+972 Magazine » Noam Sheizaf http://972mag.com Independent commentary and news from Israel & Palestine Fri, 27 Mar 2015 14:01:05 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=3.8 Netanyahu’s fourth gov’t: The good, the bad and the ugly http://972mag.com/netanyahus-fourth-govt-the-good-the-bad-and-the-ugly/104656/ http://972mag.com/netanyahus-fourth-govt-the-good-the-bad-and-the-ugly/104656/#comments Fri, 20 Mar 2015 15:52:03 +0000 http://972mag.com/?p=104656 The next Israeli government will attempt to preserve the status quo in the West Bank and Gaza at all costs. Facing international backlash, the persecution of leftists and Arabs could rise to dangerous levels.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in front of a painting of former Likud prime minister Menachim Begin. (Photo: Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in front of a painting of former Likud prime minister Menachim Begin. (Photo: Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

It’s quite clear what the fourth Netanyahu government will look like: A coalition of the Likud’s “natural partners.” These are the same people who have been following and backing Netanyahu since the 1990s: Avigdor Liberman, Bennett’s Jewish Home, the ultra-Orthodox parties, and Moshe Kahlon, who is actually comprises the moderate wing of the Likud. There are all sorts of rumors about sending feelers to the Labor party, but I believe Isaac Herzog will stay in the opposition this time. There is a slightly bigger chance that Yair Lapid can be lured in by Bibi, but the chances are that won’t happen right away.

Socio-economically speaking, it will likely be a better government than its two predecessors. The Jewish Home party, which espoused a radical free market ideology, shrunk dramatically. Lapid, who dedicated his time in power to going after the ultra-Orthodox (the poorest population segment in Jewish Israeli society), will be replaced by Moshe Kahlon, who is in touch with the day-to-day hardships of most Israelis, and especially those with lower incomes. Kahlon has indicated that he has far more well-off targets than the Arabs and ultra-Orthodox in his cross-hairs: the banks, for instance. I sincerely hope if he heads in that direction that he will receive the backing of both Netanyahu and the opposition parties.

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In other ways I think that we are headed into a very dangerous era. Netanyahu believes in maintaining the status quo in Gaza and the West Bank. But the Palestinians will continue their anti-occupation struggle; they are not waiting to for Israel’s instructions on that matter. International pressure is building, along with efforts to confront Israel in international institutions. Israel doesn’t have an answer to such steps — it’s enough to look at the distrust with which Netanyahu’s zigzagging on the matter of Palestinian statehood is being met.

In such a case, with each international or diplomatic move or any renewed outbursts of violence, the pushback will be directed at “the enemy from within” — in other words, the Israeli Left, and especially those groups and activists working in the occupied territories, as well as Palestinian citizens. There’s not much Netanyahu can do against the UN or the American government, or even against the Palestinian Authority, which Israel doesn’t want to collapse. But you can always go after B’Tselem, Haaretz or Adalah. Our failure to deal with the occupation — the fact that it has become something nobody knows how to solve — will fan the flames heating the pressure cooker that is Israeli society and politics.

It is clear that we will see new versions of laws targeting human rights NGOs, the “Jewish Nation-State Law” will make a comeback, and there will be attempts to change the character of the judicial system. But I’m even more bothered by the public mood, which could be far worse than the Netanyahu governments of 2009-2013, or during Operation Protective Edge.

The final two weeks leading up to the elections taught the Right a very dangerous lesson: that breaking to the right politically, that reckless incitement against Arabs and leftists not only causes them no harm, but that it leads to electoral victory. This is why Netanyahu was able to strip so many votes from Eli Yishai and the Jewish Home. The far-right Kahanist activists may have been pushed out of the Knesset, but only because the spirit of Kahanism permeated Netanyahu’s messaging. Even Netanyahu’s election-night victory speech didn’t include any attempts at reconciliation or an outstretched hand to the other side, certainly not to the Arabs. Not even the lip service that one could expect in such moments. There is a spirit of “settling the score” among the Israeli Right now, which won’t calm as the dust settles.

These elections were more about identity and culture than ideology. I think those blaming the Right for fear-mongering themselves into power miss the point. It’s not fear they were dealing to the masses. There is no great difference between the ways the Zionist Camp and the Likud view the Middle East, or relations with the Palestinians. What does stand between the Right and Left is deep loathing. It goes both ways, but it is the Right that holds power, with very few checks on it remaining. Politics are seen as a zero-sum game in which he who controls the state organs has the legitimacy to destroy the other side.

That is a phenomenon that exists in a lot of other places in the world, and it is related to the disintegration of national identities that once held together otherwise rival communities. On the least violent end of the spectrum is the cultural war in the United States between Republicans and Democrats that is paralyzing Washington. On the other end of the spectrum are Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Egypt’s General a-Sisi. You can decide for yourselves where Israel fits on that spectrum, and where we are headed. Lest we forget, Israel is already a country that violently oppresses a civilian population under its control.

Personally, there are days when I believe strongly in Israeli society, in our feeling of a shared destiny and in the unbridled intimacy that Israelis feel for each other. On other days I am very worried — this past summer, or in the last two weeks, for example. It’s not because of Netanyahu’s election victory — we’ve gotten used to that by now — but rather the way it happened, and because of the lessons both the Left and Right are drawing from it.

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What now, Bibi? — Early election takeaways http://972mag.com/what-now-bibi-early-election-takeaways/104539/ http://972mag.com/what-now-bibi-early-election-takeaways/104539/#comments Tue, 17 Mar 2015 23:36:44 +0000 http://972mag.com/?p=104539 Netanyahu picked a fight with a sitting U.S. president and declared there will never be a Palestinian State. It might have helped him squeeze out another election victory, but where is Israel heading?

Benjamin Netanyahu gives a victory speech on election night, March 18, 2015. (Photo: +972 Magazine)

Benjamin Netanyahu gives a victory speech on election night, March 18, 2015. (Photo: +972 Magazine)

The Likud and Labor (The Zionist Camp) are tied with 27 seats, but Benjamin Netanyahu has way more paths to bring together the 61 seats necessary for forming a government, and another term for himself. That’s the bottom line of the exit polls published by the Israeli TV channels as the polling stations closed on Tuesday night. Netanyahu and his party members are celebrating, and Bibi is already testing the waters with potential coalition partners.

(Update: Early Wednesday morning, with over 90 percent of votes counted, Netanyahu took a large lead with 30 seats to the Zionist Camp’s 24. Read more here.)

Netanyahu was able to surge in the last few days, following a desperate – and at times, racist –campaign that warned right-wing voters of a “left-wing government backed by the Arabs.” On election day, he published a Facebook status declaring that “Arabs are heading to the polls in masses” and called for his supporters to rush and save the Right from losing power. This was a prime minister warning that his own citizens are voting. But in Netanyahu’s rhetoric, Palestinians were never really citizens anyway, even those who have Israeli identity cards; he sees himself as the leader of the Jewish people, not of Israelis.

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The warnings worked. Other right-wing parties hemorrhage support – Bennett and the settlers dropped to eight seats in the exit polls (they had 12 until now), Liberman dropped five, and the far-right Yahad party probably didn’t even make it in. But Likud rose from 20-21 seats to 27-28, and the Right, along with the ultra-Orthodox parties and Moshe Kahlon’s centrist party has about 64 seats. Despite all the recent drama, there wasn’t much movement between the political blocs, compared to 2013 (61:59) or 2009 (65:55).

Sixty-four seats doesn’t constitute a huge majority, but it’s enough for a stable government – as long as Kahlon doesn’t pull any surprises and refuse Bibi’s offer (it’s highly unlikely). Netanyahu will probably try to have a larger majority by inviting Labor or Yair Lapid to join, but whether they do or not, they won’t be able to deny him the victory. Assuming there are no major changes when the final results are in, Bibi will probably remain Israel’s prime minister – for the third consecutive time, and the fourth altogether.

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The big question is – to what end? Netanyahu may have won a major victory – he destroyed the opposition on the right and he will once again lead a big party – but he ran a nasty campaign that alienated major parts of the public. He put himself in a diplomatic corner on Iran and committed to never permit the creation of a Palestinian state. What now, Bibi?

In the final days of the campaign, Netanyahu said twice that there will be no Palestinian state – not on his watch. But what alternative Bibi is offering? In two years, Israel will mark 50 years of military control over the lives of millions of Palestinians. The international community is more vocal in its demands for change, and the Palestinian Authority is more desperate than ever. Netanyahu won’t be able to blame the PA for the failure of the ever-lasting peace process when he himself declares that no matter what the Palestinians do, they will never gain their independence, nor will they become full citizens of Israel.

There is symbolic significance to the fact that Netanyahu openly campaigned on his opposition to Palestinian statehood. It means that he is backed by a majority of Israeli voters, and an absolute majority of the Jewish vote. There needs to be, and I think there will be, a debate on the implications of this decision by the Jewish public. For years we have been hearing that Israel will either end the occupation or cease to be a democracy. Could it be that the Jewish public has made its choice?

There is also the problem of picking a fight with an American president on his signature foreign policy issue. Netanyahu pretty much made it clear in Washington that he has no alternatives to offer on the deal with Iran, but that he will still do everything in his power to prevent it. Not only is the conflict with the White House is far from over, Bibi will need to decide what to do if and when a deal does go through. Tonight I really don’t know where Bibi is heading, and for that matter — Israel.

A couple of side notes following the exit polls:

The Joint List. The combined list of Palestinian parties known as the Joint List is now the third-largest party in the Knesset. If Labor enters the government, the Joint List could even assume the formal role of the leader of the opposition. The Palestinian parties were hoping to gain more from this situation – they would have been in a better bargaining position had Herzog ended up with a clear path to a majority – but this is still a significant development.

Will the unified list survive? There are major challenges ahead, for example, over whether to support Herzog’s bid for the premiership in consultations with the president next week. This is part of the larger dilemma the list faces surrounding any possible cooperation with other (lefty, but Zionist) parties. There are two distinct approaches on this question that split the four factions that make up the Joint List. In fact, it won’t be that surprising if the list breaks up over this very question, which touches on the deepest conflicts in the political identity of Palestinian citizens of Israel.

Meretz. The small liberal party seemed to have survived this campaign, which almost saw it eliminated as lefty voters turned to Herzog in order to increase the chances of toppling Netanyahu. The exit polls give Meretz five seats, as oppose to the six they have now. But the campaign revealed deeper problems with Meretz, which can’t seem to break out of its small circle of core supporters, most of them centered in and around Tel Aviv. Squeezed between “The Zionist Camp” and the Palestinian list, Meretz’s fate is but another symbol for the grim state of affair in the Jewish left.

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Election preview: Netanyahu’s moment of truth http://972mag.com/election-preview-netanyahus-moment-of-truth/104344/ http://972mag.com/election-preview-netanyahus-moment-of-truth/104344/#comments Mon, 16 Mar 2015 10:35:13 +0000 http://972mag.com/?p=104344 The Israeli prime minister called elections hoping to strengthen his coalition, but he underestimated the personal resentment many Israelis feel toward him. One shouldn’t, however, confuse the fierce competition for power with a battle over ideas: even if Labor wins, the end of the occupation is not around the corner.

PM Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at a right-wing election rally in Rabin Square in Tel Aviv, March 15, 2015. (Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

PM Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at a right-wing election rally in Rabin Square in Tel Aviv, March 15, 2015. (Oren Ziv/Activestills.org) With his numbers dropping, Netanyahu was forced to shift his campaign strategy. In recent days he has given more interviews to the Israeli media than he has in all of his years in power.

When Benjamin Netanyahu decided to fire Finance Minister Yair Lapid and Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and send Israelis to the polls for the second time in a little over two years, many people (myself included) defined these elections as “a referendum on Netanyahu.” Final results will only be in on Wednesday morning – possibly even later – but one thing is clear: Netanyahu’s goal – to rid himself of an unstable coalition and secure a clear majority – will be denied.

Instead, Bibi was forced to conduct the political battle of his life. In this campaign, he poked the American president in the eye, made all sorts of promises to just about everybody, declared war on the publisher of one of Israel’s largest dailies, and buried the Bar-Ilan speech, in which he expressed support for the two-state solution. If Bibi somehow becomes prime minister again, he will have many pieces to pick up. But all that is still far off. Right now, all Netanyahu wants is to remain in power.

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Israelis will vote tomorrow on a single ballot — for the party they support. The polls close all over the country at 10 p.m. local (4:00 p.m. EST) — that’s when the exit polls will be published (including on this site). Modified polls will be published toward midnight; results are expected in the early morning. Final results and seat allocations might only come in on Thursday or Friday, once the votes from soldiers are counted (this process takes longer because the Central Election Committee needs to verify that no soldier voted twice — on base and at their home address).

Here are a few things to watch for during those days:

1. Netanyahu’s fate: A few days after the final results are published, the president – who is the formal head of state – will give the opportunity to form a government to the member of Knesset with best chances to succeed. So if a Knesset member can prove he has at least 60 other MKs backing him, he is likely to be granted this opportunity. But the law isn’t clear on this issue, and there are no rules for a scenario in which nobody gets 61. Netanyahu’s main challenger, Isaac Herzog, believes that in such a case, President Rivlin will hand the leader of the largest party the opportunity to form the government. His party (formerly Labor, now called “The Zionist Union”) built its campaign on an attempt to pull ahead of Likud. In the final pre-elections polls, The Zionist Union had an advantage of around four seats over Likud. Herzog, it seems, got what he wanted. But is it enough to form a government? This is where things get really complicated.

Netanyahu has the entire Right behind him (Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home party, Eli Yishai’s Yahad and Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu). He is also likely to get the support of the ultra-Orthodox parties Shas and United Torah Judaism (UTJ). Along with his own Likud party, this bloc polls around 53-55 seats. The anti-Netanyahu camp includes the Zionist Union, Meretz, the Joint List (which is the united list of the Palestinian parties) and probably Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party. Those parties will not align behind Netanyahu following the elections. They poll now at around 55 seats.

The 10 remaining seats (out of the Knesset’s 120) are held by Moshe Kahlon, a former Likud minister who hopes to become the next finance minister. Kahlon was careful not to reveal who he will support. If the election results are the same as the final polls, Kahlon will become the kingmaker of these elections. He can determine who will be prime minister. With a good enough showing, he might even be able to partner with Lapid and try to become prime minister himself, or make Lapid prime minister (though this is less likely).

But the polls might be wrong — recent elections saw shifts of up to 5 percent of the votes in the final 48 hours of the campaign. In such a case, the closer the anti-Netanyahu bloc gets to 60, the worse Netanyahu’s troubles get. If the opposition gets 60 or above, it means that Netanyahu has no path for forming a government, and he is likely to retire from politics immediately. On the other hand, the closer Netanyahu, the Right and the ultra-Orthodox parties get to 60, the less bargaining power Kahlon has, and the task of forming another government becomes easier for Bibi.

2. Herzog (I): The anti-Netanyahu bloc is not a government. Even if Netanyahu is denied a victory, Isaac Herzog might still have trouble forming a government. It is not clear whether the Joint List will support him (it will surly oppose Netanyahu, but it might not support Herzog); UTJ made it clear it will not sit in the same government with Yair Lapid; Liberman and Meretz will not go together … things are fairly complicated. This is why Herzog is not ruling out having Likud as his primary partner following the elections – with or without Netanyahu. But this option is also not without problems. In other words, if Bibi indeed loses the elections, things will get much more complicated. In the fragmented system that will emerge – comprised mostly of medium or small parties – nobody can be a clear winner. We could end up with a deadlock, an ongoing political crisis, or a weak government that might lead to another election in a year or two.

3. Herzog (II): Labor’s leader is not an impressive candidate. He ran a confused campaign that was fed mostly by the anti-Netanyahu sentiment unleashed in the past few weeks. Even worse: his opinions and ideas are as unclear as they were three months ago – or three years ago, for that matter.

Labor leader Isaac Herzog at an election event (photo: activestills.org)

Labor leader Isaac Herzog at an election event. After three months of campaigning, his positions are still unclear (photo: activestills.org)

4. The Buzz: Election laws prevent the Israeli media from publishing polls in the final days of the campaigns, and there are all sorts of rumors flying around about “internal polling” done by the parties and the polling companies in those final moments.

Ten days ago Yair Lapid was rising, and some people predicted he will end up in the high teens – a remarkable achievement, given his poor performance as finance minister. Then it seemed that undecided voters were moving to Herzog, allowing Labor to open its current lead in the polls. This weekend, the wind blew in the favor of Kahlon, who was suddenly becoming the default candidate for voters who were disappointed with Bibi but didn’t want to go all the way and vote for Herzog (this led Netanyahu to publicly declare that Kahlon will be the next finance minister in his government). Over the past 24 hours it seems that Netanyahu has been getting some of his mojo back. After avoiding the media for years, the desperate prime minister gave interviews to just about every radio and TV station. He also made a rare public appearance at a right-wing rally in Tel Aviv‘s Rabin Square Sunday night. Likud voters are returning home, the rumors say.

5. The parties that won’t make it in. The Knesset threshold is the highest in Israel’s history, and three parties are on the verge of being left on the outside: Meretz, Liberman’s Israel Beiteinu and Eli Yishai’s Yahad. The former is from the Left, the last two are on the Right. Since votes for a party that didn’t make past the threshold are not counted, the elections could be decided by a party failing to make the 3.25 percent threshold, denying the entire bloc four precious seats.

6. Beyond the horse race. What does this election mean for the real existential issues, and most importantly, the occupation? A lot, and not much. I don’t think any Israeli leader – certainly not Herzog or Bibi – is about to end the occupation and allow the creation of an independent Palestinian state. I don’t think that any one of them can agree to the minimum that the most willing (or capitulating — depending on your perspective) Palestinian leadership can accept. The coalition that would support such moves simply doesn’t exist.

At the same time, if Herzog is elected I think we will see another push from the U.S. and Europe for an agreement. Yet at the same time, some of the pressure Israel has been facing will lift, as will the local incentive to end the status quo. Furthermore, Herzog never struck me as a man who would rise to the occasion, Abbas has a legitimacy crisis of his own, and other alternatives for ending the occupation simply don’t exist outside the realm of think-tanks, academic institutions and other such forums.

If Bibi is elected, on the other hand, the trends of the last few years will continue and even intensify: Israel will continue to settle the West Bank and East Jerusalem, but at the same time it might face growing pressure from the world. Netanyahu has no strategy for this challenge beyond maintaining the status quo, and nobody in Israel has any idea what to do should — or when — the PA ceases to function.

There is a fierce competition over power in the Israeli political system, but there is almost a consensus over issues — this is why you heard almost nothing about Gaza or the occupation during these elections. Almost all of the Jewish parties have some common denominator they can live with – the status quo, or some modified version of it. The various political parties differ from one another not so much in ideology (although sometimes they like to pretend they do) but in culture. They represent different groups, which are more and more alienated from one another. This has been the most tribal election campaign I remember – a product of the age of identity politics, the multi-cultural nature of Israeli society and the fragmented structure of our political system. There was a lot of nostalgia in the air during this campaign, especially within the center-left, but what you saw is the new face of Israeli politics. That is why making predictions is so difficult these days.

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Netanyahu’s Congress speech: An election stunt, after all http://972mag.com/netanyahus-congress-speech-an-election-stunt-after-all/103716/ http://972mag.com/netanyahus-congress-speech-an-election-stunt-after-all/103716/#comments Tue, 03 Mar 2015 20:12:52 +0000 http://972mag.com/?p=103716 Netanyahu didn’t offer any new thinking on Iran, but he might have succeeded in regaining control over elections that were slipping away from him

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks to members of Congress at a joint Session in Washington DC, US. (photo: Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks to members of Congress at a joint Session in Washington DC, US. (photo: Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

Ever since Speaker of the House John Boehner revealed his invitation to the Israeli prime minister to speak before a joint session of Congress, people have been wondering who exactly is playing who here. Is Bibi risking Israeli-American relations in order to help the GOP score points against President Obama, or did Boehner break protocol — by not informing the White House of the invitation — in order to help Netanyahu in the coming elections? Tonight we got our answer: more the latter than the former.

As far as the international debate on the deal with Iran goes, Bibi’s positions were absurd. Not only did he provide zero alternatives to the deal he is seeking to prevent, he actually asked his biggest ally to walk out of negotiations with Iran, tighten sanctions and wait for regime change. That is not only highly impractical (even if the U.S. is convinced to adopt Netanyahu’s proposed policy, there is little chance Russia or China will do the same), but most chances are that Iran would only intensify its enrichment efforts. In Netanyahu’s playbook, this leads to the military option. Since very few people in the U.S. are anxious to go to war with Iran, Netanyahu actually made selling the deal easier, as the Washington Post  was quick to point out. If even Bibi doesn’t have an alternative strategy to negotiations, the logical conclusion would be to go ahead with the deal. After all, one could always end up going to war if Iran breaks its obligations, and there is no need to do that right now.

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Sure enough, the Republicans might have had some fun Tuesday night, especially in seeing all of Israel’s supporters in the Democratic Party moving uncomfortably in their seats. However, I do not think Bibi gave them much to work with; war with Iran does not seem like a winning ticket.

As far as Netanyahu’s political interests are concerned, however, the speech was a major success. Israelis were highly impressed, a sentiment I even heard coming from Bibi’s critics. Likud supporters were practically euphoric, acting as if their quarterback delivered the perfect pass at the last second. This week’s polls were bad for Likud, especially one published several hours before the speech, which gave the party only 21 seats, as opposed to Labor’s 24. Netanyahu’s right-wing/ultra-Orthodox bloc was given 54 seats — the same as the left/center/Palestinian opposition. Netanyahu can still end up prime minister with such an outcome, but the trends are certainly against him. The most troubling aspect, at least as far as Bibi is concerned, is that some of the undecided voters have begun breaking — and not in his favor.

This is where the speech can make a difference. Almost all political strategists expected Netanyahu to get a bump from his trip to Washington, perhaps even two to three seats. If this modest effect takes place (not to mention lasts), it could be enough for Bibi to secure a clear majority in the Knesset, thereby forcing Labor to sit in his government under his own terms. The other option is for him to form a narrow right-wing coalition.

Bibi used every card in the Israeli book — from the Holocaust to ISIS — but what really won over the Israelis was watching him receive countless standing ovations. Recently, Israelis have gotten used to seeing the dark side of Bibi’s imperial style, especially in the wake of the revelations over the Netanyahu family’s expenses, as well as their attitude toward workers in their household. But Congress saw King Bibi at his best, and I think many Israelis appreciated that. It wasn’t the policy but the spectacle that made the difference.

Again, my impression is that this speech was received very differently abroad and in Israel, which means that some of the things that Israelis liked probably alienated everyone else. Right now, however, all Netanyahu cares about is the domestic game. The irony is that if he does win the election, perhaps even thanks to his performance tonight, he will have to deal with the fallout from the speech, which will include a very upset Obama administration.

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With Netanyahu, confrontations are a feature, not a bug http://972mag.com/with-netanyahu-confrontations-are-a-feature-not-a-bug/103664/ http://972mag.com/with-netanyahu-confrontations-are-a-feature-not-a-bug/103664/#comments Tue, 03 Mar 2015 11:57:05 +0000 http://972mag.com/?p=103664 Netanyahu believes he can impress Israelis by standing up to the world on his signature political issue. Previous rifts with the White House paid off for him — this time might be different. 

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaking at the AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington DC, US, March 2 2015 (Amos Ben Gershom/ GPO)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaking at the AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington. Former head of Mossad Meir Dagan blamed Netanyahu for causing Israel “the most strategic damage on Iran” (Amos Ben Gershom/ GPO)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will claim to represent the Jewish people in his speech before Congress Tuesday, but the fact of the matter is that he doesn’t even have an Israeli consensus behind him. His journey to Washington was heavily criticized by Israeli opposition leaders, public figures and parts of the media — especially the Haaretz and Yedioth Ahronoth dailies, which are taking a clear anti-Bibi stance ahead of these elections. [UPDATE: Netanyahu also had some bad election polls - the worst one this morning. see at the end of this post].

Last weekend, Yedioth ran a long interview with former Mossad head Meir Dagan, who denounced Netanyahu’s Iran strategy as a complete failure: “Netanyahu has caused Israel the most strategic damage on Iran,” said Dagan. Former head of the IDF’s northern command (and former deputy head of the Mossad) Amiram Levin blamed Netanyahu for “hitting the U.S. president between the eyes” Dagan and Levin are only the tip of the iceberg. In fact, the security establishment was never on board with Netanyahu’s aggressive Iran strategy, and some reports even claim that the IDF and Mossad torpedoed the prime minister’s military option when the moment of decision came.

Yet at the same time, there is a near-consensus view among those in the political establishment that Netanyahu will only come back strengthened from Washington. A strategist for one of the parties told me this week that “most pollsters we talked to believe that Bibi’s Likud will increase by a couple of seats or so by the weekend.” Analysts attribute this to two reasons: first, with his speech, Netanyahu has managed to frame the national conversation around an issue that he dominates, and on which the opposition simple doesn’t have a clear agenda. Second, with Bibi, these kinds of confrontations are a feature, not a bug. They are part of a political strategy that builds on the intense emotions that such moments produce.

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Unlike Ariel Sharon, a Likud prime minister who went after the centrist vote in his national election campaign, Netanyahu has always been about rallying the base. Domestically, he highlights the cultural war within Israeli society, constantly pushing messages against “the Left” and the media (Netanyahu has recently been accusing Yedioth Ahronoth’s publisher, Arnon “Noni” Moses, of conspiring to topple him). On foreign policy, Netanyahu is playing on the old “the entire world is against us” theme — focusing specifically on “Old Europe” and the “anti-Israeli” Obama administration, as they are commonly referred to in the pages of the free Israel Hayom daily, published by Netanyahu’s patron, billionaire Sheldon Adelson. There is a strong element of a self-fulfilling prophesy here: the more resentment Netanyahu’s behavior causes, the more it is seen as proof that he is right after all — that the world is indeed hostile to Israel and its prime minister.

This strategy has proven to be effective enough in the past: after his lecture to Obama at the White House on the 1967 borders, Netanyahu actually rose in the polls. But there are some troubling signs for Bibi this time around. Unlike in previous rounds, which ended in quasi-capitulation by the Obama administration (first on the issue of settlements, then on borders), this time there is a strong pushback against the prime minister, both in Washington and back home. This could potentially lead some of Netanyahu’s “softer” supporters to question the wisdom of his ways. It is not not clear what Netanyahu is trying to achieve: if Congress actually moves to kill an agreement with Iran on its nuclear program, he will be blamed of depriving the president of a major foreign policy success, and possibly pushing the region into war. And if the agreement actually goes through, Netanyahu will appear insignificant.

Read more: The true colors of Netanyahu’s audience

Finally, Iran’s nuclear program is not the dominant issue in these elections. Perhaps Netanyahu’s greatest failure as a prime minister is his inability to truly convince Israelis that Iran is part of his agenda. The public is simply not that interested, and it seems that certain economic issues — including some very mild corruption allegations thrown at Bibi lately — are generating more excitement these days. It remains to be seen whether the prime time appearance in Congress will change that. In Israel, the controversy around the visit may actually score points for Netanyahu, since more Israelis will be tuning in.

Bibi’s speech is the last major political event due to take place before the March 17 elections. According to the current polls, Netanyahu will still have more paths to 61 Knesset seats — the absolute majority needed to build a coalition — than leading opposition candidate, Isaac Herzog. Labor’s leader is failing to generate excitement or to move voters to the left. However, Bibi and his Likud party are usually underperforming in the elections, and the past few days have seen some of the undecided voters moving toward Yair Lapid’s party (just as they did in the previous elections). If Bibi fails to impress Israelis today, he will have serious reasons for concern when he returns.

UPDATE: A poll by the Knesset channel, which was published shortly after I posted this piece, has Labor leading Likud 24:21, and the left/center/Palestinian bloc with 56 seats – the same as Netanyahu’s Right/ultra-Orthodox bloc (the centrist “Kulanu” party headed by Moshe Kahlon has the remaining eight seats, and isn’t leaning toward any of the sides). More bad news for Bibi. 

 

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For a few votes, Labor joins the attacks on Haneen Zoabi http://972mag.com/for-a-few-votes-labor-joins-the-attacks-on-haneen-zoabi/102368/ http://972mag.com/for-a-few-votes-labor-joins-the-attacks-on-haneen-zoabi/102368/#comments Sat, 07 Feb 2015 18:15:48 +0000 http://972mag.com/?p=102368 Two years ago Herzog adamantly stated that the Labor party principally opposes disqualifying any Knesset candidates. Now, in what appears to be the groundwork for joining a Netanyahu government, he and Tzipi Livni want to stop Haneen Zoabi from running for office.

Labor leader Isaac Herzog, December 10, 2014. (Photo by Activestills.org)

Labor leader Isaac Herzog, December 10, 2014. (Photo by Activestills.org)

The Labor Party and Tzipi Livni’s joint list, “The Zionist Camp,” announced this week that they will support a request to disqualify MK Haneen Zoabi and Kahanist settler Baruch Marzel from running in upcoming Knesset elections. The motion to disqualify the Balad MK is expected to pass by near consensus in the Central Elections Committee — with the support of everyone from Jewish Home to Labor. Meretz is the only non-Arab party expected to oppose Zoabi’s disqualification.

Disqualifying Zoabi has become an Israeli political ritual in recent years, but one in which Labor hasn’t always taken part. In the most recent elections Labor opposed Zoabi’s disqualification, on the grounds that “some things are more important than hot-bloodedness,” specifically, basic democratic values. There is a video of Labor leader Isaac Herzog at the time making an impassioned speech against Zoabi’s disqualification at the Central Elections Commission. Among other things, Herzog said:

Civil liberties, the freedom of conscience and expression, and the right to be elected, are all basic rights that can’t be violated even when it’s the most difficult … We in the Labor party, as a matter of principle … oppose disqualifying anybody.

So what changed? Firstly, Herzog now sees himself as a candidate for the premiership. Secondly, the Zionist Camp is down in the polls. Nothing has changed about Zoabi. The disqualification is an attempt to attract voters from the Right and to improve Labor’s position and interests in the Center-Left political block — to throw Meretz a life-line by making themselves seem less “lefty,” and to steal a seat or two from Lapid, Kahlon or even Likud.

But even in political theater there are basic principles that cannot be compromised. Relations between the Arab and Jewish citizens of Israel are one of them. It is the most volatile and sensitive issue, which was expressed in demonstrations and acts of violence this past summer — primarily against Palestinian citizens of Israel. One of the central sources of hope for a Herzog victory was the prospect that he might stop the steady stream of fuel the Right has been pouring onto that bonfire. Backing the attempt to disqualify Zoabi in these elections is far more than an election stunt meant to steal a few votes from Avigdor Liberman — it is the Labor party becoming Liberman.

Considering that in both Labor and even Meretz there are people who wouldn’t mind seeing Zoabi exiled from the Knesset, it’s important to say clearly: Zoabi is being persecuted for words, not acts. If there were concrete accusations against her, for taking part attempting to break the Gaza blockade onboard the Mavi Marmara, for instance, she would be brought to court, like former Balad chairman Azmi Bishara. (Bishara is living in exile since being accused of espionage.) Rehavam Ze’evi waved a sub-machine gun in the faces of Israeli soldiers and wasn’t disqualified from running for Knesset, MKs Ze’ev Elkin and Uri Ariel leaked information on IDF troop movements to settlers ahead of planned evictions and demolitions. All Zoabi has to do is insult an Arab police officer and the whole country is on its feet.

The real problem with Zoabi is that she says things that are outside the mainstream Israeli consensus. But the things she says are not outrageous among the Arab public (although there are a considerable number of people who disagree with her). The Knesset is the parliament for Palestinian citizens of Israel as much as it is for Jewish citizens, and it’s important that Zoabi is there; it’s important that significant segments of the public enjoy parliamentary representation. And that’s without even touching on the simple fact that far worse things are said about non-Jewish citizens inside the halls and plenum of Israel’s Knesset. If the Knesset equally applied to Jews and Arabs its restrictions on speech, half of its parliamentarians would be out looking for jobs.

MK Haneen Zoabi tries to enter the Aqsa Mosque via the Lions’ Gate, October 15, 2014. Police eventually let her and other members of Knesset enter. (Photo by Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

MK Haneen Zoabi tries to enter the Aqsa Mosque via the Lions’ Gate, October 15, 2014. Police eventually let her and other members of Knesset enter. (Photo by Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

It is nothing short of fraud for the Labor party to equate Zoabi and Marzel. There are no lack of outspoken Kahanist representatives in Israel, but Marzel has crossed far more lines. During my own military service I personally saw him going around Hebron attacking passersby: spitting, throwing stones at rooftop water heaters and windows on Palestinian homes in Tel Rumeida, pushing. If Haneen Zoabi had spit on a Jew on the street and then broken the windows of her Jewish neighbors — then maybe there would be room for comparison. By the way, I’m not convinced that Marzel should be disqualified either, but there is no connection to Zoabi.

Herzog is supposed to know that. Hell, Herzog does understand it, as is evident from his speech to the Elections Commission in 2012. The chairman of of the Labor Party is molding himself into a successful politician of sorts — but also as somebody who won’t stake out a single original or principled position if his life depended on it. Herzog is being pulled out by the tide of public opinion, and in the process, making clear where he is heading: sitting in a coalition government with Benjamin Netanyahu and Avigdor Liberman. If he thought for a moment that he had a chance of forming a government on his own and becoming prime minister, he would need the support of the Arab parties in the Joint List. But if he’s not heading the government and the Arab parliamentarians’ support role is no longer necessary, then he can start fighting for votes with Liberman.

It’s fairly likely that the Supreme Court will reverse the Central Elections Commission’s decision to disqualify Zoabi. When the Commission disqualifies an entire political party the decision can be appealed to the Supreme Court. Contrarily, the Commission cannot even disqualify an individual candidate without the Court’s approval. (In practice, election disqualifications always reach the court.) The reason for the procedural difference is that there is something especially dangerous about a majority of MKs deciding who is and isn’t a legitimate elected representative. What is being said about Zoabi today is the same as what they used to say about Ahmad Tibi — and if she is disqualified, somebody new for them to attack will be elected in her place.

As far as the Right is concerned the entire Arab representation in Israeli politics is illegitimate. If Labor and Yesh Atid keep sliding rightward then all of the Arab politicians will eventually be disqualified. If the mainstream consensus shifts in that direction, the courts inevitably follow. It also clear where that path leads: a complete boycott of elections by the Arab public. That’s how an electoral calculation turns into political stupidity — without Palestinian votes the Left cannot survive, morally or politically — and relations between Jews and Arabs will devolve into a terrifying new place.

It seems Livni and Herzog understand that as well, which demonstrates not only their lack of resolve but also their willingness to brush aside national interests when their personal political interests are at stake. Even worse is the gall to continue pointing to that as the difference between them and Netanyahu.

But this story is far larger than Haneen Zoabi. The radical right wouldn’t have been able to become such a politically and ideologically dominant force without the acquiescence of the Center. On its own, it doesn’t amount to a force to be reckoned with. The most significant change that took place in Israel over the past 20 years was the decision by the political Center to abandon the Left, instead choosing the radical Right, all in exchange for the crumbs it is able to scavenge from inside the government. Herzog could have continued to serve as a democrat from the back benches in the opposition. But one must climb over the Arabs in order to get into the seats of power in Israel — and Herzog understands that, too.

A version of this article was first published on +972′s Hebrew-language sister site, Local Call. Read it here.

Related:
Why does the Israeli left oppose MK Haneen Zoabi?
The Knesset v. Zoabi: Israeli Arab MK’s politics put on trial

Special Coverage: 2015 Elections

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Ahead of close elections, Congress gives Bibi a prime-time appearance http://972mag.com/ahead-of-close-elections-congress-gives-bibi-a-prime-time-appearance/101671/ http://972mag.com/ahead-of-close-elections-congress-gives-bibi-a-prime-time-appearance/101671/#comments Wed, 21 Jan 2015 19:36:56 +0000 http://972mag.com/?p=101671 The senator from Jerusalem will take all the help he can get these days.

Speaker Boehner holds a press conference with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Congressional leaders following his address to a joint meeting of Congress. May 24, 2011. (Speaker Boehner / CC-BY NY 2.0)

Speaker Boehner holds a press conference with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Congressional leaders following his address to a joint meeting of Congress. May 24, 2011. (Speaker Boehner / CC-BY NY 2.0)

House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) today invited Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to address a joint session of Congress on February 11. Coincidently, Netanyahu’s speech will take place a month and a half before the Israeli elections.

According to most polls, Netanyahu is extremely vulnerable, and is still far from an absolute majority that will win him another term as prime minister. If you think this is the real reason he was invited to Washington, you are in good company. Netanyahu’s campaign, which is having some trouble taking off, is all about his position as “the responsible adult” and “the internationally recognized leader.” Bibi, who doesn’t usually attend funerals of Israeli terror victims, rushed to Paris along with Naftali Bennett and Avigdor Liberman for a photo-up with world leaders after the recent terror attacks in the French capital. But the invitation to Congress is much better – in his previous speech, Netanyahu got 29 standing ovations. Nobody will stand in his way for a photo-op the way people did in Paris.

It is not surprising that the GOP is in the tank for Bibi. After all, Netanyahu all but endorsed Mitt Romney in the 2012 presidential elections. Israeli and American politics have almost merged in recent years and the debate over America’s Middle Eastern policy sounds to the Israeli ear like a battle between Labor and Likud. This is why the U.S. cannot play a positive role in the peace talks – the American positions duplicate the Israeli debate, and as a result, are completely disconnected from Palestinian point of view. Americans always end up being either surprised or angered by every move Fatah or Hamas make – just as Israelis are.

Going back to the elections, it’s clear that the GOP is much smarter in its Israel politics than the Democrats will ever be. Boehner and his party will not only help Netanyahu, but they could end up embarrassing the president on the eve of an agreement with Iran. The problem is that there will be a considerable number of Democrats who will rush to their help – such as those who joined Boehner in inviting Bibi without consulting the White House. (UPDATE: The response from the White House suggests potential complications here.) Sometimes you get the feeling that some Democrats actually like embarrassing the White House on Israel, since unlike Republican support for Bibi, which can now be taken for granted, Democrats who go against their president are gaining a lot more in return.

What effect will this “bipartisan” support have when the Israeli polls open? It’s difficult to guess. I think Bibi’s problems are of a very local nature. Israelis are simply tired of him, so I am not sure another high profile public appearance will change a lot, especially when a lot of the anger has to do with the feeling that Netanyahu is disconnected from the concerns of the average Israeli. The troubling aspect of this timely invitation is not so much  the prospect of tilting the elections, but what it says about Israeli politics, and more so, about America’s.

Related
What the polls say about Netanyahu’s election chances
The hand that holds the status quo together

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Election analysis: A shared Netanyahu-Herzog government? http://972mag.com/election-analysis-a-shared-netanyahu-herzog-government/101396/ http://972mag.com/election-analysis-a-shared-netanyahu-herzog-government/101396/#comments Thu, 15 Jan 2015 19:45:09 +0000 http://972mag.com/?p=101396 Herzog and Bibi’s political interests and the fragmented Knesset that is likely to emerge after the elections might force Likud and Labor into a power-sharing deal. Avigdor Liberman and President Rivlin already support the idea.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. (photo: Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

Will Netanyahu have to share power in the next government? (photo: Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

The Israeli Labor Party, which will participate in the upcoming election under the banner of “The Zionist Camp,” held its primaries this week. Former party leader Shelly Yachimovich won second place (first place is reserved for party leader Isaac Herzog); Stav Shafir and Itizik Shmuli, two of the leaders of 2011’s social protest movement, were elected in top places. Altogether the list leans a bit to the left of what Herzog and Tzipi Livni, who will lead the party, would have liked to see. They run the risk of drawing support from the leftist Meretz rather than from the right, which they need in order to win a Knesset majority and form a coalition. The first few polls conducted after the primaries give Labor 25 seats – one ahead of Netanyahu’s Likud party.

Yet what matters most is not who wins more seats, but rather which Knesset member has the best chances of forming a government. The magic number is 61, and reaching it will prove more complicated than it has been in years.

Below is an average of recent polls (not including the last two, although the difference is insignificant), conducted by the independent Project 61. According to the polls, Herzog can count on roughly 41 MKs (from Labor, Meretz and the Arab parties, though the latter will likely not join the government), while Bibi begins with wither 39 (Likud and Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home party) or 43 seats, in the case that former Shas stalwart Eli Yishai’s new party makes it into the Knesset. [UPDATE: several new polls are out - see at the end of this post].

The rest depends on the ultra-Orthodox (Shas and United Torah Judaism) and centrist parties – Liberman’s Yisrael Beitenu, Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu and Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid. Three of those parties will help either Bibi or Herzog become the next prime minister.

But the puzzle is not that simple. Lapid and the ultra-Orthodox can’t really work together (Lapid’s entire campaign was based on drafting the ultra-Orthodox, who are generally exempt from military service, into the IDF); it is not clear whether Liberman’s party will survive the recent round of corruption allegations, and there are many rumors regarding their pre-election agreements or commitments. It is clear, however, that the cost of getting support from centrist parties for either side will be much higher than in previous elections, when there was a clear winner and very few bargaining chips.

poll average, Jan 12 2014 (https://www.facebook.com/Project.61.IL)

poll average, Jan 12 2014 (https://www.facebook.com/Project.61.IL)

But there is one scenario in which all this horse trading doesn’t really matter: the formation of a national unity government (a situation in which one party does not have the margin sufficient to form a government, and must unite with rival political parties to form a coalition). In this case, Labor and Likud will have 47 seats or more (49 according to today’s polls), which makes obtaining 61 seats far easier – and cheaper. All Herzog and Bibi would need is the support of the ultra-Orthodox parties and Liberman.

And there is very little doubt they will join. Liberman already declared national unity as his preferred option (probably after realizing that in his newer, weaker position he will not be the kingmaker), and the ultra-Orthodox’s default position is in the coalition. They won’t stay in the opposition if they can help it.

Bibi and Herzog could decide to split the role of prime minister, as Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir and Shimon Peres did in between 1984-1988, when each leader served two years as the head of the government. Ministerial portfolios will be allocated according to the relative power of each party.

Bibi knows that these elections are about him, and national unity would very much be in both his and Herzog’s interests. A national unity government would give Netanyahu another two years in power, after which he could either retire honorably or decide to run again, depending on the political circumstances.

As for Herzog, he has a single goal: to become prime minister. The rules are very simple: once you’ve become prime minister, you are always a potential prime minister. Just look at Barak, Peres or Olmert (until his conviction). But losing the election as the head of Labor means rarely getting a second chance.

Once Herzog becomes PM – even for a short while, in rotation with Bibi – he could always run again. For Bibi a national unity government is a good way out. For Herzog it is the prefect threshold for the next round, which could potential take place against former Likud minister Gideon Sa’ar.

Labor leader Isaac Herzog, December 10, 2014. (Photo by Activestills.org)

Labor leader Isaac Herzog, December 10, 2014. (Photo by Activestills.org)

Some pundits claimed this week that Labor’s primaries will make it difficult for Herzog to enter into an agreement with Netanyahu, mostly because Yachimovich, Shafir and some other MKs are supposedly ruling out this option. But Labor also vowed to stay out of the government back in 2009 (Barak even said it on election night!) only to change its mind not long after. Yachimovich, who opposed that coalition agreement, chose not to join the small group of “rebels” who opposed and didn’t request a ministerial position. But neither did she join the MKs who refused to support the coalition. And that was the case when Labor was not even offered a rotation as the head of the government. Can anyone imagine Yachimovich or Shafir refusing what will be described as “a historic opportunity” to regain power for the first time since 2001?

The idea of a national unity government is already being discussed in various political forums. Liberman was the first to support it publically, but others might follow after the elections. Channel 2 recently reported that a source within the president’s circles said that in the case where there is no clear winner, Rivlin will urge party leaders to discuss a national unity deal.

As coalition horse trading continues, the “public demand” for an agreement that would put an end to “political blackmailing” of medium-sized parties will emerge (it always does). And from there on it is only a matter of deciding on who gets what in the new government.

There are those who think that national unity is a good idea. That together the big parties can solve the existential challenges that face Israel: peace, security, inequality. But in reality, the opposite outcome is much more likely. National unity governments cannot bring about substantial reforms on any issue, since their common denominator – the glue that holds them together – is an agreement on the status quo.

The most unlikely reform such a government will undertake has to do with the occupation, because Likud will simply not provide the necessary Knesset majority for any kind of agreement. Nearly every member of the party has vowed to oppose any kind of compromise, let alone the formation of a Palestinian state. While such a government may appear more moderate, and thus has a better chance of delaying some of the international measures being taken against the occupation (which are incredibly slow to take off in any case), the reality on the ground will stay the same – at best.

UPDATE: Several polls have been published since I wrote this post; the updated numbers are slightly more in Labor’s favor, but they don’t change a lot regarding the National Unity scenario. Here is an updated average of the latest polls, published by Project 61.

Polls average Jan 15 2015 (by Project 61 / @project_61_IL)

Polls average Jan 15 2015 (by Project 61 / @project_61_IL)

 

Related:
What the polls say about Netanyahu’s election chances
Pundits’ consensus: Netanyahu is vulnerable

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Blame Peres, not Bennett, for the Qana massacre http://972mag.com/blame-peres-not-bennett-for-the-qana-massacre/101046/ http://972mag.com/blame-peres-not-bennett-for-the-qana-massacre/101046/#comments Wed, 07 Jan 2015 09:47:50 +0000 http://972mag.com/?p=101046 The twisted logic of Peres’ Grapes of Wrath operation was all about hitting civilian targets. That was the reason refugees sought shelter in Qana’s UN base in the first place.

IDF artillery in South Lebanon., 1996 (Oren 1973 CC-BY 4.0(

IDF artillery in South Lebanon, 1996. (Photo by “Oren 1973″ CC-BY 4.0)

Yigal Sarna, a journalist for Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth, published a dramatic and serious accusation over the weekend against Naftali Bennett, the head of the Jewish Home party. Bennett was the commander of a small IDF unit that operated inside the “Security Zone” that Israel occupied in South Lebanon during the 1996 military operation Grapes of Wrath. According to Sarna, Bennett decided on his own to diverge from his orders, got his soldiers into trouble, ordered supporting fire from the regional artillery unit — and those shells hit the UN refugee camp in Kafr Qana. One hundred and two civilians and UN workers were killed and Israel was forced to end its military operation. The incident was later known as the Kafr Qana massacre.

Bennett got some surprising support from the chairman of the board of B’Tselem, Israel’s preeminent human rights organization. David Zonsheine, who served in the same unit and took part in the mission, claimed on Facebook that there was nothing wrong with Bennett’s actions that night and that in any case, he couldn’t have been held responsible for the killing. Other members of Maglan came out in support of Bennett as well.

I tend to agree. The blame lies much higher in the chain of command: those who came up with the twisted logic behind Grapes of Wrath, and most notable then prime minister Shimon Peres, IDF chief of staff Amnon Lipkin Shahak and head of Northern Command Amiram Levin.

As was the case in a similar operation against Hezbollah in 1993, the idea in Grapes of Wrath was to “pressure” the civilian population in southern Lebanon, creating a flow of refugees heading north to Beirut, which would make the Lebanese government demand that Syria force Hezbollah to avoid attacks on Israelis and IDF forces. In other words, to deliberately attack civilian targets in order to deter a paramilitary organization that was operating in the region. This is how the official Israeli Air Force website describes Grapes of Wrath (the IAF’s English site has an entirely different text):

Operation Grapes of Wrath, which began on April 11 1996, took a similar path as “Operation Accountability” in July 1993: Massive bombing of the Shi’ite villages in South Lebanon in order to cause a flow of civilians north, toward Beirut, thus applying pressure on Syria and Lebanon to restrain Hezbollah.

Such twisted ideas were bound to lead to a disaster.

Grapes of Wrath began with dropping leaflets above Shi’ite villages calling on the population to leave. Unpopulated areas around the villages were also bombed. Sure enough, most civilians fled north or searched for shelter in refugee camps, like the UN base in Kafr Qana.

At some point the army began bombing the villages themselves. I remember this day vividly because I was leading a small force of several infantry soldiers and a tank inside the strip when I was ordered to shoot at several buildings in a village on a hill north of us. We were under the impression that they were military targets. Only after taking down a handful of them did I understand that my commanders were marking random targets – houses they believed were empty (but had no real way of knowing) – in an effort “to increase the pressure” on the civilian population (half a million Lebanese ended up being displaced during the operation).

We fired until the tank ran out of shells. Luckily, nobody was hurt. Yet it’s clear that the logic here – to deliberately hit civilian targets – was even worse than in the Qana incident, where at least formally there was some operational logic behind the shelling (an attempt to lay down cover fire for Bennett and his men). I must add that it took me several days to understand what it was exactly we were doing – at whom and why we were shooting – and another several years until I internalized the full meaning of this event, resulting in a change of my entire thinking about the army and the politics of war and peace.

Shimon Peres lost the 1996 elections to Netanyahu because of the Qana incident (the massacre made Peres lose the support of many Palestinian citizens of Israel. He came 30,000 votes short of winning). Still, much of the Israeli left never learned its lesson and is still supporting devastating military operations against civilians – ones that far surpass anything we ever did in South Lebanon. Before talking about Bennett, many in the so-called peace camp should look inward.

Translated from my Hebrew blog at Local Call.

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What the polls say about Netanyahu’s election chances http://972mag.com/what-the-polls-say-about-netanyahus-election-chances/100943/ http://972mag.com/what-the-polls-say-about-netanyahus-election-chances/100943/#comments Sun, 04 Jan 2015 16:09:36 +0000 http://972mag.com/?p=100943 Netanyahu has more paths to the Prime Minister’s Office than Herzog, but also more party leaders who oppose him personally.

Seventy-one days ahead of Israel’s general elections, two major stories are dominating the political news cycle: the showdown between Shas’s former leaders – Aryeh Deri and Eli Yishai – and the corruption affair involving senior politicians from Avigdor Liberman’s Israel Beitenu party. Both Shas and Liberman lost some ground in last week’s polls, while Yishai’s newly formed party is coming close to passing the Knesset threashold, currently at 4 seats (3.25 percent of the votes).

Netanyahu’s Likud party held its primaries last Wednesday. Likud members chose an uninspiring team that didn’t include new stars, but also didn’t damage the party’s brand and might have increased its appeal in the political center. Two of Likud’s most extreme politicians, Tzipi Hotovely and Moshe Feiglin – were considerably demoted, and will probably not make it to the next Knesset.

These elections are mostly about Netanyahu anyway, more than any other issue or person. With that in mind, Bibi came out slightly stronger from last week, following the failure of his opponents in the Likud primaries and his success in blocking the Palestinian move at the UN Netanyahu’s appeal to the public has to do with an ability to hold on to the status quo at a relatively low cost. A successful Palestinian bid would have angered Israelis but also demonstrated the dead-end Netanyahu’s strategy has reached, thus increasing the appeal of challengers from right and left alike. Given the Palestinian failure, Israelis can go on ignoring the the issue altogether. That is good news for Bibi.

At the same time, Netanyahu is entering this campaign in a relatively weak position, and no poll I’ve seen gives him the absolute majority that would secure his fourth term as prime minister. Instead, we are facing a more complex picture, in which a lot will depend on the political maneuvering taking place after the polls close. The bottom line is this: Netanyahu has more paths to a coalition of 61 MKs than Labor’s Isaac Herzog, but not a lot more. However, even if Herzog does manage to form a government, it won’t be a lefty one (like the Rabin government in 1992) but rather a centrist coalition, more closely resembling the one led by Ehud Olmert.

Netanyahu (Yotam Ronen / Activestills)

Netanyahu. Will depend on Liberman and the Orthodox parties (Yotam Ronen / Activestills)

After the election, President Rivlin will need to give the opportunity to form a government to the Knesset member with the best chances of succeeding (and not, as some people think, the head of the biggest party). In order to determine the identity of this person, Rivlin will consult with members of all parties, who will recommend a certain candidate (much of the horse-trading takes place during the recommendation process). Once Rivlin makes his choice, the MK he nominates will be given 45 days to form a government.

Averaged, the polls show the following numbers: Likud 23, Labor  23, Jewish Home 16, a united Arab party 11, Moshe Kahlon 9, Yair Lapid 9, Meretz 7, United Torah Judaism 7, Avigdor Liberman 6, Shas 5, and Eli Yishai 3. (The numbers don’t add up to 120 because this is an average of other polls).

[Note that Eli Yishai’s 3 seats won’t get him past the Knesset threshold, but I included him here because this number reflects some polls in which he scores 4-5 seats, and some in which he fails to enter the Knesset and gets none. A lot will depend on the fate of his party.]

When figuring out who is more likely to receive the first opportunity to form a coalition, it’s useful to think of blocs of parties. We have 41 Knesset members who will almost certainly recommend on Herzog (Labor, Meretz and the Palestinian parties); and 39 MKs who will certainly go for Netanyahu (Likud and Jewish Home).

We can also add Lapid to Herzog’s side – the former made clear that he won’t again sit in a Netanyahu government. United Torah Judaism and Eli Yishai are more likely to go to Bibi. Now the blocs split 50:49 in Herzog’s favor.

Three parties remain in the middle – Kahlon, Shas and Leiberman. They are the likely kingmakers. It’s enough for two of them to join one side, Bibi or Herzog, for this bloc to go over 61 and receive the first opportunity to form a government.

Netanyahu has a better chance of securing those votes. Kahlon and Leiberman, both of them former Likud members, have personal issues with Bibi, but their politics are closer to the Right. It’s not really clear with either of them whether they are trying to increase their bargaining chips with attacks on Bibi, or if they really made up their minds not to support him again. I guess the more the numbers end up in Bibi’s favor, the more solvable their problems with him will seem.

For Herzog, things might be very tricky: Shas will have a problem sitting in the same government with Lapid, though a solution might be found on this front. And Meretz might have a problem with Liberman (and vice verse). Another complication is that a coalition with Liberman might not receive the support of the Palestinian parties – not even from the outside. In other words, the center-left bloc is not really a bloc, and Herzog will need to negotiate a complex puzzle, while Bibi’s work will be much simpler.

Tzipi Livni and Isaac Herzog announce a joint slate for the upcoming elections, December 10, 2014. (Photo by Activestills.org)

Tzipi Livni and Isaac Herzog announce a joint slate for the upcoming elections, December 10, 2014. The center-left bloc is more fragmented and less ideologically consistent than the right (Photo by Activestills.org)

A slight shift in the map to the right or to the left might change everything. If for example, the Left plus Lapid and Kahlon get to 61 seats (they have 59 now), they take the veto power from Liberman and the ultra-Orthodox. In such a case, Herzog will almost certainly become prime minister, in rotation with either Livni or Kahlon. Bibi has reason to be concerned: there is a slight trend of voters moving from the Right to the center and from the center to the Left. Alternatively, a strong performance by Yishai and the collapse of Shas would bring Bibi his victory.

There are also wilder scenarios: The leader of a centrist party – Kahlon? – might demand to become prime minister himself, either alone or in rotation, if he is convinced that it’s impossible to form a government without him. This is probably what Liberman had in mind when he decided to support heading to new elections, but if the election results are similar to the current polls, Liberman won’t have much to negotiate with. Here is something else to look at: A swing of four seats from Likud to the Jewish Home can make Bennett the leader of the bigger party on the Right. If the Right forms the next government, he could demand to share the prime minister office with Bibi, or in case Netanyahu resigns after the elections, with the person replacing him.

Finally, the complexities I’ve outlined here will make it very difficult to form a stable government — especially if it’s not a right-wing one (because the center-left bloc is not as ideologically coherent as the Right). This means that the ability of the next prime minister to engage in major reforms will be very limited to begin with, regardless of his agenda.

Related
Israel’s elections: A referendum on Netanyahu
Security Council’s election message to Israelis: Keep ignoring the occupation
Pundits’ consensus: Netanyahu is vulnerable

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