Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The 70-Day Reign of King Bibi (Part II)

Earlier today in Part I I briefly recounted the back story concerning yesterday's developments in Israeli domestic politics -- the resignation of the senior coalition partner from Israeli PM Binyamin Netanyahu's seemingly formidable national unity government, a development not nearly as newsworthy as its creation 70 days ago.
In Part II I want to look at what this change to Netanyahu's ruling government portends.
Does this most recent bout of musical chairs in Jerusalem tell us anything about Netanyahu's threat to order his military to openly attack Iranian nuclear installations? For reasons I have explained elsewhere, neither the inclusion of the Kadima party into the governing coalition back in early May nor its recent departure serve as a marker in determining Israeli actions against Iran. Any foolish conspiracy theorist who conjures up a scenario which uses this maneuvering as a readable tea leaf concerning Netanyahu's plans for Iran, or the timing for a strike, is simply over-reaching. I go on record for a third time in as many months stating that there will be no Israeli attack on Iran in 2012. The outcome of American domestic elections has far more to do with Netanyahu's calculations than anything going on between coalition partners in Israel.
But this then brings us to the question of when Israeli voters might go to the polls, because it is my contention that Netanyahu will not strike Iran before November, 2012 (because of the US elections) nor during an Israeli election cycle (which is usually a short 90-day European-style parliamentary campaign). Here the calculation has shifted a bit.
The full life expectancy for Bibi's coalition government (a 4-year term) brings us out to approximately October, 2013. The government almost dissolved itself in late April, 2012, with anticipated elections in September. But then in a dramatic late-night machination, Bibi announced the inclusion of 28-seat Kadima into a new national unity government, which held for exactly 70 days. Now that this arrangement has dissolved, calls have suddenly arisen to move the elections to the first quarter of 2013. But for the moment these calls are no more than wishful thinking on the part of pundits and weak opposition politicians. One window of opportunity for a military operation might exist for Netanyahu between November and year's end (Israel used the pause between American elections and inauguration back in December 2008-January 2009 for Cast Lead), but if first quarter 2013 elections are held, even that window is shut.
There are forces in play that might persuade Netanyahu to opt for early elections. All the opposition parties are now in complete disarray. Snap elections would likely produce a reaffirmation of Netanyahu's continued rule with a fresh mandate. But at the same time, Netanyahu has been weakened considerably in stature by this 70-day ruse, and has thus put his reputation at greater risk than it was in April. Furthermore, the social-justice protest movement of 2011 is in the process of re-energizing. The prospect for a second summer in a row of 300,000 Tel Avivis marching against the government's failed economic policies (the first signs of a recession have arrived to the Israeli economy) can not be the backdrop against which Bibi wants to run a campaign.
What are the alternatives to Bibi? The Israeli political system tends to prefer former PMs over new faces, and Israel currently has 5 living Prime Ministers. Two of the 5 are not possibly fit to return to the job: Ariel Sharon is a vegetable in a hospital bed at Hadassah Hospital, and President Shimon Peres is 92 years old. Aside from Bibi, there is the current Defense Minister Ehud Barak and there is Ehud Olmert. Barak today is the leader of a tiny parliamentary vanity party created as cover for his defection from once powerful Labor, which he once led, and has tied his fortunes to Netanyahu. Olmert was recently exonerated by an Israeli court of serious corruption charges (but faces some further charges) and is lurking in the shadows, possibly planning to grab the reigns of the now desultory Kadima. Other than that, there is no politician on the radar screen who can emerge as a credible rival in a snap election. I'd keep my eye on Olmert.
Back to FM Lieberman & PM Netanyahu
A weakened and somewhat humiliated Netanyahu will perform as he always has: he will prefer to stay in power with his current coalition of 66 seats than face the roll of the dice which snap elections entails. But this means Bibi must mollify his current coalition partners, which he is growing less able to do. Weakened by the entire affair, King Bibi will sit on his hands as long as he can. And that means that once again -- as it was from 2009 until mid-2012, the kingmakers in the government of Israel are Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, head of the senior coalition partner Yisrael Beiteinu party (15 seats), and Minister of Internal Affairs Eli Yishai, head of the religious Shas party (10 seats). One of the disputes between these two coalition partners was the very issue of national conscription, which brought Netanyahu to the brink of calling early elections and led to the inclusion of Kadima. That unresolved issue looms over the immediate horizon. If either of these smallish parties bolt the coalition, the government collapses. It will take all of Netanyahu's hemming and hawing to keep them in. My bet is a line from an Arik Einstein song: "Outwards, it's all for the country, but inwards, it's all for the seat." In other words, better to stay in power in a government where everyone possesses the deterrent of mutually assured destruction than face an unpredictable and fickle electorate.
What does this mean for the Arab-Israeli conflict? Here, the answer is simple -- this contraction of the national unity government into its former hard-right format does not bode well for the moribund peace process, the prospects for a 2-state solution, or the easing of tensions. Kadima had placed some flowery language in its now tattered coalition agreement about taking historic risks for peace with the Palestinians, but none of it now matters. Once again fractured Israel, the various Palestinian Hatfields and McCoys, and the United States aren't interested right now in anything involving the peace process. In fact, I expect a turn further to the right in the peace process from the revived hard-right Netanyahu government. That might be the only way Bibi can keep Lieberman and Yishai at bay.
Syria's dynasty of Alawites is unraveling in the streets of Fortress Damascus. A new Muslim Brotherhood president and legislature is locked in a struggle for legitimacy with the generals of Egypt. Palestine is absorbed with the bones of Yasser Arafat. The US is about to enter its debilitating silly season.
And King Bibi has been brought back down to earth.

The 70-Day Reign of King Bibi (Part I)

Like all celebrity marriages, the nuptials were far more exciting than the divorce.
Seventy days ago, Israeli PM Binyamin Netanyahu arranged the creation of Israel's largest unity government in the annals of the young country's politics. Composed of an unassailable super-majority of 94 parliamentarians (out of 120), the new unity government promised that Bibi would be able to live out the full 4 years of his premiership free of even the occasional nuisance of a symbolic no-confidence vote in the Knesset, given that Israeli law requires such a motion garner the signatures of 40 MKs. With a wall-to-wall parliamentary coalition, not even that often futile maneuver lay on the horizon. Ninety-four seats meant that Bibi could claim to his nation and to his dwindling list of allies that whatever path he chose -- on Iran, on the Palestinians, on the question of conscription, on the national budget -- he had the full support of his democracy. On May 28, his face was draped on the cover of Time magazine and he was proclaimed "King Bibi." He was the master of his domain.
Some in the Israeli media and amongst the sherds of what remained of the opposition howled in disdain. But what Bibi was attempting was nothing short of a complete realignment of Israeli politics -- he was attempting to revive the grand coalition that once made up his own party, the right-nationalist Likud, which had been ripped apart in 2005 by its creator, Ariel Sharon. Back in 2005, facing a drumbeat of internal opposition to his Gaza disengagement from within Likud, Sharon created a brand-new vanity party of moderate Likudniks called Kadima (literally: "Forward"). A few spurned members of the main opposition Labor, including no less than Shimon Peres, joined the new party, but it left the Likud diehards (under the leadership of Netanyahu) an isolated boutique opposition party, to be consigned to irrelevancy for the next election cycle.
Within a few short months of its creation, Sharon stroked out, and the raison d'etre for Kadima disappeared. But Kadima somehow managed to survive the ensuing crisis as the accidental caretaker PM Ehud Olmert squeaked out an electoral victory in 2006 and kept the Kadima moderates in power. Olmert, who presided over a stormy and militaristic premiership, was in turn eventually accused by the State Attorney of rampant corruption, and was forced to resign, leading to a power struggle between lesser personalities (former Likudniks all) in the progressively more pointless grab bag known as Kadima.
When Bibi's Likud lost the election (Kadima actually won one more seat than Likud) but won the default opportunity to assemble his premiership in 2009, he had a choice. Netanyahu could form a right-center coalition with Kadima, or a hard-right coalition with smaller nationalist and religious parties. He chose the latter route, leaving Kadima outside. Netanyahu would have a second chance to be PM.
What remained of Kadima was a party with no galvanizing personality and no political agenda. Internal squabbling ensued. The leader who had presided over Kadima's electoral "almost" victory, former Likudnik Tzipi Livni (who couldn't muster religious or right wing support in her attempt to form a government), was challenged over her bumbling record by former Likudnik Shaul Mofaz, who promised Kadima functionaries a different outcome. In internal elections earlier this year, Mofaz trounced Livni. Then, as the prospect for early elections (which pollsters predicted Bibi would handily win) loomed over the country, Mofaz struck a deal with Bibi, and brought his bloc of 28 MKs into a numerically unprecedented national unity government. Simultaneously, Livni quit the party, and resigned her political post as Knesset member. Mofaz could also read polls, and understood that the Israeli electorate had grown weary of Kadima. Early elections (which might have been held in September) would spell the effective end of Kadima. So Mofaz traded certain electoral demise in 3 months' time for a seat at the cabinet table for 16 months.
That was 70 days ago.
What prompted all this maneuvering in early May was a ruling by the Israeli Supreme Court that the government of Israel's conscription law was unconstitutional. A makeshift and temporary law had been crafted in 2002 which had attempted to address the inequity of Israel's conscription regime (which granted an automatic deferment to ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students) by essentially encoding the inequity into law, and it was this so-called "Tal law" that was judged unconstitutional. The unconstitutional law had expired, and by Supreme Court decree the government of Israel had  until August 1 to come into compliance. The first among many intractable domestic issues which Bibi and Mofaz committed themselves to was to construct an equitable resolution for Israel's illegal conscription farce, all by the August 1 deadline.
Seventy days ago, Bibi made it sound like he was finally ready to accede to the demands of the secular Israeli majority, and together with Mofaz he would craft a historic conscription law which would bring the ultra-Orthodox citizens of Israel into the shared responsibility of national service. But when the moment of decision came, King Bibi reverted to form. It is now a well-known pattern of his leadership: Netanyahu consistently prefers stasis over any change that threatens his comfortable rule. 
Mofaz, known to change positions on a dime, this time stood his ground, and yesterday the national unity government dissolved after the Kadima parliamentarians voted 25 to 3 to leave the government.
And with that, the grand reunification of Likud ended. And with it came the end of Mofaz's attempt to resuscitate Kadima and assert his relevancy as a potential national leader.
BUT, the withdrawal of Kadima does not mean the collapse of Netanyahu's ruling coalition (now still a respectable 66-seat majority). No longer a wall-to-wall PM, but merely a PM presiding over a hard-right coalition, former King Bibi still rules the land. There is even the possibility that some  holdouts might jump the sinking ship of Kadima and join Bibi's Likud, making his coalition even more solid. Whether elections come as scheduled in October 2013 or a bit earlier, Bibi -- tarnished by this maneuvering but not mortally wounded -- remains PM. 
What does it all mean (for Iran, for the Arab-Israeli conflict, and for Israeli domestic politics)? For that, I'll have another posting later today.

Part II can be found here.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Why I'm Betting Obama is a One-Term President

According to the smart observers of the American presidential campaign, President Barack Obama is maintaining a statistically insignificant national 2-point lead over Republican challenger Mitt Romney. When one looks at the battleground states, there seems to be a slight advantage in electoral college results to Obama, projected around 330-208 (certainly a comfortable margin). The thoughtful FiveThirtyEight blog is currently indicating a better than 60% likelihood that Obama will win the November election. We are still a few weeks away from the national conventions, with 3 presidential and one vice-presidential debates to come thereafter. The campaign hasn't really begun.
Back in late 2011, before the Republican field had been winnowed down, I made a bet with one of my colleagues, and another with one of my former students, that BHO will be a one-term president. I think I made the first bet when Texas Governor Rick Perry was the flavor of the week. Even back then I was fairly certain that Romney would be the Republican nominee, but I wasn't counting on that. I was instead relying on three other factors, which I believe are still in play here in July.
First - the economy. It is a well-known historical fact that no modern post-WWII incumbent has been reelected when the unemployment rate is above 7.2%. As we have seen, the employment numbers this summer are stalled out in the low 8's, with no indication of a dramatic change in the offing. Unless the undecideds conclude that 8.0+% unemployment is the new "normal," I expect that the unemployment gauge (and all it portends about the health of the economy) is sufficiently determinant. People may like BHO, but conclude that despite having inherited an economic disaster from his predecessor, he is incapable of managing the American economy and the politics it has produced.
Reelection and Consumer Confidence
Second - what I call the "perfect storm" argument. I believe the 2008 election cycle generated a perfect storm of circumstances that allowed an inexperienced first-term black junior senator from Illinois to win the presidency, a concatenation of circumstances which will not be repeated in 2012. That 2008 campaign was conducted against the backdrop of a nightmare collapse of the US banking system and the American automotive industry, all tied in the public perception to the ineptitude of the Republican White House. Furthermore, the elder Republican nominee went "rogue" and selected an unvetted VP who was simply not up to the task, setting off alarms amongst undecided voters. Finally, there was the symbolic and tantalizing promise that by accepting a black President, the American voter could shake off centuries of racism in a single private act in the ballot box. This perfect storm was enough to give BHO a 53-47 popular vote victory and a 365-173 electoral vote victory.
But that perfect storm does not exist in 2012. The economy is anemic but not in apocalyptic crisis. Mitt Romney will certainly pick a reassuring VP candidate. And having crossed the racial Rubicon in 2008, American voters will now treat race as a non-issue, and will judge the incumbent on other considerations.
Finally - the question of leadership. I will accept the argument that Obama has been acceptably good on foreign and national security affairs, and I think the American electorate accepts that this is the case. But domestically, BHO (or as he is sometimes known: "no drama Obama") has proven to be a poor political practitioner. Particularly after the drubbing the Democrats suffered in the 2010 congressional elections, Obama has been stymied by a very partisan and stubborn Congress. The true value of a president is how he politically maneuvers against that kind of opposition. And in this instance, Obama has been singularly inept and ineffective.
Now none of this argues that Romney is a superior choice. But given the drumbeat of radical Tea Party fervor rumbling through the Republican party, he is a classic "moderate" Republican, a former Massachusetts governor who is the author of the template for the Obama health care plan.
Instead, this will be an election decided by those voters (maybe 10-15% of the electorate) who broke slightly in Obama's favor in 2008 to give him the presidency. The 2012 election will be decided not over Mitt Romney's anemic campaign or his past business dealings. It will be decided on Barack Obama's record - specifically on "the economy, stupid." With unemployment at 8% and GDP growth at 2%, Obama would be pulling off an unprecedented electoral miracle were he to win in November. Can political lightning strike twice for Obama?
I was one of those voters who in 2008 had great reservations about Obama's inexperience and personal narrative. I would've preferred Joe Biden or Hilary Clinton at the top of the Democratic ticket. A lifelong Democrat, I decided fairly late in the game in 2008 to vote for Obama. I haven't made up my mind yet, though I suspect I will vote against my bet. But I am one of those undecided voters. To repeat, the campaign hasn't really begun. As of today, the electoral margins in Obama's favor are far from decisive.
I still think Obama is a one-term president.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

One Year Later: Israel's #j14 Social-Justice Movement

It was a year ago today that protest tents first went up on Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv. From that moment forward the massive social-protest movement has been known in the Twitterverse by the hashtag #j14 (the english letter "j" for July and "14" for the date). For Israeli tweeters this was a conscious aping of the Arab Spring, which used #j25 for January 25 (2011), the date the first major protest in Tahrir Square against Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's rule.
In a sad commentary on the Israeli social-protest movement, the makeshift leadership of the social-protest movement split over matters big and small, and tonight Tel Aviv played host to 2 separate and competing protests. Everything in Israeli politics is fissile - it's like the old Jewish saying: "Put 2 Jews in a room and you'll have 3 opinions." Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu could not have hoped for a better outcome had tonight's anniversary fizzled into a media sideshow.  A year ago, the Israeli news channels led their evening news with the tent protest, and covered the swelling movement with breathless excitement. Tonight, the evening news (as the evening began) placed the anniversary as the third story.
But then something completely unanticipated occurred. In the midst of one of the 2 protest marches at about 10 pm, a 50-something man distributed copies of a suicide declaration to bystanders, read it aloud, doused himself in a flammable liquid, and set himself on fire. Bystanders put the fire out, and the man was transferred to a hospital in serious condition, with 80% burns.

The man, identified as Moshe Silman, opens his letter by stating that "the State of Israel has stolen from me and robbed me, left me with nothing" and calls Netanyahu and Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz "scumbags." In his letter, Silman claims he served in the Israeli Army and was a reservist but because of health conditions had lost the ability to work and had been abandoned by the social network of the Israeli state.
I am not sure, but I believe that this is the first act of self-immolation as protest in modern Israeli society. As a cultural phenomenon, it is a novum. This is only the second time in modern Israeli history that a protester resorted to self-immolation. In 2005 an opponent of the Gaza disengagement set herself on fire and died of her burns 9 days later (there was no video of her act). Now in 2012, echoes of the Arab Spring might be reverberating inside Israel. Will this culturally shocking act of political protest galvanize the #j14 movement, as did the self-immolation of Tunisian street vendor Muhammad Bouazizi serve to ignite the Arab Spring? Or will it be forgotten as an act of a madman, consigned to a news cycle and of no import?
It cannot be known. But the possibility now exists that the #j14 movement, which had initially been dismissed by opponents as a Yuppified "tent city of  nargilas and sushi," (on July 18 - 4 days into the protest - I had dismissed at as a non-event) has tragically inherited a symbol capable of energizing (and reuniting) the movement for the summer of 2012.
Now the wisdom of Netanyahu's 2 month-old kombina with Vice PM Shaul Mofaz is clear. Imagine for a moment if this protest had occurred 70 days before a domestic election?