such, so long as supporters of the various religious parties (of which Bennett’s Habayit Hayehudi represents the views of the modern Orthodox and is least hostile to the sensibilities of most American Jews) are a major force in Israeli politics and hold the balance of power in their hands while those affiliated with non-Orthodox denominations are a fraction of a percent (it used to be said that they were outnumbered by Scientologists), the influence of the latter will be minimal. The majority of Israeli Jews have plenty of complaints about the Orthodox rabbinate and their monopoly on life cycle events, but what they want is civil marriage and divorce. Securing equal rights for the Conservative and Reform movements—which are both seen as foreign implants—is rather low on their priority list.

But Israelis are just as obtuse about the hard feelings of American Jews about pluralism and Women of the Wall. It may strike them as unreasonable for Americans to demand equality for movements that are marginal in Israeli society or to give the Women of the Wall the right to pray in the manner of Conservative and Reform Jews in the women’s section at the Kotel with Torah scrolls, prayer shawls, and singing out loud. But if they are serious about strengthening ties with the Diaspora, especially with the non-Orthodox, then they must treat these complaints seriously. Conservative and Reform Jews believe their denomination is no less valid and deserving of equal treatment under the law in the State of Israel as the Orthodox. When the Jerusalem police ignore the rulings of Israeli courts mandating the right of the Women of the Wall to pray as they like at the Kotel (while sometimes arresting or roughing up the women) or allow mobs orchestrated by the Haredim to keep them away from it at the time of their monthly services, they take it as a personal affront rather than viewing the incidents as the work of marginal troublemakers.

No matter where you come down on the justice of this dispute, there’s no doubt that what Bennett has done is a blunder as far as Israel-Diaspora relations are concerned, though it must be conceded that he has probably helped himself with religious Israeli voters, which is his main interest. Instead of throwing them a bone, as Bennett says he intended to do with this proposal, his idea that will shunt Conservative and Reform Jews out of sight of the main plaza will be viewed as tangible proof of the Israeli government’s disdain for the non-Orthodox. It would have been far better for the government to do nothing while they pondered how to implement Sharansky’s idea than to give Conservative and Reform rabbis an opening to blast the government in High Holiday services. Given that their own interests are at stake with the necessity to mobilize American Jewry against pressure on Jerusalem on the peace process and the nuclear threat from Iran, it shouldn’t have been too much to ask Israel’s Cabinet to avoid giving such offense in the week before Rosh Hashanah.

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Livni Already Making Excuses for Failure

The “only Nixon could go to China” cliché may be overused, but it has aged surprisingly well. The underlying principle, in fact, has been a key theme in understanding Israeli domestic politics since Oslo. It helps explain why the last major settlement dismantling was carried out by Ariel Sharon, and why Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud has been less willing to order ground troops into hostile territory than his predecessors.

“Only Labor can make war and only Likud can make peace” is a broad oversimplification, but it should not be disregarded that despite the struggles of the Israeli left, Netanyahu has accepted the two-state solution, agreed to a settlement freeze, and released Palestinian terrorists in repeated bids to just get the Palestinian leadership to the negotiating table–all while bringing his right-of-center coalition, which includes an explicitly pro-settlements party, along for the ride.

You would think this development would be encouraging for Tzipi Livni, who was designated the chief peace negotiator. Livni is thus empowered to lead the peace talks Netanyahu made concessions to bring about. Since her party, Hatnuah, won only a handful of Knesset seats in the last election, Livni might have been expected to be more judicious about her ability to make demands. But Livni’s political instincts have failed her time and again in her career, and as the Times of Israel reports, they have done so again:

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The “only Nixon could go to China” cliché may be overused, but it has aged surprisingly well. The underlying principle, in fact, has been a key theme in understanding Israeli domestic politics since Oslo. It helps explain why the last major settlement dismantling was carried out by Ariel Sharon, and why Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud has been less willing to order ground troops into hostile territory than his predecessors.

“Only Labor can make war and only Likud can make peace” is a broad oversimplification, but it should not be disregarded that despite the struggles of the Israeli left, Netanyahu has accepted the two-state solution, agreed to a settlement freeze, and released Palestinian terrorists in repeated bids to just get the Palestinian leadership to the negotiating table–all while bringing his right-of-center coalition, which includes an explicitly pro-settlements party, along for the ride.

You would think this development would be encouraging for Tzipi Livni, who was designated the chief peace negotiator. Livni is thus empowered to lead the peace talks Netanyahu made concessions to bring about. Since her party, Hatnuah, won only a handful of Knesset seats in the last election, Livni might have been expected to be more judicious about her ability to make demands. But Livni’s political instincts have failed her time and again in her career, and as the Times of Israel reports, they have done so again:

Livni told Israel Radio on Tuesday morning that the Jewish Home party opposes the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a stance that makes her job as peace negotiator more difficult.

Economy and Trade Minister Naftali Bennett, who heads the Jewish Home party, posted a link to his Facebook page on Tuesday afternoon from the right-wing Israel National News site that bore the headline, “Livni: Jewish Home is making it difficult for me.”

Bennett was dismissive in his response to the article. And he was brief. He wrote, in a single Hebrew word, “Get over it.”

Bennett can afford to be dismissive of Livni’s criticism. But Livni didn’t stop there. She wants the governing coalition remade in her image to benefit the negotiations:

In her Israel Radio interview, Livni insisted there would be greater support for the peace process in the government if Jewish Home were replaced by the left-wing Labor Party. Jewish Home’s opposition to the two-state solution made it difficult to conduct negotiations, she said, adding that political backing was necessary for any decisions that would have to be made in the negotiations.

Livni has always been her own worst enemy, picking the least-sensible fights and consistently misreading the domestic political atmosphere. Not only is she in no position to call for the expulsion of parties that are twice as popular as her own, but her justification for her request is really an argument against it.

The last sentence in her comments above makes two claims: that Bennett’s presence in the government makes negotiations more difficult, and that political support is necessary to carry out any agreements made with the Palestinians. The first claim doesn’t make much sense, considering that Livni got her negotiations only after the current coalition made painful concessions to the Palestinians. The second claim is unobjectionable, but from which she draws the wrong conclusion.

Livni seems to occasionally forget that as messy as Israeli politics can be, the country is still a democracy. That means the reason for Bennett’s presence in the government is that the voters put him there. And the same is true for the other parties in the coalition. The Israeli left lost the public’s trust with regard to security and the peace process. Livni cannot simply declare them to be popular, worthy stewards of the public trust if the public disagrees.

Now, of course Labor can be brought into the governing coalition without a public referendum–that is also how Israeli democracy works. But the point is that doing so would undermine the chances of political acceptance of the terms of the peace process. There is a logical reason for this: not only have the policies of the Israeli left failed miserably, but the peace negotiations are naturally centered on what land Israel would have to give up to the Palestinians. Can the Israeli left be trusted to be reasonable in giving up land it doesn’t seem to value? The voters don’t think so.

Any land swap with the imprimatur of the Israeli right is guaranteed to have more legitimacy and credibility with the Israeli public. If Livni wants to strike a deal with the Palestinians and to have sufficient political backing to enforce that agreement, she should be the last one advocating for Bennett’s expulsion from the Israeli government. Instead, she appears to be anticipating the peace talks’ failure–and her own–and making excuses for it.

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The Make Believe Argument Over Israel

This week, the American Jewish Committee earned the plaudits of New York Times columnist Roger Cohen for issuing a direct denunciation of Naftali Bennett, Israel’s economy minister, for saying that the two-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict was dead. The statement blasted Bennett, the head of the Habayit Hayehudi Party that had an impressive showing in last January’s Knesset election in the following manner:

Minister Naftali Bennett’s remarks, rejecting outright the vision of two states for two peoples, are stunningly shortsighted,” said AJC Executive Director David Harris. “Since he is a member of the current Israeli coalition government, it is important that his view be repudiated by the country’s top leaders.”

“Bennett contravenes the outlook of Prime Minister Netanyahu and contradicts the vision presented earlier this month to the AJC Global Forum by Minister Tzipi Livni, chief Israeli negotiator with the Palestinians,” Harris continued. “Livni stated clearly that a negotiated two-state settlement is the only way to assure that the State of Israel will remain both Jewish and democratic. That is a view we at AJC have long supported.”

“We are under no illusion about the difficulties of achieving a two-state accord,” Harris concluded. “But Bennett’s alternative scenario offers only the prospect of a dead-end strategy of endless conflict and growing isolation for Israel.”

While liberal on domestic policy, the AJC has been solidly pro-Israel under Harris’ tenure, so his decision to call out a member of an Israeli government is more than a little unusual and it was enough to send both Cohen, who has solidly opposed the AJC’s pro-Israel policies, into spasms of joy that were echoed by one of the writers on the Open Zion website. They hope that this constitutes a turning point in the relationship between American Jewish organizations and the Jewish state. Their notion is this is the moment when the pro-Israel community will cease being a bulwark for Jerusalem and begin to throw its weight behind efforts to pressure the country into concessions that leftists think will save it from itself. If groups like AJC start acting like the decidedly non-mainstream left-wingers of J Street and condemning settlements and calling for Israel to accept the 1967 borders, then they imagine Israel’s resistance to such measures will be broken down when faced with the loss of its American Jewish allies.

Cohen and the Open Zion crowd are wrong about that. But it’s not just that they are overestimating the willingness of mainstream groups to challenge the judgment of a democratically elected Israeli government. The dustup between the AJC and Bennett as well as other members of Netanyahu’s government is not so much about whether these right-wingers are actually thwarting a two-state solution, as Harris’s statement seemed to be saying, but whether it was appropriate for him to not to play along with the pretense that such a scheme is possible in the foreseeable future. Reading much significance into the admonition aimed at Bennett is a mistake because although he and the AJC do disagree about what a solution to the conflict might be, it is not exactly a secret that Palestinian intransigence makes this a purely theoretical dispute.

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This week, the American Jewish Committee earned the plaudits of New York Times columnist Roger Cohen for issuing a direct denunciation of Naftali Bennett, Israel’s economy minister, for saying that the two-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict was dead. The statement blasted Bennett, the head of the Habayit Hayehudi Party that had an impressive showing in last January’s Knesset election in the following manner:

Minister Naftali Bennett’s remarks, rejecting outright the vision of two states for two peoples, are stunningly shortsighted,” said AJC Executive Director David Harris. “Since he is a member of the current Israeli coalition government, it is important that his view be repudiated by the country’s top leaders.”

“Bennett contravenes the outlook of Prime Minister Netanyahu and contradicts the vision presented earlier this month to the AJC Global Forum by Minister Tzipi Livni, chief Israeli negotiator with the Palestinians,” Harris continued. “Livni stated clearly that a negotiated two-state settlement is the only way to assure that the State of Israel will remain both Jewish and democratic. That is a view we at AJC have long supported.”

“We are under no illusion about the difficulties of achieving a two-state accord,” Harris concluded. “But Bennett’s alternative scenario offers only the prospect of a dead-end strategy of endless conflict and growing isolation for Israel.”

While liberal on domestic policy, the AJC has been solidly pro-Israel under Harris’ tenure, so his decision to call out a member of an Israeli government is more than a little unusual and it was enough to send both Cohen, who has solidly opposed the AJC’s pro-Israel policies, into spasms of joy that were echoed by one of the writers on the Open Zion website. They hope that this constitutes a turning point in the relationship between American Jewish organizations and the Jewish state. Their notion is this is the moment when the pro-Israel community will cease being a bulwark for Jerusalem and begin to throw its weight behind efforts to pressure the country into concessions that leftists think will save it from itself. If groups like AJC start acting like the decidedly non-mainstream left-wingers of J Street and condemning settlements and calling for Israel to accept the 1967 borders, then they imagine Israel’s resistance to such measures will be broken down when faced with the loss of its American Jewish allies.

Cohen and the Open Zion crowd are wrong about that. But it’s not just that they are overestimating the willingness of mainstream groups to challenge the judgment of a democratically elected Israeli government. The dustup between the AJC and Bennett as well as other members of Netanyahu’s government is not so much about whether these right-wingers are actually thwarting a two-state solution, as Harris’s statement seemed to be saying, but whether it was appropriate for him to not to play along with the pretense that such a scheme is possible in the foreseeable future. Reading much significance into the admonition aimed at Bennett is a mistake because although he and the AJC do disagree about what a solution to the conflict might be, it is not exactly a secret that Palestinian intransigence makes this a purely theoretical dispute.

Most American Jews—including those in mainstream groups—may not agree with Bennett that a two-state solution is a bad idea in principle. But like most Israelis, most of those who are informed about the reality that Israel faces understand that it isn’t happening anytime soon no matter what the Netanyahu government or American Jews say about it. The Palestinians have turned down three offers of statehood including a share of Jerusalem and have boycotted negotiations for four and a half years. They also understand that the left’s focus on what Israel must supposedly do to secure peace is irrelevant because so long as the Palestinians refuse to recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn, these questions aren’t much more relevant that the old one about how many angels can dance on the head of pin.

Like Netanyahu, leading American Jewish groups are publicly supporting Secretary of State John Kerry’s effort to revive the peace process. Unlike Cohen most understand the secretary has sent himself on a fool’s errand. Pointing this fact out, as Bennett has done, may not help Israel’s diplomatic position or its image. But it also doesn’t really change a thing. 

Harris is right that Bennett is undermining Israel’s public image in the West since such statements do feed into the false notion that most Israelis don’t want to compromise. That’s also a myth because, as I wrote earlier this week, even Bennett probably knows that if the Palestinians would ever to come back to the table and offer a complete end to the conflict and a renunciation of the right of return, most of his countrymen would be willing to make far-ranging sacrifices of territory that he wouldn’t like.

If most Israelis have given up on the two-state solution for the near term it is not because, like Bennett, they don’t want it, but because, unlike Cohen and other leftists, they’ve paid attention to what’s happened during the last 20 years of peace processing. Israelis need no urging to make risks for peace if peace was really in the offing. The problem is that it isn’t. The Palestinians have made such a deal impossible and there’s no sign that the sea change necessary in their political culture to make two states a viable solution is on the horizon. As unpalatable as this may be, even many liberal American Jews are coming to understand that all Israel can do is to wait until it happens.

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Palestinians Can Resolve Israeli Debate

With the Palestinians stiffing Secretary of State John Kerry’s calls for them to rejoin talks with Israel without—as President Obama has asked them to do—preconditions, there really isn’t much to talk about what we call, for lack of a better term, the Middle East peace process. So instead the media is focusing on what is a purely theoretical argument between members of Israel’s government and claiming that this dispute, rather than the failure of the Palestinians to take advantage of President Obama’s advocacy for a two-state solution, is responsible for the impasse.

That’s the upshot of the furor over recent statements by Israel’s Economy Minister Naftali Bennett, who heads one of the parties that make up Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition, and Deputy Defense Minister Danny Danon, a member of Netanyahu’s Likud, to the extent that the two-state solution is already dead and buried. According to Jodi Rudoren of the New York Times, this illustrates the deep division within Israeli society about both the desirability and the viability of the idea that peace will be achieved by creating a Palestinian state living alongside Israel. But the tempest over Bennett and Danon, both of whom would like Israel to begin to act as if there will never be a resolution of the conflict, isn’t really a new version of a decades-old internal debate about how peace can be achieved. That strategic argument was pretty much resolved in the last 20 years as even most of the political right that had long believed that Israel could settle all of the land west of the Jordan River as well as having peace came to understand that wasn’t going to happen.

Instead, what Israel is currently experiencing is a debate about tactics. Namely, should the country go on pretending as if peace with the Palestinians is possible to please Washington or call things by their rightful names and simply do what they want in terms of annexing part of the West Bank (Bennett’s solution) or simply stop talking about two states as Danon seems to want to do. The former position is more practical in terms of bolstering Israel’s diplomatic position, but the fact that Bennett and Danon are saying that there will be no two-state solution does not make it any less likely to happen if the Palestinians are willing to accept it. Those who claim these statements are actually damaging the prospects of peace don’t understand the facts of life in the Middle East or the realities of Israeli politics.

There is only one reason why Bennett and Danon are able to claim that the two-state solution is dead. It’s because they’re right.

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With the Palestinians stiffing Secretary of State John Kerry’s calls for them to rejoin talks with Israel without—as President Obama has asked them to do—preconditions, there really isn’t much to talk about what we call, for lack of a better term, the Middle East peace process. So instead the media is focusing on what is a purely theoretical argument between members of Israel’s government and claiming that this dispute, rather than the failure of the Palestinians to take advantage of President Obama’s advocacy for a two-state solution, is responsible for the impasse.

That’s the upshot of the furor over recent statements by Israel’s Economy Minister Naftali Bennett, who heads one of the parties that make up Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition, and Deputy Defense Minister Danny Danon, a member of Netanyahu’s Likud, to the extent that the two-state solution is already dead and buried. According to Jodi Rudoren of the New York Times, this illustrates the deep division within Israeli society about both the desirability and the viability of the idea that peace will be achieved by creating a Palestinian state living alongside Israel. But the tempest over Bennett and Danon, both of whom would like Israel to begin to act as if there will never be a resolution of the conflict, isn’t really a new version of a decades-old internal debate about how peace can be achieved. That strategic argument was pretty much resolved in the last 20 years as even most of the political right that had long believed that Israel could settle all of the land west of the Jordan River as well as having peace came to understand that wasn’t going to happen.

Instead, what Israel is currently experiencing is a debate about tactics. Namely, should the country go on pretending as if peace with the Palestinians is possible to please Washington or call things by their rightful names and simply do what they want in terms of annexing part of the West Bank (Bennett’s solution) or simply stop talking about two states as Danon seems to want to do. The former position is more practical in terms of bolstering Israel’s diplomatic position, but the fact that Bennett and Danon are saying that there will be no two-state solution does not make it any less likely to happen if the Palestinians are willing to accept it. Those who claim these statements are actually damaging the prospects of peace don’t understand the facts of life in the Middle East or the realities of Israeli politics.

There is only one reason why Bennett and Danon are able to claim that the two-state solution is dead. It’s because they’re right.

Having turned down three offers of statehood including shares of Jerusalem and almost all of the West Bank, the Palestinians have repeatedly demonstrated they are still unwilling to accept the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn. With Gaza under the thumb of Hamas and the Fatah kleptocracy in charge of the West Bank equally unwilling to negotiate an agreement, there is no realistic scenario whereby a peace accord that actually ended the conflict can possibly be concluded anytime soon. Contrary to the regular scoldings Israel gets from President Obama and people like former President Clinton, Israel doesn’t need to be pushed to take risks for peace. It has already taken dangerous gambles in the name of peace and paid for them in blood. The status quo may be unpleasant, but the notion of further territorial withdrawals—which might turn the West Bank into a terrorist launching pad like Gaza has become—is the sort of thing no rational Israeli government will accept under these circumstances no matter who is leading it.

It is true that elements of the current coalition are not in favor of even a theoretical two state solution, but that is not the case with Netanyahu. Moreover, even Bennett and Danon know (though they would be loathe to admit it) that were the Palestinians to adopt a straightforward position accepting peace with a Jewish state and ending the conflict for all time (including the complete renunciation of terror and all violence against Israel and dropping the right of return for the descendants of the Arab refugees of Israel’s War of Independence), it is almost certain they would discover that the overwhelming majority of Israelis would back such a deal even if it meant painful sacrifices just as they endorsed the hope of the Oslo Accords 20 years ago. Neither Bennett nor Danon or even Netanyahu could stop peace if the chance of achieving it was even remotely realistic. But after 20 years of peace processing in which Israelis came to understand that they were trading land for more terror, not peace, most of the country doesn’t even think the issue is worth arguing about anymore, as last winter’s Knesset elections proved.

Support for the peace process has gone the way of the old narrowly divided Israeli electorate between right and left. If even the right knows it can’t simply hold onto all of the West Bank now, most of the left has acknowledged that its illusions about the Palestinians wanting peace are equally unrealistic.

That leaves Israel stuck with a situation that everyone says is not viable in the long run but for which there is no viable alternative. In the absence of a real debate, the right produces empty rhetoric about more settlements (not going to happen since even Netanyahu doesn’t think its worth antagonizing the West) or annexation that has zero chance of passage while the left sometimes talks as if the experience of the last 20 years has simply been flushed down the memory hole.

The rest of Israel eschews such fantasies and remains committed to a two-state solution in theory while understanding that it must await a sea change in Palestinian political culture in order to become reality. That’s why the arguments about what Bennett and Danon have said are a tempest-in-a-teapot with no connection to a genuine policy decision. Only the Palestinians can resolve the contradictions that bedevil Israeli politics. But since Netanyahu will never have to confront his political allies over peace, it doesn’t matter what they say about it. And with a Palestinian leadership that is unwilling as well as incapable of making peace, that confrontation isn’t going to happen in the foreseeable future.

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Can Israel’s Coalition Survive?

A last-minute glitch appears to be holding up the signing of the coalition agreement that would put Israel’s next government in place in time to greet President Obama next week. According to reports, Prime Minister Netanyahu’s attempt to deny Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett the largely symbolic title of deputy prime minister has jeopardized the deal. While minor issues such as this one have the potential to cause big problems in any political setting, the real clue to the seriousness of this dust-up is the fact that most people seem to be blaming it on, of all people, Netanyahu’s wife, Sara.

If true, it points to the fact that while the Netanyahu, Lapid and Bennett have much to gain from cooperating with each other, at least one of them hasn’t been able to rise above the personal feuds that seem to characterize relations between Israel’s leaders. That means that although all of the four parties (Netanyahu’s Likud-Beitenu, Lapid’s Yesh Atid, Bennett’s Habayit Hayehudi and Tzipi Livni’s Hatnua) that have united to form Israel’s 33rd government since the first Knesset was elected in 1949 have every reason to keep it in office for a full four-year term, the jealousies, lack of trust and downright antagonism between the major players may cause its premature demise. Netanyahu’s ability to transcend petty tiffs in the coming days may tell us a lot about whether his second consecutive and third overall term as prime minister will last as long as he’d like.

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A last-minute glitch appears to be holding up the signing of the coalition agreement that would put Israel’s next government in place in time to greet President Obama next week. According to reports, Prime Minister Netanyahu’s attempt to deny Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett the largely symbolic title of deputy prime minister has jeopardized the deal. While minor issues such as this one have the potential to cause big problems in any political setting, the real clue to the seriousness of this dust-up is the fact that most people seem to be blaming it on, of all people, Netanyahu’s wife, Sara.

If true, it points to the fact that while the Netanyahu, Lapid and Bennett have much to gain from cooperating with each other, at least one of them hasn’t been able to rise above the personal feuds that seem to characterize relations between Israel’s leaders. That means that although all of the four parties (Netanyahu’s Likud-Beitenu, Lapid’s Yesh Atid, Bennett’s Habayit Hayehudi and Tzipi Livni’s Hatnua) that have united to form Israel’s 33rd government since the first Knesset was elected in 1949 have every reason to keep it in office for a full four-year term, the jealousies, lack of trust and downright antagonism between the major players may cause its premature demise. Netanyahu’s ability to transcend petty tiffs in the coming days may tell us a lot about whether his second consecutive and third overall term as prime minister will last as long as he’d like.

Netanyahu’s been in a downward spiral as he went from a position of unchallenged strength last spring to his current ridiculous predicament as he must embrace a trio of political rivals that he (and apparently his wife) abhor. The prime minister has made a series of political blunders in the last year that resulted in his party getting a far smaller share of the vote than it might have won only a few months before. While that didn’t prevent his re-election, it did create a situation where he had to find common ground with partners who were in a position to exact a high price for their cooperation.

But the curious thing about the abnormally long coalition talks and the arguments between the leaders that are obviously not fully resolved is that none of this really has anything to do with the key foreign and defense policy questions facing the country that remain at the core of the prime minister’s agenda. Nor is it related to the economic and social issues on which the election was largely fought.

While the rest of the world interprets everything that happens in Israel through the prism of the debates about the peace process with the Palestinians or the Iranian nuclear threat, there isn’t much difference on them between Netanyahu, Lapid and Bennett–or even Livni, despite her claim to be the avatar of peace. Nor do the members of this fractious quartet have any real disputes about the need for a more equitable draft system or the need to avoid a retreat from the progress the country has made under the free market model that replaced the old socialist approach that once governed the nation.

Instead, their problem is mainly with each other. Netanyahu not unreasonably fears the ambitious and charismatic Lapid’s plans to supplant him at the next election. The prime minister and his wife also seem to hold a grudge against Bennett, who was once his chief of staff but bolted as a result of an as-yet-unspecified quarrel that may not have been directly related to policy disagreements. Livni is still seething over her failure to defeat Netanyahu in the 2009 election and her foolish decision to stay out of his government. Netanyahu is deeply distrusted by the other three and all–except perhaps for Bennett, who seems to have risen above the personality clashes to be the broker who made the deal–think Lapid is a vain television-created celebrity devoid of substance.

How can these four people live with each other and keep a government going? No one’s sure about the answer to that question as Israel appears to have elected itself a government that seems more like a reality show than a political coalition.

After his 2009 victory, Netanyahu appeared to have learned from the mistakes he made in his first term as prime minister in the 1990s when he seemed to have alienated every friend and political ally he had by the end of his three years in office. But he seems to have forgotten these lessons in recent months as he finds himself with a Likud filled with resentful members who think the prime minister has slighted them and a cabinet full of rivals who don’t like him either.

As I wrote yesterday, this government has an opportunity to do great things. The absence of the ultra-Orthodox parties means it can, among other things, go a long way toward creating a more equitable draft system and make much needed education reforms. It should also be equipped to hold the country together in the face of the Iranian threat as well as pressure to make concessions to a Palestinian Authority that isn’t interested in peace. But it will do none of these things and may crash and burn long before its term is up if the quarrelsome foursome can’t learn to get along.

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Netanyahu and Obama Both Lose If Trip to Israel Is Dropped

President Obama’s frosty relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was seen by many as a missed opportunity for Obama. Israeli voters tend to punish leaders who can’t get along with the American president, and thus prime ministers are usually willing to work pretty hard to stay on the president’s good side. But Israelis across the ideological spectrum thought Obama’s treatment of Netanyahu was disrespectful, and they blamed the president more than they blamed Netanyahu for the state of affairs.

That gave Netanyahu a certain degree of leverage in his relationship with Obama that Netanyahu didn’t have during his first stint as premier when Bill Clinton was president. But both the recent Israeli and American elections tipped the scales somewhat back in Obama’s direction. Obama was re-elected and now doesn’t have to face the voters again, and Netanyahu won far fewer seats in the January Knesset elections than he had expected, and sits mired in negotiations to form a coalition in which his rivals are setting the agenda. Yet as a new poll from the Hill shows, Obama shouldn’t be enjoying the spectacle too much–he has something to lose as well:

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President Obama’s frosty relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was seen by many as a missed opportunity for Obama. Israeli voters tend to punish leaders who can’t get along with the American president, and thus prime ministers are usually willing to work pretty hard to stay on the president’s good side. But Israelis across the ideological spectrum thought Obama’s treatment of Netanyahu was disrespectful, and they blamed the president more than they blamed Netanyahu for the state of affairs.

That gave Netanyahu a certain degree of leverage in his relationship with Obama that Netanyahu didn’t have during his first stint as premier when Bill Clinton was president. But both the recent Israeli and American elections tipped the scales somewhat back in Obama’s direction. Obama was re-elected and now doesn’t have to face the voters again, and Netanyahu won far fewer seats in the January Knesset elections than he had expected, and sits mired in negotiations to form a coalition in which his rivals are setting the agenda. Yet as a new poll from the Hill shows, Obama shouldn’t be enjoying the spectacle too much–he has something to lose as well:

According to the latest Hill Poll, just 13 percent of respondents say the president’s policy toward Israel is too supportive. A full 39 percent said Obama is not supportive enough, the highest percentage The Hill Poll has seen….

Meanwhile, in the most recent survey for The Hill, a slightly larger percentage of likely voters say Obama is generally anti-Israel than say he is pro-Israel, 30 percent to 28 percent. The percentage of voters who label Obama as pro-Israel is up slightly from a September 2011 survey for The Hill, as is the number of voters who say Obama is anti-Israel.

Obama is pressuring Netanyahu to form a coalition now by saying he’ll cancel his upcoming trip to Israel–for which he plans to leave on March 19–if there’s no deal for a new government in place by then. And as Jonathan pointed out, the president is actually doing Netanyahu a favor. Netanyahu is balking at the demands of his would-be coalition partners Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett, whose parties came in second and fourth, respectively, in the January elections. Lapid and Bennett say they come as a pair, and don’t want to share a coalition with the ultra-Orthodox. That’s because they are holding firm on a demand that the next government force Haredim into the military draft system to share the burden of defending the country. Netanyahu usually relies on the Orthodox to form his governing coalitions (Shas usually gets about 10 seats in each election) and doesn’t want to lose their political support.

But accepting the Lapid-Bennett conditions would be the best of both worlds for Netanyahu: he’d get a popular domestic achievement under his belt but could honestly tell the Haredim he had no choice. Netanyahu’s refusal to agree to the deal would then seem to be a miscalculation, especially if he’s seen as responsible for the cancellation of Obama’s first trip to Israel.

But the Hill poll tells Obama that he needs the trip almost as much as Netanyahu does. His shoddy treatment of Netanyahu during his first term and his opposition to tougher Iran sanctions (passed only after Democrats publicly shamed the White House) have drained the administration of credibility. So sending Vice President Joe Biden to this week’s AIPAC conference to talk tough on Iran isn’t quite enough–especially after nominating Chuck Hagel to run the Pentagon.

Obama isn’t simply playing hardball, however. It’s hard to imagine he’d take the time to make the trip with no Israeli government in place. And as Politico reports, it can’t be a last-minute decision:

Given the need to move Secret Service personnel, communications equipment and advance staff well before a presidential visit, the White House may need to make a decision on scrubbing the trip even before Netanyahu’s March 16 deadline.

This would be a self-inflicted wound for Netanyahu, since the writing is on the wall in terms of the coalition agreement that will eventually be signed. But it also probably makes Obama a bit nervous as well, since he’s been criticized for not visiting Israel and doesn’t want the headlines associated with scheduling a trip and then cancelling it, especially in the wake of another drop in his poll numbers. If that happens, Netanyahu loses too–he is unlikely to be given the benefit of the doubt from the Israeli public this time around.

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Obama Deadline Raises Pressure on Bibi

Benjamin Netanyahu’s efforts to form a new coalition government have not been going smoothly. The prime minister’s attempt to break up the alliance between the two big winners of the last election—the centrist Yesh Atid Party’s Yair Lapid and the pro-settler Habayit Hayehudi’s Naftali Bennett—have flopped as the two have stuck to each other and their mutual support for a change in the military draft system that will compel for the first time the conscription of Haredim. Netanyahu knows he needs at least one of the two to form a government and if they stick together, he must not only take both but also agree to their demands about a reform that he appears reluctant to implement.

But as difficult as his position was until now, Netanyahu’s leverage in the talks just got even smaller thanks to another longtime antagonist. Israel TV is claiming that the White House has made clear to Netanyahu that President Obama’s long anticipated trip to Israel next month will be postponed if the prime minister does not have a new government in place by March 16. While some in Israel, where Obama remains unpopular, may not care much about the visit, Netanyahu is counting on it. That means the chances are that Lapid and Bennett will soon be signing coalition agreements on their own terms and that the ultra-Orthodox parties will be losing their ability to stymie reform.

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Benjamin Netanyahu’s efforts to form a new coalition government have not been going smoothly. The prime minister’s attempt to break up the alliance between the two big winners of the last election—the centrist Yesh Atid Party’s Yair Lapid and the pro-settler Habayit Hayehudi’s Naftali Bennett—have flopped as the two have stuck to each other and their mutual support for a change in the military draft system that will compel for the first time the conscription of Haredim. Netanyahu knows he needs at least one of the two to form a government and if they stick together, he must not only take both but also agree to their demands about a reform that he appears reluctant to implement.

But as difficult as his position was until now, Netanyahu’s leverage in the talks just got even smaller thanks to another longtime antagonist. Israel TV is claiming that the White House has made clear to Netanyahu that President Obama’s long anticipated trip to Israel next month will be postponed if the prime minister does not have a new government in place by March 16. While some in Israel, where Obama remains unpopular, may not care much about the visit, Netanyahu is counting on it. That means the chances are that Lapid and Bennett will soon be signing coalition agreements on their own terms and that the ultra-Orthodox parties will be losing their ability to stymie reform.

Netanyahu is eager for the Obama visit because he views it as a perfect opportunity to help reset the strained relations between the two governments. More importantly, he’s also hoping the president will use it to make a strong statement in support of Israeli security and to re-emphasize his willingness to do whatever it takes to prevent Iran from gaining nuclear capability. Losing that visit would be a blow to his prestige and undermine his efforts to have the allies present a united front on Iran and the peace process after four-plus years of Obama’s efforts to distance the U.S. from Israel. Since dragging out the talks in what would probably be a vain try to get his way on the next coalition would probably keep Obama at home, that means that the prime minister’s already faltering attempt to split up the Lapid-Bennett tag team is now officially doomed.

Netanyahu has his own reasons for fearing both Lapid and Bennett.

He’s clearly worried about Lapid’s boasts about replacing Netanyahu in the next election and dreads having to give him the key post of foreign minister as part of the price for getting Yesh Atid’s 19 seats onto the government benches. Though they are closer on ideology, he seems to have just as much antipathy for the charismatic Bennett, who once was chief of staff and broke with Netanyahu, allegedly because of the influence of the prime minister’s wife Sara.

But with Lapid and Bennett deciding that their mutual support for a more equitable system of national service outweighs any differences on other issues, Netanyahu now has no choice but to swallow hard and have both of these would-be rivals in the Cabinet.

Obama and the two party leaders may be doing Netanyahu more of a favor than he knows. Keeping both Lapid and Bennett inside the government tent is to the prime minister’s advantage. Saddling him with responsibility for government actions also lessens Lapid’s long-term appeal as a reformer even if the foreign ministry would give him the gravitas to be a credible prime minister in the future. Moreover, achieving a real breakthrough on the question of the Haredim and the draft would be a genuine achievement for Netanyahu and burnish his legacy in his third term as Israel’s leader.

It’s important to understand the big loser here isn’t the prime minister. It’s the ultra-Orthodox who have used their disproportionate influence on the country’s political system to perpetuate an unequal burden of national service as well as to funnel huge amounts of patronage and government allocations to their institutions. Keeping Shas and United Torah Judaism out of the government will create a team of rivals in the Cabinet that worries Netanyahu, but it will enable him to do something none of his predecessors ever achieved.

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Is Netanyahu Outsmarting Himself Again?

Over the course of the last year, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made a series of decisions that took what seemed like an unassailable political position and turned into a shaky re-election. He choose to make an alliance with the faltering Kadima Party that soon unraveled rather than seek early an election in the fall of 2012 when he was at his strongest. His public grandstanding about President Obama’s stance on Iran and the slights he received from the White House was interpreted as an intervention in the U.S. election on behalf of Mitt Romney that did neither the Republican nor the prime minister any good. Then he merged his Likud Party with Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu Party prior to the January Knesset election that served only to drive secular voters into the arms of upstart Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid.

Given the paucity of credible opponents for the office of prime minister and the collapse of Israel’s political left none of this was enough to cost Netanyahu the election but the Likud’s haul of Knesset seats was less than he might have gotten a few months earlier had he avoided these mistakes. But as the PM conducts the negotiations to form a new government, it may be that he is about to commit another blunder. Though one should take any of the reports leaking out of the talks between the Israeli parties with more than a few grains of salt, right now it looks as if Netanyahu is on the verge of outsmarting himself again and setting up the Likud for a potential electoral disaster at the next election.

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Over the course of the last year, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made a series of decisions that took what seemed like an unassailable political position and turned into a shaky re-election. He choose to make an alliance with the faltering Kadima Party that soon unraveled rather than seek early an election in the fall of 2012 when he was at his strongest. His public grandstanding about President Obama’s stance on Iran and the slights he received from the White House was interpreted as an intervention in the U.S. election on behalf of Mitt Romney that did neither the Republican nor the prime minister any good. Then he merged his Likud Party with Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu Party prior to the January Knesset election that served only to drive secular voters into the arms of upstart Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid.

Given the paucity of credible opponents for the office of prime minister and the collapse of Israel’s political left none of this was enough to cost Netanyahu the election but the Likud’s haul of Knesset seats was less than he might have gotten a few months earlier had he avoided these mistakes. But as the PM conducts the negotiations to form a new government, it may be that he is about to commit another blunder. Though one should take any of the reports leaking out of the talks between the Israeli parties with more than a few grains of salt, right now it looks as if Netanyahu is on the verge of outsmarting himself again and setting up the Likud for a potential electoral disaster at the next election.

According to Haaretz, the first Israeli Party to accept Netanyahu’s invitation to join his government is something of a surprise: Tzipi Livni’s Hatnuah. Livni, a longtime Netanyahu antagonist who ran as a critic of the Likud’s stance on the peace process did poorly at the polls getting only six seats. But Netanyahu has nevertheless rewarded her with the post of Justice minister and leadership of peace negotiations with the Palestinians. In of itself that might not be such a dumb idea. Livni is desperate for office and sticking her with the thankless of job of negotiating with Mahmoud Abbas is setting her up for certain failure. But the problem here is that this seems to be part of a scheme to assemble a coalition involving the ultra-Orthodox Parties that is designed to marginalize Lapid as well as Naftali Bennett, the prime minister’s potent rival on his right who also came out of the voting a winner.

As Haaretz details, Netanyahu’s plan seems to be to create a 57-seat bloc without either Lapid or Bennett which will leave both the choice of joining the Cabinet on Netanyahu’s terms or being left in the cold. That would seem to be a clever way of cutting Lapid and Bennett down to size as well as to avoid pressure to adopt a far reaching plan to change the draft system to ensure the conscription of the ultra-Orthodox the same as other Israelis. It would give him a government that would offer cover on the peace process with the Americans while making sure that neither Lapid nor Bennett could topple him.

But if that is Netanyahu’s goal, he is missing a historic opportunity as well as sowing the seeds for defeat the next time Israelis vote.

The January vote presented the prime minister with the chance to do what had eluded every previous Israeli government: fix the Haredi draft problem. The combined strength of Likud, Yesh Atid and Bennett’s Habayit Hayehudi would ensure a solid majority that would easily be joined by smaller parties that would support a program of draft change and maybe even make election reform possible. That would enrage the two ultra-Orthodox Parties Shas and United Torah Judaism but they would be powerless to stop the measure. But Netanyahu seems to be more bothered by the prospect of an alliance with Lapid and Bennett — both of whom are feeling their oats since the election — than the prospect of allying himself again with the dead weight of the Haredim or even Livni.

Four years ago, it was Livni and her then powerful Kadima faction (it won 28 seats then but was whittled down to 2 under Livni’s successor) that passed up the opportunity to do something about the draft when her wounded pride prevented an alliance with Likud. But if he chooses to embrace Shas and UTJ at the expense of Lapid, this time it will be Bibi who will be blamed for another Haredi victory that will be deeply resented by most Israeli voters.

Even more dangerous for Netanyahu is the prospect that Lapid will be smart enough to stay out of a government in which Shas and UTJ will be able to veto draft reform. The prime minister appears to resent Lapid’s boasts that he will build on his 2013 success and be elected prime minister the next time around. But it looks as though he fails to understand that the surest path to that result will be to keep Lapid out of the cabinet rather than welcoming him into it.

Many independent centrists running on platforms calling for drafting the Haredim have done well in Israeli elections before. But all succumbed to the siren call of government office and were then co-opted by their major party rivals. The only way for Lapid to avoid that fate is precisely by not making the same mistake. The formula for election victory for any of those who hope to replace Netanyahu at the next election is to stay out of the Cabinet and to help lead the opposition to the prime minister. That’s something that the Labor Party’s Shelly Yacimovich seems to understand even better than Lapid.

It may be that before the negotiating is done, Netanyahu will have abandoned his ultra-Orthodox allies and swallowed his pride and have done a deal with Lapid and Bennett that will be good for his country and his political future. But if not, we may look back on what is going on this week in Israel as one more example of Netanyahu being too clever by half and setting the stage for his political undoing.

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Coalition Talks Show Israeli Election Preserved Foreign Policy Status Quo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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It’s the Cost of Living, Stupid

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Netanyahu-Bashers Shouldn’t Rejoice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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