May 4, 2015 - Israel's next government: its composition and the two-state solution; demonstrations by Ethiopian-Israelis

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This week, Alpher discusses Israel's next government, due for confirmation by Wednesday of this week; recent concerted warnings by high-level US officials that the new Israeli government must adhere to the two-state principle; do the violent mass demonstrations in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv by second-generation Ethiopian immigrants, protesting Israeli racism have any connection to Ferguson and Baltimore;

Q. PM Netanyahu has to present his new government for confirmation by Wednesday of this week. Though he will be negotiating conditions with Likud’s coalition partners down to the last minute, what can you say about the next government at this late stage?

A. It will be solidly right-wing and religious, with either 61 or 67 mandates. It will apparently be the first coalition since 1967 whose guidelines say absolutely nothing about the Palestinian issue--so low is the issue on coalition partners’ order of priorities and strategic horizon. It will effectively roll back most of the steps taken in the previous government to encourage ultra-orthodox youth to serve in the army and work for a living, while funneling billions of shekels to encourage large ultra-orthodox (and Bedouin, since we’re a democracy) families that perpetuate poverty.

One key question that remained open at the time of writing on Monday was whether Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu party with its six mandates would join. Netanyahu has proposed that Lieberman remain foreign minister. In the normal scheme of things, this might be considered an extraordinary gesture for such a small party. Yet in Israel’s case many of the usual strategic prerogatives of a foreign ministry were long ago transferred to the defense and strategic affairs ministries and the overly blunt and un-diplomatic Lieberman is persona non grata in countries like Egypt. Lieberman is also reportedly unhappy that the large religious presence in this government will roll back progress toward easier conversions and marriage for the Russian-speaking immigrants he claims to represent. Yet here too it must be noted that the Russian-speakers’ rapid absorption, unlike Ethiopian immigrants (see below), has obviously reduced Lieberman’s electoral support base.

If Lieberman turns down Netanyahu’s offer due to protest and frustration, a coalition with a majority of one in the Knesset will be hard for Netanyahu to manage and could be short-lived.

Finally, for many Israelis the Kulanu party and its leader Moshe Kachlon are the only ray of hope for this government. The dynamic Kachlon, who is slated to be finance minister, achieved all his negotiating demands with the aim of carrying out the major housing and banking reforms he campaigned on. He also negotiated for his party veto power over right-wing demands emanating from the Likud and Jewish Home parties to legislate ultra-nationalist measures and to restrict the independence of Israel’s High Court of Justice. Kachlon defends the status quo at the Court, citing it as the last resort of the weak and underprivileged that he claims to represent.

If Kachlon succeeds in implementing his socio-economic platform in this government, his path to even higher office will be paved. Netanyahu knows this and can be expected to be heavily conflicted about Kachlon in this coalition. On the one hand, he needs Kachlon to hold his coalition together and enable him to advance his stealth annexation plans for the West Bank. On the other, Kachlon’s success could be Netanyahu’s ultimate electoral downfall.

If Kachlon offers a modicum of hope for reform by this government, his predecessor at the finance ministry, Yair Lapid, all of a sudden looks attractive in the parliamentary opposition. Netanyahu and the religious parties are now set to undo virtually all of Lapid’s achievements over the past two years: compulsory military service for ultra-orthodox youth, reduced subsidies for non-productive sectors of the economy, conditioning education budgets for the ultra-orthodox on inclusion of core studies in their otherwise religious curriculum, etc. Accordingly, Lapid already has a rallying cry for the next election.

Q. And what do you make of recent concerted warnings by high-level US officials that the new Israeli government must adhere to the two-state principle?

A. Two warnings that the US expects the next Israeli government to recommit to the two-state principle were issued in the past ten days--by National Security Adviser Susan Rice and by Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman. The cause for US concern is Netanyahu’s election-eve announcement that no Palestinian state will be created on his watch. The prime minister’s retraction a day later did not convince anyone.

Now Netanyahu is about to preside over a right-wing settler government that apparently doesn’t even intend to mention the Palestinian issue in its guidelines. He is aware that a US veto of a French motion in the UN Security Council to recognize a Palestinian state might depend on the perception of his commitment to the two-state principle. But he is also aware--or should be, by now--that on this issue he has no credibility in Washington and that since he affronted the administration by lecturing Congress on the evils of President Obama’s Iran strategy he has no friends in the White House and State Department.

Here it bears emphasizing: a narrow right-wing coalition is what Netanyahu wants; he has consciously flouted the option of a centrist government with Labor, one that could persuade the international community and Israel’s neighbors that he is interested in moving forward on the Palestinian issue. Apparently, he reasons that he can continue to string along the administration in its final 18 months with the help of a friendly Congress and by playing off the Iran issue against pressures regarding Palestine.

A televised plea by Secretary of State Kerry Sunday night for Israel not to get “hysterical” over the Iran nuclear deal seemed to fit well into this scenario. By that measure, the very fact that Rice and Sherman issued their warnings appears to indicate that the administration wants to be placated by more of Netanyahu’s empty commitments--if his coalition partners allow him to issue them.

Netanyahu can only be encouraged in his deliberate neglect of the Palestinian issue by the seeming futility of last week’s visit by former US president Jimmy Carter. Not only did Carter not press to meet Netanyahu; not only did he announce that he had not even bothered to discuss the two-state solution with the Palestinian leadership, preferring instead to focus on (the equally hapless issue of) Palestinian unity; but (apropos Palestinian unity) he also cancelled his visit to Gaza due to threats on his life by ISIS adherents there.

Q. It looks like Netanyahu faces an unanticipated domestic front, too. Recent days have witnessed violent mass demonstrations in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv by second-generation Ethiopian immigrants, protesting Israeli racism. Any connection to Ferguson and Baltimore?

A. Definitely. What we are witnessing is the globalization of anti-racism protests. Israelis of Ethiopian extraction, many born in Israel, have long suffered discrimination. Some of it has roots in the huge cultural and economic gap their parents had to close; some in the circumstances prevailing in the development towns in the north and south where many were given housing; and some in out-and-out racism against black-skinned Jews.

Worldwide coverage of the riots in Ferguson, Missouri and Baltimore, Maryland, protesting police brutality against blacks, was undoubtedly on the minds of Ethiopian youth in Israel when the entire country saw a clip of police in Jerusalem beating an award-winning Ethiopian soldier for apparently no justifiable reason. Everything then came together--the Jerusalem beating, the example shown by American blacks, discrimination in Israel, and the existence of a cadre of articulate and educated Israelis of Ethiopian origin who could give persuasive verbal expression to the community’s grievances. (Note: like nearly everything else in Israel that mimics America, the two demonstrations held thus far were nowhere near as violent, prolonged and widespread as in the US.)

Those grievances are powerful. Despite the concerted efforts of educators, social workers and many other Israelis of good will, some 30 percent of all youth held in detention in Israel are members of the 130,000 strong Ethiopian community; about 30 percent of younger Ethiopians are unemployed and 30 percent are drop-outs from the school system. Around 50 percent of Ethiopian soldiers in the IDF end up in a military jail. I recall how a black IDF lieutenant colonel--himself a poster boy for integration--explained the cultural gap: “my parents didn’t do puzzles with me when I was a kid.”

Yes, Israel has Ethiopian IDF officers and war heroes, an Ethiopian beauty queen, Ethiopian members of Knesset (currently, only one), and hundreds of Ethiopian police. But it also has a racism problem, this time not against Arabs but against fellow Jews--not that we can or should distinguish between targets of racism.

True, racism in Israel is not new: ask any older dark-skinned Yemenite or Indian Jew. But what has changed, and is truly breathtaking, is the effect of global media and the impressive performance in the media of a new generation of articulate Ethiopian Jews. Or has it changed? Remember Israel’s Black Panthers of the 1970s? Then, Sephardic Jewish youth brought up in low-cost immigrant housing took their example from America too. They demonstrated, rioted, and ultimately found a voice in Israeli society.

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