Monday, June 29, 2015

Four Predictions For Israel's Future

Recently, your humble blogger spoke at a small event on the future of Israeli politics. Here are shortened versions the four predictions highlighted in the talk:

1) Israeli politics will remain unstable. The two reasons for this instability are that a) Israel was designed as a dominant party system but now has competitive elections, and b) There has been a fracturing of small and medium-size parties in the center of the political spectrum. The result of both factors is uncertainty about who will be in power next in Israel's Knesset, and for how long they will govern. It also means that coalitions are often made up of many parties. This requires a prime minister to spend substantial political capital appeasing the various and often competing agendas of each party. 

2) The United Arab List's win in the 2015 elections is an important opportunity but one Israel is likely to miss. Despite attempts to keep the Arab parties out of the current Knesset by raising the electoral threshold to 3.25%, these parties banded together as the United Arab List and won 10.55% of the vote (14 seats). The fact that an Arab party is the third largest out of ten is a testament to Israeli democracy. It also represents an opportunity to engage with an Israeli-Arab public that comprises 20% of Israel's population, and historically has engaged in low-intensity violence. Showing this community that politics is an effective means of addressing grievances mitigates the security risk from riots, stone-throwing, and other forms of violent resistance. Unfortunately, both Israel's government and opposition refuse to work with the United Arab List, citing its support for and participation in Gaza flotillas. Nonetheless, if there are domestic issues on which parties can collaborate, that would send a strong signal to Israel's Arab citizens that engaging in politics carries meaningful benefits.

1) Israel will continue losing the hasbara (public relations) battle until it accepts the structural constraints of the international system. Israel is disproportionately criticized and scrutinized compared to other countries in the Middle East. However, the combative tone Israel's diplomats and elected officials take in their international public speeches on the issue is ineffective. Disproportionate criticism of Israel is unfair, but it is static. Rather, Israel should work to mitigate the loss of political capital this criticism creates. Israel should stop trying to convince people to become pro-Israel and start trying to show people that they already are pro-Israel (ie they align with Israel's core values).

2) BDS now represents a strategic threat to Israel but not in the economic sense. BDS has little economic effect on a country with a GNP of about $260 billion dollars, a highly diversified economy, and substantial US support. BDS is a tactic without a strategy and whether people buy a SodaStream machine has minimal effect on Israel's economy. However, BDS is raising debates inside Israel about how to respond to it. These debates put pressure on Israel's government. Internationally, BDS is legitimizing more assertive actions by the international community. These actions will become more frequent and more assertive until Israel demonstrates a credible commitment to changing the status quo. Waiting puts more pressure on Israel and reduces the viability of a conditions-based approach to West Bank withdrawals.

While some may see Israelis as complacent or cynical, the 2011 social justice movement protest shows that Israelis will act when there is a viable alternative to the status quo. Naftali Bennett and the Jewish Home party are most likely the short-term future of Israel. However, in the long-term, a leader who presents a viable alternative to the status quo would not only enjoy support from a broad base of Israelis, but would be taking steps to ensure the long term security and well-being of the State of Israel.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Lack Of A Strong BDS Response Threatens Israel

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu commented this morning on the UK's National Union of Students decision to support a boycott of Israel. However, the comments missed the mark with regards to mitigating the harm such a decision incurs. 

BDS is a threat to Israel's international political legitimacy. But Israel's response to the threat is just as important as the movement itself. In this regard, the Prime Minister's comments this morning alongside Canada's Foreign Minister are concerning. Netanyahu wondered aloud why the Union's Executive Council voted to boycott Israel (again) but voted against an October 2014 resolution to condemn ISIS. Detailing ISIS' human rights abuses, Netanyahu claimed the move told observers "everything you want to know about the BDS movement."

The Prime Minister is correct that shying away from offending Muslims while zealously offending Israelis and their supporters is a double standard. It's also hypocritical to tell the British government to stop arms sales to Israel for its human rights record while ignoring, for example, plans to build a new military base in Bahrain. But Netanyahu's framing of BDS in these terms is problematic for three reasons.

First, ISIS and Israel aren't comparable and it plays into the hands of Israel's opponents to suggest otherwise. While some pundits in the Middle East delight in drawing comparisons between the two, Israel as a liberal democracy is not comparable in any analytically meaningful way to ISIS. Detailing ISIS' human rights abuses as a counter to BDS only legitimates these comparisons. Israeli leaders should avoid even entertaining the notion that ISIS and Israel should be judged by the same standards.

Second, the National Union of Students is not the same as the BDS movement. To suggest that being a BDS supporter means one supports ISIS because of the National Union of Student's voting history is inaccurate and invokes the polarizing rhetoric that turns people off from supporting Israel. Surely there are people who support both ISIS and BDS, but the movement itself is concerned with punishing Israel, not with ISIS. The issue with the National Union of Students is one of attitudes towards Muslim minorities in the UK, not ISIS or Israel. Israel's leadership would gain more from questioning the legitimacy of the entire movement rather than going after one student union.

Finally, the comments frame Israel's values by what they're not rather than by what they are. The slogan "Israel: At least we're not ISIS" is not persuasive. A better approach would be to highlight the extent of political debate in Israel and to point out the ways in which Israeli products improve the quality of life for millions of people. Rather than contrasting Israel to the Middle East, Israel's leadership should draw comparisons with the West. 

While the attitudes of some in the West understandably frustrate Israel, an approach based on resonating with average Western citizens will do far more to mitigate the harm of BDS than polarized and ill-conceived comparisons between Israel and an insurgent group. The BDS movement frames its cause in terms that resonate with many in the West. Rather than trying to "unmask BDS," Israel should challenge the movement's hold on this normative "turf" by using similarly resonant language to highlight the more radical elements of the movement.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

A New Gaza War? Not So Fast.

Two significant statements today are indications of the Israeli Prime Minister's defense posture in the opening months of the new coalition. Specifically, they indicate that a Gaza operation in the short term is unlikely.

In the first statement, Israel's president, Reuven Rivlin, said he would be open to negotiations with Hamas. Coming in the wake of a rocket attack last night, the statement is - on the surface - an appeal for calm. However, coming from the conservative Rivlin, the statement is significant for its willingness to admit to what has been informal Israeli protocol for years. The statement is also significant for its timing. Rivlin may be making the statement to deter Prime Minister Netanyahu from escalating militarily with Hamas beyond last night's airstrike. A broader response would be unpopular and likely ineffective given Israel's mixed success in Operation Protective Edge last year. Were Netanyahu to escalate this time, it would spend political capital with Rivlin, who lately has been aligned with the Prime Minister on issues of domestic and international policy.

Luckily the second statement makes escalation with Hamas look unlikely. As this blog predicted, Netanyahu's cabinet has begun focusing rhetorically on Iran. Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon said that Iran has "not allowed stability in Iraq" and wants it to remain a failed state. The statement puts Iran on the foreign policy agenda, although it was addressed to a foreign rather than domestic audience. Nonetheless, the return of Iran as the major foreign policy challenge facing Israel is a move that is not only consistent with analysts' best assessment of Prime Minister Netanyahu's genuine beliefs, but also allows him to unify a fractured coalition. Today's statement by the Defense Minister might be setting the stage for a new round of rhetorical posturing that could mitigate the Prime Minister's governance difficulties. However, it will take more evidence to judge decisively whether or not this is the case.

Both statements indicate that Israel is not seeking an armed conflict in Gaza in the near future, and would rather focus on the Iran threat as negotiations between the Islamic Republic and the P5+1 move forward.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Why Bibi May Soon Turn Up The Heat On Iran

Israeli politics is in a state of disunity. The 34th Knesset was seated on Thursday after a contentious set of speeches during the opening session. Formation of the 61-seat governing coalition, the minimum required number of seats, involved last-minute offers to controversial Knesset members and was met with incredulity by the press and Knesset ministers. The political right is split between the government and the opposition, and the government has already faced a vote of no confidence by centrist MK Yair Lapid. The government won by only three votes.

Outside the Knesset, protests by Israel's Ethiopian Jewish community in Tel Aviv come alongside a worker strike in the impoverished city of Dimona. Protests in past weeks have seen outbreaks of violence against protestors and police alike and prompted responses from both Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Rivlin. The protests have gained international press coverage and are likely to gain support from left-wing movements that coalesced in 2011 during the social justice protest movement.

Ironically, Prime Minister Netanyahu's intent in calling snap elections in December 2014 was to consolidate power and a unified base of support. However, the result has been fracturing and disunity among both political parties and segments of Israeli society. His appointment today of Likud MK Silvan Shalom to lead any future negotiations with Palestinians is likely to draw further criticism since Shalom does not believe in a two-state solution.

Prime ministers in Israel historically have responded to disunity by focusing the public on a common threat. Netanyahu himself employed the tactic in August 2011 after an attack in Eilat killed seven Israelis. Bibi responded with an airstrike in Gaza, and Hamas reacted by shooting rockets at Ashdod and several other southern cities, uniting the Israeli public around the prime minister.

This time, Bibi is unlikely to exacerbate tensions in Gaza so soon after last year's Operation Protective Edge. Escalating with Hezbollah in the North would also be risky given the group's preoccupation at the moment with the fighting in Syria where most of its resources that could be otherwise used against Israel are being spent.

A safer bet for the Prime Minister would be to raise an alarm about Iran and continue to warn Israelis of the danger the Islamic Republic - and its proxies - pose to Israel. Such a message has widespread support in Israel and would be difficult for the opposition to rally against. The move, unlike inciting a conflict with Hamas or Hezbullah, would have minimal costs with regard to Israel's relationship with the US, and would draw attention away from both disunity in the Knesset, and the budding ethnic equality movement on the streets.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Netanyahu Close To A Coalition

Israel's Likud-led coalition government is coming together as Wednesday's deadline approaches, but not without some last minute excitement.

The religious Shas party joined the government today after its leader Aryeh Deri was offered the position of Economy Minister. Shas also received the Religious Affairs Ministry, Negev and Galilee Development Ministry, and a deputy ministerial position in the Finance Ministry. These positions consolidate religious control of civil affairs in Israel and will likely help to preserve social welfare payouts to religious Jewish families.

More interestingly, Yisrael Beiteinu leader Avigdor Lieberman announced after a protracted series of negotiations that the party would not join the coalition. This is a major shift for the party which in 2013 ran on a joint list with Likud. Lieberman has served as Israel's Foreign Minister since 2009 with a break from 2012-13 while he was under indictment. Lieberman's departure opens the Foreign Minister position, which is usually given to a major coalition partner. It gives Prime Minster Netanyahu an unexpected bargaining chip as he attempts to seal a coalition of 61 seats or greater in the coming days.

At the same time, Lieberman's departure from the coalition poses a challenge to Netanyahu on two fronts. First, it gives Lieberman free reign to criticize the Prime Minister's lack of "true conservative credentials." Netanyahu himself played this role against Tzipi Livni back in 2009. Ironically, one of Netanyahu's original reasons for calling snap elections was to weaken rivals from the far right. In this particular aspect, however, Lieberman and the Yisrael Beiteinu party may be emboldened to criticize the Prime Minister's policies and make it harder for him to advance an agenda without political cost.

Secondly, Lieberman's departure opens a political space for Naftali Bennett and HaBayit HaYehudi. Widely considered a mover and shaker on the Israeli political scene, Bennett will no longer be competing with Lieberman for influence in the coalition. That being said, he may be competing for control of the religious Zionist narrative. Nonetheless, the absence of Yisrael Beiteinu ministers gives a number of opportunities to HaBayit HaYehudi candidates to gain experience - and influence - in the next Israeli government. In the long term, these capabilities will pose a challenge to Prime Minister Netanyahu, who in many ways represents the old guard of the Israeli right.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Bibi Buys Time And Tacks Toward The Center

Israel's President Reuben Rivlin has granted Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu a two-week extension to form a governing coalition. Bibi will now have until May 6 to pull together enough parties to form a 61-seat majority or better in the Knesset.

Analysts hailed Netanyahu's win in March 17th elections as a landslide. Yet while the Likud party won a formidable 30 seats in the 120-seat Knesset, coalition formation has dragged on. Creating a coalition should, in theory, be easy for Netanyahu. The Prime Minister has a number of choices for coalition partners, and he is highly adept at playing rivals off each other. However, despite Likud's preference to wrap up negotiations early, they have continued on and forced the Prime Minister to request the two-week extension.

Netanyahu has been particularly interested in forming a coalition with Kulanu, the new centrist party which won 10 seats in the election. Despite scorn from the right-wing HaBayit Hayehudi and Yisrael Beiteinu parties, today Bibi met personally with the Kulanu party's leader Moshe Kahlon. This is a shift from the Likud's right-wing coalition partners in the past few elections, but it is a smart move for the Prime Minister. A centrist party would allow Bibi more political efficacy since he wouldn't be constantly needing to appease to the far-right parties. While he will have to play ball with HaBayit Hayehudi and Yisrael Beiteinu at some level, having Kulanu as the major coalition partner gives Netanyahu some room to pursue an agenda closer to Likud's center-right platform. 

Additionally a move to the center would generate less antagonism within the Knesset itself. The center-left Zionist Camp's 24 seats is a formidable bloc that represents an important constituency among the Israeli public. Netanyahu is making a wise choice by tacking to the center. It allows him to avoid antagonizing centrists and simultaneously accuse the Zionist Camp of being impotent since it will agree with much of what the Prime Minister does anyway. 

Importantly, aligning with Kulanu does not mean Netanyahu will stop settlement building, giving handouts to religious parties, or antagonizing the international community. However, a Likud-Kulanu government might see progress in terms of social welfare for secular Israelis, regulating high prices, and pragmatism rather than dogmatic thinking on other policy areas.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Likud Faces Difficulty In Knesset Coalition Formation

Israel's Likud party is scrambling to form a coalition before an April 22nd deadline. While Prime Minister Netanyahu can request an extension on coalition talks, Likud has been trying to seal a deal prior to the 22nd. Competing demands and party influence have not made this an easy process.

The centrist Kulanu party has been bargaining hard. Kulanu, which gained 10 seats in its first ever election bid on March 17th, is asking the Prime Minister for the Finance, Housing, and Environmental Protection portfolios. As a new and centrist party, Kulanu is unlikely to put the same kinds of demands on the Prime Minister as further right and more established parties. It would be in the Prime Minister's interest to form a coalition with the party. However, United Torah Judaism is also vying for the finance ministry, and Bibi intends to bring both that party and Shas into the coalition. Complicating matters for the Prime Minister, HaBayit HaYehudi leader Naftali Bennett, whose party won 8 seats, is also vying to be Foreign Minister even though the post has been given in the past to Yisrael Beiteinu leader Avigdor Lieberman. Given that Yisrael Beiteinu won only 6 seats to HaBayit HaYehudi's 8, Bennett sees grounds for giving him the ministry.

Two coinciding events have helped Prime Minister Netanyahu in the negotiating process. First, formal negotiations ceased for the week-long Passover holiday. Yet under-the-table negotiations continued which gave Likud more negotiating room. Secondly, the Iran nuclear deal has seen consistent front-page coverage in the Israeli media. The Prime Minister himself has contributed consistently to media coverage of the story, expressing concern about the terms of a potential agreement. However, the media's focus on Iran has allowed Netanyahu to conduct negotiations out of the spotlight, which gives him greater flexibility with the parties.

Now that Passover has ended and the nuclear deal has been in the headlines for over a week, negotiations are likely to spool back up. There are some scattered indications a unity government isn't off the table, but a broad right-leaning government is the most likely possibility once the dust settles.