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.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Bibi Buys Time And Tacks Toward The Center

Israel's President Reuben Rivlin has granted Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu a two-week extension to form a governing coalition. Bibi will now have until May 6 to pull together enough parties to form a 61-seat majority or better in the Knesset.

Analysts hailed Netanyahu's win in March 17th elections as a landslide. Yet while the Likud party won a formidable 30 seats in the 120-seat Knesset, coalition formation has dragged on. Creating a coalition should, in theory, be easy for Netanyahu. The Prime Minister has a number of choices for coalition partners, and he is highly adept at playing rivals off each other. However, despite Likud's preference to wrap up negotiations early, they have continued on and forced the Prime Minister to request the two-week extension.

Netanyahu has been particularly interested in forming a coalition with Kulanu, the new centrist party which won 10 seats in the election. Despite scorn from the right-wing HaBayit Hayehudi and Yisrael Beiteinu parties, today Bibi met personally with the Kulanu party's leader Moshe Kahlon. This is a shift from the Likud's right-wing coalition partners in the past few elections, but it is a smart move for the Prime Minister. A centrist party would allow Bibi more political efficacy since he wouldn't be constantly needing to appease to the far-right parties. While he will have to play ball with HaBayit Hayehudi and Yisrael Beiteinu at some level, having Kulanu as the major coalition partner gives Netanyahu some room to pursue an agenda closer to Likud's center-right platform. 

Additionally a move to the center would generate less antagonism within the Knesset itself. The center-left Zionist Camp's 24 seats is a formidable bloc that represents an important constituency among the Israeli public. Netanyahu is making a wise choice by tacking to the center. It allows him to avoid antagonizing centrists and simultaneously accuse the Zionist Camp of being impotent since it will agree with much of what the Prime Minister does anyway. 

Importantly, aligning with Kulanu does not mean Netanyahu will stop settlement building, giving handouts to religious parties, or antagonizing the international community. However, a Likud-Kulanu government might see progress in terms of social welfare for secular Israelis, regulating high prices, and pragmatism rather than dogmatic thinking on other policy areas.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Likud Faces Difficulty In Knesset Coalition Formation

Israel's Likud party is scrambling to form a coalition before an April 22nd deadline. While Prime Minister Netanyahu can request an extension on coalition talks, Likud has been trying to seal a deal prior to the 22nd. Competing demands and party influence have not made this an easy process.

The centrist Kulanu party has been bargaining hard. Kulanu, which gained 10 seats in its first ever election bid on March 17th, is asking the Prime Minister for the Finance, Housing, and Environmental Protection portfolios. As a new and centrist party, Kulanu is unlikely to put the same kinds of demands on the Prime Minister as further right and more established parties. It would be in the Prime Minister's interest to form a coalition with the party. However, United Torah Judaism is also vying for the finance ministry, and Bibi intends to bring both that party and Shas into the coalition. Complicating matters for the Prime Minister, HaBayit HaYehudi leader Naftali Bennett, whose party won 8 seats, is also vying to be Foreign Minister even though the post has been given in the past to Yisrael Beiteinu leader Avigdor Lieberman. Given that Yisrael Beiteinu won only 6 seats to HaBayit HaYehudi's 8, Bennett sees grounds for giving him the ministry.

Two coinciding events have helped Prime Minister Netanyahu in the negotiating process. First, formal negotiations ceased for the week-long Passover holiday. Yet under-the-table negotiations continued which gave Likud more negotiating room. Secondly, the Iran nuclear deal has seen consistent front-page coverage in the Israeli media. The Prime Minister himself has contributed consistently to media coverage of the story, expressing concern about the terms of a potential agreement. However, the media's focus on Iran has allowed Netanyahu to conduct negotiations out of the spotlight, which gives him greater flexibility with the parties.

Now that Passover has ended and the nuclear deal has been in the headlines for over a week, negotiations are likely to spool back up. There are some scattered indications a unity government isn't off the table, but a broad right-leaning government is the most likely possibility once the dust settles.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

BREAKING: Netanyahu To Form Coalition With Republican Party

Speaking to reporters in Jerusalem today (April 1st), Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu confirmed that the Likud would form a coalition government in the Knesset with the Republican Party.

"The Republicans have been a longstanding friend of the Likud and our values often overlap," explained the Prime Minister. The Likud's 30 seats plus the Republican Party's 54 seats in the Senate would put the coalition well over the 61-seat majority needed to govern the Knesset, Israel's parliament.

"This alignment will be a breath of fresh air for the Republican Party," declared GOP chairman Reince Preibus. "Israelis' love of privatization and disdain for the socialist welfare state make us a natural fit." Other Republican leaders were excited as well. "I'm so happy I could cry," said House Speaker John Boehner - who then proceeded to cry. "Finally I will be around arsim who have more obvious fake tans than I do."

Some in the Knesset have objected to the deal on the grounds that the Republican Party is an American rather than an Israeli party, but Netanyahu scoffed at the claims noting, "What then? We should form a coalition with droves of Arabs?"

Some American policymakers supported the deal. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said, via private email, "I think the idea is a wonderful way of deepening the ties with our close ally Israel. Perhaps a good choice of Interior Minister would be Ted Cruz. Or Jeb Bush." 

Others expressed concern the coalition could have implications for an Iran nuclear deal in its final stages. "You think Iran fears an Israeli strike now, just wait until John Bolton is their Defense Minister," remarked Secretary of State John Kerry from Lausanne, Switzerland. For his part, Iranian chief negotiator Mohamad Zarif expressed concern. "We have many questions about this Zionist coalition. For example, do some of them really not believe in evolution? Like really? I mean come on, seriously?"

For now, the deal must be approved by Israeli President Reuven Rivlin. The American President, Barack Obama, has reportedly refused to meet with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell citing protocol, and has called Rand Paul's curly hair "an obstacle to peace."

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.