Thursday, March 19, 2015

Three Takeaways From Israeli Elections

Israel's election results are likely to be certified in the next 24 hours. The outcome leaves Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu with a number of options for coalition formation over the next 28 days or so. As negotiations between Likud and other parties plays out, three important points should frame analysis of the process.

First, Netanyahu's victory is not a death knell for anything. Netanyahu's victory creates important changes to the status quo but not nearly enough to justify leftist sensationalism about the death of the peace process. True, he made comments this weekend eschewing a Palestinian state (which he has now backed away from). Additionally, his absurd warning that the "Arabs are voting" are both shocking and unbecoming of a pluralistic democratic state like Israel. However, there are few entities who can keep these comments salient in the media cycle for more than a few weeks - enough time to matter. Bibi's new coalition will look similar to the current one, consisting of centrist and rightist religious Zionist parties. This is not a game changer. While the status quo is unsustainable, Netanyahu's victory and the policy rhetoric which was largely smoke and mirrors have not sealed Israeli or Palestinian fates. Once the coalition is formed and an actual agenda outlined, analysts will be much better able to assess the future of Israeli policy.

Second, the elections consolidated an opposition to Bibi Netanyahu. The major elements of this opposition are centrist parties, the Arab parties, and Labor. In 2013, Yair Lapid's Yesh Atid party was an anomaly. Now it is not only the fourth largest party in terms of seats, but it is joined by Moshe Kahlon's centrist Kulanu party. In addition, the Zionist Camp's final tally was likely boosted by the participation of Tzipi Livni whose constituency was the centrist Kadima party. Centrist parties are divided but together they have a meaningful constituency among Israelis. The United Arab List has also made an impressive showing with 13 seats despite cynicism about politics from Israel's Arab population. Additionally, the elections showed with certainty that the Labor party remains a major player in Israeli politics. After the 2013 elections, some wondered whether Labor's consistently poor showing in elections compared to other parties signaled the death of the party. As opposed to four months ago, Labor will be leading a real opposition to Prime Minister Netanyahu, a price which is not trivial.

Finally Washington's response to Bibi's win was clouded by wishful thinking. While the extent of Netanyahu's victory (6 seats) is a surprise that will generate many analyses in the coming weeks, the fact that he won re-election was the predicted outcome from the beginning (see here and here). Analysts in DC had hoped that a Zionist Camp win could unseat Bibi and bring about positive change in the damaged US-Israel relationship. Ironically, the Obama administration's curmudgeonly response to Netanyahu's win is actively hurting US-Israel relations. The administration's open disdain for Netanyahu is receiving extensive media attention in a way that harms its ability to influence leadership in Jerusalem. A better strategy would be for Obama to extend neutral post-election formalities, letting Netanyahu make the first post-election overture, while administration members highlight the social welfare issues important to many opposition voters during Netanyahu's coalition formation process.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Vote Tally: Likud Routs Zionist Camp In Elections

With 91% of the ballots counted in Israel's election, Likud appears to be pulling far ahead of the Zionist Camp, which itself is doing only slightly better than the Joint Arab List. The exact number of seats will change as the remaining 20% of votes are counted, but the outcome appears to be a significant win for Prime Minister Netanyahu. While a meaningful opposition coalesced, it appears that it was not substantial enough to challenge the Likud party in coalition formation. President Rivlin's choice of a party to form the next government is very clear at the moment, and Netanyahu has the political allies to form a number of different coalitions.

The final tally will provide important nuances about which coalition the Prime Minister will choose, but there can be little doubt that Binyamin Netanyahu will be the one choosing it.

Israel's Elections Consolidate Opposition To Bibi

Exit polls from Israel are predicting a tie or a win for the Likud party and Israel's Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. Full results may not be available until Friday. The two major parties - Likud and the Zionist Camp - are predicted to win around 27 seats in Israel's 120-seat Knesset. Medium-sized parties are predicted to win between 10 and 13 each, and small parties between 5 and 6. To reach a 61-seat majority, the winning party will have to form alliances with multiple parties, creating the possibility of a fairly unstable coalition.

Israel's President, Reuben Rivlin, will have 7 days to pick a party to form the next government, and that party will have 28 days to do so. As predicted, the two medium-sized centrist parties, Yesh Atid and Kulanu, will play a critical role in this regard. Pending any big surprises, neither Likud nor the Zionist Camp will be able to form a government without Yesh Atid or Kulanu. This situation making these centrist parties the kingmakers in Israel's next government. One important development to watch over the next week is whether these two parties agree to join the same list, or (more likely) let themselves be pursued by Likud and the Zionist Camp.

A unity government between Likud and the Zionist Camp is also a possibility, though it will require some cooling off from this weekend's fever-pitch rhetoric. Such a coalition may not necessarily be stable given ideological differences between Likud and those of the Zionist Camp.

Even if President Rivlin chooses Netanyahu to form the next government, the Prime Minister will have paid a price for an electoral win. Netanyahu's intent on calling early elections was likely to renegotiate a coalition in which he would be stronger. While certain coalitions could produce this result, the campaign created the opportunity to consolidate a significant opposition to the Prime Minister. It also pushed the Likud to use messaging that sounded desperate at best and racist at worst. At this point, a Likud win is still more likely than a Zionist Camp win. However, the close results point to a deep dissatisfaction in Israel with the status quo - a challenge that Prime Minister Netanyahu will need to address if he intends Israel's next government to be long-lasting.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Three Things To Watch In Israel's Elections Next Week

Israel's election campaign is in its final stretch. The Zionist Union, Yisrael Beiteinu, and Bayit HaYehudi all held campaign events over the past few days, and political rhetoric in Israel has reached a fever pitch. While the outcome of the elections is uncertain, there are three important factors of which analysts of next Tuesday's election should be aware.

First, the election is a referendum on Prime Minister Netanyahu. An anti-Netanyahu rally this weekend in Tel Aviv only served to prove the point that the choice in this election is "to Bibi or not to Bibi." Netanyahu has taken criticism for slow changes to Israel's social welfare programs and last week's speech to Congress. Yet no other candidate has established him or herself as a candidate for Prime Minister of his or her own accord. If Netanyahu loses the election, it will be because the Israeli public voted against him, and not for someone else. Given the most recent polls and Netanyahu's political expertise, however, such a loss would be surprising.

Second, centrist parties are unpredictable but important. Knesset Jeremy's latest Poll of Polls has the technocratic Kulanu party polling around 2 seats in the Knesset, with Yair Lapid's Yesh Atid party polling around 20. However, Yesh Atid's success in 2013 was a major surprise, and it's possible that one or both of these centrist parties could do well. It's also possible, however, that Kulanu and Yesh Atid could divide the centrist vote, leaving medium-size parties like HaBayit HaYehudi in an even stronger position. Either outcome has important implications for coalition formation. While the two parties have not driven the narrative during the campaign season, they could be significant and are worth tracking.

Finally, a unity government is possible and should be taken seriously. The Zionist Camp has been polling roughly evenly with Likud. It's unlikely to beat Likud at the polls, but even if it were chosen to form the government, it would be hard for Tzipi Livni and Isaac Herzog to find a coalition partner on the left. This difficulty would make a unity government potentially attractive. If Likud is chosen to form the government (the more likely scenario), negotiations might play out such that aligning with the Zionist Camp is a better deal than aligning with Yisrael Beiteinu, HaBayit HaYehudi, or the religious parties. It would cut Naftali Bennet, a challenger to Netanyahu in the long term, out of the coalition and could make it easier for the Prime Minister to balance the power of far right-wing members of his own Likud party. These scenarios aren't likely per se, but they are a possibility that analysts should evaluate once the results of elections are in.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

The Flaws In Netanyahu's Iran Plan

In his speech to Congress today, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu outlined three conditions for a better Iran nuclear deal. It would require Iran to a) Stop aggression against its neighbors b) Stop supporting terrorism and c) Stop threatening to annihilate Israel. Despite an eloquent speech this morning, Netanyahu's plan - in its current form - is unlikely to gain traction among US policymakers.

As observers like Jeffrey Goldberg have pointed out, these demands are based on legitimate criticisms of the Iranian leadership. For an Israeli Prime Minister to ask these of Iran is legitimate. But these conditions are vague to the point of being functionally meaningless. Where does aggression become self-preservation against Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states? Is support for terrorism material or also rhetorical? Are verbal threats against Israel as big a danger as physical nuclear capabilities? And would Iran realistically agree to any of these things? 

Netanyahu claims to be in favor of a better deal as opposed to war, but his proposal is comfortably outside the win-set of mutually agreeable outcomes for Iran and the P5+1. It links the nuclear issue with a spate of other foreign policy issues on which Iran is highly unlikely to concede. Furthermore, those issues are not critical to Israel's security. It would be nice (an understatement) for Iran to stop casually threatening Israel with annihilation, but words will not destroy Tel Aviv or Jerusalem. Focusing on Iran's nuclear capabilities rather than its wild rhetoric is much more likely to prove a successful security strategy.

Whereas his set of preconditions to negotiate with Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas are designed to forestall any actual discussions, Netanyahu seems to recognize the need for an actual deal with Iran. In his speech, he  referenced "a better deal that Israel and its neighbors may not like, but with which we could live." This line is significant. It indicates that Netanyahu is not taking a my-way-or-the-highway approach. He is genuinely interested in a deal, just not one that he feels endangers Israel.

However, Netanyahu has lost two critical assets: The trust of the administration and that of several Democratic members of Congress. This lack of trust stems not only from the circumstances of his current visit, but previous visits in which the Prime Minister openly spurned the administration. As a result, these critical policymakers are no longer open to being persuaded. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-MD) called Netanyahu's speech "condescension toward our knowledge" and President Obama said it contained "nothing new." 

Years of bad personal relations have played well among the Likud base, but have also harmed the Prime Minister's ability to exert leverage in Washington. Whether Israeli voters recognize the cost of such a strategy during elections on March 17th remains to be seen.

Bibi Calls For Tougher Iran Deal In Speech To Congress

Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu addressed a joint session of Congress today. The run-up to the speech generated enough controversy to prompt boycotts by many Democrats. However, the speech was notably devoid of partisan lines, instead focusing on Iranian foreign policy and the terms of a potential nuclear deal.

Arriving to cheers and a hero's welcome, Netanyahu thanked Congress for its bipartisan support of Israel, and President Obama for his support as well. These niceties quickly gave way to a broad discussion Iranian expansion in the Middle East. Bibi discussed Iran's "domination" of four Arab capitals, and its history of state-sponsored terrorism.

Turning to the Iran deal, Bibi identified two problems with the deal on the table. First, Iran would have a quick breakout capability. Second, international supervision of international inspections would provide insufficient enforcement of a deal, citing recent comments by the IAEA. 

"This deal doesn't block Iran's path to the bomb, this deal paves Iran's path to the bomb," the Prime Minister told a silent House chamber. "Will Iran fund less terrorism? Why should Iran's regime change for the better when it can enjoy the best of both words - aggression abroad and prosperity back home?" 

Netanyahu proposed that instead, restrictions on Iran be linked to its expansion and global projection of power. The conditions would be for Iran to a) Stop aggression against its neighbors in the Middle East b) Stop supporting terrorism around the world c) Stop threatening to annihilate Israel. Netanyahu cautioned that the alternative to the current deal should not be war, but a "much better deal" which would put stricter limitations on Iran's nuclear program and regional expansion.

Invoking Israel's right to defend itself, the Prime Minister referenced the history of Jewish persecution, pointing out Elie Wiesel, who was seated next to Bibi's wife Sara, in the House Chamber. Netanyahu concluded the speech on a biblical note, quoting the Torah and pointing out a plaque of Moses above the House chamber. 

Netanyahu received 19 standing ovations and raucous applause throughout the speech. While highly anticipated, the speech made a relatively straightforward argument that reflect mainstream center-right positions on the deal. It now remains to be seen whether a deal can be reached before the March 24th deadline, and what the details of that deal may be.


Monday, March 2, 2015

On Pro-Israel Bill, AIPAC Speakers Invoke Arab Security

AIPAC's annual Policy Conference kicked off yesterday in Washington, D.C. with a program featuring Senators Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Ben Cardin (D-MD). AIPAC's Executive Director, Howard Kohr, also spoke to the 16,000 assembled participants. Both panels focused on a potential Iran nuclear deal and urged Congressional oversight for the bill. This push for oversight is the focus of AIPAC's conference and is a theme that will be repeated often over the next two days.

In supporting a strong deal, both Senator Graham and Executive Director Kohr emphasized the value of reassuring America's Arab allies, particularly those in the Gulf. Given that this is an Israel conference, these statements are significant. The US relationship with Arab countries often takes a backseat at AIPAC conference plenaries. Arab states are grouped together as a common enemy confronting Israel, which must defend itself. AIPAC has lobbied the US government with regards to individual Arab states like Egypt but, does so in reference to Israel's security. These comments are an explicit recognition that the US has ties with Arab states as well as Israel, and that these ties matter to America's strategic posture in the Middle East.

Yesterday's comments are indicative of a shift in the pro-Israel camp towards acceptance of America's relationship with Arab countries. They demonstrate recognition of the strategic importance of the Gulf and other key regions of the Middle East to the United States. In other words, Israel is not the only country whose interests matter to the US in the Middle East. AIPAC and other pro-Israel groups have been criticized for trying to shape US policy in the Middle East based only on US-Israel ties. However, invoking the security of Arab states against a nuclear Iran demonstrates an acceptance in the pro-Israel crowd of a multilateral approach.