Commentary Magazine


Topic: Shaul Mofaz

Why Netanyahu Will Be Re-Elected

Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu announced yesterday that he would seek to move up the date of his country’s next election from October 2013 to either January or February. While nothing is certain in a democratic system, the odds that Netanyahu will emerge triumphant from the next test at the ballot box are overwhelming. While the prime minister is widely disliked by international elites, American Jewish liberals, and the Obama administration, he stands alone at the pinnacle of Israeli politics with no credible challenger. Though this state of affairs is deplored by Bibi-bashers, this would be an apt moment for them to ponder why exactly Netanyahu is virtually a lock to hold onto power.

The answer has little to do with his personal charms (of which he has few) or his political acumen (which is considerable). Nor is it solely the product of an unimpressive array of potential challengers that few in Israel think are fit to lead the country in his place. Rather, it is the result of the fact that the majority of Israelis share his pragmatic view of the strategic challenges that face the country as well as his grasp of economic reality. For all of the fact that many in the West regard Netanyahu as an ideologue, he will retain his office because he is a voice of common-sense wisdom that ordinary Israelis respect, even if they don’t love him.

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Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu announced yesterday that he would seek to move up the date of his country’s next election from October 2013 to either January or February. While nothing is certain in a democratic system, the odds that Netanyahu will emerge triumphant from the next test at the ballot box are overwhelming. While the prime minister is widely disliked by international elites, American Jewish liberals, and the Obama administration, he stands alone at the pinnacle of Israeli politics with no credible challenger. Though this state of affairs is deplored by Bibi-bashers, this would be an apt moment for them to ponder why exactly Netanyahu is virtually a lock to hold onto power.

The answer has little to do with his personal charms (of which he has few) or his political acumen (which is considerable). Nor is it solely the product of an unimpressive array of potential challengers that few in Israel think are fit to lead the country in his place. Rather, it is the result of the fact that the majority of Israelis share his pragmatic view of the strategic challenges that face the country as well as his grasp of economic reality. For all of the fact that many in the West regard Netanyahu as an ideologue, he will retain his office because he is a voice of common-sense wisdom that ordinary Israelis respect, even if they don’t love him.

It is true that had Netanyahu chosen to go directly to new elections last May rather than attempting to create a “super coalition” with the leading opposition party, he might well be in an even stronger position today. Ever the cautious tactician, Netanyahu thought putting Kadima in his camp and putting off elections till next fall would neuter his foes. But the onetime centrist juggernaut was in no condition to be a partner and its leader, Shaul Mofaz, jumped ship at the first opportunity.

In the ensuing months, Netanyahu has been buffeted by bitter criticism about his confrontation with President Obama over the Iranian nuclear threat both at home and abroad, leaving him a bit weaker than he was in May. But even when these recent blows are taken into consideration, Netanyahu’s confidence in his ability to outfox his opponents is justified.

Kadima is a shell of its former self and is certain to lose much of its strength at the next election. It’s roster of former and present leaders — Ehud Olmert, Tzipi Livni and Mofaz — may seek to combine forces with a new party led by journalist Yair Lapid or cut a deal with Netanyahu’s erstwhile partner, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who is something of a man without a party. But whatever configuration their machinations produce, it is more likely to resemble a political island of lost toys than a viable opposition party.

The one opponent of Netanyahu’s Likud that can be said to be on the rise is the Labor Party. Labor has abandoned its old obsession with land-for-peace deals with the Palestinians that nearly destroyed the one-time perennial party of government. Instead it is now concentrating on exploiting discontent with the economy. Labor’s social democratic prescriptions make no economic sense — especially since the country has thrived under Netanyahu’s stewardship — but its seizure of the banner of social justice makes it a clear favorite to wind up as the leader of the opposition in the next Knesset. But though Labor is once again a force to be reckoned with, few believe its leader, Shelly Yachimovich, has the credentials to deal with the country’s security challenges.

But Netanyahu’s good luck in being opposed by an array of opponents who are either inexperienced, discredited or merely unsuitable (such as his coalition ally Avigdor Lieberman as well as Olmert) would be nothing if not for the fact that Israelis happen to agree with the prime minister on the big questions facing the country.

The majority of Israelis agree with him that peace with the Palestinians is not possible until they undergo a sea change in their political culture that will allow them to recognize the legitimacy of the Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn. And though much of the world (including President Obama) may be tired of Netanyahu’s warnings about Iran, they resonate with an Israeli public that understands that they face existential threats that can’t be wished away.

As Haaretz columnist Ari Shavit ruefully noted, Netanyahu has rejected the false hopes of the peace processors and opted instead for stability and management of the country’s conflicts. With the Arab Spring producing more danger for Israel in the form of Islamist governments, the Palestinians locked in internecine conflict and a culture of violence, and Iran more dangerous than ever, Netanyahu’s approach is the only one that makes any sense. Leftists and liberals may long for the lost hopes of Oslo or pine for the socialism of Israel’s past, but most Israelis sensibly reject such foolishness. That makes him, as Shavit puts it, “virtually the sole candidate to head the government of Israel.”

Like it or not, Americans need to make their peace with Netanyahu. The odds are, he will not only remain in office throughout the next U.S. presidential term but also possibly still be there when the next inauguration rolls around in 2017. That’s a reflection not so much of his political skill as it is a reflection of the realism of the Israeli electorate.

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Coalition Shift Leaves Netanyahu on Top

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Kadima Back to the Likud?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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No Iran Dissension Within Israeli Coalition

With the dust settling from Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s brilliant political maneuver in which he vastly expanded his coalition and his power, the question remains what will he do with it in the next year? While Israelis seem more interested in domestic political implications of the move, not surprisingly, most foreign observers are focused on the impact of the new coalition on the issue of Iran’s nuclear threat. Some of Netanyahu’s frustrated critics are holding on to the hope that somehow the addition of Kadima head Shaul Mofaz will moderate the prime minister’s stand on the issue. But this is not only a misreading of Mofaz but of Netanyahu’s position.

As the prime minister demonstrated today in his meeting with European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, far from Mofaz’s entry into the Cabinet acting as a restraint on him, the creation of a government that can count on nearly 80 percent of the Knesset means that when Netanyahu speaks now there can be no doubt that he represents a strong consensus within his country on the issue. By bringing Mofaz as well as Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman to speak to Ashton, Netanyahu demonstrated that there is across-the-board support for his demands that Iran’s nuclear program be stopped dead in its tracks.

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With the dust settling from Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s brilliant political maneuver in which he vastly expanded his coalition and his power, the question remains what will he do with it in the next year? While Israelis seem more interested in domestic political implications of the move, not surprisingly, most foreign observers are focused on the impact of the new coalition on the issue of Iran’s nuclear threat. Some of Netanyahu’s frustrated critics are holding on to the hope that somehow the addition of Kadima head Shaul Mofaz will moderate the prime minister’s stand on the issue. But this is not only a misreading of Mofaz but of Netanyahu’s position.

As the prime minister demonstrated today in his meeting with European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, far from Mofaz’s entry into the Cabinet acting as a restraint on him, the creation of a government that can count on nearly 80 percent of the Knesset means that when Netanyahu speaks now there can be no doubt that he represents a strong consensus within his country on the issue. By bringing Mofaz as well as Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman to speak to Ashton, Netanyahu demonstrated that there is across-the-board support for his demands that Iran’s nuclear program be stopped dead in its tracks.

Ashton, a virulent critic of Israel who has been ceded control of the P5+1 talks with Iran by President Obama, may have intended her visit to Israel as an opportunity to mend fences so as to allow her to continue the diplomatic minuet she is dancing with the Islamist regime to continue unimpeded by Israeli actions. But Netanyahu used the meeting to lay down the guidelines for the upcoming negotiations in Baghdad. As Haaretz reported today:

During the meeting, the Israelis presented a rigid set of demands for the Iranians, a senior Israeli official said. Netanyahu and the three ministers told Ashton that Israel’s position leading up to the Baghdad talks is that the talks will be considered as progress only if they would yield an Iranian guarantee – with a clear timetable – to halt uranium enrichment, to remove all enriched uranium out of Iranian soil, and to dismantle the underground enrichment facility in Fordo, which is near Qom.

In doing so, Netanyahu is attempting to box in the Western negotiators who have given every indication that they will be happy to allow the Iranians to drag out the talks and would be satisfied with a deal that would leave their nuclear program intact. These terms were delivered to Ashton, but the real audience for Israel’s position is in Washington.

Three years ago, President Obama may have entertained hopes about toppling Netanyahu, but now he is faced with the fact that the Israeli is stronger than ever. Though fears about a unilateral Israeli strike on Iran are probably exaggerated — Netanyahu would almost certainly not contemplate such an option while Western talks with Iran are ongoing — the new coalition will force the administration to stop listening to dissident Israeli voices carping at Netanyahu for his tough stance on Iran. As Haaretz also notes, the idea that Mofaz disagrees with the prime minister on Iran is a misperception fueled by Israeli political maneuvering:

According to a report published by Israeli newspaper Maariv on Wednesday, several officials who took part in the coalitional negotiations between Mofaz and Netanyahu said the two are “coordinated” over the issue of Iran and are “of one mind” when it comes to stopping Iran’s nuclear program.

Netanyahu knows Iran has no intention of giving up its nuclear chips in the current talks. He now has a broad government that will back him on any decision to take action. That places more pressure than ever on Obama not to allow the U.S. to be dragged into an unsatisfactory deal by Ashton that will have negative political repercussions at home and might force Israel to act on its own. Though the president may hope to kick the Iranian can down the road until after the fall U.S. elections, Netanyahu’s coup may have made it more difficult for the president to do so.

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New Unity Government Is Smart Politics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Heads: Bibi Wins; Tails: His Rivals Lose

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Fall of Obama’s Favorite Israeli

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Perils of Freelance Diplomacy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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