Israeli politicians forbidden to attend Rosh Hashanah event with Abbas.

yair lapid 2

Yair Lapid

Now here’s a head-scratcher.

There’s a lot of talk about Yair Lapid believing that Israel’s position in peace negotiations will be weakened if members of his party attend a Rosh Hashanah event with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. As such, even though five Yesh Atid parliamentarians had already RSVP’ed “yes” to Abbas’s little do, Lapid has instructed them to make their apologies. A spokeswoman with Yesh Atid explained the Finance Minister’s decision thus:

When there are direct negotiations between the two sides, we don’t think it is right for coalition MKs to bypass the official talks. We should let the diplomatic process continue via acceptable procedures.

But here’s the thing: Three members of Yesh Atid actually met with Palestinian Authority officials just two weeks ago, and it wasn’t at a party. Indeed, Maarivreported on August 18 that MK Yifat Kariv and two other people from Yesh Atid met with PA officials in Budapest in order to (in Kariv’s words) “support the peace process”:

The sooner we arrive at a two-state solution, the better. These discussions with the Palestinians give me the sense that there’s someone to talk to and something to talk about, and as such, all declarations about construction in the territories or support for the idea of a single state between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River only do damage. The government must arrive at responsible, courageous decisions.

The Maariv report goes on to say that the Israeli and Palestinian participants agreed to prepare a joint declaration of parliamentary support for the peace process; to organize delegations of Israeli officials to Ramallah (the seat of the Palestinian government); and to put political pressure on the leaders of both sides to arrive at an agreement. Furthermore, reporter Arik Bender writes, both sides expressed their support for the draft accord known as the Geneva Accord (or Geneva Initiative), agreeing that the parameters of any future resolution are already well-known and enjoy the support of the majority of both peoples.

So, if I understand correctly, a meeting between Fatah officials, Palestinian legislators, and coalition MKs at which all agree on the outline of a future peace deal—a draft agreement known to be based on the 1967 lines and a shared Jerusalem—it’s not an end-run around official talks. Raising a toast at a holiday gathering, on the other hand? You betcha.

I’ve long wondered what some of the folks in Lapid’s party are doing there. Some of the most prominent members of Yesh Atid are unequivocal supporters of a two-state peace and all that such a peace will entail. Their boss, on the other hand, hasrejected the idea of cutting back on settlements, says things like “if the Palestinians realize they won’t have a state unless they give up on Jerusalem, they’ll back down from that demand,” and not long ago declared that Abbas (who has actively supported a two-state peace since 1977) is “still not psychologically ready for an agreement with Israel, either partial or full.”

I wonder if maybe the trip to Budapest was organized without Lapid’s knowledge, or if he later came to regret allowing it to happen. Because to be perfectly frank, he’s absolutely right that allowing his folks to go to Abbas’s holiday event will undermine the government’s position.

He’s right because, as MK Kariv demonstrates, when people reach out to each other, their relationship changes. When people get together in an atmosphere of conviviality, they’re likely to start working together. When enemies jointly struggle with tiny plates of hors d’oeuvres, they are less likely to see each other as enemies.

Yet the government in which Lapid serves appears tied to a notion of eternal enmity. To the extent that Prime Minister Netanyahu and his ministers (other than Justice Minister Tzipi Livni) are at all willing to go along with John Kerry’s negotiation efforts, all signs indicate that it’s because the process of talks serves Israel in the international arena. Actually achieving an end to the conflict, on the other hand (an outcome that will require something very like what the Geneva Initiative proposes), doesn’t seem to hold much appeal.

How do we know that an actual resolution doesn’t hold much appeal for the Netanyahu government? Because, among many other things, it recently announced plans for more than 3000 settlement housing units, and members of the coalition keep saying things like: “There are no two states west of the Jordan River, and there won’t be two states. Even if there are negotiations taking place—this is not on the agenda.”

Now, these folks may be telling themselves and their followers that the conflict can be ended without two states, but they’re either lying or fools (or both. One must never preclude the possibility of both).

I’m on record as thinking that Yair Lapid is a fool (or possibly the product of a sub-par education, or maybe just doesn’t read very much). I also think he’s an opportunist more interested in his own political fortunes than the needs of any Israelis he’s supposed to be serving.

However, given his government’s clear position of making conflict resolution near-impossible to achieve, Lapid is absolutely right. Getting together with the Palestinian president would be one of those tiny, million steps that might serve to bring peace just a little bit closer, thus undermining Israel’s negotiating position.

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.

Yair Lapid’s imaginary Palestinians.

Yair Lapid

I have long argued that the Israeli government and far too many of my fellow Israelis conduct their relationship with the Palestinian people with a kind of willed and willful ignorance in which they are consistently talking about what amounts to an imaginary enemy, one who bears a distinct resemblance to real Palestinians, somewhat as GI Joe bears a distinct resemblance to real soldiers.

But rarely have I seen it so baldly stated as I did in Thursday’s HaAretz.

Speaking last Tuesday to Israel’s Council for Peace and Security (a group of former high-ranking security officials who advocate for a negotiated two-state peace), Yesh Atid party chairman (and wannabe coalition kingmaker) Yair Lapid reportedly said:

We cannot blink on [the issue of East Jerusalem]. When it comes to Jerusalem, there are no compromises. If the Palestinians realize they won’t have a state unless they give up on Jerusalem, they’ll back down from that demand as well.

No, Yair, they won’t.

East Jerusalem as the capital of an independent Palestinian state has been a central piece of each and every peace negotiation/draft proposal/framework/partition plan to ever come under consideration by any Palestinian leader, ever.

Ever.

Even on the one recorded occasion that Palestinian leaders offered to give up some of East Jerusalem, they did not offer to give up all of it—and even then, they got absolutely nothing in return from their Israeli interlocutors.

Lapid is basing his flight of fancy in the fact that Mahmoud Abbas (known in Palestinian and Israeli circles as Abu Mazen) recently publicly acknowledged that a two-state peace will mean that the Palestinian people will have to cede their 64-year dream of a complete right of return to all of historical Palestine:

“Abu Mazen gave up the right of return because the Palestinians realized that there is a definite consensus among the Israeli public on this issue, so they’re moving on to the next topic,” added Lapid. “The same thing needs to happen with regard to Jerusalem.”

Two problems with this.

First, this reality has long been acknowledged by the Palestinian leadership and many Palestinian opinion makers and shapers. Leading Palestinian nonviolence advocate and President of al-Quds University Sari Nusseibeh began talking publicly about the need to give up on the right of return a full decade ago, and in quiet, private circles, such a position had been held by many Palestinians for even longer. And though “quiet” and “private,” these discussions have not been state secrets. One need only read the occasional book to learn of them.

Second, and not incidentally: Did Yair Lapid not see the reactions of the Palestinian people, in Palestine and around the world, to Abu Mazen’s brave honesty? (Abu Mazen, who, it must be noted, has been calling for a two-state solution since the mid-1980s).

The anger that many Palestinians expressed over the notion of giving up the right of return is as nothing compared to what would happen if any Palestinian leader ever suggested giving up their political, cultural, and spiritual capital—and justifiably so. Wouldn’t we Jews flip our collective lid if the Israeli leadership suggested we give up ours?

Last week, the American people learned what can happen to political leaders who are so bound and determined to believe their own spin that they fail to see the reality before them. That reality crushes them.

The only reason that Israel has been able to cling to its vision of a malleable, monolithic, non-reality-based Palestinian people for so long is the fact that Israel actually forcibly controls the lives and destinies of those people. The occupation is not only bad for Israel because it’s immoral, unjustifiable, and, if not ended, a threat to the Jewish dream of statehood—it’s bad for Israel because it creates a nationwide version of Fox News, telling leaders and citizens alike exactly what they want to hear and believe about the people living under occupation, without once asking anyone for accountability or honesty.

Not to mention the fact that the “Jerusalem” which Lapid and everyone else in Israeli politics talks about is, essentially, a lie.

Eventually, though, reality being real and all, Israel will find itself facing the consequences of its willed and willful ignorance. And it won’t end well.

Ask the Republicans.

Crossposted from Open Zion/The Daily Beast.

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