Commentary Magazine


Topic: Benjamin Netanyahu

U.S. Should “Re-Evaluate” Peace Process

Swallowing hard, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said that President Obama would be calling Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to congratulate him on his victory in yesterday’s Knesset election. But it’s likely that the conversation, which may be their first in months after Obama shut down direct communications with the prime minister after his decision to directly challenge the administration’s Iran policy in a speech to a joint session of Congress earlier this month will center on their disagreements and not on expressions of good will. Earnest said the president remains committed to a two-state solution to the Middle East conflict that Netanyahu said he wouldn’t accept during the last days of his campaign. The spokesman said that would mean the U.S. would “re-evaluate our approach” to the conflict with the Palestinians. If so, it’s good advice since President Obama’s approach to the Middle East has been flawed since the day he took office.

Read More

Swallowing hard, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said that President Obama would be calling Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to congratulate him on his victory in yesterday’s Knesset election. But it’s likely that the conversation, which may be their first in months after Obama shut down direct communications with the prime minister after his decision to directly challenge the administration’s Iran policy in a speech to a joint session of Congress earlier this month will center on their disagreements and not on expressions of good will. Earnest said the president remains committed to a two-state solution to the Middle East conflict that Netanyahu said he wouldn’t accept during the last days of his campaign. The spokesman said that would mean the U.S. would “re-evaluate our approach” to the conflict with the Palestinians. If so, it’s good advice since President Obama’s approach to the Middle East has been flawed since the day he took office.

The talk of re-evaluating was, no doubt, intended as a warning to Israel not a sign of much-needed introspection. The White House is hoping that Netanyahu will see it as a warning that if he doesn’t do as he is told, the administration might cease defending Israel at the United Nations and instead join European efforts to isolate the Jewish state by recognizing Palestinian independence without first making them make peace with Israel and granting them sovereignty over borders that should be negotiated rather than imposed on the parties.

This is neither an idle threat nor one that wouldn’t hurt Israel. If the Palestinians were to realize their fantasy of getting the UN Security Council to pass a resolution recognizing their independence in the territories taken by Israel during the Six Day War, including Jerusalem, it would do more than to relieve them of any obligation to negotiate peace with Israel. It would also put the United Nations officially behind a campaign to isolate Israel that could do real damage to the Jewish state’s ability to defend itself.

The administration could also seek to cut back on military aid to Israel and pursue other efforts to downgrade the alliance.

But if that’s what Obama is contemplating as he prepares for the third act of his stormy relationship with Netanyahu, he needs to step back and think long and hard about the implications of a policy that would be based more in spite than in the interests of either the United States or the cause of peace.

Should the U.S. use Netanyahu’s comments about a two-state solution to abandon Israel at the UN, it will do more than create a diplomatic problem. Just as they have since January 2009, the Palestinians will interpret efforts by the administration to distance itself from Israel as an invitation to further intransigence and perhaps violence. In particular, Hamas, which has been rapidly re-arming after last summer’s war in Gaza, may think it time to start another terrorist offensive in which Israeli cities will be targeted by missiles. The Islamist group, under pressure from Egypt, which is held in as long regard by the administration as Israel, may hope that this time around President Obama will use the violence not only to heighten pressure on Israel but also to cut off arms re-supplies again.

As for Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas, a U.S. diplomatic offensive against Israel would remove any incentive on his part to budge from his past refusals to give up the right of return or to recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders might be drawn. If progress toward peace, rather than venting his spleen at Netanyahu is the actual objective of U.S. policy these days, he might take a deep breath today and step back from the brink.

An honest re-evaluation of U.S. policy during the past six years would recognize that the key mistake made by President Obama has been his obsessive focus on pressuring Israel and pushing negotiations with a Palestinian leadership that has no interest in peace talks.

While his left-wing critics have claimed that Netanyahu’s statement about preventing a Palestinian state means he has been deceiving the world the past six years about his support for a two-state solution, the truth is that it is the Palestinians who have rendered that stand obsolete. During the years in which he did back two states and even observed a settlement freeze and agreed to U.S. frameworks about the talks, the Palestinians never once budged off their refusal to negotiate in good faith.

Indeed, Obama’s focus on opposing Israeli policies has been so myopic that he has failed to hold Abbas accountable for his actions such as signing a unity deal with Hamas terrorists or violating his Oslo Accords commitments not to make an end run around direct talks by going to the UN. It must be understood that Netanyahu’s rejection of a Palestinian state is as much a commentary on the refusal of the Palestinians to negotiate or to accept one as it is on the prime minister’s ideology. Most Israelis want peace and two states more than the Palestinians. But they understand that merely wishing for it won’t make it happen if the Arabs continue to say no.

A serious re-evaluation of America’s Middle East policy might be one that realized that until a sea change in Palestinian politics that will permit a leader like Abbas to make peace, an investment of U.S. time and energy on negotiations is a fool’s errand.

A U.S. abandonment of Israel in international forums will do American interests as much harm as it does the Jewish state since such actions will have the effect of marginalizing U.S. diplomacy and interests. But more than that, American signals that will be interpreted by Hamas and perhaps even Hezbollah that it is open season on Israel, could start wars that will further destabilize the Middle East.

A re-evaluation is in order but doing so should involve Obama’s admitting error more than Netanyahu. Much of the commentary about President Obama’s final two years in office have focused on his intention to do as he likes and build his legacy without regard to the political constraints imposed him by the bipartisan coalition backing Israel. But given the likely cost in blood that such a course may involve, the president might do well to consider that such a course of further pointless confrontation with the Netanyahu government may do more harm to his place in history than good.

Read Less

Can Americans Understand Israel’s Vote?

Read accounts of Israel’s elections in the mainstream liberal media today and you get a sense of the frustration and anger the Obama administration and its press cheering section feel about Prime Minister Netanyahu’s decisive victory. The fulminations in today’s New York Times editorial articulate this point of view with its denunciations of Netanyahu’s repudiation of a Palestinian state as well as dark warnings about the implications of his comments about Israeli voters needing to offset the impact of Arabs voting for anti-Zionist parties. But even if we leave aside the ad hominem attacks on Netanyahu in which he was denounced as both “craven” and a “demagogue,” the point of the piece was to essentially delegitimize the results. The question remains whether most Americans, including Jewish friends of Israel, will be as clueless as the Times about the reason for Netanyahu’s big win.

Read More

Read accounts of Israel’s elections in the mainstream liberal media today and you get a sense of the frustration and anger the Obama administration and its press cheering section feel about Prime Minister Netanyahu’s decisive victory. The fulminations in today’s New York Times editorial articulate this point of view with its denunciations of Netanyahu’s repudiation of a Palestinian state as well as dark warnings about the implications of his comments about Israeli voters needing to offset the impact of Arabs voting for anti-Zionist parties. But even if we leave aside the ad hominem attacks on Netanyahu in which he was denounced as both “craven” and a “demagogue,” the point of the piece was to essentially delegitimize the results. The question remains whether most Americans, including Jewish friends of Israel, will be as clueless as the Times about the reason for Netanyahu’s big win.

There should be no misunderstanding about the magnitude of Netanyahu’s victory. In the context of Israel’s multi-party system which encourages the growth of splinter parties and in which no party in its history has ever won a majority on its own, the Likud’s winning of 30 seats to its Labor-led Zionist Union rival’s 24 was an unexpectedly decisive result. Combined with the fact that his right wing and religious party allies more-or-less maintained their strength as a whole, the predominance of what Israelis call the “national camp” that has existed since the outbreak of the Second Intifada and the collapse of the Oslo Peace Accords is undiminished. Indeed, far from illustrating that the Likud represented the far right, the vote showed it to be smack in the center of the Israeli political spectrum.

How then do we explain Netanyahu’s comments about a Palestinian state and Arab voters that have been universally denounced in the West and seen, in the eyes of the Times editors, as proof that Israeli voters are vulnerable to scaremongering and racism?

It is true that Netanyahu needed to rally his base, large numbers of which were prepared to vote for smaller right wing parties rather than the Likud. The expectation was that pandering to that voter group would cause him to lose moderates. But it didn’t happen because few in Israel were that outraged about Netanyahu writing off the possibility of a Palestinian state. That’s not because they don’t want a two-state solution but because they know the Palestinians have repeatedly rejected one and the chance of sovereignty and peace.

Faced with two Palestinian dictatorships on either of their flanks — Islamist Hamas terrorists in Gaza and corrupt authoritarian Fatah in the West Bank — the prospect of territorial withdrawals to further empower either faction seems irrational to mainstream Israeli voters. Few in Israel outside of the far left expected the Netanyahu or even his rival Isaac Herzog would have the opportunity to sign a peace deal that would create a Palestinian state under any circumstances. Though the election had largely been fought on domestic and economic issues, Netanyahu’s late reminders to the public of their consensus on security helped turn a close election into what is by the standards of the Jewish state, a rout.

Similarly, Netanyahu’s remarks about Arab voters being mobilized by foreign-funded activists to vote didn’t alienate the average Israeli voter because they know that the prospect of a government put into office via the support of the avowedly anti-Zionist Arab parties (a coalition of Islamists, Communists and radical Arab nationalists that rationalize if not support terrorism) that oppose Israel’s existence as a Jewish state and its right to self-defense was a prospect that few contemplated with equanimity.

Simply put, his victory was not achieved by pandering to irrationality but because of the common sense of most Israeli voters who have a far better grasp of the realities of the Middle East than the editors of the Times. As I noted yesterday as the results were being counted, the impact of Netanyahu’s last minute appeals was due to the realism of the voters, not their racism.

But to note this begs the question as to whether Americans and their political leaders will be sufficiently influenced by the massive bias against Netanyahu in most of the media? No one can answer that question with absolute certainty but there are good reasons to be hopeful.

Unlike the sour grapes expressed by the editors of the Times and the sullen silence of the Obama administration (which has yet to congratulate Netanyahu on his stunning victory), most Americans actually do respect democracy. More to the point, they know that Israel is our only democratic ally in a Middle East where the administration’s priority has been to foster a spirit of détente with a vicious Islamist dictatorship in Iran. Just as they assume that they understand their local politics and problems better than the supposed experts in Washington, they assume that Israelis understand the Middle East better than Obama or the editors of the Times. Had they not thought so, support for Israel over the last few years or, in fact, the last generation, as a biased mainstream media consistently blasted Israel for defending its existence against terrorist threats, would not have remained so strong.

There have been some voices raised on the left that are essentially calling for Israel to become a partisan issue between Republicans (pro) and Democrats (con). That is a theme we heard a lot of during the weeks prior to Netanyahu’s speech to Congress on the Iranian nuclear threat and it is something that the administration seems to be encouraging despite its pro forma declarations of support for Israel. Yet the reaction to that speech illustrated that such efforts are bound to fall flat. The overwhelming majority of Republicans and what is still a clear majority of Democrats still support the alliance that is rooted in common values that are embedded in the political DNA of this country.

Doomsayers notwithstanding the overwhelming majority of Americans still back Israel and understand that asking them to make suicidal concessions is neither reasonable nor likely to strengthen America’s security. Though many assume that Americans, like Europeans, will eventually abandon Israel because of its refusal to do as Obama and the left demand, sympathy for Zionism and the Jewish state in the U.S. remains strong enough to withstand this challenge. That won’t change simply because the president and the liberal press don’t like Netanyahu or the outcome of a democratic election.

Read Less

The Israeli Left Hates the Israeli People

Israel’s left will be disappointed by last night’s election results. That is to be expected and no one could hold it against them. They have an alternative vision for advancing the welfare of their country and, for the moment at least, the opportunity to implement that vision has slipped from their grasp. What is less acceptable is the way in which some on Israel’s left seem to have reacted with uncontrolled outbursts of animosity and hatred. We might be able to understand their hatred for Netanyahu and the Likud. But their unashamed hatred for their own country is a different matter. Nothing encapsulates this attitude more than Gideon Levy’s piece in today’s Haaretz: Netanyahu deserves the Israeli People, and they deserve him. With an attitude like that you wonder if these people ever really had Israel’s best interests at heart.

Read More

Israel’s left will be disappointed by last night’s election results. That is to be expected and no one could hold it against them. They have an alternative vision for advancing the welfare of their country and, for the moment at least, the opportunity to implement that vision has slipped from their grasp. What is less acceptable is the way in which some on Israel’s left seem to have reacted with uncontrolled outbursts of animosity and hatred. We might be able to understand their hatred for Netanyahu and the Likud. But their unashamed hatred for their own country is a different matter. Nothing encapsulates this attitude more than Gideon Levy’s piece in today’s Haaretz: Netanyahu deserves the Israeli People, and they deserve him. With an attitude like that you wonder if these people ever really had Israel’s best interests at heart.

Levy’s post-election musings read more like an adolescent “hope you’re both very happy together” rant, followed by an almighty slamming of the bedroom door. Of course, like most people who utter that phrase, Levy clearly has no desire to see Bibi or the Israeli public finding happiness. Rather, he insists that the re-election of Benjamin Netanyahu heralds the way to Israel’s demise. “On Tuesday the foundations were laid for the apartheid state that is to come,” Haaretz’s prophet of doom warns.

As is often the case with Levy’s writing, this piece is rather incongruous. The ideas and propositions don’t exactly flow coherently from one to the next. And buried in that piece are such eloquent lines as “Dear Likud voters, what the hell do you say ‘yes’ to?” and “Piss off, dear world, we’re on our own. Please don’t interfere, we’re asleep, the people are with Netanyahu.” Apparently the language being employed by the Israeli left is now becoming almost as course and abusive as some of what’s been coming out of the left in America lately too.

Of course, what Levy and Israel’s left are confronting is the unbridgeable gap that exists between their own worldview and reality. While they claim to be the guardians of democracy, the only ones who can rescue the democratic system from the jaws of the neo-fascist Israeli right, it is clear that not only is the democratic system actually functioning just fine thank you very much, but time and again it is rejecting the left. Worse still, it is the very left wing parties who claim to be the heirs of Israel’s socialist past that are polling best in many of Israel’s affluent municipalities; whereas it is Netanyahu’s free market Likud that is winning in working class neighborhoods.

The people keep speaking and they keep rejecting the parties that claim to be the populist parties of the people and the democratic process. How to make sense of this? “This is the result of years’ worth of brainwashing and incitement” Levy insists, unconvincingly. No, it can’t be that Israelis made a rational assessment of the threats their country faces, weighed up the likely ability of the various candidates to meet those threats, and then submitted their well-considered votes accordingly. Nor could it be that the left failed to articulate its positions convincingly. And it certainly can’t be that what happened was what happens in most elections around the world; that the various sections of society simply voted in a way that they believed best advanced their own various interests. It’s obvious; that Netanyahu brainwashed everyone.

But perhaps even Levy isn’t really convinced by that claim. For elsewhere he states his feelings far more clearly when he states simply; “The nation must be replaced. Not another election for the country’s leadership, but general elections to choose a new Israeli people – immediately.” That’s it, Israel’s public falls so woefully short of being worthy of implementing Levy’s lofty ideals that it’d be better to just be rid of them and find a new public instead.

After that bombshell, it would be difficult to be surprised by anything else Levy writes. Yet he concludes his piece by arguing that the international community will ultimately punish Israel, and that that will be a good thing. “The only consolation is that another Netanyahu term will prompt the world to act. That possibility is our only refuge,” concludes Levy. But that statement is not so very far from the words of Haaretz’s former editor David Landau who notoriously told then Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice that “Israel wants to be raped by the United States.” For its own good you understand, to save Israel from itself.

If it wasn’t clear then, it should be very clear reading Levy’s piece now that, quite simply, much of the Israeli left hates its own country and just about all the people who live there.

Read Less

Netanyahu’s Historic Win — and Obama’s Humiliating Loss

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s stunning victory yesterday — polls at the end of last week had people writing off his chances — means he will become only the second person to be elected prime minister for a third term (the other being Israel’s founder David Ben-Gurion). “King Bibi” has established himself as one of the dominant figures in the history of the modern state of Israel. Mr. Netanyahu is hardly a person without flaws. But for those of us who admire his toughness and moral clarity on world events — and who appreciate his obvious love for his nation and for ours — it was a splendid turn of events.

Read More

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s stunning victory yesterday — polls at the end of last week had people writing off his chances — means he will become only the second person to be elected prime minister for a third term (the other being Israel’s founder David Ben-Gurion). “King Bibi” has established himself as one of the dominant figures in the history of the modern state of Israel. Mr. Netanyahu is hardly a person without flaws. But for those of us who admire his toughness and moral clarity on world events — and who appreciate his obvious love for his nation and for ours — it was a splendid turn of events.

As for the current occupant of the White House, it was a disastrous one.

Barack Obama has an obsessive animosity when it comes to Prime Minister Netanyahu, which he has demonstrated time and again. So much so that Obama and his aides did everything they could to influence the Israeli election, from smearing Mr. Netanyahu — referring to him as a “coward” and a “chickens***” — to childishly elevating a difference over Netanyahu’s speech to a joint session of Congress into a foreign policy crisis to perhaps illegally funneling money to oust the sitting leader of Israel. We know that Jeremy Bird, who served as Obama’s deputy national campaign director in 2008 and his national campaign director in 2012, arrived in Israel in January to help unseat Mr. Netanyahu. This is all quite astonishing, even unprecedented. Benjamin Netanyahu may have won without the outside interference by Obama — but what Obama & Company did certainly helped.

I’m reminded of the self-inflicted “stunning setback” Mr. Obama suffered in 2009, when he and Mrs. Obama put their prestige on the line — they both flew to Copenhagen to make an appeal to the IOC — to get Chicago the 2016 Olympics. Chicago was eliminated on the first ballot. This time, the stakes were much higher and the damage done to Mr. Obama’s reputation far greater. .

There’s quite a pattern Mr. Obama has established in foreign policy during his presidency. He has failed in almost every instance, from his efforts at personal diplomacy to his policies. Remember the “new beginning” with the Arab and Muslim world? That claim now seems risible. Indeed, our relations with nation after nation — Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, Turkey, Libya, Yemen, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Russia, Ukraine, Poland, the Czech Republic, Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, China, Canada, Israel, India, Australia, Honduras, Brazil, Germany, and Great Britain, to name just a few — are worse now than they were when Mr. Obama was sworn in as president in 2009. As for Mr. Obama’s claim that al Qaeda was “decimated,” in congressional testimony recently, Mr. Obama’s Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper Jr. said that terrorism trend lines were worse “than at any other point in history.” And the terrorist group the president famously referred to as the “jayvee team” just last year is now the best-armed, best-funded terrorist group on earth, controlling “a volume of resources and territory unmatched in the history of extremist organizations.”

Mr. Obama’s clumsy and malicious mishandling of relations with Israel, then, is but one brick in a wall of failure and infamy. The fact that Benjamin Netanyahu emerged victorious in his confrontation with Barack Obama — a confrontation whose root cause can be traced to Obama’s hostility not just to Netanyahu but to Israel (a point I’ve elaborated on here) — is a heartening development in a world that is increasingly chaotic and violent.

Read Less

U.S. Alliance Will Survive Barack-Bibi, Act 3

Though many in the U.S. media are foolishly reporting the expected outcome of the Israeli election as if it was a tie, it’s unlikely that anyone in the White House is in any doubt about the actual outcome. President Obama’s longtime nemesis Benjamin Netanyahu came from behind in the last week to lead his Likud Party to as clear a victory as was possible in Israel’s confusing parliamentary system. Though the haggling with smaller parties is just getting started and the possibility of a unity government with his Zionist Union rival Isaac Herzog is still possible, the results gave Netanyahu a clear path to a fourth term as prime minister. Yet with Obama and Netanyahu no longer speaking to each other and with the two governments at loggerheads over both the Middle East peace process and the Iran nuclear talks, the question arises as to how much damage the prime minister’s re-election will do to an alliance that is crucial for Israel’s future? The answer is that although relations will be tense until January 2017, the alliance will survive Act Three of the Barack-Bibi standoff.

Read More

Though many in the U.S. media are foolishly reporting the expected outcome of the Israeli election as if it was a tie, it’s unlikely that anyone in the White House is in any doubt about the actual outcome. President Obama’s longtime nemesis Benjamin Netanyahu came from behind in the last week to lead his Likud Party to as clear a victory as was possible in Israel’s confusing parliamentary system. Though the haggling with smaller parties is just getting started and the possibility of a unity government with his Zionist Union rival Isaac Herzog is still possible, the results gave Netanyahu a clear path to a fourth term as prime minister. Yet with Obama and Netanyahu no longer speaking to each other and with the two governments at loggerheads over both the Middle East peace process and the Iran nuclear talks, the question arises as to how much damage the prime minister’s re-election will do to an alliance that is crucial for Israel’s future? The answer is that although relations will be tense until January 2017, the alliance will survive Act Three of the Barack-Bibi standoff.

The White House will say the right things about applauding Israeli democracy and working with anyone elected by the people of the Jewish state. But the president and his foreign policy team are bitterly disappointed with the prospect of Netanyahu’s re-election. It was always going to take a decisive win for Herzog, such as the four-seat advantage that the last opinion polls published last week before the election predicted, for the Labor leader to have a chance at putting together a coalition and that margin of victory evaporated as right-wing voters came home to Likud in order to save the prime minister. So the odds are, the administration is just going to have to stand by impotently and watch as its least-favorite foreign leader assembles a government for his fourth term in office.

Another 22 months of contention between Obama and Netanyahu will be problematic for the alliance. The president is poised to sign a framework with Iran over its nuclear program that will ensure that the Islamist regime becomes a threshold nuclear power and, just as important, gives U.S. acquiescence if not approval to Iran’s domination of Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. That creates a far more dangerous Middle East and the real possibility of nuclear proliferation as Arab nations, which share Israel’s fears about Iran and the president’s feckless pursuit of détente with Tehran, begin thinking of their own deterrent.

Other than a risky and highly unlikely decision to launch a military strike on Iran on its own, there will not be much that Israel can do about this. But it can quietly support efforts by Congress to hold a weak Iran deal up to scrutiny and to hold the president and his new entente partners accountable. Expect a lot more sniping on this score between Washington and Jerusalem but barring Iran walking away from talks in which Obama appears to be giving them everything they could want, Netanyahu can’t be much of an obstacle to the president’s plans

But that won’t be the only issue on which the two governments will clash. The president and Secretary of State Kerry have also indicated that they will try to revive the dead-in-the-water peace process with the Palestinians. If so, we can expect the U.S. to repeat the same behavior that has characterized the first six years of the Obama presidency in which major pressure is brought to bear on Israel to make concessions while the Palestinians continue to refuse to make peace under any circumstances.

This will be difficult for Netanyahu, especially since he repudiated the two-state solution in the days leading up to the election. But Obama’s leverage here is limited. By opposing Israel’s effort to hold onto a united Jerusalem and the settlement blocs where most West Bank Jews live, the president has always been playing on Netanyahu’s turf and where he can turn disputes with Washington to his advantage. Netanyahu will stand his ground and not suffer for it at home while the Palestinians continue to stiff a president who has done everything in his power to tilt the diplomatic playing field in their direction.

It is true that Obama can up the ante on Netanyahu by abandoning a policy of supporting Israel in the United Nations as the Palestinians continue to violate their Oslo Accords obligation to negotiate rather than to attempt to gain recognition from the world body. But if that happens, it will create as many problems for him and the Democratic Party as it does for Israel.

It should be remembered that the 22-month period during which a re-elected Netanyahu will be forced to deal with Obama will coincide with the 2016 presidential election campaign. It is true that as a lame duck, he needn’t fear the voters even as he attempts to put more daylight between the U.S. and its only democratic ally in the Middle East. But Democrats who will be eager to hold onto the White House will not be happy if the president spends his last year in office alienating pro-Israel voters by venting his spleen at Netanyahu. Even if his liberal base has no affection for the prime minister, an overt tilt against Israel at the UN would probably place Obama at odds with Hillary Clinton who will be eager to demonstrate her pro-Israel bona fides. It will also give Republicans another stick to beat Democrats with as they seek to win back the White House.

What this boils down to is that as much as the president detests Netanyahu and has little love for his country, the infrastructure of the alliance, in Congress and the defense establishment is too strong for him to destroy. As he learned last summer when the Department of Defense was automatically transferring arms to Israel during the Gaza war, it takes more than a spat orchestrated by the White House to derail an alliance that has such broad bipartisan political support. As the president learned during the weeks leading up to Netanyahu’s controversial Iran speech to Congress earlier this month, even when the Israeli plays into their hands, the White House has shown a tendency to overplay their hand in a way that only helps the pro-Israel community.

More than all this, a re-elected Netanyahu will be in a position where time will be on his side. As the countdown for Obama’s exit from the White House begins, the prime minister will know that no matter who wins in 2016, they are likely to be far friendly to Israel than the current incumbent. He can afford to wait until January 2017 when he can count on a new relationship with an Obama successor who will be eager to prove his or her bona fides.

The months ahead will be difficult ones for Israel as Obama seethes about his foe’s victory. But as much as Obama has already undermined Israel’s security, his ability to do more damage is constrained by the realities of American politics than can neither be undone nor wished away.

Read Less

Why Did Bibi Win? Realism, Not Racism.

Within moments of the announcement of the exit polls, some of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s critics were claiming his likely win in today’s Knesset election was the result of a crude, racist appeal to voters. The justification for this charge was a speech made by Netanyahu and released only on social media because of restrictions on campaign appeals in the media, telling the country that left-wing groups funded by foreign money were busing Arab voters to the polls in order to elect a left-wing government led by his Zionist Union rival Isaac Herzog. Netanyahu’s opponents interpreted this as an appeal to racism. The statement was unfortunate because it made it seem as if the prime minister viewed Arab voters as somehow illegitimate. But the voters likely saw it in a different light. The prospect of a left-wing government that depended on the Joint Arab List was always unlikely. But a critical mass of voters viewed the prospect with alarm not because they’re racists but because a government that relied on the votes of anti-Zionists that favor Israel’s dissolution was something they considered a danger to the future of their country.

Read More

Within moments of the announcement of the exit polls, some of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s critics were claiming his likely win in today’s Knesset election was the result of a crude, racist appeal to voters. The justification for this charge was a speech made by Netanyahu and released only on social media because of restrictions on campaign appeals in the media, telling the country that left-wing groups funded by foreign money were busing Arab voters to the polls in order to elect a left-wing government led by his Zionist Union rival Isaac Herzog. Netanyahu’s opponents interpreted this as an appeal to racism. The statement was unfortunate because it made it seem as if the prime minister viewed Arab voters as somehow illegitimate. But the voters likely saw it in a different light. The prospect of a left-wing government that depended on the Joint Arab List was always unlikely. But a critical mass of voters viewed the prospect with alarm not because they’re racists but because a government that relied on the votes of anti-Zionists that favor Israel’s dissolution was something they considered a danger to the future of their country.

Despite the expectation that dissatisfaction Netanyahu would lead to the end of his career, Netanyahu appears to have survived and will likely surpass David Ben Gurion as the country’s longest serving prime minister. Only a few days ago this was considered unlikely because the polls showed Herzog’s Labor-led party with a solid four-seat lead. But just as Netanyahu’s numbers were depressed in 2009 and 2013 because of the widespread belief that he couldn’t lose, the belief that he was finished had the opposite effect. A significant number of voters who might have gone for other right-wing parties such as Naphtali Bennet’s Jewish Home, went back to Likud in the final days in order to prevent a victory for the left.

But what those venturing opinions about the election must understand is that despite the hopes of the Israeli left and its foreign supporters (including one particular fan in the White House), the basic political alignment of the country remained unchanged. The center-right and religious parties retained a clear majority over the parties of the left. Likud’s natural allies outnumber those of the left. The only way for Herzog to become prime minister was to assemble an unlikely coalition of the left, secular and ultra-Orthodox parties. Even then, he might still need the support from the anti-Zionist Arab list composed of Communists, Islamists and radical Arab nationalists.

Contrary to the implications of Netanyahu’s statement, the increased turnout of Arab voters is a good thing for the country. Israeli Arabs should be invested in their country and take advantage of its democratic system. But the small gains by the Joint Arab List — which seems to have won 13 seats over the 11 won by the elements of its coalition, previously — won’t make much of a difference because the new Knesset members will remain in the minority. It is also a near certainty that the three factions will split once the dust settles from the election.

Even some of Israel’s friends in the United States may be asking themselves how is it possible for the Jewish state’s voters to give a majority to parties that are unlikely to agree to a two-state solution with the Palestinians. The answer is that unlike most Americans, Israel’s voters have been paying attention to the history of the conflict over the past 20 years and know that Herzog was no more likely to create a Palestinian state than Netanyahu. Nor is it fair to brand Netanyahu, who did not denigrate the right of Arabs to vote, a racist. There is no comparison between the efforts of minorities to vote in Western democracies or the United States and the desire of the Arab parties to destroy Israel. That’s because the Palestinian leadership, split between Hamas and Fatah, has consistently refused peace offers that would have given them independence. Most Israelis would like a two-state solution to happen but they know that under the current circumstances any withdrawal from the West Bank might duplicate the disastrous retreat from Gaza in 2005. Though Western journalists mocked Netanyahu’s comments about wanting to prevent a “Hamasistan” in the West Bank, the voters in Israel largely agreed.

That doesn’t make them racist or extreme. It means they are, like most Americans, realists. They may not like Netanyahu but today’s results demonstrates that there is little support for a government that would make the sort of concessions to the Palestinians that President Obama would like. They rightly believe that even if Israel did make more concessions it would only lead to more violence, not peace. Israel’s foreign critics and friends need to understand that in the end, it was those convictions have, for all intents and purposes, re-elected Netanyahu.

Read Less

Israeli Exit Polls: Netanyahu is Re-Elected

Exit polls aren’t official results but those just released by the Israeli media leave little doubt about the ultimate outcome of today’s elections. Though the last published opinion polls issued last week gave the Labor-led Zionist Union Party with a decisive four-seat edge over Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud, the exists just released minutes ago show the two leading parties neck and neck. Given that historically these polls tend to undercount the right and don’t include the very significant vote of soldiers on active service in the Israeli Army, which also tends to tilt to the right-wing parties, the likelihood is that the Likud will wind up with a plurality. But even if the two parties wind up tied with either 27 or 28 seats in the 120-seat Knesset, this almost certainly means that Netanyahu will lead the next government of Israel, a result that will be received with dismay in the White House and set off a deluge of hand-wringing columns about Israel’s future from the mainstream liberal press.

Read More

Exit polls aren’t official results but those just released by the Israeli media leave little doubt about the ultimate outcome of today’s elections. Though the last published opinion polls issued last week gave the Labor-led Zionist Union Party with a decisive four-seat edge over Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud, the exists just released minutes ago show the two leading parties neck and neck. Given that historically these polls tend to undercount the right and don’t include the very significant vote of soldiers on active service in the Israeli Army, which also tends to tilt to the right-wing parties, the likelihood is that the Likud will wind up with a plurality. But even if the two parties wind up tied with either 27 or 28 seats in the 120-seat Knesset, this almost certainly means that Netanyahu will lead the next government of Israel, a result that will be received with dismay in the White House and set off a deluge of hand-wringing columns about Israel’s future from the mainstream liberal press.

If you understand the basics of Israeli politics, the reason why Netanyahu will remain the prime minister is easy to understand. Even if Isaac Herzog’s Zionist Union finished first with the expected four-seat margin, he was going to have a difficult time getting a coalition that commanded a majority of the Knesset since they would have had to rely on anti-Zionist Arab votes or Haredi or right-wing parties that are unlikely to want to sit in his Cabinet.

Despite all the talk of this election marking a revolutionary change, the results show a degree of political stasis. The right-wing parties held their own when compared to 2009 and 2013 and the left led by Herzog gained almost nothing. The ultra-Orthodox party kept their share of the vote. Even the Joint Arab list, which now appears to have attained the status of the country’s third largest party only gained two seats over the 11 its three components (Islamists, Communists and radical Arab nationalists) won separately in the previous two elections and will almost certainly split apart again within days of the votes being counted.

Centrist parties did fairly well even though Yesh Atid has gone down from the 19 seats they won last time. Those votes went to Kulanu led by Likud defector Moshe Kahlon. Every election provides a new success and Kulanu is this year’s winner of that role.

But the bottom line is that the electoral math makes it almost impossible for Herzog to form a government. Netanyahu’s natural coalition is there in place even if the negotiations will likely be long and difficult as the various parties barter in the competition for Cabinet posts.

What will also remain unchanged are the tense relations between the White House and the Israeli government. President Obama may have been counting on Netanyahu being defeated but, like it or not, the prime minister will not only get a fourth term but be there after the president leaves office in January 2017.

Read Less

Netanyahu Won’t Create a Palestinian State. Neither Will Herzog.

Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s last-minute appeals to right-wing voters set off a storm on Twitter among his left-wing and liberal critics. Though Netanyahu had publicly embraced the two-state solution to the Middle East conflict years ago and had offered statehood to the Palestinians in the talks sponsored by Secretary of State John Kerry, yesterday he vowed that such a thing would never happen if he were reelected. For those who refused to blame the Palestinians for repeatedly refusing such offers from Netanyahu and his predecessors, this is a chance to claim that the lack of peace is the prime minister’s fault after all. Even worse, some are now claiming that he had been tricking President Obama and Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas. Are they right? Not really. Though Netanyahu may be justly accused of flip-flopping now, that doesn’t justify past Palestinian refusals of peace offers. More to the point, despite his continued embraced of the idea, the Zionist Union’s Isaac Herzog isn’t any more likely to sign a deal to create a Palestinian state than Netanyahu if he wins the election.

Read More

Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s last-minute appeals to right-wing voters set off a storm on Twitter among his left-wing and liberal critics. Though Netanyahu had publicly embraced the two-state solution to the Middle East conflict years ago and had offered statehood to the Palestinians in the talks sponsored by Secretary of State John Kerry, yesterday he vowed that such a thing would never happen if he were reelected. For those who refused to blame the Palestinians for repeatedly refusing such offers from Netanyahu and his predecessors, this is a chance to claim that the lack of peace is the prime minister’s fault after all. Even worse, some are now claiming that he had been tricking President Obama and Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas. Are they right? Not really. Though Netanyahu may be justly accused of flip-flopping now, that doesn’t justify past Palestinian refusals of peace offers. More to the point, despite his continued embraced of the idea, the Zionist Union’s Isaac Herzog isn’t any more likely to sign a deal to create a Palestinian state than Netanyahu if he wins the election.

Both Netanyahu and Herzog and their principal supporters have been at pains to differentiate their stands on security issues. That fits Netanyahu’s narrative in which he depicts himself as the only thing standing between Israel and a left-wing government that would give away Jerusalem and allow the creation of another “Hamasistan” in the West Bank like the one in Gaza. By contrast, Herzog has encouraged the U.S. government (if not the Israeli people) to think of him as far more reasonable than Netanyahu on the peace process. Moreover, Herzog does talk as if he could actually entice the Palestinians to accept a two-state solution that would respect Israel’s security needs and recognize its legitimacy, thus ending the conflict.

But the truth about their differences is a lot less dramatic than either of them would have us believe.

Netanyahu is talking tough now that he needs center-right voters to abandon the small parties they have embraced because they assumed the Likud would lead the next government. So rather than appeal to moderates, he’s now telling them that if they want to avoid the nightmare of a terrorist run state in Jerusalem, they must vote for the Likud. But throughout his nine years as prime minister he has always shown a willingness to negotiate and even make concessions on settlements and territory. It was he who withdrew Israeli troops from Hebron during his first term. He froze settlement building in the West Bank during his second term though he got no credit from President Obama for doing so. And it was Netanyahu, despite his current impassioned denials, who made it clear to both the Americans and the Palestinians that he would agree to a Palestinian state on terms very similar to the generous offer made by his predecessor Ehud Olmert. If he is reelected, you can bet he will saunter back to the center as he has done before.

By contrast, for all of the expectations he has encouraged about making progress toward peace, Herzog has campaigned in Israel opposing the division of Jerusalem, a sine qua non for any agreement that Abbas would even think about discussing. Nor does he oppose building in the Jewish neighborhoods built in the city since the 1967 war. And he supports holding onto the same West Bank settlement blocs that the Obama administration has blasted Netanyahu for building up. Like Netanyahu, Herzog will demand that the Palestinians give up the right of return for the descendants of 1948 refugees.

But the real reason why neither man will sign a peace deal with Abbas has nothing to do with their respective and all-too-similar stands. Rather, it has to do with the unchanged political culture of the Palestinians that has prevented Yasir Arafat and then Abbas from accepting Israeli offers of statehood four times in the last 15 years. Until Palestinian nationalism stops being inextricably connected with a century-long war on Zionism, peace will never happen. And with Gaza still firmly under the control of Hamas, the already slim odds of Abbas feeling strong enough to make peace (assuming that he actually wants to) will remain zero. Moreover, most Israelis think a repeat of the disastrous 2005 withdrawal from Gaza would probably result in another Hamasistan in the West Bank.

Though President Obama and Secretary Kerry continue to labor under the delusion that pressure on Israel provides the magic formula for peace, the opposite is true. It is the Palestinians who need to change, not Israel. And Israelis, who once embraced the hope of Oslo, know it all too well. That’s why, to Netanyahu’s discontent, they are currently more interested in domestic issues rather than war and peace.

The real joke is not on Netanyahu for being a flip-flopper but on those who think either possible prime minister will make peace with a Palestinian leadership that is still unwilling to recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn.

Read Less

Bibi, Inequality, and the Israeli Economy

The conventional wisdom about Israel’s elections is that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will lose tomorrow because he has not paid sufficient attention to domestic and economic issues while concentrating almost completely on the need to address security, specifically the nuclear threat from Iran. Considering that he has spent the last few days of campaigning speaking even more assertively about refusing to make concessions to the Palestinians, Netanyahu clearly disagrees with that conclusion. But that’s the point that New York Times columnist Paul Krugman makes in his pre-election column in which the economist and former Enron advisor (as the Wall Street Journal’s James Taranto never tires of calling him) damns Netanyahu’s handling of the economy which he says has bred more inequality. There is some truth to Krugman’s analysis of what is wrong with Israel. But that answer to a very real inequality crisis is the opposite of what he thinks: more capitalism, not more statist economics. And that is why, despite his lack of emphasis on the issue, Netanyahu has a better grip on the problem than Krugman.

Read More

The conventional wisdom about Israel’s elections is that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will lose tomorrow because he has not paid sufficient attention to domestic and economic issues while concentrating almost completely on the need to address security, specifically the nuclear threat from Iran. Considering that he has spent the last few days of campaigning speaking even more assertively about refusing to make concessions to the Palestinians, Netanyahu clearly disagrees with that conclusion. But that’s the point that New York Times columnist Paul Krugman makes in his pre-election column in which the economist and former Enron advisor (as the Wall Street Journal’s James Taranto never tires of calling him) damns Netanyahu’s handling of the economy which he says has bred more inequality. There is some truth to Krugman’s analysis of what is wrong with Israel. But that answer to a very real inequality crisis is the opposite of what he thinks: more capitalism, not more statist economics. And that is why, despite his lack of emphasis on the issue, Netanyahu has a better grip on the problem than Krugman.

Though references to Israel’s economy in the mainstream media often assume it is a mess, Krugman deserves some credit for pointing out that this is simply untrue:

Israel’s economy has performed well by the usual measures. It weathered the financial crisis with minimal damage. Over the longer term, it has grown more rapidly than most other advanced economies, and has developed into a high-technology powerhouse.

But, as Krugman is quick to point out, many Israelis are deeply disturbed by what they see as rising inequality with the people at the top doing well while poverty increases. But the main source of dissatisfaction is that the middle class is increasingly squeezed by the high cost of living, especially with regard to a shortage of affordable housing in the country’s main population centers.

But, as Krugman rightly notes, the sort of rhetoric that we are used to hearing about inequality from American liberals carrying on about the “one percent” who enjoy riches denied others doesn’t really apply to Israel.

At the other end, while the available data — puzzlingly — don’t show an especially large share of income going to the top 1 percent, there is an extreme concentration of wealth and power among a tiny group of people at the top. And I mean tiny. According to the Bank of Israel, roughly 20 families control companies that account for half the total value of Israel’s stock market. The nature of that control is convoluted and obscure, working through “pyramids” in which a family controls a firm that in turn controls other firms and so on. Although the Bank of Israel is circumspect in its language, it is clearly worried about the potential this concentration of control creates for self-dealing.

Still, why is Israeli inequality a political issue? Because it didn’t have to be this extreme. …

Meanwhile, Israel’s oligarchs owe their position not to innovation and entrepreneurship but to their families’ success in gaining control of businesses that the government privatized in the 1980s — and they arguably retain that position partly by having undue influence over government policy, combined with control of major banks.

Krugman is right about this. When Israel began to privatize its bloated and mismanaged government-run industries after it woke up to the reality that its founders’ belief in socialism was misplaced, what happened bore a resemblance to the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union and with similar consequences: the creation of a very small class of moguls who benefitted from the windfall.

But the implication here is that somehow this is Netanyahu’s fault. He’s been prime minister a long time, but not that long. Most of the blame for the distribution of goodies to the elites belongs to the previous generation of Israeli leaders, especially Shimon Peres and the late Yitzhak Rabin.

But though Krugman complains that Israel doesn’t do enough for the poor, even he has to acknowledge that high poverty rates are mostly the function of the problems of the country’s Arab minority and its ultra-Orthodox Jewish population. Many Arabs remain trapped in a cycle of poverty that is rooted in the conflict over Israel’s existence and cultural problems that are seen in surrounding Arab countries. Many ultra-Orthodox men don’t choose to participate in the work force out of a misplaced belief that it is wrong for them to do so rather than to engage in religious studies.

Yet that doesn’t gainsay the fact that the country has a real problem with a cost of living and the lack of social mobility for the middle class. Angst about this is exacerbated by the country’s long embrace of egalitarian ideals. It is also true, as Krugman says, that there wasn’t much inequality up until the early 1990s. But that was because before that point Israel was operating on a socialist economic model that made it difficult for anyone to make money. If historically capitalism invented an awareness of poverty because before its appearance almost everyone was poor, the same applies to any discussion of income inequality In Israel prior to the reforms that were instituted.

But contrary to Krugman, the cure for this isn’t a retreat from capitalism. Netanyahu was primarily responsible for saving Israel’s economy in the early 2000s when, as finance minister in Ariel Sharon’s first government, he spearheaded reforms that helped make it possible for it to become the “Start-Up Nation” that is the envy of the world’s high-tech centers. As the primary advocate in Israel of what Krugman correctly calls “free market economics,” Netanyahu is competing against a generation of fellow politicians who remain mired in the rhetoric of entitlement and big-government solutions. Their talk pleases those who are nostalgic for the Israel that was egalitarian but was so economically backward that visitors were asked to bring jeans and consumer goods with them. That is a path to more problems, not greater and more widespread prosperity.

If the next Israeli government strays from free market policies, the result won’t do much to make it more egalitarian. But it will be poorer. And that is something that even Netanyahu’s critics won’t applaud.

Read Less

If Bibi Loses, the Next Defense Minister Still Wants to Bomb Iran

Most American coverage of the Israeli election continues to center on the fate of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his possible replacement by a Labor-led coalition that will steer the Jewish state away from confrontation with the United States. If Netanyahu loses tomorrow, there’s no doubt that it will greatly please the Obama administration. The president and his foreign-policy team regard the Israeli leader as public enemy No. 1 both because of their personal antipathy for him and his willingness to challenge their desire to create détente with Iran. But just as the White House’s expectations for a more pliable Israeli negotiating partner with the Palestinians may be unrealistic, so, too, is their confidence about Labor’s attitude about Iran. As a Times of Israel interview makes clear, the opposition’s designated candidate for defense minister, former general Amos Yadlin, is every bit the hawk about stopping and, if necessary, bombing Iran, as Netanyahu has been.

Read More

Most American coverage of the Israeli election continues to center on the fate of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his possible replacement by a Labor-led coalition that will steer the Jewish state away from confrontation with the United States. If Netanyahu loses tomorrow, there’s no doubt that it will greatly please the Obama administration. The president and his foreign-policy team regard the Israeli leader as public enemy No. 1 both because of their personal antipathy for him and his willingness to challenge their desire to create détente with Iran. But just as the White House’s expectations for a more pliable Israeli negotiating partner with the Palestinians may be unrealistic, so, too, is their confidence about Labor’s attitude about Iran. As a Times of Israel interview makes clear, the opposition’s designated candidate for defense minister, former general Amos Yadlin, is every bit the hawk about stopping and, if necessary, bombing Iran, as Netanyahu has been.

It bears repeating that the image of Netanyahu as an extremist that is often the keynote of American press coverage betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the realities of Israeli politics. Though after three terms and nine years as prime minister Netanyahu may have outlasted his expiration date for the Israeli public, the general dissatisfaction with him should not be mistaken for disagreement with this policies on either the Palestinians or Iran. To the contrary, polls show that there is little support for more concessions to a Palestinian Authority that has repeatedly rejected chances for peace, let alone to the even more implacable Hamas in Gaza. Nor is there much of a constituency for complacency about the peril about the prospect of an Iranian nuclear bomb. Netanyahu’s problems in the election stem from anger about his foolish decision to call an election when he didn’t need to do so and the fact that many voters want more attention paid to economic and domestic issues that the prime minister has sidelined while highlighting security threats.

Though his Zionist Union opponents have criticized Netanyahu’s confrontational tactics with the Obama administration, they have been falling over themselves to make the public think there isn’t much difference between them on security issues. That is largely the case since it is unlikely that either Isaac Herzog or Tzipi Livni (who represented Netanyahu in the peace talks the past two years) will be able to offer the Palestinians any more than the prime minister. Indeed, Herzog has been eager to declare that he wouldn’t divide Jerusalem, as Obama wants him to do.

Assuring the Israeli public that his government wouldn’t be any less tough than that of Netanyahu was the reason Herzog brought Amos Yadlin onto his ticket and designated him as the likely defense minister in the next government. Yadlin, a former head of intelligence for the Israel Defense Forces, is, like many in the old left-dominated army establishment, a stern critic of Netanyahu. But if Obama and his team are reading what Yadlin is saying they might be a little less enthusiastic about the prospect of a new Israeli government. That is especially true of his rhetoric on Iran:

“Are we at the juncture where [all options have failed and] we have to choose between two very problematic alternatives: to accept an Iranian bomb, or to do what it takes so they don’t have a bomb? In English, ‘the bomb or the bombing?’ We have to ask ourselves constantly if we have reached this juncture? Have we exhausted all the other options to stop Iran?”

Many in Washington — “in the ‘belt,’” as Yadlin calls it from his days as military attaché to the US — “are at this juncture and are willing to accept a nuclear Iran. They believe in containment and deterrence.”

Do “they” include President Obama or his cabinet?

Yadlin skirts the question. “You’ll find them among the strategists and among the government officials. I still belong to those who believe that President Obama won’t let Iran obtain a nuclear weapon.” …

Readers who discern distinctively Netanyahu-esque rhetoric in this list of US-Israeli differences on Iran are not mistaken. When it comes to the scale of the danger, the precariousness of trusting in American assurances, and the intentions of the ruling ayatollahs in Tehran, one might be forgiven for labeling Yadlin something slightly more hawkish than the catch-all “centrist.”

And that’s only natural, Yadlin explains.

“The goal of preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, and the desire to reach an agreement that will push Iran back as much as possible is not an issue of disagreement between Israel’s [political] parties.”

This is a key point. There really isn’t any genuine disagreement between Israel’s mainstream parties (Labor and Likud) on the basic issues of war and peace. Neither can offer a Palestinian leadership that is not interested in peace anything that will tempt them to recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn. And both are adamantly opposed to appeasement of Iran. Labor may speak kindly about the administration whereas Netanyahu is no longer bothering with pretending that he trusts the president. But when it comes to opposing the sort of concessions the U.S. is making to Iran, Yadlin is every bit the hawk that Netanyahu has been.

All of which means that no matter who wins tomorrow, tension between an American government determined to embrace Iran and to push for territorial concessions to the Palestinians and Israel’s government will continue.

Read Less

Will Arab Votes Decide Israel’s Election?

One of the sidebars attracting attention from the international media’s coverage of the Israeli election has been the rise of the Joint List, the coalition of three Israeli Arab parties that is currently sitting at third place in the polls that predict it will hold either 12 or 13 seats in the next Knesset. But while that total is impressive, the assumptions that this represents a genuine breakthrough for Israeli Arab citizens or will aid the efforts of the Jewish left to topple Prime Minister Netanyahu both may be mistaken. While it would be a positive development if Israeli Arabs felt more invested in their government, the impact of a boost in the Arab vote or the chances that their ballots will make the difference between victory and defeat for Netanyahu’s Likud Party are being greatly exaggerated.

Read More

One of the sidebars attracting attention from the international media’s coverage of the Israeli election has been the rise of the Joint List, the coalition of three Israeli Arab parties that is currently sitting at third place in the polls that predict it will hold either 12 or 13 seats in the next Knesset. But while that total is impressive, the assumptions that this represents a genuine breakthrough for Israeli Arab citizens or will aid the efforts of the Jewish left to topple Prime Minister Netanyahu both may be mistaken. While it would be a positive development if Israeli Arabs felt more invested in their government, the impact of a boost in the Arab vote or the chances that their ballots will make the difference between victory and defeat for Netanyahu’s Likud Party are being greatly exaggerated.

First, it’s important to understand what a result of 12 or 13 seats for the Arab coalition will mean. Contrary to some of the excited coverage of this development, it will not be a huge gain for these parties. The Join List is a coalition of three parties: the Communist Hadash Party, the Islamist Raam Party, and the secular Arab nationalist Balad Party. Those three parties received four, four, and three seats respectively in the 2009 and 2013 elections. Forced to unite by a new law that would have doomed any party that received less than the votes needed to gain four seats, the combined effort of the trio will net them one or two extra seats. That’s not inconsiderable but it is by no means a revolution. Unless they get an unexpectedly large showing of Arab voters who traditionally turn out a rate of about 50 percent, as opposed to the approximately 70 percent of Jews, their influence in the Knesset may not be much greater it has been in the past.

Nor will these gains be likely to materially benefit Arab citizens who rightly complain about the lack of resources directed to their municipalities. That’s due in part to the problematic nature of the Israeli political system and partly to the fact that Israeli Arab politicians from these parties are often a big part of the problem on the local level.

Nor will the vastly different political points of view within the Arab coalition help them operate effectively in the Knesset. While all can be counted on to oppose the Zionist agenda of either a Likud or Labor-led coalition and to push for greater support for Arab communities, the vast gap between those who would like to transform the country into an Islamic state and the radical leftists who want a secular socialist government that is neither Jewish nor Arab will prevent them from achieving much once they’re done pushing for votes together.

But more important than these considerations is the question of whether the Joint List will help determine whether Netanyahu or his Labor Party rival Isaac Herzog leads the next government.

Some supporters of the Arab list as well as Netanyahu foes abroad are saying that the 12 or 13 seats they win will be combined with those of Labor’s supporters and potential centrist allies to give Herzog the 61-seat majority he needs to govern. Being in the minority in a parliamentary system is to be marginalized in a way that no member of a minority in the U.S. Congress could experience. But if they were the kingmakers for Herzog, they would be very powerful indeed.

In theory, that is possible. Even if Herzog and his new partner Tzipi Livni were not to include the Joint List as part of their Cabinet, the Arabs could still vote for Herzog from outside the coalition in order to allow him to lead the country at the head of a minority government.

The Wall Street Journal cites the precedent of 1992 when the late Yitzhak Rabin formed a government with the support of five Arab anti-Zionist Knesset members who were not formally part of this government. But Rabin had a majority without the Arab votes, though it was a shaky one since it included the leftist secular Meretz and the Ultra-Orthodox Shas parties. If, as the polls seem to be telling us, Herzog would need the 12 or 13 Arab votes to get to 61, that would be unprecedented and would put him at the mercy of the whims of his three Arab anti-Zionist partners in a way that no one leading a party that dubs itself a Zionist Union would want.

This makes it highly unlikely that Herzog would choose to form such a government or that Israel’s President Ruby Rivlin would even give him the chance to do so after the elections. But that does not mean the possibility won’t have an influence on the outcome.

In the last weekend of campaigning with no more polls to be published, Netanyahu is seeking to influence center-right Israeli voters to stop spreading out their votes among several parties and to support Likud so as to prevent the possibility of a government led by the left. If he is successful it would reverse the outcomes of the last two elections when Israeli voters were sure he would be the prime minister and thus gave Likud fewer votes than anticipated because they felt free to vote for smaller parties with specific agendas they liked.

But in addition to trying to scare them with the prospect of a win for Herzog and Livni, he’s saying that such a government would be dependent on Arab votes for its majority. He made that point in this interview in English with the Voice of Israel in which he labeled a Herzog victory as leading to an anti-Zionist government. Though Labor supporters will dismiss this as mere campaign rhetoric of a desperate candidate, the more the media in Israel and elsewhere hypes the chances of a big win for the Arab parties, the more credible his charge must be considered.

It would be ironic if the supposedly historic win for Israeli Arab voters were to return the man they most dislike to the prime minister’s office. But if enough undecided Israeli voters think Herzog really does need Arab votes to govern, that may be what will happen.

Read Less

Did the Iran Speech Sink Netanyahu?

The final opinion polls prior to the Israeli elections are in and the news is pretty bad for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. His Likud Party trails the Labor-led Zionist Union by four seats in most of the polls. That doesn’t necessarily mean that Labor leader Isaac Herzog will lead the next government, as the electoral math may still make it easier for Netanyahu to put together a coalition that can command a majority of the Knesset. But if these numbers hold, it represents a body blow to Netanyahu and his party. That will likely lead his legion of American critics to claim that, far from helping him as most assumed it would, his speech to a joint session of Congress last week actually helped sink him. Are they right?

Read More

The final opinion polls prior to the Israeli elections are in and the news is pretty bad for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. His Likud Party trails the Labor-led Zionist Union by four seats in most of the polls. That doesn’t necessarily mean that Labor leader Isaac Herzog will lead the next government, as the electoral math may still make it easier for Netanyahu to put together a coalition that can command a majority of the Knesset. But if these numbers hold, it represents a body blow to Netanyahu and his party. That will likely lead his legion of American critics to claim that, far from helping him as most assumed it would, his speech to a joint session of Congress last week actually helped sink him. Are they right?

As I noted yesterday, Netanyahu’s biggest mistake was in calling new elections when he didn’t have to. It was a colossal blunder since Israelis felt they had given him a mandate only two years previously and his belief that he could get an even stronger majority now is seen as a cynical move that is wasting the country’s time and resources.

It’s also true that his emphasis on security issues—the dead-in-the-water Middle East peace process and the Iranian nuclear threat—didn’t strike the right note with voters who think it’s time the government concentrated more of its energy on solving domestic crises like the shortage and price of housing and the cost of living. But while American liberals and Obama administration supporters who don’t forgive Netanyahu for directly challenging the president on Iran would like to think the speech backfired, they are probably jumping to an incorrect conclusion when they make such a claim.

There’s little evidence that the speech hurt Netanyahu’s chances but also no proof that it helped much. In the aftermath of the speech, Netanyahu’s poll numbers actually went up a couple of seats. But the post-speech bump didn’t last. While few in Israel are happy about the decline in relations with the United States, most of the blame for that is put on President Obama. He remains the least favorite U.S. president among Israelis who rightly consider his tilt toward the Palestinians and pursuit of détente with Iran an indication of his lack of trustworthiness as an ally. Most, including many who will vote against him, agree with Netanyahu about both Iran and Obama’s bad faith. Yet in an election where voters are telling us they are sick and tired of a man seeking a fourth term as prime minister, agreement on Iran or even the Palestinians may not be enough.

After all, though the Obama administration and left-wingers may talk about Herzog as offering a real alternative to Netanyahu on security issues, the difference between the two on the peace process and Iran is mostly a matter or rhetoric and tone. Herzog won’t offer the Palestinians much if anything more than Netanyahu would, although he will phrase it in a way the Americans may like better. And there’s virtually no difference at all on their Iran positions, though the diffident Herzog isn’t likely to stand up to a U.S. president who is openly cheering for his election in the same way as Netanyahu.

Though everyone in the U.S. seemed to assume the speech was about Israeli domestic politics, perhaps we should have taken Netanyahu at his word that he was entirely sincere about wanting to warn the U.S. of impending danger and that it was too important to wait until after the election. His acceptance of the invitation from House Speaker John Boehner may have been a mistake since it allowed the Obama administration to divert the public’s attention from their indefensible appeasement of Iran to a discussion of the prime minister’s alleged breach of protocol. But Netanyahu was right about the issue and there’s no evidence that voters at home thought less of him for speaking out.

But those burying Netanyahu four days before the Israeli public votes may have to eat their words. If, as I speculated yesterday, voters realize that Netanyahu may lose, many choosing to vote for smaller center-right and right wing parties may return to Likud. At this point a tie between Labor and Likud or a small margin between the two parties is as good as a win for Netanyahu given the difficulty Herzog will have in assembling a coalition. If, as is still far from unlikely, Netanyahu does lead the next government, the talk about the speech sinking him will look silly. Even if he doesn’t it is wrong to claim that a loss for Likud is repudiation for his Iran stand. Israelis seem to have had no problem with the speech. But, with good reason, they may think the impossibility of peace with the Palestinians means their government should worry less about Washington and more about the cost of apartments in Tel Aviv.

Read Less

Can Netanyahu Bring His Voters Home?

The latest election polls in Israel have brought bad news to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The average of polls shows his Likud Party is now trailing the Zionist Union coalition of the Labor Party and Tzipi Livni’s Hatnua faction by up to three seats. This downturn in the wake of his speech to Congress last week about the Iranian nuclear threat may show that he has made a couple of major miscalculations about the voting public’s priorities. Yet with several days to go before next Tuesday, his deficit is not large. More to the point, Labor leader Isaac Herzog still faces an uphill battle to create a governing coalition even if his party wins a plurality. The question now is whether, faced with the prospect of Netanyahu losing, enough center-right voters come back to Likud from the small and splinter parties they are currently backing in order for him to pull victory from the jaws of defeat.

Read More

The latest election polls in Israel have brought bad news to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The average of polls shows his Likud Party is now trailing the Zionist Union coalition of the Labor Party and Tzipi Livni’s Hatnua faction by up to three seats. This downturn in the wake of his speech to Congress last week about the Iranian nuclear threat may show that he has made a couple of major miscalculations about the voting public’s priorities. Yet with several days to go before next Tuesday, his deficit is not large. More to the point, Labor leader Isaac Herzog still faces an uphill battle to create a governing coalition even if his party wins a plurality. The question now is whether, faced with the prospect of Netanyahu losing, enough center-right voters come back to Likud from the small and splinter parties they are currently backing in order for him to pull victory from the jaws of defeat.

Netanyahu made two major mistakes in this election.

The first was calling new elections in the first place. His coalition with center and secular parties was fractious and in many ways unworkable, but his belief that a new vote would gain him a greater advantage turns out to have been wrong. The public didn’t want the bother and the expense of a new election just two years after reelecting Netanyahu in 2013. Seeking his fourth term as prime minister in what would almost certainly allow him to surpass David Ben-Gurion’s record as the longest serving leader of the Jewish state, Netanyahu also took the voters’ patience for granted. Rather than another vote giving voters a chance to give him the mandate he thought he needed, it actually gave them an opportunity to register their annoyance and boredom with a man running as a major party candidate for prime minister for the fifth time in the last 20 years.

The second major mistake was that by running almost exclusively on war and peace issues, Netanyahu forgot that most Israelis were at this time hoping that their government would concentrate more of its energies on their well being and the economy. Most agree with Netanyahu on the peace talks and the Iran threat. Indeed, despite the very different tone enunciated by Labor, there is precious little daylight between him and Herzog on the big issues. The fact is the majority of the voters rightly assume peace with the Palestinians is impossible for the foreseeable future and that Israel ought to do what it can to stop Iran. That meant there was not as much traction for Netanyahu’s eloquent speech to Congress in terms of its appeal to Israeli voters as he might have hoped.

But while right now it looks as if Netanyahu has passed his expiration date with most Israelis, he still has a decent chance of prevailing. The reason for that is the same factor that diminished his victories in 2009 and 2013.

In both of those elections, voters headed to the polls assuming that Netanyahu would be the victor. They were right, as the coalition math dictated that the left couldn’t form a government and that the parties of the center-right would prevail. That allowed center-right voters to abandon the Likud and vote for splinter parties that most reflected their personal beliefs. In particular, Naftali Bennet’s Jewish Home Party benefited from this, but it also allowed voters who were counting on Netanyahu to lead the next government to support other secular or religious parties as well. The result was that Likud wound up with smaller than expected totals even if it didn’t change the fact that Netanyahu would ultimately become prime minister after the coalition haggling was done.

This time Netanyahu seems fated to finish second. Though that doesn’t necessarily mean that Herzog will be the next prime minister, a first-place finish would likely mean he would get the first shot at forming a government. That’s why Netanyahu’s last-minute appeals are aimed at scaring voters into thinking Herzog and Livni will really be leading the next government.

Will that shift enough voters from the small parties back to the Likud to give Netanyahu an unexpected win? It’s hard to say. But even minor shifts that still leave Herzog’s group in first place may make it impossible for him to govern. After all, Herzog will likely need both Moshe Kahlon’s center-right populist Kulanu Party and Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beytenu in order to get the 61 votes he needs for a majority. If both are diminished or the religious parties lose a seat or two in a shift back to Likud, the slim margin for a Labor government may evaporate.

That takes us back to Herzog’s formidable task even if he finishes first. He can’t include the largely anti-Zionist Arab parties in his government. And it will be difficult for the religious parties to serve with the far-left Meretz or the secular Yesh Atid. And it’s not clear that anyone on the left will sit in a Cabinet with Lieberman. The current polls give Herzog a path to victory, but any coalescing behind the two largest parties will only help Netanyahu and Likud. As Michel Gurfinkiel wrote yesterday here in his analysis of Israel’s atomized political system, a return to an era in which Labor and Likud dominated the system as its two major parties would serve Netanyahu’s interests next week.

Do voters care enough about keeping the prickly and generally disliked Netanyahu in office to return to the Likud? More to the point, does a Labor Party led by the unthreatening-looking Herzog at a time when no one thinks peace talks have a chance really scare centrists or right-wingers into holding their noses and giving Netanyahu a fourth term? The answer to that question will determine the outcome.

Read Less

Why Isaac Herzog Is Channeling Menachem Begin–and the Mishnaic Sages Too

There is a famous Talmudic story about the Mishnaic sage Elazar ben Azariah, who was chosen by his peers to lead the rabbinate. He fulfilled all the criteria but he was only 18, and he looked it. The Talmud tells us God then made part of Elazar’s beard turn white, giving him the gravitas he needed to head the academy. Israel’s babyfaced Isaac Herzog, the young leader of a Labor Party on the cusp of winning Israel’s next national elections, is in need of such gravitas. But he’s not asking for a miracle; Photoshop will do. Herzog’s campaign has reportedly done something that might surprise consumers of our airbrushed pop culture: digitally altered his photo to make him look older–and, presumably, wiser.

Read More

There is a famous Talmudic story about the Mishnaic sage Elazar ben Azariah, who was chosen by his peers to lead the rabbinate. He fulfilled all the criteria but he was only 18, and he looked it. The Talmud tells us God then made part of Elazar’s beard turn white, giving him the gravitas he needed to head the academy. Israel’s babyfaced Isaac Herzog, the young leader of a Labor Party on the cusp of winning Israel’s next national elections, is in need of such gravitas. But he’s not asking for a miracle; Photoshop will do. Herzog’s campaign has reportedly done something that might surprise consumers of our airbrushed pop culture: digitally altered his photo to make him look older–and, presumably, wiser.

As Tal Schneider and Noga Tarnopolsky note, “According to the business tabloid The Marker, Yitzhak Herzog’s enviable baby face has caused a few rumpled foreheads, and the Labor campaign has actually used a Photoshop-like service to add the wrinkles of age and gravitas to its candidate’s unblemished face.” And indeed if you follow the link to The Marker you can see the difference.

The page is in Hebrew but it’s self-explanatory (and easily translatable). The Marker actually set up a useful tool in which they’ve layered one official campaign picture of each of the major candidates over a regular photo, and allowed the user to drag an icon over each photo to reveal the one underneath, for easy comparison. Everybody’s “official” picture looks as close to flawless as the camera can believably make them–except for Herzog. His digitally enhanced photo shows his wrinkles significantly more prominently, especially around his eyes. And his hair looks grayer.

The polls provide some explanation. While the Labor-led Zionist Union polls a few seats better than Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud, when respondents are asked who they’d prefer as prime minister, Netanyahu wins by a significant margin (though the gap has closed somewhat). Herzog is trying to look more experienced, more distinguished, and more battle tested.

And aside from the understandable logic of it, there’s precedent too. Ronald Reagan’s great line in his debate with Walter Mondale that he was “not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience” may have been something of a joke, but in Israel such youth and inexperience can indeed be a liability.

Israel probably first learned this in earnest in its momentous Knesset election in 1977, when a Likud-led bloc was finally able to defeat the left-Labor coalition for the first time.

The Likud side was led at that time by Menachem Begin. The leftist Alignment was led by Yitzhak Rabin until a scandal over an illegal bank account spurred his resignation from the post. He was replaced by Shimon Peres. Begin was in his mid-60s and always looked at least his age. Peres was a decade younger. A few months before the election, Begin suffered a heart attack, was hospitalized, and lost weight. He was weaker than usual. To make matters worse, he had agreed to a televised debate before Peres had taken over leadership of the left coalition. The debate was scheduled for just days before the vote.

In his biography of Begin (released in English in 2012) Avi Shilon describes how the Likud tried to learn from Nixon’s debate with JFK:

Alex Ansky coached Begin for many hours in an effort to improve his physical appearance. In order to make him look more tanned, he wore, for the first time in his life, a pale blue shirt. “It was hard to get him one like that, as all his shirts were white,” Aliza said. The debate, hosted by journalist Yishayahu (Shaike) Ben Porat, lasted over forty minutes. … The two candidates were very excited, but Begin was clearly more so. When the debate first started, Begin’s gaze constantly searched for the cameras. Furthermore, despite his blue shirt, he looked pale and weak and sweated just as profusely as Nixon had done in his debate.

That’s when the two candidates learned an important lesson about the Israeli public:

What Americans perceived as a disadvantage was taken by the Israeli viewers as an advantage. The sweaty and excited Begin triggered sympathy. His appearance—which was ill-suited to the medium—actually made him seem to be a responsible and mature Jew who did not sleep at night because of his concerns for Israel. When the debate ended and the cameras were turned off, Begin could no longer resist some humor and remarked while Peres was removing his makeup, “Oh, look how beautiful he is.” His associates burst into laughter.

Begin was a powerful speaker–peerless when he was at his best. And he looked like the underground soldier, hounded by his enemies and marginalized by the Jewish establishment, that he had been for so long. He had been fighting all his life for the Jewish state, and it showed.

With his victory, he once again changed the course of Israeli history. But he also proved something great about his fellow Jews: democracy to them was not a beauty pageant. Herzog, the son of the late Chaim Herzog, an IDF general and former president of Israel (at the tail end of Begin’s premiership, in fact), knows this too. And he would like the Israeli electorate not to hold his (relative) youth and inexperience against him.

Read Less

Obama Gives Sisi the Netanyahu Treatment

In a Middle East where Islamist terror groups and the Iranian regime and its allies have been on the offensive in recent years, the one bright spot for the West in the region (other, that is, than Israel) is the way Egypt has returned to its old role as a bulwark of moderation and opposition to extremism. The current government led by former general Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has clamped down on Hamas terrorists and has been willing to deploy its armed forces to fight ISIS in Libya while also clamping down on a Muslim Brotherhood movement that seeks to transform Egypt into another Islamist state. Yet despite this, the Obama administration is unhappy with Egypt. Much to Cairo’s consternation, the United States is squeezing its government on the military aid it needs to fight ISIS in Libya and Sinai terrorists. As the Israeli government has already learned to its sorrow, the Egyptians now understand that being an ally of the United States is a lot less comfortable position than to be a foe like Iran.

Read More

In a Middle East where Islamist terror groups and the Iranian regime and its allies have been on the offensive in recent years, the one bright spot for the West in the region (other, that is, than Israel) is the way Egypt has returned to its old role as a bulwark of moderation and opposition to extremism. The current government led by former general Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has clamped down on Hamas terrorists and has been willing to deploy its armed forces to fight ISIS in Libya while also clamping down on a Muslim Brotherhood movement that seeks to transform Egypt into another Islamist state. Yet despite this, the Obama administration is unhappy with Egypt. Much to Cairo’s consternation, the United States is squeezing its government on the military aid it needs to fight ISIS in Libya and Sinai terrorists. As the Israeli government has already learned to its sorrow, the Egyptians now understand that being an ally of the United States is a lot less comfortable position than to be a foe like Iran.

The ostensible reason for the holdup in aid is that the Egyptian government is a human-rights violator. Those concerns are accurate. Sisi’s government has been ruthless in cracking down on the same Muslim Brotherhood faction that was running the country until a popular coup brought it down in the summer of 2013. But contrary to the illusions of an Obama administration that hastened the fall of Hosni Mubarak and then foolishly embraced his Muslim Brotherhood successors, democracy was never one of the available options in Egypt.

The choice in Egypt remains stark. It’s either going to be run by Islamists bent on taking the most populous Arab country down the dark road of extremism or by a military regime that will keep that from happening. The obvious Western choice must be the latter, and Sisi has turned out to be an even better ally than Washington could have dreamed of, as he ensured that the Brotherhood would not return to power, took on Hamas in Gaza, and even made public calls for Muslims to turn against religious extremists.

But rather than that endearing him to the administration, this outstanding record has earned Sisi the Netanyahu treatment. Indeed, like other moderate Arab leaders in the Middle East, Sisi understands that President Obama has no great love for his country’s allies. Besotted as he is by the idea of bringing Iran in from the cold, the American government has allied itself with Tehran in the conflicts in both Iraq and Syria. He also understands that both of those ongoing wars were made far worse by the president’s dithering for years, a stance that may well have been motivated by a desire to avoid antagonizing Iran by seeking to topple their Syrian ally.

But those issues notwithstanding, one of the major changes that took place on President Obama’s watch was a conscious decision to downgrade relations with Cairo, a nation that his predecessors of both parties had recognized as a lynchpin of U.S. interests in the region. The current weapons supply squeeze is not only a blow to the efforts of a nation that is actually willing to fight ISIS and other Islamist terrorists; it’s a statement about what it means to be an American ally in the age of Obama.

As the Times of Israel reported:

On Monday Sisi was asked what he and the other Arab allies thought of U.S. leadership in the region. It is hard to put his response in words, mainly due to his prolonged silence.

“Difficult question,” he said after some moments, while his body language expressed contempt and disgust. “The suspending of US equipment and arms was an indicator for the public that the United States is not standing by the Egyptians.”

It turns out that although the American administration recently agreed to provide the Egyptian Air Force with Apache attack helicopters; it has been making it increasingly difficult for Cairo to make additional military purchases.

For example, the U.S. is delaying the shipment of tanks, spare parts and other weapons that the army desperately needs in its war against Islamic State.

This development raises serious questions not only about U.S.-Egyptian relations but the administration’s vision for the region.

This is, after all, a time when the administration is going all out to make common cause with Iran, an open enemy that is currently the leading state sponsor of terrorism in the world. President Obama is pursuing a diplomatic arrangement that will strengthen the Iranian regime and guarantee the survival of a nuclear program that moderate Arabs see as being as much of a threat to them as it is to Israel or the West.

The Egyptians understand that Washington isn’t interested in their friendship. Nor is the administration particularly supportive of Cairo’s efforts to rein in Hamas or to fight ISIS. Indeed, the Egyptians are now experiencing the same sort of treatment that has heretofore been reserved for the Israelis. That’s especially true in light of the arms resupply cutoff against Israel Obama ordered during last summer’s war in Gaza.

Despite flirting with Russia, Egypt may, like Israel, have no real alternative to the United States as an ally. Perhaps that’s why Obama takes it for granted. But if the U.S. is serious about fighting ISIS as opposed to just talking about it, Washington will have to start treating Egypt and its military as a priority rather than an embarrassment.

Read Less

Settlement Data Once Again Shows Bibi’s “Hardline” Image Doesn’t Match Reality

According to official data from Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics, housing construction in West Bank settlements fell by a whopping 52 percent last year–far greater than the 8 percent decline in construction nationwide. Moreover, the bureau said, settlement construction throughout Benjamin Netanyahu’s six years as prime minister has been significantly lower than it was under his predecessors: Overall, the number of housing starts in the settlements was 19 percent lower in 2009-2014 than it was in 2003-2008, under prime ministers Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert, while the number of housing completions was 15 percent lower.

Read More

According to official data from Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics, housing construction in West Bank settlements fell by a whopping 52 percent last year–far greater than the 8 percent decline in construction nationwide. Moreover, the bureau said, settlement construction throughout Benjamin Netanyahu’s six years as prime minister has been significantly lower than it was under his predecessors: Overall, the number of housing starts in the settlements was 19 percent lower in 2009-2014 than it was in 2003-2008, under prime ministers Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert, while the number of housing completions was 15 percent lower.

This, of course, doesn’t match the popular perception of Netanyahu: The accepted wisdom among international journalists and diplomats is that he’s a major backer of the settlements who has presided over massive building there. Indeed, just last year, President Barack Obama declared that “we have seen more aggressive settlement construction over the last couple years than we’ve seen in a very long time”–a claim belied by the official data at the time and once again belied by the new statistics released yesterday. But it was nevertheless widely believed, because it fit the accepted narrative of Netanyahu as “hardline” and “right-wing.”

And this is just one example of a far broader problem: Too many international journalists and diplomats see Israel and its leaders through the prism of a preconceived narrative, and any facts that don’t conform to this narrative are simply ignored. Netanyahu is “right-wing,” so he must be building massively in the settlements, even if he isn’t. Israeli voters have elected him twice in the last six years, so the country must have become more right-wing, even if in reality–as I explained in detail in my article for COMMENTARY this month–most Israelis have moved so far to the left over the last two decades that they now hold positions formerly held only by the far-left Arab-Jewish Communist Party. Netanyahu is “hardline,” so he must be to blame for the failure of peace talks, even if in reality–as was evident from American officials’ own testimony at the time and confirmed by a leaked document just last week–Netanyahu was prepared to make dramatic concessions, while Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas refused to budge.

And of course, settlement construction itself is another salient example of this problem. It is almost universally considered the major obstacle to peace. Yet as Elliott Abrams and Uri Sadot explained last year, the vast majority of settlement construction is in the major settlement blocs that everyone knows Israel will end up keeping under any deal with the Palestinians, so it doesn’t affect the contours of a deal at all. Annual construction in non-bloc settlements amounted to only a few hundred houses even in Netanyahu’s peak construction year. And since the non-bloc settlements already contain some 80,000 Israelis, the idea that a few hundred additional families would be a deal-breaker is fatuous even if you think the PA’s demand for a judenrein Palestine is legitimate and all these settlements should indeed be evacuated.

Over the last six years, while the Obama Administration was wasting its time and energy complaining about “aggressive” settlement construction that was actually far less aggressive than it was under Netanyahu’s predecessors, Israeli-Palestinian relations have deteriorated drastically. That outcome might have been averted had the administration focused on the real problems in the relationship rather than inflating the settlement issue out of all proportion.

But that’s the problem with bad facts; they usually produce bad policy. And it’s hard for journalists and diplomats to obtain good facts if they systematically ignore any data that conflicts with their preconceived narrative.

Read Less

Israel’s Atomized Political System

According to a Midgam/Channel 2 poll released one week before the March 17 general election, 49 percent of all Israelis see Benjamin Netanyahu, the leader of the conservative Likud party, as the best potential prime minister. Isaac Herzog, Netanyahu’s chief contender and the leader of the liberal Zionist Union party, gets only 36 percent.

Read More

According to a Midgam/Channel 2 poll released one week before the March 17 general election, 49 percent of all Israelis see Benjamin Netanyahu, the leader of the conservative Likud party, as the best potential prime minister. Isaac Herzog, Netanyahu’s chief contender and the leader of the liberal Zionist Union party, gets only 36 percent.

However, the same poll says that the Zionist Union is likely to be the largest group in the forthcoming Knesset, with 25 seats out of 120, against 21 seats for Likud. According to Israeli practice President Reuven (Ruby) Rivlin, will thus first invite Herzog to form a governing coalition.

Some explanation is needed here. How come such a discrepancy between the personal popularity of Netanyahu and Herzog and the electoral fortunes of their respective party?

Israeli politics start and end with the electoral law, which provides for near absolute proportional representation. The threshold for a party to be represented in parliament is currently 3.25 percent of the national vote, which translates into four seats. Such system is an incentive for every political leader to start his own party, either as the advocate of a given constituency or as the promoter of some new political agenda. As a result, the political class is constantly in upheaval, and larger parties, which in fact are not large at all, constantly break up into smaller units.

What counts is coalitions. For the twenty-nine first years of the State of Israel (1948-1977), the Labor party, itself a conglomeration of at least three smaller groups, was able to build up a large coalition with the religious parties and some centrists. What helped Labor was that being in charge in a nation-building era meant being the de facto national establishment.

In 1977, Likud under Menachem Begin was able for the first time to build an alternative coalition. Many former supporters of Labor had defected to Begin’s Likud which, ironically, had come to be seen as the true defender of the working man and the underdog. The religious parties switched allegiances. And a substantial centrist party, Dash, popped up for the first time and joined the new majority.

Ever since then, there has been some sort of right/left alternation in Israel. The moment it lost power, Labor lost its grip over at least part of the elite. Moreover, demographics favored the conservative parties, which rest on more family-oriented and thus steadily growing constituencies.

In 2005, Likud prime minister Ariel Sharon, arguably one of the strongest political leaders in Israeli history, simply deserted his own party, which had rebelled against him, in order to create a new centrist-oriented coalition with some Labor defectors. Four years later, Likud was back with Netanyahu, and it managed to hold for six years with two successive coalitions. Until it faced both tensions with smaller allies and internal dissent.

Labor, under Herzog, is doing slightly better than Likud in the polls because it struck a deal with Tzipi Livni’s diminutive Hatnua party. The opposite is true of Likud: it was divorced by Israel Beiteinu, Avigdor Lieberman’s secular nationalist party, popular among Russian immigrants; it lost its populist-reformist wing, led by Moshe Kahlon, which resurfaced as the new Kulanu party; and it was not able to achieve an understanding with HaBayit HaYehudi, the religious nationalist party of the maverick high-tech entrepreneur, Naftali Bennett. Would the four conservative parties have united, like Labor and Hatnua, they would have garnered far more seats (though fewer than the sum of their individual polls).

Whatever the March 17 outcome, neither Likud nor Labor will decide the future Israeli government, but rather the medium and small parties. One may guess that every mini-leader will be tempted to sell himself to the most promising coalition. Still, politics, even in Israel, has to do with some principles, and the will of the people when it comes to some crucial issues. If principles are to prevail in the end of the day, Netanyahu, as indicated, is in better shape than Herzog.

The final choice will be indeed between a center-right coalition around Netanyahu and a center-left coalition around Herzog–except that Herzog could, theoretically, try to add the support of the Arab List, which will probably win 12 seats. But this is less likely because the Arab List is a coalition of three smaller Arab parties who stridently oppose the very existence of Israel as a democratic state with a Jewish majority.

One wonders of course why Israel has not been able, over the years, to move from proportional representation something closer to the first-past-the-post system. One answer is that, as a very diverse “patchwork nation” — Jews, Arabs, and other minorities, Ashkenazim and Sefardim, secular, or religious — Israel cannot afford not to grant representation, or the semblance of representation, to everyone.

Another answer is that some constitutional reforms have been introduced since 1992, with mixed results or even very bad results. One attempt to have the prime minister popularly elected turned the Arab minority into a de facto arbitrator, and was quietly dropped in 2000, in the wake of the Second Intifada. Even raising the threshold in proportional representation does not seem to work. When there was no threshold at all, larger parties were faring better than they are today.

Read Less

How to Understand the Israeli Elections: The Likud Civil War

It’s no surprise that a narrative developed in the U.S. media that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to a joint session of Congress was all or mostly an election stunt. The Western press is a long way from understanding Israeli politics. But as news organizations still cast next week’s Israeli election in the shadow of The Speech, it’s become clear their readers are missing the real story of the polls: they’re defined by a Likud civil war.

Read More

It’s no surprise that a narrative developed in the U.S. media that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to a joint session of Congress was all or mostly an election stunt. The Western press is a long way from understanding Israeli politics. But as news organizations still cast next week’s Israeli election in the shadow of The Speech, it’s become clear their readers are missing the real story of the polls: they’re defined by a Likud civil war.

On paper, despite the fragmentation of Israeli party politics, it’s still easy to miss any subplot when the main story has Likud and Labor–the traditional pillars of Israeli right and left–back in a dead heat. But it turns out the Likud vs. Labor rivalry is actually the subplot here. The main theme of the elections has to do with why Labor’s Isaac Herzog is on the cusp of possibly becoming prime minister. There are several politicians instrumental to Herzog’s chances. And they’re all originally Likudniks.

Let’s look at the two scenarios by which Herzog would become prime minister. The first is the old-fashioned way, by winning the election and putting together a governing coalition of 61 or more seats. Just taking the latest polls, Herzog would need to overcome mutual resistance from Yair Lapid and Orthodox parties to sit in a coalition together. But it’s certainly possible, maybe even likely, that they could. Lapid isn’t interested in making Bibi prime minister, so he’s a natural ally of Herzog here.

All of which makes the “kingmaker” in this scenario Moshe Kahlon, who left the Likud to form his own party instead of challenging Netanyahu within Likud. He has enough votes to make or break a coalition of either side. If Herzog is able to piece together a coalition, it’ll be because the (ex-)Likudnik Kahlon made it so.

Additionally, in such a scenario Herzog would need one more ex-Likudnik: the once and possibly future kingmaker Avigdor Lieberman. Herzog’s coalition would in all probability require both Lieberman and Kahlon to get him above the threshold. It would not be a particularly stable coalition (Labor and Tzipi Livni presiding over a coalition that needs rightists to survive, including one who was recently emitting hot air about beheading Arab enemies, would be interesting to say the least). But it could at least form a government.

And there’s the second possibility for Herzog to become prime minister: a unity government. This would be another Israeli throwback, and in the past unity governments have been far more productive than they might seem from the outside. This is in part because they have so many seats that none of the fringe parties represent a threat to the stability of the coalition. If one or two minor parties bolted the government, the rest of the coalition would barely notice.

So how would Israel get a unity government? The most likely scenario to produce such a coalition would be if the election is so close, and so splintered, that either no clear voter favorite emerges or that no truly stable coalition seems possible otherwise. In such a case, the Israeli president, who chooses which party to invite to form a coalition, would ask for a unity government. In a close election, the president’s mostly ceremonial role finds its one true lever of power. And the current president is Ruby Rivlin, a member of the Likud.

Rivlin is a Likudnik in the classic mold, but he does not get along with Netanyahu, and has taken to criticizing Bibi publicly, an uncommon but not unprecedented practice for the president. Rivlin is reportedly leaning toward a unity government, which is not at all surprising. In a unity government, it’s quite likely that the person to get the nod as prime minister will be the head of the party with the most votes. Another option is to have a rotating premiership. Either way, Rivlin, the Likudnik, would place Herzog in the Prime Minister’s Office.

There’s one more “kingmaker,” so to speak, involved. Herzog has teamed up with Livni to form the Zionist Union. Livni may not be worth that many seats, but even a few will likely make the difference in this election. Livni is also a former Likudnik, though she did not leave over a feud with Bibi; she followed Ariel Sharon to Kadima. And she has built her current political identity around the peace process. So she’s far from the Likud of Rivlin, Kahlon, or Lieberman. But her political background is on the right, and she spent almost as much time in Likud as she did in Kadima, which was of course led by a faction of Likudniks.

Benjamin Netanyahu has been in or near the leadership of the Likud long enough to have plenty of rivals. Some of the bridges he’s burned have been repairable (Lieberman has come and gone from Likud with some regularity), some not. But his non-Likud political rivals on the right, such as Lieberman and Naftali Bennett, are ex-Likudniks. And his electoral rivals who might give the premiership to Herzog are current or former Likudniks. And Herzog would only have enough votes to get there because he’s allied with a former Likudnik.

The splintering of the Likud on Bibi’s watch is catching up to him. In his time in the leadership, Likud has groomed the next generation of dynamic rightist politicians. And they’re now the primary threat to his reelection.

Read Less

The Problem With Anti-Bibi Derangement Syndrome

Last night opponents of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu pulled out all the stops in an effort to show that the Likud Party leader is out of touch and on his way to defeat in the March 17 election. But despite massive funding from foreign backers and an all-out effort by the coalition of left-wing parties and promotion by a sympathetic media, the effort seems to have flopped. Only an estimated 35-40,000 people turned out in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square, a venue where the left has, in the past, produced mobs of hundreds of thousands to demonstrate their clout. Despite the vitriol poured out upon the prime minister, he appears to be holding his own in the polls with his party and those more likely to join a coalition led by him still holding a large advantage over his chief rivals. That reality runs counter to most of what we are hearing and seeing in the U.S. media about Netanyahu, who, despite the cheers he got for his address to Congress last week, has been smeared as a warmonger or worse by his critics. But at this point, it’s worth the effort to unpack some of the charges being made against him both by those who have succumbed to Netanyahu derangement syndrome and those affecting a more nuanced view of him.

Read More

Last night opponents of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu pulled out all the stops in an effort to show that the Likud Party leader is out of touch and on his way to defeat in the March 17 election. But despite massive funding from foreign backers and an all-out effort by the coalition of left-wing parties and promotion by a sympathetic media, the effort seems to have flopped. Only an estimated 35-40,000 people turned out in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square, a venue where the left has, in the past, produced mobs of hundreds of thousands to demonstrate their clout. Despite the vitriol poured out upon the prime minister, he appears to be holding his own in the polls with his party and those more likely to join a coalition led by him still holding a large advantage over his chief rivals. That reality runs counter to most of what we are hearing and seeing in the U.S. media about Netanyahu, who, despite the cheers he got for his address to Congress last week, has been smeared as a warmonger or worse by his critics. But at this point, it’s worth the effort to unpack some of the charges being made against him both by those who have succumbed to Netanyahu derangement syndrome and those affecting a more nuanced view of him.

The Tel Aviv rally seemed to reflect the worst excesses of Israeli politics, which can sometimes make even the bitterest U.S. battles seem like bean ball in comparison. The loudest voice being heard against Netanyahu these days is not so much the man who wishes to replace him as prime minister, Labor Party leader Isaac Herzog, as it is former Mossad chief Meir Dagan. Dagan has spent the past few years denouncing Netanyahu from every possible platform, calling him a danger to Israel for not making peace with the Palestinians and for taking too strong a stand against the Iranian nuclear threat.

Dagan’s security credentials give him the standing to speak in a way that either Israeli or American pundits don’t possess. But the over-the-top nature of his attacks—the Times of Israel noted that he was so overcome by his passion against his former boss that he was close to tears when speaking last night—makes it hard to take him too seriously. It’s not a secret that while there are real differences between the two men, his animus stems in part from the decision by Netanyahu and former defense minister Ehud Barak not to extend Dagan’s term in office. Moreover, the notion that it is somehow Netanyahu’s fault that the Palestinians have continued to refuse to make peace or that they engage in terrorist attacks on Israel makes his arguments seem less worthy of being taken too seriously. The same applies to his efforts to put the onus on Netanyahu for America’s decision to appease Iran rather than continue its isolation.

The same factor undermines the arguments of a more measured voice. Writing in Politico today is author and journalist Ari Shavit, a favorite of the American media after the publication of his misleading book My Promised Land that has been effectively debunked by Martin Kramer.

Unlike Dagan who speaks of Netanyahu as if he were the spawn of the devil, Shavit declares the prime minister to be “a serious statesman, with an extraordinary comprehension and uncanny foresight.” He even thinks he’s right about the danger from Iran and gives him credit for forcing the U.S. and its allies for undertaking the task of trying to stop Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. Without him, the sanctions and the negotiations might never have happened.

But Shavit faults Netanyahu for having a “Churchill complex.” That’s not because he’s wrong, as Dagan seems to imply at times, about Iran being an existential threat to Israel, but because he failed to do what Churchill accomplished: rally the U.S. to join a coalition to avert the danger. Instead of being the successful Churchill of the 1940s, Shavit says, he is merely the Churchill of the 1930s, the man in the wilderness playing the prophet of doom who will be vindicated by later events.

There is some truth to this. Netanyahu’s strong arguments and even more brilliant rhetoric have not been enough to rally the U.S. government to his side. Instead of joining the fight against Iran, President Obama seeks détente with the Islamist regime and appears willing to acquiesce not only to it becoming a threshold nuclear power but one that will be capable of building a weapon once the “sunset” clauses in the deal the Americans have offered kicks in. This is very bad news indeed and, according to Shavit, it is Netanyahu’s fault. If he’s right, then Netanyahu bears a heavy responsibility for what will follow.

But, like much of what Shavit has written about the Palestinians where he likewise acknowledges their unwillingness to make peace but still blames it all on Netanyahu, this analysis is out of focus.

While Netanyahu may be held partly responsible for his bad relationship with President Obama (as in all breakups, it takes two to tango), if Israel is isolated on Iran it is not due to the prime minister’s prickly personality or his supposed hard line on the Palestinians, as Shavit argues. As we now know, Netanyahu was as willing to make compromises to achieve peace as were his predecessors Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert, who were turned down flat by the Palestinians three times. They gave a fourth no to Netanyahu during the talks sponsored by Secretary of State John Kerry.

But nothing Netanyahu did or didn’t do influenced President Obama’s zeal for a deal with Iran. U.S. policy toward Iran during the past six years has been entirely the brainchild of the president, who is obsessed with the notion of engagement and his delusions about Iran “getting right with the world” rather than its pursuit of its nuclear dreams and regional hegemony. To deny Obama credit for this betrayal of his campaign promises and the security of American allies is to inflate Netanyahu’s importance in a way reminiscent of anti-Israel conspiracy theorists.

Shavit believes Netanyahu is right about Iran but wrong because he couldn’t persuade a president that never had any interest in anything but appeasement of the Islamist regime. That sort of analysis is rooted in a form of the same Netanyahu derangement syndrome that sends Dagan and other Israeli critics of the current government over the chasm into pointless invective.

Netanyahu has made his share of blunders and is no more infallible than his role model Churchill was. He may not be another Churchill despite the desire of both his fans and his foes to judge him solely by the standards set by that truly great man. Yet his problem here is not an inability to work Churchill’s magic but, as the great Ruth Wisse pointed out in the Weekly Standard, the fact that his U.S. partner was no Franklin Roosevelt. It is that factor that has created the current situation where Netanyahu’s warnings are more a matter of setting the record straight for history rather than an effective way to influence his American ally. That’s why history will be kinder to Netanyahu than his contemporary critics and very harsh indeed to the man who couldn’t play FDR to the Israeli’s Churchill.

Read Less

The Hidden Message in Netanyahu’s Speech

In “Echoes of Churchill Pervade Netanyahu’s Speech,” Belladonna Rogers notes that the address included a subtle reference to Churchill’s “Chicken Speech”–one of the British leader’s most eloquent war speeches, delivered December 30, 1941 to the Canadian Parliament. She argues persuasively that Netanyahu’s allusion conveyed a powerful message about a particular historical parallel.

Read More

In “Echoes of Churchill Pervade Netanyahu’s Speech,” Belladonna Rogers notes that the address included a subtle reference to Churchill’s “Chicken Speech”–one of the British leader’s most eloquent war speeches, delivered December 30, 1941 to the Canadian Parliament. She argues persuasively that Netanyahu’s allusion conveyed a powerful message about a particular historical parallel.

Ms. Rogers writes that, three weeks after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Churchill braved the perils of wartime travel to meet with FDR and address Congress, and then spoke to the Canadian Parliament four days later. In Canada, he reminded his listeners that in 1940 the Nazis had conquered four nations–Norway, Denmark, Holland, and Belgium–and then the “great French catastrophe” took place: France fell into “utter confusion” and the French abandoned their pledge “in which [they had] solemnly bound themselves with us not to make a separate peace.” Churchill told the Canadians that if France had stood with England, instead of capitulating to Germany, the war could already have been won. Then he said:

When I warned [the French] that Britain would fight on alone whatever they did, their generals told their Prime Minister and his divided Cabinet, ‘In three weeks England will have her neck wrung like a chicken.’ Some chicken! Some neck!” [Laughter and applause].

In Netanyahu’s address this week to Congress, as Ms. Rogers wrote, he noted that Iran “now dominates four Arab capitals–Baghdad, Damascus, Beirut, and Sana’a”–and that “at a time when many hope that Iran will join the community of nations, Iran is busy gobbling up the nations.” Netanyahu then borrowed Churchill’s cadence from 1941:

Now, two years ago, we were told to give President Rouhani and Foreign Minister Zarif a chance to bring change and moderation to Iran. Some change! Some moderation!

Rouhani’s government hangs gays, persecutes Christians, jails journalists and executes even more prisoners than before. … Iran’s regime is as radical as ever, its cries of “Death to America” — that same America that it calls the “Great Satan” — as loud as ever … and that’s why this regime will always be an enemy of America.

Michael Doran, Bret Stephens, Lee Smith, and others have noted that President Obama appears to be implementing a grand strategy to re-align America with Iran, establishing a de facto alliance in which America recognizes Iran as a “very successful regional power,” in the President’s words in his year-end NPR interview. It is a shift that worries not only Israel but also America’s moderate Arab allies, with the Saudi press now openly editorializing about it. Ms. Rogers writes that the situation parallels what Churchill saw as the utter confusion of the French in 1940:

Not only from the Israeli perspective, but also that of Saudi Arabia, Egypt and other American allies in the Middle East, the deal under consideration appears to be a what Churchill called “a separate peace” with a terrorist state the U.S. is on the brink of recognizing as the new hegemonic power in the region. … In his subtle but unmistakable reference to Churchill’s “Chicken Speech,” the Israeli prime minister sought to persuade the United States to stand with its allies in the Middle East …

The day after the 1941 address, the New York Times editorialized that Churchill had spoken “magnificently” in a speech with “no shrillness … as it [moved] from impassioned eloquence to its contagious chuckle” that would give the speech its popular title. This week, Netanyahu spoke similarly, without shrillness, moving from eloquence to a subtle allusion to Churchill’s speech, ending with an assertion that if Israel had to stand alone, it would stand–a final echo from Churchill’s 1941 address.

Read Less




Pin It on Pinterest

Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
YOU HAVE READ 8 OF 8
FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
for full access to
CommentaryMagazine.com
INCLUDES FULL ACCESS TO:
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
CommentaryMagazine.com.
LOG IN WITH YOUR
COMMENTARY MAGAZINE ID
Don't have a CommentaryMagazine.com log in?
CREATE A COMMENTARY
LOG IN ID
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.