Commentary Magazine


Topic: Israeli election

The Jewish Left’s War on Israeli Democracy

Faced with a crushing defeat, Isaac Herzog, the leader of Israel’s loyal opposition congratulated Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on his victory and vowed that he and his Zionist Union would prevail in the future. That is the way to behave in a democracy even when there are plenty of hard feelings about things said and done in the campaign — as there were in Israel — and clear differences between the rival factions. Once the voters have their say, the politicians must abide by their verdict. But Netanyahu’s foreign left-wing critics feel no such compunction. As American author and columnist Peter Beinart writes in today’s Haaretz, he and his liberal pals aren’t interested in following Herzog’s example. Instead, they plan on waging a war on Israeli democracy in which they will try to brand those entrusted by Israelis with their government as pariahs and to support actions by both the U.S. government and the Palestinians to undermine the Jewish state. By demonstrating such contempt for democracy, he is not only seeking to further divide American Jews from Israelis but is materially aiding those who seek its destruction.

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Faced with a crushing defeat, Isaac Herzog, the leader of Israel’s loyal opposition congratulated Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on his victory and vowed that he and his Zionist Union would prevail in the future. That is the way to behave in a democracy even when there are plenty of hard feelings about things said and done in the campaign — as there were in Israel — and clear differences between the rival factions. Once the voters have their say, the politicians must abide by their verdict. But Netanyahu’s foreign left-wing critics feel no such compunction. As American author and columnist Peter Beinart writes in today’s Haaretz, he and his liberal pals aren’t interested in following Herzog’s example. Instead, they plan on waging a war on Israeli democracy in which they will try to brand those entrusted by Israelis with their government as pariahs and to support actions by both the U.S. government and the Palestinians to undermine the Jewish state. By demonstrating such contempt for democracy, he is not only seeking to further divide American Jews from Israelis but is materially aiding those who seek its destruction.

Beinart claims his position is one taken out of love for Israel, which he has consistently stated must be saved from itself. But the distinction to be drawn here is not between supporters and critics of Netanyahu. Opposing the prime minister is not the same as opposing Israel. As a vibrant democracy, Israelis can and do disagree with their politicians. Though the parties that will likely make up Netanyahu’s next government will have won the votes of a clear majority of the voters, those who sought his defeat at the polls are entitled to a fair hearing and to gain the support of those living outside the country who agree with them. But what Beinart is suggesting goes far beyond that or anything that bears a faint resemblance to the normal give and take of democracy.

To the contrary, he plans to not only support possible actions by the Obama administration to “punish” Israel for re-electing Netanyahu, he seeks to organize an effort by American Jews to do the same via support for the Palestinians anti-Israel diplomatic campaign, boycotts of Israeli products and even efforts to deny Israeli politicians with whom he disagrees the right to visit the United States.

This is a disgraceful plan of action. But what is most lamentable about it and the likely applause it will receive in the mainstream liberal press is that it is rooted in sheer, willful ignorance about the realities of the Middle East that Israeli voters recognize and which Beinart strains with all his might to ignore.

The first few sentences of Beinart’s Haaretz piece give away the game. In it he says American Jewish organizations have said that Israel needs to be given sufficient U.S. support and a respite from terror so that it will eventually feel safe enough to “take risks for peace.” He goes on to claim that, “this election was not fought in the shadow of terror” and that the Obama administration had not exerted pressure on Israel’s government since it had not “punished” Israel for not meekly obeying the president’s demands about far reaching territorial concessions to the Palestinians.

All of this is simply untrue.

First, to claim that Israel has not taken repeated risks for peace in the last two decades is an assertion of such astonishing mendacity that it makes it difficult to treat the rest of Beinart’s argument seriously or to give him credit, as I would prefer to do, for having good intentions. The last several governments of Israel have made repeated territorial withdrawals (including a couple made by one led by Netanyahu during his first term as prime minister), allowing the creation and the empowerment of the Palestinian Authority and then withdrawing every last soldier, settler and settlement from Gaza in 2005. But these gestures not only didn’t help bring peace, they resulted in the creation of terror bases from which Palestinians have launched suicide bombers and rockets at Israel’s cities. Israel traded land for peace and got only terror.

Israel’s governments have also repeatedly offered the Palestinians statehood and independence in virtually all of the West Bank, Gaza and a share of Jerusalem only to be turned down in 2000, 2001 and 2008. Even under the last government Israel tried to negotiate peace with the Palestinians and even Tzipi Livni, one of Netanyahu’s leading opponents in the election, verified that it was the Palestinians that blew up the talks. That was made even clearer by the documents that were recently revealed showing Netanyahu had gone further than anyone had known in accommodating the Obama administration’s demands in the talks (something that proved an embarrassment for the prime minister during the campaign).

Just as false is Beinart’s claim that the election was not fought in the shadow of terror. I know seven months is a long time in journalism but are we really supposed to have already forgotten last summer’s 50-day war in which Hamas rained down thousands of rockets on Israeli cities and sent terrorists through tunnels into the Jewish state hoping to kill and kidnap as many Jews as possible? Apparently Beinart has forgotten it. But Israel’s voters have not. When Netanyahu spoke of his unwillingness to let the West Bank become another Hamasistan, he may have sneered but Israelis know all too well this is a possibility. They also regard the rise of ISIS and the way Hezbollah operates freely in Syria as well as Lebanon as a deadly threat. Not to mention the fact that the overwhelming majority of Israelis agree with the prime minister (including Herzog and his party) about the Iranian nuclear threat and the foolishness of the Obama administration’s attempt to appease Tehran.

Last, his belief that Obama has been soft on Israel is just as absurd. For six years (with only a respite provided by his 2012 re-election campaign Jewish charm offensive), the president has picked endless and ultimately pointless fights with Israel over settlements and especially Jerusalem. He’s tilted the diplomatic playing field in the Palestinians direction on territory and the status of Israel’s capital. Even worse, the administration not only unfairly criticized Israel during last summer’s Gaza war but also ordered a cutoff of the flow of arms being resupplied during the fighting.

It’s true he could have gone further and ruptured the alliance completely or joined the efforts of Europeans to isolate Israel at the United Nations, measures that Beinart is urging him to take now. But even Obama understood that to do so was not only politically unpopular but bad policy since it would undermine U.S. influence as much as it would hurt Israel.

Thus the entire premise of Beinart’s argument is false. Israel has taken repeated risks for peace and it does still live under the shadow of terror. And it has no credible partner for peace since the Palestinian Authority still refuses to recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn or renounce the right of return for the descendants of the 1948 refugees.

The status quo is far from ideal for Jews or Arabs but in the absence of such a peace partner, how can any reasonable person blame Israeli voters for refusing to take actions that would further empower the terrorists? Beinart is free to disagree with them but the notion that he has the moral right to judge them or to try to punish them for not doing as he says is as arrogant and contemptible as his efforts to aid those who wish to overturn the verdict of Israel’s voters by non-democratic means.

The vast majority of Americans rightly believe American policy should punish those who threaten the Jewish state not the people of Israel. Part of the reason for that is that they respect the right of Israelis to decide their own fate just as we prefer to decide ours. Those who seek to wage war on Israel’s re-elected leader reveal themselves to be not only out of touch with the realities of the Middle East but as foes of the principle of democratic rule.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Is There Really an Israeli Center?

Today, the latest new Israeli political party showcased their leading members as part of the kickoff to the campaign for the country’s Knesset election in March. The Kulanu (“all of us”) Party revolves around the personality of former Likud Cabinet member Moshe Kahlon who seemed to part amicably from Prime Minister Netanyahu and his old party before going into business for himself. Some international observers have tried to interpret Kulanu’s rise as somehow symptomatic of general dissatisfaction with Netanyahu’s policies. But Kahlon’s gambit has nothing to do with the issues of war and peace that concern the world and around which Israeli politics revolves. While the party’s prioritization of social issues ought to net them a strong showing in the voting, any expectation that its success will demonstrate the existence of a viable political Israeli center are bound to be disappointed.

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Today, the latest new Israeli political party showcased their leading members as part of the kickoff to the campaign for the country’s Knesset election in March. The Kulanu (“all of us”) Party revolves around the personality of former Likud Cabinet member Moshe Kahlon who seemed to part amicably from Prime Minister Netanyahu and his old party before going into business for himself. Some international observers have tried to interpret Kulanu’s rise as somehow symptomatic of general dissatisfaction with Netanyahu’s policies. But Kahlon’s gambit has nothing to do with the issues of war and peace that concern the world and around which Israeli politics revolves. While the party’s prioritization of social issues ought to net them a strong showing in the voting, any expectation that its success will demonstrate the existence of a viable political Israeli center are bound to be disappointed.

Kahlon’s party seems to be a conglomeration of largely non-ideological activists who are united behind a banner of commitment to social issues in a country where the left-right divide on how to deal with the conflict with the Palestinians is still the primary concern. But rather than something new, those unfamiliar with Israel’s history need to be told that such parties have been a staple of the country’s politics since 1977 when the first such centrist party burst upon the scene. Since then the pattern is familiar. A centrist party led by a famous personality campaigns as an alternative to the leading parties of the right and left and usually does well in its first election. In the last Knesset vote in 2013, the Yesh Atid Party led by journalist Yair Lapid (whose father Tommy had led a different centrist party to a similar good showing a decade earlier) made a huge splash with a social justice platform and won 19 seats, the second highest total after Likud.

But like all of its predecessors, Yesh Atid appears to be a one-hit wonder. Compromised by its participation in the government, it quickly lost the glow of newness as well as its standing as the voice of a protest movement. Lapid’s party’s purpose was revealed to be primarily about the ambition of its founder and the ability of some of its leading members to gain government posts. That’s why it appears on its way to losing half of its strength in March. No one would be surprised if it disappeared altogether in a few years, as have all of the previous centrist groups.

Kahlon seems to be a wiser political player than Lapid and not just because he earned his celebrity by a successful stint in Netanyahu’s Cabinet. Unlike Lapid, Kahlon isn’t trying to be prime minister or the harbinger of a transformation of the Israeli political landscape. He has said his only goal is the Finance Ministry and it’s likely that either Likud or Labor will give it to him in the next government.

Moreover, he’s also making clear that while he is critical of Netanyahu, there’s not a shekel’s worth of difference between their positions on the peace process. Kahlon said his position is that he is in favor of any agreement that “would strengthen Israel,” an anodyne stance that means nothing. He backs the idea of peace with the Palestinians but said “right now there is no partner and no one to talk to on the other side” as well as saying that any deal would have to leave Israel in control of all of Jerusalem. This places him very much on the prime minister’s side on the key questions that divide his government from the positions enunciated by President Obama and the United States.

Can Kahlon and Kulanu ultimately succeed where every other Israeli centrist party failed and grow from its initial success and become the focus for genuine change? Nothing is impossible, but everything we know about the dynamics of the country’s politics tells us that it won’t happen. No matter how principled his followers seem now, they’ll be perceived differently once they are in office. The same applies to Kahlon, who became something of hero for his work in lowering cell phone rates when he served in the previous government. Once he is tainted with participation in a government led by someone else, he won’t be the successful rebel anymore.

In a normal country where economic issues dictate the outcome of elections, one of the country’s two main groupings would likely embrace social justice as their focus. But so long as the Arab and Muslim war on Israel’s existence continues—which is to say for the foreseeable future—parties like Kulanu will come and go with regularity. There is no real center in Israeli politics. Indeed, it can be argued that at this point it is Netanyahu and Likud that represent the center of the country’s divisive politics. Depending on how well he does, Kahlon may help keep Netanyahu in power or make a deal with Isaac Herzog and Labor. But no matter which side he picks, no one should imagine that his likely short-lived success will mean much in the long run.

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Misunderstanding Israel’s Election

Just as we already know the broad outlines of today’s Israeli election, we also know pretty much what the international and American media will say about the results. They will tell us that the victory of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the parties that make up his current coalition represents a sharp step to the right for Israel. It will be portrayed as a rejection of peace and a blow to the chance of a two-state solution to the conflict. Sadly, it will almost certainly lead to editorials and op-eds calling for a reevaluation of the U.S.-Israel alliance and even for American Jews to question the ties between their community and the Jewish state. The narrative of a cruel Israel that is indifferent to the suffering of the Palestinians will be endlessly rehearsed and the vote will be used to justify the isolation of Israel and to garner support for the BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) movement. But while it is true that the likely outcome of the vote will show gains for Israel’s right-wing and nationalist parties, the reason for this, as well as the sentiments of the voters, will be misunderstood and falsely construed.

Netanyahu’s victory as well as the major gains that will be scored by the party to his right, led by Naftali Bennett, will not be largely the result of a philosophical shift to embrace right-wing ideology. It is not the charms of the notoriously unlikeable Netanyahu or even the undeniable attraction that Bennett has for many Israelis who like his modern outlook as well as his military and business record. The change in the Israeli electorate from an evenly divided electorate between left and right is due entirely to the experience of the last 20 years, during which Israel has tried to make peace with the Palestinians. It is the Palestinians’ consistent rejection of peace and embrace of terror and violence that has changed the minds of so many Israelis and convinced them that even though they want a two-state solution, there is no partner for peace with whom they can make such a deal. Rather than damn Israelis for turning their backs on peace, the rest of the world, and especially Americans who think of themselves as friends of Israel, should be asking themselves what it is that Israelis know about their neighborhood that they have preferred to ignore.

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Just as we already know the broad outlines of today’s Israeli election, we also know pretty much what the international and American media will say about the results. They will tell us that the victory of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the parties that make up his current coalition represents a sharp step to the right for Israel. It will be portrayed as a rejection of peace and a blow to the chance of a two-state solution to the conflict. Sadly, it will almost certainly lead to editorials and op-eds calling for a reevaluation of the U.S.-Israel alliance and even for American Jews to question the ties between their community and the Jewish state. The narrative of a cruel Israel that is indifferent to the suffering of the Palestinians will be endlessly rehearsed and the vote will be used to justify the isolation of Israel and to garner support for the BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) movement. But while it is true that the likely outcome of the vote will show gains for Israel’s right-wing and nationalist parties, the reason for this, as well as the sentiments of the voters, will be misunderstood and falsely construed.

Netanyahu’s victory as well as the major gains that will be scored by the party to his right, led by Naftali Bennett, will not be largely the result of a philosophical shift to embrace right-wing ideology. It is not the charms of the notoriously unlikeable Netanyahu or even the undeniable attraction that Bennett has for many Israelis who like his modern outlook as well as his military and business record. The change in the Israeli electorate from an evenly divided electorate between left and right is due entirely to the experience of the last 20 years, during which Israel has tried to make peace with the Palestinians. It is the Palestinians’ consistent rejection of peace and embrace of terror and violence that has changed the minds of so many Israelis and convinced them that even though they want a two-state solution, there is no partner for peace with whom they can make such a deal. Rather than damn Israelis for turning their backs on peace, the rest of the world, and especially Americans who think of themselves as friends of Israel, should be asking themselves what it is that Israelis know about their neighborhood that they have preferred to ignore.

Bennett’s rise is the big story in this election, and there’s little doubt that his mix of traditional Zionist sentiment and hardheaded thinking about the Palestinians is generating a surge for his Jewish Home Party that puzzles liberal Americans. It is true that many in his party represent hard-core settlers and illiberal religious leaders who have little in common with Americans. But his appeal is also the product of a realization on the part of some more secular Israelis that his approach is a throwback to a more heroic era in Israeli thought. Though the tension between Netanyahu and Bennett, who once worked for the prime minister, is palpable, he is a mainstream figure whose future in his country’s politics is likely to eventually find him back in the Likud rather than leading a smaller party.

But while some insist that this is a “Seinfeld” election that is about nothing, that nothing is a context in which the country’s once-dominant left-wing parties and traditional left have been essentially marginalized or forced to drop peace as a major issue, as is the case with Labor. Where once there was a consensus that Israel needed to try to trade land for peace with the Palestinians, after Oslo, the withdrawal from Gaza, and the rejection by both Yasir Arafat and his successor Mahmoud Abbas of Israeli offers of statehood that included a share of Jerusalem, only a mindless ideologue can pretend that the lack of peace is due to Israel’s failure to make concessions. The fact that the Likud and its nationalist competitors have shifted even more to the right on peace is rooted in a widespread understanding that, as Bennett’s TV ads say, the Palestinians are no more likely to ever accept a two-state solution (no matter where Israel’s borders would be drawn) than for “The Sopranos” to make a comeback.

If many Americans not otherwise prejudiced against Jews and Israel nevertheless blame the Jewish state for the standoff in the Middle East, it is largely due to ignorance of the context of events in the Middle East and the history of the conflict. Rather than thinking, as President Obama reportedly does, that we understand Israel’s “best interests” better than the country’s voters, Americans should show a little humility. If Netanyahu and the right are winning, it is not because Israelis don’t want peace but because they have paid attention to the events of the last two decades and drawn the only possible conclusion.

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Why Netanyahu Will Be Re-Elected

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Heads: Bibi Wins; Tails: His Rivals Lose

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Iran, Obama and Bibi’s October Surprise

On Friday, a commentator on Israel’s Channel 2 said aloud what others had been whispering in recent days. The Times of Israel reports that commentator Amnon Abramovich claimed today’s announcement that new Israeli elections will be scheduled for September 4 may set in motion a chain of events that could lead to an Israeli attack on Iran sometime between that date and the U.S. presidential election in November. The scenario makes sense on the surface in that if, as expected, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu wins an easy victory in September, he theoretically would have two months to strike Iran while President Obama was campaigning for re-election and therefore unlikely to condemn or punish Israel for ignoring his wishes about the use of force to fend off Tehran’s nuclear threat.

That isn’t likely to happen for a number of reasons, but the mere fact that it might is a positive development. As much as there is good reason to doubt that even under such seemingly favorable circumstances Israel would attack Iran on its own, the election announcement will have the salubrious effect of concentrating the minds of President Obama and his shaky allies in the P5+1 nuclear talks with Iran. The only reason the West has stepped up its previously weak sanctions on Iran that led to the current lackluster negotiations is that they believed Israel would act unless they started behaving as if they cared about the problem. As most informed observers have noted, the chances of the talks achieving anything that would actually lessen the danger are slim. But if the Iranians as well as Obama and his partners think Israel will strike in the fall that could put tremendous pressure on both sides to do more than diplomatic game playing.

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On Friday, a commentator on Israel’s Channel 2 said aloud what others had been whispering in recent days. The Times of Israel reports that commentator Amnon Abramovich claimed today’s announcement that new Israeli elections will be scheduled for September 4 may set in motion a chain of events that could lead to an Israeli attack on Iran sometime between that date and the U.S. presidential election in November. The scenario makes sense on the surface in that if, as expected, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu wins an easy victory in September, he theoretically would have two months to strike Iran while President Obama was campaigning for re-election and therefore unlikely to condemn or punish Israel for ignoring his wishes about the use of force to fend off Tehran’s nuclear threat.

That isn’t likely to happen for a number of reasons, but the mere fact that it might is a positive development. As much as there is good reason to doubt that even under such seemingly favorable circumstances Israel would attack Iran on its own, the election announcement will have the salubrious effect of concentrating the minds of President Obama and his shaky allies in the P5+1 nuclear talks with Iran. The only reason the West has stepped up its previously weak sanctions on Iran that led to the current lackluster negotiations is that they believed Israel would act unless they started behaving as if they cared about the problem. As most informed observers have noted, the chances of the talks achieving anything that would actually lessen the danger are slim. But if the Iranians as well as Obama and his partners think Israel will strike in the fall that could put tremendous pressure on both sides to do more than diplomatic game playing.

For all of the hysterical criticism being aimed at Netanyahu and Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak for their supposed messianism about dealing with Iran, they have actually gone about their business on this issue in a rational manner. By making it clear to the world that Israel would not allow the Islamist regime to pose an existential threat to its existence, they have forced Obama to ratchet up his own rhetoric and to foreswear any policy of “containing” a nuclear Iran. They have also managed to pressure the European Union to threaten an oil embargo of Iran that would have been unimaginable without their fear that an Israeli attack would overturn the entire Middle East chessboard.

But Netanyahu and Barak are also keenly aware of the danger of pushing too far. That’s why it is equally unimaginable they would order a strike on Iran while the West was actively conducting nuclear negotiations. Though no one should think they would not use force as a last resort, they have throughout this crisis made it clear they understood it is far better for the West — whose interests are involved in this matter as much as that of Israel — to deal with the Iranian nuclear threat.

However, once the talks started last month, it seemed as if Israel had lost its leverage. The Iranians are past masters of playing diplomatic hide and seek with credulous Western negotiators. This round of talks started off no different than previous futile attempts to make the ayatollahs see reason. With European Union foreign policy chief Catherin Ashton in charge of the negotiations, there seemed little chance the West would push the Iranians hard. With both sides more intent on preventing an Israeli attack than on actually coming up with a deal that would shut down Iran’s nuclear program, it seemed likely that they would be dragged out until the end of the year when a re-elected President Obama might have the “flexibility” to take a less harsh view of the issue than when the votes of the pro-Israel community were up for grabs.

But if Obama believes there is a window for an Israeli attack in the fall prior to November, that might scare him into forcing Ashton and the negotiators to get tough. Though there is no reason to believe any amount of Western pressure, sanctions or threats will persuade Iran to give up its ambition of a nuclear weapon, Netanyahu’s election schedule might be enough to get the West to follow through on its oil embargo and to refuse to allow the Islamist regime to play them for the suckers in the P5+1 talks. Rather than the September 4 election making a unilateral Israeli strike more likely, it just might be the thing that could stiffen the spines of Obama and his European partners during the next six months.

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