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.