Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

Insights into the Israeli election campaign

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Update from AIJAC

January 17, 2013
Number 01/13 #03

Today's Update features three articles on aspects of the Israeli election campaign - and especially devoted to correcting some myths about the campaign and its likely outcome. 

First up is Barry Rubin, commenting on some strange features of the election campaign, but also the exaggerated claims being made about Israel moving toward the right. He notes that current PM Binyamin Netanyahu's opponents appear to be doing a poor job of challenging him, relying too much on American political consultants, fighting amongst themselves, and boxing themselves into a corner by ruling out involvement in a Netanyahu coalition. Rubin then looks at four arguments being advanced to claim that Israeli is becoming more hard-line or moving farther right, and debunks three of them. For Rubin's intelligent look at the themes of this election contest, CLICK HERE.

Next up columnist David Bernstein offers some perspective for those commentators who insist that the likely victory of the right-leaning bloc in this poll means that Israel is moving permanently to the right. Bernstein notes that like other democracies, Israel experiences swings from left to right and there is no reason to think that the current shift right is any more permanent than previous shifts to the left. He predicts that if opportunities for peace arrive, governments will either move left or be replaced, and notes overwhelming Israeli support for a genuine two-state peace - even among Likud voters - combined with a strong scepticism that peace is a realistic option at the present time. For this important argument as to why the current election looks likely to see a victory for the centre-right bloc, CLICK HERE.  Another excellent challenge to the claim that Israel is moving decisively to the right comes from American author Lee Smith.

Finally, Israeli Rabbi, author and ethicist Daniel Gordis explores, based on this own experience, the reason why Israelis are so sceptical of peace prospects and thus more likely to vote for right-leaning parties. He notes that moving to Israel and experiencing the terror war known as the second intifada forced him to give up his old worldview, emphasising that conflict resolution is always in principle achievable, and caused him to share a realisation reached by many other Israelis - namely that the "land for peace" paradigm appears to be self-destructing. For Gordis' complete argument, including the importance of the world not continuing to cling to illusions about the achievability of "land for peace, CLICK HERE. Shlomo Avineri, veteran Israeli academic and diplomat and a man very much of the Israeli left, makes an argument in Haaretz that the Oslo negotiation process has not succeeded and will not any time soon, and that it is time to face this reality without illusion. Similarly, Canadian-Israeli academic Gil Troy uses similar assessments of the current state of the peace process to explain why so many Israelis support Netanyahu.

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Understanding Israel's January 22 Election

By Barry Rubin

Pajamas Media, Monday, January 14, 2013

The Israeli election set for January 22 and the coverage thereof is very strange in several respects. It is a contest in which his opponents seek to beat centrist Prime Minister Benjamin (“Bibi”) Netanyahu, of the Likud party, in a remarkably inept manner and in which international understanding of the issues is at the low level we’ve become used to seeing.

Here's a simple way to understand the situation. The far right -parties  and the moderate left -parties are each likely to get roughly the same number of seats that they received in the 1999 election. The difference is that in 1999 the rightist parties divided their vote among three parties and today have largely united into one. The moderate left in 1999 gave their votes mainly to one party and now are dividing it among four.

In addition, viewing the actual electioneering by the moderate left makes one appreciate just how fraudulent political consultants are. They claim that they are going to help the candidate win but have no idea of how to do so. And in Israel they borrow childishly from the latest fads in American politics without regard to the differences. Here are the themes pushed by the moderate left opposition:

--Bibi is for the rich. This slogan is unlikely to work in a country where lower income generally corresponds with more conservative voting. The idea is obviously stolen from Barack Obama’s campaign. But Obama was going for large African-American, Hispanic, and student blocs plus some middle class sectors that could be stirred up over hatred of the rich.  This has no relevance for Israel.

--Bibi will get you killed. This theme is accompanied by a picture of a mushroom cloud. But is the idea that he will get you nuked by attacking Iran or by not attacking Iran? It isn’t clear. And since Netanyahu has the best claim to preserve the country’s security that approach is likely to be counterproductive.

--Bibi doesn’t want your vote. This is the newest poster to appear though it isn’t clear who’s promoting it. That makes no sense at all.

--The choice of photographs. Former Prime Minister Tsipi Livni, the candidate of her own party—and one of the quartet seeking moderate/moderate left voters—has a photograph on her poster that looks as if it were selected by her worst enemy. In it she appears ugly, angry, and confused.

--Livni’s ad has several shots of Obama and one of her standing with new Secretary of State John Kerry. They seem to argue that Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas really wants peace but Netanyahu blocked it. Perhaps this ad was designed by left-liberal American Jewish political consultants. It won’t go over well in Israel.

Shaul Mofaz, candidate of Kadima, Livni’s former party that is expected to collapse completely in the election, has a terrible photograph of himself with former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. That relates to Kadima’s founder but is unlikely to win any votes. Rather than projecting leadership, the other left-of-center party leaders seem to be seeking anonymity.

What’s astonishing is the obtuseness of the opposition, especially Labor. Netanyahu is going to win but the way to get the largest vote, becoming the official opposition and possibly his coalition partner, is to run on an energetic program of domestic improvements. The obvious opposition approach should be that it is the time to improve schools, the infrastructure, and reduce housing and food prices.

People are waiting to be told that their living standards can be improved without threatening their security. A winning theme would be to say Netanyahu has neglected these domestic issues. True, the economy has done very well but the price of relatively high employment, rapid growth, and low inflation has been high prices.

For breakfast just now I paid $3 for a croissant and $3 for a coffee in a country where income levels average half those in the United States. Young people can’t afford an apartment in a country where rentals are relatively rare and there is not a strong mortgage system or tax deductions for paying one.

That’s why there were social protests in 2011. While going into big debt and increasing subsidies—the trap into which most Western economies have fallen—would be a mistake there are certainly good shifts to be made. Instead, voters are being treated like idiots who will be won over by some silly slogan convincing them that either the prime minister is evil or will get them incinerated. That won’t win an election.

The splits in the opposition have become ridiculous. Four different parties are competing with no real differences among them and without a single charismatic leader. Mofaz may be a highly competent general but has shown himself a bad politician. Livni has failed repeatedly in office. Yair Lapid is following his father’s political path in bashing the Haredim (those inaccurately known generally as “ultra-Orthodox,” while Labor Party leader Shelly Yachimovich, widely predicted to come in second, is a radio personality with little political experience. Three of them—except for Mofaz—just met to discuss unity and broke up in acrimony.

Livni has already announced she won’t go into coalition with Netanyahu while Lapid demands that there won’t be any religious parties involved. In other words, both of them plus the hapless Mofaz, have boxed themselves into a corner.

This brings us into the popular international theme about the alleged meaning of the election: Israel is moving to the right and rejecting a two-state solution. A lot of this is motivated by the agenda of making Israel look as if it is against peace, despite the fact that it is the Palestinian side that makes such a solution impossible.

Yet Netanyahu’s impending victory has nothing to do with any shift on that issue. Rather, it is due to the fact that the prime minister has done a reasonably good job, the economy is okay, terrorism is low, he’s kept out of trouble, and has shown he can be trusted to preserve security. Moreover, there is no very attractive figure, unity, or single impressive party on the other side. Given this situation, Netanyahu’s victory--meaning his party will come in first and he will form the next government--is a no-brainer.

There are four pieces of evidence supposed to indicate that the next government will be further to the right or more “hardline,” three of which are clearly bogus. First, several supposedly moderate candidates in the Likud primary were defeated. In fact, this group—one of whom, Benny Begin, is an honorable man but hard right—consists of nice guys who were terrible campaigners. Nothing is less surprising than that they lost.

Second, the hardline faction of Likud, led by Moshe Feiglin, a dangerous extremist, is supposedly stronger. In fact, though, Netanyahu held it at bay and it would have no influence in the next government as it has not had in this one.

Third, Netanyahu made a distasteful alliance with the party of the demagogic Avigdor Lieberman. While Lieberman is corrupt and a poseur, his right-wing militancy was for show and he never actually did anything materially. At any rate, with Lieberman under indictment for corruption, the political careers of his faction’s parliamentarians now depend on keeping Netanyahu happy. Moreover, they represent more of a Soviet immigrant pressure group than right-wing militants.

This leaves the real fear regarding the rising star of Naftali Bennett, head of the genuinely far right Habayit Hayehudi party. But the problem with the thesis, popular among Western journalists, that there will be a right-wing Netanyahu-Bennett coalition is that Netanyahu loathes Bennett and knows he would be a constant headache. Bennett’s party would attack every pragmatic step Netanyahu took—including those needed to get along with an Obama-led America--and ache for opportunities to threaten to walk out of the coalition or actually do so.

If such a coalition does happen it will be because Netanyahu could find no way out. It is more likely that he will do everything possible to avoid this outcome and work with some combination of other parties, including if possible Labor. Of course, such an outcome isn’t certain but is more likely than an all-rightist coalition.

The results will depend on the political math following the January 22 voting, with the key issue being how Netanyahu could assemble a parliamentary majority of 61 out of 120. Most likely would be an outcome in which the policies of the next government will be the same as the one ruling Israel for the last four years.
Right now, as Israelis realize, we live in an era when Israeli policy is necessarily more reactive and defensive. There is no diplomatic option for peace and Israel has no influence over the Islamist direction of Egypt, Syria, the Gaza Strip, and Lebanon.

The big question, of course, is whether Netanyahu would ever attack Iran’s nuclear installations. I think the answer to that question is “no” for many reasons, only one of them being that this would lead to a confrontation with the Obama Administration.

After decades of hearing American writers and alleged experts misunderstand Israeli politics and thinking I can say that nothing has changed in this regard.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest book, Israel: An Introduction, has just been published by Yale University Press. Other recent books include The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). The website of the GLORIA Center  and of his blog, Rubin Reports. His original articles are published at PJMedia.

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Israel’s political cycle not stuck on the right

WASHINGTON (JTA) -- With Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu poised to win re-election later this month, some critics of Israel’s peace and security policies worry out loud that Israel’s political cycle -- its pattern of cycling alternately between the political left and right -- is stuck on the right.

“This is the Israeli reality of 2013, enabled in part by American politicians and staunch supporters in this country … as the two-state solution slips through our fingers,” asserts J Street Executive Director Jeremy Ben-Ami in the Washington Post.

Anyone who has ever taken a course in economics is familiar with the concept of the business cycle, the observation that our economic fortunes expand and contract in distinct phases. Politics, similarly, has its own natural cycle. One political party becomes strong, thinks it has a lock on the electorate, purges its own ranks of political moderates, enunciates policy positions at odds with mainstream sensibilities and alienates the very middle-of-the-road voters that brought it to power. Republicans and Democrats have been vulnerable to its vicissitudes.

Israel, to be sure, is no stranger to the political cycle. Just like Americans, Israelis tend to lean left or right for a period until the ideological camp in power overreaches or external conditions dictate otherwise, sending the pendulum swinging in the opposite direction. Since the onset of the peace process with the Palestinians in the early 1990s, the Israeli public has ousted Israeli prime ministers whenever the prime minister has appeared resistant to opportunities for peace or appeared too eager for peace in the face of intransigence on the other side.

In 1992, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir lost the election for being perceived as inflexible in the Madrid peace talks; in 1996, Shimon Peres lost for being too forthcoming in the Oslo process; in 1999, Netanyahu lost for being too hawkish; and in 2001, Ehud Barak lost for being too dovish. Since that time, two prime ministers -- Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert -- left office for reasons other than their stances on peace and security. Elected for a second time in the spring of 2009, Netanyahu is on track to win another term in office.

If the political cycle holds true, sooner or later there will be a perceived opening for peace, at which time either the right-leaning government will move to the center (e.g. Begin’s peace with Egypt or Sharon’s disengagement from Gaza) or will be defeated by a left-leaning challenger.

Some critics of current Israeli government policy are troubled that Israelis haven’t punished Netanyahu for a lack of progress in the peace process. They surmise that the growth of the Israeli religious nationalist camp and right-leaning Jews from the former Soviet Union has moved the electorate decidedly to the right. Israelis, they fulminate, may permanently forsake the possibility of a two-state solution.

But in a recent poll of Israeli attitudes toward peace, a full two-thirds of the respondents said they would support a two-state solution based on the 1967 borders, with land swaps and a demilitarized Palestinian state. Even a majority of Likud voters supported such a deal.

The issue, then, is not that Israeli attitudes have hardened against making painful compromises for peace -- quite the contrary -- it’s that most Israelis don’t believe that peace is a realistic option at the moment.

It’s not hard to see why. Given the massive unrest sweeping through the Arab world and the ascendance of the Muslim Brotherhood, many wonder how a fledgling Palestinian state could stave off such radical forces or survive a Hamas onslaught.

The results of Israel’s 2005 withdrawal from Gaza, Hamas’ subsequent takeover and the unremitting rocket fire aimed at Israeli population centers do not inspire confidence. Rather than setting a precedent for neighborly relations and sound governance, it gave Israelis a glimpse into a possible mess on its eastern border in the event of a peace deal in the West Bank.

“There will be those who say, “If you didn’t like the book [in Gaza], why would you see the movie [in the West Bank]?” observed Middle East analyst David Makovsky.

And while some critics of Israel’s peace policies point to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ recent statements indicating that he would be willing to come to terms with a Jewish state, fresh on the mind of many Israelis is Abbas’ refusal to negotiate for 10 months during Israel’s 2010 settlement freeze, the recent unilateral move for statehood at the United Nations and various statements denying the Jewish connection to the land.

Most Israelis don’t believe enough has changed in the Palestinian camp or in regional conditions to justify a shift in approach.

Do critics of Israeli policy expect that no matter what the Arab world dishes out, Israelis will continue to elect governments with a predilection for making comprehensive peace offers to the Palestinians? Do they expect Israel to be on a permanent peace footing?

If so, then they want Israel to be a country not made up of diverse people with diverse attitudes subject to political swings, but of people just like them who will make concessions at any time and at all costs. They want Israel to be a country like no other -- that cannot exist -- because all democratic polities are, in their own way, beholden to the inexorable logic of the political cycle.

(David Bernstein is the executive director of the David Project.)

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A Dose of Nuance: We gave peace a chance

By DANIEL GORDIS

Jerusalem Post, 01/10/2013 16:15

"What was the hardest thing about making aliya?” people still ask me.

They expect, I imagine, that I’ll say something about our kids going to the army. Or about living in less than half the space we had when we lived in the States. Or, if they knew, they might imagine that I’d mention having one car for four drivers, rather than two cars for two drivers.

For me, though, it’s not that. What’s been hardest has been watching the worldview on which I was raised crash and break like a ship washed violently against a forbidding shore. I was raised in one of those (then-) classic American Jewish suburban families. Democratic voting, opposed to the Vietnam War, passionate advocates for civil rights, my parents taught their kids that most people were reasonable and that all conflicts were solvable. When it came to the Middle East, the prescription for resolution of the conflict was clear – we would give land, and we would get peace. The only question was when.

We were not the only ones who believed that, of course. A significant portion of Israeli society believed the same thing – until the Palestinian Terror War (mistakenly called the second intifada) – that is. Those four years destroyed the Israeli political Left because they washed away any illusions Israelis might have had that the Palestinian leadership was interested in a deal. And, to be fair, why should the Palestinians be interested in a deal? Their position gets stronger with each passing year. No longer pariahs, they are now the darlings of the international community. They have seen the world shift from denying the existence of a Palestinian people to giving them observer status at the UN. If you were the leader of the Palestinian Authority, would you make a deal now? Of course not. With the terms bound to get sweeter in years to come, only a fool would sign now.

Our enemies are not fools. But they are consistent. Hamas’s Mahmoud al- Zahar, in a much-quoted statement, said last year that the Jews have no place among the nations of the world and are headed for annihilation. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas declared to Egyptian TV that he would never, in a thousand years, recognize a Jewish state. Bibi gave the Bar-Ilan speech, but Abbas refused to return to the table; he still insists on the refugees’ right of return, which he knows would spell death for the idea of a Jewish state. Egypt’s Mohamed Morsi makes no bones about the fact that he would like to annul the treaty between Israel and Egypt. In videos recently posted by MEMRI (which were recorded in 2010, before he was worried about being closely watched), he openly described Jews as descendants of pigs, called Zionists “bloodsuckers” and said that Jews “must not stand on any Arab or Islamic land.They must be driven out of our countries.”

When Bashar Assad falls, will the Syrian victors be more likely to accept Israel’s existence? When Jordan follows, will the quiet on the Jordanian border persist?

ISRAELIS LIVE in a world of utter cognitive dissonance. On the one hand, our region is becoming ever more dangerous and our foes ever more honest about their desire to destroy the Jewish state. And on the other hand, much of the world insists that “land for peace” simply must work; some American Jewish leaders actually urged Israel, even in the midst of the Gaza conflict, to return to the negotiating table. It would be funny were it not so sad and so dangerous.

That is why the upcoming election, sobering though it is, may actually prove important. Israelis across the spectrum are acknowledging what they used to only whisper: the old paradigm is dying.

Naftali Bennett of the Bayit Yehudi party explicitly states that “land for peace” is dead and advocates annexing the portion of the West Bank known as Area C. Yair Shamir of Yisrael Beytenu says that regardless of Netanyahu’s Bar- Ilan speech, the Likud never endorsed a Palestinian state. Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party’s website makes no mention of going back to the negotiating table.

Neither does the Labor Party platform.

Even Meretz recently acknowledged that Oslo is dead.

To give up hope for peace is not to choose war. Egypt’s present and Jordan’s future indicate how little is guaranteed by a treaty; the Palestinian present shows that we can have quiet even in the face of stalemate. What Israelis now want is quiet, and a future. Nothing more, nothing less. And most importantly, no more illusions.

The demise of the peace addiction is no cause for celebration; it is merely cause for relief. There is something exhausting about living a life of pretense; with the death of illusion comes the possibility of shaping a future. After a new government is formed, a genuine leader could actually lead Israelis into a “what next” conversation. Deciding what comes next, now that we sadly know that the idea of “land for peace” is dead, will not be easy. Israel could make wise decisions or terrible mistakes.

But if, as a result of this election, we begin to have a conversation about a future that we can actually have, the Jewish state will be much better off.

Israel, though, is likely to make much better choices if it is joined in its hardearned realism by forces outside the country too. Now that Israelis are getting honest, the question is whether the international community – and then American Jews – will follow suit. On the former front, there are occasional causes for optimism. The Washington Post, for example, recently acknowledged that the international community’s rhetoric has become an obstacle rather than a help. “Mr. Netanyahu’s zoning approval is hardly the ‘almost fatal blow’ to a twostate solution that UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon described... If Security Council members are really interested in progress toward Palestinian statehood, they will press Mr. Abbas to stop using settlements as an excuse for intransigence – and cool their own overheated rhetoric.”

Amen to that. But what about American Jewish leaders? They will likely find admitting that “land for peace” is dying no less difficult than anyone else. Will they listen carefully to what the Israeli electorate, across the spectrum, is saying? I hope so. Because loving someone means helping them to fashion a future that is possible, not harboring an exhausted illusion that can only yield pain and disappointment. The same is true with loving Israel.

In the midst of the cacophony and sobriety of this Israeli election, a new, mature and infinitely more realistic resignation seems to be emerging. Those who care about Israel might see it as failure, as moral weakness or as sad exhaustion. Alternatively, we could see it for what it is – the enduring Israeli desire to live, to thrive and to work not for a future that others pretend is still possible, but rather for one that we can actually build and then bequeath to our children.

The writer is senior vice president and Koret Distinguished Fellow at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem. His newest book, The Promise of Israel: Why Its Seemingly Greatest Weakness is Actually Its Greatest Strength, was recently named by Jewish Ideas Daily as one of the best Jewish books of 2012.

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