A Call for International Action [ssba]

A Call for International Action

A crucial dilemma will shortly face the United States in the United Nations, where a resolution is expected to be introduced in the Security Council by France that will seek to set the parameters for a permanent settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This would be a new departure in the long-running ‘peace process’. The United States has for years, through its use of the veto power, consistently provided diplomatic cover for Israel in the United Nations. On many occasions, this has served the interests of both Israel and the United States. On other occasions, however, the United States has employed its veto against resolutions that directly reflect long-standing American policy. This pattern of virtually automatic use of the Security Council veto has, over time, empowered the government of Israel to pursue actions directly contrary to U.S. policy and against Israel’s own long-term interests.

American Jewish organizations have too long routinely supported this process. Partners for Progressive Israel (PPI), an American Jewish organization affiliated with the Meretz party in Israel, believes that it is past time for the American government to halt this use of the veto power and to vote instead in support of resolutions consistent with U.S. policy that seeks a peaceful two-state settlement of the conflict in the Middle East. Such a change is in the interests of all the parties, including Israel, the Palestinians, and the United States.

American policy has for many years assumed that bilateral negotiations between the parties would be productive, but it is now clear that such negotiations are unlikely to resume, much less result in an outcome that both sides can live with. The recent elections in Israel produced a right-wing government with a majority of annexationists who favor a one-state outcome to the present impasse. It now falls to the international community to recognize, as it did in 1947 when it authorized the establishment of a Jewish and a Palestinian state, that it is the only force able to impose a solution, if necessary, and to set a timetable for the emergence of a Palestinian state next to Israel.

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Disingenuous Debate on Iran Negotiations [ssba]

Disingenuous Debate on Iran Negotiations

The Iran “framework agreement” reached a couple of weeks ago has preoccupied this country, and especially American Jews. I’m somewhat puzzled by the depth of the controversy (except for the purely political reaction by those who think Obama is the devil incarnate), because, given the range of choices available, I don’t think it’s a difficult choice. In fact, it is barely a choice at all, contrary, for example, to the opinion piece in last Sunday’s Washington Post by Israel’s Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon.

Ya’alon attempts to debunk the numerous safeguards in the framework draft and asserts, with not a shred of evidence presented, that a “better” deal is attainable, one that “significantly rolls back Iran’s nuclear infrastructure and links the lifting of restrictions on its nuclear program to an end of Iran’s aggression in the region, its terrorism across the globe and its threats to annihilate Israel.” There is a better chance of Bibi Netanyahu and Hamas leader Khalid Meshal drinking four cups of wine together next Passover than of Iran agreeing to that. Ya’alon, a former IDF Chief of Staff, may have been a successful military commander, but if he believes that this is reachable without war (which I doubt he really does), his political and diplomatic comprehension is, simply, not credible.

Not that I think fears are inappropriate, nor do I “pooh-pooh” Iran as a danger to the world and to Israel, as a friend accused me at synagogue last Shabbat. But there has been enough commentary since the framework was announced to judge what the pros and cons are, and the pros overwhelmingly outweigh the cons. I would even disagree with my friend Gershom Gorenberg’s assessment that it is the “least bad deal.” It is not ideal (it’s a compromise, isn’t it?); it is not foolproof (name something in international relations that is); it does not absolutely guarantee Israel’s safety (what could?). But it is a reasonably good framework for a deal, in that it removes the immediate danger of an Iranian bomb and provides serious safeguards against cheating. Read More »

The Israeli Elections: What Happened, What Didn’t [ssba]

The Israeli Elections: What Happened, What Didn’t

Those Israelis who hoped for a change in Israel’s direction awoke this morning to news worse than they had feared. With more than 99 percent of the vote reportedly counted, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party has won 30 seats to 24 for his main challenger, Isaac Herzog’s Zionist Union.

During the campaign, and especially in its last few weeks, Netanyahu had tried openly to capture seats from parties to his right, namely the Jewish Home (headed by Naftali Bennett), now reduced to 8 seats, and the new Yachad Party, which apparently did not receive the threshold 3.25 percent of the vote necessary to reach the Knesset.

The left-Zionist Meretz Party reached the threshold, but barely, with either 4 or 5 seats. If it ends up as 4, party chair Zahava Gal-On has said that she would resign from the Knesset. The centrist parties, Yesh Atid (Yair Lapid) and Kulanu (Moshe Kahlon) have 11 and 10 seats, respectively, and the ultra-Orthodox Shas received 7 and United Torah Judaism 6.

Current Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, the head of Yisrael Beiteinu, has been enmeshed in a new financial scandal, and speculation had it that he might not reach the threshold, but he has 6 seats, far fewer than his previous 11, but he remains a player. The disparate Joint List, composed of the “Arab parties” and the Communists, which includes Jews and Arabs, received 13 or 14 seats, appreciably more than its combined total of 11 in the previous Knesset, marking the first time a truly unified Arab list has run, though its members’ views range from Arab nationalist to Islamist to Communist.

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Last Minute ‘Predictions’ for the Israeli Election [ssba]

Last Minute ‘Predictions’ for the Israeli Election

At the urging of some friends, I have decided to go out on a limb, take a stab in the dark, indulge in fantastical thinking, or whatever your favorite metaphor for wild, though educated, guessing might be. I have looked at the latest polls (by law, Friday was the last day they could be published), held my finger to the Jerusalem wind, listened to my friends debate the consequences of “strategic voting,” and here is the result. I freely admit that it is tempered by wishful thinking and skewed somewhat towards the left. Thus, this really represents what I think are the outer limits of reasonable possibility for those, like me, who are praying, hoping, and advocating for Bibi to go.
Zionist Camp 24
Likud 21
Jewish Home 13
Kahlon 10
Joint List 14
Shas 8
UTJ 6
Yachad 0
Yisrael Beiteinu 5
Yesh Atid 14
Meretz 5

Some Pre-Election Thoughts from Israel [ssba]

Some Pre-Election Thoughts from Israel

I’m writing this in a Jerusalem café two and a half days before the polls open here for what all expect to be a truly fateful election. As an American who once expected to live here permanently, I have dual citizenship and, since Israel does not allow absentee voting except for diplomats, I came here to vote – and see old friends, of course. I’m glad I did, whatever the outcome.

My friends generally share my views, so they are mostly voting for the left-Zionist Meretz, the center-left ‘Zionist Union’ (led by Yitzhak Herzog and Tzipi Livni), and a few for the ‘Joint List’, the uneasy amalgamation of ‘Arab parties’ and ‘Communists’ that was forced into existence by the new 3.25% vote threshold for getting into the Knesset. I put the party names in quotes since all these names and expressions are common usages but don’t necessarily represent what the words seem to mean.

My most pleasant surprise is the sense of very cautious optimism which has greeted me. While no one can predict with any confidence a true change in Israel’s current trajectory, the chance of Bibi Netanyahu losing the election seems greater than most of us dared imagine a few weeks ago. Instead of the prime minister being the poster child and main attraction of his party, he now seems to have turned into its albatross. Not only for the ‘leftists,’ who are his natural enemies, but there seems an immense weariness and irritation with Bibi as a person, his family, and his style, as well as his policies, domestic and foreign. Read More »

Bibi-ism – A Cynical Strategy [ssba]

Bibi-ism – A Cynical Strategy

In the American media, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s oft-confirmed insistence on speaking before Congress on March 3, just before the Israeli elections, is usually characterized as “ill-advised” or as a “mistake.”  Perhaps he overreached or didn’t foresee the response, people say.  Or he doesn’t realize how his speech will polarize American Jews and make Israel into what it hasn’t been till now, a partisan political issue.

Those who write this are wrong; many of them probably realize themselves that this wasn’t a “miscalculation.”  But it’s time to call a spade a spade and not shy away from the fact that Netanyahu’s move, abetted by the still somewhat new Israeli Ambassador in Washington, Ron Dermer, is part of a larger strategy that coordinates politics and policies in Israel and the U.S.  Bibi and Dermer, a former Republican political operative before he made aliyah, knew exactly what they were doing.  There is every reason to believe they welcome the controversy.  And, as Gershom Gorenberg points out, the more criticism he receives, the more he solidifies his base in Israel.  But it is also just as true that he simultaneously reshapes American discourse on Israel to serve his political and policy ends, and upends some important aspects of American Jewish life.

People have been asking me:  “Doesn’t Bibi realize that he is endangering the bipartisan consensus that has supported Israel since 1948?” Of course he does and, unlike some others on the Israeli far right, Netanyahu wants and needs American support.  But he has clearly made the momentous decision that he (standing, he asserts, for the State of Israel and the whole Jewish people) will accept it only on his own terms.  Israeli governments and the American Jewish establishment have in the past tried – and often succeeded – in marginalizing dissenting Jewish supporters of Israel, stretching back at least to the peace organization “Breira” in the 1970’s.  But, partly in response to the success of J-Street in mobilizing latent anti-occupation sentiment among American Jews (and others), Netanyahu, the far right in Israel, and their supporters in the U.S. are now deliberately splitting Israel’s Jewish supporters and disdaining as anti-Israel those who do not toe the war-with-Iran and pro-settlement line.  And so far the chips seem to have largely fallen as he hoped they would.

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Israel Votes: The Mideast Soap Opera [ssba]

I have never been a fan of soap operas.  Instead, I get my dose of melodrama, pathos, unexpected marriages, sudden divorces, and just plain lunacy by being a close observer of Israeli elections.  Generally, that fix has to hold me for around four years but in this case I get to watch a new one only a bit more than two years after the last episode.  And, of course, despite my sarcasm and cynicism, I care deeply about the outcome – and the consequences that emerge will have real-life consequences for Israelis, Palestinians, the region, and even the whole world.

Now the courtship phase of the election has ended.  In other words, last Thursday, Jan. 30, was the deadline for changing lists and candidates, and no more marriages between lists are allowed.  This courtship phase has been more exciting than most.  It started off with the Labor Party’s leader, Yitzhak Herzog, scion of one of Labor’s most distinguished lineages (his father was former President and General Chaim Herzog) joining with Tzipi Livni, whose father was a major leader in the pre-state Etzel (Irgun) and in the Herut party, forerunner of the Likud, where her own political base was until 2005.  They formed a new electoral list called the ‘Zionist Camp.’ 

Recent failed courtships included the Jewish Home’s Naftali Bennett recruiting Eli Ohana, one of Israel’s premier (retired) soccer heroes, for his list, until Ohana dropped out in the resulting furor; and Prime Minister Netanyahu’s last minute effort to induce independent center-right Likud refugee Moshe Kahlon to merge his new Kulanu” (all of us) party with Likud, which Kahlon refused.  Despite a seemingly lackluster campaign, Kahlon successfully offered almost-Chief of Staff of the IDF, Gen. (ret.) Yoav Galant, as well as former Ambassador to the US Michael Oren, realistic slots on his list.  

Meanwhile, an unlikely polygamous marriage between all three ‘Arab’ parties in the Knesset into one list was concluded, against heavy odds, thus creating one mid-sized ‘Arab’ party for the first time in Israeli history.  A huge irony is that it was forced on them because a new law, midwifed by Avigdor Lieberman’s rightwing Yisrael Beiteinu Party, set a higher threshold of 3.25% of the vote to get into the Knesset, and was passed with the hope of sharply reducing Arab Knesset membership.  Compounding the irony is that a major corruption investigation has engulfed Yisrael Beiteinu and it is distinctly possible that the party might not reach the threshold itself, thus hoisting itself on its own petard.  For a variety of other attempted – and some successful – party mergers and acquisitions, see here.

But no satirist would dare invent the most recent scandal, which features Bibi Netanyahu’s wife, Sara, already dubbed ‘Bottlegate.”  While most Israeli politicians’ spouses usually remain in the background in the background, Sara has consistently been in the news, usually as the object of claims of extravagance, abuse of the hired help, stinginess, or ‘forcing’ her husband to make political choices based on her (intense) likes and dislikes.  Now, the Attorney General is about to launch a potential criminal investigation focused on, among other things, Sara’s reported practice of forcing the prime ministerial staff to remit to her the deposits for all the bottles used in her household, which are purchased with taxpayers’ money.  It turns out that she had already repaid the equivalent of $1,000 for this in the past.  Moreover, opposition politicians have gleefully pointed out, the Netanyahus’ (state-paid) liquor bill comes to more than the wages for a million Israelis.  

This may seem purely comical, let alone trivial, but at the moment it is not entirely inconceivable that Netanyahu could drop out of the race or be severely punished by voters.  Israelis are suffering economically, a significant issue in the campaign, and Sara’s extravagance could resonate harshly for her husband.  My own guess is that this will turn out to be a blip, but that is by no means certain.  


Rather weightier matters are, of course, in play as well.  Last week, a near-war with Hezbollah was averted, largely because the timing was convenient for none of the parties, though two Israeli soldiers were killed and a number wounded.  The current tension stems from an attack on a jeep on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights border with Israel on Jan. 18.  Though Israel has not claimed responsibility, no one doubts that it launched the attack.  Killed were six Hezbollah fighters, including Jihad Mughniyeh, son of Imad Mughniyeh, a major Hezbollah leader assassinated, again almost certainly by Israel, in 2008.  Perhaps more important, also in the jeep and also killed was a top commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, which is the major supporter and supplier of both Hezbollah and the Assad regime in Syria.  Iran and Hezbollah could not let these go unavenged and therefore launched a missile at a (for some reason) unarmored Israeli vehicle near the border, killing the two Israeli soldiers.  

Simul­taneously – in a remarkable and rare exercise of good sense – Iran and Hezbollah used diplomatic contacts to convey to Israel that they had no interest in expanding the violence if Israel did not.  Despite bellicose calls from a number of Israeli politicians, honor seems satisfied and the incident seems closed – at least for now.  See a fuller discussion of these issues here.  However, Netanyahu has been blamed by the Israeli Center and Left for initiating an attack that would guarantee retaliation, and by the same token reminded his rightwing constituency that he is not afraid to attack Israel’s enemies, which is what he is largely basing his campaign on.


And then there are the continuing repercussions from “Boehnergate,” on both sides of the pond.  I was among those who thought it a despicably clever ploy which would help Republicans, divide Democrats, and boost Bibi among his core rightwing (Israeli) constituency, which he is trying to safeguard from the darling of the far right, Jewish Home’s Naftali Bennett.  Instead, at this point, it seems to have backfired, though its real results won’t be clear until Bibi comes to Washington and gives his Congressional speech or – conceivably – doesn’t.  

The ploy has been criticized by a number of erstwhile allies – including the Anti-Defamation League’s Abe Foxman and former Ambassador Michael Oren – and seems to have resulted in Democratic hawks delaying bipartisan legislation to force Obama’s hand on Iran sanctions.  Perhaps most important, opposition Israeli politicians are gaining traction with the argument that Bibi is irresponsibly endangering the vital relationship with the United States,incurring the anger of President Obama for the sake of partisan advantage in the upcoming elections.  Even many rightwingers in Israel recognize that the US is its political and diplomatic lifeline and do not want it endangered, even though they might not like Obama himself.


As of this writing, there is still over six weeks until the elections and there’s little doubt that the show will go on.  Still, Bibi seems rather less invincible than many thought when he surprised the country with the announcement of new elections late last year.  Recent poll numbers show Likud trailing 3-4 seats behind the ‘Zionist Camp,’ and the largest party will probably – though not necessarily have the first crack at forming the new government coalition.  However, as I argued in my last article, Bibi will likely retain an advantage in the post-election negotiations that actually set up the coalition.  The right, combined with the religious parties, still looks more cohesive and better able to agree on a set of principles.  The Left, though by no means out of the running, would likely have to reconcile ex-Likudniks like Kahlon and Livni not only with left-Zionist Meretz, but with a newly-united Arab bloc with around 12 seats.  No Arab party has ever been part of a government coalition and it is by no means clear whether Israelis are yet ready for that to take place.  Or, as has happened before, the ‘Zionist Camp’ may join with the hated Bibi and other parties in a ’unity’ government, which might have the votes to survive, but could probably do little else.

That is my report from the real-life soap opera.  Despite my tone, it is indeed deadly serious – and lives and policies will hinge on the results.

Gaming the Israeli Election [ssba]

Gaming the Israeli Election

Note:  This article was originally published on the website of the Middle East Institute.

Israel’s politics are always full of paradoxes. In the upcoming March 17 election, the central one is that the likely winner is perhaps the most disliked man in the country’s politics, namely the current prime minister, Benjamin (Bibi) Netanyahu. Even many who will vote for him don’t like him. This is partly a function of his longevity in the top ranks; he first became PM in 1996, but others held the office from 1999 until he regained it in 2009, and he has made a lot of enemies over the years. It is also partly that the right feels that he is not stalwart enough on Greater Israel and that the left accuses him of wanting no peace deal at all. And it is partly the economy; high prices are hurting Israelis badly, and Netanyahu is largely blamed. But there are few others considered prime ministerial material, so the money is on Bibi to win.

This election could be considered existential, and it indeed may end up being a watershed. A significant part of the Israeli electorate has accepted right-wing ideologies, which could threaten Israel’s democratic nature, as well as deny Palestinians both a state of their own and collective national rights within Israel. But there is also widespread suspicion of the ideological right, even among those who feel that peace with the Palestinians is currently impossible. Many Israelis may end up voting for economic reasons, and religious-secular issues are still important to a significant slice of the electorate. The specific question for Israelis is whether they will choose to halt this progression toward the right or accept it, with consequences unknown but potentially game-changing.

The modified two-party system that governed Israel until the 1990s has virtually disappeared.  Long gone are the days that one or both major parties (Labor or Likud or their predecessors) would win more than 40 or 50 Knesset seats. While Israel has never in its history had a non-coalition government, there has usually been a large party that led the government, one or two medium-size parties, and a few small parties.  Polls now show that each of the two major parties—Labor and Likud—will probably receive 22-24 seats (out of 120) each. As such, each will represent about a fifth of the electorate. However, being the number one vote getter is still vital, because that party will probably be selected by President Rivlin to get first crack at forming a coalition.
The Labor Party is already a coalition between party leader Isaac Herzog and former Foreign and Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, who will rotate the prime ministry if they win. Livni comes from an old Likud family, and has reached Labor by way of two now-defunct centrist parties, Kadima and Hatnua. Labor has been emphasizing Netanyahu’s failure to make peace and Israel’s deteriorating position in the world. With the rise of ISIS and the events in Paris, though, Likud and the far right are benefiting by asserting that Israel has no peace partner and that strength is what matters. “Peace” is being made into a euphemism for “surrender,” and the fear engendered recently is almost certain to bolster the right.
When Bibi first announced elections in December, he was seen as the probable favorite. Then, for a while, it seemed that his popularity was draining away, and his rivals, even from smaller parties, felt empowered. Now Netanyahu has consolidated his control of Likud, and his potential right-wing coalition seems increasingly difficult, though not impossible, to beat.
Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman has made a career of being the bad boy of Israeli politics, but he had hoped in this election to be the kingmaker. However, his Yisrael Beiteinu Party is being decimated by a corruption investigation. The polls already show him at six to eight seats, down from 14 in the last election, when he ran with Likud. If his support keeps hemorrhaging, he could shrink to a minor player, or even fall below the 3.25 percent threshold and be shut out.  Conversely, his harping on being a victim of the establishment, with an investigation announced just as the campaign was launched, may get him some traction. In the last year Lieberman has tried to acquire a more moderate veneer, so he might be willing to join a Labor-led government, and even six seats might be crucial in forming a coalition.
Almost every Israeli election brings out a new centrist party, and this year’s entry—Kulanu—is led by Moshe Kahlon, a well-liked former Likud minister who has quarreled with Netanyahu.  He is now emphasizing his rightist, rather than centrist, credentials, having signed on to the right-wing mantras that Israel has no peace partner and that he would never divide Jerusalem. His campaign got off to a slow start, falling from a possible 11 seats to seven, but he may well rebound, and it is not inconceivable that he would sit in a coalition with Labor, given his dislike of Bibi, though ideologically he is more comfortable on the right.
The great centrist hope of the 2013 election, Yair Lapid of the Yesh Atid Party, is bruised but still around. He spent the last two years as finance minister, usually a kiss of death in Israeli governments, and his poll numbers show him at 10 seats, barely half of the 19 he received last time. He is a classic centrist, blowing hot and cold on war and peace, but undoubtedly angry at Bibi, who blamed him for subverting the last government. He would necessarily be part of any center-left coalition, but it is questionable whether he would be willing to get out of his comfort zone for a realistic peace plan. His support comes from the secular middle class, which is most concerned about economic issues.
Then there are the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) parties. The oldest of these is United Torah Judaism, representing Ashkenazi Haredim, which will probably receive the same seven seats as in 2013 and is most compatible with a right-wing coalition, but that is not set in stone. Opposite in the ultra-Orthodox arena, and for several decades larger and more active, is Shas, which caters to Jews from Arab and Muslim countries. Its founding patriarch, Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef, died last year, and the party has split, with a former leader, Eli Yishai, forming his own party, Ha’am Itanu. Yishai is politically right wing, but his party may not reach the electoral threshold. If it does, he would join a rightist coalition. If it fails, the Haredi influence will diminish somewhat. Shas is now led by Yishai’s rival, Aryeh Deri, whose own sympathies are with the peace forces, but his constituency is right wing. The Haredim usually go with the right, but Shas has joined left-wing coalitions before and conceivably could do so this time. One issue is that Lapid’s Yesh Atid Party (and, to a somewhat lesser degree, Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu) are militantly secular, and it is dubious that any Haredi party would sit in a government with them. But stranger things have happened.
The current Wunderkind of Israeli politics is Naftali Bennett, head of the Jewish Home Party, which is a spruced-up and somewhat modernized version of the old National Religious Party. It doesn’t hurt that he is young, a self-made entrepreneur, and “Anglo-Saxon” (his family moved to Israel from San Francisco in 1967). Bennett is somewhat moderate on religious and social issues, but is ultra hard-line on war and peace. He has been in his element since the Paris attacks, portraying Palestinians as al-Qa‘ida and ISIS rolled into one, and completely opposed to any Palestinian state. He portrays himself as the only genuine hard-liner, which Bibi is trying hard to refute, and his success is shown by the fact that his party is the only one that is doing appreciably better in the polls than it did in the last election (16 seats compared to 11). Though he and Netanyahu famously do not get along, they will necessarily be the core of any right-wing coalition, with probably around 40 seats between them.
On the left is Meretz, the only party that still raises the banner of the Israeli “Zionist left” and unequivocally supports both Israel as a Jewish state and a Palestinian state on the 1967 borders.  Meretz is sometimes labeled as old-fashioned even by its admirers, but its stand is clear on both social and peace issues. However, its peace policies do not seem to reflect the mood of more than a small part of the Jewish Israeli electorate, even though a majority is in favor of some form of two-state solution, and it seems stuck at six seats in the polls, the same number it had in the old Knesset. It, with Labor, would necessarily be the core of any left-wing coalition, and it openly hopes to pull any such government to the left.  Some pundits have urged it to join with Labor in the election, but it fears that its voice would be drowned out if it did so.
What is left are what are usually called the “Arab parties” or, more correctly, the non-Zionist parties. Israeli Palestinians (aka Israeli Arabs) are always divided among themselves, including nationalist, Islamist, and Communist factions. Many feel that the new 3.25 percent threshold was primarily intended to limit the number of Arab Knesset members because some parties will not reach it. Unity discussions have gone on for weeks, and it now looks as if there will be two parties, which may together come to a couple more seats than the 11 they had in the previous Knesset.
However, no Israeli government has ever included these parties in its coalition. Yitzhak Rabin’s second government (1992-96) used them to reach a ‘blocking majority,” whereby they propped up the coalition without being part of it. It is not clear whether these parties would be invited into a left-center government or not, nor whether they would accept such an invitation. It is also murky as to whether a government could function that included such a broad span of views and ideologies such as theirs and those of Lapid and/or Lieberman.
At this point most Israeli Jews, like most Palestinians, simply do not believe that their adversaries want peace—or at least that it is possible within the next decade. Thus, decisions about the conflict seem somewhat removed from reality. On the other hand, many Israelis are hurting from the record-high prices, though they are starting to realize that there may not be a quick fix for that, either. The left-wing parties try hard to point out the connection between the two issues in that high defense budgets plus expanding settlements necessarily means less for the civilian economy, but this has not yet caught on with the general population. But while ordinary Israelis may respond to nationalist appeals more than they used to, the majority still does not swallow the ideology of Greater Israel.
The Israeli public is more fragmented than it has ever been before, which the lack of large, consensus parties like Likud and Labor clearly show. In the current climate, people are more likely to vote their fears than their hopes (which they feel were dashed), and thus, by accreting various parties, the right seems more likely to put together a coalition. One possible wild card is the Israeli Palestinian vote. Their rate of participation has been falling for years, which is a measure of their feeling of powerlessness to change things. If a significantly higher percentage of them vote for the non-Zionist parties, Meretz, and Labor, the conventional wisdom might be upset.
The election is existential, not in the sense that Israel would not exist after it, but that if Israelis vote to continue down the same road, it will be harder and harder to change course. There is a moderately clear choice on the right and a less clear choice on the left. But if the disparate center-left forms a government, it might succeed in heading off the country’s advance toward isolation and extreme nationalism—and even begin moving again toward the old Zionist dream of “normality.”

Postscript: There is some (very) slightly better news from yesterday’s polls: Labor is shown at between 24-26, while Likud is at 20-25.  The centrist and the Left (“Arab”) parties are marginally up and the right is slightly down (a trend?). The big fly in the ointment, though, is that Meretz stays stuck at 6 in most polls, and here it’s even shown as 5-6.

Is the Coming Israeli Election Existential? [ssba]

Is the Coming Israeli Election Existential?

I tend to push back against apocalyptic predictions.  Maybe because few of them ever come true.  So I think Israel will probably survive even if – as seems more likely than not – Bibi Netanyahu wins on March 17 and forms an ultra-right government to succeed the far-right government he broke up, after the hard-right government that preceded it (I think we’re running out of adjectives, but that’s a minor problem).

But I just read an article that made me at least briefly question that comfortable assumption.  It was from Ha’aretz, of course, but not by Gideon Levy or Amira Hass.  Rather, it was a long interview with that unaffected, undetected, well-connected warrior, former Prime and Defense Minister Ehud Barak.

The less-interesting part was that Barak sees himself as a possible Charles de Gaulle, whom the nation will summon from retirement to save it at a desperate moment.  That actually fits his image; Barak has never suffered from low self-esteem.  No, it is his description of his apparently habitual 6am chats with Bibi and Avigdor Lieberman during the 2009-13 government when Bibi was PM, Barak was Defense Minister, and Lieberman was, then as now, Foreign Minister.  

Back then, Lieberman played the somewhat buffoonish loose cannon who went around the world irritating friends and potential friends, before he started sounding like a born-again center-right moderate.  But it was Bibi and Barak who called the shots in that government and the shot they really wanted to call was an attack on Iran, which they both asserted (and Bibi still does) was the ultimate existential threat for Israel.

Barak, as a logical man, recognized that if Iran was clearly the most important issue, then even the Palestinian issue must be less important.  He (says he) passionately pointed out that if they Israel really wanted to bomb Iran, then they had to cut a deal with the Palestinians, which he seemed to find quite doable (as did and do I).  The world will only cut us some slack on Iran, he was saying, if we are willing to compromise with the Palestinians.

Bibi didn’t get it.  Or, according to Barak, maybe he did get it, but couldn’t swallow it.  He could not recognize that the world would not forget about the Palestinians, that in this day and age an occupation can’t go on forever, that Israel will eventually be regarded as South Africa.  This is what Barak – no bleeding heart dove he – says he sees now, and maybe he even told Bibi some of it then.  But Bibi – as most of the world sees now – couldn’t move on the Palestinians.  So – and this is the silver lining of his passivity – Israel never got a pass to attack Iran.  And now, it probably never will and – horror of horrors – it seems pretty likely that Iran and the West will reach an accommodation.

Remember, this is according to Ehud Barak, who likes to think of himself as the toughest Israeli of all, the (allegedly) most decorated soldier in Israeli history.  It is not Uri Avneri or Avraham Burg or some other peacenik.  This is what he says:  “The default goes like this: We will do nothing and we will wrap ourselves in our self-justification and we will find ourselves on the slippery slope of one state.”

I guess it’s at that point when the People of Israel call on Barak to save them.

Several things ring true to me in this long interview (not the previous sentence, though).  Bibi can understand the danger of not settling with the Palestinians but he can’t bring himself to do it.  Maybe it is the lessons he imbibed from his late father, who saw both history and the future as an endless and unstoppable series of persecutions of the Jews.  No compromise is possible.  Or maybe it’s just a character flaw; unable to close a deal.  Just keeping options open.  Or maybe it’s the ghosts of Revisionists past who warn him never to surrender any part of the Land of Israel.

The other part that rings true to me is Barak’s prophecy of the slippery slope.  Despite what the professional anti-anti-semites say, Israel built up a lot of credit among a lot of people.  Remember when Israel was David, not Goliath?  And Israel is truly amazing in many ways – at least I think so.  It has not been treated like South Africa or North Korea or Putin’s Russia, because it is fundamentally different from them.

But that may change.  An ultra-right government, in which Bibi accepts the ideology of Naftali Bennett and Danny Danon, in which his contempt for the rest of the world grows clearer, in which it perhaps is revealed even to John Kerry that Bibi will never sign a peace that any Palestinian could live with, may actually lead Israel into pariah status.  Maybe it could happen there.

So I’m thinking that this election is well along on the importance scale.  Herzog and Livni are not passionate battlers for peace.  But they, I believe, do recognize the real dangers of another rightwing government.  And with Meretz – and perhaps even the ‘Arab’ parties and others, perhaps they can avert, as the liturgy has it, the evil decree.

So despite all our cynicism, I think it’s essential that we do what we can to support the anti-Bibi forces.  I’ll support Meretz; you take your pick.  But the election could well be existential.  Go ask Ehud; I think he’ll know…


Fracturing of the Jewish People [ssba]

Fracturing of the Jewish People
The “Wars of the Jews” has been a favorite topic since at least the time that ’causeless hatred’ brought down the Second Temple, or maybe even back to the episode of the Golden Calf during the Exodus.  Jewish history is full of them.  Today, however, a time of disunity is clearly upon us again, and it will affect everyone who considers him or herself Jewish, however that is defined.

On one level, this is simply obvious.  Reform, Conservative, Orthodox; “peace camp” or “national camp”; and many other 20th century divisions have long been with us. And vitriol-tossing is not exactly a new sport at Jewish gatherings, public or private.  But I think the current wave of division may represent a new phase where reading each other out of the Jewish people is becoming normative.

My current rumination on this subject was brought on at least partly by a local Washington, D.C. incident, which is already having major national repercussions, precisely because it is so emblematic of what is happening throughout this country and, in some different ways, in Israel.  Last week,
Ari Roth, the Artistic Director of Theater J, which is part of the District of Columbia Jewish Community Center, was abruptly fired by Carol Zawatsky, the DCJCC’s Executive Director.  Ari had been at his post for 18 years, but tensions had been building recently, largely because of Ari’s insistence on pushing the envelope on Israel in plays like The Admission, and Return to Haifa.  A rightwing group called COPMA has been protesting for years that virtually any criticism of Israel (from the left at least), should not be allowed in Jewish community institutions.  

Whether Zawatsky was knuckling under to pressure from other institutions or donors, or whether she simply supposed that firing Ari would eliminate unpleasant political wrangling from her institution is unknown, and not really the point.  She has come under fierce criticism, and Ari will apparently be setting up a new theater.  For the record, Zawatsky denies that the firing was political and even that Ari was fired.  Ari has received strong support from Israeli theater groups.  A recent article in Ha’aretz was headlined with the provocative title “Firing Ari Roth Made a Fool of U.S. Jewish Discourse.”

While the incident is significant in itself, I think this has to be seen as part of a larger picture that is chiefly, but by no means entirely, about Israel and its current path.  While I and others have been publicly identified with organizations of the ‘peace camp’ for over a quarter century, in the last few years, due partly to the combined, if very different, efforts of Benjamin Netanyahu and J Street, as well as many others, the issue of “Whither Israel” has split us down the middle.  I — and most people reading this blog — are convinced that Israel’s current path is leading to a future that is belligerent, anti-democratic, and potentially fatal to Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.  It is only fair that we recognize that at least as many others are just as firmly convinced that Israel’s path is based on self-defense and “ein breira” (no choice).  Both sides see this as truly existential.

While the ‘peace camp’ has often been treated a step-child of the American Jewish community for decades, something has changed recently.  Its numbers, stature, and political clout have increased significantly, though its effect on the conflict itself has been less dramatic.  Perhaps it is also the belief on the left that time is really running out on a two-state solution.  Then there is the growing emphasis on hard-edge Jewish religious nationalism on the right in Israel causing more pushback by American Jews who feel their own values are being trampled  on.  All of these have been coming to a head in different contexts.

I do not claim to be “objective” on this and I doubt anyone can be nowadays.  But the direction we are going in now seems to be leading towards an irreparable split.  If my views cannot be presented at the DCJCC, why should I go there?   I imagine that those on the right feel similarly about other institutions, though they are far more represented in the Jewish establishment that controls most communal institutions.  These institutions used to try to keep political divisions outside their doors, largely by hiding behind a facade of unity that usually meant either presenting just the AIPAC line, or else ignoring the divisions and settling for an insufferable blandness.  The belief in some institutions was (and still is) that strong feelings should not be allowed in, because they might lead to disagreement, God forbid.  That is a caricature of a WASP family, not of a self-confident Jewish community.

I think those who lead Jewish institutions have to carefully consider if their intolerance of what some consider “anti-Israel” will either denude their institutions of serious content, or make them into places where only those with approved opinions are interested in going. Inevitably, new institutions will be formed for those who don’t fit in the old institutions. Perhaps that is what the leaders of the current institutions want; that all of us, following the old joke, have a list of institutions we patronize and a similar list we won’t set foot in.  But I can’t believe that this would be a plus for the future of Judaism or Israel or the Jewish people.

I am working with others to try to set up some sort of dialogue between the sides on this.  I have more than twenty years of experience of organizing and participating in dialogues with Palestinians and other Arabs and Muslims.  In some ways, institutionalizing intra-community dialogue between Jews may be even more of a challenge.

As I was finishing this article, my attention was called to a piece in Tablet by the noted Israeli writer and film-maker Etgar Keret, who makes a similar point about Israelis feeling dispossessed in their own country.  He thinks the coming election may help to ameliorate the situation.  I hope he’s right but I’m less optimistic. 

Best wishes for the New Year.

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