November 7, 2016 - Netanyahu’s urgent concerns

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Yossi Alpher is an independent security analyst. He is the former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, a former senior official with the Mossad, and a former IDF intelligence officer. Views and positions expressed here are those of the writer, and do not necessarily represent APN's views and policy positions.

This week, Alpher discusses the Netanyahu government’s most immediate preoccupation regarding the outcome of the US presidential election; how it depends on who wins, Trump or Clinton; the possibility of Obama intending to launch a last-minute policy initiative; and the number of heavy controversies on the Netanyahu government’s near-term agenda: the High Court, the media, and religious pluralism .

Q. What is the Netanyahu government’s most immediate preoccupation regarding the outcome of the US presidential election (bearing in mind that many readers will see this after the election is decided)?

A. With US security support for Israel for the next ten years now signed and sealed, Netanyahu’s primary concern with the outgoing Obama administration has to be its approach to the Palestinian issue between now and January 20, 2017. Experience tells us that the next president, Clinton or Trump, will not have an administration in place that addresses the Middle East for many months--probably not before mid-2017. But Obama makes no secret that he is weighing the advisability, and the content, of a possible final effort by his departing administration to leave its mark on the Israeli-Palestinian issue. And Netanyahu makes no secret of his desire that that not happen.

Accordingly, Netanyahu and his advisers confront a number of pressing contingencies.

 

Q. Doesn’t a lot depend on who wins, Trump or Clinton?

A. Yes, but seen from Jerusalem it’s not so simple. Suppose Trump wins. He has no understanding of Middle East issues and no clear policy direction: at most, a kind of vague isolationism, a liking for Russia’s President Putin, and some throw-away lines, at times contradictory, regarding Jerusalem and the conflict. Accordingly, the departing president would be under no constraints whatsoever regarding a new and major policy pronouncement on Israel-Palestine that establishes his legacy on the issue. Rather than give a speech that might quickly be forgotten, in the event of a Trump presidency Obama could easily opt for the more far-reaching and long-lasting option of delivering his ideas for the parameters of a solution by means of a United Nations Security Council resolution quickly negotiated with the other four permanent members of the council. Strong condemnation of Netanyahu’s settlement policies would presumably be part of that resolution.

To the extent such a move binds the hands of both Trump and Netanyahu, all the better from Obama’s standpoint. Trump has over the years proven hostile and even racist toward Obama, who owes him nothing. Netanyahu has consciously degraded his relationship with Obama through a long series of needless slights that culminated in March 2015 in a futile speech to Congress over the Iran nuclear deal. Now he would have no one to appeal to in Washington and little capacity to block the UNSC measure. Assuming such a measure is enacted, then even under a sympathetic Trump presidency--by no means a given--Netanyahu might now find it harder to advance his agenda of settlements and creeping annexation without incurring far-reaching international sanctions.

 

Q. And if Clinton wins?

A. If Clinton triumphs--at the time of writing the more likely outcome based on the polls--Obama will almost certainly feel bound to consult with her regarding the idea of leaving behind a major two-state policy initiative. As the incoming president, Clinton presumably would not wish to be bound in her relations with Israel by a UNSC resolution concerning which she did not have adequate time to consult with her policy team. And it will take time to form that team, and for it to formulate Middle East policy.

Moreover, unlike Trump, Clinton knows Netanyahu well and knows the Middle East scene well. That scene is incredibly complicated these days, what with the American stake in the fighting in Iraq, Syria and Yemen, the need to address the vicissitudes and ricochets of the Iran nuclear deal, and the prospect of a near-term change of leadership in the PLO and the Palestinian Authority. Provocative Russian military initiatives in Europe or the Middle East designed to exploit Obama’s lame-duck status and then challenge the next president could preoccupy everyone.

Regardless of her personal inclinations regarding settlements, a two-state solution and Netanyahu’s role therein, Clinton will presumably aspire to sit down with Netanyahu to discuss all these issues and open a new page in Israel’s relations with a new administration. If she is saddled with a Republican Congress, the need to get along with Netanyahu could be even more pronounced.

Accordingly if Clinton wins, she could very well caution Obama to hold off, or to limit his legacy to a speech rather than a binding UN initiative. And she would presumably wish to have input of her own even to that speech by Obama.

In other words, somewhat paradoxically perhaps, the outgoing US president might enjoy a much freer hand to leave behind an Israel-Palestine policy agenda of consequence in the event of a Trump victory.

 

Q. You’re assuming Obama really intends to launch a last-minute policy initiative.

A. Of course, this assumes that that is indeed Obama’s intention. As noted in this Q & A a few weeks ago, it is entirely possible that the threat of such an initiative on Obama’s part is mainly bluff, intended to keep both Netanyahu and the Palestinian leadership--the PLO in the West Bank and Gaza-based Hamas alike--“in line” and relatively quiescent until Obama leaves office. If that is indeed the case, neither Trump nor Clinton has anything to be concerned about.

On the other hand, if our assumptions are accurate, an Obama decision whether to drop the bluff and opt for a two-state policy initiative could well be affected by the outcome of Tuesday’s presidential election.

 

Q. Turning to domestic Israeli issues, there seem to be a lot of heavy controversies on the Netanyahu government’s near-term agenda. Can you elaborate?

A. The fourth Netanyahu government is now 18 months old and a new Knesset session has begun. At Saturday night’s rally on the twenty-first anniversary of Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination, opposition leader Isaac “Bougie” Herzog categorically took the Zionist Union out of the running to join the coalition, stating this was the ”end of the unity government era”. Of course politics are politics and we should take that with a grain of salt, but let’s assume Herzog means it at least for the short term of the coming months and that Netanyahu cannot wave the red flag of a right-left unity government with Herzog to keep his fractious right-religious coalition partners in order.

For all these reasons, the strains and internal contradictions in this coalition are showing. One or more of them could conceivably trigger the process of dismembering Netanyahu’s government. These contradictions can be divided roughly into issues related to legislation and the High Court of Justice, an issue related to government and the media, and one related to religious pluralism. Interestingly, each of the issues potentially pits a different coalition partner against Netanyahu’s Likud.

 

Q. Start with the High Court.

A. Within months, four High Court justices will be retiring and four slots will open up for new appointments. The current system for appointing them is based on a mixed commission made up of sitting justices, ministers, members of Knesset and a representative of the Lawyers’ Union; by requiring decisions approved by seven out of nine commission members, it essentially demands near-consensus and gives the justices a veto over appointments they deem to be too political.

Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, representing the far-right Jewish Home party, argues that the High Court is too left- or liberal-leaning, meaning it intervenes too readily to strike down new laws on the basis of Israel’s basic laws, the closest we have to a constitution. She wants to change the selection process so it is based on a simple majority, thereby giving the ruling right-religious coalition greater weight and weakening the justices. Chief Justice Miryam Naor refuses; she sent a letter to Shaked arguing provocatively that the justice minister had placed “a loaded gun on the table”. Shaked backed off slightly and the two met and agreed to try to appoint four new justices on the basis of the existing arrangement, with Shaked threatening to introduce her amendment to the process only if they fail. Shaked’s list of potential justices is heavy with conservative, Orthodox Jewish candidates.

Notably, Naor’s own family political roots are right wing. She offers an excellent example of how sitting on the High Court changes one’s perspective. Shaked, take note.

The second legislative issue concerns right wing Likud and Jewish Home initiatives to legislate a way around a High Court ruling that “unauthorized” outposts and even settlement houses built on private Palestinian land in the West Bank must be dismantled and removed. The proposed legislation would suffice with offering financial compensation for the land--money that no Palestinian land owner can accept lest he/she be tried by a Palestinian Authority court for the crime of selling land to Israelis. In other words, it would legalize thoroughly colonialist land-grabs in the West Bank by Israel. The High Court could well decide to strike down the new legislation as well. Coalitions have fallen over less.

 

Q. The media issue?

A. Some time ago Netanyahu, who is extremely sensitive to media criticism and accordingly insists on holding the position of communications minister for himself, engineered a move to dismantle the sovereign Israel Broadcasting Authority, which controls two TV and eight radio stations and was vulnerable due to its notorious waste and inefficiency. IBA was to be replaced with a new Israeli Public Broadcasting Corporation, known in Hebrew as the “Taagid” (corporation) or “Kan” (“Here”, its commercial name). Kan received a budget and began setting itself up and hiring staff while the clock ran out on the IBA.

Recently it became clear that Netanyahu does not like Kan, presumably because like its IBA predecessor it seemed to be absorbing too many “leftist” journalists who could be expected to take critical attitudes toward the halls of power. Coalition Chairman David Bitan, a coarse Likud politician known to be Netanyahu’s stalking horse, submitted a bill to the Knesset to close Kan and revert to the old IBA, with reforms. He even argued that you could see from their Facebook pages that the emerging Kan staffers are left-wing.

Here Kulanu chairman Moshe Kachlon, minister of finance, entered the picture to stand by Kan, citing among other issues the financial consequences of the prospective flip-flop. Kachlon threatens to bring down the coalition if Kan is scuttled. Netanyahu at one point suggested getting rid of all sovereign media and leaving just Israel’s commercial stations. Then he backed down and agreed to appoint a task force to examine the issue. Stay tuned for the task force’s recommendations, due within weeks.

 

Q. Lastly, religious pluralism?

A. Last January, Netanyahu yielded to a concerted campaign by non-Orthodox Jews, backed by the US-based Reform and Conservative movements, and agreed to set aside an area of the Western Wall, south of the Orthodox prayer areas, for men and women to pray together and woman rabbis to lead prayer. At the time, I speculated that Netanyahu’s motive was to rally the mainstream of American Jewry to his side in his disputes, existing and anticipated, with the Obama administration over Iran and the Palestinian issue.

Rather surprisingly, Netanyahu managed to persuade his government to back the plan. Not surprisingly, the two ultra-Orthodox parties in the coalition quickly backed down under pressure from their constituencies who monopolize and control gender-segregated prayer at the wall. They demanded that Netanyahu rescind the decision. Conceivably, Netanyahu has also concluded since January that his problems with Obama no longer require augmenting his American Jewish support base. The pluralistic prayer initiative has been suspended ever since.

Now the American Reform and Conservative movements have signaled that they are fed up with the delay. Last week they forced their way into the orthodox women’s section of the wall for a pluralistic prayer service, introducing Torah scrolls there for the first time and generating scuffles with ultra-Orthodox worshipers.

More controversy could follow. Netanyahu will be hard put to deal with the competing pressures. He may yet need that extra American Jewish support. The ultra-Orthodox contingent in the Knesset could bring down the government over the issue. That too has happened before.

 

Q. To sum up?

A. Netanyahu will be heavily pressured in the months ahead regarding both US-based and domestic challenges. The latter could even affect his coalition. He will need to draw on all of his legendary manipulative skills to weather the storms.

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