Commentary Magazine


Topic: Labor

Does Iran Agreement Make an Israeli Unity Government More Likely?

The negotiating posture of the Jewish Home party’s Naftali Bennett can best be described as a strange mix of hardball and desperation. After Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud won the most seats in last month’s Knesset elections, he was tasked with forming a governing coalition. Jewish Home’s share of the Knesset seats dropped to single digits. The result has left Bennett demanding a princely sum to join the coalition while also insisting he’s being ignored so Likud can bring Labor into the coalition. Only a couple of weeks ago it seemed completely unrealistic, but is it less so now in light of the U.S.-Iran “framework” agreement?

Read More

The negotiating posture of the Jewish Home party’s Naftali Bennett can best be described as a strange mix of hardball and desperation. After Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud won the most seats in last month’s Knesset elections, he was tasked with forming a governing coalition. Jewish Home’s share of the Knesset seats dropped to single digits. The result has left Bennett demanding a princely sum to join the coalition while also insisting he’s being ignored so Likud can bring Labor into the coalition. Only a couple of weeks ago it seemed completely unrealistic, but is it less so now in light of the U.S.-Iran “framework” agreement?

The argument goes something like this. The classic cliché of Israeli politics is that only the left can make war and only the right can make peace, because each would have enough support for the initiative from the opposition leaders to prevent domestic politics from getting in the way. It’s an exaggeration but there’s much truth to it. Netanyahu signed a deal with Arafat at Wye River and Ariel Sharon instituted the Gaza disengagement, while Israel’s major land wars were mostly wrapped up by the time the left lost its first Knesset election.

This dynamic, plus the politician’s ever-present desire to be a part of legacy-defining events, has made a possible unity government in which Likud would bring Labor into the coalition more realistic. The event in question, of course, is an attack on Iran’s nuclear infrastructure.

If a final deal on Iran’s nuclear program does actually get signed, whether it’s by the June 30 deadline or a later date, the devil will be in the details. But the framework agreement, intended to be an outline for a final deal, is a monument to the Obama administration’s serial capitulation.

A best-case scenario is that the deal would establish and legitimize Iran as a threshold nuclear power–though it is unlikely anyone will be able to see the best-case scenario from wherever we actually end up in late June. All of which means Obama is willing to toss some more fuel on the fires of the Middle East on his way out the door. The allies he’s abandoned to this future will have to decide how best to put out the flames of Obama’s failures.

One way would be do something Netanyahu has always wanted to avoid: an Israeli strike on Iran. The Obama administration has boasted in the past that it exploited Netanyahu’s hesitation to use military force and Israel’s trust in America to prevent a strike on Iran. Team Obama now thinks an Israeli strike is so unlikely as to openly mock Bibi’s moderation (a moderation they won’t admit to unless it involves getting to toss grade-school insults at the Israelis).

Isaac Herzog, whose Labor Party seemed poised to go into the opposition, is not the dove the White House obviously thinks he is. Hence, a unity government might make sense.

But those who advocate a unity government, such as Haaretz’s Aluf Benn, are missing the fact that it is Herzog, not Netanyahu who is likely to be the largest impediment to such a coalition. Benn writes:

Netanyahu needs Herzog as a moderate foreign minister, who will be in charge of repairing relations with the Obama administration. There is no one suitable for the job in the proposed right-wing government. … Appointing Herzog will also enable Israel’s ambassador to the U.S. Ron Dermer, a right-wing political hack who is disconnected from the administration, to be replaced by a professional diplomat with experience and multiple connections, such as Israel’s ambassador to the UN Ron Prosor.

Why would Netanyahu dislike this arrangement? He would oppose swapping out Dermer not because he’d have any objection to Prosor but because it would be a stinging rebuke to his own close advisor. But giving a major position like foreign minister to Herzog would have a great deal of upside for him. Bringing Herzog into the government gives him an excuse not to have to choose between Avigdor Lieberman and Bennett for the Foreign Ministry. It would give him a more expansive governing mandate. It would not only tamp down leftist discontent if Israel does decide it needs to strike Iran but would also make it more challenging for Western leaders to whine about right-wing militancy after such a strike. It would clear the space, also, for possible electoral reforms that might make coalition-building less of a headache. And it would have Labor buy-in on Netanyahu’s preferred economic policies.

Indeed, in 2009 Netanyahu brought Labor into his coalition, though he perhaps wanted to have Ehud Barak as his defense minister more than any other benefit the party brought to the table. And he wanted the opposition party, Tzipi Livni’s Kadima, in the coalition too. Why not? The more the merrier.

But is there such a clear case for Herzog? Here he has to game out a few scenarios. Kadima went into steep decline soon after that election and Livni lost a battle for the party’s leadership. So Herzog might look at that and think the lesson is he should join the government when given the opportunity. Yet at the same time, Labor’s joining the Netanyahu government in that very same coalition was the final straw for Laborites who finally had their opportunity to get rid of Barak.

Herzog also has to be quite careful about internal dissent. After improving Labor’s gains in the last election, then-party leader Shelly Yachimovich lost her leadership battle to … Herzog. Meanwhile, Yachimovich might have been better positioned to lead Labor in this past election, in which economic issues played an important role. The last thing Herzog needs now is buyer’s remorse from his own supporters.

Additionally, Labor was neck and neck with Likud in the polls and then established a lead before the elections. Yet they lost, and it wasn’t all that close either. Perhaps Labor dropped the ball, or perhaps they just didn’t see what Likud pollsters swear they saw all along. Whatever the case, discontent with Herzog is likely to bubble up to the surface.

Will joining a Netanyahu government protect his leadership? It can be argued that it will increase his national stature by demonstrating a willingness to put patriotism above politics. And it might show the country that he is, in fact, no dove, and thus make him a more plausible prime minister going forward.

The problem is that all these benefits will likely inflame his leftist base, who are not so hawkish and who are sensitive to the idea of being coopted by Likud. Herzog will try to find the right balance, but it’s doubtful Netanyahu is the one who needs convincing here.

Read Less

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

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

Read More

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read Less

Israel’s Atomized Political System

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

Read More

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read Less

How to Understand the Israeli Elections: The Likud Civil War

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

Read More

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read Less

Should Obama Care Who Wins Israel’s Knesset Elections?

The latest polls out of Israel show basically a dead heat between Labor and Likud in the upcoming Knesset elections. Likud still has the advantage, because it will likely be easier for Likud to assemble a blocking coalition than for Labor to assemble a governing coalition should they win. But a Labor-Likud race is, in some ways, just like old times. And in the past, when there has been a close left-right election and a Democrat in the White House, the American president tended to dive into the Israeli election and seek to manipulate the outcome in favor of the left. Which raises the question: Will Barack Obama do the same this time around?

Read More

The latest polls out of Israel show basically a dead heat between Labor and Likud in the upcoming Knesset elections. Likud still has the advantage, because it will likely be easier for Likud to assemble a blocking coalition than for Labor to assemble a governing coalition should they win. But a Labor-Likud race is, in some ways, just like old times. And in the past, when there has been a close left-right election and a Democrat in the White House, the American president tended to dive into the Israeli election and seek to manipulate the outcome in favor of the left. Which raises the question: Will Barack Obama do the same this time around?

Actually, the more interesting question is: Should Obama care who wins? Obviously we know he does care. He hates Netanyahu, and Obama and co-president Valerie Jarrett tend to make policy based on personal grievances and petty grudges rather than on basic rationality. So Obama will care who wins, and perhaps even seek to, yet again, influence the results.

But he shouldn’t care. (Even if he did, he shouldn’t meddle, but the days when Obama could be convinced to respect the sovereignty and democracy of allies are over, if they ever existed.) Bibi Derangement Syndrome has caused American politicos and commentators to do very strange things. For Obama, this has meant downgrading the U.S.-Israel military alliance while Israel was at war. For commentators, this has meant trying to recruit the corrupt and unpopular Ehud Olmert to return to politics.

So, being that the results of the Western left’s interaction with Israeli politics range from terrible to awful, it would benefit everyone involved if Obama gave up on trying to sabotage Israeli governments. And perhaps one way to convince him of that is to explain very clearly why it would be futile for him to meddle anyway.

That’s not because the left doesn’t have a chance to unseat Bibi; indeed it does (though still a longshot). Rather, it’s because the outcome of a Labor victory is unlikely to fundamentally change anything about the peace process.

Obama’s interest in Israel starts and ends with his attempts to get the Jewish state to give away land so he can boost his own presidential legacy. This is in part why Israelis have never come to trust Obama. He doesn’t know much about Israel, and he doesn’t show any interest in learning. For all his mistakes, this was simply not true of Bill Clinton. It was the opposite of true for George W. Bush, who gave moving speeches in Israel that testified to his love of the country and his deep knowledge and appreciation of its people and its history. Obama’s lack of intellectual curiosity is not limited to Israel, of course, but it certainly applies to it.

And so if his interest in Israel starts and ends with the peace process, his interest in Israeli national elections starts and ends there too. Thus Obama might assume that since Labor is traditionally more supportive of the peace process than Likud, and since Labor has added Tzipi Livni, who was Netanyahu’s peace envoy, to its combined electoral slate, therefore this election presents a stark choice between those Obama can manipulate and those Obama cannot. The reality, however, is more complicated, as reality tends to be.

The Israeli right is still benefiting from the collapse in public confidence in the left’s prosecution of national-security policy. Labor has recovered somewhat, but in recent years economic issues have hovered pretty close to the surface for Israeli voters. If Labor wins the election, it almost certainly won’t be seen as a mandate for giving away land to the Palestinians.

This is not only because Labor has less room to maneuver on this issue than the more security-trusted Likud. It’s also because the peace process is at a low point of the modern era, and it’s there because of Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry. The Clinton administration made some progress on this front, even if the ultimate failure of the Clinton initiative led to a wave of Palestinian violence. The Bush administration made more genuine progress on this front with the Gaza disengagement and the eventual proffer of a generous peace deal from Olmert to Mahmoud Abbas.

The Obama era has seen the resort to a wave of Palestinian violence but no progress leading up to it. In fact, the two sides have been pushed by Obama and Kerry farther apart than they’ve been in decades. When Obama gets involved in the peace process, there is simply no upside, only downside. If Labor wins, there is no room right now for a renewed peace process, and Obama only has two years left in office anyway.

Additionally, Labor would have to do more than just win the election. They would have to put together a governing coalition, and the math is aligned against them. This also mitigates against the Obama agenda; any coalition Labor could put together would probably have to include Avigdor Lieberman and/or the ultra-Orthodox.

It is doubtful that anything significant will change after the Knesset elections in March. That may be disappointing to Obama, but it also might stop him from once again recklessly meddling in the messy world of Israeli politics.

Read Less

For Netanyahu and Lieberman, Breaking Up Is Easy to Do

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

Read More

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read Less

Israel’s Equilibrium

Because of the consistent participation in Israel’s Knesset elections of new, ill-defined, and self-styled “centrist” parties, it can be difficult to accurately apply the labels “left” and “right” until after each election. Nonetheless, yesterday’s Israeli Knesset elections clearly represent a leftward shift. How far left? That remains to be seen. The election, as Evelyn noted, was about domestic issues and not the peace process. This is beneficial for Israelis, Jewish and Arab alike.

But because the resurgent Labor Party–which performed as well as it did because it has learned to downplay Oslo in favor of bread-and-butter issues–has more to gain long-term by staying out of the next governing coalition and regrouping and recruiting some more, the leftward shift will be most clearly felt on issues of religious identity. Simply put, the ultra-Orthodox will be up against something of a secular mandate. But all this will sort itself out in the coming weeks as coalition forming and its attendant horse-trading begins. The more interesting question for now is: Could the liberal American press, which hysterically predicted that the election would create a suicidally fascistic government, have known all along how wrong they were? The answer is yes–they just needed to learn a bit of Israeli history.

Read More

Because of the consistent participation in Israel’s Knesset elections of new, ill-defined, and self-styled “centrist” parties, it can be difficult to accurately apply the labels “left” and “right” until after each election. Nonetheless, yesterday’s Israeli Knesset elections clearly represent a leftward shift. How far left? That remains to be seen. The election, as Evelyn noted, was about domestic issues and not the peace process. This is beneficial for Israelis, Jewish and Arab alike.

But because the resurgent Labor Party–which performed as well as it did because it has learned to downplay Oslo in favor of bread-and-butter issues–has more to gain long-term by staying out of the next governing coalition and regrouping and recruiting some more, the leftward shift will be most clearly felt on issues of religious identity. Simply put, the ultra-Orthodox will be up against something of a secular mandate. But all this will sort itself out in the coming weeks as coalition forming and its attendant horse-trading begins. The more interesting question for now is: Could the liberal American press, which hysterically predicted that the election would create a suicidally fascistic government, have known all along how wrong they were? The answer is yes–they just needed to learn a bit of Israeli history.

Israeli elections often hover around what amounts to an equilibrium. Two mainstream parties–Likud and Labor, historically–usually compete to form either a center-right government or a center-left government. Floating centrist parties come and go, often within one election cycle. Kadima is the exception that proves the rule. It was created by Ariel Sharon just before he was incapacitated. Once it was out of government and led by Tzipi Livni, it remodeled itself as the peace party–its existence as such only made possible by the struggles of Labor. It is no surprise, then, that in yesterday’s election Labor’s surge back to respectability and the emergence of Yair Lapid’s new centrist party nearly wiped Kadima out completely.

The equilibrium includes an Orthodox party, Shas, and in recent years there’s been more of an effort to include specifically secular representation to make up for the fading of the Israeli left. For a couple of election cycles that has been Avigdor Lieberman’s Israel Beiteinu, which has pushed for conscription for the ultra-Orthodox, civil marriage, and the decentralization of the Rabbinate’s state authority. This is an important point because for all the media’s complaints of the electorate’s rightward shift, thanks to Lieberman the left had many of its policy preferences championed from within a supposedly right-wing government. Space for a new secular party opened up when Israel Beiteinu merged with Likud prior to this election.

And that gets at a broader problem with the “Israel’s lurch to the right” chorus. Israeli politicians have opinions on an array of issues, both foreign and domestic. The Western left elevates any politician’s opinion on the peace process above all others; Israelis are not so myopic or simplistic. A consensus has formed in Israel about Oslo, the peace process, and Jerusalem. Few politicians gain much success by being far beyond the parameters of that consensus–to the right or left. In recent years, the left has been outside those lines, clinging to the memories and legacy of Oslo and stuck in the mid-1990s. Labor has now emerged from that vacation from reality enough to offer coherent thoughts on domestic policy, and has been rewarded by the electorate for joining the country in the 21st century.

This doesn’t mean the country is anti-peace. It’s simply the hardheaded realism that sustains Israel’s electoral equilibrium. The peace process has a way of crowding out everything else–meetings, summits, negotiations, visits to and from every busybody who wants a piece of the action, and the parade of special envoys convinced they’re Kissinger abound. And that leaves no time or energy or political capital–and in Israel, everything takes political capital–to attend to domestic reforms.

The Western press may sneer at an election that was more about the price of cottage cheese than the future of the two-state solution, but that’s because they don’t for one second put themselves in Israelis’ shoes and walk a mile or two. Israelis are not pieces on a chessboard, and yes, the price of cottage cheese makes a difference (though that was really just a stand-in for a general sense of concern over certain household economic trends).

The ability to compartmentalize the issues and leave the peace process in its box every so often is essential for Israel. Liberal journalists don’t seem to have this ability to compartmentalize and thus they cannot see past Oslo. Call it the triumph of Haaretz over experience–the leftist press lives in its own world. The irony of all this is that only by discarding liberal editorial boards’ peace process fantasies has the Israeli left been able to rebound back from relative obscurity. You can be inside the consensus sustained by Israel’s equilibrium or you can have an obsessive focus on the peace process, but not both–as yesterday’s election demonstrated once again.

Read Less

Avigdor Lieberman’s Future

This morning, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s resignation from the Knesset went into effect. Lieberman’s rise and sustained popularity have always puzzled both his domestic political opponents and foreign observers. In part this is because Lieberman’s political persona is one paradox after another. He is a fervent secular nationalist in an age when Israelis tend to be either one or the other. In this, he is a modern rightist much in the mold of Israel’s founding Laborite fathers–another contradiction. And he is most powerful and influential in post-election coalition forming; far less so in his actual duties as foreign minister and deputy prime minister.

That helps explain why they don’t understand him; it’s far easier to explain why his opponents don’t like him. Among those reasons is why he is resigning now: the cloud of potential scandal and accusations of corruption have followed Lieberman for the better part of a decade now. Israeli Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein has announced that Lieberman will be indicted on breach of trust charges–the same charges on which former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was convicted. Lieberman will not, however, be charged with the more serious corruption charges, likely bringing an end to a long ordeal. (Lieberman was under suspicion of profiting from a business registered in his daughter’s name while he served in Knesset.) The actual indictment will only be accusing Lieberman of the lesser, but still serious, charge that he promoted Israel’s ambassador to Belarus in exchange for information on an investigation on him by Belarus authorities.

Read More

This morning, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s resignation from the Knesset went into effect. Lieberman’s rise and sustained popularity have always puzzled both his domestic political opponents and foreign observers. In part this is because Lieberman’s political persona is one paradox after another. He is a fervent secular nationalist in an age when Israelis tend to be either one or the other. In this, he is a modern rightist much in the mold of Israel’s founding Laborite fathers–another contradiction. And he is most powerful and influential in post-election coalition forming; far less so in his actual duties as foreign minister and deputy prime minister.

That helps explain why they don’t understand him; it’s far easier to explain why his opponents don’t like him. Among those reasons is why he is resigning now: the cloud of potential scandal and accusations of corruption have followed Lieberman for the better part of a decade now. Israeli Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein has announced that Lieberman will be indicted on breach of trust charges–the same charges on which former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was convicted. Lieberman will not, however, be charged with the more serious corruption charges, likely bringing an end to a long ordeal. (Lieberman was under suspicion of profiting from a business registered in his daughter’s name while he served in Knesset.) The actual indictment will only be accusing Lieberman of the lesser, but still serious, charge that he promoted Israel’s ambassador to Belarus in exchange for information on an investigation on him by Belarus authorities.

As for Lieberman’s political future, there is one variable that will make a big difference. If he is charged with what Israeli authorities rather solemnly call “moral turpitude,” it greatly complicates the controversy for him. Haaretz explains:

If Lieberman is convicted of a crime involving moral turpitude after he is presumably elected to the next Knesset, he would have to resign immediately. If he were convicted and also sentenced to a prison term of three months or more, he would be prevented from running for the Knesset for seven years after completing his sentence.

However, if the Yisrael Beiteinu chairman is convicted of a crime involving moral turpitude before the January 22 election without being sentenced to jail, he would be able to run in the election for the next Knesset. He would also be forced to resign from the current Knesset….

Lieberman has a significant interest in signing a plea bargain if it includes agreements with the State Prosecutor’s Office on the issue of moral turpitude. According to the Basic Law on the Government (1992), a person cannot be appointed minister for seven years after completion of a sentence for an offense bearing moral turpitude. A plea bargain stating that Lieberman’s offenses do not constitute moral turpitude would allow him to return to the cabinet even if he were convicted.

What happens if Lieberman is banned from the Knesset for seven years? Lieberman’s party, prior to its recent merger with Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud, was first and foremost a party to represent the Russian immigrant community, which now numbers about 13 percent of Israel’s population (which helps explain how he is able to garner so many seats in the Knesset–15, currently). Lieberman’s success with Israel Beiteinu was something of a watershed in Israeli electoral politics. As I explained in a July 2011 piece for COMMENTARY, ethnic and minority groups rarely held so much clout; the Mizrahi community–Jews from Arab lands–eventually threw its lot in with Menachem Begin and the Likud to achieve maximum representation in the Knesset, rather than form a minority party itself.

But that was at a time when Israeli politics were dominated by two major parties–Labor and Likud. The fragmentation of Israeli party politics means Lieberman’s vote total actually makes him a kingmaker, since it is nearly impossible to form a coalition–and even more difficult to form a stable coalition–without him.

Had Lieberman’s party remained independent, a conviction on “moral turpitude” would be devastating for Israel Beiteinu. It would be less so now that the party’s Knesset slate has merged with Likud. Netanyahu needs those votes to stay with Likud to win the next election, and possibly future elections as well. But a threat to bolt the party from the Russians–something Lieberman has done before–would seem to be empty without Lieberman at the helm.

That’s because Lieberman provides leadership and cohesion to the group. The Russian immigrant community has never been able to successfully mobilize for elections without Lieberman. Natan Sharansky was considered a revolutionary among Russians and a hero in Israel, yet he was unable to lead a party of Russians with anything close to success. There are cultural reasons for this, and there are political reasons as well. Sharansky was just not a very good politician; Lieberman, on the other hand, is close to masterful at navigating the Israeli political scene. He is a tough-talking populist but a pragmatic legislator who knows how to advocate for his ethnic community while folding its story into the larger narrative of Israeli history.

But he is also brusque, undiplomatic, too dismissive of the Jewish Diaspora and can be as reckless on foreign policy (reportedly suggesting Israel consider toppling Mahmoud Abbas’s government, for example) as he is pragmatic on the home front. His domestic opponents, and a fair number of American Jews, want his political career to be finished by these charges. Lieberman can be a headache for Netanyahu as well, though he doesn’t want to push Lieberman’s constituents into the arms of the center-left–with whom they often vigorously agree on social and religious policy.

So it’s too early to tell if this will change everything or change nothing. But it’s doubtful it will be anywhere in between.

Read Less

Israeli Political Parties Find Their Voices

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

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

Read More

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read Less

Israeli Poll Shows Labor at a Crossroads

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

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

Read More

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read Less

Israeli Shakeup Another Setback for Obama

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read Less

Barak Pulls a Sharon

As Evelyn has noted, and in a move that surprised nobody except members of his own party, Ehud Barak today took a page from Ariel Sharon’s playbook, splitting from the ideologically founded movement he was leading to create a new centrist political party. Along with four other Labor members, the new party — it still doesn’t have a name — will remain committed to the current government, while in all likelihood the remaining members of Labor will, sooner or later, leave the coalition.

Before we dismiss the new party as yet another soon-forgotten splinter in Israeli politics, it’s worth considering the electoral reality Ehud Barak currently faces. When Sharon broke from Likud in 2005, he founded Kadima as a new centrist faction that would approve the disengagement from Gaza. Although he was joined by a few Labor icons like Shimon Peres and Chaim Ramon, many people saw in Kadima an incoherent collection of mostly moderate right-wingers and a few from the left. After Sharon’s stroke-induced departure from politics in early 2006, most people thought the party wouldn’t survive the next election.

They were wrong. Two leaders later, Kadima’s 28 seats is the largest single faction in the Knesset. This despite having few ranking members with serious governing experience, and despite the disgrace of its second leader, Ehud Olmert, and its finance minister, Avraham Hirschson, on corruption charges.

Why has Kadima survived? The answer should give pause to those who think Ehud Barak is on his last legs as an Israeli politician. For despite being essentially a Likud spin-off, Kadima has survived on the strength of a fairly large base of voters who traditionally saw themselves on the left — not the peace-process left of Yossi Beilin and Yossi Sarid, but rather the enlightened, heavily Ashkenazic, traditionally social-leaning yet nationalist left of David Ben-Gurion and Yitzhak Rabin. These are the voters who turned to Kadima in droves after the intifada made security more pressing, and more plausible, than peace — people who could never vote Likud for cultural reasons, even if they embraced most of its principles.

Nobody stands to lose more votes to Barak’s new party than Kadima. For if disaffected Laborites turned to Kadima as the closest expression of their political will, they may find a far more congenial home in the new party. As former IDF chief of staff and current defense minister, Barak suddenly embodies the pro-security, classic-Labor stance that neither the more dovish, pro-business, still-in-Labor types nor Kadima’s leader, Tzipi Livni, can hope to offer. To emphasize this, he’s taken with him a top former IDF general, Matan Vilnai. And he’s declared that his party “will follow David Ben-Gurion’s legacy.”

Much of how this turns out depends on the kind of people Barak can pull together around himself before the next election. If former-Labor people in Kadima start defecting to his new party, Israeli politics may see a major shift on the center-left. Barak’s personality has historically made it hard to keep the loyalty of those around him. But the field is open for him. Stay tuned.

As Evelyn has noted, and in a move that surprised nobody except members of his own party, Ehud Barak today took a page from Ariel Sharon’s playbook, splitting from the ideologically founded movement he was leading to create a new centrist political party. Along with four other Labor members, the new party — it still doesn’t have a name — will remain committed to the current government, while in all likelihood the remaining members of Labor will, sooner or later, leave the coalition.

Before we dismiss the new party as yet another soon-forgotten splinter in Israeli politics, it’s worth considering the electoral reality Ehud Barak currently faces. When Sharon broke from Likud in 2005, he founded Kadima as a new centrist faction that would approve the disengagement from Gaza. Although he was joined by a few Labor icons like Shimon Peres and Chaim Ramon, many people saw in Kadima an incoherent collection of mostly moderate right-wingers and a few from the left. After Sharon’s stroke-induced departure from politics in early 2006, most people thought the party wouldn’t survive the next election.

They were wrong. Two leaders later, Kadima’s 28 seats is the largest single faction in the Knesset. This despite having few ranking members with serious governing experience, and despite the disgrace of its second leader, Ehud Olmert, and its finance minister, Avraham Hirschson, on corruption charges.

Why has Kadima survived? The answer should give pause to those who think Ehud Barak is on his last legs as an Israeli politician. For despite being essentially a Likud spin-off, Kadima has survived on the strength of a fairly large base of voters who traditionally saw themselves on the left — not the peace-process left of Yossi Beilin and Yossi Sarid, but rather the enlightened, heavily Ashkenazic, traditionally social-leaning yet nationalist left of David Ben-Gurion and Yitzhak Rabin. These are the voters who turned to Kadima in droves after the intifada made security more pressing, and more plausible, than peace — people who could never vote Likud for cultural reasons, even if they embraced most of its principles.

Nobody stands to lose more votes to Barak’s new party than Kadima. For if disaffected Laborites turned to Kadima as the closest expression of their political will, they may find a far more congenial home in the new party. As former IDF chief of staff and current defense minister, Barak suddenly embodies the pro-security, classic-Labor stance that neither the more dovish, pro-business, still-in-Labor types nor Kadima’s leader, Tzipi Livni, can hope to offer. To emphasize this, he’s taken with him a top former IDF general, Matan Vilnai. And he’s declared that his party “will follow David Ben-Gurion’s legacy.”

Much of how this turns out depends on the kind of people Barak can pull together around himself before the next election. If former-Labor people in Kadima start defecting to his new party, Israeli politics may see a major shift on the center-left. Barak’s personality has historically made it hard to keep the loyalty of those around him. But the field is open for him. Stay tuned.

Read Less

The Left’s Canary Chokes in an Australian Mine

Australia faces its first federal hung parliament in 70 years — which is especially notable because, as the Sydney Morning Herald put it, “Australia is now established as the political canary in the American electoral coal-mine.”

In Australia, the political composition will likely force the left to choose between painful compromise and inaction. The irony is that citizens refused to believe Labor politicians’ newly adopted centrism — which is actually real, albeit reluctant, because it derives from political necessity. Instead they voted for honestly presented conservatives. American Democrats may find themselves in the same predicament soon.

Already one Labor prime minister, Kevin Rudd, has been impaled on a radical leftist agenda. Rudd finally resigned, and Julia Gillard became Australia’s first female prime minister, leading Labor in his place.

The American public may recognize the far-left mindset that drove Rudd’s shortsighted policy priorities. As yesterday’s Wall Street Journal pointed out, “[Rudd’s Keynesian] spending boom turned an A$19.7 billion surplus in 2007-2008 into an A$32.1 billion deficit the following fiscal year.” Rudd also pushed hard for economically unsound policies like cap-and-trade and a “super-profits tax” on Australia’s profitable mining industry. The Australian public was vociferously dissatisfied, and Labor is struggling to recover.

In the context of Rudd’s shunting, Gillard tried to regain the public’s trust in Labor by rebranding as a moderate.

American Democrats may be interested to know that the public apparently didn’t buy that centrist repositioning. Saturday’s election withheld a governing majority from Labor. Led by opposition prodigy Tony Abbott, the Liberals — Australia’s conservative party — have gained substantial public support in recent months, even though they too were unable to secure a governing majority. Now both Liberals and Labor are courting Green and Independent parliamentarians in an effort to build a coalition.

Unpleasant compromises now seem unavoidable for Labor, which spent its time in power trying to ram its agenda down voters’ throats despite the collective gag reflex. So Tony Abbott’s words might soon hold true for American Democrats: “I say that a Government which found it very hard to govern effectively with a majority of 17 seats will never be able to govern effectively in a minority.”

Australia faces its first federal hung parliament in 70 years — which is especially notable because, as the Sydney Morning Herald put it, “Australia is now established as the political canary in the American electoral coal-mine.”

In Australia, the political composition will likely force the left to choose between painful compromise and inaction. The irony is that citizens refused to believe Labor politicians’ newly adopted centrism — which is actually real, albeit reluctant, because it derives from political necessity. Instead they voted for honestly presented conservatives. American Democrats may find themselves in the same predicament soon.

Already one Labor prime minister, Kevin Rudd, has been impaled on a radical leftist agenda. Rudd finally resigned, and Julia Gillard became Australia’s first female prime minister, leading Labor in his place.

The American public may recognize the far-left mindset that drove Rudd’s shortsighted policy priorities. As yesterday’s Wall Street Journal pointed out, “[Rudd’s Keynesian] spending boom turned an A$19.7 billion surplus in 2007-2008 into an A$32.1 billion deficit the following fiscal year.” Rudd also pushed hard for economically unsound policies like cap-and-trade and a “super-profits tax” on Australia’s profitable mining industry. The Australian public was vociferously dissatisfied, and Labor is struggling to recover.

In the context of Rudd’s shunting, Gillard tried to regain the public’s trust in Labor by rebranding as a moderate.

American Democrats may be interested to know that the public apparently didn’t buy that centrist repositioning. Saturday’s election withheld a governing majority from Labor. Led by opposition prodigy Tony Abbott, the Liberals — Australia’s conservative party — have gained substantial public support in recent months, even though they too were unable to secure a governing majority. Now both Liberals and Labor are courting Green and Independent parliamentarians in an effort to build a coalition.

Unpleasant compromises now seem unavoidable for Labor, which spent its time in power trying to ram its agenda down voters’ throats despite the collective gag reflex. So Tony Abbott’s words might soon hold true for American Democrats: “I say that a Government which found it very hard to govern effectively with a majority of 17 seats will never be able to govern effectively in a minority.”

Read Less

The Great Absentee-Ballot Debate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read Less

Laboring for Obama

As others have aptly detailed, Patricia Smith, Obama’s nominee for solicitor of labor, has a problem with telling the truth. In an extraordinary detailed account, Republican senators have documented her repeated misstatements concerning a New York wage and hour program, the intention to expand the program, the involvement of organized labor in devising the program, and the intention of Big Labor to use the program to facilitate organizing efforts. She was passed out of committee on a straight party-line vote and last night, with Sen. Paul Kirk still casting votes, the Senate invoked cloture, 60-32. So this seems to be one gift to Big Labor on which the Democrats can still deliver. (Yes, there is something pernicious about keeping Kirk there to vote in favors for Obama’s Big Labor patrons.)

But it is not the only gift to Big Labor coming from the Democrats. There is also the nomination of Harold Craig Becker to the National Labor Relations Board. His hearing is set for today. Who is Becker? Here’s a handy summary:

Mr. Becker is associate general counsel at the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), which is most recently in the news for its close ties to Acorn, the disgraced housing shakedown operation. President Obama nominated Mr. Becker in April to the five-member NLRB, which has the critical job of supervising union elections, investigating labor practices, and interpreting the National Labor Relations Act. In a 1993 Minnesota Law Review article, written when he was a UCLA professor, Mr. Becker argued for rewriting current union-election rules in favor of labor. And he suggested the NLRB could do this by regulatory fiat, without a vote of Congress.

In that law-review article, Becker argues that employers should be not be allowed to attend NLRB hearings about elections and shouldn’t be permitted to challenge election results even if unions engage in misconduct. Under his regime, elections would not be held at workplaces and could be conducted by mail (a recipe for union intimidation and fraud). In Becker’s legal world, employers would not be permitted to even assign observers at elections to detect fraud.

And Becker too has a candor problem, previously refusing to answer questions as to whether he drafted pro-Labor executive orders for the Obama administration while still on the SEIU’s payroll. Aside from his obvious fidelity to Big Labor, his apparent willingness to implement a ridiculously biased set of rules through executive fiat and his reluctance to come clean on his work for the Obami, there are his Chicago connections:

One of the many accusations leveled against former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich is that he accepted money from the SEIU in return for taking actions giving collective bargaining rights to Illinois home health-care workers. While Mr. Becker denies any knowledge of, or role in, contributions to the former Governor, he does admit that he provided “advice and counsel to SEIU relating to proposed executive orders and proposed legislation giving homecare workers a right to organize and engage in collective bargaining under state law.”

Mr. Becker says he “worked with and provided advice” to SEIU Local 880 in Chicago, a beneficiary of the newly unionized health workers, and one of two SEIU locals currently in the national spotlight for its deep ties with Acorn. Mr. Becker denies working for Acorn or its affiliates, but as recently as April Acorn co-founder Wade Rathke praised Mr. Becker by name, noting “For my money, Craig’s signal contribution has been his work in crafting and executing the legal strategies and protections which have allowed the effective organization of informal workers, and by this I mean home health-care workers.”

Unlike Smith, Becker may not get a vote before Scott Brown is sworn in.

These two nominees tell us much about the Democrats and their dependence on Big Labor. When Obama talks about the unseemly influence of “special interests,” we should look no further than these two nominees, who—one supposes—are small consolation prizes to Big Labor, which has gotten precious little else from this adminstration after giving millions to elect Obama and large Democratic majorities in Congress. It is also yet another argument in favor of divided government. Without the comfort of huge Democratic majorities to rubber stamp its appointments, the White House would presumably think twice before sending up such defective nominees.

As others have aptly detailed, Patricia Smith, Obama’s nominee for solicitor of labor, has a problem with telling the truth. In an extraordinary detailed account, Republican senators have documented her repeated misstatements concerning a New York wage and hour program, the intention to expand the program, the involvement of organized labor in devising the program, and the intention of Big Labor to use the program to facilitate organizing efforts. She was passed out of committee on a straight party-line vote and last night, with Sen. Paul Kirk still casting votes, the Senate invoked cloture, 60-32. So this seems to be one gift to Big Labor on which the Democrats can still deliver. (Yes, there is something pernicious about keeping Kirk there to vote in favors for Obama’s Big Labor patrons.)

But it is not the only gift to Big Labor coming from the Democrats. There is also the nomination of Harold Craig Becker to the National Labor Relations Board. His hearing is set for today. Who is Becker? Here’s a handy summary:

Mr. Becker is associate general counsel at the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), which is most recently in the news for its close ties to Acorn, the disgraced housing shakedown operation. President Obama nominated Mr. Becker in April to the five-member NLRB, which has the critical job of supervising union elections, investigating labor practices, and interpreting the National Labor Relations Act. In a 1993 Minnesota Law Review article, written when he was a UCLA professor, Mr. Becker argued for rewriting current union-election rules in favor of labor. And he suggested the NLRB could do this by regulatory fiat, without a vote of Congress.

In that law-review article, Becker argues that employers should be not be allowed to attend NLRB hearings about elections and shouldn’t be permitted to challenge election results even if unions engage in misconduct. Under his regime, elections would not be held at workplaces and could be conducted by mail (a recipe for union intimidation and fraud). In Becker’s legal world, employers would not be permitted to even assign observers at elections to detect fraud.

And Becker too has a candor problem, previously refusing to answer questions as to whether he drafted pro-Labor executive orders for the Obama administration while still on the SEIU’s payroll. Aside from his obvious fidelity to Big Labor, his apparent willingness to implement a ridiculously biased set of rules through executive fiat and his reluctance to come clean on his work for the Obami, there are his Chicago connections:

One of the many accusations leveled against former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich is that he accepted money from the SEIU in return for taking actions giving collective bargaining rights to Illinois home health-care workers. While Mr. Becker denies any knowledge of, or role in, contributions to the former Governor, he does admit that he provided “advice and counsel to SEIU relating to proposed executive orders and proposed legislation giving homecare workers a right to organize and engage in collective bargaining under state law.”

Mr. Becker says he “worked with and provided advice” to SEIU Local 880 in Chicago, a beneficiary of the newly unionized health workers, and one of two SEIU locals currently in the national spotlight for its deep ties with Acorn. Mr. Becker denies working for Acorn or its affiliates, but as recently as April Acorn co-founder Wade Rathke praised Mr. Becker by name, noting “For my money, Craig’s signal contribution has been his work in crafting and executing the legal strategies and protections which have allowed the effective organization of informal workers, and by this I mean home health-care workers.”

Unlike Smith, Becker may not get a vote before Scott Brown is sworn in.

These two nominees tell us much about the Democrats and their dependence on Big Labor. When Obama talks about the unseemly influence of “special interests,” we should look no further than these two nominees, who—one supposes—are small consolation prizes to Big Labor, which has gotten precious little else from this adminstration after giving millions to elect Obama and large Democratic majorities in Congress. It is also yet another argument in favor of divided government. Without the comfort of huge Democratic majorities to rubber stamp its appointments, the White House would presumably think twice before sending up such defective nominees.

Read Less

Going, Going . . .

This is really not how prime ministers should behave. According to Haaretz, Israel’s prime minister, Ehud Olmert, has been handling his interrogations relating to the corruption charges facing him rather poorly: He granted police investigators precisely one hour for the latest questioning, and he did his best to make sure police could get in as few new questions as possible. He starts by launching into an extended tirade against leaks of the details of the investigation. Then he changes his testimony, asking that he re-answer questions from previous rounds. (Especially the part where he denies taking money from Morris Talansky.) According to another report, he also insisted that all his answers be written down, not just audio-recorded. “It was clear Olmert was taking up interrogation time deliberately,” said one source. “He knew well that the detectives asked for only one hour, and he felt he was waging a power struggle.”

In the meantime, Olmert’s Kadima party is already fighting over the spoils of their leader’s demise. Olmert has  promised to quit if indicted, a prospect that seems increasingly likely: Even if they can’t prove a quid pro quo for Talansky’s cash-in-envelopes donations that would be required for a bribery charge to stick, the donations themselves were apparently unreported and therefore in apparent flagrant breach of campaign-finance and money-laundering laws. Ehud Barak, head of the Labor party, Kadima’s main coalition partner, has already told Olmert that either he quits or Labor pulls out, bringing on elections. Meanwhile, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, front-runner to replace Olmert, has already started pushing for primaries in the party, to give Kadima a head-start in preparing for elections.

According to inside sources, Olmert himself is stalling, trying to figure out the most graceful way to step down. He could start by behaving himself with the police.

This is really not how prime ministers should behave. According to Haaretz, Israel’s prime minister, Ehud Olmert, has been handling his interrogations relating to the corruption charges facing him rather poorly: He granted police investigators precisely one hour for the latest questioning, and he did his best to make sure police could get in as few new questions as possible. He starts by launching into an extended tirade against leaks of the details of the investigation. Then he changes his testimony, asking that he re-answer questions from previous rounds. (Especially the part where he denies taking money from Morris Talansky.) According to another report, he also insisted that all his answers be written down, not just audio-recorded. “It was clear Olmert was taking up interrogation time deliberately,” said one source. “He knew well that the detectives asked for only one hour, and he felt he was waging a power struggle.”

In the meantime, Olmert’s Kadima party is already fighting over the spoils of their leader’s demise. Olmert has  promised to quit if indicted, a prospect that seems increasingly likely: Even if they can’t prove a quid pro quo for Talansky’s cash-in-envelopes donations that would be required for a bribery charge to stick, the donations themselves were apparently unreported and therefore in apparent flagrant breach of campaign-finance and money-laundering laws. Ehud Barak, head of the Labor party, Kadima’s main coalition partner, has already told Olmert that either he quits or Labor pulls out, bringing on elections. Meanwhile, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, front-runner to replace Olmert, has already started pushing for primaries in the party, to give Kadima a head-start in preparing for elections.

According to inside sources, Olmert himself is stalling, trying to figure out the most graceful way to step down. He could start by behaving himself with the police.

Read Less

Laboring Under A Misconception

Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have been dueling for the approval and support of Big Labor. Both have supported nearly every item on their wish list–including opposing secret ballot union elections and the Colombia free trade deal. Now Obama is in some hot water for (at the very least) giving the Teamsters the impression that he would lift the government supervision of the union which was enacted after mob infiltration and corruption were uncovered in the 1980’s. (The Teamsters, not surprisingly, rewarded him with their endorsement.)

If the shoe was on the other foot, and John McCain was carrying water for a corporate special interest, you could bet there would be a hue and cry. The reaction to the Democrats’ abject pandering to Big Labor is rather ho-hum, especially in the case of the Agent of Change. The media never seems to raise the concern that his devotion to banishing special interests is a bit one-sided (that is, he’s all for banishing the other guy’s special-interest supporters). Part of this is the media’s disinclination to press Obama and part is the fault of the McCain camp, which seems more obsessed with its own candidate’s image and press coverage than publicly and consistently going after his potential Democratic opponents for hypocrisy. So from the Democrats’ perspective, there is little downside if they keep on pandering to the whims of Big Labor.

Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have been dueling for the approval and support of Big Labor. Both have supported nearly every item on their wish list–including opposing secret ballot union elections and the Colombia free trade deal. Now Obama is in some hot water for (at the very least) giving the Teamsters the impression that he would lift the government supervision of the union which was enacted after mob infiltration and corruption were uncovered in the 1980’s. (The Teamsters, not surprisingly, rewarded him with their endorsement.)

If the shoe was on the other foot, and John McCain was carrying water for a corporate special interest, you could bet there would be a hue and cry. The reaction to the Democrats’ abject pandering to Big Labor is rather ho-hum, especially in the case of the Agent of Change. The media never seems to raise the concern that his devotion to banishing special interests is a bit one-sided (that is, he’s all for banishing the other guy’s special-interest supporters). Part of this is the media’s disinclination to press Obama and part is the fault of the McCain camp, which seems more obsessed with its own candidate’s image and press coverage than publicly and consistently going after his potential Democratic opponents for hypocrisy. So from the Democrats’ perspective, there is little downside if they keep on pandering to the whims of Big Labor.

Read Less

Democrats’ Risky Alliance with Big Labor

Barack Obama addressed the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO today. Both have a lot at stake. The AFL-CIO and other unions clearly see 2008 as their year. The AFL-CIO just announced a $53 million ad campaign aimed at attacking John McCain. Yes, Obama doesn’t accept special interest money. But he’s happy to benefit from union help, all the same.

Among Big Labor’s key objectives in recent years has been passage of the Orwellian-sounding Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA). That measure would replace secret ballot union elections with so-called “card checks” whereby cards signed by a majority of workers in the presence of union officials would be sufficient to unionize a workplace. Conservatives have long argued that such a measure would open up workers to union intimidation. Nevertheless, this remains a pet project for Big Labor, Congressional Democrats (who failed to pass it in 2007), and both Democratic presidential contenders. (Not surpringly, Obama plugged the EFCA in his AFL-CIO talk today.)

Now comes some evidence that Democrats do the bidding of Big Labor at their political peril. McLaughlin & Associates, a well-regarded GOP polling group, has conducted a survey for a business group, Coalition for a Democratic Workplace, in the battleground states of Minnesota, Colorado, and Maine. The results (according to the press release) show that large majorities of voters in Colorado (68%), Maine (72%), and Minnesota (65%) oppose the EFCA. Moreover, voters in Minnesota and Colorado would be less likely to support Democratic senate candidates who support the EFCA. (Specifically, a plurality of voters would be less likely to vote for Democratic Senate candidates Mark Udall (44%) and Al Franken (41%) if they support this legislation.) To boot, at least 80% of voters in all three states believe that secret ballot elections are the cornerstone of democracy and should be retained for union elections.

This is one more instance in which Democrats have confused the interests of union power brokers with the interests of working-class voters. Unions may want to do away with workplace democracy, but real workers do not. Similarly, teachers’ unions hate school choice measures, but working-class voters whose kids are trapped in underperforming public schools like them.

Will this slow down Big Labor or give Democratic politicians reason to reconsider their position? Probably not. But it’s an opening Republicans should exploit, now that they have some evidence to indicate it’s a smart strategy.

Barack Obama addressed the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO today. Both have a lot at stake. The AFL-CIO and other unions clearly see 2008 as their year. The AFL-CIO just announced a $53 million ad campaign aimed at attacking John McCain. Yes, Obama doesn’t accept special interest money. But he’s happy to benefit from union help, all the same.

Among Big Labor’s key objectives in recent years has been passage of the Orwellian-sounding Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA). That measure would replace secret ballot union elections with so-called “card checks” whereby cards signed by a majority of workers in the presence of union officials would be sufficient to unionize a workplace. Conservatives have long argued that such a measure would open up workers to union intimidation. Nevertheless, this remains a pet project for Big Labor, Congressional Democrats (who failed to pass it in 2007), and both Democratic presidential contenders. (Not surpringly, Obama plugged the EFCA in his AFL-CIO talk today.)

Now comes some evidence that Democrats do the bidding of Big Labor at their political peril. McLaughlin & Associates, a well-regarded GOP polling group, has conducted a survey for a business group, Coalition for a Democratic Workplace, in the battleground states of Minnesota, Colorado, and Maine. The results (according to the press release) show that large majorities of voters in Colorado (68%), Maine (72%), and Minnesota (65%) oppose the EFCA. Moreover, voters in Minnesota and Colorado would be less likely to support Democratic senate candidates who support the EFCA. (Specifically, a plurality of voters would be less likely to vote for Democratic Senate candidates Mark Udall (44%) and Al Franken (41%) if they support this legislation.) To boot, at least 80% of voters in all three states believe that secret ballot elections are the cornerstone of democracy and should be retained for union elections.

This is one more instance in which Democrats have confused the interests of union power brokers with the interests of working-class voters. Unions may want to do away with workplace democracy, but real workers do not. Similarly, teachers’ unions hate school choice measures, but working-class voters whose kids are trapped in underperforming public schools like them.

Will this slow down Big Labor or give Democratic politicians reason to reconsider their position? Probably not. But it’s an opening Republicans should exploit, now that they have some evidence to indicate it’s a smart strategy.

Read Less

Not So Kosher

If, like me, you are waiting to eat in Beijing’s first kosher restaurant—opened in anticipation of hordes of Jewish spectators at the Olympics—you probably hope a kosher kitchen is the answer to China’s food safety problems. Come to think of it, the Japanese might hope so, too. Last night’s news in Japan was dominated by a report that at least 10 people had fallen ill after eating pesticide-laced frozen pork dumplings manufactured in China. The news was unclear whether the pesticide was found inside the dumplings themselves, or saturated the inside of the bag in which they were shipped.

As is the case in Japan, this new “threat” to the country has immediately involved the highest levels, with the Minister of Health, Labor, and Welfare stating that more needs to be known about the conditions in the Chinese factory that made the dumplings, while executives of the import company that distributed the tainted food flew immediately to China to seek answers. Japanese news stations also traveled to the factory and interviewed local folk who stated that the pork coming out the factory was “not bad.” The news also noted that nearly all the factory’s workers live on the grounds, as is becoming common in factory towns around China. No reaction was given from Chinese officials, but to their credit they did not bar Japanese television crews from filming.

Japan has had its own share of food safety scandals lately, but nothing I’m aware of that includes poisons (rather it’s the mundane variety of re-labeling expired products or using expired ingredients—no one has become sick, as far as I know). What this does show is that China’s vast food export market is still very lightly supervised, and as its exports designed for human consumption grow by leaps and bounds, we are more and more likely to see repeated stories of unsafe products, illnesses, and possibly worse. China will be facing pressures on multiple fronts across the world, and how it reacts will tell us a great deal about the type of global player it is going to be. Meanwhile, make mine hummus.

UPDATE: By the time the Japanese import company’s official arrived, Chinese officials had removed all traces of material from the particular production line and claimed that they found no pesticide in the factory.  It is unclear if they have chosen to stonewall, but the dumplings of course came in sealed packages.

If, like me, you are waiting to eat in Beijing’s first kosher restaurant—opened in anticipation of hordes of Jewish spectators at the Olympics—you probably hope a kosher kitchen is the answer to China’s food safety problems. Come to think of it, the Japanese might hope so, too. Last night’s news in Japan was dominated by a report that at least 10 people had fallen ill after eating pesticide-laced frozen pork dumplings manufactured in China. The news was unclear whether the pesticide was found inside the dumplings themselves, or saturated the inside of the bag in which they were shipped.

As is the case in Japan, this new “threat” to the country has immediately involved the highest levels, with the Minister of Health, Labor, and Welfare stating that more needs to be known about the conditions in the Chinese factory that made the dumplings, while executives of the import company that distributed the tainted food flew immediately to China to seek answers. Japanese news stations also traveled to the factory and interviewed local folk who stated that the pork coming out the factory was “not bad.” The news also noted that nearly all the factory’s workers live on the grounds, as is becoming common in factory towns around China. No reaction was given from Chinese officials, but to their credit they did not bar Japanese television crews from filming.

Japan has had its own share of food safety scandals lately, but nothing I’m aware of that includes poisons (rather it’s the mundane variety of re-labeling expired products or using expired ingredients—no one has become sick, as far as I know). What this does show is that China’s vast food export market is still very lightly supervised, and as its exports designed for human consumption grow by leaps and bounds, we are more and more likely to see repeated stories of unsafe products, illnesses, and possibly worse. China will be facing pressures on multiple fronts across the world, and how it reacts will tell us a great deal about the type of global player it is going to be. Meanwhile, make mine hummus.

UPDATE: By the time the Japanese import company’s official arrived, Chinese officials had removed all traces of material from the particular production line and claimed that they found no pesticide in the factory.  It is unclear if they have chosen to stonewall, but the dumplings of course came in sealed packages.

Read Less

The Ruddslide

The Labor Party swept to power in today’s election in Australia, ending eleven years of rule by the center-right coalition led by the Liberals. The result is being called “a Ruddslide.” Kevin Rudd, a former diplomat, will be the nation’s next leader.

The losers in the election were the long-serving John Howard—and George W. Bush. No other national leader—not even Tony Blair—was a stauncher supporter of the American President than the now-defeated Australian prime minister. The two shared a conservative outlook on almost every matter of importance.

“Today Australia has looked to the future,” Rudd said as he claimed victory. So what does his version of the future hold for the United States? Howard famously accepted the job of America’s “deputy sheriff” in the Asia-Pacific region. Canberra under Rudd will move away from Washington. The Labor Party, for instance, will sign the Kyoto Protocol, abandoning President Bush on climate change. More important, Rudd will withdraw Australia’s 550 combat troops from Iraq (although he will keep about a thousand Australians in supporting positions in that troubled country).

Rudd, a fluent Mandarin speaker and Sinophile, will also move his nation closer to China, which has been fueling Australia’s economic boom by purchasing iron ore and coal in large quantities. The United States already has its problems in Asia, some of them self-inflicted but most caused by the Chinese. The Australian election was not a referendum on the United States, but the ignominious removal of Howard from the scene—it appears that he will be the first sitting prime minister to lose his seat in Parliament since 1929—does mean that Washington can no longer count on an important voice in this critical part of the world.

The Labor Party swept to power in today’s election in Australia, ending eleven years of rule by the center-right coalition led by the Liberals. The result is being called “a Ruddslide.” Kevin Rudd, a former diplomat, will be the nation’s next leader.

The losers in the election were the long-serving John Howard—and George W. Bush. No other national leader—not even Tony Blair—was a stauncher supporter of the American President than the now-defeated Australian prime minister. The two shared a conservative outlook on almost every matter of importance.

“Today Australia has looked to the future,” Rudd said as he claimed victory. So what does his version of the future hold for the United States? Howard famously accepted the job of America’s “deputy sheriff” in the Asia-Pacific region. Canberra under Rudd will move away from Washington. The Labor Party, for instance, will sign the Kyoto Protocol, abandoning President Bush on climate change. More important, Rudd will withdraw Australia’s 550 combat troops from Iraq (although he will keep about a thousand Australians in supporting positions in that troubled country).

Rudd, a fluent Mandarin speaker and Sinophile, will also move his nation closer to China, which has been fueling Australia’s economic boom by purchasing iron ore and coal in large quantities. The United States already has its problems in Asia, some of them self-inflicted but most caused by the Chinese. The Australian election was not a referendum on the United States, but the ignominious removal of Howard from the scene—it appears that he will be the first sitting prime minister to lose his seat in Parliament since 1929—does mean that Washington can no longer count on an important voice in this critical part of the world.

Read Less




Pin It on Pinterest

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

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

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

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

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