Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Bibi Kills Two Centrist Birds With One Stone

Israel analysts have spent the day speculating about the consequences of PM Netanyahu's decision to offer the Defense portfolio to Avigdor Lieberman and bring Yisrael Beiteinu into the coalition. The offer, which comes days after talks with Labor party leader Yitzhak Herzog appeared to be going well, is a huge surprise. Assuming Lieberman accepts the position, Israel's domestic policy will likely shift to the right, its foreign policy will exacerbate international tensions, and Netanyahu's position as Prime Minister will be solidified.

But even if the offer were to fall through, it is an example of Prime Minister Netanyahu's strategy of destroying viable centrist alternatives to his leadership. Today's deal kills two birds with one stone. It makes it extremely difficult for Herzog to maintain leadership of the Labor Party, and it potentially pushes center-right Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon out of the cabinet. It also punishes Ya'alon for urging IDF soldiers to exercise integrity in thought and expression, and sends a message to those who would challenge the Prime Minister. 

This is not the first instance in which Netanyahu has undercut centrist politicians to prevent a viable alternative to his leadership.

In 2012, Yair Lapid announced the creation of the centrist party Yesh Atid. Days later Netanyahu formed a national unity government that would have pushed off elections and delayed Yesh Atid's entrance into politics. When elections did occur in January 2013 and Yesh Atid did unexpectedly well, Netanyahu coopted Lapid. He offered Lapid the Finance portfolio in the context of deep discontent over the government's response to the 2011 economic protests. Lapid went from leading the second most popular party in the Knesset in March 2013 to having a 75% disapproval rating in December of that same year.

Tzipi Livni, after forming the HaTnuah party in 2012, was appointed Justice Minister by the Prime Minister. However, after gaining substantial power - and criticizing several government decisions - Netanyahu fired her along with Lapid on December 2, 2014. Livni, however, was not done with politics. HaTnuah formed a joint list with the Labor Party and its new leader Yitzhak Herzog for the 2015 elections. Since the elections, she has laid low, taking on diplomatic pressures against Israel at the UN and issuing few criticisms of Israel's government. In the long term, Livni is a threat to Netanyahu. In the short term, however, she has shown no interest in challenging him.

Moshe Kahlon and the Kulanu party were coopted by Netanyahu and joined the coalition in 2015. To achieve this cooptation, Netanyahu played Kulanu and Yesh Atid off each other. Yesh Atid and Kulanu are centrist pro-reform parties. Yet by design of the Prime Minister, Yesh Atid is in the opposition and Kulanu is in the government.

Over this past weekend, PM Netanyahu had been in talks with Herzog to bring Labor into the coalition under the pretense of a unity government. Such a move would have coopted an already weak labor leadership. However, by bringing in Yisrael Beiteinu instead, Netanyahu keeps Labor weak and in the opposition, while simultaneously dealing a serious blow to Herzog's political career. By offering Defense Minister Ya'alon's position to Lierberman, he denies Ya'alon a platform to build centrist support.

The fracturing of Israel's political center is not entirely Prime Minister Netanyahu's doing. Egos, party politics, and public opinion play an important role as well. However, today's move is consistent with the Prime Minister's strategy for remaining in power. While it is undoubtedly a brilliant political move, it remains to be seen whether it can create meaningful change for Israelis. Economic hardship, war, international pressure, and lack of a future vision are all real problems facing the Israeli public. Ultimately, the Prime Minister should be judged not by how he attains political power, but how he uses it.





Monday, May 2, 2016

Is Anti-Zionism Possible Without Anti-Semitism?

The suspension of British MP Ken Livingstone for the (inaccurate) comment that Hitler was a Zionist has raised charges of anti-Semitism within Britain's Labour party. These charges are part of a larger debate over whether being anti-Zionist is anti-Semitic. Given a Western norm against anti-Semitism, some fear that anti-Zionism is merely a dog whistle for more notorious prejudices. Others point out that Zionism as an ideology is independent from Judaism as a religion and criticism should be fair game. 

The intractability of this debate shows that the question of whether anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism is far too broad to be useful. It risks getting bogged down in semantic debates while ignoring the more important question of how to build discussions of Zionism that are open enough to include dissenters, but regulated enough that bigotry and prejudice don't silence supporters.

In addition, neither Judaism nor Zionism are easily defined. Both are professed by large, pluralistic, longstanding, international communities. Both are characterized by internal debates around a core set of principles. This means that blanket statements about all anti-Zionism or all anti-Semitism do a disservice to both. A better approach is to specify which types of anti-Zionism are and are not anti-Semitic. 

As with racism, sexism, homophobia, and able-ism, anti-Semitism can be unconscious. Good specification can be useful for bringing these unconscious biases to the surface. That being said, an anti-Zionist but not anti-Semitic argument has:

1) Well-specified terms. It does not talk broadly about the nature of all Zionists. Rather, it acknowledges - explicitly or implicitly - variation that has existed among Zionist movements since at least the First Zionist Conference in 1897. In addition to variation across movements, individual Zionists held complex views as well. Albert Einstein supported a bi-national state in Mandate Palestine, but also campaigned for the World Zionist Organization and was a strong supporter of Hebrew University. 

Anti-Zionism without anti-Semitism also acknowledges changes in these movements over time. As Nadav Shelef points out, for example, Revisionist Zionists originally considered present-day Jordan as the "Jewish Homeland." Today, few members of revisionism's progeny - the Likud Party - would argue that Israel should annex Jordan. Zionism, like most political ideologies, comes in many flavors and changes over time. A purely anti-Zionist argument acknowledges this variation by specifying which kind of Zionism and which time period it is addressing.

2) Generalizable principles. This means that the tenets of the argument are based in principles that apply beyond Zionism. Take the idea that Israel should not exist because Judaism is not a nation. This idea is a purely anti-Zionist and not anti-Semitic if the criteria of "nation" applied to Jews are reasonable and widely applicable to other groups. It is not anti-Semitic to say that the Jewish nation does not inherently deserve a state only if one also believes Kurds, Armenians, Roma, and other historically persecuted minority nations do not inherently deserve a state either. The values of an anti-Zionist argument that is not anti-Semitic should be broad-based and applicable to other cases.

The difficulty for generalizability, of course, is that Israel is unique in many ways beyond its Jewish character. It is a non-Muslim state in the Middle East, the only state whose leadership includes those of European descent, and the largest recipient of US foreign aid. The Jewish people are also unique in that analyses understand them simultaneously as a religion, ethnicity, nation, and culture. Criticism of Zionism that bases its argument on these unique aspects of Israeli or Jewish character is not necessarily anti-Zionist. That being said, some of these factors interact with Israel's Jewish character and purely anti-Zionist arguments should acknowledge this interaction. US aid to Israel may be affected, for example, by American religious views towards a Jewish presence in biblical Israel.


One final observation: Specific terms and generalizable principles are not only good argumentation but respectful as well. They acknowledge the pain of those who identify as Jewish and/or Zionist, a pain which is real and to which they are entitled. As with anti-Palestinian nationalist arguments, one can be reasonably anti-Zionist without being disrespectful, rude, and obnoxious. One doesn't have to be polite to avoid being anti-Semitic, but it bolsters confidence that the claim is about an ideological point, and not thinly-veiled prejudice against Jews or their historic homeland. 

In other words, make your case but don't be a nudnik.