Monday, May 04, 2015

Israeli Politics: Let's Make A Deal!

I've been patiently waiting for this moment, ever since I published a post 6 weeks ago laying out the coalition problems of one Benjamin Netanyahu.  Having prompted the March elections, having won a stunning victory over the Zionist Union and having trounced his rivals to his right, PM Netanyahu has for the moment become the weakest link.
A few minutes ago, Israeli politician Avigdor Lieberman announced that his small 6-seat party Yisrael Beitenu will not be joining the next government, and furthermore announced his resignation as Foreign Minister of Israel. "It's about principles," said the former bar bouncer, "it's not about [cabinet] chairs."
As things stand now (with a bit more than 48 hours to go before the mandated deadline for coalition formation), Netanyahu has a signed deal with 2 coalition partners: Moshe Kahlon's Kulanu party, and the ultra-Orthodox Yahadut ha-Torah. For those counting: that's a grand total of 46 seats - 15 short of a 61 seat majority. Supposedly waiting in the wings are two further parties - Aryeh Deri's Shas with 7 and Naftali Bennett's Bayit Yehudi with 8. But neither has signed yet, and are now smelling blood in the water.
There you have it - the minimum mathematical threshold for forming a government of 61. So now the fun begins. No sane PM would want a government of 61. Internationally, it projects weakness. Domestically, it means any single member of Kenesset (MK) in the coalition can plausibly threaten to bring it down - over a matter of policy, of money, or of "honor."
So what to do? Settle for 61 now, and hope to bring in more partners later? Siphon off a few disgruntled MKs from other parties? Go back to Lieberman and sweeten the pot in order to get to a slightly more respectable number of 67? Or turn to Buji Herzog and the Zionist Union (24) and try for a broad government of national unity?
This drama of political brinksmanship will play out over the next 48 hours, and for those of us who enjoy Israeli domestic politics, we are in for a fun roller coaster ride.
If Bibi can't form a government in the next 48 hours, the President of Israel is obliged to go through another round of consultations and then turn to the leader who is best indicated to form a government - in this case one would expect Buji Herzog, leader of the ZU - to try and form a government, while the former government (now, mind you, without a Foreign Minister) carries on as caretaker. Now THAT would be interesting...

Update (a few hours later - 5:10 PM EDT) - Shas has now signed its coalition agreement, so now Netanyahu is at 53. Will Naftali Bennett and his Bayit Yehudi (Jewish Home) party - the holdout - be joining soon? Or is this the perfect set-up for a one-day full-court press to get Herzog to join the government? None of the signed partners would present a particular problem for Herzog - and none of the big cabinet positions (other than Treasury) have been formally doled out. If there is going to be a play for national unity, it will happen now.

Friday, March 20, 2015

How to Avoid "Reassessment"

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will be the next Prime Minister of Israel. This we know. The world also knows how he campaigned in the final days of the election, and is repulsed by how he did so. After following an imperial "Rose Garden" tactic of avoiding the press, in the last 5 days of the campaign Bibi went on a media frenzy, and in the course of those 5 days he morphed comfortably into a right-wing demagogue, Lee Atwater style, in which he volunteered out loud a series of positions that revealed his inner ideological heart, including a last-minute racist scare warning that "Arab voters are streaming to the polling stations." It was ugly, it was shocking, and while it worked, it has caused the Obama White House to use the dreaded "R" word - "reassessment."  In order to win this election at all costs, Bibi purged his Likud party of the worst extremists, snubbed President Obama by holding a campaign rally in the halls of Congress, and in the end loudly retracted his 2009 commitment to a 2-state solution. It was a winning strategy, but it came with a painful price on the world stage.

Yesterday Bibi unconvincingly spoke again to the media - this time to Andrea Mitchell of NBC News, and this time in English, using his governing persona instead of his campaigning persona. He tried to walk it all back. It was a pathetic performance. Bibi won the electoral battle, but lost the bigger war for international legitimacy.

In the not so complicated schizophrenia that is Benjamin Netanyahu, there is the inner Bibi for domestic consumption (in Hebrew), and the public Bibi for the diplomatic community (in English). The two are not the same. And Netanyahu is smart enough to know that Israel needs the continued support of its principal ally, and that what he had to do to win has now placed his next premiership at risk with the European Union, with the White House, and even with American Jews.

There is only one path for Bibi to extract himself from the sullied victory he just achieved - a national unity government that projects some kind of softer image to the world. While Netanyahu can certainly say "fuck all of you" and opt for a narrow right-nationalist-religious coalition government, he knows that if he does so the international isolation and US administration anger will not abate. "Fortress Israel" will simply not work. Netanyahu will at least have to consider the option of a broader national unity government in order to paint lipstick on his pig.

For this he needs help from Isaac Herzog, leader of the Labor Party and co-chair of the newly created (for this campaign cycle) Zionist Union with Tzipi Livni. Tzipi Livni is a perennial failure, surpassing Shimon Peres for the title of Israel's "The Biggest Loser." Livni is another example of an Israeli politician much more popular abroad than at home.

She was a child of Likud all her political life, but like many others broke with her political home base when Ariel Sharon grew tired of Likud infighting and created the Kadima party. She actually once won an election in 2009 as head of Kadima, but because of her uncompromising negotiating style allowed a government to slip out of her hands. She was ousted internally from Kadima, temporarily retired from politics, and then reconstituted herself as a tiny vanity party - ha-Tenu'ah. Her odyssey from Likud royalty to moderate international diplomat eventually brought her to Labor - but not as a Laborite. For the umpteenth time, weakened Labor tried a "combina" - a sleazy opportunistic merger - in an effort to create a "big tent" centrist alternative to right-wing Likud. They called it the Zionist Union. Herzog and Livni even came up with their own internal "rotation" plan, promising the Israeli electorate that if they should win, the two would rotate the premiership over the course of its four-year life expectancy. The merger spectacularly failed, and as polling indicated just how reviled Livni was with the electorate, the two leaders gamely retracted the rotation plan on the eve of the election. It didn't help. So much for the big tent.

Of the 24 seats now held by the Zionist Union, 5 belong to Livni. Labor by itself would remain the 2nd largest party in the Knesset. The Zionist Union serves no further purpose. It is time to put a stake through its heart. Either Herzog should break the Zionist Union, or Livni should resign.

So here is a scenario - Bibi needs to repair the damage. Herzog leads a bloc of 19 seats without toxic Livni. Isaac Herzog as Foreign Minister would be precisely the antidote to Bibi's now thrice-revealed inner heart.

In order to manage and staunch the crisis of an American reassessment, Bibi needs a national unity government. But domestically, a good part of the purpose of this campaign was to be rid of Livni forever. For Netanyahu, Livni is the poison pill of national unity. If she were gone, Bibi could form a broad-based government. It doesn't hurt that Labor has served this junior role more than once in Likud- or Kadima-led governments. So try this:

Likud 30
Labor 19
Kulanu 10
Shas 7


And you have 66 seats. Add Yahadut ha-Torah and/or one of the two right-wing parties ha-Bayit ha-Yehudi or Yisrael Beytenu and you approach 80 seats. National Unity. A dysfunctional inner cabinet. Another two-faced self-contradictory government - but that is the only way out of the isolation chamber Bibi has created for himself.

I admit this is a long-shot proposition. But it is the only way the next 22 months of a Netanyahu-led government can hope to have any respectability in the international arena.

It's precisely the kind of chicanery that comes up in every coalition-building negotiation. It's sleazy and opportunistic, hypocritical and devious.

After all, this is Israeli politics.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Quick Post-#IsraElex Analysis

I suck at predicting American presidential politics. But I am pretty damn good when predicting Israeli politics. I've gotten every Israeli election right since I've undertaken this blog 10 years ago - which means I've been right four out of four. And today I will reveal my analytical secret as to why I always get it right.

If you were to believe all the wishful-thinking journalism generated over the 2015 elections in Israel, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu was fighting for his political life. I never believed it, not for a second. Fifty days before the election, even working off of incorrect polling numbers, I boldly predicted that Netanyahu would be the next PM of Israel. This turns out to have been an easy call.

And boy-oh-boy, were the numbers ever faulty. Throughout the entire election cycle, poll after poll pointed to a slight advantage in electoral strength to the Zionist Union combination of Buji Herzog's Labor and Tzipi Livni. Even the initial election day exit polls, in which voters in certain key demographic polling stations were asked to accurately indicate their choice, were all uniformly wrong - meaning that tens of thousands of voters regarded it as their civic duty to purposefully fuck with the media. Lesson one - there is no way to accurately gauge the modern Israeli electorate.

But here we are - highest turnout in 16 years; smallest number of parties in the 20th Knesset since 1988; lowest performance of religious parties since 1992; and best performance by the right wing bloc since 2003.

But the bottom-line reality is this - there are essentially 4 blocs of voters. 10% of the electorate is locked in as the Arab (and naturally characterized as leftist) vote. A bit less than 20% of the electorate is locked in as the religious (and naturally characterized as a kind of rightist) vote. A little less than a third of the electorate is locked in to the secular center-left. And a little more than a third of the electorate is locked in as secular right-nationalist. That leaves about 10% of the electorate as a perennial swing vote, which can break to the center-left or to the right depending on each individual election.

Lesson two - when the national security environment is non-threatening or hopeful, this 10% breaks towards the center-left. When the national security environment is threatening and inhospitable, this 10% breaks right.

The closest comparable election to 2015 is 2003, the year Ariel Sharon's Likud trounced Ehud Barak's Labor. The 2003 election was cast against the backdrop of the violent Second Intifada. The right-nationalist bloc picked up 14 seats and the non-Arab center-left lost 7 seats. Sharon then created a fairly stable secular right-center coalition.

The 2015 election was carried out against the backdrop of the inconclusive war with HAMAS of 2014, and the growth of Da'esh to the left (Sinai) and to the right (Syria). The floating 10% responded accordingly: the right-national bloc picked up 15 seats, and the non-Arab center-left lost 6 seats. Given that the previous government was already led by Netanyahu, it was easy to predict his victory.

And that's what I did.

And by the way, fifty days ago I wrote "I think the polling numbers for Bennett's ha-Bayit ha-Yehudi party are too high." I got that right too. The polls said 15; BY ended up with 8.

Now, with the final Knesset numbers fixed, the question is what kind of government will emerge. Most of the Israeli punditry has talked itself into the formation of a so-called narrow right-nationalist-religious government. It is easy to see how such a government can be formed.

Likud 30
Kulanu 10
ha-Bayit ha-Yehudi 8
Shas 7
Yahadut ha-Torah 6

gets one to the threshold of 61, and if you add Yisrael Beytenu's 6, you have a government of 67 seats.

But it isn't that simple. Netanyahu must dole out the legally mandated 18 (likely to be expanded to 22) ministries of his coalition cabinet in a way that satisfies his lesser coalition partners and his own Likud party. Netanyahu has already promised the pandora's box of Treasury to Kulanu's Moshe Kahlon. Shas's Arye Deri wants to return to the Interior Ministry from which he was forced out 23 years ago. But the biggest prizes are Defense and the Foreign Ministry - the so-called inner cabinet. Yisrael Beytenu's weakened Avigdor Lieberman wants Defense. ha-Bayit ha-Yehudi's Naftali Bennett wants the Foreign Ministry or Defense. Netanyahu would prefer keeping his current Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon, and needs to find something honorable for his many Likud politicians, including most prominently the number 2 man on the Likud list Gilad Erdan.

The badly beaten Zionist Union or the smaller Yesh Atid might yet become part of the solution to Netanyahu's intricate sudoku puzzle. But since the point of Netanyahu's decision to go to the polls was to be rid of ZU's Tzipi Livni and Yesh Atid's Yair Lapid, I can only imagine him taking back at most one of the two. Livni, one of the most toxic politicians in recent Israeli history, might break away or be forced out from the Zionist Union, clearing a path for Labor to join.

That is the best one can hope for - a national unity government with ZU but minus both Livni and Lapid. If so, then attacking Iran remains off the table. But if a narrow right-nationalist-religious government with an inner cabinet of adventurous hawks is the order of the day, I expect Israeli jets over Natanz before the fourth premiership of King Bibi falls.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

#IsraElex Final Predictions

This is a risky thing I attempt. We're more than 72 hours out from the election - the last round of pre-election Friday papers are just appearing on the web. I took the political self-mapping poll available at Sheldon Adelson's Israel Hayom and discovered to no surprise that I am more Meretz or United List than anything else.

But here goes:

Six weeks ago I predicted that Benjamin Netanyahu will be the next Prime Minister of Israel. I stick by my prediction.

The party numbers don't matter. Even if the Zionist Union (formerly Labor) beats Likud by a 25-18 margin,  it won't make a difference. Netanyahu will be the next Prime Minister. 

There is a reason I believe the odds-on favorite is a right/religious government led by Netanyahu. Let's imagine the alternative, a national unity government led by Isaac Herzog.

There is simply no way Isaac Herzog, the leader of the Zionist Union can both win a plurality of seats (+7 or even higher over Likud) and then form a secular center-left government. Buji could form a national unity government with Likud, but Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu - fighting a battle he never imagined when he forced these elections 5 months ago - preemptively rejected the overtures. As in 2009, but by a much thinner margin, Bibi lost the plurality and his Likud was the second largest party. But Bibi formed the government. So too in 2015.


The chances for a national unity government are much better for Netanyahu than for Herzog. If there is a national unity government, Netanyahu will be its Prime Minister. A national unity government which includes the ZU is the best conceivable outcome for keeping an Iran military operation off the table for the duration of the upcoming government. But such an outcome will have no impact on the current diplomatic stalemate with the two Palestines of HAMAS and the Palestinian Authority. More stalemate.

But what kind of national unity government? It is hard to imagine a secular national unity government. Much more likely, at least one of the religious parties, or some combination, will be in a national unity government. The biggest will be Naftali Bennet's Jewish Home party, which is holding at 11 seats. He was in the last government; he'll certainly be in the next. He's playing a long game.

But far more likely Netanyahu will form a government without the Zionist Union, without Meretz, and certainly without the Arab United List. After all, even if Likud loses by a 7 seat margin to the Zionist Union, it is not as if Likud's loss is Labor's gain. The voters slipping away from Bibi are slipping to the right.

Will Bibi rightfully claim the leadership mantle of the right bloc, even with a 2nd place Likud? Of course he will! Only if Likud somehow slipped to third would Netanyahu cede the mantle of the right.

Barring that, Netanyahu intends to construct a government without Tzipi Livni - an irritant - and, if possible, Yair Lapid - a real threat. He can likely rid himself from one of the two with ease.

What will be the surprise breakaway party of this election cycle? There are two newcomers, and they are both vanity parties - Moshe Kahlon's Kulanu and Eli Yishai's Yahad. Kahlon has a chance to outperform polling, currently tracking at 9 seats.

Might Yair Lapid and his Yesh Atid party become the comeback kid of the 2015 campaign? What if the surprise of the 2013 election is the surprise of the 2015 election?

This will take weeks to sort out. After the dust settles, this election will prove to have been nothing more than a pointless casino-fueled exercise, a slight rearranging of the chairs.

No problems solved, no new initiatives in foreign policy, no change in settlement policy or military posture, and most importantly - no American reset with Israel. 

Same as it ever was.


Saturday, February 07, 2015

The Fashla - הפשלה

Today I'd like to start with a bit of Hebrew slang. Like much Hebrew slang, the etymology of the term under consideration comes from Arabic. I'm talking about the slang word fashla, which I best translate as "a complete disaster" or "an unanticipated (and probably predictable) fuck-up." It comes from the Arabic verb fashala, "to lose courage, to become cowardly, to despair, to fail, to become unsuccessful."

You are fortunate enough to be living in an age in which you can witness a perfectly executed Israeli fashla.

Sometime before the State of the Union speech, when President Obama declared he would veto any bill that proposed tougher sanctions on Iran, House Speaker John Boehner was approached with an idea - some published reports argue it was casino mogul and Republican mega-donor Sheldon Adelson who presented the idea - invite Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to speak before a joint session of Congress. Netanyahu would lay out the threat of "radical Islam" to the civilized world, and would specifically address the menacing nuclear threat of a fanatic and viciously anti-Semitic Shi'ite theocracy.

Boehner liked the idea. He contacted the Israeli Ambassador to Washington Ron Dermer. Ron Dermer is known, Karl Rove-like, to be "Bibi's brains." He has been a close political confidant and speechwriter for Netanyahu since 2008 until his appointment to the plum ambassadorship of Israel's closest ally in 2013. Before immigrating to Israel in 1997 he had worked for a time with Republican political consultant Frank Luntz. If either Dermer or Netanyahu had stayed in America, they would today be Republicans in heart and soul. Boehner knew he'd find a sympathetic ear and direct access to the Boss.

The three together planned a stunning Republican congressional protest, all within Constitutional bounds, against a threatened Presidential veto of a bipartisan call for more stringent sanctions on Iran. Bibi Netanyahu was a master of the Speaker's rostrum. Back in 2011 Boehner, then in grudging cooperation with the White House, had extended a similar invitation to Netanyahu, and Bibi was treated to energetic support from those seated in the House chamber. In fact, this would be the third time Bibi addressed Congress, an honor granted only Winston Churchill, one of Netanyahu's heroes.

For Netanyahu, the added benefit of appearing on domestic wall-to-wall media coverage of his "historic mission" to Washington just 2 weeks before an Israeli election was irresistible. Bibi has portrayed his principal political adversary Yizhak (Buji) Herzog as a weak-on-security neophyte and a bumbling amateur. On the other hand, Netanyahu imagines himself a cunningly wise leader, the absolutely right man for these dangerous times.

For creating a fashla, this was a perfect storm.

The too clever by half masterstroke, once it was finally revealed to the unsuspecting White House and the Democratic leadership less than 48 hours after the State of the Union speech, quickly turned into a classic fashla. No amount of spin or fudging the facts of the invitation would turn it around. Within a week of the announcement, bipartisan support for tougher sanctions against Iran - the very mission which Netanyahu had intended to reinforce - crumbled apart. Democrats had to choose between their President and the Prime Minister of Israel. It was an easy call.

Two weeks after the announcement, Democratic Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi was hinting at a wholesale defection of dozens of Democratic congressman from the audience. Vice President Joe Biden, who has missed only one joint session designed to host an invited foreign leader, announced suddenly he would be out of town that day. The image of a half-filled chamber, with Republican Senator and President pro tempore Orrin Hatch sitting in the left chair, will not make for a rousing moment reminiscent of Bibi's prior appearances.

In classic fashla fashion, the masterstroke has completely backfired. Iran has disappeared from the discussion, and instead the only discussion is the worsening relations between Netanyahu, Obama, the Democrats, and even American Jews, who view the entire matter with growing concern.

So there you go - a first-class, high-drama fashla.

And thus concludes today's lesson in Israeli slang.