"Let nothing human be alien to me"- Terence

Monday, March 15, 2010

Israeli Politics

This is a guest post from a friend of mine who is in Israel right now and who did not want to use his name.  This is ok, since it is the first time I have ever seen him use capital letters.  The trade-off is worth it. Enjoy.

If you follow politics very closely, they can seem deceptively complicated.  The daily zigs and zags, actions and reactions, and diplomatic mind games appear to be part of a complex and continuous pas de deux between highly sophisticated and experienced actors.  But sometimes—more often than many of us who spend hours each day consuming and analyzing exactly this kind of minutiae would like to admit—it simply isn’t so.
Take, for example, the recent fallout from last week’s Israeli announcement of additional Jewish settlement-building in East Jerusalem during Vice President Joe Biden’s diplomatic visit.  I would argue that all you really need to know took place one year ago, after Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party placed a close second to center–left Kadima in legislative elections.  Despite the loss, President Shimon Peres gave Netanyahu the opportunity to form a government.  Instead of joining with Kadima to create a coalition with broad popular legitimacy, Netanyahu chose to align with a group of smaller, hard-line right-wing parties to form his government.  There’s probably a complicated answer to explain why this happened involving a close and nuanced (read: overly generous and tortured) analysis of Netanyahu’s actual views over time, but the simplest explanation is also the most instructive: Netanyahu wanted to be Prime Minister.  By joining with Kadima, he’d have had to take a backseat to Tzipi Livni, whose party garnered more votes.  Instead, he installed himself as head of state, bringing far-right characters like Avigdor Lieberman and Eli Yishai into top positions and setting the course for the next year.  And the simple, sad truth is this: They have him by the balls.
If we look at Netanyahu through this prism, the last year doesn’t look so confounding at all.  Relieve yourself of the possibility that the man might, somewhere deep down, have some actual views driving him.  His thirst for power is paramount, and it is revealing.   The man seems willing to take a lot of abuse from all sides as long as he remains, ostensibly, in charge—even though his power is essentially empty, as the events in Jerusalem last week demonstrated.  For example, Netanyahu himself admitted that he wasn’t aware of Interior Minister Yishai’s decision to announce additional building in East Jerusalem while Biden was in town.  Some seemed genuinely shocked by this apparent ineptitude; others, like Hillary Clinton, appeared to be intensely skeptical of such a claim.  But why is this so difficult to believe?  The ministers to Netanyahu’s right have been playing games like this for months, with nary a consequence.  (See, e.g., Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon sitting the Turkish ambassador on the floor and having pictures taken, just for fun.)
Surely the various challenges to Netanyahu’s authority bother him, but that’s precisely the point: He can’t do anything about them.  Without the parties to his right and his ever-creeping-rightward Likudniks—the Knesset’s deputy speaker called Clinton’s reported dressing-down of Netanyahu over the weekend a “meddling in [an] internal Israeli decision” and the product of “sheer chutzpah”—Prime Minister Netanyahu would just be Benjamin Netanyahu, the guy with the crazy wife.  As one senior Likud official told Haaretz last week, “Netanyahu knows that if he breaks up the bloc, he’s finished.”  This is the simplest and most forthright assessment of today’s Israeli politics that I have seen, and it is one that has been known here since day one of the current regime.
Not that you would know it from the American reaction to last week’s “insult.”  Many on the Israeli right and in Netanyahu’s inner circle bashed the United States’ response as opportunistic and disingenuous; they are right.  It’s quite telling that what triggered the “worst crisis” in U.S.–Israeli relations “in 35 years” was not the substantive policy—East Jerusalem was always excluded from the settlement “freeze” the Americans pushed so hard for last fall—but the timing of the announcement.  Of course, optics are important in this region, where pride seems to drive daily and long-term decision making to a depressingly high degree.  For the Israelis, embarrassing the U.S. Vice President and giving their supposed future partners in peace the finger in one blow was clearly an amateur move that has backfired in a serious way.  But if it took these ill-timed remarks for the U.S. State Department to realize that Netanyahu is a hostage to his far-right domestic coalition, well, let me just say: we’re all pretty fucked.  (Not least of all because, on several previous occasions, ministers in the Netanyahu government made ill-timed announcements—coincidentally, of course—about expanded settlements.  So even if we score the Obama Administration only on hyper-vigilance for “insults,” it has mostly failed.) 
Biden supposedly made the high-profile trip to Israel to “reassure” the Israeli people that the United States has their backs.  The desire was to improve President Obama’s standing in Israel in order to, perhaps, buy credibility with the public and earn the Administration an opportunity to lead the two sides towards an eventual peace.  In fact, nothing could be more counterproductive for all three parties—the Americans, the Israelis, and the Palestinians.  Giving the impression that the U.S. continues to write Israel a blank check will not convince the Israeli population that peace is in its interest and that continuous settlements in disputed (and even undisputed) territory is a mistake.  Instead, it will only lead to more provocations by those who prop up the Prime Minister.  (Even the Finance Minister has gotten in on the act.)  To change the equation, the United States needs to begin treating Netanyahu like the figurehead he is.  Threats to “assign blame” have to be credible.  Moves to demonstrate American anger and frustration have to come with consequences for Jerusalem, or they will fall on deaf ears.  Only then will the Israeli electorate be moved to reconsider whether it wants its most important policy to be determined not by consensus but by ultra-right religious politicians.
Perhaps last week’s turbulence has awoken the U.S. policy team from its slumber.  If, for example, Secretary Clinton’s list of demands is real, things may change—even quickly—in the coming months.  But I won’t be holding my breath.  Today at a Likud party meeting, Netanyahu got right back into the business of serving red meat to those who keep him in charge: “The building in Jerusalem—and in all other places—will continue in the same way as has been customary over the last 42 years.”
            Here’s a question for an intrepid journalist to ask the administrations in Jerusalem and Washington: “Do you realize that things said by Israeli officials in Hebrew can get translated into English and distributed on the Internet?”  A silly query, maybe, but yet neither of these nations has been acting like the answer is “yes.”  This is a problem.  Cognitive dissonance is nothing new to the Middle East—neither to its people nor to its politics—but recent events have elevated the societal epidemic to an unprecedented level.  And, sadly, the Americans seem to have caught the bug.

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