Commentary Magazine


Topic: Yisrael Beiteinu

For Netanyahu and Lieberman, Breaking Up Is Easy to Do

The first thing to understand about Avigdor Lieberman’s move to dissolve his party’s pact with Likud over the correct response to Gaza is this: it’s not about the correct response to Gaza. Or anything else about Gaza. The Gaza Strip is close to irrelevant to the split between Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu, though it does serve as a convenient pretext.

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The first thing to understand about Avigdor Lieberman’s move to dissolve his party’s pact with Likud over the correct response to Gaza is this: it’s not about the correct response to Gaza. Or anything else about Gaza. The Gaza Strip is close to irrelevant to the split between Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu, though it does serve as a convenient pretext.

This is Lieberman’s second departure from Likud. He was close to Benjamin Netanyahu in the 1990s, managing his campaigns and soon becoming an incredibly influential figure once Netanyahu won the premiership the first time around. Then Lieberman tapped into the Russian immigrant community’s desire to have its representation in the Knesset more closely align with its demographic muscle. (The community also matured politically, having integrated without completely assimilating.) He formed a party to do just that.

Lieberman became a kingmaker by eventually garnering 15 seats in the Knesset in 2009–enough to make or break a coalition but not enough to lead one. Lieberman is both politically shrewd and hugely ambitious, so when he hit Yisrael Beiteinu’s ceiling he went back to the Likud, this time with an embarrassment of electoral riches.

The point was to eventually become prime minister. Netanyahu is a decade older than Lieberman and, crucially, so are Likud’s brightest and most experienced contemporaries. Lieberman understood that he’d have to wait out Bibi but that was probably it. As the last election showed, there are younger, bright stars in the Israeli political solar system, but they formed their own parties. Lieberman would have real competition in the future, but not from within Likud.

So why leave Likud (again)? Lieberman must have seen signs either that he wouldn’t inherit Likud after all or that it wouldn’t matter. The most likely answer is that it was a combination of the two, but more the latter. Lieberman has seen that there is still no serious challenge from the left; it’s other center-right or right-wing parties breathing down Likud’s neck. That means that if he can pull enough votes away from Likud, there is suddenly no real frontrunner, and there might be enough of a vacuum for another party to win now (or soon) instead of waiting out the Likud old guard.

The Likud-Beiteinu union was always an engagement that never turned into a marriage. And it was designed that way. Lieberman obviously learned plenty from his time as Netanyahu’s right-hand man: the two are by far the most politically adroit figures on the Israeli scene. They are not without flaws, of course, and this latest maneuver from Lieberman exposes his greatest weakness: he is a brilliant political operator behind the scenes, but will never have the charismatic command not only of a Yair Lapid or even Naftali Bennett but of any number of politicians who may crop up in the future.

In a parliamentary system, that charisma is less important than in a presidential system, and the ability to operate behind the scenes correspondingly more beneficial. But it is far from clear that it would be enough, in Lieberman’s case. The other potential mistake Lieberman is making has to do with the shifting math of seats in the Knesset. He should not assume that Likud’s vote total will remain stagnant at the number of seats it holds when he officially departs the party.

Likud has the advantage of brand. It’s true, this hasn’t helped Israel’s Labor Party. But the country is center-right, and so is Likud. That means Likud has the ability to attract politicians and voters in a way that other parties don’t: witness, for example, Lieberman’s ceiling at Yisrael Beiteinu, and the consistent disintegration of new parties. It’s also possible that Likud could win back voters who left when the party merged with Lieberman.

In that respect the union between the two parties may have been holding back both leaders. Netanyahu was losing out to voters who liked Lapid’s big-tent message and Bennett’s Anglo relatability more than Lieberman’s gruff polarizing rhetoric and shifting alliances. Lieberman, in turn, may have seen others threatening to do what he thought couldn’t (yet) be done: eclipse the establishment figures while they were still in power, and while he had tied his fortunes to them.

It’s an amicable split, as far as these things go, and it is unlikely to shake up Israeli politics at the moment. The real test will be the next election. In the meantime, it’s quite possible the public will barely notice the breakup of its largest political party.

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Illuminating Reactions to an Unpopular Proposal

With Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas having retreated so far from previously agreed positions that he now even rejects Israeli sovereignty over the Western Wall (he’s willing only to let Jews pray there under Palestinian sovereignty), one might reasonably think any further discussion of final-status proposals is pointless. Yet some proposals are still worth discussing–not because they could, or even should, be adopted, but because reactions to them are so enlightening. A prime example is the Yisrael Beiteinu party’s much-maligned proposal to transfer certain Arab-Israeli towns to a Palestinian state in exchange for Israel’s retention of the settlement blocs. 

Since both Israelis and Palestinians generally oppose this plan, it clearly isn’t realistic. Yet the Arab-Israeli reaction to it speaks volumes about two key issues related to the “peace process”–the nature of the future Palestinian state, and the nature of the existing Jewish state.

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With Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas having retreated so far from previously agreed positions that he now even rejects Israeli sovereignty over the Western Wall (he’s willing only to let Jews pray there under Palestinian sovereignty), one might reasonably think any further discussion of final-status proposals is pointless. Yet some proposals are still worth discussing–not because they could, or even should, be adopted, but because reactions to them are so enlightening. A prime example is the Yisrael Beiteinu party’s much-maligned proposal to transfer certain Arab-Israeli towns to a Palestinian state in exchange for Israel’s retention of the settlement blocs. 

Since both Israelis and Palestinians generally oppose this plan, it clearly isn’t realistic. Yet the Arab-Israeli reaction to it speaks volumes about two key issues related to the “peace process”–the nature of the future Palestinian state, and the nature of the existing Jewish state.

In an op-ed defending her party’s plan last week, Yisrael Beiteinu MK Faina Kirshenbaum noted that the UN itself explicitly condones swaps of populated territory: General Assembly Resolution 55/153, adopted in 2001, states that “When part of the territory of a State is transferred by that State to another State, the successor State shall attribute its nationality to the persons concerned who have their habitual residence in the transferred territory and the predecessor State shall withdraw its nationality from such persons.”

Moreover, almost every peace plan ever proposed demands that Israel do exactly that: quit East Jerusalem and transfer its inhabitants, all of whom are either Israeli citizens or permanent residents, to Palestinian rule (the same goes for the persistent demand that Israel return the Golan Heights to Syria). In short, there’s no barrier to the plan under international law; the objection is purely practical: Arab Israelis themselves vehemently oppose the idea.

That they don’t “want to become part of a failed, corrupt and poor new state” is perfectly understandable, Kirshenbaum continued. But a successful peace process, she argued sensibly, shouldn’t create such a state to begin with. Indeed, such a state wouldn’t even be viable: It would likely “break apart in a bloody conflict like so many of our neighbors,” and Palestinians themselves would be the main victims.

Kirshenbaum doesn’t spell out the obvious conclusion, so I will: The fact is that many Arab Israelis who “continually malign Israel” and self-identify as Palestinians nevertheless insist on remaining under Israeli rather than Palestinian rule because they, like all the people worldwide who back their opposition to Yisrael Beiteinu’s plan, do expect a Palestinian state to be “failed, corrupt and poor”–and reasonably so (see, for example, the case of Mohamed Sabawi). That raises one question: Why should anyone think bringing another failed state into the world is desirable?

This Arab-Israeli stance is equally instructive regarding the canard that Israel is an “apartheid state.” After all, if this were true, one would expect them to jump at Yisrael Beiteinu’s proposal: It would free them from “apartheid rule” without their even having to leave home, since their towns would simply become Palestinian rather than Israeli. As Prof. Alex Yakobson pungently noted in an op-ed last month:

Of course, one has the right to say: “I am a Palestinian whose Israeli ID card was forced on him, and I prefer to be subject to an apartheid regime, an oppressive, fascist, racist and colonialist regime. I prefer all this to having to live under Palestinian rule.” A person who exercises his or her democratic right to express such a position cannot prevent others from exercising their democratic right to find such a statement ridiculous.

In short, reactions to the Yisrael Beiteinu proposal illuminate two key truths that too many people refuse to acknowledge: Far from being an “apartheid state,” Israel is a thriving democracy whose Arab citizens cling zealously to the right to remain in it. And far from being ready for statehood, “Palestine” would likely become yet another failed state in a world that already has far too many.

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The Great Absentee-Ballot Debate

A perennial Israeli debate erupted anew yesterday, after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that he supported a proposal to extend the franchise to Israelis living abroad. What makes this debate so baffling is that both sides are partly right — meaning it should be easy to strike a compromise somewhere in the middle. But in 62 years, it hasn’t happened.

The proposal put forth by Netanyahu’s largest coalition partner, Yisrael Beiteinu, would allow absentee ballots for anyone who has held a valid Israeli passport for the past 10 years — about 500,000 people. And opponents are right that this is far too broad. First, in terms of sheer numbers, that constitutes 7 percent of the total population and fully 10 percent of eligible voters — a far higher proportion than is the norm in other countries that allow absentee voting.

Moreover, many of the 500,000 people in question have been living abroad full-time for many years. Indeed, you can have a valid Israeli passport for 10 years without setting foot in the country that entire time. Thus people who are not living in Israel and whose daily lives are unaffected by the country’s policies would have a disproportionate impact on the outcome of any election.

This is particularly problematic because Israel is a country at war. Overseas residents are not the ones who will suffer daily rocket fire if a territorial pullout goes wrong, nor will their sons’ lives be at risk if the government launches a military operation. Thus it is completely inappropriate to give them a major voice in electing those who will make such decisions.

Yet at the same time, proponents of absenting voting are right that the current system is irredeemably unfair. Under current law, the only people allowed to vote absentee are sailors and diplomats (and their families). Hence a businessman who lives in Israel year-round but happens to be abroad attending a major trade fair on Election Day cannot vote. Ditto for a professor who has taught for 20 years at an Israeli university but happens to be on sabbatical abroad during election year — unless he is willing to pay $1,000 to fly to Israel for Election Day and cast his ballot there. It is long past time for Israel to stop disenfranchising such citizens.

It is not technically difficult to distinguish permanent overseas residents from Israelis there temporarily, as it was in days gone by. The law could simply require absentee voters to have spent a specified proportion of the past five (or seven or 10) years in Israel, and ballot applications could be checked against border-control data to see if the applicant qualified.

The good news is that whereas Yisrael Beiteinu and Netanyahu’s Likud party largely support the bill, the other two main coalition partners, Labor and Shas, oppose it. That means there’s a chance that the government will at long last pass a reasonable compromise — one that will help those unfairly disenfranchised by current law while excluding those whose homes are permanently overseas.

A perennial Israeli debate erupted anew yesterday, after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that he supported a proposal to extend the franchise to Israelis living abroad. What makes this debate so baffling is that both sides are partly right — meaning it should be easy to strike a compromise somewhere in the middle. But in 62 years, it hasn’t happened.

The proposal put forth by Netanyahu’s largest coalition partner, Yisrael Beiteinu, would allow absentee ballots for anyone who has held a valid Israeli passport for the past 10 years — about 500,000 people. And opponents are right that this is far too broad. First, in terms of sheer numbers, that constitutes 7 percent of the total population and fully 10 percent of eligible voters — a far higher proportion than is the norm in other countries that allow absentee voting.

Moreover, many of the 500,000 people in question have been living abroad full-time for many years. Indeed, you can have a valid Israeli passport for 10 years without setting foot in the country that entire time. Thus people who are not living in Israel and whose daily lives are unaffected by the country’s policies would have a disproportionate impact on the outcome of any election.

This is particularly problematic because Israel is a country at war. Overseas residents are not the ones who will suffer daily rocket fire if a territorial pullout goes wrong, nor will their sons’ lives be at risk if the government launches a military operation. Thus it is completely inappropriate to give them a major voice in electing those who will make such decisions.

Yet at the same time, proponents of absenting voting are right that the current system is irredeemably unfair. Under current law, the only people allowed to vote absentee are sailors and diplomats (and their families). Hence a businessman who lives in Israel year-round but happens to be abroad attending a major trade fair on Election Day cannot vote. Ditto for a professor who has taught for 20 years at an Israeli university but happens to be on sabbatical abroad during election year — unless he is willing to pay $1,000 to fly to Israel for Election Day and cast his ballot there. It is long past time for Israel to stop disenfranchising such citizens.

It is not technically difficult to distinguish permanent overseas residents from Israelis there temporarily, as it was in days gone by. The law could simply require absentee voters to have spent a specified proportion of the past five (or seven or 10) years in Israel, and ballot applications could be checked against border-control data to see if the applicant qualified.

The good news is that whereas Yisrael Beiteinu and Netanyahu’s Likud party largely support the bill, the other two main coalition partners, Labor and Shas, oppose it. That means there’s a chance that the government will at long last pass a reasonable compromise — one that will help those unfairly disenfranchised by current law while excluding those whose homes are permanently overseas.

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Something’s Rotten in the State of Israel’s Legal System

Something is deeply wrong with a justice system when mainstream journalists and politicians take it for granted that a suspect’s political views will affect the legal proceedings against him.

Consider the following sentence from a column that appeared Monday in Israel’s left-wing daily Haaretz: “If the attorney general decides to bring charges against Yisrael Beiteinu chairman Avigdor Lieberman, the foreign minister may decide that, in his bid to reach a plea bargain that will keep him out of prison, he is better off bringing down the government, and possibly even the Knesset, and disguising himself as a moderate in a government that has Kadima and Labor [two left-of-center parties] at its center.”

The author, Amir Oren, is no right-wing conspiracy theorist; he’s a veteran, left-of-center journalist and star columnist for a respected highbrow daily. And he considers it patently obvious that if Lieberman wants prosecutors to treat him leniently, he would be wise to swerve Left.

Nor is Oren alone in this belief. In 2007, after then prime minister Ehud Olmert appointed Daniel Friedmann, a well-known critic of the Supreme Court’s judicial activism, as justice minister, Yossi Verter wrote in Haaretz: “The justice system … has two alternatives for coping with this blow: hunkering down in its bunker and waiting for the government to change, or speeding up criminal proceedings against Olmert and working with greater vigor to topple him, which would also bring about Friedmann’s departure.”

Like Oren, Verter is a veteran left-of-center journalist and a star Haaretz columnist. And like Oren, he considers it self-evident that legal officials could and would use their prosecutorial powers to oust a politician whose policies they oppose.

And here’s another star Haaretz columnist and veteran left-of-center journalist, Ari Shavit, writing after the 2006 indictment of then Justice Minister Haim Ramon for sexual harassment:

Twelve hours before kissing the soldier identified as H, Haim Ramon sat at a private dinner and joked that he had to be careful, because something was liable to happen to him. Because something has happened to every justice minister who intended to shake up the judicial system the way he did, something that prevented the minister from ultimately filling the post. …

[Another] senior minister, whose lifelong dream has been to serve as minister of justice, decided at the beginning of the week to concede the coveted position because he was convinced that if he didn’t do so, he would shortly find himself questioned under caution in a police investigation. The senior minister … determined that there was no chance that a person known as a critic of the rule of law would be able to serve as justice minister without the rule of law finding a way to distance him from the public arena on some criminal pretext or another.

That mainstream politicians and journalists believe the legal system biased in this fashion is worrying even if they’re wrong. That so many probably wouldn’t believe it were there not some truth to it is even worse. But perhaps most disturbing of all is the lack of concern: it’s just a fact of life, to be noted casually in a column.

Something is deeply wrong with a justice system when mainstream journalists and politicians take it for granted that a suspect’s political views will affect the legal proceedings against him.

Consider the following sentence from a column that appeared Monday in Israel’s left-wing daily Haaretz: “If the attorney general decides to bring charges against Yisrael Beiteinu chairman Avigdor Lieberman, the foreign minister may decide that, in his bid to reach a plea bargain that will keep him out of prison, he is better off bringing down the government, and possibly even the Knesset, and disguising himself as a moderate in a government that has Kadima and Labor [two left-of-center parties] at its center.”

The author, Amir Oren, is no right-wing conspiracy theorist; he’s a veteran, left-of-center journalist and star columnist for a respected highbrow daily. And he considers it patently obvious that if Lieberman wants prosecutors to treat him leniently, he would be wise to swerve Left.

Nor is Oren alone in this belief. In 2007, after then prime minister Ehud Olmert appointed Daniel Friedmann, a well-known critic of the Supreme Court’s judicial activism, as justice minister, Yossi Verter wrote in Haaretz: “The justice system … has two alternatives for coping with this blow: hunkering down in its bunker and waiting for the government to change, or speeding up criminal proceedings against Olmert and working with greater vigor to topple him, which would also bring about Friedmann’s departure.”

Like Oren, Verter is a veteran left-of-center journalist and a star Haaretz columnist. And like Oren, he considers it self-evident that legal officials could and would use their prosecutorial powers to oust a politician whose policies they oppose.

And here’s another star Haaretz columnist and veteran left-of-center journalist, Ari Shavit, writing after the 2006 indictment of then Justice Minister Haim Ramon for sexual harassment:

Twelve hours before kissing the soldier identified as H, Haim Ramon sat at a private dinner and joked that he had to be careful, because something was liable to happen to him. Because something has happened to every justice minister who intended to shake up the judicial system the way he did, something that prevented the minister from ultimately filling the post. …

[Another] senior minister, whose lifelong dream has been to serve as minister of justice, decided at the beginning of the week to concede the coveted position because he was convinced that if he didn’t do so, he would shortly find himself questioned under caution in a police investigation. The senior minister … determined that there was no chance that a person known as a critic of the rule of law would be able to serve as justice minister without the rule of law finding a way to distance him from the public arena on some criminal pretext or another.

That mainstream politicians and journalists believe the legal system biased in this fashion is worrying even if they’re wrong. That so many probably wouldn’t believe it were there not some truth to it is even worse. But perhaps most disturbing of all is the lack of concern: it’s just a fact of life, to be noted casually in a column.

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