Commentary Magazine


Topic: Naftali Bennett

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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Obama Can’t Get Even With Netanyahu

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Netanyahu’s Problem: He Can’t Lose

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Why Israel Has Shifted to the Right

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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