Tag Archives: palestinian

Palestine comes to the fore on Israeli election eve


With polls set to open within hours in the most competitive election in Israel since prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu returned to the premiership in 2009, both parties aiming to form Israel’s next government made their final cases to voters — and in doing so, provided election eve bombshells.palestineISrel Flag Icon

Netanyahu’s decision to denounce the two-state solution and former justice minister Tzipi Livni’s decision to renounce her claim to the premiership both, in their own ways, brought the Palestinian issue back to the forefront of voters’ minds. That follows a three-month election campaign during which Israeli-Palestinian relations, a matter of existential importance to both voting Israelis  and non-voting Palestinians, figured less prominently than economic concerns, sniping between secular and ultraorthodox politicians, Iran’s nuclear energy program or bilateral relations with the United States. For all the controversy over Netanyahu’s speech to the US Congress two weeks ago, the most notable aspect of his address might be that he never once uttered the word ‘Palestine.’

Netanyahu denounces two-state solution

Netanyahu announced, obliquely by way of an interview with NRG, that no Palestinian state would come into existence so long as he remains prime minister, reversing his prior 2009 commitment to a two-state solution, a stand that many Netanyahu observers always believed was less than full-hearted:

“I think that anyone who moves to establish a Palestinian state and evacuate territory gives territory away to radical Islamist attacks against Israel,” Netanyahu said. “The left has buried its head in the sand time and after time and ignores this, but we are realistic and understand”…. During a visit to the East Jerusalem settlement of Har Homa earlier Monday, Netanyahu warned that if he were not elected, “Hamastan B.” would be established in Jerusalem. “If Tzipi [Livni] and Bougie [Isaac Herzog] form a government, Hamastan B will be established here.”

Netanyahu’s strategy is clear. By tying himself to a hard-line stand on Palestinian statehood, he hopes to appeal to a handful of voters on the right — settlers and other conservatives that might otherwise be inclined to support the secular nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu (ישראל ביתנו‎, ‘Israel is Our Home’) of foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman or the religious conservative Bayit Yehudi (הבית היהודי, ‘Jewish Home’) of economy minister Naftali Bennett. Though Lieberman and Bennett are both members of Netanyahu’s government, Netanyahu must maximize his right-wing supporters if he hopes to win the largest number of seats in Israel’s unicameral legislature, the Knesset (הַכְּנֶסֶת), thereby strengthening his claim for a third consecutive term as prime minister.

Livni clears way for Herzog to serve full term as PM


Meanwhile, Livni, Netanyahu’s former justice minister and, only a year ago, the Israeli government’s chief negotiator in the abandoned peace process with the Palestinians, delivered her own shocker today when she gave up her claim to the premiership.  Continue reading Palestine comes to the fore on Israeli election eve

Netanyahu now depends on Palestinian Fatah-Hamas disunity


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.palestineISrel Flag Icon

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

U.S. move to support anti-Assad allies jeopardizes Lebanon’s stability

Hassan Nasrallah

The United States doesn’t typically like to hand gifts to Hassan Nasrallah, the longtime leader of Hezbollah, the Shi’a militia that remains a key player not only in the domestic politics of Lebanon, but throughout the Middle East. freesyriaUSflagSyria Flag IconLebanon

But when news broke last Friday that U.S. president Barack Obama was preparing U.S. assistance to arm Syrian rebels in their fight against Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad, that’s in effect what the United States has done by broadening the two-year civil war in Syria, a conflict that neighboring, vulnerable Lebanon has largely managed to avoid in the past two years.

Hezbollah’s recent military mobilization against the mostly Sunni rebels, however, in support of Assad, was already rupturing the national Lebanese determination to stay out of the conflict.  The U.S. announcement of support for the rebels, however tentative, gives Hezbollah a belated justification for having expanded its own military support to Assad, and risks further internationalizing what began as an internal Syrian revolt against the Assad regime.

The U.S. decision to support anti-Assad rebels

The United States is signaling that it will provide small arms and ammunition to only the most ‘moderate’ of Syria’s rebels, though not the heavier anti-aircraft and anti-tank weaponry that rebel leaders have said would make a difference.  But even if the Obama administration changed its mind tomorrow, the damage will have already been done in the decision to back the largely Sunni rebels.  No matter what happens, Hezbollah will now be able to posture that it’s fighting on behalf of the entire Muslim world against Western intruders rather than taking sides in a violent sectarian conflagration between two branches of Islam.

Supporters of U.S. intervention credibly argue that Hezbollah’s decisive intervention earlier in May and in June in Qusayr, a town in western Syria, led to an Assad victory that will inevitably make Syria’s civil war longer and deadlier.  Hezbollah’s decision to intervene on behalf of Assad was a key turning point that marked a switch from indirect and clandestine support to becoming an outright pro-Assad belligerent in Syria, which brings tensions ever closer to exploding in Lebanon.  Furthermore, Russian support for Assad, Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s increasingly strident opposition to Assad, as well as implicit Iranian support for Hezbollah, means that Syria is already a proxy for geopolitical positioning, whether U.S. policymakers like it or not.

But that doesn’t mean that the active support of the United States will suddenly make things better in Syria — after all, the United States has a controversial track record over the past decade in the Middle East.  It’s winding down a 12-year war in Afghanistan that, though it pushed the Taliban from power within weeks in 2001, has done little to establish lasting security or foster a truly national government.  Its 2003 invasion of Iraq, which toppled one of the two Ba’athist regimes in the Middle East in removing Saddam Hussein from power, and the subsequent U.S. occupation still failed to prevent vicious Shi’a-Sunni sectarian fighting that approached the level of civil war between 2006 and 2008 and that still simmers today.

It’s the same familiar kind of bloody sectarian violence that now features in Syria, the remaining Ba’athist regime in the Middle East.

Moreover, the risks to Lebanon are now even more staggering.  Lebanon, which had been set to hold national elections last weekend on June 16, has instead postponed those elections indefinitely, because negotiations among Lebanon’s various religious confessional groups to draft a new election law have taken a backseat to the more pressing task of keeping the country together.

The U.S. came to its decision in light of a determination that Assad had used chemical weapons against at least a small segment of the rebels, thereby crossing a ‘red line’ that Obama established in August 2012 in the heat of the U.S. presidential campaign last year.  But as The Washington Post‘s Ernesto Londoño reported last week, U.S. advisers had already been working quietly with Jordanian officials for months in order to reduce the chances that Syria’s stockpiles of chemical weapons will fall into misuse by either the Assad regime or by the opposition.

It still remains unclear just what the Obama administration believes is the overwhelming U.S. national interest in regard of Syria — though the Assad regime is brutal, repressive and now likely guilty of war crimes, there’s not necessarily any guarantee that a Sunni-dominated Syria would be any better.  Last Friday, U.N. secretary-general Ban Ki-moon indicated that he opposes the U.S. intervention in Syria because it risks doing more harm than good.

As Andrew Sullivan wrote in a scathing commentary last week, the forces that oppose Assad are a mixed bunch, and there’s no way to know who exactly the United States is proposing to arm:

More staggeringly, [Obama] is planning to put arms into the hands of forces that are increasingly indistinguishable from hardcore Jihadists and al Qaeda – another brutal betrayal of this country’s interests, and his core campaign promise not to start dumb wars. Yep: he is intending to provide arms to elements close to al Qaeda. This isn’t just unwise; it’s close to insane….

Do we really want to hand over Syria’s chemical arsenal to al Qaeda? Do we really want to pour fuel on the brushfire in the sectarian bloodbath in the larger Middle East? And can you imagine the anger and bitterness against the US that this will entail regardless? We are not just in danger of arming al Qaeda, we are painting a bulls-eye on every city in this country, for some party in that religious struggle to target.

I understand why the Saudis and Jordanians, Sunni bigots and theocrats, want to leverage us into their own sectarian warfare against the Shiites and Alawites. But why should America take sides in such an ancient sectarian conflict? What interest do we possibly have in who wins a Sunni-Shiite war in Arabia?

The ‘rebels’ are, of course, a far from monolithic unit — the anti-Assad forces include all stripes of characters, including the Free Syria Army, a front of former Syrian army commanders dismayed at Assad’s willingness to commit such widespread violence against the Syrian people, but also including more radical Islamist groups such as the Syria Islamic Front, the Syria Liberation Front and even groups with non-Syrian leaders with global links to al-Qaeda, such as Jabhat al-Nusra, which is comprised of radical Salafists who want to transform Syria into an Islamist state.

Liberal interventionism strikes again

When Obama announced earlier this month that he was promoting Susan Rice as his new national security adviser and Samantha Power as his nominee to be the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, I argued that it was a victory for liberal interventionists within Obama’s administration and that it could mean that the United States takes a stronger humanitarian interest in Syria.  Many other commentators, such as Wonkblog‘s Max Fisher, downplayed that possibility, arguing that their promotions meant ‘not much’ for U.S. policy on Syria, and that ‘there is good reason to believe that Power and Rice are not about to change U.S. policy in Syria.’

That, of course, turned out to be a miscalculation.  Less than 10 days after the Rice/Power announcement, the Obama administration is now ratcheting up its involvement in the Levant on a largely humanitarian, liberal interventionist basis, with the plausible possibility that a U.S.-supported no-fly-zone could soon follow.

The key fear is that the Obama administration’s ‘humanitarian’ response may result in an even more destabilizing effect on Lebanon. Continue reading U.S. move to support anti-Assad allies jeopardizes Lebanon’s stability

What comes next for Jordan after loyalists win rigged, boycotted elections


The Jordan Times actually has a non-ironic headline for a story that reads: ‘Jordan biggest winner in elections — King.’jordan flag icon

I mistook it initially as reading that Jordan’s king was the biggest winner in the Jordanian elections, which would have probably been a more accurate headline, given that last week’s elections were certainly a ‘win’ in the nominal sense for Abdullah II, the Jordan monarch since 1999 (pictured above, right, with Saudi Arabian king Abdullah).

Those elections, held last Wednesday, January 23, were all but certain to elect to the Majlis al-Nuwaab (Chamber of Deputies), the lower house of Jordan’s Majlis al-Umma (National Assembly) a majority of legislators loyal to the monarchy — the 60 senators of the upper house, the Majlis al-Aayan (Assembly of Senators) are appointed by Jordan’s king.

Following the 2011 ‘Arab Spring’ protests in Jordan, Abdullah agreed to allow the Chamber of Deputies to select the next cabinet and prime minister.  Those deputies, however, include 108 out of 150 who were elected as ‘independents,’ mostly loyal to the monarchy, with just 15 seats reserved exclusively for women and just 27 reserved to be contested by political parties.

In light of the fact that 72% of the seats in the Chamber of Deputies are essentially rigged in favor of the monarchy, it’s understandable that the political wing of Jordan’s Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamic Action Front (جبهة العمل الإسلامي), boycotted the elections, alongside several other smaller parties, including many representatives of Hirak, the secular protest movement founded two years ago to protest the Jordanian monarchy.  The Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan has a longtime history of greater cooperation with the ruling state, and it itself is less conservative than other similar movements in the Middle East — it’s relatively progressive on women’s rights and is committed to democracy, for example.

Given the fact that the Brotherhood’s voters are typically more urban and more Palestinian, the elections will have resulted in disproportionately greater representation for the rural tribal population and the so-called East Bank Jordanians, who were never resident in the Palestinian-dominated West Bank of the Jordan River, annexed by Israel after the Six-Day War in 1967.

But the result is a bit more complicated than that.

International observers, such as the National Democratic Institute, have reported that the elections, by and large, were the freest elections yet experienced in Jordan, where 56% of eligible voters ignored the call to boycott and turned out to vote.  Given the turmoil currently engulfing Egypt under Muslim Brotherhood-supported president Mohammed Morsi, it’s not surprising that many Jordanians would be wary about turning over power to the Brotherhood in their own country.

Despite the Brotherhood boycott, however, 18 even more moderate Islamist candidates won seats, and another 20 or so leftist, nationalist or other government critics also won seats, a contrast to the prior Chamber of Deputies.

But if the vote wasn’t entirely lacking in irregularities, it’s hard to argue that the elections were exactly fair, given that the largest opposition party will have no representation.

So it’s also not surprising that many Jordanians are now protesting (some reports describe rioting) in the aftermath of the elections:

Jordan is witnessing its third day of riots protesting against the outcomes of the parliamentary elections, which showed a victory for tribal forces. These riots have deepened the political crisis that the country has been going through since January 2011. Scenes of violence killed one and injured three in the eastern tribal city of Mafraq, and eclipsed governmental and Western reports, which confirmed the integrity of the voting process. This comes at a time when Jordanian King Abdullah II is considering his options regarding the formation of a new government.

At the same time, the Muslim Brotherhood cancelled its own planned protests, so it’s too soon to know if the post-election protests will reach the critical mass that would more imminently pressure the Hashemite monarchy to accelerate its reform efforts.

Caretaker prime minister Abdullah Ensour, who was appointed in October 2012 to oversee economic reforms, has stepped down, but will stay on pending the appointment of a new prime minister directly by the National Assembly.  Jordanians most recently gathered for large-scale protests in November 2012 over cuts in fuel subsidies, one of several steps that Abdullah’s government has taken in light of a budget deficit that reached 6.5% of Jordanian GDP in 2012.

So what comes next? Continue reading What comes next for Jordan after loyalists win rigged, boycotted elections

Muslim Brotherhood boycott highlights Jordanian elections

King Abdullah II

Sheikh Hammam Said

Jordan goes to the polls in the second election in as many days in the Middle East. But unlike Israel’s topsy-turvy free-for-all, don’t expect much change as a result of today’s Jordanian parliamentary elections.jordan flag icon

The salient feature of today’s election is that the Muslim Brotherhood isn’t participating — many of the parliamentary seats will be won by ‘independents’ who support Jordan’s monarchy.

Though it didn’t threaten to topple Jordan’s monarch like it did the governments of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen, the Arab Spring nonetheless visited the country in February 2011 in the form of protests for more representative government and, more recently, riots in November 2012 following cuts in fuel subsidies last year.

Budget austerity has come even to the Hashemite Kingdom, where times are tough, economically speaking — the country, which lacks the rich mineral and oil wealth of Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and the United Arab Emirates, is notching some of the lowest GDP growth in a decade and its budget deficit rose in 2012 to 6.5% of GDP.

Within Jordan’s bicameral Majlis al-Umma (National Assembly), the Majlis al-Nuwaab (Chamber of Deputies), newly expanded to 150 members, are elected in single-seat constituencies, and those 150 deputies are who will be elected in Wednesday’s vote.  The upper house, Majlis al-Aayan (Assembly of Senators), remains more powerful and is comprised of 60 senators, all of whom are appointed by Jordan’s king.

Much of the Jordanian government’s power resides in the Hashemite monarchy, headed since 1999 by Abdullah II (pictured above, top).  The king holds the executive power to sign, implement (or veto) Jordanian laws, may suspend or dissolve parliament, appoints (and dismisses) all judges, retains all military power and the ability to set foreign policy.

In recent years, Abdullah has attempted to open, however slightly, the governing process.  For example, after the 2011 protests, Abdullah agreed to an elected cabinet determined by the Chamber of Deputies — the idea is that the Chamber of Deputies, and not Abdullah, will choose the next prime minister, even if the deputies themselves are pro-government.  Although most of the seats (108) are eligible to be contested only by ‘independents,’ 15 additional seats are reserved for women, and just 27 seats are eligible to be contested by political parties on the basis of a national proportional representation vote.

Despite the reforms, the Muslim Brotherhood has demanded that at least 50% of the seats in the Chamber of Deputies be determined by party list, so the relatively narrow opportunity to compete is high on its list of rationales for boycotting the election.

The Muslim Brotherhood created a Jordanian political party in 1992, the Islamic Action Front (جبهة العمل الإسلامي), which is relatively more liberal than most Islamist parties throughout the Arab world (for example, it’s pro-democracy).

Although it won 20 out of 84 eligible seats in the June 2003 parliamentary elections, it won just six seats in the subsequent November 2007 elections, and it boycotted the 2010 elections.

Other smaller parties, including Jordanian communists and Arab nationalists, are also boycotting Wednesday’s parliamentary vote.

The Muslim Brotherhood’s leader, Sheikh Hammam Said (pictured above, bottom) has argued that the 2011 reforms don’t go far enough — in addition to the 27-seat limit, he has called for an end to corruption practiced by the various governments appointed in the past by the monarchy.

The boycott by Jordan’s largest opposition force, however, threatens to undermine the legitimacy of the elections.

Continue reading Muslim Brotherhood boycott highlights Jordanian elections

Israel’s untouchable parties: Israeli Arab politics in a Jewish state



Residents of the Palestinian Territories cannot participate in today’s Israeli election, but over 1.5 Israeli citizens, nearly 20% of the Israeli population, are Arabs — although largely Palestinian by nationality, they are Israeli by citizenship.  They comprise nearly 70% of the large northern Israeli city of Nazareth, and they’re a growing demographic within Israel. ISrel Flag Icon

The three main Arab parties currently hold 11 seats, just under 10% of the Knesset (הכנסת), Israeli’s unicameral parliament, and they are expected — just narrowly, perhaps, to each win more than 2% of the vote in today’s election, thereby enabling them to win seats in the Knesset under the proportional representation electoral rules.

So long, at least, as Arab apathy doesn’t diminish their share of the vote.

Regardless of the outcome, none of the Arab parties will be entering any governing coalition anytime soon.

In the earliest days of Israeli statehood, David Ben-Gurion and the more socialist Israeli leaders of the 1950s and 1960s routinely included the small Arab parties of the time in coalitions headed first by the Mapai movement and, thereafter, the Alignment that eventually morphed into the Labor Party (מפלגת העבודה הישראלית).

Fast-forward a half-century later, however, and Israel’s small Arab parties have not only become marginalized, but nearly toxic coalition partners for anyone — Zionist, religious or secular; right, center or left.

All three parties support an end and evacuation of Israel’s settlements, the right of return for Palestinian refugees and the establishment of a Palestinian state. They include:

  • Hadash (الجبهة or חד”ש, ‘New’), technically a socialist joint Jewish-Arab party formed in 1977, with its roots in the Israeli Communist Party is the oldest of the three main parties with significant Arab representation, and it has run jointly with the other two parties in previous elections.  Its leader is Mohammad Barakeh, an MK since 1999 who gained some admiration among Jewish voters for a visit to Auschwitz in 2010.  Although most of its support comes from Arab voters, among its most prominent leaders is Dov Khenin, an MK since 2006 and a prominent Jewish radical leftist intellectual.
  • Balad (التجمع الوطني الديمقراطي‎, ‘Country or Nation,’ or ברית לאומית דמוקרטית, ‘National Democratic Assembly’), formed in 1995 by Azmi Bishara, is both more secular and more centrist than Hadash.  Bishara, who was elected as an MK in 1996, fled Israel in 2007 after Israeli police questioned him for aiding Hezbollah during the 2006 Israeli war in Lebanon (the Knesset passed a law in 2011 — the ‘Bishara bill’ — that stripped him of his parliamentary pension).  Balad is anti-Zionist in that it opposes the idea of Israel as a Jewish state, preferring a multinational state.  Its leader, Jamal Zahalka, an MK since 2003, has been overshadowed in the campaign by Haneen Zoabi (pictured above, bottom), herself an MK since 2009.
  • United Arab List (لقائمة العربية الموحدة‎ or רשימה ערבית מאוחדת) and Ta’al (لحركة العربية للتغيير‎ or תנועה ערבית להתחדשות, ‘Arab Movement for Renewal’) comprise a coalition since 2006 of two Arab parties, the former created in 1996 by the Islamist movement in Israel and the latter a more secular party also formed in 1996.  The group attracts much of the support of the nomadic Bedoin community, which represents nearly 30% of all Israeli Arabs.  It’s led by Ahmad Tibi (pictured above, top — the man not wearing a keffiyeh), an MK since 1999, but also previously a former advisor to Yasser Arafat, former president of the Palestinian Authority, who represented the Palestinians during the 1998 Wye River negotiations with Israel.

Israeli law guarantees equal rights to all of its citizens regardless of religion, though most Israeli Arabs are exempt from the national compulsory service in the Israeli Defense Forces.  But many Israeli Arabs nonetheless report feeling like second-class citizens in a country that defines itself first and foremost as a Jewish state, and Arab-based parties have struggled in the past just to make the ballot.

Notwithstanding a large amount of sympathy for and solidarity with the residents of the Palestinian territories, many Israeli voters are more concerned with their own opportunities as Israeli citizens within Israel’s borders.

It’s not an overstatement to say that the status of Israel’s growing Arab population and their political, civil and economic rights in an officially Jewish state remains one of the trickiest existential issues for Israel as a nation — and that would be the case even in a world with a fully sovereign and friendly Palestinian state. Continue reading Israel’s untouchable parties: Israeli Arab politics in a Jewish state

The Lebanonization of Israeli politics and next week’s Knesset elections


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: ISrel Flag IconLebanon

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

Hagel’s Defense nomination may be about Israel — but not in the way you think


The next U.S. secretary of defense will affect world affairs in profound ways — the drawdown of troops from Afghanistan in 2013, the use of military drones to launch attacks on Yemen and Pakistan, and the ongoing strategic interest of U.S. armed forces in the Asia/Pacific theater. ISrel Flag IconUSflag

It wasn’t pre-destined that the nomination of former U.S. senator Chuck Hagel as U.S. defense secretary would come to be defined by U.S.-Israel relations.  But Hagel’s nomination has been hit with a wall of criticism against his record as being anti-Israel, and while that makes his confirmation in the U.S. Senate trickier, it’s also given Obama somewhat more power to influence the shape of the next Israeli government.

The main charges against Hagel are that he’s not sufficiently pro-Israel, that he’s not sufficiently serious about Iran’s potential nuclear program because of his call for unilateral talks with Iran, and, most recently, that he’s somehow anti-gay because he made some less-than-charitable remarks in 1996 about James Hormel, who was then-U.S. president Bill Clinton’s nominee as ambassador to Luxembourg, even though Hormel has accepted Hagel’s apology and Hagel fully supports openly LGBT servicemembers, and he supported the end of the ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ policy in September 2011.

The Israel charges, however, will dominate Hagel’s confirmation hearings, which may well coincide with Israel’s upcoming election for the Knesset, its 120-seat unicameral parliament.

Although Benjamin Netanyahu’s center-right Likud (הַלִּכּוּד‎, ‘The Consolidation’) is expected to win the largest number of seats, it remains unclear whether his ultimate governing coalition will be more right-wing or more centrist — it’s likely he will have several paths in cobbling together a majority.  That’s the key fact of the Jan. 22 election, and that’s what makes the ongoing dynamics of the Hagel nomination so intriguing.

The New Yorker explains the anti-Israel rap against Hagel as well as anyone: Continue reading Hagel’s Defense nomination may be about Israel — but not in the way you think

Olmert’s break with Livni further fragments Israel’s center-left opposition


While Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu contemplates the rise of his former protégé-turned-rival Naftali Bennett, leader of the surging conservative Bayit Yehudi (הבית היהודי, ‘The Jewish Home’), he’s probably still not too worried about his chances to return as Israeli prime minister after January 22’s elections to the Knesset (הכנסת), Israel’s 120-seat unicameral parliament.ISrel Flag Icon

That’s because he’ll have his pick of any number of orthodox or conservative parties to bolster his own conservative Likud (הַלִּכּוּד‎, ‘The Consolidation’), which — for the purposes of this month’s election, at least — has partnered with the secular nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu (ישראל ביתנו‎, ‘Israel is Our Home’) of former foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman, who recently resigned in light of an indictment on charges of breach of public trust.

But, even more, it’s also because the remaining center-left opposition to Netanyahu is horribly fractured in at least five different groups:

  • the centrist Kadima (קדימה, ‘Forward’) of former prime minister Ehud Olmert;
  • Hatnuah (התנועה, ‘The Movement’), a new party formed by former foreign minister Tzipi Livni, who lost the Kadima leadership in March 2012;
  • the longtime center-left Labor (מפלגת העבודה הישראלית) party, led by the more leftist Shelly Yacimovich since 2011;
  • Yesh Atid (יש עתיד, ‘There is a Future’), a vaguely reformist center-left party formed this year by former television news anchor Yair Lapid; and
  • Meretz (מרצ, ‘Energy’), Israel’s far-left, social-democratic Zionist party.

Together, conceivably, they could have united to form an anti-Netanyahu coalition.  In the span of one week, as it turns out, Livni has gone from public musing about joining Netanyahu’s next coalition to calling for one last attempt, with 18 days to go until the election, at a united front.  Livni’s tenure as foreign minister featured lengthy negotiations with the Palestinian Authority over a potential Israeli-Palestinian peace plan, though Netanyahu has reassured Likud colleagues that Livni won’t serve as foreign minister, even if Lieberman remains too beleaguered by legal problems to resume his role.

With the exception of Labor, which has pushed a much more economically liberal platform than the other centrist parties, it’s hard to believe that the failure of the center-left has more to do with arrogant personalities than it does with real ideological differences.

At the heart of the center-left’s dilemma is the disintegration of Kadima, the party established by former prime minister Ariel Sharon in 2005 to give him the political space necessary to begin dismantling Israeli settlements in the West Bank and engage the Palestinian Authority in serious peace talks.  At the time, Kadima drew support from prominent Likud members as well as from senior Labor figures as well, including, notably, Shimon Peres, who now serves as Israel’s president.

But Kadima’s power started leaking away with the stroke in January 2006 that incapacitated Sharon by leaving him in a permanent coma.

His successor as prime minister, Ehud Olmert (pictured above, with Livni), left office in 2009 under a cloud of scandal and although he was largely acquitted of corruption charges earlier this year, state prosecutors are appealing the acquittal, so Olmert’s not completely out of legal trouble.

In the previous 2009 Knesset elections, Livni, who served as deputy prime minister to Olmert as well as foreign minister, led Kadima admirably enough, winning the highest number of seats in the Knesset (28 to Likud’s 27).  But Netanyahu ultimately formed a governing coalition with other allies (including Labor which, at the time, was led by former prime minister and defense minister Ehud Barak).  Livni refused to join that coalition, and so Kadima went into opposition.

Fast forward to early 2012.  Kadima MKs, disgruntled with Livni’s performance, replaced her as leader with Shaul Mofaz, who served as Sharon’s defense minster earlier last decade.  Mofaz, after initially refusing to join Netanyahu’s coalition, promptly did so in May, only to leave the coalition in August over disagreements over the Tal Law.  Mofaz, in making such a hash of coalition politics, managed to worsen Kadima’s already precarious electoral position.

Livni promptly resigned from the Knesset in a bit of a huff, returning to politics only last month when she formed Hatnuah, which in English is literally known as ‘The Tzipi Livni Party.’  Ideologically speaking, it’s difficult to see much daylight between her views and  Kadima’s views or even Lapid’s views.

While Olmert’s legal troubles may have stopped him from running in this month’s elections himself, it certainly hasn’t stopped him from making mischief — earlier this week, he in no uncertain terms urged Israeli voters to support Kadima rather than his one-time deputy Livni:

Speaking at an event for Kadima mayors in Ramat Gan, Olmert sang the praises of current Kadima chairman Shaul Mofaz and mocked The Tzipi Livni Party’s slogan.

“I hear that the hope will vanquish the fear,” Olmert said. “That is indeed a nice slogan, and I am not against slogans. But what is the practical content behind it? If there is anyone who has already proven that he knows how to defeat fear in the streets and provide security and hope to the citizens of Israel, it is the man who, as IDF chief of staff, commanded Operation Defensive Shield and defeated the second intifada.”

Olmert was even harsher at an event in late December:

“She lost the party leadership by  a huge margin, because when she headed the party its members lost trust in her,” Olmert said.

“That is the truth. She did not succeed as head of the opposition.”

The change of heart is fascinating, given that just two months earlier, the two former Kadima leaders seemed much more in concert about uniting against Netanyahu, releasing a joint statement on October 31 indicating they would both return to politics as a united force.

Clearly, no longer. Continue reading Olmert’s break with Livni further fragments Israel’s center-left opposition

What Barak’s apparent departure means for Israeli politics

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

Today’s attack in Gaza and its effect on Israeli (and Middle Eastern) politics

First and foremost, it bears noting that civilians — including women and children — died today in Israel’s air strikes on Gaza and, whatever the merits, motivations or repercussions of that attack, our hearts — Jewish, Muslim, Christian, agnostic or otherwise — should cry for the loss of innocents in any military operation.

One of the motivating factors of my blog is to demonstrate that in so many places in the world, with so many viewpoints and cultural assumptions and worldviews, politics is a way of brokering policy decisions in a way that avoids violence — even in countries without democratic institutions or even much in the way of rule of law. 

So from that perspective, even if you think the world is a better place without Hamas’s Ahmed Jabari, who was killed in Israel’s attack today, it’s incredibly sad to see the continued failure of politics vis-a-vis Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

* * * * *

I have no interest in assigning blame in a conflict where both sides have used too much violence for far too long, despite strong and honestly held beliefs, and I have no idea how today’s Israeli attack on Gaza will play out (but I have a sad hunch), but it’s safe to say that with just over two months to go until Israel’s election campaign, it’s suspicious to see this kind of a wide attack on Gaza, the worst of its kind since Israel entered the Gaza Strip four years ago.

Even giving Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu the benefit of the doubt, today’s attack is bound to affect the election, scheduled for January 22.

Certainly, it helps Netanyahu’s reelection campaign, and it does so at a critical time when former Kadima leader Tzipi Livni and former prime minister Ehud Olmert were set to make a final decision about whether they would participate in the January 22 elections for the Knesset, Israeli’s unicameral parliament, and at a time when his Likud (הַלִּכּוּד‎) party’s formal 2013 election coalition with Yisrael Beitenu (ישראל ביתנו‎) has resulted in the jointly-merged coalition losing strength, not gaining.  As individual parties a month ago, they polled 40% to 45% cumulatively; the most recent poll shows Likud-Yisrael Beitenu at 36%, with their main rivals gaining — the Labor Party (מפלגת העבודה הישראלית‎) under Shelly Yachimovich polling 21%, and a new political party, Yesh Atid (יש עתיד‎) under popular former broadcaster Yair Lapid polling 15%.

We don’t know what exactly it means for Mohammed Morsi, the newly elected president of Egypt, only consolidating the reins of power in the Arab world’s largest country.  But Egypt has already recalled its ambassador from Tel Aviv, and Morsi’s aides are working to revise the 1979 peace treaty with Israel.  Morsi was the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate during the presidential campaign.

The attack also puts the United States — and president Barack Obama, just eight days after his reelection — in a tougher spot than it would prefer.  Can you imagine what a Camp David-like peace accord would look like today, with Netanyahu on one side, Morsi on the other, who knows who would represent Hamas, and Obama and U.S. secretary of state Hillary Clinton trying to sort it all?

As Jeffrey Goldberg notes in real time in his blog at The Atlantic: Continue reading Today’s attack in Gaza and its effect on Israeli (and Middle Eastern) politics