Yair Lapid – no cause for optimism.

yair lapid

Yair Lapid

In the lead-up to yesterday’s elections, there was real concern in certain circles (and happy certainty in others) that Naftali Bennett’s HaBayit HaYehudi (Jewish Home) Party was poised to sweep into the Knesset’s second place position, directly behind a weakened Likud—weakened in part by Bennett himself, a man who gives public expression to what many assume to be the real position of both the Likud and Prime Minister Netanyahu: Settlements Always, Palestine Never.

When that didn’t turn out to be the case—when it turned out that the putatively centrist Yair Lapid had not only come in behind Likud, but had far outstripped Bennett—there were expressions of relief, even hope, in some corners. Perhaps, just maybe, a roughly centrist government will emerge, one that will genuinely negotiate for peace?

With all due respect, though, there’s simply no objective reason to even entertain that thought.

First of all, it’s important to remember that these results are preliminary, in that they don’t yet include the votes of the military. Israel’s soldiers have traditionally skewed slightly to the right of the rest of the country, and in recent years, this tendency has increased, along with a growing religiosity. There’s good reason to think that when all the votes are counted, Bennett and/or the Likud will have gained two-three seats, and in a parliament this polarized, that can make a big difference.

More to the point, however, even if the division of seats doesn’t much change, neither will Bibi. He is and has always been a right-wing opportunist whose first and primary goal is to achieve and maintain power. He’s spent his entire political career catering to the settler community, and though he’s not himself personally religious, has been more than happy to cede power and influence to the ultra-Orthodox in order to maintain a coalition that keeps him in the driver’s seat, and advances the settlement project. A single speech at Bar Ilan University, made years ago, doesn’t mitigate the fact that the Prime Minister has done everything in his not inconsiderable power to make sure that a Palestinian State becomes a literal impossibility.

And then there’s Yair Lapid, also an opportunist, albeit one who at least looks centrist. He’s said that he won’t join a government that doesn’t negotiate with the Palestinians—but honestly, that’s meaningless. “Negotiations” can mean anything or nothing, and Netanyahu has himself “negotiated with the Palestinians” on more than one occasion. Negotiations aren’t a goal unto themselves, and without a solid commitment to compromise, will continue to serve the Israeli government as they have for years: a handy diversion with which to distract the international community, even as Israel’s hold on the West Bank deepens.

Moreover, Lapid has made it painfully clear that he has no real grasp of the enormity of the occupation’s implications, and doesn’t understand what a genuine, durable peace agreement will entail. He launched his campaign in the bloated West Bank settlement of Ariel, and has publicly (and more than once) announced that if Israel’s government just stands firm, it will convince the Palestinian people to give up on East Jerusalem as their capital.

As I’ve written before, this latter position is nothing short of delusional, and reveals a deep and abiding attachment to the same kind of magical thinking recently expressed by Daniel Gordis: We will deal with the Palestinians as we imagine them to be, and all will be well.

The only thing approaching an ideological commitment that Lapid has ever clearly expressed is an aversion to the ultra-Orthodox. I think it’s a decent bet that he wouldn’t join a government in which the ultra-Orthodox have more power than he does, but as long as he can present himself to his secular supporters (half of whom, not incidentally, self-identify as right wing) as having done better than Shas in coalition negotiations, I imagine he’d be happy to sit alongside them—and, quite possibly, Bennett—in a Netanyahu government, and passively support expanding settlement construction and the headlong rush toward West Bank annexation. And again: The rightist parties are likely to actually gain seats when the soldiers’ votes are counted.

There are two Israeli Jewish parties actually dedicated to saving the Jewish State from itself and negotiating a true peace accord with the Palestinian people: Meretz and Tzipi Livni’s HaTnuah. And if the projections hold, Meretz and HaTnuah will jointly take 12 seats.

So really, there’s no cause for even cautious optimism. On the contrary, perhaps a hard-right government would have shocked the world and Israel out of its complacency. As it is, it looks like Israel is set to continue to muddle along on its way to its own ruin.

Crossposted from Open Zion/The Daily Beast.

Very quick take on the Israeli elections results.

First of all, the basics: Israel’s system of government is parliamentary, and Israel’s parliament (the Knesset) has 120 seats. In order to form a government, a party has to have a majority of those seats, which in practice means that the party with the most seats has to negotiate a coalition with other, smaller parties, which in turn means that smaller parties often wind up setting policy, completely out of proportion to their numbers, because they serve as kingmakers.

Exit polls from today’s elections indicate what’s being presented by Israel’s media as a right/center-left split of 61/59 – here’s HaAretz’s excellent graphic breaking that down:

israel election haaretz exit poll jan13

A few important notes:

  • As you consider the “center-left” of Israeli politics you must always (and I mean this quite literally) simply erase from your calculations any seats held by the “Arab Parties” (aka: parties made up of Palestinian-Israelis and/or Hadash, the bi-national communist party which is considered an “Arab Party”). The Arab parties have never been included in an Israeli coalition, and unless and until something very fundamental changes, they never will be. So it’s really 61/50.
  • These are preliminary results, so the final count may very well shift around to the tune of 2-4 seats, not least because:
  • Members of the military vote on their bases and cannot be exit-polled, so no initial projection can include them — and Israel’s soldiers, traditionally slightly to the right of the rest of the voting public, have been growing increasingly right and increasingly religious.
  • The party of former-talk-show-host-turned-politician Yair Lapid is, as one person put it, a “tofu party” — Lapid is not ideologically committed to much of anything, other than broad anti-ultra-Orthodox sentiment, and while he looks like a center-left politician, he’s really just a Tel Avivian opportunist. His goal is his own aggrandizement, and half of his party’s voters identify as right-wing. Furthermore, as my friend Ori Nir pointed out, “more than this was a pro-Lapid vote, it was an anti-Netanyahu vote by the ‘soft right’.”
  • Lapid has already demonstrated that he really has no grasp of the parameters of Israel’s single largest outstanding issue, the occupation. If (as I wrote here) he genuinely believes that Israel only has to stand firm in order to get the Palestinians to give up East Jerusalem as their capital, then there’s no reason to think that he has any grand vision of sharing the land.
  • On the other hand, Naftali Bennett, the head of HaBayit HaYehudi (Jewish Home), is a True Believer. He is absolutely committed to never allowing the establishment of a Palestinian state, and as a modern Orthodox Jew, he carries the whiff of religious credibility.
  • Benjamin Netanyahu’s experiment of joining forces with the ultra-right Yisrael Beitenu party headed by neo-fascist Avigdor Lieberman — considered by many (myself included) a sure bet for electoral dominance — clearly failed.

So in light of all of the above, I think there’s a very good chance of the following happening:

  • Likud is still the party with the most seats, and as such Netanyahu will get first crack at forming a coalition. This he can do with Lapid and Bennett, and if the above projections hold, he’d have 67 seats. However, I actually suspect that these parties will jointly pick up another two-three seats from the soldiers — my guess is that they’ll come at the expense of Labor and HaTunua (headed by Tzipi Livni), and that they will go to Lapid and Bennett (rather than Likud). 
  • If Bibi decides to go this route, HaBayit HaYehudi will give him cover on the religious front, without making onerous demands in the style of Israel’s ultra-Orthodox, and Yesh Atid will give him cover with regard to the concerns of Israel’s shrinking secular majority (and by secular, I mean here “Jewish Israelis who are fed up with ultra-Orthodox coercion”).
  • Lapid will give lip-service to the need for reconciliation with the Palestinians, but will be easily and quickly swept up by nationalist appeals to “security” the next time any Palestinian anywhere does anything unsavory, and will passively support settlement construction and the galloping trend toward annexation of the West Bank.

Needless to say, I could be wrong, particularly with regard to any potential tension between Netanyahu and Lapid. Netanyahu might prefer the discomfort of once again aligning himself with the ultra-Orthodox over giving too much to Lapid, even though big chunks of his own base have zero love for the ultra-Orthodox. Bear in mind that I tend to be very pessimistic when it comes to Israeli politics, and while I haven’t often been proven wrong, it’s been known to happen.

It will be days before we know anything for sure. But for now, those are the contours I see shaping up.

In which I am front-paged at The Daily Beast (aka: Newsweek’s online presence).

No, seriously!

As anyone who reads this blog knows, I began writing regularly for Open Zion — a blog edited by author/journalist/controversial-but-extraordinarily-pleasant holder of opinions Peter Beinart — a few months ago, and Open Zion is hosted by The Daily Beast, which is Newsweek‘s online presence (the question of why Newsweek‘s online presence isn’t called Newsweek.com is above my pay grade).

Today I wrote about the fact that Israel’s governing coalition has fallen apart, rather spectacularly but entirely unsurprisingly. And The Daily Beast put it on their front page! As of this moment in time (10:39 on Tuesday night) it’s item #7 on their rotating stories thinga-ma-jigee that is the very first thing one sees upon going to thedailybeast.com.

And that, my friends, is totally boss, I don’t care who you are!

As is the tradition around these parts, I hereunder provide you with the top of said post; to get the rest, you’ll have to click through.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ll just be over here doing a little jig with Snoopy.

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MOFAZ TAKES HIS TRUCKS AND GOES HOME.

We learned today that the Israeli Uber-Coalition, a government supported by 94 of the Knesset’s 120 members, has fallen apart. I am hard-pressed to express much in the way of shock.

Shaul Mofaz, recently-elected head of the Kadima party, is taking his trucks and going home because Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu failed to come through on a promise to formulate a universal Israeli draft law, one which would include both Palestinians with Israeli citizenship, and ultra-Orthodox Jews, a community currently allowed to study in yeshivas rather than pick up guns.

Leaving aside for the moment the advisability of such a law–the Palestinian-Israeli community has enormous reservations about being drafted into service by the Jewish State, for instance, even if the draft is broadened to include non-military national service, and the Israeli ultra-Orthodox community is well-known for often failing to provide its children with many of the educational basics so necessary to taking part in any essentially secular endeavor–the simple fact of the matter is that nothing in Netanyahu’s political history indicates that he is a man to take bold, controversial action or risk any damage to his position of power within Israel’s political system. The notion that he was going to start bordered on absurd.

To read the rest of the post that The Daily Beast put on its front page (!), click here!

Netanyahu-Mofaz, some brief thoughts.

Today is the fifth day out of the last nine in which all or part of my day has been devoted to caring for my daughter, who had a nasty cold and now, as of last Thursday, has some random knee injury that is sending us hither, thither and yon. Mostly yon, and the poor kid is in real pain, and… so. My thoughts on anything are going to be brief. But one feels a need to say something!

On Monday, all was set for the Israeli Knesset to vote no-confidence in the ruling coalition, dismiss itself, and head for early elections in September. In the Israeli legislative system, all bills go through three “readings,” and on late Monday night the no-confidence bill had already passed its first reading — but then, in the wee hours of Tuesday, Prime Minister Netanyahu, the man who had spearheaded the entire effort, scuttled the plan by striking a deal with Shaul Mofaz (the recently elected head of the main opposition party, Kadima), to form a unity coalition which will give the government fully 94 of the Knesset’s 120 seats.

In a lifetime of living in/studying/writing about Israel/Palestine, there have been very few surprises. Most of the time, most events roll out in a distressingly predictable fashion. This, though? Wow. This blew my hair back. And that was before I knew what Mofaz had been saying.

I knew that Mofaz had been elected to lead Kadima (the leading opposition party), replacing (and pretty much crushing) pro-two-stater Tzipi Livni. I knew that Kadima is in disarray (having been formed as a matter of convenience in 2005 by then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon from bits and bobs of the right [Likud] and left [Labor] in order to allow for his unilateral withdrawal from Gaza).

I did not know that Mofaz had said things like:

No, Kadima under my leadership will remain in the opposition. The current government represents all that is wrong with Israel, I believe. (on March 30).

And:

The Netanyahu Barak couple is sabotaging the strategic bond between Israel & the United States. (May 7, the DAY BEFORE the coalition deal was struck).

And:

Listen closely: I will not enter Bibi’s government. Not today. Not tomorrow…. This is a bad, failing and deaf government, and the Kadima that I will lead will replace it in the next elections. Clear enough? (March 3, on his Facebook wall).

If I had been aware of all that? My hair might have been blown clean off my head.

Now Shaul Mofaz is not exactly known for his purity of vision – he appears to be a man for whom, like Netanyahu, power is the point, more than any other concern. Sure, he comes at that need for power from a general worldview and political leaning, but these are not hills to die on. They are tools to use. Like Newt Gingrich, if you will.

Kadima was expected to do poorly in the just-called-then-canceled early elections, and Netanyahu himself didn’t appear likely to gain significantly more seats for the Likud party than he already had. At first blush, then, it seems to me that both men realized that going to elections would hurt them both, whereas joining forces might save them.

The most immediate implication of that realization is that the new coalition is so enormous that the Prime Minister will be able to do almost anything he wants.

Everyone’s eyes are thus turned to Iran, but I’ll be honest: I’m just not sure that Netanyahu wants to actually attack Iran, certainly not without very clear American support. I know he wants the world to be afraid that he will, and I know he wants the world to dance to his tune out of that fear.

But I further know that as long as we’re all looking at Iran, we’re not thinking about the fact that the settlements are growing and spreading, like a cancer metastasizing out of all control, while the Palestinians get battered again and again. There are 1,500 Palestinians hunger striking as we speak in Israel’s prisons today: ONE THOUSAND FIVE HUNDRED. And what are we talking about? Iran, and Bibi-Mofaz. It’s long been my impression that the saber rattling about Iran is more about the settlements and Bibi’s need to stay in power, than it is about an actionable plan to attack Iran. This would hardly be the first time that saber rattling was used as a diversionary tactic.

Moreover, Bibi’s new friend has said pretty clearly that he doesn’t think Israel should plan on attacking Iran any time soon.

I could very well be wrong (PS: should we listen to anything Mofaz says?), and regardless, saber rattling doesn’t always end the way folks intended. People being people, things happen, and wars start.

Beyond Iran, though, there’s been speculation that maybe the new government will allow Bibi to be bold and break new ground with the Palestinians — but I am willing to stake whatever reputation I have on the fact that he has absolutely no desire to do anything of the sort.

There’s been speculation that maybe the new government will allow Bibi to draft ultra-Orthodox students and Palestinian-Israelis into national service (military or otherwise) — maybe, but Bibi knows that the ultra-Orthodox will be there after the next elections, too, and I can’t imagine him willingly taking on their fury, and b) the man really doesn’t like Arabs. I can’t see him wanting to grant Palestinian-Israelis a pathway to demanding more equality on the national stage (as a national service law would).

There’s been speculation that Netanyahu and Mofaz want to eviscerate the campaign of up-and-coming politician and former media personality Yair Lapid — this strikes me as pretty likely. Lapid’s natural audience is disaffected members of Likud and Kadima (with a smattering of what remains of the moribund Labor party), so knocking him out of the arena is crucial to both men’s futures.

And there’s been some speculation — in my own head — that a 94-seat coalition will allow Bibi to pass whatever laws he wants in order to quash the voices of social activists and peaceniks, a process that’s been underway for sometime now, and that’s got to hold some appeal.

Overall, this strikes me as a marriage of convenience between two men who will eventually tear each other apart. They both needed a crutch, and when one of them doesn’t need a crutch anymore? It’ll all come crashing down.

At any rate, regular elections are scheduled for October 2013.

Israeli governments so rarely manage to get through an entire four year term that it’s easy to forget that terms actually exist. But they do, and this one is nearly 3/4 done. Whatever these power-grasping politicians manage to do together, it will be with a very keen eye toward grasping yet more power — likely from each other — in another 16 months.

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Yes, when my thoughts are brief, the writing tends to go long! It doesn’t make much sense but there it is.

For more on the unity government and its possible implications, I highly recommend Mitchell Plitnick’s excellent “The Perils of Unity” (note especially his comments on Bibi’s relationship with the military) and the reporting and analysis of +972 Magazine

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