At nearly the last hour, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu finalized the smallest possible coalition possible.
After Netanyahu’s foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman resigned on Monday and announced that his Russian-interest, secular nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu (ישראל ביתנו, ‘Israel is Our Home’) would head into opposition, it left the prime minister scrambling to build a government with a Wednesday night deadline looming.
Having secured agreements with Moshe Kahlon’s center-right Kulanu (כולנו, ‘All of Us’) and with two ultraorthodox parties, it left Netanyahu and his center-right Likud (הַלִּכּוּד) dependent on the final right-wing party, Bayit Yehudi (הבית היהודי, ‘The Jewish Home’) to form a working coalition. Kahlon, a former Likud communications minister, will serve as the government’s finance minister, is particularly concerned with policies to reduce inequality and rising domestic prices.
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With just eight seats (four fewer than in the previous Knesset) and hard feelings between Netanyahu and the Bayit Yehudi leader, Naftali Bennett, Lieberman’s decision suddenly gave Bennett much more negotiating power. Without Bennett, Netanyahu would not have a majority; Israel’s president Reuven Rivlin could thereupon turn to the leader of the opposition, Isaac Herzog, to seek an alternative government coalition.
The result was a poisonous 48 hours of negotiation between the Netanyahu and Bennett camps, with Bennett angling to win the all-important justice ministry for Ayelet Shaked and, perhaps, improving his own ministerial portfolio from education to the foreign ministry. With Likud’s ranks already grumbling about handing over the education ministry to Bennett, Netanyahu’s allies were downright furious — and embarrassed — to cave to Bennett on the justice ministry. It’s an important post because it will allow Bayit Yehudi to demand changes to the Israeli supreme court and it will give Bayit Yehudi the power to shape the appointment of Israel’s next attorney general.
Bennett, who served as Netanyahu’s chief of staff briefly in the 2000s, headed a pro-settler organization in the West Bank before assuming Bayit Yehudi’s leadership in 2013. The religious, right-wing Zionist party is in favor of greater settlements, and Netanyahu’s lurch rightward during the election campaign was designed to steal its voters to Likud’s ranks — a gambit that seemed to work.
In Netanyahu’s previous government, Bennett served as economy minister, though he enhanced his profile during the Israeli offensive in the Gaza strip in the summer of 2014, criticizing Netanyahu for not taking even stronger action to thwart Hamas.
The deal salvages Netanyahu’s third term as prime minister, but it comes at a huge cost. With just 61 MKs, Netanyahu can be held hostage in the future over any piece of legislation or government action by a single member of his own coalition. Just a couple of rebels could conceivably bring the government down, which could force a new government or fresh elections. After such contentious negotiations, moreover, trust between Netanyahu and Bennett, never strong, is at a nadir. Likud officials are already telling the Israeli media that they’ll seek ‘revenge’ for Bennett’s ‘extortions.’
To make matters worse, Bayit Yehudi is not entirely united behind Bennett’s leadership, and members of the even-harder-right ‘Tekuma’ faction were demanding that their leader, Uri Ariel, be given the justice portfolio instead of Shaked. For now, however, Ariel seems to be happy with the agricultural ministry.
Netanyahu still has another week to win a formal vote of confidence from the 120-member Knesset. But Netanyahu’s first task will start immediately — to build out his existing coalition on an ASAP basis so as to reduce the possibility of political blackmail or even to push Bayit Yehudi out of government altogether.
The most tantalizing option would be for Netanyahu to convince Herzog to form a ‘national unity’ government with the Zionist Union (המחנה הציוני), a coalition between the center-left Labor Party (מפלגת העבודה הישראלית) and a bloc of moderates led by former justice minister Tzipi Livni.
For now, Herzog has been adamant that he will not join any government headed by Netanyahu, and he was quick to criticize the instability of Netanyahu’s latest coalition:
Herzog criticized Netanyahu’s newly formed government shortly after it was announced Wednesday night, saying in a statement that the 61-seat coalition “lacks responsibility, stability and governance.” He called it a “national disaster of a government. A weak and narrow government, susceptible to blackmail, that will advance nothing and will quickly be replaced by a responsible and hopeful alternative.”
Netanyahu purposefully held open the foreign ministry position with an eye to convincing Herzog to join a national unity government.
But if Herzog cannot be convinced to do so within the months ahead, Netanyahu might try to split off a handful of Labor hawks or the faction loyal to Livni, who most recently served as Netanyahu’s justice minister between 2013 and 2015.
Netanyahu’s former finance minister, Yair Lapid, is adamant that he will not return to an alliance with Likud, especially after Netanyahu agreed to the ultraorthodox parties’ request to revisit the crackdown on exemptions from military service for religious students. But that doesn’t mean Netanyahu can’t try to poach several members of Lapid’s centrist Yesh Atid (יש עתיד, ‘There is a Future’).
His final option, and perhaps the easiest of all, is to find a way to soothe his onetime ally Lieberman’s concerns and bring Yisrael Beitenu back into government.
Foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman was once so close to Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu that the two political leaders joined forces to fight the 2013 elections on a joint ticket. When Lieberman stepped down as foreign minister in 2012 pending resolution of charges of fraud and breach of public trust, Netanyahu held the foreign affairs portfolio himself, with every intention of re-appointing Lieberman to the position when Lieberman was subsequently cleared of the corruption-related charges.
That makes it all the more spectacular that Lieberman announced Monday that he was resigning his office and that his party, the secular nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu (ישראל ביתנו, ‘Israel is Our Home’), would not be joining Netanyahu’s next governing coalition, throwing the prime minister’s plans for a third consecutive term into disarray.
With 48 hours to go before Netanyahu has to assemble a government, he now has to deal with the loss of six seats that have reduced his expected coalition to a bare majority of 61 of the Knesset’s 120 seats — not to mention a sudden fight to replace Lieberman as foreign minister. Netanyahu’s decision, rushed though it may be, will set the tone for Israel’s troubled relations with the United States and with Europe. Moreover, without Yisrael Beitenu, Netanyahu’s government could collapse on the whim of a single MK, including hard-line allies on the Israeli right.
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That’s renewed the growing speculation that Netanyahu might be forced, either now or in coming months, to seek a national unity government with the largest opposition party, the Zionist Union (המחנה הציוני), a coalition between the center-left Labor Party (מפלגת העבודה הישראלית) and a bloc of moderates led by former justice minister Tzipi Livni. The Zionist Union’s leader Isaac Herzog reiterated his refusal, however, to join a Netanyahu coalition. Though Netanyahu won a two-week extension to form a government from Israeli president Reuven Rivlin in late April, Herzog will likely have his chance to form a government if Netanyahu fails to do so before the May 7 deadline.
Lieberman, for what it’s worth, blamed Netanyahu’s concessions to the haredi parties that seek the repeal of laws passed by secular lawmakers in the prior government to reduce military exemptions for ultraorthodox students and liberalize marriage laws, which made official Jewish weddings much easier for Russian immigrants who vote for Yisrael Beitenu. Lieberman also challenged Netanyahu’s toughness on Gaza, and he bemoaned the way that Netanyahu and allies abandoned a controversial bill to proclaim Israel a ‘Jewish state.’ Many commentators in Israel were quick to ascribe more cynical motives to Lieberman, who had once harbored dreams of succeeding Netanyahu as prime minister, and Likud officials vented their fury with Lieberman. Continue reading Lieberman resignation rocks Israeli coalition talks
For a week, US House speaker John Boehner’s decision to invite Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu to address a joint session of the US Congress has stirred controversy in the capitals of both countries, but especially in Washington, where commentators of all political stripes are attacking the veteran Israeli leader for the breathtaking breach of protocol in bypassing the administration of US president Barack Obama and dealing exclusively with Obama’s political opponents in the legislative branch. The Atlantic‘s Jeffrey Goldberg, perhaps the leading US commentator on Israeli affairs and the bilateral relationship, slammed the move in a piece on Tuesday headlined, ‘The Netanyahu disaster.’
Yes, Netanyahu wants to stop Iran from becoming a nuclear power, and he’s made it clear that he will stop at nothing to thwart Tehran from enriching even the tiniest bit of uranium in its quest to develop its nuclear energy industry — to say nothing of a nuclear-armed Iran.
Yes, Netanyahu is a political foe of the Obama administration and, time after time, he’s gone out of his way to indicate his disapproval of its approach to Iran and other issues central to Israeli regional security. Netanyahu has increasingly developed common cause with the US right, and he has a fervent supporter in Sheldon Adelson, one of the wealthiest Republican donors in the United States (he almost single-handedly bankrolled former speaker Newt Gingrich’s 2012 presidential bid) and a top Netanyahu financier in his own right.
But neither of those are the real reason that Netanyahu is so eager to speak before the US Congress, now entirely controlled by the Republican Party. Nor will Netanyahu be dissuaded by arguments that it’s a fantastic breach of protocol that will make an already tense relationship with the Obama administration worse. After all, Netanyahu practically endorsed Mitt Romney, Obama’s Republican challenger for the presidency in 2012, and he easily won his own battle for a new term as Israeli prime minister two months after the American presidential election. The potential of alienating a sitting US president certainly didn’t harm Netanyahu’s own domestic political prospects two years ago. The fact that Netanyahu is one of the few US allies who so often publicly contradicts the US president might even boost his standing among Israeli voters.
The real impetus for Netanyahu?
His scheduled appearance comes just two weeks before he faces what will be his toughest election battle since 1999, when he lost an election to Ehud Barak, then the leader of the Labor Party (מפלגת העבודה הישראלית). Continue reading The real reason Netanyahu is coming to Washington
After weeks of tension, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu sacked justice minister Tzipi Livni and finance minister Yair Lapid on Tuesday, accusing them of trying to lead a ‘putsch’ against him, and the Knesset (הכנסת), Israel’s unicameral parliament, has now voted to dissolve itself in advance of snap elections in early 2015.
Just two years and two months after Israel’s last parliamentary election, Israel is set to go to the polls on March 17, two years sooner than the current parliamentary term ends. Despite Netanyahu’s bravado in triggering early elections, neither he nor Lapid nor Livni are assured of increasing their share of the vote.
While Netanyahu remains the favorite to return as prime minister as the head of his center-right Likud (הַלִּכּוּד), he will be vying to win a fourth term leading government after two of the toughest years of his political career. Though the election is likely to focus, increasingly, on domestic issues, it follows this summer’s ‘Operation Protective Edge’ against Hamas in the occupied Gaza strip that lessened global support for Israel. It also follows Arab-Jewish violence in Jerusalem in recent weeks, and after Sweden formally recognized Palestine’s sovereignty in October (as the French parliament voted on the issue earlier this week).
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RELATED: Twelve lessons to draw from Netanyahu’s new Israeli cabinet government [March 2013]
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Nevertheless, unless terrorism or religious violence increases, the Palestinian question will invariably fade from the agenda of the country’s leading politicians — for at least the next four months.
Accordingly, the election will be a referendum on Netanyahu’s leadership over the past two years, including the management of his coalition, the struggle of Israel’s middle class, and global matters like his handling of the Gaza war and testy relations with the United States and the Obama administration. Critics from both the left and right will target Netanyahu during the 2015 campaign. Moreover, if Netanyahu falls short next March, his position within Likud is even more tenuous after he wasted precious political capital attempting (and failing) to block former Knesset speaker Reuven Rivlin’s presidential candidacy.
With allies like these, who needs enemies?
The unwieldy coalition Netanyahu formed in 2013 has been increasingly unstable since the end of the military action in Gaza earlier this year. The causes lie not only among moderate critics to Netanyahu’s left like Livni and Lapid, but among conservative critics to his right, including his one-time chief of staff, economy minister Naftali Bennett and his nationalist foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman. During the Gaza conflict, Netanyahu nearly fired Bennett after his strident criticism that Israel’s military action wasn’t going far enough. Continue reading Netanyahu sacks Lapid, Livni, seeks snap 2015 elections
When Gideon Sa’ar, Israel’s interior minister, and a leading figure in the governing center-right Likud (הַלִּכּוּד), announced his sudden resignation on September 17, it set the tongues of Israeli pundits wagging.
Why would one of the most ambitious Likudniks leave government at a time when prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s politically unpopularity seems to be growing? Especially as one of the leading contenders to succeed Netanyahu as Likud’s leader.
A sex scandal was imminent, some said.
No, Sa’ar would be forming a new party with former communications minister Moshe Kahlon, others said. (Though it wasn’t the reasons for Sa’ar’s resignation, it’s not an impossibility in the future.)
But if you take Sa’ar (pictured above, left, with Netanyahu) at his word, he simply wanted to take a breather from politics and spend more time with his child David, who was born just nine months ago. He’s also admitted that a growing rift with Netanyahu, who has been in power since 2009, contributed to his decision to step back from the daily grind. Continue reading Top Netanyahu rival within Likud leaves politics… for now
Two months ago, the West Bank-based leadership of Fatah (فتح) and the Gaza-based leadership of Hamas (حماس) really seemed like they were on the verge of forming a coherent unity government, bringing together the two competing factions of Palestinian politics for the first time after nearly a decade of division.
At the time, Israeli an US officials took an overly alarmist view of the new unity government, given the characterization of Hamas as a terrorist organization that continues to target civilians in Israel. Whereas Fatah essentially recognizes the existence of the state of Israel, Hamas still considers Israel as an illegitimate state.
Nevertheless, I argued then that a Fatah-Hamas reconciliation was a necessary step toward a long-term Israeli-Palestinian peace and that Israeli and US leaders should welcome any reunification that can bring Gaza’s leadership to the negotiation table. While Ramallah (if not so much of the rest of the West Bank) boomed economically, and Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas has generally increased Palestinian control over security throughout much of the West Bank, Gaza has been subject to an Israeli embargo for years, crippling the Gazan economy and strangling opportunity and employment for 1.4 million Palestinians. If Gazans are more radical than their West Bank counterparts, Israel’s embargo has given them ample reason.
But geopolitical events across the Middle East have isolated Hamas within the Muslim world, especially over the past year. Whereas the Islamic Republic of Iran once funded Hamas, Iranian support dried up for Hamas as they lined up on opposite sides of Syria’s civil war, with Iranian officials strongly supporting Shiite president Bashar al-Assad and with Hamas backing various Sunni-led rebel groups. Moreover, whereas former Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi looked sympathetically upon Hamas (technically, Hamas is the Palestinian branch of Morsi’s own Muslim Brotherhood), the Egyptian military that overthrew Morsi last July and Morsi’s newly ‘elected’ successor Abdel Fattah el-Sisi are much less tolerant of Hamas. They have cracked down on the Egyptian border with the Gaza Strip, in essence working with Israel to perpetuate the Gaza embargo.
Fatah came to that unity government from a position of strength and, had it succeeded, Fatah might have had a restraining effect on the far weaker Hamas. Nevertheless, Israeli president Benjamin Netanyahu opposed the unity government from the outset, using the occasion to accuse Abbas of being less than serious as a ‘partner for peace.’
Though there’s a strong argument that Netanyahu erred in dismissing the Fatah-Hamas unity government outright two months ago, Netanyahu’s strategy today fundamentally depends on the disunity between Hamas and Fatah. With Israel and Hamas now two weeks into a lethal conflict, and with an Israeli ground offensive extending into its fourth day, the unity government has all but collapsed in the face of the latest military engagement in Gaza. Continue reading Netanyahu now depends on Palestinian Fatah-Hamas disunity
Benjamin Netanyahu wasn’t running for Israel’s largely ceremonial presidency on Tuesday, but he’s emerged as the clearest loser after waging an unsuccessful campaign against the man who ultimately won, Reuven Rivlin, and he may have hastened his own political demise in the process.
In some ways, Rivlin has been the frontrunner for the presidency for the past seven years, in light of his finish as runner-up to Shimon Peres in the 2007 election. Israeli presidents are elected by the Knesset (הַכְּנֶסֶת), Israel’s 120-member unicameral parliament.
Rivlin defeated Meir Sheetrit, a former Likud MK who now belongs to Hatnuah (The Movement, הַתְּנוּעָה), the party founded in November 2012 by the centrist former foreign minister Tzipi Livni. On the final ballot, Rivlin won 63 votes against 53 for Sheetrit, who emerged from among four challengers as the chief ‘anti-Rivlin’ vote, attracting support from centrist and left-leaning MKs.
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Like Netanyahu, Rivlin is a member of the right-wing Likud (הַלִּיכּוּד), and he served as the Knesset’s speaker from 2003 to 2006 and again from 2009 to 2013. In that role, however, Rivlin often stood in the way of Netanyahu’s wishes in the name of defending parliamentary democracy:
The Netanyahu-Rivlin rift goes back to 2009, when the freshly victorious Netanyahu had Rivlin elected once again as Speaker of the Knesset. Rivlin, a tradionalist if there ever was one, soon proved to be much more loyal to parliament and to the letter of the law than to his own party. He stalled nearly every piece of anti-democratic legislation that came his way, deferring votes, sending bills to die in committees and even setting up committees especially to kill those bills he felt impinged on democratic rights. Along the way, he protected MK Hanin Zoabi when the Knesset tried to sanction her for taking part in the Gaza flotilla; elevated MK Ahmed Tibi, the Palestinian Israelis most love to hate, to deputy-speaker; acknowledged the “great suffering and real trauma” endured by Palestinians in 1948; and called for the establishment of one state in all of historical Israel-Palestine, where Palestinians would also have the vote.
The final straw came after RIvlin made a joke about Netanyahu’s wife and her behind-the-scenes influence (oddly enough, that’s one of the reasons that Netanyahu is said to have fallen out with his one-time chief of staff Naftali Bennett, who is now the leader of a rival right-wing party). After the most recent January 2013 national elections, Netanyahu unceremoniously dumped Rivlin as Knesset speaker and started casting about for an alternative to represent Likud in the presidential election. Continue reading How Netanyahu lost the Israeli presidential election
Ariel Sharon’s passing is something for which Israel has had eight years to prepare, and yet it’s almost as if his sudden turn for the worse is taking Israelis by surprise. With the impending retirement of Israeli president later this year, 2014 is shaping up as the final curtain call of the 1948 generation — though they come from very different perspectives, both Sharon and Peres came of age during the crucible of the 1948 war for independence, which would shape their leadership in Israeli government for the following six decades.
Sharon belonged to the generation that cut its teeth politically and militarily under the founding generation of David Ben-Gurion and Golda Meir. It’s the generation that fought and won many of Israel’s defining wars, starting with the 1948 war, the 1967 Six-Day War that brought Egypt’s Sinai peninsula, the Palestinian territories and Syria’s Golan Heights under Israeli control and the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Sharon’s impudence in crossing the Suez Canal, in direct disobedience of a stunned military elite, is now remembered as the iconic moment of the October 1973 war. Sharon’s generation brokered peace with Egypt at the end of the 1970s, but failed to seal a Palestinian peace deal with the late Palestinian Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat. It’s a generation that bequeathed to modern Israel the foundations for one of the world’s most dynamic and innovative economies, but also bequeathed the same demographic and diplomatic puzzles that have plagued Israel since its foundation.
But the reality is much more nuanced — and you should beware any analysis that presents Sharon exclusively either a war criminal or as a prophet of peace.
Could Sharon have sealed the deal?
Sharon’s January 2006 stroke occurred two months after Sharon formed a new centrist party, Kadima (קדימה, ‘Forward’), leaving behind his longtime home with the right-wing Likud (הַלִּכּוּד), a party Begin founded in 1973. Sharon, who spent much of his time in the political wilderness championing Jewish settlements throughout the Palestinian territories, was occupied throughout the last year of his premiership in tearing down some of those settlements when he ordered the unilateral withdrawal of Israeli troops from Gaza and part of the West Bank. Sharon came to the recognition that Israel’s perpetual occupation over nearly 4 million Palestinians was untenable — for Israel as well as the Palestinians. So while Sharon championed the construction of a security barrier between Israel and the West Bank, he also took the first steps of what was expected to be the end of Israel’s military occupation of Palestine en route to a two-state solution.
Sharon was headed to an almost certain electoral triumph. His deputy prime minister Ehud Olmert, who lacked Sharon’s credibility, charisma and vision, and who would ultimately leave office under corruption charges, still led Kadima to an overwhelming victory in March 2006. But without Sharon at the helm, the Kadima project faltered — Olmert almost immediately launched a war in Lebanon, a military adventure that most Israelis believed to be somewhat of a failure for Israel and a victory for Lebanon’s Shiite militia Hezbollah (حزب الله).
Just 20 days after Sharon’s stroke, however, Palestinians voted to elect the legislature of the Palestinian National Authority, and they delivered a stinging defeat to the more moderate Fatah (فتح) and a victory for Hamas (حماس), the more militant wing of the Palestinian liberation movement. No one knows how Sharon would have responded to Hamas’s emergence, its clear democratic mandate and the ensuing turbulence between Fatah and Hamas in 2006 and 2007 that essentially left Gaza under Hamas control and the West Bank under Fatah control, a bifurcation that continues today. Israel responded by imposing a blockade on the Gaza Strip, largely with Egyptian cooperation, thereby further antagonizing Hamas. In response to the increase of Gaza-based rocket attacks on Israel, Olmert in 2008 launched a military invasion, Operation Cast Lead, that lasted 22 days and killed up to 1,400 Palestinians.
As an old warrior and one of Israel’s most conservative politicians, Sharon would have been one of the few Israelis with the ability to pull the country into a long-term Palestinian peace deal — more so than even current prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman, who lead one of the more hawkish Israeli governments of the past quarter-century. It’s hard to know what might have happened if Sharon hadn’t suffered a stroke. Would he have felt the same pressure as Olmert to respond militarily to Hezbollah in summer 2006 by launching war on Lebanon? Maybe, maybe not. But given the almost universal condemnation of Hamas by the United States, Egypt and the Israeli political elite, it’s hard to believe that Sharon would have been much more willing to deal with a Hamas-led government in Gaza and it’s equally hard to believe that Sharon would have been more than a bystander in the Hamas-Fatah split — it was a split a long time coming, and it’s not a coincidence that it came so shortly after Arafat’s 2004 death.
For all the wishful thinking today, especially in light of eight years of stalled progress on the two-state solution and an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal, it’s not necessarily certain that Sharon would have been successful in brokering a peace with Hamas as well as with Fatah — it’s a thorny problem that continues to plague the renewed peace efforts of US secretary of state John Kerry and Israeli justice minister Tzipi Livni today.
Sabra and Shatila and beyond
For all of Sharon’s missteps as prime minister (such as his ill-fated visit to the Temple Mount in 2000), nothing really compares to his inexcusable role at Sabra and Shatila. Arafat’s Second Intifada followed from the breakdown in the summer 2000 Camp David talks, and it was already an almost-certain uprising in search of an excuse when Sharon conveniently made his 2000 visit. But no honest appraisal of Sharon’s legacy can omit the 1982 Lebanon War — and not just the Sabra and Shatila massacre. Continue reading Sharon’s legacy represents the best and worst of Israel
One of the more difficult security issues over the 2000s, which sprung out of the violence of the Second Intifada between 2000 and 2005 is the construction of a wall between Israel proper, on the one side, and the Palestinian West Bank, on the other.
There are many reasons for the controversy, which remains a delicate issue for Israeli-Palestinian peace talks these days, to the extent that a glimmer of hope earlier this year, due largely to the efforts of Israeli justice minister Tzipi Livni and US secretary of state John Kerry, still exists. That’s a doubtful proposition given that the US response to Syrian chemical weapons and its new deal with Iran over nuclear energy have both incensed Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. It’s especially doubtful, too, because hardline nationalist Israeli foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman has now returned following the reversal of his conviction earlier this month.
The first is among Israeli settlers themselves in the West Bank, who will find themselves especially isolated from the rest of Israel when the wall is completed. That means that many traditionally hard-line, pro-settler types on the right of Israeli politics opposed the security border from its inception.
The second is that the wall isn’t exactly accurate — it tracks the 1949/1967 Green Line between Israel and the Palestinian Territories only very loosely. Take a guess as to which side the Israel-built wall errs. Up to 10% of the West Bank will be within the ‘Israeli’ side of the wall when it’s completed, largely on the basis of land seized from Palestinians in areas that lie on the Palestinian side of the Green Line.
That complicates life inordinately for Palestinians.
Here’s the wall from the Israeli side en route to Bethlehem:
Here’s the same wall from the Palestinian side (also shown above):
The wall’s construction, especially around Jerusalem, means that routes that once took a few minutes now take a half-hour or an hour (i.e., the road to Bethlehem). There are also a litany of familiar complaints from the United Nations on down to other humanitarian groups, both Israeli and Palestinian, who believe that the security wall violates international law and that it impedes access to cultural and civic institutions that fall on the Israeli side of the wall. UN action against the security wall, however, has been consistently vetoed by the United States, a permanent member of the UN Security Council, though even former US president George W. Bush a decade ago called the wall a problem:
Speaking about the Israeli security fence, Mr Bush said: ‘It is very difficult to develop confidence between the Palestinians and Israelis with a wall snaking through the West Bank.’
Two of the strongest complaints revolve around access to health care and access to water. Currently, if you have a sudden illness in Ramallah, a Palestinian ambulance will rush you to the checkpoint, where you’ll wait for clearance and an Israeli ambulance to carry you the rest of the way to the best Palestinian hospitals in East Jerusalem. The wall also means that much of the water and fertility of the Jordan Valley is now (or will be) on the Israeli side of the wall, leaving Palestinians in the position of being forced to buy water from Israel. That’s hardly a satisfactory solution for Palestinians. Continue reading Israeli security wall adds 2000s-era difficulty to Israeli-Palestinian peace talks
Daniel Levy, director of the Middle East and North Africa program at the European Council on Foreign Relations, has written in Foreign Policy what’s perhaps the best piece I’ve read in the U.S. media — or the Israeli media, for that matter — on next Tuesday’s upcoming Israeli elections, where he makes the point that Israeli politics has become both incredibly fragmented and ossified:
Alongside [Naftali] Bennett’s rapid rise, Jan. 22 is best understood as a “Tribes of Israel” election — taking identity politics to a new level. Floating votes may exist within the tribes of Israel, but movement between tribes, or political blocs, is almost unheard of. Israelis seem to relate their political choices almost exclusively to embedded social codes rather than contesting policies.
By Levy’s estimation, although voters may swing from party to party within a larger bloc, most Israeli voters remain within one of four essential ‘tribes’:
[Prime minister Benjamin] Netanyahu’s Zionist right (including the far right and national religious right), [former foreign minister Tzipi] Livni’s Zionist center (only Meretz still defines itself as Zionist left), the ultra-Orthodox bloc, and the bloc overwhelmingly representing Palestinian Arab citizens.
Not so long ago, you could make the credible argument that Israeli politics was essentially a two-party democracy, with the center-right Likud (הַלִּכּוּד, ‘The Consolidation’) of figures like Yitzhak Shamir and Menachem Begin and the center-left Labor (מפלגת העבודה הישראלית) — and from the 1960s through the end of the 1980s, the ‘Alignment’ (המערך) — of figures like Golda Meir, Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres.
Sure, there were third parties and ultra-orthodox and Israeli Arab parties back then, too, but Likud and Labor/Alignment would often win two-thirds or more of the seats in the Knesset (הכנסת), Israel’s unicameral parliament. In the most recent 2009 Israeli elections, however, Likud and Labor won a cumulative 40 seats — exactly one-third of the Knesset, and given the proliferation of personality-based parties in Israeli politics, it’s clear that Israel has moved to a system with much less long-term party affiliation and discipline.
As Levy makes demonstratively clear in his piece, however, each of his four identified ‘tribes’ contain multiple parties:
- The ‘Zionist right’ includes not only Likud and its campaign partner, the secular nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu (ישראל ביתנו, ‘Israel is Our Home’) that appeals especially to Russian Jewish immigrants and is led by former foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman, who has resigned in light of ongoing legal troubles, but also Bennett’s upstart, conservative Bayit Yehudi (הבית היהודי, ‘The Jewish Home’).
- The ‘Zionist center-left’ is more or less hopelessly fragmented into five parties — Labor, under Shelly Yacimovich, which is pushing economic issues in this election; Livni’s new party, Hatnuah (התנועה, ‘The Movement’), which is pushing mainly Livni in this election; Livni’s old party, the now-hemorrhaging Kadima (קדימה, ‘Forward’); Yesh Atid (יש עתיד, ‘There is a Future’), another personality-based party formed in 2012 by former television news anchor Yair Lapid; and Meretz (מרצ, ‘Energy’), the only truly leftist party in Israel with any remaining strength.
- the ultra-Orthodox, or the haredim, the most conservative (in this case, religious conservatism, not necessarily political) followers of Judaism, including both the Middle Eastern sephardim that back the largest of the haredi parties, Shas (ש״ס) and Am Shalem (עם שלם, Whole Nation), a breakaway faction from Shas, as well as the Central and Eastern European ashkenazim that back the United Torah Judaism (יהדות התורה המאוחדת) coalition.
- the Israeli Arabs, which include three parties that are each expected to win a handful of seats in the Knesset — Balad, Hadash and the United Arab List-Ta’al.
A look at the recent polling bears out Levy’s thesis — there’s a shift away from the ‘Likud Beiteinu’ alliance and a shift toward the Jewish Home, and there’s a massive shift away from Kadima in favor of Livni’s party, Labor and Yesh Atid. By and large, however, the ‘right/religious’ seats would go from 65 to 67, and the ‘center/left/Arab’ seats would go from 55 to 53. That’s not a whole lot of change, and that’s why, since Netanyahu called early elections, it’s been almost certain that Netanyahu will remain prime minister (though it’s more unclear whether he’ll govern with a more rightist or centrist coalition).
Levy’s harsh conclusion is that Israel is coming to resemble apartheid-era South Africa.
But it looks to me even more like the highly choreographed confessional politics of its northern neighbor, Lebanon.
Israel’s demographic trends make it very likely that its population will become more polarized (like Lebanon’s) in the coming years — Israeli haredi and Israeli Arab populations are growing much faster than secular Jewish populations, such that the haredim and Arabs, taken together, will outnumber the rest of Israel’s population within the next 40 years. As such, the disintegration of two-party Israeli politics into de facto confessional politics in Israel is cause for worry. Continue reading The Lebanonization of Israeli politics and next week’s Knesset elections
Israeli defense minister — and prime minister from 1999 to 2001 — Ehud Barak announced earlier this week that he would not be contesting Israel’s Knesset elections on January 22.
Although he’ll stay on as defense minister until a new government is formed, Barak’s departure, at age 70, appears to end what has been a long and twisty career in Israeli politics — there remains a chance, however, that prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu could re-appoint Barak (pictured above with U.S. secretary of state Hillary Clinton) as defense minister from outside the Knesset if Netanyahu forms the next government. That outcome, by the way, seems more than plausible, given Barak’s longtime impatience with parliamentarian politics.
A longtime veteran of the Israeli Defense Force and its most decorated veteran (his most famous exploit in Israel’s elite special forces was a commando raid against Palestinians dressed incognito in high heels and a wig), Barak entered politics in 1995 as foreign minister in Shimon Peres’s government and after Peres lost the 1996 Israeli election to Netanyahu, Barak became the leader of Israel’s Labor Party (מפלגת העבודה הישראלית).
His political career has been a bit schizophrenic — he won, overwhelming, a race to become prime minister, but he’s more often than not been relatively unsuccessful and unloved in Israeli politics.
In the 1999 direct prime ministerial election, Barak defeated Netanyahu by 56% to 44%. As prime minister, he oversaw Israel’s withdrawal from southern Lebanon (after more than two decades of occupation) and engaged in the most serious negotiations since 1993 with the Palestinian Liberation Organization (نظمة التحرير الفلسطينية), then still under the leadership of Yasser Arafat, culminating in the Camp David summit in 2000 that nearly succeeded in bringing about a peace accord between Israel and the PLO — last week’s Israeli attack on Gaza, masterminded by Barak himself, was a depressingly clear sign that Israeli-Palestinian relations, at least with respect to Gaza, have worsened in the past 12 years.
Barak lost the 2001 election to Likud’s then-leader Ariel Sharon in the wake of the failure of the PLO talks. He aborted an early attempt to return to the Labor leadership in 2005 (Barak ultimately backed Peres in that year’s leadership race, who lost to Amir Peretz), but won the Labor leadership in 2007 and became defense minister in 2007 under then-prime minister Ehud Olmert. Although Labor won just 13 seats in the 2009 election — the lowest-ever total for Labor or its predecessor — Barak has continued as defense minister under Netanyahu. Barak’s continued presence in the Netanyahu government wasn’t without controversy within Labor and in 2011, he left Labor altogether to form his own pro-Netanyahu faction, Independence (סיעת העצמאות), comprised of Barak and four other former Labor MKs.
Shelly Yachimovich was elected Labor’s leader in March 2011 and has led the party very much in opposition to Netanyahu, and Yachimovich is generally seen as the chief opposition leader to Netanyahu going into the elections (although she has some competition from political newcomer Yair Lapid and former Kadima leader Tzipi Livni).
Even as relations between the U.S. government under president Barack Obama and Netanyahu remain strained over Iran — and now over Gaza — Barak has long been widely respected by U.S. policymakers as a thoughtful voice within Israel’s government. Although he has sounded the alarm louder than anyone in Israel’s government over the threat of an Iranian nuclear program, Barak is thought to be a moderating force with respect to any future attack on Iran.
Most immediately, Barak’s departure means that if Netanyahu wins the Jan. 22 elections, as expected, and Barak does not continue as defense minister, it will result in the amplification of relatively more hawkish voices of allies such as Avigdor Lieberman, Netanyahu’s foreign minister and leader of the Yisrael Beiteinu (ישראל ביתנו, ‘Israel is Our Home’) party that recently merged with Netanyahu’s Likud (הַלִּכּוּד) for purposes of the upcoming elections. It would also mean that yet another figure with the gravitas of a former Israeli prime minister — and a figure who carries Netanyahu’s trust and respect — will no longer be around to counterbalance Netanyahu: Continue reading What Barak’s apparent departure means for Israeli politics