Commentary Magazine


Topic: Tzipi Livni

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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Tzipi Livni’s “Groundhog Day” Party List

In the movie “Groundhog Day,” in which Bill Murray’s character must relive the same day over and over again, he is overheard responding to someone on the telephone: “Well, what if there is no tomorrow? There wasn’t one today.” In October, I wrote about how one possible outcome of the upcoming Israeli elections (now precluded by more recent developments) would have put Tzipi Livni on the wrong end of an exact replay of the last time she tried to challenge current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Today, however, Livni held a press conference in Tel Aviv that might have yet again given Israelis the sense they were stuck in their own version of “Groundhog Day”–and not one they would like to relive. The press conference was to announce that Livni will be joined on her slate of candidates by Amir Peretz. The last time the Jewish state saw the two of them serve together was in the summer of 2006, when Israel fought what was considered a badly mismanaged war with Hezbollah in southern Lebanon. The government’s handling of the conflict was clumsy and erratic, both diplomatically and strategically. As foreign minister at the time, Livni was the country’s chief diplomat, and as defense minister, Peretz was in charge of the military prosecution of the war. Now, with missiles once again aimed at Israel from southern Lebanon, the duo is asking for another shot.

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In the movie “Groundhog Day,” in which Bill Murray’s character must relive the same day over and over again, he is overheard responding to someone on the telephone: “Well, what if there is no tomorrow? There wasn’t one today.” In October, I wrote about how one possible outcome of the upcoming Israeli elections (now precluded by more recent developments) would have put Tzipi Livni on the wrong end of an exact replay of the last time she tried to challenge current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Today, however, Livni held a press conference in Tel Aviv that might have yet again given Israelis the sense they were stuck in their own version of “Groundhog Day”–and not one they would like to relive. The press conference was to announce that Livni will be joined on her slate of candidates by Amir Peretz. The last time the Jewish state saw the two of them serve together was in the summer of 2006, when Israel fought what was considered a badly mismanaged war with Hezbollah in southern Lebanon. The government’s handling of the conflict was clumsy and erratic, both diplomatically and strategically. As foreign minister at the time, Livni was the country’s chief diplomat, and as defense minister, Peretz was in charge of the military prosecution of the war. Now, with missiles once again aimed at Israel from southern Lebanon, the duo is asking for another shot.

They will be joined on Livni’s list by Amram Mitzna–another blast from Israel’s past who was the intellectual father, in many ways, of the Gaza withdrawal that has come in for withering criticism since the recent Operation Pillar of Defense, the second such conflict since Israel left the Gaza Strip. The move by Peretz was surprising since just last week he earned a high spot on Labor’s slate in that party’s primary. The Labor party’s response? Don’t let the door hit you on the way out:

“With great relief we bid farewell to a person who tried, and failed, to sabotage the party at the height of its strength and popularity,” a statement from the party read. “His union with Tzipi Livni will not harm Labor in the slightest.”

Labor’s Isaac Herzog expressed surprise at the move, calling it “the height of political opportunism.”

Feminist activist and former columnist Merav Michaeli, who placed fifth in Labor primaries and is considered a confidante of Peretz, said the decision was not unexpected, but that she would not be joining him in Hatnua.

Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party issued a statement calling Peretz’s move the “most odious trick of all time.” The scathing comment employed the Hebrew term targil masriah, which was coined by Yitzhak Rabin in 1990 in response to Shimon Peres’s failed attempt to establish a narrow coalition — foiling a Yitzhak Shamir-led national union government — by concocting a clandestine deal with the ultra-Orthodox Shas party.

Israelis may believe Livni has done them a favor: by putting the famous purveyors of bad ideas and bad policy together on one slate, voters can easily avoid putting any of them back in power. If early polls are correct, that’s where this is heading.

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Which Israeli Party is Dangerous?

Polls don’t show former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni’s new political party having much of an impact on the Israeli electorate, but she is enjoying some success in attracting veteran politicians to her banner. Seven members of the Kadima party that she led in the last elections have jumped over to the Movement, as her party is dubbed. More importantly, she has attracted Amram Mitzna, a former leader of the Labor Party to run with Livni. Mitzna, who led Labor in the 2003 election against Ariel Sharon’s Likud, is likely to be named to the number two slot under Livni. In announcing his decision, Mitzna denounced the administration of Prime Minister Netanyahu as a “failed government” and said the right-wing tilt of the Likud Knesset list made it “dangerous.”

But Mitzna, who was highly regarded for his service as a general in the Israeli army and as mayor of Haifa, is hardly in a position to say the ideas of his opponents are dangerous. Mitzna is, after all, one of the original advocates of one of the worst decisions in the country’s history: the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza that led to the creation of a Hamas terrorist state on Israel’s doorstep.

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Polls don’t show former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni’s new political party having much of an impact on the Israeli electorate, but she is enjoying some success in attracting veteran politicians to her banner. Seven members of the Kadima party that she led in the last elections have jumped over to the Movement, as her party is dubbed. More importantly, she has attracted Amram Mitzna, a former leader of the Labor Party to run with Livni. Mitzna, who led Labor in the 2003 election against Ariel Sharon’s Likud, is likely to be named to the number two slot under Livni. In announcing his decision, Mitzna denounced the administration of Prime Minister Netanyahu as a “failed government” and said the right-wing tilt of the Likud Knesset list made it “dangerous.”

But Mitzna, who was highly regarded for his service as a general in the Israeli army and as mayor of Haifa, is hardly in a position to say the ideas of his opponents are dangerous. Mitzna is, after all, one of the original advocates of one of the worst decisions in the country’s history: the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza that led to the creation of a Hamas terrorist state on Israel’s doorstep.

Mitzna, whose reputation for honesty and thoughtfulness enabled him to shoot quickly to the top of Labor after his retirement from the army, led the party off the electoral cliff in 2003 by campaigning on a platform that pledged to try to jump-start the peace process via a unilateral retreat from the Gaza Strip. Then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon scoffed at the notion and called it dangerous. The Israeli people agreed. The Likud doubled its number of Knesset members in that election from 19 to 38. Mitzna’s Labor went in the opposite direction, going down from 26 to 19 and Mitzna was quickly replaced as the party’s leader.

In retrospect, that election seems like something of a dirty trick played on the Israeli people. Although Israelis completely rejected Mitzna’s idea, in a shocking turnaround, Sharon decided to implement it anyway. In the process, Sharon split his party in an attempt to fundamentally alter Israeli politics. The leading opportunists of both Likud (like Livni and Ehud Olmert) and Labor followed Sharon to Kadima and a majority of the Knesset that won their seats in an election that hinged on rejection of Mitzna’s idea voted to put it into action.

Some may argue that what followed wasn’t inevitable. Perhaps with better decisions on the part of the Palestinians as well as Sharon and Olmert who succeeded him in January 2006, Gaza might not have slipped into the chaos of Hamas rule. But that is merely counter-factual speculation. What happened is that a weak Palestinian Authority and a weak Israeli government watched meekly as Gaza was transformed into a terrorist state from which thousands of missiles have been fired at southern Israel, necessitating two IDF offensives that attempted to reduce the threat.

But no matter how you look at it, the idea of a unilateral retreat from Gaza must be considered a disaster for the country. It not only did not advance the peace process nor gain Israel credit for wanting peace, it set in motion a train of events that has led to two wars and gave Hamas, an Islamist group that is implacably committed to Israel’s destruction, a base from which it can challenge Fatah for control of the West Bank.

The lion’s share of the blame for Gaza must belong to Sharon, Olmert, Livni and the rest of the government that chose this perilous path. But Mitzna deserves a portion of it too. The Likud may have its share of hotheads in the next Knesset, but whatever you can say about them, none of them have a disaster as bad as Gaza on their resume. Seen in that light, it’s hard to argue that the current Likud — whose membership rejected Sharon’s plan — is the dangerous party in Israeli politics.

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Neither Livni Nor Likud Vote Will Stop Bibi

The headlines in the left-wing Israeli daily Haaretz summed up the reaction of opponents of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to the latest twist in the lead-up to the country’s January Knesset elections. The consensus on the left is that the victory of right-wing candidates in the Likud’s primary to determine their Knesset slate spells doom for the PM. “Has the Likud gone too far right for Netanyahu?” was one. “Likud’s sharp shift to the right is political suicide for Netanyahu” was another, while a third read “Likud’s hawkish earthquake sparks new hopes for centrist alternatives.” Combined with the other major story in Israeli politics today — the return to electoral politics of former foreign minister Tzipi Livni, who is leading a new party called “The Movement” — you might think that Netanyahu’s critics are right to assert that he is in big trouble.

But despite the hoopla over Livni and the worries about the changing of the guard in Likud, Israel’s electoral math appears unchanged. Netanyahu and his newly enlarged Likud and its coalition partners remain on course to win a smashing victory next month.

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The headlines in the left-wing Israeli daily Haaretz summed up the reaction of opponents of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to the latest twist in the lead-up to the country’s January Knesset elections. The consensus on the left is that the victory of right-wing candidates in the Likud’s primary to determine their Knesset slate spells doom for the PM. “Has the Likud gone too far right for Netanyahu?” was one. “Likud’s sharp shift to the right is political suicide for Netanyahu” was another, while a third read “Likud’s hawkish earthquake sparks new hopes for centrist alternatives.” Combined with the other major story in Israeli politics today — the return to electoral politics of former foreign minister Tzipi Livni, who is leading a new party called “The Movement” — you might think that Netanyahu’s critics are right to assert that he is in big trouble.

But despite the hoopla over Livni and the worries about the changing of the guard in Likud, Israel’s electoral math appears unchanged. Netanyahu and his newly enlarged Likud and its coalition partners remain on course to win a smashing victory next month.

The Likud primary resulted in some well-known figures in the party being booted from “safe slots” on its electoral roster (since the party is only expected to get in the vicinity of 40 seats, any candidate on the party list–whose order is determined by the voters–below that number isn’t going to get elected). That means veterans like Dan Meridor and Benny Begin, the son of Menachem Begin, won’t be back in the Knesset next year. This is because a new movement of younger and more right-wing candidates finished ahead of them. In particular, Moshe Feiglin, a nationalist gadfly who has been trying to take over the Likud from the inside for years, will for the first time gain a seat.

This will, as the Likud-bashers at Haaretz rightly point out, make the party’s parliamentary delegation much less moderate and more likely to make Netanyahu’s life hell as he attempts to keep relations with the Obama administration from collapsing. But the expectation that this will cost Netanyahu the election is merely the wish being father to the thought for his left-wing critics. This may cost Likud some centrist votes, which will go to Yair Lapid’s new party, or Livni or what is left of Kadima. But it could be offset by the votes picked up at the expense of the parties to Likud’s right.

It should also be understood that the driving force in any Knesset election is the person at the top of the ticket, not the one in the number 30 spot. Netanyahu remains the only credible candidate for prime minister in the field, and that is something that no primary will alter.

Even more important is the fact that Livni’s entry into the field will only further splinter the opposition to Netanyahu. Though she hopes to win Likud voters, her platform seems to center on two things only: her personal appeal and her belief that Netanyahu hasn’t done enough to further the peace process. Given her disastrous defeat at the hands of a lackluster rival like Shaul Mofaz in the Kadima primary last year, the idea that the public is clamoring for her doesn’t seem likely. The latest outbreak of fighting with Hamas in Gaza has only increased the perception among most Israelis that the peace process is dead. The Labor Party, which is likely to finish a distant second next month to Likud, has completely abandoned this issue and with good reason. It is hard to see how any candidate can win on such a platform. Nor, as Seth pointed out earlier today, is she likely to score points by trying simultaneously to run to Netanyahu’s right.

As the Times of Israel’s Raphael Ahren points out, Israeli politics remains divided between two camps. On the one hand there is Netanyahu’s Likud and its right-wing and religious allies that form the current government. On the other is the so-called center-left as well as the anti-Zionist Arab parties. According to all the polls, the former’s strength should net them anywhere from 66 to 70 seats out of the 120 in the Knesset. The latter can’t seem to do better than 50-54.

This means that it doesn’t really matter whether Labor’s Shelly Yachimovich or Livni or Lapid or some other outlier emerges from the wreckage of the Israeli center-left after the next election as the head of the opposition. As Ahren says, it would take an “earthquake” or some completely unforeseen event to shake the country’s electoral math. Though the Haaretz pundits and American liberals who despise Netanyahu and reject the Israeli consensus about peace are hoping that Livni or someone else will pull an upset, the prime minister remains on cruise control. His next term will probably be stormy and his party will give him plenty of headaches. But so long as most Israelis agree with his stands on the Palestinians and Iran, and understand that his steady hand on the country’s economic rudder is exactly what is needed, the Likud’s hold on office is not in question.

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Israel-Hamas Cease-fire a Work in Progress

When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu decided that Israel would finally respond to Hamas’s rocket barrage from Gaza, his knee-jerk critics issued two very silly judgments almost immediately. They said Netanyahu was ordering this counteroffensive to boost his reelection chances in January, and that his decision was an open challenge to newly reelected President Barack Obama.

Though neither of these theories made much sense from the outset, Operation Pillar of Defense conclusively debunked them once and for all. Netanyahu’s cautious, limited approach to the conflict was panned in opinion polls; Israelis wanted to see Hamas more thoroughly beaten, perhaps through a ground invasion by troops already called up for service just in case. And though more hawkish elements in his cabinet wanted either more favorable cease-fire terms for Israel or no cease-fire at all, Netanyahu sided with the Obama administration in its desire to see the end of hostilities as soon as possible. And Tzipi Livni removed all doubt about public opinion toward Pillar of Defense when announcing her new political party today in Tel Aviv:

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When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu decided that Israel would finally respond to Hamas’s rocket barrage from Gaza, his knee-jerk critics issued two very silly judgments almost immediately. They said Netanyahu was ordering this counteroffensive to boost his reelection chances in January, and that his decision was an open challenge to newly reelected President Barack Obama.

Though neither of these theories made much sense from the outset, Operation Pillar of Defense conclusively debunked them once and for all. Netanyahu’s cautious, limited approach to the conflict was panned in opinion polls; Israelis wanted to see Hamas more thoroughly beaten, perhaps through a ground invasion by troops already called up for service just in case. And though more hawkish elements in his cabinet wanted either more favorable cease-fire terms for Israel or no cease-fire at all, Netanyahu sided with the Obama administration in its desire to see the end of hostilities as soon as possible. And Tzipi Livni removed all doubt about public opinion toward Pillar of Defense when announcing her new political party today in Tel Aviv:

“Everything is upside down,” Livni said, and went on to allude to the government’s ceasefire negotiations with Hamas versus the lack of peace talks with the Palestinian Authority: “The government enters dialogue with those who support terror and avoids the camp that has prevented terror, that fights for two states.”

Livni, who is not quite a dove but by no means among the more hawkish elements of Israel’s political spectrum today, thinks she can run to Netanyahu’s right on the Hamas cease-fire. Meanwhile, a report in today’s New York Times demonstrates why the cease-fire may continue to be a drag on Netanyahu: the two sides still can’t agree on the terms of a cease-fire that was supposed to have already taken effect. The Times notes that Palestinians in Gaza have already violated the truce, and Hamas is looking for concessions to keep playing ball:

Israeli officials refused even to confirm that a delegation had arrived in Cairo. It was not immediately clear whether this stemmed from an agreement between the sides to maintain discretion, or if it was part of an Israeli effort to play down the idea it was making any concessions to Hamas.

Netanyahu is probably not in danger of losing votes to Livni over this, since anyone already to Netanyahu’s right will probably stay there rather than cross over and run to Netanyahu’s left by voting for politicians even less likely to take positions they agree with. But if the Palestinians keep violating the truce, and these negotiations continue to drag on, the lack of “closure” on the mission may be a headache for Netanyahu going forward.

Ironically, Livni’s great hope was once that Obama preferred her to Netanyahu. Her current political position will only alienate her American admirers without gaining many Israeli supporters instead, while Netanyahu’s broadened rightist party and cooperation with Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton enables him to cast a wide net in search votes. In an attempt to grab the center, Livni may end up on the margins.

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Why Likud Wants to Absorb Israel Beiteinu

The Times of Israel is reporting that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party will merge with Avigdor Lieberman’s Israel Beiteinu party in advance of the January Knesset elections. There are four reasons for this.

First, as I wrote recently, in the 2009 elections Tzipi Livni’s Kadima party won the election by a single seat, but was unable to form a governing coalition, thereby enabling Netanyahu’s Likud, the runner-up, to form the current coalition. Polls have shown that such an outcome could repeat itself in January. However, if the Labor party continues its revival in the polls, it’s possible there would be enough seats to Likud’s left for Kadima to put together a governing coalition, especially if Aryeh Deri’s return to the Orthodox Shas party enables it to drain some votes from Likud, as polls have suggested it might.

Netanyahu wants to avoid any chance of this outcome, and the only way to do that is to win the election outright. Likud and Israel Beiteinu currently have 42 Knesset seats between them.

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The Times of Israel is reporting that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party will merge with Avigdor Lieberman’s Israel Beiteinu party in advance of the January Knesset elections. There are four reasons for this.

First, as I wrote recently, in the 2009 elections Tzipi Livni’s Kadima party won the election by a single seat, but was unable to form a governing coalition, thereby enabling Netanyahu’s Likud, the runner-up, to form the current coalition. Polls have shown that such an outcome could repeat itself in January. However, if the Labor party continues its revival in the polls, it’s possible there would be enough seats to Likud’s left for Kadima to put together a governing coalition, especially if Aryeh Deri’s return to the Orthodox Shas party enables it to drain some votes from Likud, as polls have suggested it might.

Netanyahu wants to avoid any chance of this outcome, and the only way to do that is to win the election outright. Likud and Israel Beiteinu currently have 42 Knesset seats between them.

Second, the looming threat of a dominant Likud victory may ward off an attempted return by Ehud Olmert. Third, Yair Lapid’s new party, Yesh Atid, has finally made clear that it is a rightist party much in the mold of Israel Beiteinu—pro-two state solution but protective of major settlement blocs and a unified Jerusalem, with a secular political outlook. That revelation enables Netanyahu to absorb Israel Beiteinu and replace it with a nearly identical party, thus preserving the structure of the current governing coalition without making any major ideological changes or having to accommodate extraneous parties.

And fourth, demographics. Part of Likud’s success over the years was due to the fact that Mizrahi Jews–Jews from Arab lands, primarily, and their descendants–found a home in Likud. Labor tried clumsily to win them over about five years ago, but failed. Netanyahu is now hoping to secure the loyalty and partisan affiliation of Israel’s Russian immigrant community, which is over 1 million strong and represented by Lieberman and Israel Beiteinu.

Assuming the merger comes through and then the marriage withstands the test of time (and raucous, factional Israeli politics), what would Lieberman get out of this? When I profiled Lieberman and his impact on the Israeli political scene for COMMENTARY in the summer of 2011, I wrote the following:

There is one way in which Lieberman’s political career represents a new paradigm in Israeli politics: he is a heterodox political figure for the 21st century in Israel, a secular nationalist immigrant. His base is within the enormous Russian community, but, unlike previous ethnic politicians, he has interests and goals far more ambitious than bringing home the kosher bacon to his constituents through the use of government largesse. And unlike his predecessors in the ethnic political game, like the Moroccan populist David Levy or the religious Sephardi leader Aryeh Deri, he is playing on a far larger field.

Lieberman wants to be prime minister someday. And he happens to be almost a full decade younger than Netanyahu (Lieberman is only 54). It’s possible Lieberman–whose political instincts have always been vastly underestimated—sees the possibility of inheriting what would be the political party with the largest Knesset vote share since Yitzhak Rabin’s Labor party in 1992, if its electoral success continues at this rate.

But that is looking a bit far into the future. The truth is, such mergers are almost always unstable, and Lieberman has split from Likud before. But the Israeli left will take some encouragement from this if they believe they have spooked Netanyahu into thinking he could lose the January elections after all.

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Israeli Political Parties Find Their Voices

One of the more interesting aspects of the current Israeli political pre-election shuffling is the unsettled nature of every major political party to the left of Likud. Kadima and Labor, the two largest parties outside the current governing coalition, have each been going through identity crises. The third wild card, Yair Lapid’s new Yesh Atid party, has no record and Lapid has no real political experience, leaving the public guessing as to where they fit on the ideological spectrum.

But now, it seems, there is suddenly a great degree of clarity. Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert may be back in court, as the state is strongly considering appealing some of the acquittals in his corruption case, and such legal action may make it impossible for him to run. That would make it much more likely that Tzipi Livni would return to the political stage without having to compete with Olmert. (Though the two reached some sort of agreement not to compete against each other anyway. No one, however, seems to know exactly what that means in practice.) But even more interesting–if not surprising–is the emergence of an identity for Labor and for Lapid’s Yesh Atid.

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One of the more interesting aspects of the current Israeli political pre-election shuffling is the unsettled nature of every major political party to the left of Likud. Kadima and Labor, the two largest parties outside the current governing coalition, have each been going through identity crises. The third wild card, Yair Lapid’s new Yesh Atid party, has no record and Lapid has no real political experience, leaving the public guessing as to where they fit on the ideological spectrum.

But now, it seems, there is suddenly a great degree of clarity. Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert may be back in court, as the state is strongly considering appealing some of the acquittals in his corruption case, and such legal action may make it impossible for him to run. That would make it much more likely that Tzipi Livni would return to the political stage without having to compete with Olmert. (Though the two reached some sort of agreement not to compete against each other anyway. No one, however, seems to know exactly what that means in practice.) But even more interesting–if not surprising–is the emergence of an identity for Labor and for Lapid’s Yesh Atid.

Labor’s new leader, Shelly Yachimovich, has been hinting that her slate of candidates will move Labor to the left and incorporate leaders of Israel’s social protest movement. But it has also been courting the military to burnish the party’s national security credentials. The strategy of moving to the left is, as I wrote last week, a risky one, since the Israeli electorate has moved to the right on the peace process and has been in the habit of punishing Labor at the polls repeatedly.

But the ideological outlook of the party took another step to the left, as Peace Now Executive Director Yariv Oppenheimer announced he’ll run for a seat on the Labor slate. The Jerusalem Post reports:

“In addition to the social agenda, the Labor Party must raise the diplomatic flag and fight against the expansion of settlement construction and waves of anti-democratic legislation that the Israeli Right is leading,” Oppenheimer said after resigning from his post in Peace Now on Monday.

Thus far, Labor leader Shelly Yacimovich has focused almost exclusively on social issues.

An overwhelming focus on social issues with a dash of anti-settler, land-for-peace moral thundering is a recipe for a full reengagement of the culture wars. For Lapid, on the other hand, accommodation with Palestinians must be found without uprooting large Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria:

The Yesh Atid leader courted rightwing voters, saying “I’m not a lefty,” that settlement blocs, including the city of Ariel, must stay under Israeli sovereignty, and Jerusalem should not be divided.

As for the lack of peace talks in recent years, Lapid said “the Palestinians brought this upon themselves. If after the disengagement [from Gaza] they didn’t build hospitals and schools, but training sites, there is no doubt that it is their responsibility – but we also need negotiations for ourselves.”

Lapid quipped that his late father, former justice minister and Shinui leader Tommy Lapid, “did not leave the ghetto to live in a binational state.

This is the land of the Jews, and we have the right to finally get rid of the Palestinians. There won’t be a new Middle East, but we won’t have 3.5 million Palestinians in Israeli territory.”

I’m sure pundits will glom onto the typically nuanced phrase “get rid of the Palestinians,” but the overall sentiment—peace negotiations are stalled because of the Palestinians’ rejectionism, but necessary in the end to disentangle the two sides—is a common attitude among the Israeli electorate, and perfectly sums up the outlook of Avigdor Lieberman’s increasingly successful Israel Beiteinu party. Lapid also noted that he would not rule out sitting in a coalition with Orthodox parties, something his father refused to do. If Lapid even gains the seats he is projected to win in early polling (a big “if”), the right would be an absolutely dominant force in the Knesset. And that doesn’t even count Kadima, which began as a center-right party as well.

Lapid, by being so explicit about his views, is betting that despite the existence of a broad, center-right governing coalition, there are still more votes to be had for another rightist party. Labor is betting that if it can swell its ranks to include everyone to the left of the current governing coalition, it can at least return to prominence as the main, if not the only, electoral vehicle for left-leaning Israelis. That might mean a Labor that is increasingly successful electorally and increasingly marginal politically at the same time.

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Israeli Poll Shows Labor at a Crossroads

Earlier this month, I wrote about an Israeli news report suggesting former Kadima party leaders Ehud Olmert and Tzipi Livni were considering teaming up with former Israeli TV journalist Yair Lapid for the upcoming Knesset elections. One detail in that report was that Lapid had created his own party and was unwilling to leave it to join Kadima, no matter who leads the centrist opposition party. But what if he were willing to join Kadima?

That is the subject of a story in Haaretz today. The Israeli daily reports the results of a poll taken to determine how all the major parties would perform in January’s elections in three different possible scenarios. One of those scenarios had Lapid, Olmert, and Livni together in a “super-party.” And Haaretz reports that such a super-party would win the election. Sort of:

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Earlier this month, I wrote about an Israeli news report suggesting former Kadima party leaders Ehud Olmert and Tzipi Livni were considering teaming up with former Israeli TV journalist Yair Lapid for the upcoming Knesset elections. One detail in that report was that Lapid had created his own party and was unwilling to leave it to join Kadima, no matter who leads the centrist opposition party. But what if he were willing to join Kadima?

That is the subject of a story in Haaretz today. The Israeli daily reports the results of a poll taken to determine how all the major parties would perform in January’s elections in three different possible scenarios. One of those scenarios had Lapid, Olmert, and Livni together in a “super-party.” And Haaretz reports that such a super-party would win the election. Sort of:

A new centrist party formed by Ehud Olmert, Tzipi Livni and Yair Lapid would win more seats in the next Knesset than the Likud, according to a new Haaretz poll. Were such a party to be formed, it would grab 25 seats, compared to Likud’s 24. However, the survey also indicates that, whatever its composition, a right-wing bloc would not lose its Knesset majority….

According to the poll, even if former Prime Minister Olmert and former Kadima leader Livni join forces, or if Livni instead links up with Labor leader Shelly Yacimovich, they would face a right-wing bloc, a bloc of “natural partners,” that would retain its majority – meaning that Benjamin Netanyahu would remain prime minister after the January 22 elections. In a worst-case scenario from his perspective, he would just have to sweat a little more before reaching the finish line.

The third scenario would be if the current party composition remains unchanged. In that case, the poll projects a 65-seat governing coalition for the rightist bloc led by Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud, Avigdor Lieberman’s Israel Beiteinu, and the Orthodox Shas party.

That first scenario, which projects a one-vote win for the centrist supergroup but a failure to form a coalition, leading Netanyahu’s Likud to put his coalition back together, is an almost exact replay of what actually happened the last time Livni led a party that challenged Netanyahu. In 2009, Livni’s Kadima garnered one more Knesset seat than Netanyahu’s Likud, but was unable to form a coalition. (The Kadima win was less than it seemed; voters wanted a rightist coalition, and they got one.)

But there is a fascinating side story to compliment this one, also on Haaretz’s website. The paper reports that the Labor party, now led by Shelly Yachimovich, is working hard to recruit young talent, leaders from Israel’s social protest movement, and popular military and media figures to run in this winter’s election on the Labor slate. This is fascinating in part because it stands in such contrast not only to the first story, but also to conventional wisdom. As the first Haaretz story shows, in Israel the electoral success of a political party is overwhelmingly dependent on the popularity of its leader. (Just for fun, ask a Western media personality who rails against the Orthodox and Russian immigrant parties to name anyone besides the leader of those parties. They probably can’t.)

And in fact, a Livni-Olmert-Lapid party is considered a supergroup despite the fact that poll respondents were given only three names. Who else is on the ticket? Who cares? Yet the Labor party, which until recently was led by Ehud Barak, is rebuilding from the ground up. It cannot trade on Yachimovich’s name or fame. And the strategy represents an honest grappling with the Israeli left’s freefall. Yachimovich is saying, in effect, this isn’t your father’s Labor party.

It is also, however, risky. The Israeli left has had its clock cleaned in Knesset elections over the past decade because the electorate has moved to the right–at least on the peace process. Yachimovich is branding Labor as being further to the left than it has been under the hawkish Barak. It she is successful, it will be a big victory for a rejuvenated left. If not, it will have been a massive missed opportunity to grab what’s left of the political center before someone else does.

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The Predictably Unpredictable Israeli Political Scene

Parliamentary democracy makes for strange alliances, and nowhere is this truer than Israel. Minor parties hold disproportionate sway, and the fragmentation of party politics means that even the largest parties rarely even get halfway to the number of Knesset seats they need to form a governing coalition. The other hard and fast rule of Israeli politics is that is that careers are never over; unlikely comebacks are a staple of the country’s political sphere, and often happen more quickly than expected.

But just how quickly Israeli politicians can return from the brink will seemingly be tested this winter en masse in a political experiment that sounds more like the pitch for an Israeli reality TV show than electoral strategy. Arutz Sheva is reporting that Tzipi Livni, Ehud Olmert, and Yair Lapid are strongly considering joining forces now that early Knesset elections appear likely—probably some time in February. Olmert was found guilty on one count in the corruption case against him just last month; Livni lost her Kadima party primary in the spring and resigned from the Knesset five months ago; and Lapid, a former journalist, looked ready to make a serious play for the Knesset in April until Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu struck a coalition deal (that promptly fell apart) with Kadima in May. All three were written off—at least for the time being.

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Parliamentary democracy makes for strange alliances, and nowhere is this truer than Israel. Minor parties hold disproportionate sway, and the fragmentation of party politics means that even the largest parties rarely even get halfway to the number of Knesset seats they need to form a governing coalition. The other hard and fast rule of Israeli politics is that is that careers are never over; unlikely comebacks are a staple of the country’s political sphere, and often happen more quickly than expected.

But just how quickly Israeli politicians can return from the brink will seemingly be tested this winter en masse in a political experiment that sounds more like the pitch for an Israeli reality TV show than electoral strategy. Arutz Sheva is reporting that Tzipi Livni, Ehud Olmert, and Yair Lapid are strongly considering joining forces now that early Knesset elections appear likely—probably some time in February. Olmert was found guilty on one count in the corruption case against him just last month; Livni lost her Kadima party primary in the spring and resigned from the Knesset five months ago; and Lapid, a former journalist, looked ready to make a serious play for the Knesset in April until Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu struck a coalition deal (that promptly fell apart) with Kadima in May. All three were written off—at least for the time being.

There is also the question of capability. Livni has always been well liked, but never evolved into a natural leader or even a particularly good politician. (She even tried, and failed, to oust Olmert when he seemed most politically vulnerable.) Since her rivals were Ehud Barak, Netanyahu, and Avigdor Lieberman–three masterful politicians–even winning national elections couldn’t get Livni into the prime minister’s office. As for Olmert: Jonathan noted recently that Olmert’s entire approval rating was once within the margin of error. In other words, it was statistically possible that zero percent of those polled approved of Olmert. And Lapid is a newcomer; he only registered his party in the spring, and it’s unclear how well he can play the game. Faced with the same Netanyahu-Barak-Lieberman competition that swept Livni out of the political scene, it’s entirely possible Lapid will have a welcome-to-the-NFL moment this year.

But there’s one caveat to that: Barak is now something of a wild card. In order to stay in Netanyahu’s government, in which he is defense minister and at times appears to be both co-premier and co-foreign minister, Barak had to leave the Labor party he led for years. He didn’t take enough Labor defectors with him to form a competitive party, so he is something of a paradox: tremendously powerful and influential but possibly without a party that could keep him in the Knesset.

It seemed that Barak’s initial strategy when defecting was to ingratiate himself enough with Netanyahu to earn a spot on the Likud’s next Knesset roster. But in order to do so and ensure he gets a Knesset seat and retains an influential portfolio, he would have to be given very high placement on that list (some speculated he was even angling for the No. 2 spot). But Likud has its own primary and internal elections, and Netanyahu would never risk his own position as leader of the Likud to face down the rebellion that Barak’s plan would surely bring.

Seen in that light, Barak’s decision to meet with Livni two weeks ago, and the evident displeasure it brought Netanyahu, begin to make more sense. Without his own party and without Likud, Barak stands to lose the most in early elections. So he needs a home, or at least a coalition partner. Would Livni and Olmert return to Kadima? Could they even return to Kadima after Shaul Mofaz’s commanding primary victory over Livni and given Olmert’s unpopularity and legal troubles? Would they form a new party?

In order to stop Netanyahu, they may have to form a blocking coalition–which is what Netanyahu did to Livni in 2009–to prevent Likud from being able to form a government even if it wins the elections outright. They would have to ally with Labor to do that, and would need Kadima as well. But without Lieberman, who has been something of a coalition kingmaker for years now, they would probably still fail. (Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party has held steady at about 15 seats; the Orthodox Shas party at about 10.)

But if Labor outpaces expectations, and Kadima puts the band back together, even the unlikely is still possible.

If this all sounds confusing now, just wait until it gets going. As Netanyahu and Mofaz demonstrated a few months ago, in Israel the political scene can change on a dime–and then change again before anyone has caught his breath. Considering the histories of Olmert and Livni, it could also all fall apart. But the player to watch will continue to be Barak—the most powerful defense minister since Ariel Sharon with a four-front foreign policy crisis looming and in search of a political home with elections four months away. Yet considering Barak’s clout and his recent ability to attract enough stragglers for a modest following, it’s entirely possible that despite everything, the governing coalition that emerges in February will be identical to the one currently governing Israel.

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The Lesson of Livni’s Resignation: Don’t Believe Media Reporting on Israel

Former opposition leader Tzipi Livni’s resignation from the Knesset today offers a good opportunity to reflect on just how unreliable mainstream media reporting about Israel often is.

Just two months ago, Newsweek and The Daily Beast put Livni on their lists of “150 women who shake the world,” describing her as “one of the most powerful women in the country.” Yet while that was undoubtedly true a few years ago, by the time the Newsweek list came out in March 2012, Livni was almost universally regarded as a has-been even by her erstwhile supporters.

In an editorial published later that month, for instance, Haaretz mourned that in the three years since her “praiseworthy” decision not to join Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government in 2009, “she has not missed a single opportunity to make a mistake: She did not function as an opposition leader, she did not offer an alternative to the government’s policies and she did not lead her party wisely and set clear policy.” In a poll published just four days after the Newsweek list, the public ranked Livni dead last among 16 leading Israeli political figures, behind even such nonentities as Histadrut labor federation chairman Ofer Eini. And three weeks later, Livni’s own party unceremoniously dumped her: She lost Kadima’s leadership race by a landslide 25-point margin. Now, her political career in ruins, she is even quitting the Knesset.

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Former opposition leader Tzipi Livni’s resignation from the Knesset today offers a good opportunity to reflect on just how unreliable mainstream media reporting about Israel often is.

Just two months ago, Newsweek and The Daily Beast put Livni on their lists of “150 women who shake the world,” describing her as “one of the most powerful women in the country.” Yet while that was undoubtedly true a few years ago, by the time the Newsweek list came out in March 2012, Livni was almost universally regarded as a has-been even by her erstwhile supporters.

In an editorial published later that month, for instance, Haaretz mourned that in the three years since her “praiseworthy” decision not to join Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government in 2009, “she has not missed a single opportunity to make a mistake: She did not function as an opposition leader, she did not offer an alternative to the government’s policies and she did not lead her party wisely and set clear policy.” In a poll published just four days after the Newsweek list, the public ranked Livni dead last among 16 leading Israeli political figures, behind even such nonentities as Histadrut labor federation chairman Ofer Eini. And three weeks later, Livni’s own party unceremoniously dumped her: She lost Kadima’s leadership race by a landslide 25-point margin. Now, her political career in ruins, she is even quitting the Knesset.

That Livni was a has-been by March 2012 was obvious to anyone who had even cursory familiarity with Israel. Thus, either Newsweek and The Daily Beast were completely ignorant of the Israeli reality, or they deliberately disregarded the facts in order to promote their own agenda: Livni, after all, is a darling of the international media, because as Newsweek said in its profile, she is “a steadfast proponent of the peace process” who has led final-status talks with the Palestinians and supported the 2005 pullout from Gaza. Regardless of which explanation is true, the bottom line is the same: Their reporting on Israel can’t be trusted.

Nor is this problem unique to Newsweek. Indeed, Jonathan cited another example  just yesterday: The New York Times’s decision to play up former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s verbal attack on Netanyahu earlier this week as something that “may add to recent pressure on Mr. Netanyahu to tack to the left.” Anyone with any knowledge of Israel knows that Olmert has virtually no political support, being widely viewed as both corrupt and incompetent. By treating him as someone whose opinions actually matter in Israel, the Times was either demonstrating cosmic ignorance or pushing its own political agenda at the expense of the facts.

The media’s job is supposed to be informing the public. But when it comes to Israel, it often seems to prefer misinforming the public. By portraying has-beens like Livni and Olmert as important and influential politicians, media outlets make it impossible for readers to understand the real Israel – the one that elected Netanyahu in 2009 and seems likely to reelect him this fall. And it thereby betrays its own calling.

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The Fall of Obama’s Favorite Israeli

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Real Danger Is that the Guardian’s Spin Could Mislead the West

The Guardian clearly has it in for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and his chief negotiator, Saeb Erekat. Not content with lambasting the concessions they actually made, it’s now accusing them of two concessions belied by the very “Palestine Papers” it cites as proof: recognizing Israel as a Jewish state and agreeing to resettle only 10,000 refugees in Israel.

The first assertion, as J.E. Dyer noted, relies on two Erekat quotes. In 2007, he told then-Israeli foreign minister Tzipi Livni, “If you want to call your state the Jewish state of Israel you can call it what you want.” And in 2009, he said, “I dare the Israelis to write to the UN and change their name to the ‘Great Eternal Historic State of Israel’. This is their issue, not mine.”

Yet neither of these constitutes Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state, which is what Israel demands. They merely reiterate what Palestinian leaders have repeatedly said in public (here and here, for instance): that they can’t stop Israel from calling itself a Jewish state, but under no circumstances will they recognize it as such.

The refugees assertion relies on minutes of Erekat’s June 2009 meeting with the PA’s Negotiations Support Unit. One participant asked whether any Israeli government had expressed different positions than Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did in a speech earlier that month. Erekat replied by detailing former prime minister Ehud Olmert’s offer, which included accepting “1000 refugees annually for the next 10 years.”

Nowhere, however, does the document say the Palestinians agreed to this. On the contrary, they refused to sign Olmert’s proffered deal. So how does the Guardian construe Palestinian acquiescence out of this? By quoting something Erekat told U.S. envoy George Mitchell four months earlier, in February 2009: “On refugees, the deal is there.”

The paper doesn’t source this quote, nor does it explain why it thinks Erekat was signifying acceptance of Olmert’s offer. Certainly, Erekat doesn’t say so, and the timing actually makes this interpretation unlikely.

Mitchell’s February 2009 visit occurred after Israel’s election but before Netanyahu took office. Netanyahu was opposed to Mitchell’s “borders first” agenda for talks, arguing that upfront territorial concessions would deprive Israel of leverage in subsequent talks on issues like the refugees. The PA backed it for the very same reason, and thus sought to counter Netanyahu’s objection. So Erekat gave Mitchell a generic assurance that the refugees wouldn’t be a deal-breaker. But since he didn’t commit to any particular number, that assurance is meaningless.

Several CONTENTIONS contributors have noted that the publication of the Palestine Papers will make it harder for the PA to make concessions essential for a deal. But since the Guardian’s spin has been mindlessly repeated by media outlets worldwide (including in Israel), an equally worrying possibility is that Western leaders may falsely believe it already has offered the necessary concessions, and therefore ease their already minimal pressure on the Palestinians to do so.

And since the talks’ failure to date stems mainly from the PA’s refusal to make these concessions, that would make the prospects for a deal even dimmer than they are now.

The Guardian clearly has it in for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and his chief negotiator, Saeb Erekat. Not content with lambasting the concessions they actually made, it’s now accusing them of two concessions belied by the very “Palestine Papers” it cites as proof: recognizing Israel as a Jewish state and agreeing to resettle only 10,000 refugees in Israel.

The first assertion, as J.E. Dyer noted, relies on two Erekat quotes. In 2007, he told then-Israeli foreign minister Tzipi Livni, “If you want to call your state the Jewish state of Israel you can call it what you want.” And in 2009, he said, “I dare the Israelis to write to the UN and change their name to the ‘Great Eternal Historic State of Israel’. This is their issue, not mine.”

Yet neither of these constitutes Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state, which is what Israel demands. They merely reiterate what Palestinian leaders have repeatedly said in public (here and here, for instance): that they can’t stop Israel from calling itself a Jewish state, but under no circumstances will they recognize it as such.

The refugees assertion relies on minutes of Erekat’s June 2009 meeting with the PA’s Negotiations Support Unit. One participant asked whether any Israeli government had expressed different positions than Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did in a speech earlier that month. Erekat replied by detailing former prime minister Ehud Olmert’s offer, which included accepting “1000 refugees annually for the next 10 years.”

Nowhere, however, does the document say the Palestinians agreed to this. On the contrary, they refused to sign Olmert’s proffered deal. So how does the Guardian construe Palestinian acquiescence out of this? By quoting something Erekat told U.S. envoy George Mitchell four months earlier, in February 2009: “On refugees, the deal is there.”

The paper doesn’t source this quote, nor does it explain why it thinks Erekat was signifying acceptance of Olmert’s offer. Certainly, Erekat doesn’t say so, and the timing actually makes this interpretation unlikely.

Mitchell’s February 2009 visit occurred after Israel’s election but before Netanyahu took office. Netanyahu was opposed to Mitchell’s “borders first” agenda for talks, arguing that upfront territorial concessions would deprive Israel of leverage in subsequent talks on issues like the refugees. The PA backed it for the very same reason, and thus sought to counter Netanyahu’s objection. So Erekat gave Mitchell a generic assurance that the refugees wouldn’t be a deal-breaker. But since he didn’t commit to any particular number, that assurance is meaningless.

Several CONTENTIONS contributors have noted that the publication of the Palestine Papers will make it harder for the PA to make concessions essential for a deal. But since the Guardian’s spin has been mindlessly repeated by media outlets worldwide (including in Israel), an equally worrying possibility is that Western leaders may falsely believe it already has offered the necessary concessions, and therefore ease their already minimal pressure on the Palestinians to do so.

And since the talks’ failure to date stems mainly from the PA’s refusal to make these concessions, that would make the prospects for a deal even dimmer than they are now.

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Palestinian DNA Won’t Accept Equality with Jews?

More documents detailing Palestinian negotiating stands with Israel were released last night by Al Jazeera, providing observers with more information about the negotiations that took place from 2007 to 2009 between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. The latest bunch show that PA leader Mahmoud Abbas was realistic enough to understand that the notion of Israel’s accepting a million descendants of the original 1948 refugees was a non-starter.

The idea that Abbas was giving up on the Palestinian dream of swamping Israel with Palestinian Arabs is widely seen as a disgrace among his own people, as well as with their European cheerleaders at places such as the Guardian newspaper, which has also played a role in revealing the documents. Some critics of Israel are claiming that the PA’s willingness to acknowledge that hundreds of thousands of Jews were never going to be turned out of their homes in Jerusalem as part of a peace deal shows that Abbas was a true peace partner. But the furor over these documents reveals anew the insurmountable obstacles to an agreement that are created by Palestinian public opinion. The problem is that anything that smacks of recognition of the legitimacy of a Jewish state (something that even these documents show the PA was never willing to admit) is considered anathema to the Palestinian street, not to mention that the Guardian seems to be as appalled by Abbas’s willingness to dicker over Jerusalem and refugees as Hamas has been. That is why, despite all the excruciating negotiations that took place with the Olmert/Livni government, which offered the PA a state in virtually all the West Bank, Gaza, and part of Jerusalem, Abbas’s answer was still no.

Even amid all these supposed signs of moderation on the part of the PA, a glimpse of the extreme nature of Palestinian political culture still shines through. For example, during one session involving then Israeli foreign minister Tzipi Livni and PA negotiator Saeb Erekat, the two explored the possibility that Israelis living in the Jerusalem suburb Ma’ale Adumim might be allowed to stay there if it became part of a Palestinian state. When Livni asked Erekat how she could provide Israelis “living in Palestine with security,” his reply was telling: “Can you imagine that I have changed my DNA and accepted a situation in which Jews become citizens having the rights that I and my wife have,” asked Erekat. “Can you imagine that this will happen one day?”

The Israelis present had no such illusions, and it soon became clear that any Jews living in Palestinian territory after a proposed peace would wind up like the greenhouses of Gaza that were left behind when Israel evacuated that territory in 2005. They would have to flee since, unlike Arabs living in the State of Israel, who enjoy equal rights as citizens, such persons wouldn’t last a day. This should provide an explanation to anyone wishing to understand why the majority of Israelis appear to have given up on the idea of a real peace with the Palestinians. Under such circumstances and with such peace partners, what hope is there for peaceful coexistence in the foreseeable future?

More documents detailing Palestinian negotiating stands with Israel were released last night by Al Jazeera, providing observers with more information about the negotiations that took place from 2007 to 2009 between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. The latest bunch show that PA leader Mahmoud Abbas was realistic enough to understand that the notion of Israel’s accepting a million descendants of the original 1948 refugees was a non-starter.

The idea that Abbas was giving up on the Palestinian dream of swamping Israel with Palestinian Arabs is widely seen as a disgrace among his own people, as well as with their European cheerleaders at places such as the Guardian newspaper, which has also played a role in revealing the documents. Some critics of Israel are claiming that the PA’s willingness to acknowledge that hundreds of thousands of Jews were never going to be turned out of their homes in Jerusalem as part of a peace deal shows that Abbas was a true peace partner. But the furor over these documents reveals anew the insurmountable obstacles to an agreement that are created by Palestinian public opinion. The problem is that anything that smacks of recognition of the legitimacy of a Jewish state (something that even these documents show the PA was never willing to admit) is considered anathema to the Palestinian street, not to mention that the Guardian seems to be as appalled by Abbas’s willingness to dicker over Jerusalem and refugees as Hamas has been. That is why, despite all the excruciating negotiations that took place with the Olmert/Livni government, which offered the PA a state in virtually all the West Bank, Gaza, and part of Jerusalem, Abbas’s answer was still no.

Even amid all these supposed signs of moderation on the part of the PA, a glimpse of the extreme nature of Palestinian political culture still shines through. For example, during one session involving then Israeli foreign minister Tzipi Livni and PA negotiator Saeb Erekat, the two explored the possibility that Israelis living in the Jerusalem suburb Ma’ale Adumim might be allowed to stay there if it became part of a Palestinian state. When Livni asked Erekat how she could provide Israelis “living in Palestine with security,” his reply was telling: “Can you imagine that I have changed my DNA and accepted a situation in which Jews become citizens having the rights that I and my wife have,” asked Erekat. “Can you imagine that this will happen one day?”

The Israelis present had no such illusions, and it soon became clear that any Jews living in Palestinian territory after a proposed peace would wind up like the greenhouses of Gaza that were left behind when Israel evacuated that territory in 2005. They would have to flee since, unlike Arabs living in the State of Israel, who enjoy equal rights as citizens, such persons wouldn’t last a day. This should provide an explanation to anyone wishing to understand why the majority of Israelis appear to have given up on the idea of a real peace with the Palestinians. Under such circumstances and with such peace partners, what hope is there for peaceful coexistence in the foreseeable future?

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Who’s Behind the Palestinian Papers?

As Noah and others have written, nearly all the supposed revelations in the Palestinian Papers were already public knowledge before yesterday. And while the media has unsurprisingly spun the story to make Israel look as bad as possible, the political fallout for the Israelis will be minimal.

In fact, as Noah pointed out, if the papers make any Israeli lawmaker look bad, it’s the current opposition party leader, Tzipi Livni. So if the point of the leak was to harm the Netanyahu administration, then this was a pretty brainless way to go about it.

One other possibility is that the papers were meant to undermine the peace process. But that would have been a failed strategy as well. The negotiations can’t get much deader than they are right now, so releasing the papers to that end is simply unnecessary.

The ones who have been most damaged by the papers so far are PA officials, who are perceived by hardliners in the West Bank as being too soft during negotiations. PA leaders have been extremely defensive about the leak today, claiming that the documents were doctored and that their statements were intentionally mischaracterized.

The Guardian noted the political consequences for the PA in an article yesterday, and pointed out that the leak could benefit Hamas:

Some Fatah leaders are likely to accuse al-Jazeera of having an anti-PA agenda by publishing the leaked documents, which they believe will benefit their Hamas rivals, backed by Iran — as shown in critical comments about the TV station in the documents themselves.

Al Jazeera, the news outlet the documents were released to, is also known to have a bias against the PA. So it seems reasonable that whoever released the papers may have been aiming to embarrass the current West Bank leadership. The question is who?

Hamas officials or sympathizers are one possibility. But there isn’t a strong likelihood that anyone like that would have had access to these government documents.

It’s also possible that the leak could have come from a current or former PA official who has an ax to grind with the present leadership. And while there are many possibilities, one name has been mentioned as a potential leaker: Muhammad Dahlan. Once an extremely powerful Fatah leader, Dahlan has undergone a steep fall from grace over the past few months. After clashing with President Mahmoud Abbas, Dahlan has been exiled from the Fatah movement, stripped of his government position, and is currently being investigated for allegedly plotting to overthrow Abbas.

It’s likely that Dahlan would have access to the types of documents that were released. And he certainly has a reason to want to weaken the current Fatah leadership.

Of course, there’s no serious evidence linking Dahlan to the leak. And there are undoubtedly many others in the PA government and elsewhere who would also have a motive to release the documents. But one thing seems to be obvious, based on the evidence so far. Despite the media spin, the Israelis were not the intended target.

As Noah and others have written, nearly all the supposed revelations in the Palestinian Papers were already public knowledge before yesterday. And while the media has unsurprisingly spun the story to make Israel look as bad as possible, the political fallout for the Israelis will be minimal.

In fact, as Noah pointed out, if the papers make any Israeli lawmaker look bad, it’s the current opposition party leader, Tzipi Livni. So if the point of the leak was to harm the Netanyahu administration, then this was a pretty brainless way to go about it.

One other possibility is that the papers were meant to undermine the peace process. But that would have been a failed strategy as well. The negotiations can’t get much deader than they are right now, so releasing the papers to that end is simply unnecessary.

The ones who have been most damaged by the papers so far are PA officials, who are perceived by hardliners in the West Bank as being too soft during negotiations. PA leaders have been extremely defensive about the leak today, claiming that the documents were doctored and that their statements were intentionally mischaracterized.

The Guardian noted the political consequences for the PA in an article yesterday, and pointed out that the leak could benefit Hamas:

Some Fatah leaders are likely to accuse al-Jazeera of having an anti-PA agenda by publishing the leaked documents, which they believe will benefit their Hamas rivals, backed by Iran — as shown in critical comments about the TV station in the documents themselves.

Al Jazeera, the news outlet the documents were released to, is also known to have a bias against the PA. So it seems reasonable that whoever released the papers may have been aiming to embarrass the current West Bank leadership. The question is who?

Hamas officials or sympathizers are one possibility. But there isn’t a strong likelihood that anyone like that would have had access to these government documents.

It’s also possible that the leak could have come from a current or former PA official who has an ax to grind with the present leadership. And while there are many possibilities, one name has been mentioned as a potential leaker: Muhammad Dahlan. Once an extremely powerful Fatah leader, Dahlan has undergone a steep fall from grace over the past few months. After clashing with President Mahmoud Abbas, Dahlan has been exiled from the Fatah movement, stripped of his government position, and is currently being investigated for allegedly plotting to overthrow Abbas.

It’s likely that Dahlan would have access to the types of documents that were released. And he certainly has a reason to want to weaken the current Fatah leadership.

Of course, there’s no serious evidence linking Dahlan to the leak. And there are undoubtedly many others in the PA government and elsewhere who would also have a motive to release the documents. But one thing seems to be obvious, based on the evidence so far. Despite the media spin, the Israelis were not the intended target.

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RE: Palestine Papers: 99 Percent Hype, 1 Percent News

I would rank the news percentage slightly higher than Noah’s penetrating post, at least by comparing a document released yesterday — the May 21, 2008, “Minutes from Plenary Session on Territory” — with the just-released Makovsky Report on possible borders for a Palestinian state.

In the May 21, 2008, session — six months into the Annapolis final status negotiation — Tzipi Livni (TL) had a significant exchange with Abu Ala (AA) after he said that Palestinians could not accept Israeli retention of Ma’ale Adumim and Ariel. Livni noted that there were 38,000 people in Ma’ale Adumim and insistence on dismantling it would be “a historic mistake.” That generated this colloquy:

AA: There are 30,000 people in Ma’ale Adumim. They can live under Palestinian rule.

TL: You know this is not realistic.

AA: So take them [out], like you did in Gaza.

Livni responded that, under the Israeli proposal, many other settlers would be removed, and she challenged the Palestinians to accept a state with everything they could reasonably expect:

TL: … My question is why you cannot have a state that represents most of your aspirations? You will get some compensation. … Why do you insist on 98%? … I know you are going to get — not most ––almost all of your desires, and compensation for things you don’t get. Saying there will be no state unless it’s 1967, would be a shame. [The ellipses reflect my editing of a back-and-forth conversation — RR]

In the Makovsky Report, the map showing a contiguous Palestinian state on 95 percent of the West Bank leaves Israel with both Ma’ale Adumim and Ariel. Ma’ale Adumim, with 37,400 people, is considered by most Israelis not as a “settlement” but as a Jerusalem neighborhood. Ariel, with more than 31,000 people (including the bloc to its north), is home to Ariel University, one of Israel’s largest institutions of higher education, with around 9,500 Jewish and Arab students. Neither city — each established more than 30 years ago — is going to be dismantled in any realistic peace agreement, not only because that is not necessary for a contiguous Palestinian state, but also because, more important, each is located on strategic high ground essential to defensible borders for Israel.

So the news out of a comparison of the Minutes and the Report is that the Palestinians, given yet another chance to establish a state in 2008, passed one up yet again, insisting on dismantlement of places not necessary for a contiguous state, which would have been offset by a land swap. The news, in other words, is not the concessions the Palestinians were willing to make but rather the ones they were not.

I would rank the news percentage slightly higher than Noah’s penetrating post, at least by comparing a document released yesterday — the May 21, 2008, “Minutes from Plenary Session on Territory” — with the just-released Makovsky Report on possible borders for a Palestinian state.

In the May 21, 2008, session — six months into the Annapolis final status negotiation — Tzipi Livni (TL) had a significant exchange with Abu Ala (AA) after he said that Palestinians could not accept Israeli retention of Ma’ale Adumim and Ariel. Livni noted that there were 38,000 people in Ma’ale Adumim and insistence on dismantling it would be “a historic mistake.” That generated this colloquy:

AA: There are 30,000 people in Ma’ale Adumim. They can live under Palestinian rule.

TL: You know this is not realistic.

AA: So take them [out], like you did in Gaza.

Livni responded that, under the Israeli proposal, many other settlers would be removed, and she challenged the Palestinians to accept a state with everything they could reasonably expect:

TL: … My question is why you cannot have a state that represents most of your aspirations? You will get some compensation. … Why do you insist on 98%? … I know you are going to get — not most ––almost all of your desires, and compensation for things you don’t get. Saying there will be no state unless it’s 1967, would be a shame. [The ellipses reflect my editing of a back-and-forth conversation — RR]

In the Makovsky Report, the map showing a contiguous Palestinian state on 95 percent of the West Bank leaves Israel with both Ma’ale Adumim and Ariel. Ma’ale Adumim, with 37,400 people, is considered by most Israelis not as a “settlement” but as a Jerusalem neighborhood. Ariel, with more than 31,000 people (including the bloc to its north), is home to Ariel University, one of Israel’s largest institutions of higher education, with around 9,500 Jewish and Arab students. Neither city — each established more than 30 years ago — is going to be dismantled in any realistic peace agreement, not only because that is not necessary for a contiguous Palestinian state, but also because, more important, each is located on strategic high ground essential to defensible borders for Israel.

So the news out of a comparison of the Minutes and the Report is that the Palestinians, given yet another chance to establish a state in 2008, passed one up yet again, insisting on dismantlement of places not necessary for a contiguous state, which would have been offset by a land swap. The news, in other words, is not the concessions the Palestinians were willing to make but rather the ones they were not.

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Palestine Papers: 99 Percent Hype, 1 Percent News

You wouldn’t expect Al-Jazeera and the Guardian newspaper in Britain to do anything but spin the “Palestine Papers” — the leaked transcripts of late Bush administration negotiations between Israeli, Palestinian, and American officials — to the max. And so they have, today, with shocked responses from foreign-policy types. Indeed, an editor at Foreign Policy magazine went so far as to declare on Twitter that the “two state solution is dead” as a result.

But the reality of the papers themselves turns out to be incredibly boring. Yes, during the months surrounding the Annapolis summit in 2008, there were negotiations. Yes, these negotiations concerned issues such as borders, Jerusalem, refugees, security, and settlements. Yes, the two sides discussed land swaps that would enable Israel to retain major settlement blocs. Yes, in private, the Palestinians acknowledged that the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem is not going to be handed over to them and that Israel will not consent to being flooded with millions of Arab refugees. Yes, in private, the negotiators treated each other with respect and even graciousness. No, the talks did not succeed. This is news?

The Palestine Papers, however, come off badly for the leader of Israel’s opposition, Tzipi Livni, who was then-PM Ehud Olmert’s foreign minister at the time and one of the dramatis personae of the negotiations. Livni’s political liability is that too many Israelis think she isn’t tough enough to be prime minister. She has a tendency to denigrate her own side as a way of ingratiating herself to hostile audiences. To this day, she forcefully criticizes her own country and government while abroad and in front of audiences who have little affection for Israel (see her recent appearance with ABC’s Christiane Amanpour). She seems to think this wins her points for impartiality.

The Palestine Papers show her doing much the same in private, offering to collude with the Palestinians to invent pretexts for letting terrorists out of jail and dismissing Israel’s claim to the Golan Heights (“We’re giving up the Golan”). These indulgences may stick in voters’ minds in Israel and make it that much harder for her to dispel the fear that if awarded the premiership, she’ll give the store away.

But the biggest loser in the Palestine Papers is someone who was not even on the scene at the time. That is President Obama, who chose to make Israeli settlements the centerpiece of the peace process. The papers show that one of the only areas on which the sides had come close to an agreement was the acceptability of land swaps as a solution to the settlements controversy. Today, at Obama’s behest, the Palestinians insist on a complete settlement freeze before they’ll even talk — including in areas that just two years ago they had agreed were already de facto Israeli. Thus did Obama turn back the clock on one of the only points of relative consensus and progress between the two sides. The opener to this Jerusalem Post story captures the absurdity of the situation:

With the Palestinian Authority making an international incident over every plan to build in Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem beyond the Green Line, a cache of some 1,600 documents—mostly form [sic] the Palestinian Negotiating Unit—shows that in 2008 the PA was willing to recognize eventual Israeli control over all those neighborhoods, with the exception of Har Homa.

This is actually unfair to the Palestinians. They didn’t make construction in Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem an “international incident.” That was Obama, who has criticized construction in these neighborhoods repeatedly. There is not much news in the Palestine Papers to anyone familiar with the Annapolis-era negotiations. But they do provide another example of how badly the Obama administration has handled the peace process.

You wouldn’t expect Al-Jazeera and the Guardian newspaper in Britain to do anything but spin the “Palestine Papers” — the leaked transcripts of late Bush administration negotiations between Israeli, Palestinian, and American officials — to the max. And so they have, today, with shocked responses from foreign-policy types. Indeed, an editor at Foreign Policy magazine went so far as to declare on Twitter that the “two state solution is dead” as a result.

But the reality of the papers themselves turns out to be incredibly boring. Yes, during the months surrounding the Annapolis summit in 2008, there were negotiations. Yes, these negotiations concerned issues such as borders, Jerusalem, refugees, security, and settlements. Yes, the two sides discussed land swaps that would enable Israel to retain major settlement blocs. Yes, in private, the Palestinians acknowledged that the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem is not going to be handed over to them and that Israel will not consent to being flooded with millions of Arab refugees. Yes, in private, the negotiators treated each other with respect and even graciousness. No, the talks did not succeed. This is news?

The Palestine Papers, however, come off badly for the leader of Israel’s opposition, Tzipi Livni, who was then-PM Ehud Olmert’s foreign minister at the time and one of the dramatis personae of the negotiations. Livni’s political liability is that too many Israelis think she isn’t tough enough to be prime minister. She has a tendency to denigrate her own side as a way of ingratiating herself to hostile audiences. To this day, she forcefully criticizes her own country and government while abroad and in front of audiences who have little affection for Israel (see her recent appearance with ABC’s Christiane Amanpour). She seems to think this wins her points for impartiality.

The Palestine Papers show her doing much the same in private, offering to collude with the Palestinians to invent pretexts for letting terrorists out of jail and dismissing Israel’s claim to the Golan Heights (“We’re giving up the Golan”). These indulgences may stick in voters’ minds in Israel and make it that much harder for her to dispel the fear that if awarded the premiership, she’ll give the store away.

But the biggest loser in the Palestine Papers is someone who was not even on the scene at the time. That is President Obama, who chose to make Israeli settlements the centerpiece of the peace process. The papers show that one of the only areas on which the sides had come close to an agreement was the acceptability of land swaps as a solution to the settlements controversy. Today, at Obama’s behest, the Palestinians insist on a complete settlement freeze before they’ll even talk — including in areas that just two years ago they had agreed were already de facto Israeli. Thus did Obama turn back the clock on one of the only points of relative consensus and progress between the two sides. The opener to this Jerusalem Post story captures the absurdity of the situation:

With the Palestinian Authority making an international incident over every plan to build in Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem beyond the Green Line, a cache of some 1,600 documents—mostly form [sic] the Palestinian Negotiating Unit—shows that in 2008 the PA was willing to recognize eventual Israeli control over all those neighborhoods, with the exception of Har Homa.

This is actually unfair to the Palestinians. They didn’t make construction in Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem an “international incident.” That was Obama, who has criticized construction in these neighborhoods repeatedly. There is not much news in the Palestine Papers to anyone familiar with the Annapolis-era negotiations. But they do provide another example of how badly the Obama administration has handled the peace process.

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Israeli Shakeup Another Setback for Obama

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak’s decision to break away from the Labor Party and form his own centrist faction is a boost to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government. With the remaining members of Labor now shifted to the opposition, Netanyahu has rid his coalition of several Knesset members who are opposed to his policies. In the long run, Barak’s new party will, as David Hazony noted yesterday, provide unwanted competition for the largest opposition party, Kadima, making the path to power for it and its leader, Tzipi Livni, far more difficult.

Livni is understandably upset about this development and vented her spleen today in some over-the-top comments when she complained that Barak’s decision was “the dirtiest act in history.” Given the fact that party-jumping has been a staple of Israeli politics throughout the country’s short history, it’s hard to make an argument that this understandable breakup between the centrists and the old leftists in Labor is any kind of a scandal. It is just the belated recognition on the part of Barak that he is better off letting Labor’s far-left activists merge with what remains of those factions that were to Labor’s left rather than sticking with them. Labor was once Israel’s dominant and natural party of government, but today it is as bankrupt — and obsolete — as the kibbutzim that symbolized the country’s socialist dreams.

But while Livni is the biggest Israeli loser in this transaction, there’s little doubt that it is just as much of a blow to President Barak Obama and his unrealistic approach to the Middle East. Read More

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak’s decision to break away from the Labor Party and form his own centrist faction is a boost to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government. With the remaining members of Labor now shifted to the opposition, Netanyahu has rid his coalition of several Knesset members who are opposed to his policies. In the long run, Barak’s new party will, as David Hazony noted yesterday, provide unwanted competition for the largest opposition party, Kadima, making the path to power for it and its leader, Tzipi Livni, far more difficult.

Livni is understandably upset about this development and vented her spleen today in some over-the-top comments when she complained that Barak’s decision was “the dirtiest act in history.” Given the fact that party-jumping has been a staple of Israeli politics throughout the country’s short history, it’s hard to make an argument that this understandable breakup between the centrists and the old leftists in Labor is any kind of a scandal. It is just the belated recognition on the part of Barak that he is better off letting Labor’s far-left activists merge with what remains of those factions that were to Labor’s left rather than sticking with them. Labor was once Israel’s dominant and natural party of government, but today it is as bankrupt — and obsolete — as the kibbutzim that symbolized the country’s socialist dreams.

But while Livni is the biggest Israeli loser in this transaction, there’s little doubt that it is just as much of a blow to President Barak Obama and his unrealistic approach to the Middle East.

From the moment he took office, Obama has sought to overturn the cozier relationship that existed between Washington and Jerusalem under his predecessor. Throughout his first year in office, Obama seemed to be aiming at unseating Netanyahu, who had been elected weeks after the president was sworn in. By picking pointless fights over settlements and Jewish building in Jerusalem, Obama sought to destabilize Netanyahu’s coalition and hoped Livni would soon replace him. But his ill-considered attacks merely strengthened Netanyahu, who wisely sought to avoid a direct confrontation with his country’s only ally. It was already obvious that, far from collapsing, Netanyahu’s government would survive to the end of its four-year term or close to it. While the outcome of the next Israeli election that will probably occur in 2013 is as difficult to predict as that of Obama’s own re-election effort in 2012, Barak’s move renders the hopes of Livni — the Israeli leader whom both Obama and Secretary of State Clinton continue to treat as America’s favorite Israeli — less likely.

That means Obama is going to have to spend the rest of his term continuing to try to learn to live with the wily Netanyahu. Both Obama and the Palestinian Authority have spent the past two years acting as if they were just waiting around for a new weaker-willed Israeli government to materialize that would then magically create the circumstances under which peace would be achieved. As Barak-faction member Einat Wilf told the New York Times today, “I don’t belong to the camp that believes Israel is solely responsible for the failure of these negotiations. The Palestinians bear responsibility for not entering the talks. Some people have sent them a message to wait around for a new government.”

Barak’s move makes it clear that isn’t going to happen. While Israel’s critics will lament this development, it is high time that Americans accept the fact that the verdict of the Jewish state’s voters must be respected and that the Israeli consensus that has developed about the futility of further unilateral concessions to the Palestinians is entirely justified.

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