Friday, January 30, 2015

Why Netanyahu's Plans To Address Congress Are Backfiring

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has faced a barrage of criticism over plans to address Congress on Iran's nuclear program in March. The speech, in which Bibi is expected to oppose Obama administration policy on Iran sanctions, has drawn controversy because it was scheduled without informing the White House.

The extent of this criticism is surprising. Both Netanyahu and media outlets that support him have a solid track record of portraying the Obama administration as blameworthy for slumps in US-Israel relations. It would not have been unreasonable for Netanyahu to conclude that his speech would generate the same sentiments as previous visits. However, news of Bibi's speech generated opposition not only from liberals (including Democratic party leadership), but also the Wall Street Journal, The American Conservative, and Fox News.

This is not the first time Netanyahu has spoken in conjunction with an AIPAC conference to oppose the Obama administration's policy. In 2011, President Obama reiterated that a final status agreement between Israel and the Palestinians would be "based on the 1967 lines." Netanyahu called these lines "indefensible" in speeches to AIPAC and Congress. These comments generated widespread pro-Israel support and diminished the Obama administration's leverage over the Prime Minister. 

So why did Netanyahu's strategy backfire this time where it succeeded in 2011?

One reason is that the Obama administration has realized the extent to which its Israel policy is a weak spot. President Obama issued no comment on the upcoming speech, since in the past his administration has been burned by its own statements. This silence has led to more media attention on the Netanyahu administration's copious comments on the issue.

Secondly, Israeli domestic politics are not on the Prime Minister's side. In the campaign season, the Israeli public interprets practically every political move as election-driven. Netanyahu's speech has also bred concern that he is harming the US-Israel relationship, an opinion which parties opposing him have pointed out for political gain. Even if some Israelis disagree with one particular aspect of US foreign policy, they still value US support overall. Given comments he has made about the speech, Bibi's indication that Obama administration support is expendable has generated discomfort on both ends of the US-Israel relationship.

Most importantly, the Iran sanctions bill is a matter of US foreign policy, whereas the 1967 lines issue was a matter of Israeli foreign policy. Furthermore, it was a policy with which conservatives agreed. In 2011, it was easy to frame President Obama as interfering in Israeli security politics. Given that many pro-Israel Americans prefer the West Bank stay under Israeli control if possible, this target audience was receptive to the message. This time around, the Israeli Prime Minister is interfering on matter of US foreign policy. While the US-Iran deal impacts Israeli security, it has important implications for many other core US interests. Off the record comments by military officials indicate considerable concern at the Defense Department about an Israeli strike on Iran. Given these concerns, annoyance at Netanyahu's attempts to influence the debate are understandable.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Likud: Looming Large And In Charge

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu gave a campaign speech tonight at a Likud event in Tel Aviv. While many media outlets are focusing on the dramatic rhetoric of the speech, Bibi made three important points that give analysts a sense of the campaign to come. Each point is likely to shore up the likelihood of a Likud victory in the elections to be held March 17.

First: "Likud is the only party organized enough to lead." Netanyahu referenced the multitude of Israeli political parties - a number which has increased after his announcement of new elections as MKs break away from  Likud to form their own parties. He referred to the spate of centrist parties as "trendy," implying that they lack political expertise or relevance. Suggesting a two-party system, he identified "Likud and whatever Labor decides to call itself," a reference to the Labor party's unclear messaging and frequent leadership changes. As a final show of Likud party discipline, MK Tzipi Hotovely, who is currently contesting the Likud primary results after placing 26th, spoke at the rally

Second: "Likud is the only party "strong" enough to handle international pressure. "Netanyahu used the specific rhetoric of strength against threats, a conception shared widely among the Israeli public. Directly challenging Labor Party leader Isaac Herzog and HaTnuah leader Tzipi Livni, Bibi remarked, "They will stand up to Iran? To Hamas? They won't stand the pressure for even a second...They'll give up." Given that Israel's foreign policy stagnation is a major tenet of both party's criticisms of the Prime Minister, it will be important for Netanyahu to ensure these criticisms do not gain traction.

Third: "Re-electing Likud will decrease the instability of the Israeli political system." The frequency of elections in Israel is a source of frustration for some Israelis. Many Likud voters likely blame MKs Livni and Lapid for the most recent round (though Netanyahu himself is probably more responsible). Netanyahu announced plans for sweeping reforms of the political system that may resonate with the public. While they may resonate with some Likud voters, these plans lack any semblance of credibility. Netanyahu called for the largest party to automatically gain the Prime Minister's seat, but Netanyahu himself holds the position despite Kadima winning the vote in 2009. Netanyahu also called for the Prime Minister to be elected every four years, months after he himself called early elections. This point is shaky ground for the Likud, and one on which other parties may be able to gain some traction.

Overall, the speech was an indication of the success of Netanyahu's "divide and conquer" strategy. While other MKs are still politicking and forming parties, Likud is organized, campaigning, in control of the election story in the media, and making headway in the polls. Each factor solidifies the narrative of an inevitable Likud victory, one that no other party in the Israeli political space is in a position to challenge.