Commentary Magazine


Topic: Israeli elections

Netanyahu-Bashers Shouldn’t Rejoice

The buzz in Israel at this hour is that leaked exit polls are showing that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party may be doing far worse than expected in today’s election. The story is that Likud’s total of Knesset seats will drop below 30 and that centrist newcomer Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party will wind up in second place, with right-wing star Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home also doing well and the Labor Party possibly dropping to third or even fourth place.

If true, this would cause a major shake-up in Israeli politics. But President Obama and other American liberal critics of Netanyahu shouldn’t get too excited. Even if the rumors and leaked polls are accurate, there’s no doubt that Netanyahu will still be leading the next Israeli government.

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The buzz in Israel at this hour is that leaked exit polls are showing that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party may be doing far worse than expected in today’s election. The story is that Likud’s total of Knesset seats will drop below 30 and that centrist newcomer Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party will wind up in second place, with right-wing star Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home also doing well and the Labor Party possibly dropping to third or even fourth place.

If true, this would cause a major shake-up in Israeli politics. But President Obama and other American liberal critics of Netanyahu shouldn’t get too excited. Even if the rumors and leaked polls are accurate, there’s no doubt that Netanyahu will still be leading the next Israeli government.

A scenario in which Lapid and Bennett’s parties are big winners would certainly mean that Netanyahu would be weakened. But that was already in the cards, as his own party (which absorbed Avigdor Lieberman’s party prior to the campaign) had become one in which those to the right of the prime minister were going to have more influence.

But even a Likud that scores under 30 would still mean that right-wing and religious parties will wind up with more than a majority, meaning there is no chance of a government led by anyone but Netanyahu. However, the rise of Lapid does give the prime minister a chance to form a government without the religious parties since, if the rumors are correct, Yesh Atid could wind up with as many seats as those parties may get.

While Lapid is put in the same camp as left-wingers like Labor’s Shelly Yacimovich or Tzipi Livni, he has also made it clear that he is largely on the same page as Netanyahu when it comes to issues of war and peace. His priority is domestic politics, and principally in changing the law to ensure that the Haredim are drafted into the Israel Defense Forces like other Israelis. A coalition with Likud, Bennett (whose modern Orthodox and secular supporters also support draft equality) and Lapid is not out of the question. It would be a difficult marriage, but so would any possible collection of Israeli parties. If this happens, there will be no real shift in Israel’s position on borders or settlements.

We’ll find out later today whether the actual results will resemble the rumors (Israel is seven hours ahead of the Eastern United States, meaning that by mid-evening EST, we should have a good idea of what will happen). But even in the worst scenario for the Likud, Netanyahu is still on track to get his third term in the prime minister’s office. 

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The Markets Vote For Netanyahu

Israelis go to the polls tomorrow and, as we’ve noted previously, there’s not any doubt about who will lead their next government. The voters appear poised to give Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a qualified endorsement, and while his own party appears to be getting fewer votes than expected, the factions that made up his current government will collectively get what amounts to a landslide victory over the prime minister’s left-wing and Arab critics in the Knesset. But the financial sector’s approval of his performance in office appears nearly unanimous. As Bloomberg News reports, the country’s bonds have gone up 36 percent in dollar value since he took office in 2009 as opposed to a 22 percent average rise for global government debt. The shekel has also gained 13 percent against the dollar in that period and is, according to financial experts, the second-best performing currency in Europe, Middle East and Africa during this time.

That’s a message that gets drowned out by complaints about the rise in the cost of living that generated street protests in Israel in the summer of 2011. Yet for all of the country’s problems, including a deficit that is fueled by Israel’s need to spend a disproportionate amount on defense, there’s little doubt that Netanyahu’s administration has been economically sound and that the country’s economy has grown by leaps and bounds under his leadership. His commitment to maintain the Jewish state’s commitment to a free-market model and the stability that his leadership has given the nation are not the only factors behind the growth numbers, but Israel has become an even better bet for investors in the past four years. The near-certainty that he will stay in office will ensure that this will continue.

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Israelis go to the polls tomorrow and, as we’ve noted previously, there’s not any doubt about who will lead their next government. The voters appear poised to give Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a qualified endorsement, and while his own party appears to be getting fewer votes than expected, the factions that made up his current government will collectively get what amounts to a landslide victory over the prime minister’s left-wing and Arab critics in the Knesset. But the financial sector’s approval of his performance in office appears nearly unanimous. As Bloomberg News reports, the country’s bonds have gone up 36 percent in dollar value since he took office in 2009 as opposed to a 22 percent average rise for global government debt. The shekel has also gained 13 percent against the dollar in that period and is, according to financial experts, the second-best performing currency in Europe, Middle East and Africa during this time.

That’s a message that gets drowned out by complaints about the rise in the cost of living that generated street protests in Israel in the summer of 2011. Yet for all of the country’s problems, including a deficit that is fueled by Israel’s need to spend a disproportionate amount on defense, there’s little doubt that Netanyahu’s administration has been economically sound and that the country’s economy has grown by leaps and bounds under his leadership. His commitment to maintain the Jewish state’s commitment to a free-market model and the stability that his leadership has given the nation are not the only factors behind the growth numbers, but Israel has become an even better bet for investors in the past four years. The near-certainty that he will stay in office will ensure that this will continue.

Those who only know Israel through stories about the conflict with the Palestinians see the country through a prism that doesn’t take into account the amazing progress it has made in recent decades, as it was transformed from a third-world economy to one of the most dynamic markets in the world. It may be that not all of this has trickled down yet to many of Israel’s citizens who rightly complain about crony capitalism and high prices. But Israel’s strength is not only measured in the vaunted abilities of its armed forces. If it has been able to shrug off the disappointments of a peace process in which the country traded land for more terror rather than peace, it has been because its start-up nation economy has become a model for the world in terms of innovation.

This happened for a number of reasons, but the chief one was a commitment by its leaders to shedding the old socialist Labor Zionist model that helped create the nation but ill prepared it to compete in the global economy. Netanyahu played a key role in this change during his first term as prime minister in the 1990s and his years as finance minister under Ariel Sharon. But as prime minister he has continued this progress, keeping a steady hand on the tiller and avoiding many of the problems experienced elsewhere in a challenging environment.

Stuck in a region with neighbors who won’t make peace and still besieged by terrorist movements that launch missile barrages into the country whenever they want to heat things up, Israel doesn’t have a normal economy or a normal political culture. But in spite of that, Netanyahu has received good marks for keeping the economy sound and largely resisted the demands to reverse course. That might have appeased some of his critics, but it would have set the country back. That took exactly the sort of political courage that, according to Jeffrey Goldberg, President Obama thinks he lacks. As Netanyahu embarks on his third overall and second consecutive term in office, the one certainty amid so many variables is that Israel’s finances are in good hands. 

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Anticipating More Obama-Bibi — Part One

The final polls before Israel’s election were published today and the results will provide little comfort to Benjamin Netanyahu’s many critics in the United States. All the surveys of opinion before next Tuesday’s vote point in one direction: Netanyahu will win. Even the most pessimistic estimates of his party’s vote shows the Likud getting approximately twice as many seats in the next Knesset as the next largest competitor and the parties that make up Netanyahu’s current coalition will gain a decisive majority. Netanyahu will be in charge of a comfortable majority that is, if anything, more right-wing than the government he led for the past four years.

That’s a bitter pill for an Obama administration that believes, as the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg reported earlier this week, that the president knows what is in Israel’s “best interests” better than Netanyahu and which spent much of its time in office battling him. It makes sense to think the two leaders will continue to distrust each other and to quarrel over the peace process and how to deal with the Iranian nuclear threat. The rightward tilt of the next Netanyahu government and what appears to be the aggressive and confident tone of the second Obama administration in which the president appears to be surrounding himself with people who agree with him rather than centrists or those who have different perspectives both seem to argue for more rather than less conflict between Washington and Jerusalem. But the doom and gloom scenarios about four more years of this tandem may be exaggerated. There are three good reasons that may serve to keep tensions from boiling over.

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The final polls before Israel’s election were published today and the results will provide little comfort to Benjamin Netanyahu’s many critics in the United States. All the surveys of opinion before next Tuesday’s vote point in one direction: Netanyahu will win. Even the most pessimistic estimates of his party’s vote shows the Likud getting approximately twice as many seats in the next Knesset as the next largest competitor and the parties that make up Netanyahu’s current coalition will gain a decisive majority. Netanyahu will be in charge of a comfortable majority that is, if anything, more right-wing than the government he led for the past four years.

That’s a bitter pill for an Obama administration that believes, as the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg reported earlier this week, that the president knows what is in Israel’s “best interests” better than Netanyahu and which spent much of its time in office battling him. It makes sense to think the two leaders will continue to distrust each other and to quarrel over the peace process and how to deal with the Iranian nuclear threat. The rightward tilt of the next Netanyahu government and what appears to be the aggressive and confident tone of the second Obama administration in which the president appears to be surrounding himself with people who agree with him rather than centrists or those who have different perspectives both seem to argue for more rather than less conflict between Washington and Jerusalem. But the doom and gloom scenarios about four more years of this tandem may be exaggerated. There are three good reasons that may serve to keep tensions from boiling over.

The first factor that may keep the conflict in check is something that the controversial Goldberg column made clear: the president may have learned his lesson about the peace process. Though Goldberg and the president both wrongly assume that Arab “moderates” want peace and need to be encouraged with “conciliatory gestures,” the writer notes that Obama understands that Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas is weak. He also knows that every attempt by the administration to pressure Netanyahu and to tilt the diplomatic playing field in the Palestinians’ direction on settlements, Jerusalem and border, was met with disinterest by the PA. Nothing Obama could do or say, no matter how damaging to Israel’s cause was enough to tempt Abbas back to the negotiating table. Indeed, the Palestinians’ decision to go to the United Nations to get recognition was not so much aimed at Israel, as it was an end run around the Obama administration.

Though Goldberg frames the president’s reluctance to repeat this cycle of misunderstand as a judgment on Netanyahu’s lack of interest in peace it is actually an indictment of the Palestinians. Had Abbas responded positively to any of Obama’s initiatives, he could have helped the president pin the prime minister down and perhaps even undermined his support at home. Netanyahu has already endorsed a two state solution and frozen settlements for a time to appease Obama and Abbas didn’t respond to either gesture.

Abbas is interested right now in making peace with Hamas, not Israel. He has stayed away from talks not because he thinks he can’t get a deal but because he fears being put in the same uncomfortable situation in which he found himself in 2008 when Ehud Olmert made the last Israeli offer of Palestinian independence including Jerusalem. Abbas knows he can’t recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn and survive so he didn’t so much turn down Olmert as to flee the talks. He won’t allow himself to be that close to political extinction again.

Though, as Goldberg pointed out, incoming Secretary of State John Kerry may be eager to play the peace process game with the help of his European friends, President Obama may understand that heading down that dead end again is not worth any of his precious second term political capital. If the Palestinians go any further toward Fatah-Hamas unity and/or if a third intifada is launched that will effectively spike any hope for new negotiations no matter what Obama may personally want to do.

Obama may believe Israel is dooming itself to isolation but the majority of Israelis have paid closer attention to the last 20 years of attempts to make peace and know that further concessions would only worsen their security without bringing peace. Yet as much as he can’t stand Netanyahu, picking another fight with him over an issue that can’t be resolved due to Palestinian intransigence is bad politics as well as bad policy.

In parts two and three of this post I’ll examine the other factors that may keep U.S.-Israel tension in check.

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Obama Can’t Get Even With Netanyahu

The Israeli reaction to the much talked about Jeffrey Goldberg column that Seth wrote about yesterday wasn’t long in coming. Leading members of the Likud Party claimed that Goldberg’s reporting of critical comments about Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu by President Obama constituted interference in the country’s elections that will be held next week. If true, some might see it as tit-for-tat since the Israeli’s decision to highlight a snub from the president and differences with him over dealing with the Iranian nuclear threat last September was widely seen as an attempt to help Mitt Romney’s doomed presidential campaign. Netanyahu would certainly have preferred to see Obama lose. But rather than intervening, he was probably thinking that putting pressure on Obama during the lead-up to the November election would force the president to take a tougher stand on Iran. Instead, Obama, who despises the prime minister, rebuffed Netanyahu leaving him looking like an incompetent meddler.

However, the accusations that the White House used Goldberg to get even with Netanyahu are probably untrue. As much as the president and his foreign policy team detest Netanyahu, they are probably aware that an American attempt to influence the vote in Israel would backfire. Obama is deeply unpopular in Israel and every time he has picked a fight with Netanyahu it has only strengthened the prime minister’s standing at home. Netanyahu is certain to lead the next government and though the president would probably like to do something to stop that from happening, he knows he can’t. Goldberg was, as he told the Jerusalem Post, only writing what everyone already knew about the president’s feelings. Obama believes he knows what is in Israel’s “best interests” better than the man elected to lead that country. But as much as the ongoing feud between these two personalities rivets our attention, the disconnect isn’t so much between Obama and Netanyahu as it is between the American foreign policy establishment—and many liberal American Jews—and the consensus of the Israeli people. It is that gap between what most Israelis see as obvious about the moribund peace process and the conventional wisdom that is routinely churned out by the mainstream media in the United States that is the real issue.

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The Israeli reaction to the much talked about Jeffrey Goldberg column that Seth wrote about yesterday wasn’t long in coming. Leading members of the Likud Party claimed that Goldberg’s reporting of critical comments about Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu by President Obama constituted interference in the country’s elections that will be held next week. If true, some might see it as tit-for-tat since the Israeli’s decision to highlight a snub from the president and differences with him over dealing with the Iranian nuclear threat last September was widely seen as an attempt to help Mitt Romney’s doomed presidential campaign. Netanyahu would certainly have preferred to see Obama lose. But rather than intervening, he was probably thinking that putting pressure on Obama during the lead-up to the November election would force the president to take a tougher stand on Iran. Instead, Obama, who despises the prime minister, rebuffed Netanyahu leaving him looking like an incompetent meddler.

However, the accusations that the White House used Goldberg to get even with Netanyahu are probably untrue. As much as the president and his foreign policy team detest Netanyahu, they are probably aware that an American attempt to influence the vote in Israel would backfire. Obama is deeply unpopular in Israel and every time he has picked a fight with Netanyahu it has only strengthened the prime minister’s standing at home. Netanyahu is certain to lead the next government and though the president would probably like to do something to stop that from happening, he knows he can’t. Goldberg was, as he told the Jerusalem Post, only writing what everyone already knew about the president’s feelings. Obama believes he knows what is in Israel’s “best interests” better than the man elected to lead that country. But as much as the ongoing feud between these two personalities rivets our attention, the disconnect isn’t so much between Obama and Netanyahu as it is between the American foreign policy establishment—and many liberal American Jews—and the consensus of the Israeli people. It is that gap between what most Israelis see as obvious about the moribund peace process and the conventional wisdom that is routinely churned out by the mainstream media in the United States that is the real issue.

Likud might get some traction by highlighting Obama’s disapproval. Israelis are well aware that in the recent past American presidents have tried to intervene in their elections with mixed results. George H.W. Bush helped sink Yitzhak Shamir in 1992. Bill Clinton’s open rooting for Shimon Peres didn’t stop Netanyahu from winning his first term as prime minister in 1996 but American disapproval was a handicap when he was beaten in 1999. But the main point here is that while Israelis don’t relish the idea of being on the outs in Washington, they are also not interested in listening to advice from Obama.

The assumption underlying Goldberg’s article was that Netanyahu is isolating his country via policies that are not aimed at encouraging “Palestinian moderates.” The decision to allow building in Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem and its suburbs that would be kept by Israel even if there were a two-state solution are seen by Obama and the Europeans as intolerable provocations that should be punished. By not making concessions on security and territory that might tempt the Palestinian Authority back to the negotiating table, Netanyahu is seen as uninterested in peace or as even making an accord impossible. But most Israelis see these issues very differently.

The parties that make up Netanyahu’s current coalition are cruising to what may be a landslide victory next week because, unlike Goldberg’s White House sources and most Western talking heads, the majority of Israeli voters understand that the Palestinians—both Hamas and the supposedly more moderate Fatah-led PA—are not going to make peace no matter what Netanyahu does. They also view the notion of further withdrawals as an invitation to create another terror state like the one in Gaza in the much larger West Bank alongside Israel’s population centers.

Where Israel was once closely divided between right and left on the issue of peace initiatives, the center has shifted in the country’s politics. What Obama and most Americans don’t get about Israel is that Netanyahu is not so much the leader of the right as he is now firmly ensconced in the middle of the political spectrum. That’s why so many on the right are flocking to the banner of Naftali Bennett, the leader of the pro-settlement party that polls show will make huge gains in the upcoming election. The main difference between Netanyahu and Bennett is that the former still pays lip service to a two-state solution as the theoretical best option for Israel even though the Palestinians will never accept it, while the latter’s campaign ads say that it is no more likely to happen than another season of “The Sopranos.”

Like so much commentary about the Middle East, Obama’s evaluation of the situation via Goldberg shows that he is still focusing only on what Israel does and ignoring the reality of a Palestinian political culture that is incapable of accepting peace. If real peace were an option, no Israeli political leader would be able to resist accepting it. Pretending that such a choice is available to Israel is mere posturing, not a policy. Any American who doesn’t understand that fact has no business spouting off about what is in Israel’s best interests.

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Netanyahu’s Only Real Opponent

One of the remarkable aspects of Israeli politics is that even as Benjamin Netanyahu cruises to what is likely to be a landslide re-election later this month, the political figure there who continues to be treated as an international celebrity is not the prime minister. Rather it is Shimon Peres, the 89-year-old veteran of virtually every position in Israel’s government and currently serving in the symbolic post of president that remains the focus of much of the world’s attention. No one enjoys the spotlight more than Peres, something that comes across in spades in Ronen Bergman’s fascinating interview with him in the New York Times Magazine. The piece gives us an excellent summary of his views on the challenges facing Israel. But put in the context of the nation’s upcoming elections, the irony is that his answers also give us a good explanation for Netanyahu’s ascendancy.

As Bergman points out, Peres was the focus of intense pressure from some of the prime minister’s critics to run against Netanyahu at the head of a center-left opposition ticket. He wisely refused, leaving the incumbent without any serious rival. That has only increased the fawning on Peres from foreign observers who can’t stand Netanyahu. But Peres’s stubborn refusal to give up his illusions about the Palestinians tells us all we need to know about the inevitability of a right-wing victory. If Israel’s January 22 vote is one in which Netanyahu’s real rival is a person who won’t be on the ballot, it should be understood that the reason why those who are trying to unseat the Likud are failing has everything to do with Peres’s failed legacy.

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One of the remarkable aspects of Israeli politics is that even as Benjamin Netanyahu cruises to what is likely to be a landslide re-election later this month, the political figure there who continues to be treated as an international celebrity is not the prime minister. Rather it is Shimon Peres, the 89-year-old veteran of virtually every position in Israel’s government and currently serving in the symbolic post of president that remains the focus of much of the world’s attention. No one enjoys the spotlight more than Peres, something that comes across in spades in Ronen Bergman’s fascinating interview with him in the New York Times Magazine. The piece gives us an excellent summary of his views on the challenges facing Israel. But put in the context of the nation’s upcoming elections, the irony is that his answers also give us a good explanation for Netanyahu’s ascendancy.

As Bergman points out, Peres was the focus of intense pressure from some of the prime minister’s critics to run against Netanyahu at the head of a center-left opposition ticket. He wisely refused, leaving the incumbent without any serious rival. That has only increased the fawning on Peres from foreign observers who can’t stand Netanyahu. But Peres’s stubborn refusal to give up his illusions about the Palestinians tells us all we need to know about the inevitability of a right-wing victory. If Israel’s January 22 vote is one in which Netanyahu’s real rival is a person who won’t be on the ballot, it should be understood that the reason why those who are trying to unseat the Likud are failing has everything to do with Peres’s failed legacy.

Any discussion of Peres’s place in Israeli history has to start with the acknowledgment that his many achievements over the last 60 years put him in the first rank of his country’s leaders. As he notes with his characteristic lack of modesty, the record is impressive:

I do not think there are many people in the world who can say they managed to bring down a 600 percent inflation rate, create a nuclear option in a small country, oversee the Entebbe operation, set up an aerospace industry and an arms-development authority, form deep diplomatic relations with France, launch a Sinai campaign to open the Straits of Tiran and put an end to terror from Gaza.

But as much as he deserves as much credit as any person for Israel’s survival and growth, he seems to be one of the few Israelis who haven’t noticed that his Oslo brainchild and the “New Middle East” fantasy that he promoted in the early 1990s at the height of peace process euphoria was a tragic flop that led to much loss of life. Peres rightly points out that the existence of settlements in the West Bank wouldn’t prevent a peace deal if the Palestinians were willing to sign one. But despite all the evidence to the contrary, Peres continues to have faith in the good intentions and desire for peace on the part of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, bizarrely proclaiming him “an excellent partner” for Israel.

While Peres is the darling of Netanyahu-bashers who credit the president with thwarting the prime minister’s moves toward a pre-emptive strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities, his faith in President Obama’s good will toward the Jewish state is equally out of touch with mainstream Israeli opinion. His equanimity about the Arab Spring as well as optimism about Muslim Brotherhood-ruled Egypt also shows that he’s still living in the Oslo bubble.

This disconnect with both the reality of the region and the fact that the overwhelming majority of his countrymen have moved on from the failed Oslo process explains why the talk about a strong center-left opposition to Netanyahu on peace is more science fiction than political science. Of those parties that are supposed to be the core of this mythical anti-Bibi coalition, none actually support Peres’s vision. One, led by Yair Lapid, has explicitly rejected the politics of the left on foreign policy. The Labor Party that Peres once led has also avoided the peace process to concentrate on economic issues. Tzipi Livni’s Hatnuah is mainly about her ambition, not any real alternative to Netanyahu’s ideas.

Let’s also understand that Peres’s current popularity is largely based on the fact that he has abandoned electoral politics. For decades, Peres the politician was, despite his crucial role in so many Israeli successes, personally unpopular. Fairly or unfairly, he was seen as a schemer and the architect of “stinking maneuvers” that led to him losing an astonishing number of national elections. A desire to avoid adding one more to the total of those losses no doubt led to his decision not to challenge Netanyahu.

Though Peres won’t be on the ballot on January 22, his policies are. That they will be firmly rejected by the Israeli people should make it clear to his many admirers that although Peres deserves his place in the country’s history, the failure of his ideas are the primary reason why Netanyahu is about to win big. 

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Media Bias Israeli Style

The liberal bias of the mainstream media played a not inconsiderable role in helping Barack Obama skate to what turned out to be an easy victory last November. But as his longtime antagonist Benjamin Netanyahu coasts toward his own re-election, one of the interesting sidebars in the story of that vote is the way a largely left-wing media has proved unable to do much damage to the prime minister. The leftist cast of most Israeli news outlets is so widely recognized, few even on the left bother to deny it. As Akiva Eldar, the longtime columnist for Haaretz once told me in an interview, the bias of most Israeli journalists is not in doubt but since the right has won most of the elections in the last 30 years, it didn’t matter. It’s certainly true that the tilt against Netanyahu in the media won’t help the dismal chances of Israel’s left-wing parties. But the willingness of some of the leading outlets to hype the complaints of a former security official about the PM has raised the eyebrows of one of Eldar’s colleagues on the self-styled New York Times of Israel.

Anshel Pfeffer, Haaretz’s current lead political columnist, wrote today about the way the Yediot Aharonot newspaper has tried to inflate a filmed interview with former Mossad chief Yuval Diskin in which he blasts Netanyahu into a cause célèbre. That a paper whose own longstanding left-wing bias is as blatant as that of Haaretz would consider this absurd tells you a lot about how off-the-charts the prejudice of the mass market daily Yediot about Netanyahu has become. While the foreign press has picked up this narrative about Netanyahu’s alleged failings, it’s fairly obvious even to Haaretz that there’s nothing particularly noteworthy about the story.

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The liberal bias of the mainstream media played a not inconsiderable role in helping Barack Obama skate to what turned out to be an easy victory last November. But as his longtime antagonist Benjamin Netanyahu coasts toward his own re-election, one of the interesting sidebars in the story of that vote is the way a largely left-wing media has proved unable to do much damage to the prime minister. The leftist cast of most Israeli news outlets is so widely recognized, few even on the left bother to deny it. As Akiva Eldar, the longtime columnist for Haaretz once told me in an interview, the bias of most Israeli journalists is not in doubt but since the right has won most of the elections in the last 30 years, it didn’t matter. It’s certainly true that the tilt against Netanyahu in the media won’t help the dismal chances of Israel’s left-wing parties. But the willingness of some of the leading outlets to hype the complaints of a former security official about the PM has raised the eyebrows of one of Eldar’s colleagues on the self-styled New York Times of Israel.

Anshel Pfeffer, Haaretz’s current lead political columnist, wrote today about the way the Yediot Aharonot newspaper has tried to inflate a filmed interview with former Mossad chief Yuval Diskin in which he blasts Netanyahu into a cause célèbre. That a paper whose own longstanding left-wing bias is as blatant as that of Haaretz would consider this absurd tells you a lot about how off-the-charts the prejudice of the mass market daily Yediot about Netanyahu has become. While the foreign press has picked up this narrative about Netanyahu’s alleged failings, it’s fairly obvious even to Haaretz that there’s nothing particularly noteworthy about the story.

As Pfeffer notes, Diskin’s charges about what he believes are Netanyahu’s irresponsible attempts to push the security services to agree with him about the nuclear threat from Iran and the need for potential action on the issue have already been fully aired and largely ignored by the Israeli public. That’s because they know something that most foreign readers don’t about the political nature of the old boy network that runs the security services. The willingness of Diskin and his colleagues to go public with their carping about Netanyahu’s handling of an issue on which there is a pretty strong consensus within Israel—the need to take the Iranian nuclear threat seriously—tells us more about the way Diskin and his friends feel about the prime minister than anything else.

However, as Pfeffer also writes, one of the other factors driving the brazen Netanyahu-bashing in liberal outlets is the fact that a well-funded competitor with a very different political outlook has overtaken Yediot as the country’s highest circulation newspaper. Much like the way Fox News stole the thunder of the more liberal CNN and the American broadcast networks, Israel Hayom has ended the left-wing monopoly of the major Israeli dailies. Bankrolled by American casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, Israel Hayom has given Israelis a free conservative alternative and they’ve made it the most read paper in the country.

While the influence of Adelson’s paper probably doesn’t equal that of the combined forces of the rest of liberal Israeli media, its pro-Netanyahu bias seems to have help driven that of its competitors over the cliff into what could almost be described as parody. But it appears the Israeli electorate is smart enough to see through the anger of the press and the hysteria about the “Diskin document.”

The ability of Netanyahu to survive the slings and arrows chucked at him by a frustrated Israeli media that knows the only question about the election is the size of his margin of victory shows that in one sense Eldar remains right. Israel’s voters are too sophisticated to be influenced by their biased press. 

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Netanyahu’s Problem: He Can’t Lose

There’s a lot about this month’s election in Israel that is yet to be decided, as the polls indicating the number of Knesset seats the parties will win have fluctuated from day to day. However, the big question as far as the rest of the world is concerned—the identity of the country’s next prime minister—is the one thing that isn’t in any doubt. Current PM Benjamin Netanyahu is certain to form the next government of Israel with his Likud party having the most seats of any in the Knesset. But, in a stroke of irony made possible by Israel’s proportional election system, that is also Netanyahu’s biggest problem. Since there is no scenario in which he will not be the next prime minister, many Israelis who might otherwise be inclined to cast their ballot for Likud will instead vote for one of the smaller parties that will probably form part of Netanyahu’s coalition.

That means that rather than his own list taking more than a third of the 120 seats in the Knesset, his total may be considerably less than the 42 that Likud and Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu (which recently merged with Likud) won in the last election. That won’t stop Netanyahu from staying in office, but it could make his life miserable not only when putting together his next Cabinet but also over the course of the next few years, when he will be forced to cope with the growing strength of parties that are to his right on issues such as settlements and the theoretical terms of peace with the Palestinians.

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There’s a lot about this month’s election in Israel that is yet to be decided, as the polls indicating the number of Knesset seats the parties will win have fluctuated from day to day. However, the big question as far as the rest of the world is concerned—the identity of the country’s next prime minister—is the one thing that isn’t in any doubt. Current PM Benjamin Netanyahu is certain to form the next government of Israel with his Likud party having the most seats of any in the Knesset. But, in a stroke of irony made possible by Israel’s proportional election system, that is also Netanyahu’s biggest problem. Since there is no scenario in which he will not be the next prime minister, many Israelis who might otherwise be inclined to cast their ballot for Likud will instead vote for one of the smaller parties that will probably form part of Netanyahu’s coalition.

That means that rather than his own list taking more than a third of the 120 seats in the Knesset, his total may be considerably less than the 42 that Likud and Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu (which recently merged with Likud) won in the last election. That won’t stop Netanyahu from staying in office, but it could make his life miserable not only when putting together his next Cabinet but also over the course of the next few years, when he will be forced to cope with the growing strength of parties that are to his right on issues such as settlements and the theoretical terms of peace with the Palestinians.

Netanyahu had the same problem four years ago when he won his second term as prime minister. Rather than vote for the Likud, many on the right then gave their votes to Lieberman. This time around those voters are flocking to the new Habayit Yehudi Party of Naftali Bennett as well as to the even more strident Otzma Leyisrael.

Bennett, the son of American immigrants who went on to be a member of the same elite army unit that produced Netanyahu and outgoing Defense Minister Ehud Barak, and then made millions on an Internet company, served as the prime minister’s chief of staff during his last time in opposition before they quarreled. He provides Israel’s right with its first truly charismatic figure since Netanyahu’s emergence a generation ago and his party’s astonishing rise in the polls shows that his appeal is broader than the settler constituency that was thought to be its only source of support.

However, rather than being forced to really choose between Netanyahu or Bennett, Israeli right-wingers can pick the latter without any fear that their defections will result in a left-wing government.

Though the results of the numerous Israeli polls vary to some degree, they all show the various center-right and religious parties that make up Netanyahu’s current government gaining in the vicinity of 70 out of the 120 seats in the Knesset. The only question is what percentage of those will be won directly by Netanyahu rather than Bennett.

The smaller the number gained by Netanyahu’s allies the more likely that he will be able to give them more insignificant Cabinet posts or replace them altogether with centrist lists like the new party led by journalist Yair Lapid or even the one led by Tzipi Livni, an otherwise bitter foe of the prime minister but one whose differences with him are more a matter of posturing and rival ambitions than ideology.

However if, as some surveys now indicate, Bennett’s party becomes the third or even the second biggest party eclipsing Labor’s Shelly Yacimovich, who is likely to lead the opposition in the next Knesset, then Netanyahu’s options will be limited.

The reasons for Bennett’s rise are the same that has led Netanyahu to his preeminent position in his country’s politics. The Palestinians’ rejection of every peace feeler and embrace of violence and Hamas has created a new political reality in which the once predominant left has been marginalized. Though some Americans may wrongly see Netanyahu as an extremist, his views are now firmly in the center of the Israeli spectrum. Those to his right, such as Bennett, are merely slightly right of center rather than being viewed as beyond the pale. Though most Israelis do not share Bennett’s vision of West Bank settlement annexation, they see no reason to think about giving them away to the Palestinians in order to create another terrorist enclave like the one Hamas has in Gaza. 

Netanyahu might prefer to govern without Bennett’s interference, but the same set of circumstances that will keep him firmly in office have made it likely that his former aide will be a major factor in Israeli politics for years to come.

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Israel’s Next Defense Minister

In 1974, when Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres were locked in an internal battle for the leadership of the Labor party and the Israeli premiership, Rabin reached out for an unlikely endorsement. “A declaration of support from Arik matters more than one from anyone else,” Rabin told the journalist Uri Dan, referring to the Likud’s Ariel Sharon. Dan relayed the request to Sharon, and Sharon agreed; he got up from his meeting with Dan, went over to a phone booth in the hotel lobby, and began calling journalists to tell them.

The endorsement made headlines, and Rabin became prime minister. Though that incident took place soon after the Yom Kippur War and years before Egypt and Israel signed a peace agreement, there is a cultural aspect to this story that remains relevant in 2013. To most of the world the there isn’t much difference between a “peacemaker” and a “peacenik”; to Israelis there is a Grand Canyon between them. And although the political parties are reversed, this distinction goes a long way to explaining the seeming indispensability of Ehud Barak to the man that took over the Likud after Sharon left it: Benjamin Netanyahu.

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In 1974, when Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres were locked in an internal battle for the leadership of the Labor party and the Israeli premiership, Rabin reached out for an unlikely endorsement. “A declaration of support from Arik matters more than one from anyone else,” Rabin told the journalist Uri Dan, referring to the Likud’s Ariel Sharon. Dan relayed the request to Sharon, and Sharon agreed; he got up from his meeting with Dan, went over to a phone booth in the hotel lobby, and began calling journalists to tell them.

The endorsement made headlines, and Rabin became prime minister. Though that incident took place soon after the Yom Kippur War and years before Egypt and Israel signed a peace agreement, there is a cultural aspect to this story that remains relevant in 2013. To most of the world the there isn’t much difference between a “peacemaker” and a “peacenik”; to Israelis there is a Grand Canyon between them. And although the political parties are reversed, this distinction goes a long way to explaining the seeming indispensability of Ehud Barak to the man that took over the Likud after Sharon left it: Benjamin Netanyahu.

When Netanyahu earned the opportunity to form a governing coalition after the 2009 Israeli Knesset elections, he offered the major party leaders he vanquished an opportunity to join an expansive coalition, headed by his Likud. But it was universally understood that Netanyahu desperately wanted as his defense minister Barak, one of Israel’s most highly decorated soldiers and Netanyahu’s former commander in the elite unit known as Sayeret Matkal. Barak, at the time, was running the Labor party. Though Likud had a stronger reputation among foreign policy hawks than Labor, Netanyahu wanted–in addition to the appearance of bipartisanship–Barak’s stamp of approval for his own administration’s foreign policy. It would–as Sharon’s endorsement had done for Rabin four decades earlier–do much to put the public’s mind at ease.

Barak joined the coalition, but the party used that decision as the final straw to expel its leader (Barak technically “left” Labor, but the divorce was a long time coming). Barak took a few Laborites with him and formed a minor party. That party has disappeared, as did Barak’s chance to win a Knesset seat in this month’s elections. So he “retired” from political life. If Netanyahu’s party wins the elections, it would surprise exactly no one if Netanyahu reappoints Barak to be his defense minister–Barak wouldn’t have to own a Knesset seat to take the position–coaxing the supposedly reluctant old bull out of retirement to once again serve his country. (One can easily imagine how this will play out in the mind of the famously haughty Barak. The people need you, Hudi; how can you say no?)

One of the reasons Israelis expect this coming charade is because there are very few people, if any, who could provide the both the cross-party credibility and the public’s trust to serve as defense minister at a time when resolution of the Iranian threat one way or another seems right around the corner. But perhaps there is one obstacle, however remote, to this scenario. Times of Israel editor David Horovitz writes today that when blending his party with Likud, Israel Beiteinu head Avigdor Lieberman believed he could have his choice of plum portfolios if and when he is legally permitted to return to the government (it could be within months–but there is an outside chance it could be years). Horovitz writes:

Publicly, this least diplomatic of politicians had assured the electorate that he liked being foreign minister just fine, and would probably stay at the ministry after the elections as well. Privately, it was apparently vouchsafed to certain privileged journalists, he actually had his sights on the powerful Finance Ministry job. However, it has also been quite credibly suggested to me, Liberman didn’t want Finance and didn’t want Foreign. He intended to take the post of defense minister.

We should know immediately after the election where Lieberman intends to end up; as Horovitz writes, if Netanyahu, when doling out portfolios, keeps any of the important ones for himself, it may be a strong clue he’s safeguarding it for Lieberman. Additionally, Barak is no placeholder. If he’s offered the defense ministry and takes it, that’s exactly where he’ll stay.

Just because Lieberman wants the defense ministry doesn’t mean he’ll get it. Netanyahu presumably understands that giving that job to Lieberman would be the exact opposite of appointing Barak to the defense ministry. Rather than reaching across the isle, it would be viewed as a sop to those to Netanyahu’s right. And rather than the defense ministry being guided by a trusted hand, it would be run by an unpredictable and brusque politician a decade and a half younger than Barak. That age difference, however, is also why Lieberman can afford to be patient and not push for the defense portfolio. A savvy politician, Lieberman is more likely to bide his time than challenge Barak and Netanyahu. But the alternative will only increase the hopes of many Israelis–not to mention Western leaders–that Barak’s “retirement” is just for show.

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Why Israel Has Shifted to the Right

If liberal American Jews weren’t already dismayed about the fact that Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu is a shoe-in to be re-elected in next month’s election, the latest political news out of Israel may give them conniption fits. The results of new polls show that Netanyahu’s Likud and its coalition partners are set to exceed the strong governing majority they had in the current Knesset. But the really interesting numbers are those that show that the main party to the right of the Likud—the Habeyit Hayehudi or Jewish Home Party–is on track to be the third largest in the next parliament with only Likud and Labor (set to finish a distant second) ahead of it.

This will give residents and supporters of the settlement movement an even louder voice in the next Knesset than their already healthy contingent in the current one. This will be interpreted by some on the left as a sign of Israel’s depravity or indifference to peace. But the reason for it is clear. Whereas in Israel’s past it could be asserted that the Likud represented Israel’s right-wing constituency, it has, to the shock and dismay of many in the left-wing Israeli media, become the center. That is not because more Israelis are supporters of increasing settlement throughout the West Bank. They are not. Rather it is due to the fact that the Israeli center as well as even many on what we used to call the Israeli left have given up on the Palestinians. They know that neither Fatah in the West Bank nor Hamas in Gaza will ever recognize Israel’s legitimacy no matter where its borders are drawn. So they have abandoned those parties that hold onto the illusion of peace in favor of those with a more realistic vision while those on the right are now embracing parties like Habeyit Hayehudi in order to hold Netanyahu’s feet to the fire and prevent him from making concessions that will neither entice the Palestinians to the negotiating table nor increase its popularity abroad.

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If liberal American Jews weren’t already dismayed about the fact that Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu is a shoe-in to be re-elected in next month’s election, the latest political news out of Israel may give them conniption fits. The results of new polls show that Netanyahu’s Likud and its coalition partners are set to exceed the strong governing majority they had in the current Knesset. But the really interesting numbers are those that show that the main party to the right of the Likud—the Habeyit Hayehudi or Jewish Home Party–is on track to be the third largest in the next parliament with only Likud and Labor (set to finish a distant second) ahead of it.

This will give residents and supporters of the settlement movement an even louder voice in the next Knesset than their already healthy contingent in the current one. This will be interpreted by some on the left as a sign of Israel’s depravity or indifference to peace. But the reason for it is clear. Whereas in Israel’s past it could be asserted that the Likud represented Israel’s right-wing constituency, it has, to the shock and dismay of many in the left-wing Israeli media, become the center. That is not because more Israelis are supporters of increasing settlement throughout the West Bank. They are not. Rather it is due to the fact that the Israeli center as well as even many on what we used to call the Israeli left have given up on the Palestinians. They know that neither Fatah in the West Bank nor Hamas in Gaza will ever recognize Israel’s legitimacy no matter where its borders are drawn. So they have abandoned those parties that hold onto the illusion of peace in favor of those with a more realistic vision while those on the right are now embracing parties like Habeyit Hayehudi in order to hold Netanyahu’s feet to the fire and prevent him from making concessions that will neither entice the Palestinians to the negotiating table nor increase its popularity abroad.

Habeyit Hayehudi is the beneficiary in part of the merger of the Likud with Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu. Rather than polls showing Likud getting as many seats as the two parties got in the last election, it is registering a loss of several places as some nationalist voters abandon the new conglomerate for its more ideological rival to the right. Though the enlarged Likud will still gain several seats from the mark it won in the 2009 vote that brought Netanyahu back into power and make it by far the largest in the Knesset with 35, Habeyit Hayehudi is set to get 12 with another pro-settlement party getting another two. That will double the number of seats those smaller parties won four years ago. Combined with the Orthodox religious parties, that will give Netanyahu nearly 70 seats out of 120 next year even before any of the centrist members join him as some undoubtedly will do.

Habeyit Hayehudi also has the advantage of a new leader in the 40-year-old Naftali Bennett. He is the son of American immigrants who is a former chief of staff to Netanyahu and who earned great wealth through the sale of his Internet security firm. In him, Israel’s nationalist camp now has an articulate and savvy figure who can say things about the Palestinians that Netanyahu, who, as David Horovitz of the Times of Israel pointed out in an insightful analysis, cannot utter for fear of worsening relations with the United States.

Bennett’s powerful position, which will be enhanced by a Cabinet portfolio that he will demand and get, will make the next Knesset harder for Netanyahu to manage. The absence of several Likud moderates who have been replaced by more nationalist and younger figures on the party’s Knesset list will also ensure that the prime minister will not be straying far from the wishes of his voters the way some of his predecessors have done.

This won’t necessarily mean that Netanyahu will move to build throughout the West Bank the way Bennett would like. But it will strengthen his resolve to continue to do so in Jerusalem and its suburbs as well as the major settlement blocs that Israel will hold onto even in the theoretical scenario where the Palestinians finally give in and accept a two-state solution.

That will lead to much gnashing of the teeth on the part of liberal Jews who are uncomfortable with Netanyahu, let alone those to his right. But those who lament this development should understand that the Israeli people are making this choice with their eyes wide open.

Even Labor, the party that is historically associated with the peace process, has more or less abandoned the issue of reconciliation with the Palestinians in this election and instead is concentrating on economic and social justice issues. Those lists that are still devoted to the peace process, including the new party led by former foreign minister Tzipi Livni, have been thoroughly marginalized.

Unlike most Israelis, many if not most American Jews and many non-Jewish friends of Israel haven’t drawn conclusions from the last 20 years of failed peace processing. They cling instead to the fables about the Palestinians that once fueled the post-Oslo euphoria in Israel but which have now been discarded there.

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Neither Livni Nor Likud Vote Will Stop Bibi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Gaza Conflict Wasn’t Launched to Help Bibi

Hamas rockets reached Jerusalem today as the terrorist barrage on Israel continued. Rather than being silenced by Israeli counter-attacks, the Islamists have apparently been emboldened by the ardent support they have received from both Egypt and Turkey and have raised the ante in the conflict. That leaves Israel’s government having to choose between a cease-fire that will give Hamas a victory or to launch a costly ground invasion of Gaza that might inflict serious damage on the terrorists and perhaps restore some measure of deterrence. But looming over all of the discussions about the country’s options is the accusation that the fighting this week has been motivated more by Prime Minister Netanyahu’s re-election campaign than Israel’s security.

That’s the theme being sounded by a chorus of leftist critics of the PM on the Haaretz op-ed page and is even being echoed by President Obama’s good friend and Hamas ally Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan today according to Ynet. Leaving aside Erdoğan’s fantastic claim that the several hundred rockets that have been fired at Israel are a “fabrication,” the notion that the decision to try and stop the rocket attacks is connected to Israel’s parliamentary election scheduled for January.

Considering how unpopular Netanyahu is outside of his own country as well as with Israel’s media, it’s hardly surprising that this sort of thing would be said. But it should also be understood that it is complete nonsense. The timing of the conflict was determined by Hamas, not Israel, and far from boosting Netanyahu’s chances of winning re-election, the growing violence is much more of a liability than it is an opportunity to win votes.

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Hamas rockets reached Jerusalem today as the terrorist barrage on Israel continued. Rather than being silenced by Israeli counter-attacks, the Islamists have apparently been emboldened by the ardent support they have received from both Egypt and Turkey and have raised the ante in the conflict. That leaves Israel’s government having to choose between a cease-fire that will give Hamas a victory or to launch a costly ground invasion of Gaza that might inflict serious damage on the terrorists and perhaps restore some measure of deterrence. But looming over all of the discussions about the country’s options is the accusation that the fighting this week has been motivated more by Prime Minister Netanyahu’s re-election campaign than Israel’s security.

That’s the theme being sounded by a chorus of leftist critics of the PM on the Haaretz op-ed page and is even being echoed by President Obama’s good friend and Hamas ally Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan today according to Ynet. Leaving aside Erdoğan’s fantastic claim that the several hundred rockets that have been fired at Israel are a “fabrication,” the notion that the decision to try and stop the rocket attacks is connected to Israel’s parliamentary election scheduled for January.

Considering how unpopular Netanyahu is outside of his own country as well as with Israel’s media, it’s hardly surprising that this sort of thing would be said. But it should also be understood that it is complete nonsense. The timing of the conflict was determined by Hamas, not Israel, and far from boosting Netanyahu’s chances of winning re-election, the growing violence is much more of a liability than it is an opportunity to win votes.

First of all, the notion that Netanyahu needs a “wag the dog” style war to be assured of winning in January is absurd. The prime minister’s Likud has been a prohibitive favorite for months. While there has been virtual unanimity about the fact that Likud will form the next coalition, any doubts that his party would receive the most votes was erased by the merger with Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitienu group. Though the expanded Likud may not dominate as much as Netanyahu hopes, it’s probably a lock to receive more Knesset seats than any party has won in 20 years.

A war may boost Netanyahu’s personal popularity while the fighting is going on, but that isn’t likely to translate into extra votes for his party in January. After all, centrist voters who are uncomfortable with Lieberman or even the prime minister are more likely than not to stick with Yair Lapid or any of the other alternatives that will probably wind up in Netanyahu’s coalition anyway.

Far more important to these calculations is that there may be more votes lost than won from a conflict.

It is true that had Netanyahu allowed Hamas to go on pounding the south as they did this past weekend, it would have undermined his credibility as a leader. Nor would the approximately one million Israelis who live in proximity to Gaza appreciate him leaving them unprotected. But the counter-attack exposes him to criticism on a number of key points.

Having set out this week to clip Hamas’s wings and restore Israel’s deterrence factor, how will it look if the fighting stops with the Islamist group’s power intact and in position to declare a victory? Indeed, with more than half of the hundreds of rockets launched by Hamas getting through Israel’s vaunted Iron Dome anti-missile system and with rockets landing in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem since the offensive started, it’s hard to argue that even the hard blows administered to the terrorists this week have made a dent in their ability to threaten the Jewish state.

If Netanyahu decides not to accept a cease fire under these conditions and launches a ground attack on Gaza of some sort, that will satisfy some Israelis. But the heavy casualties that will be suffered by both sides will also be held against him as well as heightening foreign pressure to stand down before Hamas’s infrastructure is significantly damaged. While a clear success would make him look good, does anyone really believe that under the circumstances and the advantages Hamas has in asymmetrical warfare it is likely that such an outcome is likely?

Most important, it should be remembered that Hamas launched this conflict for its own purposes. It was Hamas that dug the tunnel under the border with Israel to facilitate future terror attacks and whose discovery set the first attacks in motion. It was Hamas that chose to fire at an Israeli army vehicle across the border. And it was Hamas that decided that rather than instead of a limited exchange of fire after these incidents, it would launch a barrage of over 150 missiles into Israel on Sunday and Monday.

This decision was related to Hamas’s desire to upstage the Palestinian Authority and its bid for United Nations recognition. The flexing of their muscles was also about their desire to bolster the group’s popularity, something that required them to re-establish their reputation as the Palestinian group that was best at killing Israelis. None of that had much to do with Israel’s election, let alone Netanyahu’s political interests.

The long-term impact of the conflict that Hamas has fomented has yet to be determined. But whatever it turns out to be, ascribing it to a plot to re-elect Benjamin Netanyahu reflects the malice that many observers have for the prime minister, not a clear-headed analysis of the situation.

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Ehud Olmert’s Conspiracy Theory

Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert recently advanced a curious conspiracy theory about me—a theory that would almost be flattering if it weren’t so absurd.

Olmert charged that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “intervened in the U.S. elections in the name of an American billionaire with a clear interest in the vote.” Without a shred of evidence, Olmert pontificated that the “very same billionaire used Israel’s prime minister to advance a nominee of his own for president.”

Think about what Olmert is claiming. He is not suggesting the typical nonsense that the Likud government used me to influence the American election. No, Olmert’s conspiracy theory is even more outlandish: he’s asserting that Netanyahu—who isn’t exactly known to be a pushover—somehow agreed to be my puppet during the U.S. presidential campaign.

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Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert recently advanced a curious conspiracy theory about me—a theory that would almost be flattering if it weren’t so absurd.

Olmert charged that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “intervened in the U.S. elections in the name of an American billionaire with a clear interest in the vote.” Without a shred of evidence, Olmert pontificated that the “very same billionaire used Israel’s prime minister to advance a nominee of his own for president.”

Think about what Olmert is claiming. He is not suggesting the typical nonsense that the Likud government used me to influence the American election. No, Olmert’s conspiracy theory is even more outlandish: he’s asserting that Netanyahu—who isn’t exactly known to be a pushover—somehow agreed to be my puppet during the U.S. presidential campaign.

When I read Olmert’s comments, it reminded me of the old joke about the Jewish man who preferred reading anti-Semitic newspapers because they tell such good news: how Jews control Congress, how Jews run the media, how Jews pull the strings of international politics. I’m not saying Olmert is being anti-Semitic, but he is crediting me with a degree of power that I simply don’t have. The prime minister of Israel is very much his own man. I can also attest that Bibi has always maintained a neutral position vis-à-vis the U.S. presidential election, as would any sensible Israeli leader.

In trying to make sense of Mr. Olmert’s claims, I can only conclude that he still bears a grudge. Before he left office under a host of corruption charges in 2009, his approval ratings plunged to single digits. It is widely known that he blames an investigative reporter at Israel Hayom for prompting the legal investigations which ultimately led not only to Olmert’s political downfall but also, sadly, his conviction this summer for breach of trust.

Much is made about my friendship with Benjamin Netanyahu, especially by Olmert and the Israeli newspaper Yediot Ahronot, which is a competitor of Israel Hayom. Conveniently forgotten is that I’m also a close friend with Shimon Peres, Elie Wiesel and Alan Dershowitz, the last of whom is an articulate and thoughtful supporter of President Obama. Netanyahu no more does my bidding than any of these other friends of mine.

Mr. Olmert, who is rumored to have his eye on political office, has every right to run a spirited campaign. But he’ll have to come up with more than conspiracy theories if he hopes to unseat Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

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Bibi and Main Rival Agree on Peace Process

Now that the elections are over and President Barack Obama is returning to business, one person he should pay some serious attention to is the new head of Israel’s Labor Party, Shelly Yacimovich. All polls show Labor becoming the second-largest party by a large margin after Israel’s January 22 election. Thus, if Obama is hoping for an alternative to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, she’s the only serious possibility.

So here, according to Israeli embassy reports on her meetings with French officials in July, is what she thinks on diplomatic issues: She thinks the Palestinians should negotiate without preconditions – just like Netanyahu. She thinks they must recognize Israel as a Jewish state – again like Netanyahu. She thinks Israel should retain the major settlement blocs, and shouldn’t withdraw to the 1967 lines – yet again like Netanyahu.

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Now that the elections are over and President Barack Obama is returning to business, one person he should pay some serious attention to is the new head of Israel’s Labor Party, Shelly Yacimovich. All polls show Labor becoming the second-largest party by a large margin after Israel’s January 22 election. Thus, if Obama is hoping for an alternative to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, she’s the only serious possibility.

So here, according to Israeli embassy reports on her meetings with French officials in July, is what she thinks on diplomatic issues: She thinks the Palestinians should negotiate without preconditions – just like Netanyahu. She thinks they must recognize Israel as a Jewish state – again like Netanyahu. She thinks Israel should retain the major settlement blocs, and shouldn’t withdraw to the 1967 lines – yet again like Netanyahu.

And, from an interview last year: While she thinks most settlements will have to go under any deal with the Palestinians, she, like Netanyahu, doesn’t consider them “a sin and a crime.” Moreover, again like Netanyahu, she doesn’t think the “peace process” should top Israel’s agenda (though she disagrees with him over what should). In fact, as she herself said just last week, she is “fighting for” the cause of “ending the dichotomy between left and right in foreign affairs. There are no longer two blocs … it’s all a fixation.”

In short, contrary to the media’s persistent portrayal of Netanyahu as a “hardline right-winger” heading a “far right” coalition, his positions on the Palestinian issue are shared by almost all Israelis – not only supporters of his coalition, but also supporters of what is likely to be the main opposition party come January, assuming Netanyahu (as expected) forms the next government. What will probably keep Yacimovich out of his coalition aren’t her diplomatic views, but his economic ones.

Hence if Obama is hoping for an Israeli leader whose positions on the “peace process” will be closer to his own than Netanyahu’s, he should think again: There isn’t one.

It’s not that they don’t exist in theory: Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni both deem an agreement with the Palestinians top priority, fall somewhere to the left of Netanyahu and Yacimovich on specific final-status issues, and are reportedly considering running. There’s only one problem: They have virtually no support. Between them, they have held almost every senior cabinet portfolio, whereas Yacimovich is a second-term MK with no cabinet experience whatsoever. Yet when pollsters asked Israelis last week who should lead the center-left bloc, Yacimovich got more votes than Olmert and Livni combined.

That’s no accident, any more than the fact that Labor – the party that signed the Oslo Accords and has traditionally headed Israel’s self-described “peace camp” – overwhelmingly voted to be led by a woman who deems socioeconomic issues more important than peace talks (“Before we … engage in a struggle for peace, we need to have a state,” as she put it). As I’ve written before, this has been the mainstream Israeli view for years. It just took a while to produce mainstream party leaders who agreed.

Today, Israel has two: Netanyahu and Yacimovich. One of them will be running Israel for the next four years. And the sooner Obama comes to terms with that fact, the better.

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Obama Win Won’t Derail Netanyahu

There’s little doubt that Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu wasn’t celebrating President Obama’s re-election, but he has more important things on his mind today than commiserating with his old Boston colleague Mitt Romney. Netanyahu’s priority is his own re-election campaign. But with Obama now in place for the next four years, speculation centers on whether that makes it less likely that the prime minister can skate to an easy victory in the Israeli balloting scheduled for the day after Obama takes the oath of office again in January.

Most Israelis understand that among any prime minister’s most important tasks is maintaining close relations with their country’s only ally, the United States. Many of Netanyahu’s foes, including American Jewish left-wingers, have spent the last four years hoping that the clashes between Obama and the prime minister would sooner or later undermine his grip on power and either topple his government or sink him at the next election. Yet despite years of often non-stop fights picked with him by the Americans, Netanyahu has prospered. The question now is whether Obama’s victory changes the equation enough to actually place Netanyahu in political jeopardy. But while the certain prospect of four more years of clashes between the two leaders ought to trouble both Israelis and Americans, Netanyahu probably hasn’t too much to worry about.

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There’s little doubt that Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu wasn’t celebrating President Obama’s re-election, but he has more important things on his mind today than commiserating with his old Boston colleague Mitt Romney. Netanyahu’s priority is his own re-election campaign. But with Obama now in place for the next four years, speculation centers on whether that makes it less likely that the prime minister can skate to an easy victory in the Israeli balloting scheduled for the day after Obama takes the oath of office again in January.

Most Israelis understand that among any prime minister’s most important tasks is maintaining close relations with their country’s only ally, the United States. Many of Netanyahu’s foes, including American Jewish left-wingers, have spent the last four years hoping that the clashes between Obama and the prime minister would sooner or later undermine his grip on power and either topple his government or sink him at the next election. Yet despite years of often non-stop fights picked with him by the Americans, Netanyahu has prospered. The question now is whether Obama’s victory changes the equation enough to actually place Netanyahu in political jeopardy. But while the certain prospect of four more years of clashes between the two leaders ought to trouble both Israelis and Americans, Netanyahu probably hasn’t too much to worry about.

If Obama were to signal his hope that somebody other than Netanyahu would win in January it wouldn’t be all that unusual. Israelis and Americans have been interfering in each other’s elections for decades with the latter generally having a lot more impact on the opinions of Israeli voters than the reverse. The disfavor with which the administration of the first President Bush regarded Yitzhak Shamir was thought to have materially contributed to the Likud prime minister’s defeat in 1992. Seven years later, Netanyahu’s first stay in the prime minister’s residence was cut short in no small measure because of President Clinton’s obvious disdain for him.

Netanyahu was widely criticized at home this fall after publicizing Obama’s refusal to meet him in New York during the opening of the United Nations General Assembly to discuss setting “red lines” about diplomacy with Iran. The prime minister’s comments about the time were seen as an effort to undermine Obama during his own re-election campaign, and many Israelis were uncomfortable with the intervention as well as the prospect of their prime minister being seen as trying to pressure the United States into conflict with Iran.

But there are two problems with the idea that Obama’s undisguised animosity for Netanyahu will have a major impact on the Israeli election.

The first is that although Netanyahu’s political position looks a lot less secure than it did only a couple of months ago, there is still no plausible alternative to him in the field.

Netanyahu would probably have been better off going to early elections last spring rather than attempting to make a super coalition with Kadima work. That effort was doomed by Kadima’s futile attempt to revive its fortunes at Likud’s expense. Had the prime minister passed on that experiment, elections would have probably already been held and he would be now safely re-elected with Obama having nothing to say about it.

I also agree with those who argue that Netanyahu’s recent decision to merge the Likud with Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party may yield his party less seats than the current combined total of the two groups. Netanyahu’s determination to consolidate the right behind his banner will allow his opponents to portray him as being in the pocket of extremist forces rather than as the leader of the center-right coalition. Yair Lapid’s new party may benefit from this realignment, in which it can gain more votes in the center.

But those expecting a new super party of centrists and various left-wingers to take on Netanyahu, with some failed politician like Ehud Olmert or Tzipi Livni at the helm, are probably dreaming. None of those likely to lead opposing parties are seen as even remotely having a chance to defeat Likud. Moreover, even if the Likud/Lieberman alignment loses seats, polls show the current coalition parties from the nationalist and the religious camps still easily winning a majority in the next Knesset.

Nothing Obama can say or do will make any of the alternatives to Netanyahu a realistic alternative and the president probably understands he would be foolish to try.

Second, and even more important, for all of the fear that Israelis have of the idea of there being daylight between their country and the U.S., they dislike and distrust Obama far more than they worry about Netanyahu. Every spat with Netanyahu strengthened the Israeli because most of the fights Obama picked were on issues on which the prime minister was able to defend the Israeli consensus, such as Jerusalem. Were he to start sending signals that he wants Netanyahu defeated, most Israelis would rightly interpret that as a prelude to more pressure on their country to give on such issues and that would, as it has throughout the last four years, strengthen rather than weaken Netanyahu.

The prime minister faces a tougher fight now than he might have had if the elections had come sooner or it Romney had won the American election. But Netanyahu remains a prohibitive favorite to win his own new four-year lease on power. The prospect of four more years of Obama-Netanyahu spats is disturbing, especially if Obama seeks to compromise on a nuclear Iran or hasn’t learned his lesson about the Palestinians’ disinterest in peace. But it isn’t likely that there is anything Barack Obama can do to prevent a Netanyahu win in January.

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Why Likud Wants to Absorb Israel Beiteinu

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Kadima Back to the Likud?

A day is a long time in politics. In Israel, apparently so are a few hours. Prime Minister Netanyahu’s new coalition, comprising an extraordinary 94 MKs (of 120), leaves Israel’s unprecedented election campaign…unprecedented. Inevitably, the flights of these fowl have been scrutinized to divine the causes and forecast the effects of this rather stunning development.

One regrettable feature of the coverage is the tiresome obsession of the punditocracy with interpreting every move Netanyahu makes as clearing the path to attack Iran (holding elections makes it easier; cancelling elections makes it easier). There is more to Israel than Iran.

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A day is a long time in politics. In Israel, apparently so are a few hours. Prime Minister Netanyahu’s new coalition, comprising an extraordinary 94 MKs (of 120), leaves Israel’s unprecedented election campaign…unprecedented. Inevitably, the flights of these fowl have been scrutinized to divine the causes and forecast the effects of this rather stunning development.

One regrettable feature of the coverage is the tiresome obsession of the punditocracy with interpreting every move Netanyahu makes as clearing the path to attack Iran (holding elections makes it easier; cancelling elections makes it easier). There is more to Israel than Iran.

Indeed, the new grand-super-uber coalition is a big opportunity for Netanyahu. He is now the king of Israeli politics (as if he wasn’t before), and with an irredeemably opportunistic and vacuous Kadima behind him, he can do great things: the Tal Law, the power of the rabbinate, the budget deficits, the socio-economic inequality, electoral reform, the Supreme Court, the basic laws, religion and state – conversations on each of these were going to take place during the election campaign. Instead, they can take place within the government.

But – speculation warning! – there may be an ulterior factor at play here. And it concerns Kadima, the centrist party founded by Ariel Sharon and populated mainly by then-Likudniks to implement his Disengagement Plan back in 2005. A darling of Western liberals, it is a party born of necessity and lived by opportunism. Indeed, by the admission of one of its own MKs, whether due to its members or its centrism, it ‘’has no clear ideology on almost any topic.’’ Such a faction is a wonderfully malleable addition to any coalition, as far as any prime minister is concerned.

But Netanyahu may have something else in mind. The rightist factions in Israeli politics, recognizing their limited success with fringe parties, have set their eyes on the Likud, looking to increase their power within that mainstream party. (This has also been going on with the Arabs and fringe Left in the Labor Party.) Netanyahu knew he would have to face this Likud Party at the party’s convention before the general election, and, though his own position was not in doubt, he was concerned about what sort of list his party would elect for him to lead to elections and bring to the Knesset. Even on the night this last minute coalition deal was struck, there was some indication of this schism: upon being pressed to assert sovereignty over the Ulpana Hill neighborhood of Bet-El in the West Bank which the Supreme Court has opposed, he responded that the elections have been postponed. That is, without impending elections, he has no need to pander to his more conservative base.

But he knows the time will soon come that he will have to face that base again. Is it possible he would prefer to do so with the old Likudniks of Kadima (including Shaul Mofaz) at his side back within the party? It is obvious why Mofaz wanted to delay elections – because he and his party would be consigned to the margin. But is it possible that Netanyahu sees an opportunity to moderate his party by – in Israeli political parlance – ‘‘bringing home’’ its unfaithful?

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Israel’s Unprecedented Election Campaign

Despite the barrage of foreign criticism suffered by Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu during his three-year, second term in office, his political achievements are considerable: his has been perhaps the most stable government in living memory, and that government has managed to relegate foreign and security policy to an unprecedented degree.

After all, despite the protestations of several former politicians and security officials (including Olmert, Dagan, Diskin, and Halevy), there is consensus on the Iranian nuclear question (Israel must continue to do everything necessary), and there is consensus on the Palestinian Arab question (the ball is in their court). This means that Israel can finally have the election campaign it has long deserved: a domestic policy election, which will focus on the role of religion in Israel and on socio-economic inequality.

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Despite the barrage of foreign criticism suffered by Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu during his three-year, second term in office, his political achievements are considerable: his has been perhaps the most stable government in living memory, and that government has managed to relegate foreign and security policy to an unprecedented degree.

After all, despite the protestations of several former politicians and security officials (including Olmert, Dagan, Diskin, and Halevy), there is consensus on the Iranian nuclear question (Israel must continue to do everything necessary), and there is consensus on the Palestinian Arab question (the ball is in their court). This means that Israel can finally have the election campaign it has long deserved: a domestic policy election, which will focus on the role of religion in Israel and on socio-economic inequality.

The government has dissolved in anticipation of the expiration in August of the Tal Law, which grants ultra-Orthodox/haredi Jews exemptions from military service. The question of how to replace this law will feature prominently in this electoral campaign, as will the more general conversation about the roles of the haredim and Israeli Arabs in Israeli society, and the related, ongoing controversies about conversion (and marriage, burial, etc.), haredi treatment of women, and the power of the chief rabbinate.

Indeed, the voices on these issues have already mobilized. Yair Lapid, a media personality and son of a former well-known minister, has launched a new party to run on such issues. And so has Rabbi Chaim Amsellem, who was expelled from the Sephardic haredi party, Shas, for pressing for a more lenient approach to conversion – though one still within the parameters of Orthodox Jewish law. Meanwhile, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beteinu party will also weigh in on these questions, which are of interest to its rightist and Russian immigrant constituencies. And the ultra-Orthodox and Arab parties will, naturally, pursue their predictable positions as well.

Meanwhile, with one of the few economies in the world to have withstood the global recession, Israel is able to focus more closely from a position of strength on inequities in its society. And with last summer’s tent protests still fresh in the Israeli memory, Labor’s Shelly Yachimovich will make these socio-economic issues the center of her party’s campaign. It is a testament to the bankruptcy of leftist approaches to the Arab-Israeli conflict that she has been elevated to her party’s leadership. The ultra-Orthodox and Arab parties – both representing poorer and more peripheral areas and groups (remember Shas has broader Sephardic support beyond its haredi base) – may also insert themselves into this conversation as well.

Not only will these parties campaign on their niche issues, but the big parties (Likud, Kadima, and Labor) will have to answer on them as well, and this may give the electorate an idea of what governing coalition will emerge – for although Netanyahu’s Likud may be poised for a big victory come September, the constitution of the Knesset as a whole will determine which policies will ultimately be enacted.

Regardless of one’s opinions on the role of religion and on the reality and resolution of socio-economic concerns in Israeli society, it is about time Israel had a real electoral conversation on these matters. Israel has Netanyahu to thank for it. And, if the polls are indicative, they will.

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Netanyahu’s Overwhelming Mandate

With the approval of the outgoing Knesset, Israel is moving toward early elections that will send its people to the polls on September 4. The decision will allow a new government to be in place in advance of the U.S. presidential contest that will take place two months later. If Israeli opinion polls are correct that will mean even if President Obama is re-elected, he still will be faced with his old antagonist Benjamin Netanyahu as his counterpart in the U.S.-Israel alliance.

Since Obama spent much of his first term seeking to undermine if not oust Netanyahu from office, the timing of the elections may be no coincidence. Past American presidents such as the elder George Bush and Bill Clinton sought to intervene in Israeli elections to procure a more pliant Israeli negotiating partner. But with Obama fighting hard to hold onto Jewish votes by assuming the pose of Israel’s best friend, he dare not take a swipe at Netanyahu before the September vote. Given the lopsided result that pollsters expect, it might not make a difference even if he did try it.

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With the approval of the outgoing Knesset, Israel is moving toward early elections that will send its people to the polls on September 4. The decision will allow a new government to be in place in advance of the U.S. presidential contest that will take place two months later. If Israeli opinion polls are correct that will mean even if President Obama is re-elected, he still will be faced with his old antagonist Benjamin Netanyahu as his counterpart in the U.S.-Israel alliance.

Since Obama spent much of his first term seeking to undermine if not oust Netanyahu from office, the timing of the elections may be no coincidence. Past American presidents such as the elder George Bush and Bill Clinton sought to intervene in Israeli elections to procure a more pliant Israeli negotiating partner. But with Obama fighting hard to hold onto Jewish votes by assuming the pose of Israel’s best friend, he dare not take a swipe at Netanyahu before the September vote. Given the lopsided result that pollsters expect, it might not make a difference even if he did try it.

Some kibbitzers have asserted that Israeli polls that show Netanyahu’s coalition gaining seats should not be misinterpreted as a personal mandate for the prime minister, as his Likud Party is likely to get only 30 or 31 of the Knesset’s 120 seats. That’s a foolish argument. If that is how the voting goes, such a result would still place Likud as the largest party by far and in position to command an easy majority with its normal coalition partners. Due to its proportional voting system, no party has ever won a majority on its own. But a new poll sponsored by the left-wing Haaretz newspaper shows Netanyahu is also the overwhelming choice of Israelis to be their prime minister.

In the poll, Israeli voters were asked which of the several party leaders they wanted to see become prime minister. Despite the multiple choices available, nearly a majority — 48 percent — chose Netanyahu. His closest competitor was Labor Party head Shelly Yacimovich at 15 percent. The only others to register anything beyond minimal support were Yisrael Beitenu’s Avigdor Lieberman (who serves as Netanyahu’s foreign minister) at 9 percent and Kadima’s new leader Shaul Mofaz, who got only 6 percent despite his claim to be the only viable alternative to the incumbent.

The survey also asked Israelis what they thought of the criticisms of former Shin Bet head Yuval Diskin that Netanyahu and Defense Minister Barak were “messianics” who aren’t fit to lead the country. That result will also give no comfort to Netanyahu’s foreign and domestic critics who have hyped the story about Diskin as it noted Israelis disagree with the assertion by a 51-25 percent margin.

While four months can be a lifetime in politics, given the utter lack of support for Netanyahu’s putative rivals, his re-election is close to a lock. This has to frustrate Obama, who has made his distaste for Netanyahu no secret. It also sets up a possible timetable for the confrontation with Iran that may not conform to the president’s plans.

As some of Netanyahu’s Israeli critics have noted, the timing of the Israeli election probably takes an attack on Iran off the table until after September. But that was the case anyway. An Israeli strike while the P5+1 talks with Iran were ongoing was always unthinkable. But that does leave a window of two months between the two elections that might allow an Israeli offensive against Iranian nuclear targets in advance of the U.S. elections, a juxtaposition that would make it difficult, if not impossible, for Obama to oppose or punish Israel for such a decision.

Count me among the skeptics that Israel would choose to act unilaterally under those seemingly favorable circumstances. But Iran notwithstanding, by securing his re-election in advance of 2013, Netanyahu is ensuring that a U.S. president will not be able to use his clout to try and get him defeated the way Clinton did in both 1996 and 1999. Netanyahu’s overwhelming democratic mandate will largely insulate him against U.S. pressure even if Obama is also re-elected.

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Elections Will Clarify Zionism’s “Crisis”

So-called “liberal Zionists” like author Peter Beinart have been mounting an all-out campaign to undermine any notion that the proper attitude of American Jews toward Israel is support of its current government. Beinart and others on the left don’t like Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and believe their sensibilities rather than his judgment ought to be regarded as the proper path for the Jewish state. Though Beinart and other foreign liberals tend to regard the realities of the conflict with the Palestinians as mere details that only serve as an impediment to the implementation of their vision of peace, they are entitled to their opinions. But should it take precedence over that of the Israeli people?

Beinart and others who think Zionism is in “crisis” are about to get another lesson in Zionist democracy. With it becoming increasingly clear that Netanyahu will agree to move up the date for the next parliamentary elections to perhaps as early as September 4, those carping about the direction Israel has taken on the peace process, settlements, the Iranian threat, the religious-secular divide or any other issue will have an opportunity to watch Israeli democracy in action. The voters will have the opportunity to throw out Netanyahu and elect a government more in line with the views of Beinart and J Street. But, if as widely expected, they return Netanyahu to power with an even larger majority, shouldn’t there be some expectation these “liberal Zionists” will respect the will of the people?

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So-called “liberal Zionists” like author Peter Beinart have been mounting an all-out campaign to undermine any notion that the proper attitude of American Jews toward Israel is support of its current government. Beinart and others on the left don’t like Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and believe their sensibilities rather than his judgment ought to be regarded as the proper path for the Jewish state. Though Beinart and other foreign liberals tend to regard the realities of the conflict with the Palestinians as mere details that only serve as an impediment to the implementation of their vision of peace, they are entitled to their opinions. But should it take precedence over that of the Israeli people?

Beinart and others who think Zionism is in “crisis” are about to get another lesson in Zionist democracy. With it becoming increasingly clear that Netanyahu will agree to move up the date for the next parliamentary elections to perhaps as early as September 4, those carping about the direction Israel has taken on the peace process, settlements, the Iranian threat, the religious-secular divide or any other issue will have an opportunity to watch Israeli democracy in action. The voters will have the opportunity to throw out Netanyahu and elect a government more in line with the views of Beinart and J Street. But, if as widely expected, they return Netanyahu to power with an even larger majority, shouldn’t there be some expectation these “liberal Zionists” will respect the will of the people?

The problem for these left-wing critics is that although they think Israel is in need of being saved from itself, most Israelis disagree. The majority there appears ready to vote for the parties that make up the current coalition because they believe there is no viable alternative on either security or domestic issues. Netanyahu is far from perfect, but his positions reflect the broad consensus of the Israeli public on the key issues of the day.

That puts people like Beinart in something of a bind. You can’t preach about preserving Israeli democracy while at the same time claim elections there mean nothing. Friends of Israel, even those who style themselves critics of its government’s policies, are not obligated to become Netanyahu cheerleaders. But once the voters have decided, there is some obligation to respect the democratic process.

Many on the Jewish left have spent the last three years since Netanyahu’s election in 2009 acting as if his win was an accident that can be set aside by President Obama with their support. The problem with Beinart and those who agree with him is not so much that they would like Netanyahu replaced, but that they believe Washington should override the verdict of the Israeli electorate on the peace process. While Israelis take the views of its only superpower ally seriously, the notion that they should be dictated to on matters of war and peace is intolerable. So, too, is the idea that American Jews like Beinart, whose grasp of the nuances of Israeli society and politics is minimal, have a unique understanding of how to reform the country so as to have it conform to their own liberal vision of Zionism. As much as world Jewry has a vital stake in the preservation of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, policy decisions must be left in the hands of the people who live there.

It can be argued that the current consensus renders early elections an unnecessary distraction. But they do serve the purpose of reminding Beinart and other American Jews that Israel’s people will be presented with a clear set of choices and will then make their decisions. Liberals who would prefer a different outcome than a Netanyahu victory can go on preaching that Israel would be better served by his defeat. But once he is re-elected, they are also obligated to recognize that in a democracy, the losing side accepts the outcome. No one can claim to be a Zionist, even someone of the liberal or progressive persuasion, and claim he can reject not just the government but the Israeli people who elected it.

Israel is not perfect, and the peculiar compromises on the religious/secular divide may grate on the sensibilities of Americans. But contrary to the gloom and doom scenarios envisioned by Beinart and others who think it is heading for destruction, it is a vibrant, successful and thriving democracy. Most Israelis don’t think they need to be saved by the likes of Beinart. After the next election, he should take the hint.

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Israeli Spook Revolt is Politics as Usual

The international press is doing its best to hype critical remarks about Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu uttered by Yuval Diskin, the retired head of the Shin Bet security service, into a sign the government is in trouble. Diskin, a respected figure who retired last year, is the latest veteran spook to express his disdain for Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak and their stance on the nuclear threat from Iran. That there is a debate in the highest intelligence circles about the best strategy for dealing with Iran has never been a secret. But what Diskin’s comments and other attacks on Netanyahu from former Mossad chief Meir Dagan reflect is not so much a revolt of the experts against the politicians but a standard trope of Israeli politics in which those who are frustrated about the fact that their ideas have not won the support of the Israeli public seek to overturn the verdict of democracy by appealing to the press and international opinion. It is no more likely to succeed now than in the past.

Though foreign news outlets treated Diskin’s remarks as a huge story that can be spun as part of a negative trend for Netanyahu, even the left-wing press in Israel is skeptical about that. Haaretz’s Yossi Verter noted that the personal nature of Diskin’s rant against Netanyahu and Barak at what he termed a “gathering of defense establishment pensioners” undermined their credibility. Unlike the foreign press, most Israelis are aware that Dagan’s animus against Netanyahu and Barak stems from the fact that he was fired from his post. That Diskin was passed over to replace Dagan may also explain his hard feelings. Moreover, the utter lack of public support for alternatives to Netanyahu or his policies makes farcical the claim in today’s New York Times that there is an “avalanche” of criticism about his stand on Iran.

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The international press is doing its best to hype critical remarks about Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu uttered by Yuval Diskin, the retired head of the Shin Bet security service, into a sign the government is in trouble. Diskin, a respected figure who retired last year, is the latest veteran spook to express his disdain for Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak and their stance on the nuclear threat from Iran. That there is a debate in the highest intelligence circles about the best strategy for dealing with Iran has never been a secret. But what Diskin’s comments and other attacks on Netanyahu from former Mossad chief Meir Dagan reflect is not so much a revolt of the experts against the politicians but a standard trope of Israeli politics in which those who are frustrated about the fact that their ideas have not won the support of the Israeli public seek to overturn the verdict of democracy by appealing to the press and international opinion. It is no more likely to succeed now than in the past.

Though foreign news outlets treated Diskin’s remarks as a huge story that can be spun as part of a negative trend for Netanyahu, even the left-wing press in Israel is skeptical about that. Haaretz’s Yossi Verter noted that the personal nature of Diskin’s rant against Netanyahu and Barak at what he termed a “gathering of defense establishment pensioners” undermined their credibility. Unlike the foreign press, most Israelis are aware that Dagan’s animus against Netanyahu and Barak stems from the fact that he was fired from his post. That Diskin was passed over to replace Dagan may also explain his hard feelings. Moreover, the utter lack of public support for alternatives to Netanyahu or his policies makes farcical the claim in today’s New York Times that there is an “avalanche” of criticism about his stand on Iran.

It’s important to reiterate that the disagreements in Israel about Iran policy are not about the nature of the threat or even whether anything should be done about it as is often claimed by those seeking to downplay the issue. The question is about the timing of an attack, with Netanyahu’s critics claiming he is wrong to push for one now.

But this is an entirely false issue. It is highly unlikely that Israel would attack Iran while the U.S. is negotiating with it even if Netanyahu rightly suspects the current P5+1 talks are an Iranian ruse. The attacks on Netanyahu are merely a way for disgruntled former employees to vent their spleen at the prime minister’s political success and to try and hurt his standing abroad.

The animus against Netanyahu and his center-right government from the defense establishment and the government bureaucracy as well as most of the country’s traditional media outlets is well-known. Their frustration about his survival in power is compounded by the fact that he appears to be set for a cakewalk in the next elections which, incredibly, some opposition parties are pushing to be advanced from their scheduled date next year. As journalist Amir Mizroch writes, Dagan and Diskin — two men with axes to grind against the prime minister – may be “smelling elections in the air.”

Although the Dagan and Diskin affairs are in a sense unprecedented, because until now Israeli defense and security officials have not misbehaved in this manner, what is going on is just Israeli politics as usual. If these men and those Israeli and foreign journalists who are trying to make this into a major story are frustrated and angry now, just imagine how they’ll feel after Netanyahu is re-elected.

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