Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Netanyahu Splits Israel's Center In Knesset Elections

The blogosphere has produced some excellent pieces over the past few days regarding the Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu merger.  The move is a puzzling one for a couple of reasons.  First, Yisrael Beiteinu is already the coalition partner of the Likud.   What the Prime Minister has in effect done is to call new elections, only to preemptively create the same coalition in the Knesset that exists now.  Second, Likud's aligning with Yisrael Beiteinu leaves the political center wide open.  Given that this is where the majority of Israeli voters are,  PM Netanyahu is pursuing a policy that Michael Koplow is correct in calling "strange and risky" in his Ottomans and Zionists post this morning.

Yet while the merger is admittedly strange, it may make a certain amount of sense.  As an earlier post on this blog argues, this election is about the small parties in the center of the Israeli political spectrum.  Ultimately, it may be the cost of co-opting these parties that explains PM Netanyahu's decision to run the Likud on a joint list with Yisrael Beiteinu.

In these next Israeli elections, there are a number of small centrist parties running candidates.  These include Yesh Atid, Atzmaut, a possible Olmert/Ashkenazi party, and Tzedek Chevrati, a new social justice party which may swing far left but would be well-advised to remain more-or-less centrist.  These parties are new, their leaders are inexperienced, and are not necessarily likely to form a joint list on their own.

However, these small parties might be persuaded to run on a joint list with a larger party.  There are three such parties on the current Israeli political scene: Likud, Labor, and Kadima.  Each of these parties would certainly be strengthened by drafting smaller centrist parties into its ranks on a joint list.  So why has Netanyahu aligned with Yisrael Beiteinu and effectively pushed this option off the table?

The answer may be that co-opting these parties takes time, effort, and political capital, and is not guaranteed to work.   By calling elections, PM Netanyahu drew these small parties into the political fray.  By aligning with Yisrael Beiteinu, PM Netanyahu is in a sense "buck passing" the cost to Labor and Kadima.  This move creates a fight for the center between the Labor and Kadima parties, which in the grand scheme of things will be a fight for second place.  The Likud-Beiteinu alignment keeps the Prime Minister and his party above the fray while Shaul Mofaz and Shelly Yechimovitch duke it out with each other.  Netanyahu has left the center open, but there are so many parties vying for centrist votes that it might not make a difference in the election.

Further bolstering the Likud Party is the fact that Shelly Yechimovitch has lambasted Shaul Mofaz for his alignment with Likud this summer, calling it "the most ridiculous zigzag in Israel's political history."  Nothing is impossible in Israeli politics, but the likelihood of a Labor-Kadima coalition remains low for the time being.

The biggest question, of course, is whether PM Netanyahu actually intended any of this to happen.  One hypothesis is that he originally called elections to raise the number of Likud seats in the Knesset.  However, seeing polls indicating that was unlikely, he made a move to align with Yisrael Beiteinu.  Given that the joint list does not appear to have increased support from its constituency, other surprises may be in store.  Ultimately, the situation affirms one of the cardinal rules of Israeli politics: Expect the unexpected.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Israelis Support Apartheid? Not So Fast.

Yesterday, Haaretz ran as its top headline a story by Gideon Levy that "Most Israeli Jews would Support Apartheid Regime in Israel."  The actual poll, commissioned by Dialog, was released in Hebrew today by Avi Mayer of the Jewish Agency.

One of the few useful skills Ph.D students acquire during our graduate studies is the ability to analyze research designs.  With regards to research on controversial subjects, a good design is all the more important.  Previous research by Tel Aviv University, ACRI, the Center for Racism, and Dahaf have shown that racism is in fact an issue in contemporary Israel society.  Especially given that Israel was founded as a democracy, that any Israelis would support banning Arabs from voting for Knesset is concerning and worth researching.  The same holds for similar attitudes in Europe or the United States.  

Thus, the academics who set out to conduct a poll of Israeli public opinion are right in their desire to better assess such attitudes in Israeli society.  What their poll also gets right is that it interviews a random sample of 503 Israelis.  503 is a slightly small sample size but carries a margin of error of plus or minus 4.4%.  Statisticians like about a 3% margin of error, but getting enough respondents (about 1,000) is expensive, especially for a small firm like Dialog.  

However, the claim that this poll shows Israelis support apartheid or accept that Israel is currently an apartheid is unsubstantiated by this poll.  Yesterday, the Daily Beast's Noam Shelef was able to show, without the full poll, that the poll was not saying what Levy claimed it was.  Now that the poll itself is released, here are three more problems:

1) The poll has unclear coding.

The poll reports respondents in five groups: Russian, Haredi, Religious, Traditional (Masorti), and Secular.  There are three problems with these groupings:

a) It's unclear whether each respondent was put into each category according to a set of objective criteria, or self-selected.

b) It's unclear whether the size of each sample is representative of the general population.  A group which is 10% of the population might have been 20% of the sample size.

c) There's overlap between categories.  Russian Jews could easily be coded as secular, for example. 

2) The poll results show large in-group variation.

An engineer, physicist, and statistician go hunting for deer.  The engineer shoots too far to the left.  The physicist shoots too far to the right.  The statistician says "We got him!"

The problem with the reported data is that it over-generalizes the results of the sample.  In reality, the poll data demonstrate large variation across each group.  For example:

"#6: In your opinion, is it desirable to pass a law that would ban Arabs from voting for Knesset?"

                  Russians   Haredi    Religious   Traditional   Secular   Total
Desirable:      7%         70%        52%          43%          18%     33%

To generalize about "Israeli society" given such huge variation across sub-groups is tricky.  The 33% "total" is probably a mean, but a median would also be informative in this regard.  It would likely reveal a skewed (i.e. hard to generalize) distribution given the strong preferences of Haredim.  A more accurate claim than "Israeli Jews are racist" would be "Religious Jewish Israelis tend to support restricting Arab rights in Israel."  

2) The poll does not control for ethnicity.

The poll does not break down the response of the Mizrahi population of Israel, who are Arab Jews.  Based on previous research, this would likely bolster the findings of the poll as Mizrahim generally tend to be socially conservative.  However, If the intent of the poll is to demonstrate a convincing correlation between religion and racism against Arabs in Israel, it needs to show that controlling for ethnicity does not harm the significance of the results.  Translation: How do we know its Israeli Jews, and not Israeli Ashkenazim (or any other sub-group) that support discrimination?  If we don't, the poll isn't saying what people are claiming it says.

As a side note, the poll doesn't ask the responses of Israeli Muslim Arabs.  This isn't a problem with the poll itself, but it is a point which isn't explicit in the original Haaretz article and most other reporting on the poll.  Arab Israelis represent about 20% of the state's population.  That means the polls results cannot be generalized to the Israeli public at large, but only to Israel's Jewish population. While Israel's population is itself a majority, polling Jews to draw inferences about Israelis is over-generalization.

3) The poll is based on perceptions, not legal definitions of apartheid.

The poll supports the claim that Israeli Jews, as a generalized population, support specific policies, which when combined with other policies, hypothetically in the future, could reasonably constitute apartheid.  Most of the assessments in the poll which respondents are asked to make about apartheid are about the respondent's own perceptions, not legal definitions of apartheid.  Besides the fact that the questions could be understood in a biased way (a "transfer" to PA control versus a physical transfer of Arab citizens of Israel), apartheid is not whatever a majority of Israelis think it is.  The poll also does not ask whether Israelis think Israel is currently an apartheid as a specific question.

With regards to respondents' support for discriminatory policies, this is a problem of necessity but not sufficiency.  In other words, support for institutionalized discrimination is a part of apartheid, but is not the all-inclusive definition.  All elephants have four legs, but that doesn't mean all four-legged animals are elephants.  In a manner of speaking, the poll does not demonstrate the existence of a trunk and big floppy ears. 

In conclusion, the poll raises questions about Israelis attitudes towards Arabs which merit further research and the kind of self-reflection in which all democracies should engage.  However, it has not conclusively demonstrated the Israel is an apartheid, nor that Israelis support apartheid.  Given the importance of Israel's democratic values, Arab rights, and international public opinion, research on questions of racism and apartheid must be done often and done well.  Good research is the key to legitimizing the push for equality and the strengthening of public debate in Israel (and for that matter, here in Washington).  

Analysts should not ignore the findings of this poll, some of which raise serious questions about the level of equality in Israeli society.  However, they also should not accept an interpretation of the poll's results which are demonstrably unsubstantiated.  If Israel is indeed an apartheid, this poll does not show it.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Hasbara Kills The Messenger On Gaza Blockade

Over the past few days, there has been much ado about a leaked Israeli presentation on providing a "minimum basket" of food to Gaza so as to prevent malnutrition which could be used to legally classify the blockade of Gaza as a "humanitarian disaster."  In particular, the pro-Israel community has largely downplayed the significance of the report.

Yesterday, the community took to task the Huffington Post, for suggesting - inaccurately - in its headline that Israel intended to force malnutrition on the Palestinians.  After blowback, the Huffington Post corrected the headline to read "avoid malnutrition" a phrase taken from the presentation itself.  

This headline was factually inaccurate.  It was therefore important to correct the headline so as not to unfairly imply that Israel was doing something that it was not.  The point of the calculations the Ministry of Health made was to maintain a bare minimum so as to avoid accounts of malnutrition from the Gaza Strip which would put Israel's blockade into more serious legal question.  To say it was trying to "force" malnutrition on Gaza is in fact the exact opposite of the truth.  Those who pointed out this inaccuracy clearly were correct in doing so.

However, what is also clear is that malnutrition was and remains a problem in the Gaza strip.  If the Israeli government's intention is to avoid malnutrition, it is failing.  The ICRC, FAO/WFP, AmeriCares, and Save the Children concur.  However, the pro-Israel community as a whole largely ignores these arguments, touting the millions of tons of aid which have entered Gaza and posting pictures of supermarkets in Gaza where food is available.  Yet it argues simultaneously that the blockade is necessary to engage in economic warfare against Hamas by limiting the goods available to Palestinians.  Arguing that Israel must limit goods while arguing simultaneously that such goods are getting through means that the blockade is either unnecessary or ineffective.

To be fair, building consensus on a pro-Israel message is hard because it requires coordination across a spectrum of different views.  The reason why most pro-Israel initiatives focus on media bias or egregious cases of anti-semitism is because these are the few cases where a critical mass of support exists for action.  Given the complexity of defining "anti-Israelism" and "anti-semitism," the initiatives of the community represent key points of agreement in an otherwise factional pro-Israel arena.  Whether formal or informal, the structure of decision-making institutions has an important role to play in policy outcomes.  The pro-Israel community is no different from others in this regard, but given the importance of defending Israel, the structural shortcomings of the community have important implications for Israel's future.

The problem is this: the current approach of the pro-Israel community towards the Gaza blockade fails to build trust between the pro-Israel community and fair-minded skeptics who don't oppose Israel on face, but have concerns about its conduct vis-a-vis Gaza.  When the pro-Israel community ignores an incontrovertibly real problem, it sends a tacit message to a critical support community that its opinions are silly or don't matter.  

Taking the Huffington Post to task for its "journalistic ethics" while refusing to engage seriously in the ethical questions raised by a blockade on two million Palestinian civilians in the first place does not help Israel.  Nor does engaging only the diehard radicals of the pro-Palestininan community who will never change their minds, while ignoring the legitimate concerns of a moderate and open-minded center.  To fix the widely-acknowledged problems of Hasbara that plague Israel and its supporters requires changing the decision-making structures of the community to take more seriously the concerns of the moderate center.  While these changes may be difficult and costly, those with the power to make such changes should keep in mind that Israel's future is at stake.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Bibi Calls Elections In Israel: Three Things To Watch

The Knesset came back into session earlier today after a lengthy summer recess.  The first major item of business it faces is a vote to dissolve the government and move to elections which would be held January 22, 2013.  After announcing he would seek early elections last week, Prime Minister Netanyahu's initiative is likely to pass in the Knesset by tonight.

The announcement of early elections, which otherwise would not be held until October 2013, has prompted shuffling within the Israeli political system and numerous meetings between unlikely political bedfellows.  Rather than try to parse the meaning of each individual meeting - whose purpose and outcome are largely unknown- analysts would do well to form their assessments of Israeli electoral politics with three key questions in mind.

First, will centrist parties be able to form a coalition?  Kadima, Atzmaut, Yair Lapid's Yesh Atid party, and some kind of Ehud Olmert run/Gabi Ashkenazi endorsed party will be vying for the votes of Israel's political center.  Given the multitude of parties, running as a coalition may allow for the most number of centrist MKs.  In addition, Bibi's intent in calling the elections was to a) strengthen his own party's hold in the Knesset and b) create a less ideological coalition.  There is a good chance he will seek to align with centrist parties while kicking Yisrael Beiteinu to the side.  On the other hand, Kadima would only lose from aligning with smaller parties who would chip away at the number of Knesset seats it holds.  It may not be in Kadima's interest to support a centrist coalition which would only diminish Kadima's own political influence.

Second, will the social justice movement's political capital translate to votes for the left?  Stav Shaffir, one of the movement's leaders, announced her intent to run as a Labor MK yesterday.  Other movement leaders may join her as well.  While some movement activists may see such a move as "selling out to the establishment," others will accept her candidacy and vote for the Labor party.  At the same time, Labor has not been particularly aggressive in getting its message out.  Labor leader and MK Shelly Yachimovich is expected to lead the Labor party to increase its Knesset representation and considers herself a viable candidate for Prime Minister.  However, to do so she will have to be more outspoken than her tenure as Labor leader up until this point, and will have to compete with other voices in the political arena.  Additionally, she may have to do so while tacking centrist to pick up centrist votes while Stav Shaffir rallies the votes of the further left constituency.  Whether the Labor party will play a significant role in Israeli politics after the next election is an important question, but very much up in the air.

Finally, how will Netanyahu prevent being constrained by the right-wing of the Likud?  MKs Tzipi Hotovely and Danny Danon lead an important and vocal constituency on the right edge of the already conservative Likud.  While defection is not necessarily in the interest of more right-wing MKs, they still have the ability to cause Bibi a significant headache even if they remain in the coalition.  If Bibi is calling elections to tack Israeli politics in a more center-right direction, this will be against the preferences of the right-wing of the Likud.  He will either have to offer some kind of guarantee on specific issues of concern to that wing of the Likud, or else promise post-election alignment with Shas, United Torah Judaism, or another religious conservative party.  Moving to elections early and forming a more centrist coalition is in PM Netanyahu's interest because it allows him to pass the kind of center-right legislation he prefers, and to avoid further alienation from the center/center-right Israeli public and international community.  However, the cost of this investment will be paid to the far right of the Israeli political spectrum, including to MKs within the Prime Minister's own party.

As the campaign in Israel takes its course, the Prime Minister will be seeking to form a new coalition with a stronger Likud that allows him to better achieve his preferences.  However, his ability to do so will depend on whether each of the three factions above - left, center, and right - can coordinate internally, or will fall prey to splits and internal disagreements.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Netanyahu And Barak, Relationship Status: Complicated

Al-Monitor correspondent and foreign policy telepath Laura Rozen asks in a tweet this evening whether the meeting between Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak signifies a legitimate political dispute or is merely political kabuki.  Prime Minister Netanyahu reportedly called the meeting after DM Barak's trip to the United States during which he met with former White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emmanuel and current National Security Advisor Tom Donilon.

The question is a good one because the answer is unclear.  Both reasons -manufactured crisis and genuine dispute - have credible support.

On the one hand, Israeli MKs have opined that Barak and Netanyahu are distancing themselves from each other in order to gain center-left support for the governing coalition, of which the Labor party (led by Barak until he split and formed the further left Atzmaut party in 2011) remains a partner.  For Netanyahu, the fighting allows him to keep in the good graces of his far-right coalition partners and the more conservative wing of Likud.  In fact, his accusation that Barak's visit to the United States is harming Israel is a talking point of conservative Likud MK Danny Danon.  For his part, Barak's standing up to the Prime Minister gains the Labor party support from left-wing partners.  This empowers Barak, but also Netanyahu, since Labor is part of the coalition.  In addition, Netanyahu is playing the long game with regards to the next elections, with some reports suggesting he is considering calling early elections in February 2013.  Shoring up political support now is a useful way to shape the political arena for those elections.

On the other hand, that relations between the Netanyahu and Obama administrations are suffering is no secret.  Last month, PM Netanyahu questioned the moral authority of the United States after Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stated that the United States is "not setting deadlines" for Iran and considers diplomacy the best approach.  In late August PM Netanyahu got into a shouting match with U.S. Ambassador Dan Shapiro over policy differences between Israel and the United States.  At last week's meeting of the United Nations, PM Netanyahu was given a phone call to President Obama but not a face-to-face meeting.  It is likely the Prime Minister is a true believer that setting red lines is crucial to stopping Iran from acquiring a nuclear capability.  Given that this is the case, it is reasonable that he would perceive the more centrist DM Barak's visit to the U.S. as undermining the national interest.  Barak may be setting himself up as a new Shimon Peres (with whom the Obama administration enjoys good relations), but diluting the message of urgency coming out of Jerusalem could easily be understood by PM Netanyahu as threatening to his attempts to deter Iran.  This policy motive may also explain why the meeting between them occurred tonight, before the weekly cabinet meeting on Sunday, rather than a more visible time in the news cycle.  It also explains why after the meeting DM Barak released a statement specifically noting that he and PM Netanyahu "see eye-to-eye on every aspect of the Iranian threat" even though DM Barak came out opposing an airstrike just one month ago.

The question of which motivation is the real one is difficult because both are plausible.  Both elections and Iran are strong motivators for the Prime Minister, and his reasons for any given action may relate just as much to one as to the other.  As the issue plays out over the coming weeks, it may become more clear why Prime Minister Netanyahu and DM Barak continue to clash with each other.  Until then, taking seriously the idea that both motivations may be at play is worthwhile.  Good policy and good politics need not always clash (though the American checks and balances system incentivizes it here in Washington).  Perhaps the most plausible explanation at the moment is that Prime Minister Netanyahu is sanctioning DM Barak in order to kill two birds with one stone.