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.
Below is a compilation of elections-related materials from Yossi Alpher's Hard Questions, Tough Answers, December 8 to the present. You can see all Yossi Alpher’s Hard Questions, Tough Answers columns here.
March 18, 2015 - Israel’s Knesset elections - analysis
March 9, 2015 - Netanyahu’s speech to Congress: looking beyond the commentary heard thus far.
March 2, 2015 - Meanwhile, back home in Israel.
February 23, 2015 - Knesset election assessment.
February 16, 2015 - With one month to go, Netanyahu’s election manipulations.
February 9, 2015 - Jordan being dragged into the Syria conflict, escalated fighting in Sinai, an election update and more.
January 26, 2015 - Netanyahu's invitation to speak before Congress, new elections lists, the Saudi succession and more.
January 12, 2015 - The Paris attacks and the Islamist threat, election update, and more.
December 22, 2014 - UNSC Palestinian statehood votes; is there Israeli consensus on UN intervention? and more.
December 15, 2014 - Israeli Elections - small signs of hope; and security and violence.
December 8, 2014 - The Israeli elections issue.
(*Based on 99 percent of the vote; soldiers’ votes, not included, could change the outcome by a mandate in any direction within a day)
Q. What happened in these elections?
A. These were Netanyahu’s elections to win or lose, and he won a major victory. Israeli politics remain dominated by the right wing. As in previous elections, we witnessed an unexpected last minute surge that fell “under the radar” of the polls. We will now almost certainly have another right-wing government that leads Israel in the same direction as its predecessor.
Q. What is the next government likely to look like?
A. Based strictly on the political right, it could comprise Likud (30 mandates), Kulanu (10), HaBait HaYehudi (8), Shas (7), and Yisrael Beitenu (6). That would give it the necessary Knesset majority of 61 mandates. Netanyahu could then negotiate from a position of strength with the centrist Yesh Atid (11) and Ashkenazic ultra-orthodox Yahadut Hatorah (6).
In view of these calculations, it is extremely unlikely that Netanyahu will feel it necessary to offer to form a unity government with Labor (24). Nor would Labor leader Isaac Herzog, who despite coming in second succeeded in significantly enlarging Labor’s Knesset faction, be likely to agree to provide a dovish international fig leaf for such a government.
Q. The polls gave Labor (Zionist Camp) an advantage almost until election day. How did Netanyahu engineer such a dramatic come-from-behind victory?
A. Regardless of what we think of his politics and ideology, Netanyahu remains far-and-away Israel’s most adept political manipulator. A few days before elections he realized that Likud was slipping behind a surging Labor (awarded 27 mandates to Likud’s 19 by an unpublished Labor poll a week before elections) and that the only way he could salvage the election was to move drastically to the right and take votes from Naftali Bennet’s HaBait HaYehudi (which consequently dropped from 12 in the outgoing Knesset to 8), Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu (13 to 6), the Sephardic ultra-orthodox Shas (11 to 7), and even Yair Lapid’s centrist Yesh Atid (19 to 11, the biggest single setback in this race).
Accordingly, Netanyahu announced dramatically that under current circumstances he could no longer support a two-state solution, thereby ostensibly reversing his Bar-Ilan speech of 2009. And he viciously attacked Arab voters and the Arabs’ United List, thereby appealing to the raw racism of some rightists. One outcome was particularly heavy support among West Bank settlers.
Concerning Netanyahu’s abandonment of the two-state solution, two remarks are in order. First, it was always hard to believe his Bar Ilan speech insofar as he has constantly sabotaged any reasonable two-state solution with his settlement policies. Second, his public renunciation of two states was a direct response to leaks (from the left? by the PLO?) showing that in secret contacts with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), Netanyahu had seemingly offered far-reaching territorial and other concessions. In other words, a leak ostensibly intended to hurt Netanyahu by challenging his right-wing credentials ultimately backfired badly by pushing him into a vote-getting extreme right corner.
Q. Are there winners here, besides Netanyahu?
A. Only Moshe Kachlon and his new Kulanu party, which won 10 mandates, and the United Arab List, which gained 14.
Kachlon, who made his name as a monopoly-busting communications minister and ran on a platform of reducing the cost of living for the lower middle class, was already promised the Finance Ministry by Netanyahu during the elections in an effort to ensure his post-election adherence to a right-wing bloc and perhaps to poach some of his votes. Netanyahu will presumably hold to this commitment in order to ensure that Kachlon joins the coalition.
The United Arab List features a charismatic new leader, Ayman Odeh. The singular achievement of Arab citizens of Israel in agreeing on a joint list delivered the third largest party in the Knesset and brought out Arab voters who had never bothered before. It is fair to assume that one or two of the list’s mandates can be attributed to Jewish voters, who saw a unique opportunity to upgrade representation in the Knesset for some 18 percent of Israel’s citizens. Now the united list faces two serious challenges: first, holding together its disparate Islamist, communist and ultra-nationalist elements; and second, exercising parliamentary influence vis-a-vis what is likely to be a uniformly right-wing government.
Q. What about the losers? Meretz leader Zahava Galon has already resigned. How are Herzog and Lapid likely to respond to their setbacks? And what about “losers” on the right who are nevertheless likely to join the coalition?
A. Herzog can take credit for radically improving Labor’s fortunes--he took over a party with 15 MKs and now has 24--and probably won’t feel threatened as leader. Lapid has seen the fortunes of Yesh Atid plummet. Will it now go the way of earlier centrist parties (Dash, Shinui, Kadima), fragment and dissolve? Will Lapid compromise his principles in order to join Netanyahu’s coalition, or seek to survive in the opposition?
Moving to the right, Shas lost votes, but at least its leader Aryeh Deri witnessed the demise of a rival Sephardic extremist party led by Ely Yishai, which failed to pass the four mandate threshold. Like Yair Lapid, Naftali Bennet (HaBait HaYehudi) and Avigdor Lieberman (Yisrael Beitenu) rule their parties as virtual dictators, hence their leadership positions won’t be challenged even if Netanyahu is now in a position to offer them little but relatively low-level ministries.
Q. Israel seems for some time now to be set on a right-wing course, with no end in sight. Leaving aside Netanyahu’s last-minute racism and hawkishness, how do you explain the phenomenon?
A. In recent years and even decades, Israeli public attitudes have been heavily influenced by developments in the Palestinian sphere: intifadas, attacks from Gaza, exorbitant negotiating demands, and rejection of reasonable Israeli offers by leaders like Ehud Olmert. Demands by the Israeli Arab political and intellectual leadership that Israel cease to be a Zionist state have contributed to Jewish racist attitudes. The settler population in the West Bank is approaching an irreversible critical mass. All these trends and developments have come together to generate a high degree of skepticism regarding a two-state solution.
The wholesale collapse of entire Arab states since 2011 has also taken its toll: why, at this time in history, set up yet another unstable Arab state in the West Bank and possibly the Gaza Strip? Widespread barbarity and violence in Syria have also sent a depressing message regarding Israel’s capacity to coexist with the Arab world, particularly if it is called upon to offer concessions toward that end. Then there is the Iran threat, exploited in the extreme by Netanyahu by playing on existential fears and Holocaust memories. Strategic mistakes in the region by the Bush and Obama administrations have reduced confidence in American support for Israel, thereby generating tough go-it-alone attitudes.
Here two remarks are in order regarding seeming paradoxes. First, along Israel’s borders with a fragmenting and violent Arab world, Netanyahu’s response has generally been cautious--in sharp contrast to his aggressive settlement policies in the West Bank and East Jerusalem and his in-your-face approach to the Obama administration regarding Iran. Second, yesterday’s elections were ostensibly fought far more over economic and social issues than over the Palestinian issue, which was downplayed. Obviously, the public’s core hawkish and skeptical mood regarding the two-state solution and Iran played a more significant role than was reflected in campaign rhetoric. And Netanyahu’s speech to Congress two weeks ago with its open challenge to the Obama administration apparently helped his campaign more than the polls reflected.
Q. Assuming Netanyahu now forms a fairly cohesive right-wing coalition, what are the main challenges it will face?
A. In the Palestinian sphere, Netanyahu will seek to keep expanding settlements--in effect, keep advancing the apartheid agenda these elections have ostensibly mandated. But for tactical reasons, he will remain open to international initiatives. Now that he has won the elections, he may even find it convenient to allow the two-state solution back onto the agenda as long as he can manipulate the negotiations and “outlast” the Obama-Kerry team (if it now dares try again). In parallel, he will confront an accelerated PLO agenda, with some European support, of internationalizing the conflict by turning to the UN, ICC and other bodies. The outcome is almost certain to be greater Israeli-Palestinian tensions, boycotts, and conceivably violence.
A US-spearheaded nuclear deal with Iran will present a serious challenge. Netanyahu has no mandate whatsoever to take military action against Iran’s nuclear project. But Israel may find itself challenged by Iranian and Iranian-proxy forces in Lebanon and Syria who feel empowered by a nuclear deal to push their expansionist agenda in the Levant. This complex of issues could constitute the biggest strategic challenge to the next Netanyahu government. It could involve military escalation on Israel’s northern border and a complex of delicate US-Israel nuclear and regional issues. Another round of warfare against Hamas in Gaza pales in comparison, even if Netanyahu again mismanages it for lack of a coherent strategy.
In short, assuming Netanyahu now forms a right-wing coalition, we can expect heightened tensions with Washington, Brussels and Ramallah. In stark contrast, the ongoing Islamist threat probably means continued low-profile strategic cooperation with Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia.
Finally, at the domestic level Netanyahu could seek to placate the ultra-orthodox by undoing at least a portion of the commendable legislation passed during the last two years that mandates compulsory egalitarian military service for yeshiva youth. And he faces massive public pressure to reduce housing costs, a cause spearheaded by the dynamic Kachlon. Since Netanyahu represents trickle-down economics and big business interests, and because he fears competition from up-and-coming politicians on the right, Netanyahu-Kachlon tensions could quickly come to characterize the new coalition.
If indeed, as anticipated, Netanyahu forms an extreme-right government and it draws international pressure and suffers from internal contradictions, it will probably not last its allotted four-and-a-half years. But not before seriously worsening Israel’s overall strategic situation.
Q. Did [Netanyahu’s] speech [before Congress] also frame significant political dilemmas?
A. Very much so. For one, Netanyahu’s appearance confronts us, head-on, with a triangular link between the Likud, the Republican Party, and the big money provided to finance both by people like gambling mogul Sheldon Adelson.
This leads to the next question: can Netanyahu actually reconfigure the Israeli-American Jewish dynamic away from its traditional base in the Democratic Party and close links with American minorities and give it a new Republican orientation? In many ways, that appears to have been one of the purposes of this speech and to be one of the key missions of Israeli ambassador to the US Ron Dermer.
Moving a step further, suppose the Senate now successfully musters a 67 percent majority to override an Obama veto of a congressional attempt to dictate tougher conditions regarding nuclear negotiations with Iran. Will Netanyahu be credited by the Republicans and blamed by the administration? How will this unprecedented Israeli intervention in the heart and soul of the American political system affect long-term Israeli-American strategic relations?
Finally, will the Netanyahu speech affect Israeli public opinion on election day, March 17? Early indications are in the negative. But recent Israeli elections have been notorious for last minute surprises at the polls.
Q. Indeed, this brings us to the Israeli public’s response to Netanyahu’s congressional grandstanding and the administration’s angry reproaches.
A. In going to Washington, Netanyahu is subjecting not only the Israel-US relationship to severe stress. He is also testing a well-known axiom of Israeli electoral politics: that Israelis want their elected leader to be persona grata in Washington.
The conventional wisdom holds that two incumbent Israeli prime ministers were rejected by the electorate in recent decades at least in part because American presidents found ways to express disapproval of their performance. Yitzhak Shamir was replaced by Yitzhak Rabin in 1992 because President Bush ’41 disapproved of Shamir’s obstinacy over offering territorial concessions for peace within the framework of Madrid Process negotiations; and Netanyahu himself was voted out of office in 1999 because President Clinton signaled Israelis that Netanyahu was obstructing the Oslo process.
Now, once again at election time, Netanyahu is clearly in an unprecedented clash of strategies and wills with an American president and his most senior aides. And Netanyahu has walked into this conflict with eyes wide open. Far from adopting a defensive posture, he has allied himself with the Republican opposition to Obama and thereby both injected Israel deeply into the US political schism--also a dynamic without precedent in the US-Israel relationship--and placed it at odds with most of the American Jewish rank-and-file and even most American Jewish organizations.
Netanyahu’s message to Israeli voters is that he is allying Israel with some sort of “real America”, the kind referred to by people like Sheldon Adelson and Rudolph Giuliani; that Israelis can ignore the rest of America, meaning Obama and most American Jews; and that he is taking this risk for the sake of Israel’s overriding security interest, meaning preventing an Iranian military nuclear option.
Will the Israeli electorate buy into this disgraceful and unprecedented approach to Israeli-American relations?
Q. Why does the Israeli-Palestinian conflict seem right now to be all about money? Is there a timely US-Israel angle here too?
A. This is an interesting turn of events in the annals of the conflict: both sides are “internationalizing” and turning to economic warfare. From the Israeli standpoint, this appears to be the pro-Israel camp’s response to the Palestinian move to internationalize the conflict by involving the United Nations and International Criminal Court. From the Palestinian standpoint, they are internationalizing because they have proven unable to achieve the kind of political settlement they seek through negotiations.
Last week, a court in the US decided to award the American families of Americans targeted for attack by Palestinians during the second intifada (beginning in late 2000) more than $250 million in damages, to be paid by the PLO and the Palestinian Authority, who were deemed by the US court to be responsible for the terrorist acts. This landmark American legal action would never have been possible without Israeli backing, including a huge contribution to legal documentation efforts by the Israeli security services. Even Palestinian security figures now acknowledge that PLO/PA leader Yasser Arafat backed terrorist operations against civilians in Israel during the second intifada.
How, if ever, the bereaved American families will collect their compensation remains to be seen. Conceivably, payment may now find its way into Israeli government negotiating demands.
In parallel, and seemingly without coordinating the move with the Netanyahu government or IDF authorities, the Israel Electric Corporation last week began selectively cutting electricity supplies to West Bank cities because its Palestinian counterpart, Northern Electric, which buys and distributes the electricity, is not paying its bills and has ignored IEC payment notices. The Palestinians argue they cannot honor their debts when Israel refuses, for the third straight month, to transfer to Ramallah tens of millions of dollars in excise taxes that it collects on behalf of the PA. That Israeli punitive financial move is explained as retaliation for the Palestinian resort to the ICC. Ultimately, Israel and the PA agreed to devote withheld taxes to settling enough of the Palestinian electric bill to resume full supply. Netanyahu sweetened the deal by finally permitting water supply to the new West Bank model city of Rawabi.
The backdrop to the timing of these solutions was the Netanyahu congressional speech. Why give Netanyahu’s critics additional Palestinian-related ammunition against Israel when the prime minister wants to focus in Washington on his controversial position regarding Iran.
Meanwhile, the PA acted to retaliate for Israel’s refusal to remit tax monies by banning from Palestinian supermarkets the food products of six major Israeli companies.
Confused? One possible way out was hinted at by several European countries and Secretary Kerry after the PA appealed to them regarding the money Israel is withholding: it will be transferred after the March 17 Israeli elections. In other words (assuming these reassurances are anchored in reality), it’s all about Israeli politics.
PM Netanyahu’s Likud does not want to be seen prior to elections as being soft on the Palestinians. At the same time, Israeli security actors are warning that stretching the PA’s economic troubles too far could end up generating some sort of Palestinian collapse--for example, a strike by PA security forces or even a declaration that the PA is liquidating itself--that would be highly detrimental to Israeli, Palestinian and American interests. Netanyahu presumably believes he can travel to Washington, return to Israel, and still walk this tightrope until March 18 without losing his grip.
Q. With three weeks to go until Knesset elections, how do you evaluate the likelihood they will produce a government capable of moving forward toward a two-state solution?
A. Even bearing in mind that everything that follows is speculative, the chances are low. Even if the Zionist Camp (Labor plus Livni) emerges as the largest Knesset faction and succeeds in forming a coalition, the government will be too divided on the issue to make much progress in the direction of peace with the Palestinians.
The reasons are numerous.
First, even a Zionist Camp-led coalition will include centrist parties like Yesh Atid, Yisrael Beitenu and Kahlon, many of whose voters and leaders do not believe that Israel has a serious Palestinian partner for peace and who support the settlement movement. They won’t line up behind Labor’s impressive platform, brought to the party by former IDF Intelligence chief Amos Yadlin, which advocates trying simultaneously to negotiate both a two-state solution with the Palestinian leadership and interim measures, while all the while preparing for the fallback option of a unilateral West Bank withdrawal that factors in Israel’s security needs.
Second, the settlers themselves will continue to enjoy sufficient support in the Knesset, government and security institutions, and among the public-at-large to thwart any coalition move to withdraw from territories in the West Bank. Given this divide, settler threats of widespread “passive” opposition could divide the country.
Third, Palestinian divisions--between Gaza and the West Bank, Hamas and Fateh, and within the Fateh camp itself--will loom large, particularly against the backdrop of a divided Arab and Muslim world and widespread violence in Syria, Sinai, Lebanon and elsewhere. This reality will dictate a cautious approach even by a left-led Israeli government.
Nevertheless, the very emergence of a left-center-led coalition that seeks a two-state solution, limits settlement expansion and encourages dialogue with the Palestinians would undoubtedly enhance Israel’s regional and international image. Hence this is still the best coalition that Israel could hope for, even if it is based on far-reaching concessions to the center-right on the part of a Zionist Camp faction that enjoys a slim plurality in the Knesset vote.
Q. Is a right-wing-led government more likely at this point?
A. Zionist Camp and Likud are in a virtual tie in the polls, with only a point or two separating them. But the right-center bloc will almost certainly be bigger than the left-center bloc, if only because the Zionist Camp will be unable politically to include the large United Arab List (see below) in a working coalition with the center parties.
Q. So what in your view is, at this point in time, the most likely coalition to emerge from these elections?
A. A coalition based on the 50 or so mandates constituted by Likud plus Zionist Camp. Given the sharp spread of votes across the electoral spectrum, it looks increasingly likely that we will confront the prospect of what is essentially a familiar Labor-Likud coalition, possibly with rotation of the premiership. Such a “unity government” would have an easy time bringing in centrist parties that give it a stable majority of 70 MKs at least. It would be able to project sufficient moderation to at least generate some form of new two-state negotiations that limit settlement spread and at least temporarily reassure the US, EU and Israel’s moderate Arab neighbors. It would be stable and centrist enough to manage Israel’s security against threats from Islamists in Gaza and along the northern border. It would even be able to take a strong and united stand on the Iran nuclear issue while nevertheless patching up relations with Washington. But for all the reasons outlined earlier, it would not “make peace” with the Palestinians.
Such a coalition could prove attractive to the large Israeli center because it promises stability and avoids extreme politics. It could also constitute an incentive for Netanyahu to back away from a right-wing coalition--assuming he has this option after elections--if he is worried enough about pressure from Washington, the European Union and the United Nations. True, more than 50 percent of voters currently oppose a unity coalition. But they could change their mind if they confront a near dead-heat outcome of the elections. At the end of the day, Israelis value unity and consensus, however superficial they might be.
Finally, a unity coalition could enable Labor leader Isaac Herzog to demonstrate to dubious voters his capacity to fill, for the first time, a senior ministerial position, whether prime minister or foreign minister. This could prove crucial to Herzog’s future electoral prospects.
Q. Bearing in mind that elections are three weeks away and Israeli election polling is notoriously fickle, what surprises do you envision in these elections?
A. The United Arab List is generating Arab voter enthusiasm and could emerge with 12 to 15 mandates, a strong enough Knesset faction to influence coalition-building, and eventually--assuming it holds together and does not disintegrate into its four component parties--legislation as well. One or two of its mandates will apparently come from Jewish voters who abandon Meretz because they see an opportunity for greater Arab integration into the Israeli body politic.
Kulanu, the party formed by Moshe Kachlon, will emerge with upwards of 10 mandates. Kachlon is almost the only candidate with real proletarian people-skills. His number two, retired general Yoav Galant with his sharp tongue and analytical skills, is a dark horse to watch. Along with Yair Lapid and Yesh Atid (also likely to get 10 or more mandates) Kachlon will form a socio-economic centrist bloc that could determine the shape of the next coalition.
Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu faction will shrink. It has been hurt by allegations of corruption, the consequent defection of all its sitting ministers, and the inevitable shrinking of the “Russian vote” as, 25 years after the mass immigration of Russian speakers, absorption takes its toll on ethnic solidarity.
Shas will emerge as the party that aspires to speak for North African and other eastern Jews, including not just the ultra-orthodox but secular and traditional as well. But it will also downsize because this too is a shrinking ethnic bloc.
In contrast, growing allegations of corruption in the Netanyahu household and failure on the part of the Netanyahu government to stop the outrageous rise in housing prices will not stick and will not seriously affect Likud election chances. The Likud camp is simply too loyal, and Labor’s leadership, particularly the “wimpy” Isaac Herzog, simply not attractive enough to make a serious difference. In many ways, these elections will continue to be Netanyahu’s to win or lose.
Q. Meanwhile we hear intimations that the United States and the international community will ratchet up the pressure on the next Israeli government.
A. The specter of a post-election pressure campaign on the next Israeli government resonated last week in remarks made in Tel Aviv by Martin Indyk, who was Secretary of State John Kerry’s number two in the abortive 2013-14 US effort to jump-start a peace process. Indyk suggested that if the next Israeli government is reticent about a two-state solution, then Washington might acquiesce in a United Nations Security Council move to pass a resolution that lays out the principles of such a solution. Were this to happen, it would be a first instance in which Washington acts against Israel’s will on the Palestinian issue in the Security Council. There were also intimations last week from Brussels regarding new European Union post-election steps to increase involvement in the peace process and to lay on new economic sanctions directed at the settlements.
How much of this reflects serious intent on the part of the US and EU with regard to dealing with a possible new right-wing government in Israel, and how much is hype designed to signal the Israeli voter that it would be best to move away from the right, is difficult to say. Certainly, there are powerful reasons why the Obama administration might shy away from a serious confrontation with the next Israeli government: lame-duck status, the Republican-dominated Congress, preoccupation with the war against Islamic State, and hopes for a rapprochement with Iran. On the other hand, to the extent Netanyahu takes seriously the option of a broad unity government (see above), fear of Washington could be a factor.
Q. In any case, the tension over Iran between Netanyahu and the Obama administration has reportedly brought US-Israeli relations to a new low. What are the consequences thus far?
A. First, note that the tension has been generated to a large extent by Netanyahu’s perceived electoral need to demonstrate to his voters that he will defend Israeli security at any cost, and to his American financial and political support base (read: Republicans and Sheldon Adelson) that he is its stalwart ally. Even Netanyahu presumably believes that after elections the damage to the relationship can be at least partially repaired.
For the moment, though, strategic coordination between Washington and Jerusalem has clearly suffered: witness the widespread publicity afforded US acknowledgement that it is no longer fully briefing Israel on the content and progress of nuclear talks with Iran. Similarly, the administration’s anticipated boycott of Netanyahu’s March 3 speech before Congress and possibly even his AIPAC speech send an immediate signal that the strategic relationship is in jeopardy. This may be a short-term phenomenon, but even a fleeting perception of reduced US support is liable to affect Israel’s deterrent posture as perceived by enemies like Iran, Hezbollah and Sunni Islamist extremists in Gaza and Sinai.
That this is indeed likely to be a short-term phenomenon was reflected on Sunday in the news that Israel has been permitted by the Pentagon to order a second round of F-35 stealth aircraft for the Israel Air Force. If we go back several decades, the almost knee-jerk US reaction to tensions with Israel was to freeze or delay arms supplies. The Obama administration has consistently taken pride in its concern for Israel’s security needs. But by compartmentalizing its angry response to Netanyahu’s provocations over Iran and the Palestinian issue, it also limits its capacity to influence Israel’s behavior.
Q. It now seems clear that PM Netanyahu’s speech to Congress next month has provoked enough Democrats to “circle the wagons” around President Obama on the Iran nuclear issue and ensure that Congress does not override a presidential decision on a possible agreement. Yet Netanyahu insists on speaking. What are his real reasons?
A. One involves the Israeli electorate. The other, Netanyahu’s US support base.
As we have noted in recent weeks, Netanyahu believes he can convince the Israeli electorate that security is the primary issue at stake in these elections and that he and only he can deliver security. He also energetically cultivates what we might call Israeli “security paranoia”: about Iran, the Islamic State, the Palestinians, and anti-Semitism in Europe, all wrapped in Holocaust memories. (For the most recent example, note Netanyahu’s public call to Danish Jewry to move to Israel following deadly attacks by an Islamist in Copenhagen. Netanyahu knows that his appeal has no affect on Danish Jews’ decision about where to live and only antagonizes European leaders. But by highlighting the danger European Jews face, he reinforces his image in Israel as a tough leader who looks after Jews everywhere.)
Netanyahu knows that Israelis place high value on the US-Israel relationship as a pillar of Israeli security. But he apparently believes he can persuade voters that the “real” America, as represented by Republicans, evangelicals, and AIPAC, is behind him and waiting for him to lead the campaign against a bad agreement with Iran.
Indeed, it appears that the Republican leadership and financial backers of both the Republicans and Netanyahu, like Sheldon Adelson, are by now somehow counting on Netanyahu to represent their position negating an Iran deal. In this sense, Netanyahu’s insistence on going through with the speech represents not only his message to Israeli voters but his close Republican political and financial links.
Q. Can you explain the damage the Congress speech initiative has done to US-Israel relations?
A. We have already learned that the administration is now limiting the information on the Iran negotiations that it passes on to Israel lest Netanyahu manipulate and misrepresent it for his political purposes. But this is the tactical tip of the iceberg. The way the congressional speech was concocted behind the back of the administration and Netanyahu’s ongoing insistence on speaking have almost certainly inflicted substantive damage to the two countries’ “special relationship”.
For one, Netanyahu, through his highly political ambassador in Washington, Ron Dermer, has willingly humiliated the president of the United States. Secondly, rather than ride above the fray of American politics, Netanyahu has allowed Israel to be exploited by House Speaker John Boehner to drive a wedge between Republicans and Democrats and between Congress and the administration. Thirdly, Netanyahu is damaging the credibility of the pro-Israel lobby, spearheaded by AIPAC, which has always prided itself on its capacity to work with both Democrats and Republicans.
Finally, Netanyahu’s behavior is further alienating the American Jewish liberal majority. When Anti-Defamation League head Abraham Foxman calls on Netanyahu to cancel his congressional speech, you know the mainstream, which usually offers Israel uncritical knee-jerk support, has been alienated by his behavior.
Q. Does Israel have any serious objective criticism of US policy regarding Iran, or is it all election hype and politics?
A. That’s the sad thing about this affair. Mainstream Israelis, including many who do not vote for Netanyahu, have plenty of significant criticism to level at the direction the administration is moving. But Netanyahu’s politics, including gutter politics, make it difficult for them to be heard. The latest Likud clip suggests that a vote for the “left” (meaning the Zionist Camp, which is really centrist) would bring Islamic State into Jerusalem, while an extremist settler group supported by the government has actually portrayed the left groveling to serve Nazi Europeans. In this atmosphere, it’s hard to have a serious discussion about a serious issue like Iran.
Israeli nuclear experts are concerned that the US negotiating position has moved from a demand for no centrifuges to a growing readiness to compromise on thousands. The more centrifuges Iran is allowed to have and the higher the enrichment level it is permitted, the shorter its breakout time if and when it decides to produce a nuclear weapon. Israel is also concerned that, under these circumstances, Iran will be able to bypass international verification and enforcement procedures, as it has in the past and as countries like North Korea have done. Israel’s concerns over the administration’s readiness to compromise with Iran on these issues are echoed by a number of senior US statesmen. Nevertheless, it is still possible that a compromise deal with Iran would constitute an improvement on the status quo.
But why, Israelis ask, compromise with Iran? In the eyes of many, Washington is prepared to compromise because it believes that Iran could emerge as a relatively stable major power with which the US could work to manage a very troubled and unstable Arab Middle East that is increasingly characterized by dysfunctional states and extremist Islam. In so doing, Washington is ignoring Iran’s own support for Shiite or pro-Shiite extremists and Tehran’s hegemonic designs on the region, beginning with the Shiite arc of Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. In Israeli eyes, Washington is also ignoring the extremist camp in Tehran, led by the Revolutionary Guards and the supreme leader; it is seemingly assuming without foundation that a nuclear deal would enable the moderates to prevail in Iranian politics.
An Iranian nuclear capability or even nuclear breakout capability would seriously enhance Iran’s regional hegemonic sway. Just last week we witnessed the start of a Syrian campaign, with Iranian backing and Hezbollah muscle, to push the last moderate anti-Assad rebels out of the part of southern Syria bordering Israel and Jordan.
Israel is not alone in warning of the dangers of an aggrandized Iran. Saudi Arabia and the UAE are in the same boat. Netanyahu’s policies make it difficult for any of these warnings to be heard. It would be easier for mainstream Israeli strategic thinkers to consider accepting a compromise nuclear deal with Iran if Tehran did not appear to have a green light from Washington to expand its extremist Shiite agenda in the Levant. Some of these Israelis are already warning of an impending war on the ground with Iran--not triggered directly by the nuclear issue but rather by the gathering presence of Iran and its proxies on Israel’s northern border.
Q. Last week, PM Netanyahu attempted to manipulate the Israel Prize for literature and weaken “leftist” trends. The resultant storm caused him to back off. What message was he sending the electorate?
A. Netanyahu has long sought to champion, especially at election time, the “cause” of supposedly marginalized Israeli sectors like the religious, the settlers, and eastern Jews, against the “old Ashkenazi elite”. Here he conveniently ignores the facts: the religious settlers have already become a new elite; Netanyahu’s own trickle-down economic policies are responsible for Israel’s huge income gaps; and the only political parties really championing the cause of the lower socio-economic strata are Meretz, Shas, and the (Arab) United List. Accordingly, where better for Netanyahu to demonstrate his anti-elitist credentials than in the field of culture where, like it or not, most prominent writers, artists and experts have liberal and even far-left tendencies and are critical of the Likud and the right?
Having dismissed most of his coalition ministers in order to trigger elections, and until a new coalition is formed, Netanyahu holds the education and culture portfolios which include the privilege of appointing the judges for the prestigious annual Israel Prize. Last week he seized on the opportunity to dismiss three of the literature prize judges who had been appointed earlier by his coalition ministers. Netanyahu argued that their appointments were not balanced and that one of the judges had even advocated refusal to serve in the IDF. “Over the years,” he wrote on Facebook, “more and more radical figures, including anti-Zionists. . . have been appointed to the panel along with too few authentic representatives of other parts of the nation.” Thus, he added, “extremist judges are handing out prizes to their friends.”
It is indeed possible to make the case that on occasion the Israel Prize has been politicized and that judges are not always pluralistic enough in looking at candidates. I myself once witnessed a left-wing minister of education cherry-picking judges, then dictating to them which candidate to award a prize to. Several years ago, the State Controller issued a report suggesting that the entire award process be detached from politics, meaning from the control of ministers who appoint judges. Had Netanyahu criticized a lack of pluralism in the process a year ago, he might have been applauded. Indeed, had he noted that among the “other parts of the nation” Israeli Arabs, some 18 percent of the population, are almost never recognized for the Israel Prize, he would have been truly courageous.
But at election time? The political backdrop to his act was obvious: he wanted to whip up support from the (Jewish only) “non-elites” by bashing Israeli culture and its representatives. And the reaction was laudable: a number of judges resigned in solidarity; a number of prominent candidates for the literature prize and additional prizes withdrew their candidacy. The attorney general admonished the prime minister that his act was unacceptable at election time. Netanyahu cancelled his dismissal of the judges.
At the time of writing, most of the judges who had resigned refused to return to duty; most of the literature prize candidates refused to restore their candidacy. All agreed that, this year at least, the integrity of the Israel Prize had been hopelessly sullied.
This year’s Israel Prize winners (there are a number of other categories besides literature and cinema that were not affected by this scandal) will be honored on Israel Independence Day, April 23, in the presence of the president and the prime minister. It almost makes one wish that Netanyahu could still be prime minister then, so that he is obliged to confront the additional damage he has done to the cohesion of Israeli society.
Q. Election update?
A. Likud and the Zionist Camp (Labor plus Livni’s HaTnua) remain in a virtual tie in the polls, each with the low outcome of between 23 and 25 mandates. This places much of the focus on the “blocs”: right-center, left-center, and ultra-orthodox, and now a united Arab list. Here Likud seems better positioned at this point in time to put together a coalition of 61 mandates. But if Zionist Camp emerges from the election with even a slim plurality over Likud, it would get the first opportunity to try and form a government and could come up with a coalition that includes parties of the center-right like Yisrael Beitenu (Lieberman), Kulanu (Kachlon) and possibly Shas. Alternatively, it might seek ways to rely on the Arab list, but without actually bringing it into a coalition.
Meanwhile, because about 25 percent of voters remain undecided, all this is pure speculation. What does seem certain is that even a Labor-led coalition with center-right parties will be so fragmented and fragile as to be incapable of registering any real progress on the two-state issue. At best, by renewing some sort of negotiations, freezing settlement construction and projecting a relatively positive peace platform, it could buy Israel some temporary good will.
Nor is the peace process the Zionist Camp’s primary electoral “ticket”. Rather, the Zionist Camp seems to accept that the public blames the Palestinians and Arab world chaos rather than Netanyahu for the absence of a peace process, and is concentrating on socio-economic issues where Netanyahu is relatively vulnerable. The Likud leader, for his part, is focusing on “security” where he judges the left to be perceived by the public as weak. Accordingly, Netanyahu is still planning to speak to the US Congress about Iran in early March. He believes the voting public back home in Israel will reward him electorally and ignore the damage he is doing to US-Israel relations.
By the same token, Netanyahu appears to be ignoring the risk of international disapproval by undertaking new settlement construction initiatives, including in East Jerusalem and the Jordan Valley. And he is destroying some 400 Palestinian structures built “illegally” in West Bank Area C with European Union funding. These are all initiatives that could easily have been postponed until after Israel’s March 17 elections. That Netanyahu has elected to go ahead with them appears to reflect his confidence that the international community’s response will have little negative effect on voters, whereas Likud activism across the green line will have a positive effect.
(Incidentally, “indifference” about sums up the public’s reaction to the Quartet’s rather pathetic call on Sunday--at election time in Israel and with Palestinians hopelessly fragmented and the PLO opting for the internationalization route--to resume peace talks urgently. It was a sad reminder that the Quartet--the US, UN, EU and Russia--actually still exists. Right now, no one is listening in Jerusalem, Gaza or Ramallah.)
Right now, Likud and Zionist Camp both reject forming a coalition together. But with the two biggest parties likely to emerge so small, a unity government between them might end up being the only stable one conceivable: stable, in the sense that it is united over doing nothing of substance on the Palestinian issue, the most pressing issue of all.
Finally, both major parties are leveling a variety of corruption allegations against one another--in the case of the Netanyahu household, fairly petty financial corruption. None of this is likely to stick, and it all pales in comparison to the sex scandal sweeping the Israel Police: no fewer than seven police generals (out of 19) have been forced in recent months to retire due to allegations of sexual misconduct against policewomen. So far, the police scandal does not appear to have electoral implications. It just makes for juicy tabloid reading.
Q. Even Fox News has taken its distance from the invitation for PM Netanyahu to address the US Congress. So who wins and who gains from this prospective speech, scheduled for March 3?
A. Prime Minister Netanyahu continues to insist that the purpose of the speech is solely to prevent a bad nuclear agreement with Iran. "In coming weeks, the powers are liable to reach a framework agreement with Iran, an agreement liable to leave Iran as a nuclear threshold state," Netanyahu stated on Sunday. "As prime minister of Israel, I am obligated to make every effort to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weaponry that will be aimed at the State of Israel. This effort is global and I will go anywhere I am invited to make the State of Israel's case and defend its future and existence."
Yet it is already likely that, because the invitation to Netanyahu was issued behind the back of the Obama administration and has alienated even those congressional Democrats who favor stronger Iran sanctions, the Netanyahu speech, if it happens, could actually work to the detriment of new sanctions, since Democrats will probably now be obliged to support an Obama veto of new sanctions. As noted by Michael Oren, formerly Netanyahu’s ambassador in Washington but now a candidate for the Kulanu party that seeks to poach Likud votes, the Netanyahu speech initiative is a “cynical move” that could “cause a rift with the American government”.
Conceivably, too, following this joint Republican-Netanyahu slight to the White House, Obama will now feel obliged to reconsider what appeared to be a benevolent “hands off” approach to Israel in the coming year. Note that the Israeli-Palestinian issue was totally absent from the president’s State of the Union address last week and that the administration, in close consultation with Netanyahu, has helped fend off the Palestinians’ “internationalization” attack at the UN and the ICC.
Even if he actually hurts the sanctions cause, Netanyahu undoubtedly believes that the speech before a joint session of Congress will contribute to his electoral chances on March 17. That explains why he asked to move the speech from February to early March, exactly two weeks before Israel’s Knesset elections. In the concept that he and his spokespersons preach to Israelis, the Republicans in Congress are the “real America”, the America whose friendship every Israeli prime minister is expected by the public to cultivate. Obama’s alleged animosity can therefore be ignored.
It’s too early to say whether Israeli voters will buy into this concept in the current context. If Netanyahu ultimately finds an excuse to cancel the March 3 speech, it will be because his own tactical polling indicates that voters feel betrayed by the prime minister’s calculations and will punish Netanyahu on March 17 for having gone to Washington in such blatantly partisan and controversial circumstances.
The Netanyahu invitation is clearly a Republican slight to the institution of the US presidency and to President Obama specifically. Accordingly, it can also conceivably be understood as a slight to the American Jewish community, which voted overwhelmingly for Obama and which is now liable to see Netanyahu as what former Israeli consul general in New York Alon Pinkas calls “the Republican senator from Jerusalem”.
This invitation and Netanyahu’s acceptance cast doubt on Netanyahu’s judgment regarding both US support for Israel and the project of preventing a nuclear Iran. By extension, they cast doubt on the judgment of AIPAC and of Netanyahu’s wealthy American Jewish patrons. Just ask Fox News.
Q. The Arab citizens of Israel have succeeded in creating a united electoral list, while the Labor primaries produced a list with an unusually large, young contingent of women reform advocates. Are there strategic ramifications here for the elections?
A. The Arab list, which unites no fewer than four parties, is an unprecedented achievement for the Israeli Arab community. It is a direct response to a hostile measure sponsored by Avigdor Lieberman to raise the electoral threshold for entering the Knesset to four mandates. Lieberman had hoped to force the small and fractious Arab parties out of the Knesset. But he should have been admonished to beware what he wishes for: his own corruption-ridden party, abandoned by its most senior elected officials, is in danger of missing the threshold and disappearing, while the Arabs are certain to enter the Knesset with anywhere from 10 to 15 representatives in a single party.
But will they then hold together. The Arab list unites communists, Islamists and radical nationalists. A huge ideological distance separates Dov Hanin of Hadash, the only Jew on the list, from the fiery Hanin Zoabi of the radical Balad, who herself shares few ideological principles with Masoud Ghanaim of the Islamic Movement. The Arab public wants them all to concentrate their anticipated parliamentary power on improving quality of life, education and economic opportunity for Arabs in Israel.
But many of these veteran parliamentarians are accustomed to uselessly pushing a more politicized anti-Zionist agenda. If they pull together, they could be one of the largest parties in the Knesset. Under one possible scenario (a Likud-Labor coalition), they could conceivably even lead the opposition; alternatively, quiet readiness to support a centrist coalition from the backbenches could make them influential kingmakers.
Labor--from herein, combined with Tzipi Livni’s HaTnua, the “Zionist Camp”--features a bevy of young women reformers and an Arab sports broadcaster. A popular retired general and strategist, Amos Yadlin, is the party’s candidate for defense minister. Accusations by Netanyahu and, to his right, Naftali Bennet, that the Zionist Camp list is “post-Zionist” are not likely to persuade many among the huge reserve of floating voters in the political center, where women dissatisfied with the Likud list (only two women) could cross lines. Meretz, on the other hand, is stuck with a familiar list of serving and former MKs that is liable to lose the party votes both to the Zionist Camp to its right and to the united Arab list on the left.
Q. Apropos election time, last week you promised an Israeli election update. What notable developments of recent weeks can be understood to suggest strategic political trends?
A. Likud’s primaries produced a relatively moderate electoral list. PM Netanyahu and his allies managed to maneuver most of the real pro-settler extremists like Moshe Feiglin and Tzipi Hotobeli out of the “realistic” list, meaning the first 25 slots. This improves Netanyahu’s control within the party. But it would be a mistake to conclude that the Likud has “gone moderate”. It continues to exhibit no resemblance to the right-of-center liberal movement it once was. Netanyahu’s embrace, for the nth time, of the need to reform Israel’s problematic system of governance, is not convincing even as an election gimmick.
But Netanyahu’s chances of forming a government for the fourth time do benefit from weakness on the part of rightist electoral rivals Yisrael Beitenu and Shas (see below) and from at least a temporary truce with Naftali Bennet’s Jewish Home party, which will presumably now absorb the support of the most extreme Likudniks who have been disenfranchised by the Likud primaries. Islamist terrorism in Europe and Mahmoud Abbas’s decision to pursue Israel in the international arena, which generated a rare instance of US support for Netanyahu’s position, also work to Netanyahu’s benefit insofar as they boost his classic “circle the wagons” tactic. Certainly, anyone who counted Netanyahu out when he abruptly precipitated early elections a few weeks ago and appeared to be losing control over his own party now must once again confront the fact that the man is a master political manipulator.
Labor’s primaries are scheduled for later this week, so we’ll come back to them at a later date. But party leader Yitzhak Herzog has already set aside a safe slot for Prof. Manuel Trachtenberg, a prominent economist who led the official inquiry that followed the summer 2011 “social justice” demonstrations, and for an as-yet unnamed retired general. What is notable is that Labor and Likud continue to run neck-and-neck in the polls, but at a low number of mandates, between 20 and 25. If this situation holds over the coming two months, then even the two biggest parties will not be able to form a coalition together without help. Accordingly, this would almost guarantee that Israel’s next government would once again be an unstable mix of medium-size parties with agendas that conflict enough to guarantee stalemate in peace-related issues. Of course, these figures also indicate that a large percentage of Israeli voters are still undecided.
But for real soap opera-style drama, we have to look to the smaller parties.
First, Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu party has been decimated by a corruption scandal that reaches to the highest level of party officials in a number of ministries and municipalities. After first denying the allegations and as usual blaming law enforcement officials for persecuting him, Lieberman has lately chosen to shut up about the allegations. Presumably, Internal Security Minister Aharonovich, from Lieberman’s own party, showed him the damaging evidence before resigning from politics. Now Lieberman is making sure that the entire “old guard” of his ministers and officials leaves the party. Meanwhile, with his potential Knesset list in tatters, Lieberman’s party barely polls above the minimum threshold of four members of Knesset.
Still (roughly) at the political center, Yesh Atid is making a comeback in the polls (up to 14-15) as its charismatic leader, Yair Lapid, hits the campaign trail. One of its potential competitors, Kulanu, the new list led by Moshe Kachlon, is still being formed, has not yet begun to campaign, and is lagging in the polls. So far Kachlon has brought in a number of nationally unknown women from municipalities and the media (he aspires to 40 percent female representation) to represent the socio-economic issues that are his bread-and-butter, along with a high-profile diplomat and distinguished soldier--former ambassador to Washington Michael Oren and retired general Yoav Galant, respectively--to give his list “balance”.
First in line for an Israeli political Oscar is Shas leader Aryeh Deri. After Eli Yishai parted company and set up a competing Sephardic ultra-orthodox list, Deri confronted mysteriously-leaked footage from 2008 of Shas’s recently deceased founder and spiritual leader, the still-venerated Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, criticizing Deri’s credentials for leadership. Putting on his best face of contrition, Deri proceeded to resign from the Knesset--with elections approaching, a meaningless gesture--and effectively invited his followers to plead for him to return to politics. Stay tuned.
Then there is Avraham Burg, an orthodox Jew and “prince”--his father, Yosef, was the long-time leader of the National Religious Party when it was still known as mainstream and relatively moderate--whose ideological journey is clearly not over. The younger Burg progressed through Peace Now into politics, led the Labor list for Knesset and served as elected head of that esteemed assembly before resigning from politics 11 years ago. He kept moving to the left, ostentatiously adopting (his wife’s) French citizenship as a defiant gesture against the Israeli mainstream, and preaching the welcome end of Zionism. Now he has joined Hadash, the joint Arab-Jewish communist party, and may surface on its Knesset list. Incidentally the Arab parties, including Hadash, have not yet found a formula for merging in order to survive the new four-mandate threshold.
With two months to go, following these elections could be both depressing and fun.
Q. Apropos the US veto, last week Secretary Kerry reportedly cited a request from Tzipi Livni to delay the UNSC vote and thereby keep the Palestinian statehood issue off Israel's election agenda lest this generate more votes for the Israeli political right. Does this make sense?
A. Kerry reportedly told European Union diplomats that a UN vote in favor of the Palestinian resolution would, at this stage, only strengthen Israel’s hard-line politicians, like Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett. Kerry allegedly spoke about being warned by former justice minister Tzipi Livni (Hatnua) and former president Shimon Peres that a favorable UN vote “imposed by the international community would reinforce Netanyahu and the hardliners in Israel”. Needless to say, those same hardliners have already taken Livni (now running in a joint list with Labor) to task for "political sabotage" by seeking to manipulate the UN vote in ways that interfere with Israel's elections, while Livni has responded that she did all Israelis a favor by explaining the issues to Kerry.
But would UN passage of a Palestinian state resolution favor the Israeli ultra-nationalist right wing? I doubt it. Of course, right-wing parties would exploit the event to argue that the world is against us, they're all anti-Semites, they've forgotten the Holocaust, etc. The left and center would counter that it is right-wing intransigence and settler expansion that brought us to this impasse, generated a crisis in US-Israel relations, and isolated us internationally. Whom would Israel's large centrist bloc of swing voters listen to? Livni and Peres, in their request to Kerry, appear to be suggesting that they would listen to the angry isolationist right. I'm not sure.
Q. The momentum for recognition of a Palestinian state is building up in Europe and at the United Nations. How does this affect Israel, particularly at election time?
A. Prime Minister Netanyahu traveled to Rome on Monday to try to persuade US Secretary of State Kerry to use the American veto to prevent Security Council approval of any Palestinian statehood motion. Netanyahu appears to be particularly concerned that France has proposed a more moderate version than that presented by the PLO, via Security Council member Jordan. The PLO proposal is slated to be presented to the Council as early as Wednesday.
This is the first time Washington's European partners have not deferred to its request to oppose Palestinian statehood at the UN. With one European country after another endorsing the idea, an American veto is presumably no longer a given in Netanyahu's eyes, though the State Department has intimated that it opposes the two-year mandatory negotiating deadline stipulated by both proposals.
If Palestinian statehood is not approved by the Security Council, the PLO is threatening to take its case against the occupation to the International Court of Justice at The Hague. One way or another, the current Security Council dynamic ensures that the Palestinian statehood issue will be on Israel's electoral agenda.
As the election campaign unfolds, Netanyahu will play on Israelis' security concerns and argue that the world wants to create what will quickly become a Hamas state in the West Bank, firing rockets at almost point blank range at Ben Gurion Airport. The left and center will argue that Netanyahu brought about this international intervention through his settlement policies, his ultranationalist legislative initiatives and his stonewalling of peace efforts, and that only the left-center can negotiate a rational two-state solution that guarantees Israel's integrity and security interests.
If there is no American veto, the left and center will also claim quite convincingly that, through his provocative policies, Netanyahu "lost" US support for Israel. Netanyahu will presumably respond (based on remarks he reportedly recently made) that the Obama-Kerry team does not represent the "real" America that he is in touch with: Sheldon Adelson, Republicans and Evangelicals who in any case will take power in two years.
Meanwhile, Netanyahu is warning the US not to "intervene" in Israel's elections and not to allow the UN to intervene. As if the entire world is not involved in one way or another in the endless Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In any case, this is a selective warning: money from Adelson and other Netanyahu supporters can keep flowing. (Then again, virtually all politicians in Israel, left and right, secular and religious, receive campaign donations from abroad.)
Q. Apropos Israel's elections, can you at this early stage point to an emerging political dynamic?
A. Very broadly speaking, and bearing in mind that lots of political maneuvering awaits us in the months ahead, the left-center appears to be consolidating while the right and religious are fragmenting. A combined ticket unifying Labor and HaTnua is now a done deal, with Labor leader Yitzhak "Buzhi" Herzog dropping a bombshell into the political arena by agreeing to rotate the premiership with HaTnua leader Tzipi Livni after two years, despite Livni's relative inability to deliver an electoral dowry to the union (and of course, assuming they win these elections and form the next government). The public seems to like the idea, placing the combined left-center list slightly ahead of Likud in very early polls.
Still at the center, though more to the right, Yisrael Beitenu (Lieberman) and "Kulanu" ("All of Us", Moshe Kahlon's new list) have agreed to share surplus votes. This arrangement, though it affects the fate of only one mandate and is thus of relatively minor electoral significance, points to a political affinity between the two movements, which appeal mainly to lower middle class voters and seek, in voters' eyes, to isolate the Likud on the political right. Both have moved lately to the center on the two-state issue, and neither now rules out a coalition with Herzog/Livni (which Hebrew readily turns into the acronym "Herzl"—a stroke of good luck for the joint ticket). Only Yair Lapid's Yesh Atid, its fortunes plummeting in the polls, remains at the center without an electoral partner of some sort.
In contrast, the Sephardic ultra-orthodox party Shas appears to be splitting, with former leader Eli Yishai setting up a breakaway list. That leaves Shas exclusively in the hands of Arieh Deri, whose dovish inclinations make him a possible candidate for an anti-Netanyahu coalition. And Naftali Bennet's Jewish Home may also be splitting, with its more extreme orthodox wing breaking away.
A loosely-knit "anyone but Netanyahu" electoral coalition thus seems to be growing. So far, all this is good news for Israelis who want these elections to empower a more moderate government coalition than the outgoing one--a coalition capable of talking seriously about a two-state solution and saving Israel from the apartheid reality that Bennet and much of the Likud appear to favor.
But it is very early in the game. A rollercoaster of Israeli political shenanigans awaits in the months ahead. Readers should let me know when they've had enough.
Q. The Netanyahu government has set new Knesset elections for March 17, 2015. Why so soon? The current Knesset is not yet two years old.
A. The reasons for Netanyahu's decision last week to fire Finance Minister Yair Lapid and Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, effectively dismissing their parties (Yesh Atid and HaTnua) from the government and triggering the elections, are the subject of endless speculation.
The prime minister accused the two centrists of organizing a "putsch" or political coup to install a left-labor-haredi government instead of the current one, without elections. No one takes him seriously, simply because such a feat was virtually impossible. Still, Netanyahu had serious disagreements with Lapid's spending priorities and with Livni's efforts to block ultra-nationalist legislation.
An additional explanation pins the blame on the "Yisrael HaYom" law, which was about to be approved by the Knesset but will now be shelved for months pending elections and the emergence of a new coalition. The law, backed by both the opposition and some parties on the right, would ban the free mass distribution of daily newspapers. Yisrael HaYom, a freebee bankrolled by billionaire Sheldon Adelson, a prime financial backer of Netanyahu as well as of conservative American Republicans, is the target of this law because of its open and unbridled support for the prime minister: it is in effect perceived as fronting Adelson's direct intervention in Israeli politics. The proposed law, backed by virtually all of Netanyahu's detractors from the left and the right, is controversial insofar as it could constrain free speech and a free press in ways that might not stand up to High Court constitutional standards.
Netanyahu's political enemies argue that the prime minister has simply become paranoid from serving in office too long. To all these allegations, Netanyahu would simply respond (were there to be a moment of candor--a lost cause now that elections are in the offing) that his coalition had become unmanageable, with the ideological gap between its right wing (Naftali Bennet's Jewish Home party, many MKs in the Likud) and its center (Lapid and Livni) growing so wide that Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, Netanyahu's election partner last time around, was able to fill it with a two-state solution initiative (see last week's Q & A) that was attracting international attention. By preempting and forcing early elections, Netanyahu presumably hopes to gain an advantage over some of his prospective opponents from the dominant political right and center right.
Q. Who are they? Who are Netanyahu's rivals on the right?
A. First and foremost is Bennet. Early polls show Jewish Home with its quasi-apartheid agenda (also reviewed in last week's Q & A) rising from its current 12 mandates to as many as 18 and rivaling Likud. Lieberman also aspires to challenge Netanyahu. Both Bennet and Lieberman don't hide their ambitions to become prime minister.
Another interesting challenger from the center-right is Moshe Kachlon, former "wonder-boy" minister of communications whose reforms won him considerable popularity. Kachlon resigned from Netanyahu's previous government and has been organizing an as-yet nameless new political party ever since. His initial campaign statements in recent days present him as a moderate on the Palestinian issue (two states, territorial compromise, including in Jerusalem) who will focus on socio-economic issues and appeal to the lower middle class. Initial polls give Kachlon 10 mandates, but experience tells us that this sort of new centrist party initiative could easily inflate or deflate radically in the coming three months.
Then there is Gideon Saar, another popular former Likud minister (he has held the education and internal affairs portfolios) who left the government barely a month ago to "devote time to his family" and at last report was considering challenging Netanyahu for leadership of the Likud when the party holds its primaries (on Dec. 30 or Jan. 6). Neither Saar nor at least one probable internal challenger from the far right of the Likud is likely to dislodge Netanyahu from the leadership spot. But it is indicative of Netanyahu's problematic status on the political right that one rival leaked an internal Likud poll that awarded far-right Likud critic MK Moshe Feiglin18 mandates if he led the Likud--about as many as Netanyahu would apparently muster.
Q. So far you've discussed only the political right. Is the left-center incapable of mounting a challenge?
A. The polls currently give the right, including Lieberman and Kachlon, a small majority, and a right-religious bloc a large majority. Yet, judging by their current views on the Palestinian issue, Lieberman and Kachlon are capable of joining a left-center coalition as well. And so are the ultra-orthodox (Haredim), who harbor resentment at the outgoing government because it legislated criminal penalties for yeshiva students who avoid IDF conscription. So a left-center-led coalition is definitely possible, particularly if Labor moves toward the center on the Palestinian issue, thereby enabling it to appeal to moderate right-wing voters.
But such an effort will also require greater unity on the center-left. Based on their conversations over the weekend, Labor appears likely to run on a joint list with Tzipi Livni and the more dovish half (Livni and two additional MKs, both former Labor leaders, Amir Peretz and Amram Mitzna) of HaTnua, along with Shaul Mofaz of Kadima. Other conceivable though more problematic candidates for mergers with Labor are Kahlon and Lieberman.
Q. Hold on. What is happening with Yesh Atid, the second largest party in the outgoing Knesset?
A. It has been largely left out of the equation of future coalition politics, for understandable reasons. Yesh Atid is predicted to shrink radically from its current 19 MKs to half that number or less. Voters who followed the charismatic Yair Lapid in January 2013 are disappointed with a party that has turned out to be based mainly on "atmosphere" and that failed to deliver on most of its commitments to better the lot of the middle class. Further, Lapid, who spearheaded aggressive measures to bring the Haredim into the socio-economic mainstream through military service, is now "radioactive" as a coalition partner not only for the Haredim but for any party--meaning both Labor and Likud--that contemplates working with the Haredim in the next coalition.
Here we are likely to encounter a vicious circle: if the shrinking Yesh Atid is unacceptable as an electoral partner, even more voters are likely to abandon it. Yesh Atid looks set to suffer the fate of previous centrist parties, e.g., Dash and Kadima, that registered a meteoric rise only to collapse second time around for lack of a stable electoral base.
Q. And with a new threshold law that requires a party to gain a minimum of four mandates, what will happen to the Arab parties, at least one of which would not have entered the current Knesset based on this standard?
A. They will either unite, or one or more of them will disappear, taking a lot of Arab votes with it. Uniting won't be easy: the Arab parties represent a wide spectrum of ideologies, ranging from the Islamist through the secular nationalist to the (former) communist. The latter always presents a Jewish candidate in a "safe" slot, thereby rendering it less attractive to the other Arab parties. On the other hand, it could conceivably enter a joint list with Meretz, which is predicted to hold its own (six MKs) or even improve in the coming elections.
Q. On Sunday, Syria accused Israel of bombing Damascus airport and a second site at Dimas near Damascus. The bombings took place in broad daylight. Any connection to Israel's elections?
A. Probably not. Such operations require considerable preparation time and have been carried out in the past without any obvious political linkage. In any case, Israel has once again avoided confirming its role in the bombing, which reportedly targeted arms depots and which follows a pattern established over the past two years of interdicting alleged transfer by Syria of sophisticated weaponry to Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Obviously, Netanyahu is happy to be portrayed by the Arab media as a leader who does not hesitate to look after Israel's security needs. And in the Syria-Lebanon arena, Netanyahu can take credit for considerable caution and prudence--though from herein and for the next few months, his security cabinet, without Livni and Lapid, will have a distinctly hawkish lack of balance. Still, the last thing Netanyahu needs with elections nearing is a volatile border, Israeli casualties and public concern regarding escalation.
The Syrian army and Iranian sources portrayed the attacks as an Israeli move to help rebels fighting to oust President Bashar al-Assad. This follows on a recent UN report alleging that Israel offers aid to Syrian rebel units across the Golan border. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the conflict with considerable credibility, said both of the targeted sites in Syria were used for military purposes and weapons storage. The closest Israel came to acknowledging a role in the latest bombing was when Israeli Minister of Strategic Affairs Yuval Steinitz confirmed on Sunday that Israel has "a firm policy of preventing all possible transfers of sophisticated weapons to terrorist organizations."
Syria probably will not retaliate. President Bashar al-Asad is aware just how vulnerable his country is right now, given the ferocity of the Syrian civil war. Nor should he have been surprised: As Steinitz intimated, Israel's "red lines" regarding weapons transfers to Hezbollah have been laid out for him several times. Moreover, Asad currently enjoys a degree of tacit coexistence with the US-led war against ISIL in Syria and Iraq and hardly needs to get into a fight with a US ally intent on preventing Asad from arming Hezbollah, which is recognized by Washington as a terrorist organization. Hezbollah, on the other hand, has in recent months launched fairly low-level retaliatory attacks against Israeli targets, particularly on the Golan, and could do so again.
Still, a daring daylight bombing against such well guarded sites as Syria's international airport, with jet trails streaming over Damascus, is something of a humiliation for the Asad regime and its Iranian and Russian backers. Russia hastened on Monday to demand an explanation from Israel. As for allegations that Israel is aiding the anti-Asad rebels across the Golan border, if indeed this is the case the aid is meant not to interfere in a civil war between fanatics and barbarians on both sides but rather to ensure a modicum of peace and quiet along the border--something Asad is apparently no longer able to provide but Israel has a right to expect.
All of Yossi Alpher's Hard Questions, Tough Answers are available here.