Commentary Magazine


Topic: Tzipi Livni

The Israeli “Land Grab” and Hopes for Peace

Those intransigent Israelis have done it again. Just when the world was hoping for gestures of peace, they’ve done something making the two-state solution with the Palestinians harder to implement. Or so most of the world is claiming today after Israel’s government declared that 988 acres of vacant land in the Gush Etzion bloc south of Jerusalem is “state land” and therefore might be used for development. But the diplomatic condemnation raining down on the Israelis today is illogical and has very little to do with the terms of what a real peace deal might look like. If the Palestinians really wanted peace, this move wouldn’t affect it in the least.

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Those intransigent Israelis have done it again. Just when the world was hoping for gestures of peace, they’ve done something making the two-state solution with the Palestinians harder to implement. Or so most of the world is claiming today after Israel’s government declared that 988 acres of vacant land in the Gush Etzion bloc south of Jerusalem is “state land” and therefore might be used for development. But the diplomatic condemnation raining down on the Israelis today is illogical and has very little to do with the terms of what a real peace deal might look like. If the Palestinians really wanted peace, this move wouldn’t affect it in the least.

As the New York Times reported today, the seizure of the vacant land is being considered proof that the Netanyahu government doesn’t want peace. It was condemned by the Palestinian Authority, the United Kingdom, and even criticized by Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni. But the way the story is being presented in the mainstream press is highly misleading.

The New York Times simply refers to the land in its headline as “West Bank Land Near Bethlehem.” That’s true in that the place is in the area taken by Israel in June 1967 and it is near the city of Bethlehem. But savvy readers should have picked up on the mention in the story of the fact that it is “in” a settlement bloc. Though the Peace Now organization condemned the move as one that would “dramatically change the reality” in the area, since it is already inside an area that is heavily populated by Jews and claimed by the Jewish state, it’s hard to see how anything that happens inside it would affect the future of other parts of the West Bank which might theoretically be conceded to the Palestinians as part of an independent state.

But this isn’t just any settlement bloc; it’s Gush Etzion. That may not mean much to Americans, let alone Europeans who can be counted on to condemn anything the Israelis do, but it does put the matter of whether this decision actually affects possible peace negotiations in perspective.

It needs to be remembered that most peace advocates keep telling us that the terms of peace between Israel and the Palestinians are well known and that all that is needed is the will to implement them rather than more discussions about the details. But among those terms is the concept of territorial swaps that was endorsed by President Obama and even approved by the Palestinian participants in the Geneva initiatives. The swaps would allow Israel to keep the blocs of settlements—most of which are adjacent to the 1967 lines—in exchange for other territory to be given to the Palestinians. While there is some dispute as to which blocs are part of this consensus, there is no doubt that one of them is the Etzion bloc.

There are two reasons for the assumption that Gush Etzion stays inside of Israel even if a Palestinian state is created in the West Bank.

One is that it is just south of Jerusalem and requires no great manipulation of the map. It guards the southern flank of Israel’s capital and the area containing 22 Jewish communities with over 70,000 living there can be retained while leaving Bethlehem inside a putative Palestinian state.

But this land is also significant because, contrary to the narrative in which Jews are portrayed as “stealing” Arab land, Gush Etzion was actually populated and owned by Jews not only prior to 1967 but also prior to Israel’s War of Independence. Gush Etzion was a bloc of Jewish settlements that was overrun by Jordanian army units and local Palestinians after a bitterly contested siege. Its inhabitants were either massacred or taken prisoner and their homes and farms destroyed. As such, it was the first land to be reclaimed for Jewish settlement after the 1967 war put it back in Israeli hands.

Let’s be clear about this. Neither the ownership nor the future of Gush Etzion is up for debate in any peace talks. In every peace plan, whether put forward by Israel’s government or its left-wing opponents, the bloc remains part of Israel, a reality that most sensible Palestinians accept.

The legal dispute about whether empty land can be converted to state use for development or settlement or if it is actually the property of neighboring Arab villages is one that will play itself out in Israel’s courts. Given the scrupulous manner with which Israel’s independent judiciary has handled such cases in the past, if the local Arabs can prove their dubious assertions of ownership, the land will be theirs.

But no matter who wins that case, it won’t affect the territory of a Palestinian state since whether individual Arabs own these lots or Jews won’t make a difference in peace talks. If Jews wind up living there it won’t impact the future borders of a Palestinian state any more than the fact that Arabs are building on lots in Bethlehem.

Why then is the Gush Etzion land decision being represented as such a blow to a peace process that was already torpedoed earlier this year by the Hamas-Fatah reconciliation fact and rendered even more unlikely by the terrorist war of attrition launched by Hamas this summer?

The reason is fairly obvious. The Palestinians and their cheerleaders aren’t really interested in negotiating peace and drawing lines that could effectively divide the land even on terms favorable to their side. The Obama-endorsed land swaps that would include Gush Etzion or any other possible provisions to achieve peace are irrelevant to their goals because it is still impossible for Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas to recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn.

That’s a fact that pro-peace Israelis like Livni and others here in the United States need to understand. Livni didn’t condemn the Etzion announcement because she believes it actually could impact the terms of a peace deal. She knows it won’t. Rather, she thinks that the move will draw attention to the area and encourage Arabs and foreign governments to advocate for Israel to give up even this land that Jews originally owned. But whether or not attention is drawn to the bloc, the Palestinians are no more willing to let the Jews keep it than they are to let them keep any other part of the West Bank or those lands that were inside the pre-67 lines.

Livni, like some other Israelis, is also uncomfortable with the idea that the motivation for this decision is to send a message to the Arabs about terrorism. Giving more land for Jewish settlement in this area may also be a response to the kidnapping of the three Israeli teenagers that set off the war with Hamas since the trio were taken and killed in this very area. Sending such a message is a policy that can be debated, but whether or not it is wise or appropriate has nothing to do with the terms of peace.

The Gush Etzion announcement is no land grab. It concerns vacant lots inside an area that will always be kept as part of Israel. But the anger that it generated does send a signal to Israel that the Palestinians aren’t going to accept their continued presence in any part of the country. That’s bad news for peace but remedying it will require a shift toward acceptance of Israel’s legitimacy among the Palestinians, not the surrender of Jewish communities.

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Lessons from the Failed Peace Process

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Netanyahu’s Uncomfortable Fig Leaf

Israel’s far-left Meretz Party doesn’t often offer much in the way of insight about either the Middle East peace process or the country’s government, but today one of the group’s leaders, MK Nitzan Horowitz spoke at least a partial truth when he referred to Justice Minister Tzipi Livni as nothing more than a “fig leaf” for Prime Minister Netanyahu. In an interview with the Times of Israel’s David Horovitz, the head of what is left of the once dominant “peace camp” decried Livni’s continued presence in the Cabinet. Horowitz’s evaluation of Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas as a man of peace and willingness to place a good deal of the blame for the collapse of the peace process on Netanyahu is divorced from the facts and explains why his party and its allies retain only a small sliver of support from the Israeli public. But his comments were generally on target with respect to the anomalous position of Livni inside the government of the man who has been her nemesis.

An earlier Times of Israel report documented the blowback inside the country’s government about Livni’s decision to meet with Abbas in London last week even though Netanyahu had suspended negotiations with the PA after its alliance with Hamas. Reportedly, Netanyahu was livid at her insubordination and wanted to fire her. But after calming down, the prime minister realized that if he made Livni and her small parliamentary faction walk the plank, she would generate a coalition crisis that would leave him with only a small majority in the Knesset. That would put him at the mercy of his right-wing partner/antagonist Naftali Bennett, the head of the Jewish Home Party, who used Livni’s excursion to both call for her resignation and to posture at the prime minister’s expense to the voters.

In the end, Livni accomplished nothing with her mission to Abbas. He is no more willing to budge an inch toward peace now than he was throughout the long months of negotiations during which his representatives stonewalled the eager Livni, who headed Israel’s delegation. But the dustup involving the prime minister and the woman who has always thought that she, and not Netanyahu, should be leading the country is interesting because it illustrates just how wrongheaded the critics who bash Israel’s government as inflexibly right-wing really are.

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Israel’s far-left Meretz Party doesn’t often offer much in the way of insight about either the Middle East peace process or the country’s government, but today one of the group’s leaders, MK Nitzan Horowitz spoke at least a partial truth when he referred to Justice Minister Tzipi Livni as nothing more than a “fig leaf” for Prime Minister Netanyahu. In an interview with the Times of Israel’s David Horovitz, the head of what is left of the once dominant “peace camp” decried Livni’s continued presence in the Cabinet. Horowitz’s evaluation of Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas as a man of peace and willingness to place a good deal of the blame for the collapse of the peace process on Netanyahu is divorced from the facts and explains why his party and its allies retain only a small sliver of support from the Israeli public. But his comments were generally on target with respect to the anomalous position of Livni inside the government of the man who has been her nemesis.

An earlier Times of Israel report documented the blowback inside the country’s government about Livni’s decision to meet with Abbas in London last week even though Netanyahu had suspended negotiations with the PA after its alliance with Hamas. Reportedly, Netanyahu was livid at her insubordination and wanted to fire her. But after calming down, the prime minister realized that if he made Livni and her small parliamentary faction walk the plank, she would generate a coalition crisis that would leave him with only a small majority in the Knesset. That would put him at the mercy of his right-wing partner/antagonist Naftali Bennett, the head of the Jewish Home Party, who used Livni’s excursion to both call for her resignation and to posture at the prime minister’s expense to the voters.

In the end, Livni accomplished nothing with her mission to Abbas. He is no more willing to budge an inch toward peace now than he was throughout the long months of negotiations during which his representatives stonewalled the eager Livni, who headed Israel’s delegation. But the dustup involving the prime minister and the woman who has always thought that she, and not Netanyahu, should be leading the country is interesting because it illustrates just how wrongheaded the critics who bash Israel’s government as inflexibly right-wing really are.

Americans who buy into the mainstream media’s reflexive dismissal of Netanyahu as “hard-line” (a word that many readers may think is his first name) and intransigent need to understand that the term tells us nothing about his policies. He began his current term in office in 2013, by offering Livni a major Cabinet post (the Justice Ministry) and the portfolio for peace talks with the Palestinians. Doing so was more or less the equivalent of President Obama choosing Mitt Romney to be secretary of state. Such alliances are, of course, less unusual in parliamentary systems, and especially so in Israel where no party has ever won an absolute majority in the Knesset. But it should be understood that Livni campaigned in the last election as a critic of Netanyahu’s peace policies and was then given an opportunity to prove him wrong by being handed the chance to strike a deal with Abbas. While the failure of the initiative championed by Secretary of State John Kerry is rightly considered to be his fiasco, the unwillingness of the Palestinians to come even close to satisfying Livni—the one Israeli that the Obama administration thought was most likely to make peace—tells us everything we need to know about the Palestinians’ responsibility for the collapse of the talks.

Rather than being the beard for Netanyahu whose purpose it is to fool the world into thinking that Israel wanted peace as Meretz and other leftists think, Livni’s presence at the table with the Palestinians is actually the proof that if Abbas wanted peace and an independent state, he could have it.  Livni doesn’t have Netanyahu’s confidence but he did let her conduct the negotiations without too much interference. If he was concerned that she would give away too much to the Palestinians or the American team led by Martin Indyk that is intractably hostile to the Israeli government, he had nothing to worry about. The Palestinians never gave her chance.

Some may think she is serving as a fig leaf for Netanyahu, but if they thought more seriously about her role in the peace process over the past year they would realize that her presence in the government did nothing to ease criticism from Washington or from the usual suspects who like to bash the Jewish state. Instead, she proved her theories and those of other Netanyahu critics wrong by trying and failing to get the Palestinians to take yes for an answer. If she stays in the government, and given her history of rank opportunism and love of office, there’s no reason to think she won’t, it will be to continue to serve as a warning to Netanyahu’s detractors that their accusations of Israeli intransigence are without a factual basis. That isn’t a particularly comfortable role for her or Netanyahu. But it does illustrate how foolish those who still laud Abbas as a man of peace really are.

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Another Try for Kerry’s Middle East Fiasco?

Since the collapse of the U.S.-sponsored negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, Secretary of State John Kerry has been all dressed up with nowhere to go. But if the administration has anything to do with it, that may be about to change. The State Department is now denying earlier reports that it is dismantling its negotiating team. By all accounts plans are afoot to send them all back again. And if that wasn’t enough, apparently Kerry is still mulling submitting his parameters to the two sides. What on earth for? The last time he came close to doing so PA head Mahmoud Abbas preempted him by issuing his own impossibly outlandish list of red lines.

State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf denies that there are any plans to dismantle “the team” and simply stated, “We’re going to see where this goes from here and, you know, figure out what makes sense in terms of staffing.” Perhaps what would “make sense in terms of staffing” would be for Kerry to let his chief negotiator Martin Indyk go, which after all seems to be what Indyk wants. Rumor has it that after some off-the-record comments were attributed to Indyk, he is looking to resign and is eager to return to the peace and quiet of the Brookings Institution in Washington, away from all those tiresome Israelis. For the comments widely attributed to Indyk certainly make no secret of the speaker’s feelings toward that quarter.

The comments in question were such that they would irreversibly burn any bridges of trust between the Israelis and whoever said them. Would Indyk have intentionally made sure that it became known that the comments had come from him? If so, it would make for a pretty one-directional escape from the sinking ship of Kerry’s hubristic peace mission. Much like President Obama’s now infamous Bloomberg interview, the voice speaking in the Yedioth Aharonoth interview portrays Abbas as a Gandhi-like figure and the Netanyahu government as a cynical pack of colonialists, indifferent to peace, hell-bent on robbing the Palestinians of their land, and outrageously trying to nudge the outcome of the talks in a direction that might protect at least some of Israel’s security concerns.

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Since the collapse of the U.S.-sponsored negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, Secretary of State John Kerry has been all dressed up with nowhere to go. But if the administration has anything to do with it, that may be about to change. The State Department is now denying earlier reports that it is dismantling its negotiating team. By all accounts plans are afoot to send them all back again. And if that wasn’t enough, apparently Kerry is still mulling submitting his parameters to the two sides. What on earth for? The last time he came close to doing so PA head Mahmoud Abbas preempted him by issuing his own impossibly outlandish list of red lines.

State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf denies that there are any plans to dismantle “the team” and simply stated, “We’re going to see where this goes from here and, you know, figure out what makes sense in terms of staffing.” Perhaps what would “make sense in terms of staffing” would be for Kerry to let his chief negotiator Martin Indyk go, which after all seems to be what Indyk wants. Rumor has it that after some off-the-record comments were attributed to Indyk, he is looking to resign and is eager to return to the peace and quiet of the Brookings Institution in Washington, away from all those tiresome Israelis. For the comments widely attributed to Indyk certainly make no secret of the speaker’s feelings toward that quarter.

The comments in question were such that they would irreversibly burn any bridges of trust between the Israelis and whoever said them. Would Indyk have intentionally made sure that it became known that the comments had come from him? If so, it would make for a pretty one-directional escape from the sinking ship of Kerry’s hubristic peace mission. Much like President Obama’s now infamous Bloomberg interview, the voice speaking in the Yedioth Aharonoth interview portrays Abbas as a Gandhi-like figure and the Netanyahu government as a cynical pack of colonialists, indifferent to peace, hell-bent on robbing the Palestinians of their land, and outrageously trying to nudge the outcome of the talks in a direction that might protect at least some of Israel’s security concerns.

Whoever made these comments either hasn’t been paying attention or is simply fabricating facts, particularly with their claim that talks collapsed on account of the settlements. Freezing settlement activity was never a predicate for the talks, and even after a dispute over prisoner releases and Palestinian moves at the United Nations the negotiations limped on, only finally and definitively collapsing when the Palestinians stunned Kerry and his team by announcing a Fatah-Hamas unity deal. That was the point at which talks were closed; settlements had nothing to do with it.

It is strange, however, that the U.S. official speaking in the Yedioth Aharonoth interview was so praiseful of Israel’s chief negotiator Tzipi Livni. If it were true, as the official claims, that Israel had an unreasonable negotiating position then why all the praise for Livni? Or are these comments really just about attacking Netanyahu and the Israeli right? Livni has her own political rivalries to think of and if Netanyahu had really dealt her a bad hand to play wouldn’t she have protested, if not to smear the prime minister then at least to save herself from being setup as the government’s fall guy? Yet Livni’s only real protests were against Abbas and his unreasonable positions.

If there was any doubt about the bad faith coming from the individual who made these comments, that is surely settled by their remarks about how, whether the Israelis like it or not, the Palestinians “will get their state in the end — whether through violence or by turning to international organizations.” This blatant indifference to the repercussions for Israel, and blasé attitude to Palestinian terrorism, would certainly ensure that whoever is speaking here can never come back from this as an impartial negotiator. Not surprising, then, that many have tied these comments to reports of Indyk’s return to Washington. 

If Indyk is to retire from Kerry’s ill-advised foray into the delights of the Israel-Palestinian impasse, then it remains to be seen as to who will replace him. But no matter who Kerry puts on his team, it won’t change the fact that Abbas has just put Hamas prime minister Ismail Haniyeh on his.  

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The Rise and Fall of Tzipi Livni

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Abbas Bets on Kerry’s Desperation

The Palestinians have had a fairly willing enabler in John Kerry so far, but if today’s New York Times report is right, they may have finally overplayed their hand. According to the Times, both sides have asked Martin Indyk to extend the talks, which were on the verge of disintegration after the Palestinians walked away. But the Palestinians are now saying they can be lured back to the table … for a price.

Apparently the Palestinians will resume negotiations on the principle that the negotiations never actually ended as long as the Israelis are made to act as though the talks crumbled and the resumption is actually a new round starting from scratch. Here’s the logic, such as it is:

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The Palestinians have had a fairly willing enabler in John Kerry so far, but if today’s New York Times report is right, they may have finally overplayed their hand. According to the Times, both sides have asked Martin Indyk to extend the talks, which were on the verge of disintegration after the Palestinians walked away. But the Palestinians are now saying they can be lured back to the table … for a price.

Apparently the Palestinians will resume negotiations on the principle that the negotiations never actually ended as long as the Israelis are made to act as though the talks crumbled and the resumption is actually a new round starting from scratch. Here’s the logic, such as it is:

Mr. Netanyahu said on Sunday that Israel would take its own “unilateral steps” in response to the Palestinians’ move last week to join 15 international treaties and conventions and reiterated that a Palestinian state could be created “only through direct negotiations, not through empty statements and not by unilateral moves.”

The Palestinians said they took the contentious step only because Israel reneged on a promise to release a group of long-serving prisoners by the end of March, breaking its own commitment as part of the negotiations.

So that’s step one: the pretext. The Palestinians say they took their unilateral steps because Israel didn’t release all the murderers it was supposed to. Those unilateral steps consisted of pushing applications to join various international conventions. According to this logic, if Israel releases the rest of those terrorists, the talks should resume. Except:

Muhammad Shtayyeh, a senior Palestinian official who resigned as a negotiator in the midst of the current talks, said on Monday that Mr. Abbas’s application to join the international entities was “irreversible” and represented a “paradigm shift” in which Palestinians would pursue other options in parallel with bilateral negotiations. But he, too, suggested that there could yet be a way out of the crisis.

“We are keeping the door open for any serious talks,” he said at a briefing in Ramallah. “We have time between today and the 29th of April. If the Israeli side is serious, we are ready for that.”

So there’s no going back. But there is a way to salvage the talks, according to the Palestinians. More concessions from Israel, with no concurrent Palestinian concessions, will bring them back to the table:

Mr. Shtayyeh rejected Israel’s demand that the applications to the entities be withdrawn and said Palestinians want to separate the issues of the release of the promised fourth batch of prisoners from that of extending the timetable for the talks. He said extending negotiations would require either a freeze on construction in West Bank settlements or the Israeli presentation of a map outlining the future borders of the promised two states.

So the two sides are to treat the negotiations as if they are beginning anew, not continuing the previous round of talks? Not exactly:

“The release of prisoners is part of an agreement, and no compromise can be accepted,” Yasser Abed Rabbo, a close aide to Mr. Abbas and an officer of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s executive committee, said Sunday on the Voice of Palestine radio station.

Even if you are sympathetic to the Palestinian side in this argument, this is plainly transparent. If the Palestinians believe Israel must release the rest of the terrorists for talks to continue, then that should theoretically be the only requirement for Abbas to pretend to negotiate again. It would be appropriate for Abbas to then take back the unilateral action he claims he took in response to Israel’s action (or perceived inaction, as it were), since even he associates the two.

He doesn’t want to do that. He wants to exact a price for this delay. If you’re still with him so far, he gets the original prisoner release in order to return to negotiations plus a penalty of sorts against Israel for the delay by applying to join the international agencies and conventions. That should be it, right? Nope–Abbas wants another precondition, such as a settlement freeze, as though the process were starting from the beginning or Israel wouldn’t release the rest of the terrorists, when in fact he acts as though both were true.

What’s the argument in favor of a round of concessions as preconditions in addition to releasing the terrorists? Abbas is playing Kerry. He assumes that Kerry is sufficiently desperate for negotiations that he’ll lean on Netanyahu to give Abbas whatever he wants. In all likelihood, the Israeli Cabinet (except for Tzipi Livni) will get tired of this game, which suits Abbas just fine, since he doesn’t seem to want an actual peace deal but rather a disaster he can blame on the Israelis. The question is whether Kerry–or any representative of the Obama administration–can ever get tired of scapegoating Netanyahu.

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The Retrograde Israeli Left

Listening to Israel’s “progressives” you might think it was still 1994, as if two decades of failed peace efforts, Palestinian intransigence, and unrelenting incitement and terrorism had simply never happened. They speak as if they’re still living in some heyday of the Oslo peace accords. Naturally, it is the role of the political opposition in any democracy to find fault with the actions of governing political rivals, but what Israel’s left-wing politicians are saying goes far beyond normal critique of government policy despite the fact that, although they would never admit it, the current government’s strategy for peace talks is not fundamentally different from what they themselves propose.

On Monday Israel’s parliament convened from its recess for a session on the peace talks, as had been called for by 25 Knesset members, only 15 of whom bothered to show up. But perhaps those who stayed away were the wiser; in reality this supposedly urgent session was little more than a shameless opportunity for opposition politicians to capitalize on the failure of the latest round of peace talks. Pouring scorn on Prime Minister Netanyahu, left-wing party leaders called for everything from new elections to a breakup of the coalition and the formation of a new government. Political ambitions aside, what these individuals really displayed was a total unwillingness to recognize any of what has been happening in the last few months–really, the last few decades. Israel’s left is stuck in a time warp and whereas the right is increasingly looking to formulate new alternatives, the backward-looking left appears utterly unable to adapt to current realities.

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Listening to Israel’s “progressives” you might think it was still 1994, as if two decades of failed peace efforts, Palestinian intransigence, and unrelenting incitement and terrorism had simply never happened. They speak as if they’re still living in some heyday of the Oslo peace accords. Naturally, it is the role of the political opposition in any democracy to find fault with the actions of governing political rivals, but what Israel’s left-wing politicians are saying goes far beyond normal critique of government policy despite the fact that, although they would never admit it, the current government’s strategy for peace talks is not fundamentally different from what they themselves propose.

On Monday Israel’s parliament convened from its recess for a session on the peace talks, as had been called for by 25 Knesset members, only 15 of whom bothered to show up. But perhaps those who stayed away were the wiser; in reality this supposedly urgent session was little more than a shameless opportunity for opposition politicians to capitalize on the failure of the latest round of peace talks. Pouring scorn on Prime Minister Netanyahu, left-wing party leaders called for everything from new elections to a breakup of the coalition and the formation of a new government. Political ambitions aside, what these individuals really displayed was a total unwillingness to recognize any of what has been happening in the last few months–really, the last few decades. Israel’s left is stuck in a time warp and whereas the right is increasingly looking to formulate new alternatives, the backward-looking left appears utterly unable to adapt to current realities.

The reading of the failure of negotiations offered by Labor leader Isaac Herzog was hardly convincing. It essentially amounts to: Abbas is no picnic, but that’s beside the point because Netanyahu is infinitely worse. Apparently ignoring the fact that Palestinian Authority head Mahmoud Abbas is now without any democratic mandate, not to mention the way in which he already rejected the remarkably generous offers of Olmert’s Kadima government in 2008, Herzog announced before the Knesset, “Abu Mazen is a tough and infuriating partner and sometimes very exasperating, and can even be depressing, (but) he is our partner and there is no point at all in wishing otherwise.” Yet of Netanyahu Herzog had this to say: “We are on the edge of a volcano and the public does not understand the severity of the situation, and all of the blame is on a prime minister who is incapable of doing anything. The entire process has collapsed because as far as Netanyahu is concerned there is no place for taking real steps for peace.”

What these “real steps” are remains unclear, but presumably the offer of another 400 security prisoners going free and a partial settlement freeze doesn’t really cut it for those in the business of taking “real steps for peace.” Of course to admit otherwise would be to concede that Abbas is anything but the partner that Herzog insists he is. It is certainly remarkable that Herzog could claim, with a straight face, that “all of the blame” lies with Netanyahu. This desperate need to excuse the Palestinians, no matter how ridiculous, was also the order of the day for Labor MK Eitan Cabel who, during the same debate, declared “I’m not defending the Palestinians, but it’s amazing how people act like they’re shocked that the Palestinians have demands. Isn’t that the meaning of negotiations?” The Palestinian demand that Israel agree to all the final outcomes of the negotiations before they even got underway may seem a little unreasonable to some, yet, if this line of saying “yes the Palestinians don’t act like they want peace but…” was ever convincing then it certainly ceased to be so quite some time ago.  

These were the same delusions being pushed by Meretz. MK Tamar Zandberg was particularly critical of Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid and chief negotiator Tzipi Livni, rubbishing the government’s efforts and asserting, “If we needed a negotiating process for them to accept the destructive thesis that there is no partner only so that they could stay in a coalition that undermines it, then thanks but no thanks. If you can’t do it then let’s break up the coalition and choose someone who can do the work.” Meretz’s leader Zahava Gal-On similarly singled out the centrist party leaders for propping up this supposedly anti-peace coalition, claiming that “this government does not really want to reach an accord” and referred to Livni and Lapid as “fig leaves which grant legitimacy to pointless negotiations.”

In her suggestion that these negotiations have been pointless, many Israelis will agree with the Meretz leader, only for quite different reasons. They know that if Abbas was ever serious about these talks it was only ever as a means for extracting as many concessions from Israel as possible. There are also many Israelis who, contrary to the statements above, doubt that the Palestinians are capable of being partners for peace and as such, figures on the right are starting to float new proposals for unilateral ways out of this impasse. The left, stuck in the past, has nothing new to offer, just more of the same. 

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Lying About Abbas Won’t Bring Peace

With Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas meeting today with President Obama, the focus on the Middle East peace process has shifted, at least for the moment, away from Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and his alleged shortcomings. But while Netanyahu’s most recent meeting with the president was preceded by an Obama interview with Bloomberg’s Jeffrey Goldberg in which the Israeli was lambasted and Abbas praised, there was no such ambush for the Palestinian. Most everybody in Washington and a great many Israelis are at pains to paint Abbas in the best possible light. When Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon accurately described the Palestinian as someone who would never be a partner for a final peace agreement, Cabinet colleague Tzipi Livni and Israeli President Shimon Peres both spoke up in his defense.

Livni, who has at times criticized Abbas herself, did not specifically refute any of Yaalon’s points but preferred instead to say that his shortcomings and record were irrelevant to the task at hand and must be put aside. Peres spoke in the same vein saying that Abbas was a “good partner” and that the point of the talks was to move ahead toward peace regardless of the obstacle. That seems much in line with the American approach that is to never directly criticize Palestinian incitement and the refusal of Abbas and his fellow Fatah members to give up their hopes of flooding Israel with the descendants of the 1948 refugees.

In short, peace process advocates believe the only way to plow ahead to an agreement is to keep the pressure up on Netanyahu to give the maximum while treating Abbas with kid gloves, all the while fearing to offend him or to give his enemies within Fatah, not to mention Hamas and Islamic Jihad rivals, any ammunition with which to attack him as soft on the Israelis. Anything else, they tell us, risks blowing up the process leaving no hope for peace.

But the problem here isn’t so much the double standard for Netanyahu or even the blatant dishonesty involved in American and Israeli officials attesting to the sincerity and good intentions of the Palestinian leader. It’s that this theory of peace negotiating has already been tried and failed with disastrous results.

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With Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas meeting today with President Obama, the focus on the Middle East peace process has shifted, at least for the moment, away from Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and his alleged shortcomings. But while Netanyahu’s most recent meeting with the president was preceded by an Obama interview with Bloomberg’s Jeffrey Goldberg in which the Israeli was lambasted and Abbas praised, there was no such ambush for the Palestinian. Most everybody in Washington and a great many Israelis are at pains to paint Abbas in the best possible light. When Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon accurately described the Palestinian as someone who would never be a partner for a final peace agreement, Cabinet colleague Tzipi Livni and Israeli President Shimon Peres both spoke up in his defense.

Livni, who has at times criticized Abbas herself, did not specifically refute any of Yaalon’s points but preferred instead to say that his shortcomings and record were irrelevant to the task at hand and must be put aside. Peres spoke in the same vein saying that Abbas was a “good partner” and that the point of the talks was to move ahead toward peace regardless of the obstacle. That seems much in line with the American approach that is to never directly criticize Palestinian incitement and the refusal of Abbas and his fellow Fatah members to give up their hopes of flooding Israel with the descendants of the 1948 refugees.

In short, peace process advocates believe the only way to plow ahead to an agreement is to keep the pressure up on Netanyahu to give the maximum while treating Abbas with kid gloves, all the while fearing to offend him or to give his enemies within Fatah, not to mention Hamas and Islamic Jihad rivals, any ammunition with which to attack him as soft on the Israelis. Anything else, they tell us, risks blowing up the process leaving no hope for peace.

But the problem here isn’t so much the double standard for Netanyahu or even the blatant dishonesty involved in American and Israeli officials attesting to the sincerity and good intentions of the Palestinian leader. It’s that this theory of peace negotiating has already been tried and failed with disastrous results.

I know it’s hard for many in the mainstream media to think back as far as last week or last month (ancient history in the news business), let alone 10, 15, or 20 years back. But the theory of negotiating with the Palestinians that is being employed by both the Obama administration and Israelis like Livni and Peres, was already tried in the 1990s.

Throughout that decade, critics of the Oslo process tried to point out that Abbas’s predecessor Yasir Arafat was using his new power at the Palestinian Authority to undermine any chances for peace. But Palestinian incitement, Arafat’s duplicitous statements about peace in which he appeared to back compromise when speaking to Israelis and Westerners while promising in Arabic to Palestinian audiences to continue the struggle for Israel’s destruction, and the connections between Fatah and terror were all ignored by the U.S. and many in Israel. Even when they were forced to concede that these things were true, merely to speak of them was regarded as proof of insufficient dedication to peace.

It was only in retrospect that some of the veterans of that unfortunate era realized they had made a terrible mistake. Rather than interpreting American and Israeli forbearance as a reason to do what was necessary to make peace, Arafat (with his top aide Abbas always nearby) saw it as a reason to dig his heels in even deeper and to continue playing a double game. When the peace process collapsed after Arafat refused Ehud Barak’s two offers of statehood including almost all of the West Bank, Gaza, and a share of Jerusalem and responded with a terror war of attrition, the illusion that peace could be bought by turning a blind eye to Palestinian misbehavior and intransigence was shown to be a myth. Some of those peace process advocates and negotiators, like Dennis Ross, subsequently admitted that they should have been tougher on Arafat. But those involved need to admit that the problem wasn’t so much the lack of pressure on Arafat but the reality of a Palestinian political culture that simply allowed no room for peace.

What is going now is nothing less than a repetition of the same dynamic. Abbas is a bit more presentable than Arafat and his pro-peace statements are more convincing than those of his old boss. But they are balanced by the double-dealing that Arafat turned into an art form. And he is drawing the same erroneous conclusions about how far he can go as Arafat did.

The Washington Post’s Jackson Diehl points this out in an excellent column today in which he dares to tell the truth about Abbas:

The Palestinian president — who was elected to a four-year term in 2005 and has remained in office for five years after its expiration — turned down President George W. Bush’s request that he sign on to a similar framework in 2008. In 2010, after Obama strong-armed Netanyahu into declaring a moratorium on Jewish settlement construction in the West Bank, Abbas refused to negotiate for nine of the designated 10 months, then broke off the talks after two meetings.

Diehl also understands how the refusal to judge Abbas by the same standards as Netanyahu is making peace impossible:

Why does Abbas dare to publicly campaign against the U.S. and Israeli position even before arriving in Washington? Simple: “Abbas believes he can say no to Obama because the U.S. administration will not take any retaliatory measures against the Palestinian Authority,” writes the veteran Israeli-Palestinian journalist Khaled Abu Toameh. Instead, Abbas expects to sit back if the talks fail, submit petitions to the United Nations and watch the anti-Israel boycotts mushroom, while paying no price of his own.

The point here is that we have already seen this movie and know the ending. If the president is sincere about wanting to broker peace, he needs to lay it on the line and make sure Abbas knows that the U.S. will blame him–and not an Israel that has already signaled that it will, albeit with misgivings, agree to Kerry’s framework–for the collapse of the talks. But if the president continues to double down on a policy of letting the Palestinians off the hook, it is laying the groundwork for a repeat of the same disaster that ended the Oslo process. The resulting bloodshed should be blamed primarily on Abbas. But Obama, and those Israelis who continue to lie about Abbas for what they believe is the sake of peace, will also bear some responsibility.

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The Myth of Israel’s Refusal to Make “Tough Decisions” for Peace

On the eve of the German government’s arrival in Israel, Germany’s foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, has called on Israel to make the “difficult but necessary decisions” for the peace process to succeed. There is of course nothing particularly remarkable or unprecedented about Germany’s foreign minister having made these statements. Such phrases just so easily roll off of the tongues of statesmen trying to find something constructive sounding to say about a process that has proven to be anything but. However, these unthinking assertions are problematic, because they display an utter refusal to take account of the reality of the peace process as it actually exists.

Such vague talk of “difficult decisions” is easy, but precisely what tough decisions is it that Israel could make that these diplomats can honestly say would make an iota of difference to the current Palestinian attitude? This talk simply neglects to account for the present, and indeed longstanding, attitude of the Palestinian leadership. Last week Palestinian Authority head Abbas told Kerry formerly that he rejects Kerry’s current peace framework, while also having said that if no framework is agreed upon by the end of April, then the Palestinian side will exit negotiations. It should further be recalled that the only reason that the Palestinians are even at the negotiating table is because of the Obama administration’s bribery. In return for Abbas going through the motions of peace talks the U.S. government released large amounts of funding to the PA, held up on account of the Palestinians’ unilateral activities at the UN, while Israel was pressured into releasing several rounds of convicted terrorists for the pleasure of the Palestinians’ company at the negotiating table.

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On the eve of the German government’s arrival in Israel, Germany’s foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, has called on Israel to make the “difficult but necessary decisions” for the peace process to succeed. There is of course nothing particularly remarkable or unprecedented about Germany’s foreign minister having made these statements. Such phrases just so easily roll off of the tongues of statesmen trying to find something constructive sounding to say about a process that has proven to be anything but. However, these unthinking assertions are problematic, because they display an utter refusal to take account of the reality of the peace process as it actually exists.

Such vague talk of “difficult decisions” is easy, but precisely what tough decisions is it that Israel could make that these diplomats can honestly say would make an iota of difference to the current Palestinian attitude? This talk simply neglects to account for the present, and indeed longstanding, attitude of the Palestinian leadership. Last week Palestinian Authority head Abbas told Kerry formerly that he rejects Kerry’s current peace framework, while also having said that if no framework is agreed upon by the end of April, then the Palestinian side will exit negotiations. It should further be recalled that the only reason that the Palestinians are even at the negotiating table is because of the Obama administration’s bribery. In return for Abbas going through the motions of peace talks the U.S. government released large amounts of funding to the PA, held up on account of the Palestinians’ unilateral activities at the UN, while Israel was pressured into releasing several rounds of convicted terrorists for the pleasure of the Palestinians’ company at the negotiating table.

Then there is the matter of Abbas’s ever-changing and fluid list of demands, red lines, and negotiating positions, with the goal posts continuously on the move. Yet, as much as it is possible to pin down precisely what the Palestinian position is, it appears to be completely at odds with what any reasonable person would expect a final agreement to look like. The Palestinians have refused to even consider recognizing the Jewish state, demanded the release of all Palestinian prisoners in a final deal, and Abbas has additionally said he will not give up the claims of the descendants of Palestinian refugees to move to the Jewish state rather than the Palestinian one. And such positions also have to be considered alongside the PA’s continuous use of its media network and school system to stir up incitement against Jews and the very existence of Israel. 

There is also Abbas’s rediscovered aversion to mutually agreed-upon land swaps. In previous talks it appeared to be accepted that Israel would annex the major Israeli population centers in the West Bank, but that the Palestinians would be fully compensated with an equal amount of Israeli territory in return. Now, in response to Kerry’s framework, noises have once again resumed from the Palestinian Authority suggesting that it would only be willing to accept land swaps on a far more limited basis than previously understood. In this way the PA is now blocking what had appeared to be one of the primary avenues for overcoming a major impasse within negotiations.    

The relentless calls for Israel to take difficult decisions for peace not only neglect to account for the attitude of the Palestinian side but also of the extensive concessions already offered by the Israelis. Both under Ehud Barak during the Camp David talks in 2000 and certainly under Ehud Olmert in 2008, Israel’s offers for peace went just about as far as possible without Israel either ceasing to exist as a Jewish state or rendering its remaining territory indefensible. Similarly, the current Israeli negotiating position does not appear to be measurably different from that of Barak or Olmert’s. Certainly, if Prime Minister Netanyahu’s negotiating stance was falling significantly short of previous offers then his dovish chief negotiator, Tzipi Livni, who served in the Olmert government and remains a political rival to Netanyahu, would doubtless call him out on this. Israel is once again offering as much as it can without ceasing to survive as Israel. But then this is the crux of the matter. It really looks as if it may just be the case that no offer that leaves the Jewish state in existence will be acceptable to Palestinians.

As ever, Israelis still have no shortage of difficult decisions to make. Yet with no serious partner for peace and with unilateral withdrawal in Gaza and Lebanon having proved strategically disastrous, Israel’s most pressing decisions do not currently concern the Palestinians. Foremost among Israel’s concerns right now must be the unparalleled threat of the Iranian nuclear program.

In her weekly video address German Chancellor Angela Merkel stated that she would be pressing Netanyahu on the peace process. One wonders what she will find to press him on; that he give up on the demand for defensible borders? Give up on the demand not to be ended as a Jewish state by a flood of Palestinians claiming refugee status? Give up on the demand that the Palestinians recognize the Jewish state as part of concluding their conflict? There’s nothing left for Israel to concede on. The game is up for Western leaders who only wish to talk of Israel’s “difficult decisions for peace.”

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Why Can’t Jews Stay in a Palestinian State?

For 20 years Israeli governments of both the left and the right have agreed on one thing: Jews and Jewish settlements could not be left behind in any territory handed over to the Palestinians. But Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has indicated that he is willing to change that policy and that seems to have upset almost as many Israelis as Palestinians. Netanyahu stated that even in the event of a peace agreement he had no intention of repeating the precedent established by Ariel Sharon in Gaza in which every single settlement, soldier, and individual Jew was uprooted. According to Netanyahu, if there is a peace treaty, there’s no reason that Jewish communities could not remain in part of the Palestinian state along with the Palestinian inhabitants, if they were willing to do so.

It was not surprising that the Palestinians would immediately and angrily reject the suggestion that Jews could live in their putative new state. Palestinian Authority head Mahmoud Abbas had already denounced the idea, but lest anyone be in doubt about the Palestinian position, PA negotiator Saeb Erekat sought to clarify the official view:

Anyone who says he wants to keep settlers in the Palestinian state is actually saying that he doesn’t want a Palestinian state. No settler will be allowed to stay in the Palestinian state, not even a single one, because settlements are illegal and the presence of the settlers on the occupied lands is illegal.

It was interesting to note that both right-wing and left-wing critics of Netanyahu as well as members of his own Cabinet were almost as angry as the Palestinians. The right is appalled at Netanyahu’s tacit willingness to accept a Palestinian state, and the left thinks the prime minister was just playing a cynical tactical game designed solely to embarrass the Palestinians. The concerns of both factions may well be justified. Netanyahu, however, was right to raise the issue and to provoke a debate about the nature of the Palestinian state that is, after all, one of the goals of the current peace talks. Regardless of his  motives, this is a topic that must be addressed if the negotiations are truly aimed at ending the conflict.

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For 20 years Israeli governments of both the left and the right have agreed on one thing: Jews and Jewish settlements could not be left behind in any territory handed over to the Palestinians. But Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has indicated that he is willing to change that policy and that seems to have upset almost as many Israelis as Palestinians. Netanyahu stated that even in the event of a peace agreement he had no intention of repeating the precedent established by Ariel Sharon in Gaza in which every single settlement, soldier, and individual Jew was uprooted. According to Netanyahu, if there is a peace treaty, there’s no reason that Jewish communities could not remain in part of the Palestinian state along with the Palestinian inhabitants, if they were willing to do so.

It was not surprising that the Palestinians would immediately and angrily reject the suggestion that Jews could live in their putative new state. Palestinian Authority head Mahmoud Abbas had already denounced the idea, but lest anyone be in doubt about the Palestinian position, PA negotiator Saeb Erekat sought to clarify the official view:

Anyone who says he wants to keep settlers in the Palestinian state is actually saying that he doesn’t want a Palestinian state. No settler will be allowed to stay in the Palestinian state, not even a single one, because settlements are illegal and the presence of the settlers on the occupied lands is illegal.

It was interesting to note that both right-wing and left-wing critics of Netanyahu as well as members of his own Cabinet were almost as angry as the Palestinians. The right is appalled at Netanyahu’s tacit willingness to accept a Palestinian state, and the left thinks the prime minister was just playing a cynical tactical game designed solely to embarrass the Palestinians. The concerns of both factions may well be justified. Netanyahu, however, was right to raise the issue and to provoke a debate about the nature of the Palestinian state that is, after all, one of the goals of the current peace talks. Regardless of his  motives, this is a topic that must be addressed if the negotiations are truly aimed at ending the conflict.

The reason that Israeli governments have always agreed with the Palestinians about the need to evacuate any Israelis living in what might become a Palestinian state is no secret. It’s not just that the Palestinians don’t want Jews in their state and the fact that the settlers don’t want there to be a Palestinian state. It’s that any Israelis who chose to remain in their homes wouldn’t last any longer than the greenhouses that wealthy Americans purchased from Gaza settlers who were uprooted from their homes in 2005. Within hours of the Israeli army pullout, every one of these valuable facilities that could have been used to help revive the strip’s moribund economy was burned to the ground. The same fate awaited every other building left by the Jews, including every synagogue.

Without the protection of the Israel Defense Forces, Jews in Arab territory haven’t a chance. That’s a basic fact of life in the country that predates Israel’s birth. Without self-defense forces, Jewish settlers in those lands inside the pre-June 1967 borders were exposed to relentless harassment, terrorism, and even pogroms. And there is no reason to believe the situation would be any different in a future West Bank state where the Palestinian population has been educated for decades to believe Jews have no right to live in any part of the country.

But, as Netanyahu rightly pointed out, a peace treaty that would actually end the conflict rather than merely pause it until the Palestinians felt strong enough to resume hostilities must entail an acceptance on both sides of the legitimacy of the rights of the other side. Just as Arabs are equal before the law in the State of Israel, have the right to vote, and serve in its Knesset, a democratic and peaceful Palestinian state must not exclude the possibility of allowing a Jewish minority within its borders. If that is something that the PA is unable to countenance, it proves once again that it isn’t interested in peace. A state where Jews are, as Erekat says, “illegal” is one that is committed to a permanent state of war against Israel.

Israeli right-wingers are angry at Netanyahu’s acceptance in principle of a Palestinian state. Without the threat of repeating the traumatic scenes that characterized the Gaza withdrawal, a division of the West Bank would, at least in theory, be more likely.

Yet the prime minister’s suggestion also angered supporters of a two-state solution. In particular, Israeli negotiator Tzipi Livni, who as Tom Wilson wrote earlier today seems to understand that the talks have little chance of success, bitterly denounced Netanyahu’s statement as designed more to prove the Palestinians weren’t negotiating in good faith than achieving a deal.

Livni may well be correct about Netanyahu’s intentions. Goading the Palestinians into repeating their intolerant and anti-Semitic objections to Jews living within their borders undermines their cause. Like previous generations of negotiators, Livni seems to think peace can be achieved by ignoring the hatred on the other side. But merely drawing a line between Israel and the Palestinians and calling it a border won’t end a conflict that is rooted in the Arab and Muslim rejection of the idea of legitimacy for any Jewish state no matter how large or small it might be.

It has become a cliché of Middle East commentary to speak of the painful sacrifices that Israel must make if it is to have peace. That is true. But the path to peace is a two-way street. If the Palestinians want a state, it cannot be on genocidal terms that require the ethnic cleansing of Jews. Until they’re ready to live alongside Jews inside their state—and to guarantee their security—genuine peace is nowhere in sight.

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Livni’s Comments Show Talks Are Failing

Few serious observers held out much hope for the current round of U.S. sponsored negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Even proponents conceded this was always going to be extremely difficult. But things in that negotiating room must now be going especially badly. Tzipi Livni, Israel’s chief negotiator and longtime advocate of the two-state solution and a negotiated peace, has for the first time come out publicly to condemn Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s negotiating positions.

For someone like Livni to have gone public on what are supposed to be closed-door negotiations, we can assume that her back must really be against the wall this time. With just three months to go before the current round of negotiations are due to expire, it seems that everyone, even the talks’ most enthusiastic supporters, are now preparing for the fallout from negotiations collapsing. And clearly Livni, too, is looking for a position from which to weather the storm.

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Few serious observers held out much hope for the current round of U.S. sponsored negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Even proponents conceded this was always going to be extremely difficult. But things in that negotiating room must now be going especially badly. Tzipi Livni, Israel’s chief negotiator and longtime advocate of the two-state solution and a negotiated peace, has for the first time come out publicly to condemn Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s negotiating positions.

For someone like Livni to have gone public on what are supposed to be closed-door negotiations, we can assume that her back must really be against the wall this time. With just three months to go before the current round of negotiations are due to expire, it seems that everyone, even the talks’ most enthusiastic supporters, are now preparing for the fallout from negotiations collapsing. And clearly Livni, too, is looking for a position from which to weather the storm.

Speaking over the weekend, Livni openly condemned what she referred to as Abbas’s “unacceptable positions” in the negotiations. We are told that Abbas is demanding all of east Jerusalem as a Palestinian capital, including the Old City and its holy sites, that he has refused to recognize the Jewish state, and in contradiction to what many believed to be his position in the past, Abbas is insisting that the millions of descendants of the Palestinian refugees return, not to a future Palestinian state, but to the very Jewish state that he refuses to recognize.

None of these demands are that surprising; Abbas knows full well that these are things that Israel will never be able to concede. But then Abbas also knows that his own political survival depends on not reaching an agreement with Israel, just as Livni’s political survival always depended on these talks yielding some modicum of success.

Clearly Livni is now facing up to seeing what most people saw long ago. Indeed, a recent poll showed that 87 percent of Israelis do not expect these negotiations to go anywhere. Even President Obama has said that he now believes these talks have a less than 50 percent chance of success, a remarkable statement at this late stage given the way his administration has spent the past five years strong-arming the two sides into talks that clearly neither felt particularly enthusiastic about.

Livni has staked her political career on the two-state proposal and a negotiated settlement. She was a protégée of Ariel Sharon and has sought to pickup where prime ministers Ehud Olmert and Ehud Barak left off. Yet, like the two Ehud’s she now finds herself trading incriminations with the Palestinians as they appear set to walk away from yet another Israeli offer. This is what always ends up happening. Now that we’re back to this stage in the cycle once again it would be so easy, and indeed politically tempting, for her to attempt to lay the blame on her old rival, Prime Minister Netanyahu, by making the claim that he set her up with a negotiating position bound to fail. Instead, Livni has placed the blame where it’s due, with Abbas.

Mahmoud Abbas is now entering his tenth year of a four-year presidential term. He is all but devoid of legitimacy and has a proven track record of doing everything in his power to avoid negotiations with Israel, and to avoid agreeing to anything in the event that he is forced to take part in them. But if Secretary of State John Kerry should have seen this coming–and he really should have–then all the more so for Livni.

As a staunch believer in negotiations, Livni almost certainly wouldn’t have come out with these damaging revelations unless she felt she absolutely had to. Yet, trying to get in early and level the blame at Abbas before the blame is leveled at her is unlikely to save her career now. 

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Israel, Palestine, and Democracy

Democracy and demography have become the main arguments for creating a Jew-free Arab state in Judea and Samaria. Israel’s presence in the territories deprives Palestinians of their democratic rights, the argument goes, and if Israel does not give the Palestinians whatever territory they demand, it will have to choose between its democracy and its Jewishness.

The “democracy” argument has become the central justification of the diplomatic process, incessantly invoked by Secretary of State John Kerry and Israeli peace envoy Tzipi Livni. What makes the democracy argument effective is that it plays on deep-seated Jewish sentiments. Israelis are a fundamentally liberal, democratic people who desperately do not wish to be put in the role of overlords.

The problem with the democracy argument is that it is entirely disconnected from reality. Israel does not rule the Palestinians. The status quo in no way impeaches Israel’s democratic identity.

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Democracy and demography have become the main arguments for creating a Jew-free Arab state in Judea and Samaria. Israel’s presence in the territories deprives Palestinians of their democratic rights, the argument goes, and if Israel does not give the Palestinians whatever territory they demand, it will have to choose between its democracy and its Jewishness.

The “democracy” argument has become the central justification of the diplomatic process, incessantly invoked by Secretary of State John Kerry and Israeli peace envoy Tzipi Livni. What makes the democracy argument effective is that it plays on deep-seated Jewish sentiments. Israelis are a fundamentally liberal, democratic people who desperately do not wish to be put in the role of overlords.

The problem with the democracy argument is that it is entirely disconnected from reality. Israel does not rule the Palestinians. The status quo in no way impeaches Israel’s democratic identity.

It is true that the Palestinians are not represented in the Knesset. But Israeli residents of Judea and Samaria are similarly not represented in the Palestinian Legislative Council. Simply put, both the Palestinians and Israelis vote for the legislature that regulates them. That is democracy (though obviously it does not play out as well in the Palestinian political system).

The Palestinians have developed an independent, self-regulating government that controls their lives as well as their foreign policy. Indeed, they have accumulated all the trappings of independence and have recently been recognized as an independent state by the United Nations. They have diplomatic relations with almost as many nations as Israel does. They have their own security forces, central bank, top-level Internet domain name, and a foreign policy entirely uncontrolled by Israel.  

The Palestinians govern themselves. To anticipate the inevitable comparison, this is not an Israeli-puppet “Bantustan.” From their educational curriculum to their television content to their terrorist pensions, they implement their own policies by their own lights without any subservience to Israel. They pass their own legislation, such as the measure prohibiting real estate transactions with Jews on pain of death. If Israel truly “ruled over” the Palestinians, all these features of their lives would be quite different. Indeed, the Bantustans never won international recognition because they were puppets. “The State of Palestine” just got a nod from the General Assembly because it is not.

Whether the Palestinian self-government amounts to sovereignty is irrelevant and distinct from the question of whether Israel is denying them democracy. Indeed, Israel’s democratic credentials are far stronger than America’s, or Britain’s–the mother of Parliaments. Puerto Rico and other U.S. controlled “territories” do not participate in national elections (and this despite Puerto Rico’s vote last year to end its anomalous status). Nor do British possessions like Gibraltar and the Falklands. These areas have considerable self-rule, but all less than the Palestinians, in that their internal legislation can ultimately be cancelled by Washington or London. The Palestinians are the ultimate masters of their political future–it is they who choose Fatah or Hamas.

To be sure, Israeli security forces operate in the territories under Palestinian administration. But that has nothing to do with democracy; it is about security. Democracy does not give one political entity a right to harm others. And that is why American security forces conduct raids–assassinations, even–in countries around the world. While many object to America’s aggressive policies in these countries no one thinks it has anything to do with the democratic credentials of one side or another. Similarly, the Palestinian military operates throughout Israel–through rocket and missile strikes from Eilat to Ashdod. Yet no one suggests Palestinian military activities in Israel–which determine when there will be school in Beersheva and when not–mean that they have deprived Israel of democracy.

This is no longer a dispute about democracy; it is a dispute about territory. The Palestinians have their own government; now their demand is to increase the geographic scope of their legislative powers to “Area C,” where 100 percent of the Jewish settlers live, some 400,000 people, and only 50-75,000 Arabs. The Palestinians want their “no Jew” law to apply there as well.

Palestinian self-determination is one of the biggest developments that no one has noticed. It is important to recall where it came from. It was a result of the Oslo process, and the withdrawal from Gaza. This created space for truly independent Palestinian government to arise.

This has not been costless for Israel. It subjected Israel to an unprecedented campaign of terror–to its citizens incinerated in buses and cafes–coordinated by the Palestinian government during the Oslo war. It legitimized the Palestinians as full-fledged international leaders, vastly facilitating their diplomatic campaign against Israel. And it has made most of the territories a Jew-free zone.

Before Oslo it could truly have been said that Israel ruled the Palestinians. But that is over. However, that the “international community” still considers Israel as running the show for the Palestinians is an important warning that the reputational benefits for the Jewish state of peace agreements are fleeting and illusory.

Moreover, the Palestinians rejected full independence and statehood on three separate occasions in the past twenty years. If it is true that Israel still controls them, it is a control that they have chosen to perpetuate. As part of their strategy of winning by losing, they perpetuate their semi-independence to maximize their diplomatic leverage. But that is not Israeli domination; that is Palestinian tactics. Imagine if Israel in 1948 refused to declare independence until all its territorial claims were satisfied and all Arabs expelled, and was subsequently overrun by the Arab states. Imagine if Jewish leaders stuck to this position for decades. Would the Arabs be imposing their rule on the Jews, or would the Jews be imposing the Arab rule on themselves? That such a scenario is more than far-fetched only underlines the historic uniqueness of the Palestinian strategy.

Ironically, those who invoke the democracy argument are also those who say Israel must go along with the plans the U.S., Europe, and the “family of nations” have for it. But can Israel be a democracy if its borders, security, and the fate of its most holy places are determined by the opinions of foreign powers, against the inclinations of its elected government? Jeffrey Goldberg last week said Israel’s democratic status is threatened if it does not listen to the dictates of John Kerry, who was not even elected to lead America.

Ultimately, the democracy argument proves too much. If Israel truly must give the Palestinians an offer they will accept to “save its soul,” then the Palestinians can demand anything, and should get it, assuming even a micro-state or protectorate is better than an evil one. And this is why the democracy argument will impede a genuine negotiated resolution. If Israel needs Palestinian agreement to save itself, why should the Palestinians agree? If they can impose “non-democracy” on Israel, the longer they wait, the better deal they get.

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Avigdor Lieberman Returns

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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They Don’t Want to Be Alone with Livni

There’s supposed to be a news blackout from the reconvened Middle East peace talks going on this week. The Palestinians insisted on that lest their reluctant negotiators be branded as doing something that smacked of legitimizing the Jewish state. But one of their team broke their silence this week in order to complain about the fact that they have been called upon to actually talk one on one with their Israeli counterparts:

“We had an agreement on three-way negotiations. The Americans from the beginning were supposed to be there. I don’t see why the Israelis don’t want the Americans there, as witnesses,” Hanan Ashrawi, a member of the PLO Executive Committee, told The Times of Israel. “These are not two-way negotiations,” she added.

This would seem to be violation of their undertaking to keep quiet about the talks but Ashrawi had an explanation:

“I’m not discussing the details or the facts,” she said. “I’m just telling you it’s the Israelis who don’t want the Americans, even though the Americans are totally biased in favor of Israel.”

Asked why she believed the Israelis would request the removal of a party favorable to them, Ashrawi said “they feel they can exploit their power over the Palestinians.”

In saying this, Ashrawi couldn’t have told us more about the negotiations had she produced a transcript. Nor could she have given us a better indication of just how dim the chances of success for this effort are. The Palestinian fear of being trapped in a room with the people they are supposed to be crafting a deal with has nothing to do with fear of Israeli power. It’s all about the fact that the last thing they want is to actually reach an agreement they’d have to justify to a Palestinian people that is still not ready to accept a Jewish state no matter its borders are drawn.

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There’s supposed to be a news blackout from the reconvened Middle East peace talks going on this week. The Palestinians insisted on that lest their reluctant negotiators be branded as doing something that smacked of legitimizing the Jewish state. But one of their team broke their silence this week in order to complain about the fact that they have been called upon to actually talk one on one with their Israeli counterparts:

“We had an agreement on three-way negotiations. The Americans from the beginning were supposed to be there. I don’t see why the Israelis don’t want the Americans there, as witnesses,” Hanan Ashrawi, a member of the PLO Executive Committee, told The Times of Israel. “These are not two-way negotiations,” she added.

This would seem to be violation of their undertaking to keep quiet about the talks but Ashrawi had an explanation:

“I’m not discussing the details or the facts,” she said. “I’m just telling you it’s the Israelis who don’t want the Americans, even though the Americans are totally biased in favor of Israel.”

Asked why she believed the Israelis would request the removal of a party favorable to them, Ashrawi said “they feel they can exploit their power over the Palestinians.”

In saying this, Ashrawi couldn’t have told us more about the negotiations had she produced a transcript. Nor could she have given us a better indication of just how dim the chances of success for this effort are. The Palestinian fear of being trapped in a room with the people they are supposed to be crafting a deal with has nothing to do with fear of Israeli power. It’s all about the fact that the last thing they want is to actually reach an agreement they’d have to justify to a Palestinian people that is still not ready to accept a Jewish state no matter its borders are drawn.

In one sense, Ashrawi’s desire to keep U.S. envoy Martin Indyk in the room is understandable. Contrary to her claim, far from being inclined to bolster the positions of the Netanyahu government, his clear bias is one that that leads him to push for Israel to make concessions to the Palestinians.

But that’s not the real explanation.

It’s not exactly a secret that the ardent desire of Tzipi Livni, the head of the Israeli delegation, is to entice the Palestinians to embrace peace after three times rejecting offers of statehood that would include a share of Jerusalem and almost all of the West Bank. Supposedly that’s exactly what the Palestinians want, although they insist they will never compromise on forcing every Jew out of not only every settlement but the parts of Jerusalem that were illegally occupied by Jordan from 1949 to 1967. But the continuing stream of invective about Jews and Israel pouring out of the official Palestinian media and the so-called moderates of Fatah makes it hard to believe they are finally ready to take yes for an answer. Since PA leader Mahmoud Abbas seems no more capable or willing to accept the peace that he rejected in 2008 when he fled negotiations with Ehud Olmert convened by then Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, his primary fear is not the Israeli intransigence the Jewish state’s critics bewail but that Livni will give him what he says he wants.

The Palestinians never wanted to come back to the table after four years’ absence. But with the U.S. prepared to put the screws to Israel to gratify Secretary of State John Kerry’s desire for the talks, it was impossible for them to say no once the Americans gave them the preconditions they demanded. But that doesn’t mean Abbas wants a happy ending to this negotiation. Not only do the Palestinians want the Americans to do their negotiating for them, but their primary objective is to avoid being trapped in a room with someone like Livni who is obviously desperate to agree to any deal.

While there is no telling for certain what will happen in the upcoming months, this is yet one more indication that the main Palestinian objective in the negotiations is to never be maneuvered into a position where they would have to either say yes to peace or reject it and take the blame. Stay tuned for months of pre-emptive Palestinian efforts to deflect the blame for the futile nature of this fool’s errand that Kerry has embarked upon.

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Livni Already Making Excuses for Failure

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Misplaced Faith in Abbas

Ben Birnbaum’s thoughtful, well-reported piece on the Israeli peace process is one of those articles that can easily be interpreted as in accordance with anyone’s preexisting worldview: it’s a Rorschach. If you think Mahmoud Abbas is primarily responsible for the lack of peace, that will be confirmed by the description of Ehud Olmert practically begging him to take an incredibly generous deal and Abbas walking away. If you think Olmert is to blame for offering a peace plan on which he could not follow through simply to save his reputation as he prepared to leave office under a cloud of scandal and an approval rating close to zero, you will shake your head at the desperation he showed.

If you think Olmert and Abbas were peacemakers surrounded by petty schemers, you will not be convinced otherwise as you read of Tzipi Livni’s advisors telling Abbas not to take the deal so she could swoop in and claim the glory for herself, or by the same old mindless and manipulative game being played by “advisors” and “negotiators” on the Palestinian side who have been there forever and a day. (The Israeli names change over time, but the Palestinian names are always Mahmoud Abbas, Saeb Erekat, and Hanan Ashrawi.) So that’s the politicians; what about the people? In Israel, the people support peace, Birnbaum reports. The Palestinian people, however–that’s another story. Birnbaum chooses a delicate framing when he references a recent poll that “showed Palestinians preferred Hamas’s approach to ending the Israeli occupation over that of Abbas by a two-to-one margin.” I’m sure everyone can imagine what “Hamas’s approach” would mean, but for the record here’s the actual question from that poll (results, from left to right, are: total, in the West Bank, and in Gaza):

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Ben Birnbaum’s thoughtful, well-reported piece on the Israeli peace process is one of those articles that can easily be interpreted as in accordance with anyone’s preexisting worldview: it’s a Rorschach. If you think Mahmoud Abbas is primarily responsible for the lack of peace, that will be confirmed by the description of Ehud Olmert practically begging him to take an incredibly generous deal and Abbas walking away. If you think Olmert is to blame for offering a peace plan on which he could not follow through simply to save his reputation as he prepared to leave office under a cloud of scandal and an approval rating close to zero, you will shake your head at the desperation he showed.

If you think Olmert and Abbas were peacemakers surrounded by petty schemers, you will not be convinced otherwise as you read of Tzipi Livni’s advisors telling Abbas not to take the deal so she could swoop in and claim the glory for herself, or by the same old mindless and manipulative game being played by “advisors” and “negotiators” on the Palestinian side who have been there forever and a day. (The Israeli names change over time, but the Palestinian names are always Mahmoud Abbas, Saeb Erekat, and Hanan Ashrawi.) So that’s the politicians; what about the people? In Israel, the people support peace, Birnbaum reports. The Palestinian people, however–that’s another story. Birnbaum chooses a delicate framing when he references a recent poll that “showed Palestinians preferred Hamas’s approach to ending the Israeli occupation over that of Abbas by a two-to-one margin.” I’m sure everyone can imagine what “Hamas’s approach” would mean, but for the record here’s the actual question from that poll (results, from left to right, are: total, in the West Bank, and in Gaza):

birnbaum

Given the success of Israel’s military counteroffensives against Hamas in Gaza, this is not simply a vote of no confidence. No confidence would be eight or nine steps up from where Abbas and negotiations currently rank among the Palestinians in both the West Bank and Gaza.

Though the article lays out the case that Abbas is the last chance for peace between the two peoples, it really ends up making a slightly different point: Arafat ruined his would-be country; Abbas is finishing it off for good. That’s because, as Jonathan Schanzer has reported and Birnbaum echoes here, Abbas has no successor. Hamas is waiting in the wings, which is why it may not even matter. Birnbaum went to Gaza, he said, to find the elusive moderate Hamasnik. Here is a quote from the single most moderate Hamas person he spoke to, Ahmed Yousef, when Birnbaum raised the issue of the Jews needing and deserving a safe haven:

“Go to Germany,” he replied curtly. “All the Jews of Europe should go back to their countries. Jews of the Arab world should go back to their towns and cities in the Arab world. We are ready to help them even, to prepare ships.”

Keep that in mind as we are told again and again that there are moderate, pragmatic Hamasniks who understand political reality and need only be given the chance to participate in the process. “Go to Germany” is the nicest thing Hamas has to say.

Abbas’s health is failing, Birnbaum reports, though it’s unclear how quickly. And Fatah is a mess. And Hamas is willing to let the Jews live on the condition they go back to Germany. And yet it is unclear why this is such a compelling case to sign a deal with Abbas. He appears to represent virtually no one, which means there is no one to uphold any deal after Abbas. What could such an agreement be worth, even if miraculously signed?

In fact, for those who said Olmert couldn’t possibly muster the political capital to follow through on his deal–and rightly so–what’s the argument that Abbas could follow through on his end? Sharon at least had Olmert, who tried to keep making concessions. And Olmert had Livni, who tried foolishly to oust Olmert when his back was turned but at least was willing to pick up the peacemaking mantle she attempted to pry from his hands.

Arafat could enforce an agreement, though he’d never sign one. Abbas can’t do either. Birnbaum’s piece makes clear Abbas is avoiding negotiations with Netanyahu, who American advisors told Birnbaum is much more willing to make peace than his critics say. But we already knew that. Abbas has no desire for a true, lasting peace. But we already knew that too.

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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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The Israeli Election and the Media’s Teachable Moment

After the 2012 presidential election, liberals gave conservatives a piece of advice: do some soul searching, and get out of your media bubble. Conservatives were wrong about the election, they were told, because they turned their assumptions into predictions. So it will be interesting to find out if the leftist foreign-policy press is ready to take its own advice, after a colossally botched year of coverage leading up to this week’s Israeli Knesset election.

In his wrap-up of just how wrong the media was, Walter Russell Mead gives his readers the following tip: “As negotiations to form a coalition government unfold in the next few weeks, expect more of the same from the MSM”–referring to the mainstream media. I imagine he’s right about that; the liberal press in America got the Israeli election so wrong because they get Israel itself so wrong. But it’s easy to understand how this happens by reading the article that Mead singles out as the “piece of journalism that got furthest away from the facts”–David Remnick’s essay in the New Yorker, dated for this week to coincide with the elections, on the rise of Israel’s right. Remnick writes:

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After the 2012 presidential election, liberals gave conservatives a piece of advice: do some soul searching, and get out of your media bubble. Conservatives were wrong about the election, they were told, because they turned their assumptions into predictions. So it will be interesting to find out if the leftist foreign-policy press is ready to take its own advice, after a colossally botched year of coverage leading up to this week’s Israeli Knesset election.

In his wrap-up of just how wrong the media was, Walter Russell Mead gives his readers the following tip: “As negotiations to form a coalition government unfold in the next few weeks, expect more of the same from the MSM”–referring to the mainstream media. I imagine he’s right about that; the liberal press in America got the Israeli election so wrong because they get Israel itself so wrong. But it’s easy to understand how this happens by reading the article that Mead singles out as the “piece of journalism that got furthest away from the facts”–David Remnick’s essay in the New Yorker, dated for this week to coincide with the elections, on the rise of Israel’s right. Remnick writes:

More broadly, the story of the election is the implosion of the center-left and the vivid and growing strength of the radical right. What Bennett’s rise, in particular, represents is the attempt of the settlers to cement the occupation and to establish themselves as a vanguard party, the ideological and spiritual core of the entire country. Just as a small coterie of socialist kibbutzniks dominated the ethos and the public institutions of Israel in the first decades of the state’s existence, the religious nationalists, led by the settlers, intend to do so now and in the years ahead. In the liberal tribune Haaretz, the columnist Ari Shavit wrote, “What is now happening is impossible to view as anything but the takeover by a colonial province of its mother country.”

If that strikes you as a bit overdone, and maybe a conclusion that should have been subjected to rigorous cynicism before endorsing it, what follows that in the article offers a map for how this came to be published with such certainty. The next paragraph begins with a contemptuous dismissal of the Labor Party’s election platform and its focus on domestic issues, without even a quote from the party. But those aren’t important issues, we are told, and Remnick knows this because in the next paragraph he quotes Tzipi Livni telling him so. Livni’s old party was almost shut out of the next Knesset completely, holding on to what looks to be two Knesset seats (down from 28 in the 2009 elections). It’s fair to say that Livni was wrong about the “core issues.”

Remnick’s pessimism about the settlements continues, as he follows Livni’s section of the story with quotes from the director of Peace Now’s “Settlement Watch” project. And that is followed by former Palestinian legislator Ghassan Khatib, who is then followed in the story by the pro-settlement politician Danny Danon. After that, Remnick talks about the left’s favoritoe Israeli bogeyman, Avigdor Lieberman, and moves on to how Theodor Herzl would disapprove.

You’ll notice one thing missing from all this: the Israeli voter. There is no discussion of what was actually bothering Israelis about the Netanyahu government or their rejection of Livni’s attempts to lead a credible opposition. Remnick deserves credit for much about the piece: he interviews people with whom he vehemently disagrees at length, and lets them speak for themselves. He doesn’t simply bring up old quotes from the rightist Moshe Feiglin, for example, but talks to Feiglin himself to see if that’s where he still stands on the issues. He does not seem to cherry-pick statements or conceal the context of his conversations from the reader.

But it’s an article full of politicians whose beliefs dovetail with Remnick’s own expectations. Yair Lapid, who was the big story of the election by leading his party to 19 seats, is mentioned exactly once. Labor, the other party that improved its standing greatly by addressing the kitchen-table issues that regular Israelis had been talking and fretting about, is virtually absent; Labor Party head Shelly Yachimovich is not mentioned at all.

So should we expect more of this type of coverage from the media? History tells us that the writers and pundits who get Israel wrong do so consistently. But there’s a real opportunity here for a “teachable moment,” as our president might say. If you want to know what everyday Israelis think, just ask them. Trust me, they’ll tell you.

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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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Liberal American Jews, Tzipi Livni, and the Israeli Consensus

Last week, Seth wrote an excellent post on the irreconcilability of European and Israeli visions for a two-state solution. What’s far more worrying, however, is that liberal American Jews appear to be on the European side of the divide. To grasp just how wide the gap yawns, compare the Union for Reform Judaism’s response to planned Israeli construction in the West Bank’s E-1 area to today’s remarks by one of Israel’s most dovish politicians, Tzipi Livni.

Last week, the URJ issued a statement condemning Israeli settlement activity, “especially in the E-1 area,” saying it “makes progress toward peace far more challenging, and is difficult to reconcile with the Government of Israel’s stated commitment to a two-state solution.” Now here’s what Livni–long the darling of liberal American Jews for her dovish views, and someone who has consistently blamed the Netanyahu government for the impasse in peace talks–told a gathering of foreign ambassadors today:

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Last week, Seth wrote an excellent post on the irreconcilability of European and Israeli visions for a two-state solution. What’s far more worrying, however, is that liberal American Jews appear to be on the European side of the divide. To grasp just how wide the gap yawns, compare the Union for Reform Judaism’s response to planned Israeli construction in the West Bank’s E-1 area to today’s remarks by one of Israel’s most dovish politicians, Tzipi Livni.

Last week, the URJ issued a statement condemning Israeli settlement activity, “especially in the E-1 area,” saying it “makes progress toward peace far more challenging, and is difficult to reconcile with the Government of Israel’s stated commitment to a two-state solution.” Now here’s what Livni–long the darling of liberal American Jews for her dovish views, and someone who has consistently blamed the Netanyahu government for the impasse in peace talks–told a gathering of foreign ambassadors today:

“It doesn’t matter what you think about settlements,” Livni said with uncharacteristic bluntness. “We have settlement blocs close to the Green Line and the only way for the conflict with the Palestinians to end is for Israel to keep them. Any pre-agreement by the international community to a withdrawal to 1967 borders before the talks occur, makes it difficult to negotiate. It was clear in the talks I conducted with the Palestinians that there would not be return to 1967 borders.”

Given that E-1 is the corridor that links one of those settlement blocs, Ma’aleh Adumim, to Jerusalem, it’s hard to reconcile those two views. After all, if the settlement blocs will be part of Israel under any agreement, then so will E-1–which, as Rick noted yesterday, is precisely why every peace plan every proposed, including former President Bill Clinton’s, in fact assigned E-1 to Israel. Indeed, the annexation documents for E-1 were signed by the patron saint of the peace process himself, Yitzhak Rabin, less than a year after he signed the Oslo Accords. Like everyone else who has seriously studied this issue, Rabin concluded both that it was vital for Israel’s security and–contrary to the widespread misconception today–that it would in no way preclude a viable and contiguous Palestinian state (a point Rich’s post also explains).

So if everyone knows that Israel is going to retain this area anyway, how can advancing construction within it possibly “make progress toward peace far more challenging”? In fact, as Livni noted, the opposite is true: The real impediment to negotiations is the Palestinian belief that the world will back their demand for a full withdrawal to the 1967 lines and eventually force Israel to comply. And that’s precisely the belief the URJ reinforced via its condemnation: After all, the Palestinians must be saying, if even American Jews won’t back Israel’s position, it will soon have no choice but to capitulate.

Back in 2008, then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice warned the Palestinians that if they weren’t prepared to concede Ma’aleh Adumim, “Then you won’t have a state!” Livni said the same thing today. But the URJ effectively told the Palestinians the opposite: It’s not the Palestinian refusal to cede Ma’aleh Adumim that’s the problem, it said, but Israel’s insistence on acting as if Ma’aleh Adumim will remain Israeli.

And when liberal American Jews can’t support a wall-to-wall Israeli consensus that encompasses even its most dovish politicians, you have to wonder whether they support the real Israel at all–or only some idealized fantasy of it that exists only in their own minds.

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