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.

Low expectations for lofty goals.

meretzIn an interesting case of idealistic realism, the last bastion of the peace camp in Israeli politics, Meretz, has introduced a party platform that calls for a four-year path to Israeli-Palestinian peace, while simultaneously acknowledging that they don’t stand a chance.

As Haaretz reported yesterday:

The leftist Meretz party on Tuesday unveiled its diplomatic platform – a four-year path to peace based on the Arab League initiative.

The platform calls for immediate recognition of a Palestinian state followed by negotiations with the Palestinian Authority, a freeze on settlement construction, release of Palestinian prisoners and removal of West Bank roadblocks, Meretz chairwoman Zahava Gal-On said on Tuesday at a Tel Aviv news conference.

The plan would also cancel the Oslo Accords in agreement with the Palestinians, and replace them with a new interim pact. Gal-On said she would be meeting with PA President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah to discuss the plan on Wednesday.

Which is all well and good, and after having spent several weeks reading about how everyone else in Israeli politics appears to be in a race to see who can be the biggest supporter of two-state wrecking settlement construction, is also a real pleasure to see. Despite what statistics are starting to suggest, apparently some Israeli Jews aren’t yet ready to shrug their shoulders over peace.

Yet despite the time-honored tradition of acting like you’re going to win even when you know you’re going to lose, not even the folks at Meretz are spinning their plan’s chances.

The platform was prepared by Ilan Baruch, a former career diplomat who resigned his post to South Africa in 2011 saying he could no longer represent the Netanyahu government’s foreign policy. At the same Tuesday press conference, Baruch said:

[This] is a plan intended to jump-start the process that has gone into deep freeze, [which is] completely the responsibility of the outgoing government and apparently the incoming one. Any plan that pretends to reinvent the peace process is not serious. Our plan is based on existing materials. The first and supreme test is the applicability of such a plan. [emphasis added]

Baruch is right. Any plan that pretends to reinvent the peace process isn’t serious, and at the same time, there is absolutely no reason to believe that the next Israeli government will have any interest in any peace process whatsoever. Meretz will certainly not be a coalition partner.

But it is an honorable tradition for the opposition to stand firm in the political desert and tell the truth, whether or not the people in charge want to hear it.

What banning Arab lists in Israel means.

Israel_votingI’ve argued in the past that you can’t really call the situation on the ground in Israel/Palestine “apartheid.”

My reasoning is that: a) what Israel is doing there already has a name, and that name is “military occupation,” and military occupation is plenty bad enough without having to resort to potentially a-historical comparisons; and b) within its internationally recognized borders, Israel is actually a functioning democracy (well, kind of a dysfunctional and threatened democracy, but still a democracy); and c) when you say things like “apartheid,” you grant official Israel and its supporters a Fast Pass to Discourse Derailment, and I’m not sure that fighting over the applicability of a certain word is always helpful to the cause of Palestinian rights.

And yet, having said all of that, I don’t actually argue very much when people say otherwise, because you know what? The occupation and settlement project look like apartheid, and the documented opinions of most Israeli Jews sound like apartheid, and if nothing changes, pretty soon Israel will have annexed the West Bank and it’ll actually be apartheid. Under the circumstances, I can certainly see why people choose to describe the situation on the ground in Israel/Palestine as “apartheid.”

But you know what would really seal the deal? This:

Right-wing lawmakers have asked the Central Elections Committee to bar United Arab List-Ta’al and Arab party Balad from the January 22 vote—citing support for the 2010 Gaza flotilla and the denial of Israel as a Jewish state.

Now, before I go any further, I should stress that no one is asking to bar the Arab (really Palestinian-Israeli) lists from the election by virtue of their being Arab (Palestinian-Israeli). If some of Israel’s Palestinian citizens some day form a political party that, say, happily endorses their constituents’ subservient position in their own country and refuses to get involved with the struggles of fellow Palestinians living anywhere from 10 miles to a few hundred yards away, I have no doubt that such a party will be spared attacks by Israel’s Jewish politicians.

But what this amounts to—and what it has always amounted to, every single time that someone has suggested barring this or that Palestinian-Israeli list or politician from the electoral process—is asking that Palestinian people who happen to have Israeli citizenship stop defining themselves as Palestinian. Stop being who they are. Stop being so non-Jewish. Stop being so Arab.

It’s really as simple as my favorite party trick: let’s flip the nouns around. What if Gentiles were telling Jews that, if we want to vote, we have to stop caring about Israel? What if someone wanted to make American Jews’ voting rights contingent on an endorsement of permanent second-class citizenship? I dare say we’d cry foul.

Israel’s citizens of Palestinian descent—who, by the way, make up about 20 percent of the population—already face a broad array of discriminatory practices and attitudes based entirely on their ethnic heritage, not least that no one in power really cares how they vote. Moreover, there is always someone, somewhere trying to bar this or that “Arab list” from participating in Israeli democracy. So this isn’t really news, per se.

But it bears noting that much as the word “apartheid” might be off-the-mark for now—it’s only just barely off the mark.

And the increasing ease and frequency with which Israeli leaders toy with making it a reality even within Israel’s internationally-recognized borders should be of real concern to those of us who care about Israel (no matter where we live)—especially given that the parties represented by these particular leaders are likely to help form the next government.

Crossposted from The Daily Beast/Open Zion.

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.


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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