Sunday, November 24, 2013

Obama's Hanukkah Gift, 2013

The first time I took up the issue of Iran's nuclear aspirations and the threat of Israeli military response in this blog was in February 2012, after an Israeli journalist published a 7500-word piece in The New York Times Magazine that 2012 would be the year Israel attacks Iran. I predicted that no such thing would occur.

It did not matter that the Israeli Prime Minister drew pictures from the podium of the UN General Assembly in September of 2012 - it was all preposterous bluster from a weakened Israeli leader with no credible plan of attack. I admittedly worried and fretted in November and December of 2012, and talked myself into believing that Operation Pillar of Cloud was a cover to mobilize the Israeli Air Force, but by January of 2013 when I returned to the issue I correctly interpreted the results of the Israeli election held that month: "there will be no Israeli attack on Iran in 2013."

It is now fair to conclude that there will be no Israeli airborne attack on Iranian nuclear facilities for at least the next 6 months. So this ridiculous guessing game has been going on for nearly a decade - it's time to stop worrying about what Israel might do. Israel isn't going to do anything. Not in 2013 - now almost over - and not in 2014.

There has now emerged, for the first time in a decade, a much better way to handle the problem. Instead of "bomb, bomb, bomb - bomb, bomb Iran" (thank you John McCain for that little ditty from April 2007), instead of Stuxnet viruses and targeted killing of Iranian nuclear scientists, we now have a diplomatically negotiated path to stabilize the confrontation and bring this matter to a logical and peaceful conclusion. President Obama in 2013 has given the Jewish state an early and not particularly welcome Hanukkah gift. The meaning of the recently concluded interim Joint Plan of Action is either a true alternative to madness, or a Trojan horse of betrayal.

History is littered with foolish leaders who were so fearful of warfare that they appeased madmen and merely delayed the inevitable bloodshed, oftentimes at the expense of innocents who died undefended at the hands of implacable evildoers. History is also dotted with insightful leaders who were so fearful of warfare that they negotiated tangible and realistic patchworks of viable political compromise. No one can know at this early stage which scenario will unfold from the P5+1 - Iran deal worked out in November 2013. We will have a much better idea what this all might mean by May 2014.

Many people won't like how this all ends. Iran will eventually be relieved of the sanctions and will have as much or as little nuclear freedom as it chooses. This will all take place under an umbrella of international engagement and reintegration into the civilized nations of mankind. We will all have to learn to survive in a world where Iran has nuclear capacity, and quite likely nuclear weaponry.

We have learned to live with nuclear North Korea, India, Pakistan, and Israel. We will learn to live with nuclear Iran.

Or we won't.

Monday, October 07, 2013

40 Years Ago: The Yom Kippur War Begins

It was for me my junior year abroad from the University of Minnesota. All summer I had been in the Hebrew University ulpan trying to get my Hebrew up to snuff. As foreign American college students, we had purchased cheap high holiday tickets at the Hillel House in the neighborhood of Rehavia. As the morning services ended, we could walk in the middle of the street without fear of blocking automobile traffic. But 2 things occurred on the walk home that - had I been a Jerusalemite - might have given me pause. One was an army jeep with 2 soldiers on board that came barreling down the street. I thought that if any vehicle was going to interrupt the Yom Kippur calm, it would be an army vehicle. That seemed to make sense. The I heard a sonic boom. These too were a near daily occurrence, so it meant nothing to me at the moment.

Desiring to rest from the services and the fast, we returned to our apartment. The air raid sirens went off at 2:15 in the afternoon. I turned to my roommate, also from Minnesota, and said in utter naïveté: "I don't believe it - a tornado in Jerusalem?" The sky was only partly cloudy. I just couldn't process at first that I was suddenly in a war zone.

When the air raid sirens went off, I literally tried to figure out where the southwest corner of the basement apartment was - so completely acclimated to tornado-preparation was I. But when I opened the front door to my apartment I saw clouds in the blue Mediterranean sky which did not portend trouble. And suddenly a young girl - couldn't have been more than 7 or 8 - came running down our alley screaming in Hebrew: "War on all the borders! War on all the borders!" In those days I was working at being an observant Jew - "shomer shabbes" as Walter from the Big Lebowski would say - and this became the moment I will never forget and never regret. I needed to know if I was going to soon die. So - expecting in my 19-year-old simplistic theology that lightning would strike me on the spot - I turned on a radio. God didn't strike me dead; this millisecond would be the beginning of a long process that ultimately led me to the secular agnosticism I live with today. But in those days, Israeli radio - even the Army Radio - went purposely silent for this sacred day. All I could get was an AM broadcast of BBC, and they only had a report from Syria, that Syrian and Egyptian forces were attacking Israel. It would be 5 or 6 hours before Israeli domestic radio got back on the air, with a speech by a clearly rattled but nevertheless resolute Golda Meir.

About an hour after the air raid sirens, I ventured out on the streets of downtown Jerusalem. I remember that across the street from me was a synagogue, and I watched two uniformed soldiers enter the synagogue and leave, a group of the congregation hastily departing within minutes. I remember seeing public buses lining up at certain prearranged locations, and watching young men arrive by car to board the buses. I saw something I will never see again - on the holiest day of the Jewish ceremonial year, I saw an ultra-Orthodox bearded Jew in his High Holiday finery driving a car! Whether, as in the case of the synagogue across the street, people were being delivered with a specific Order Eight call up command, or people were simply responding with a prearranged protocol, the process of marrying up manpower to equipment had begun. 

Sunday, September 08, 2013

Syria, AIPAC, and J Street

Things might change later this week, but I couldn't help but notice the delicious irony that has confronted the two opposing US pro-Israel advocacy groups as they come to terms with President Barack Obama's bumbling approach to a proposed military operation against Bashar "Breaking Bad" al-Assad.

Ever since J Street emerged in the 2008 election cycle, I've had a theory that always seemed to be re-verified: the true purpose of the fake movement J Street was to provide progressive pro-Obama American Jews a sense of belonging. In my theory, J Street could care less about the two state solution, or the plight of the Palestinians, or the corrosive moral rot of the occupation - all that was blather, a smokescreen to hide its true purpose. In my theory, the real reason for the existence of J Street was to galvanize progressive American Jews who "cared" about the future of Israel into a political force that would support the Obama administration's approach to the Arab-Israeli conflict, whatever it was, and keep those Jews in line. J Street was an ethnic brick in the Obama coalition.

So now, 5 years later, comes the moment of truth: Obama wants to bomb al-Assad, but in a surprising turn, wants to have the American political system back him before he strikes. And as the dust settles on that stunning development, American Jewish policy organizations have one after another been forced to take a stand. The much larger and more successful American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) has decided to go "all-in" on behalf of a president it oftentimes disdains & distrusts. Published reports tell of a decision within AIPAC to send a flood of advocates to Congress this coming week on behalf of the Authorization for Use of Military Force.

But so far, J Street is like a deer caught in the headlights. As late as September 6, Buzzfeed reported that J Street is in the midst of intense internal discussions of just how to proceed.

One can expect that the currently "undecided" J Street operators are agonizing with the throes of a classic conundrum. Their champion is advocating military action which most American Jews support, and which Israelis of all stripes overwhelmingly want. I suspect that many of J Street's supporters are at best conflicted, and quite possibly opposed to military action in Syria, because progressives in American politics are opposed to further American intervention in the Middle East. The fact that more than a week has gone by since Obama's "road to Damascus" conversion and J Street hasn't been able to muster anything more than a toothless UN-style condemnation of the use of chemical weapons speaks volumes as to the organizations ultimate irrelevancy.

Eventually the poor deers of J Street will have to chime in one way or the other. If they ultimately come out in favor of the President, it will be a half-hearted leap. If they choose to oppose their beloved commander-in-chief and his wannabe predecessor John Kerry, it will be equally meek. For someone who has always doubted J Street's sincerity and commitment to Israeli-Palestinian peace, I feel nothing but schadenfreude for the hapless souls of this progressively pointless organization.

Sunday, September 01, 2013

Operation Chemical Shmemical

Who knows how it will all turn out? It's quite possible that after a dignified and serious congressional debate and vote, the United States will act accordingly, whatever "accordingly" might be. Maybe some Tea Party wing-nut will attach a rider to the Authorization for Use of United States Forces affirming the sanctity of life of the unborn. Maybe the Authorization will stall over the debate to raise the debt ceiling. Maybe Rand Paul will become our next President. Anything can happen.

For a President who had garnered the sobriquet "No Drama Obama," Saturday's 30-minute delayed proclamation that he, the President, had concluded that military action is required...BUT that congressional approval should be sought, has got to be one of the most spectacular developments in the history of American foreign policy. In a Friday evening saunter on the White House grounds, the conflicted Commander-in-Chief came to a realization. He decided to turn to Congress, "a step that none of the four congressional leaders had asked for and none of his national security advisers had recommended" (Bloomberg News).

I understand the dilemma. There are no good options when it comes to Syria. The Onion said it best in an op-ed piece published this week in the name of Bashar al-Assad entitled "So, What's It Going to Be?":

Well, here we are. It’s been two years of fighting, over 100,000 people are dead, there are no signs of this war ending, and a week ago I used chemical weapons on my own people. If you don’t do anything about it, thousands of Syrians are going to die. If you do something about it, thousands of Syrians are going to die. Morally speaking, you’re on the hook for those deaths no matter how you look at it.
So, it’s your move, America. What’s it going to be?
I’ve looked at your options, and I’m going to be honest here, I feel for you. Not exactly an embarrassment of riches you’ve got to choose from, strategy-wise. I mean, my God, there are just so many variables to consider, so many possible paths to choose, each fraught with incredible peril, and each leading back to the very real, very likely possibility that no matter what you do it’s going to backfire in a big, big way. It’s a good old-fashioned mess, is what this is! And now, you have to make some sort of decision that you can live with...
So, all in all, quite the pickle you’re in, isn’t it? I have to say, I do not envy you here. Really curious to see where you go with this one.

But then we must confront the strange twists and turns of the week after the chemical attack in Ghouta. Destroyers rush to the eastern Mediterranean. David Cameron gets flummoxed by Ed Miliband, even as The Economist screamed "Hit Him Hard." It all ends with Obama turning to 535 preening assholes, 535 armchair Secretaries of State and Chairmen of the Joint Chiefs. Let the Sunday morning talk shows begin!

Obama, forever the ponderous academic and junior Senator from Illinois, has decided that Syria is a teachable moment. It's the kind of decision a bad college president would make.

Oh sure, the opponents of American military action, and advocates of a less imperial presidency, are altogether elated with this road to Damascus conversion of St. Barack. In one fell swoop, he has reversed a trajectory that began in the Gulf of Tonkin and has led to one misadventure after another. I can understand the tempting, seemingly smart prospect of getting an unwilling Congress and American public opinion to have it all aired out.

Advocates of a military response to the horrific carnage of Syria are now themselves horrified. They claim that Obama has weakened America's reputation throughout the world.

I don't care what jihadis will think. I don't care what Bashar al-Assad will conclude. I don't care if Bibi Netanyahu is now beside himself with anxiety. But think for a moment about what Vladimir Putin and Li Keqiang might conclude about their global counterpart. It can't be anything good.

Now we have President Spock, a man so taken by his own native intelligence and sophistication that he imagines himself the President who will bring a warring Congress and a distracted nation along his Vulcan path of kolinahr.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Walking out on World War Z

I had been warned. My brother saw Paramount's World War Z a few days before, and reported it was a "shitty movie." I loved the book by Max Brooks (Mel's son) and could hardly wait. So fearful was I that the movie would actually rattle me that I postponed going for a week. (Also, I am in the midst of a binge rewatch of the Sopranos, now on the 5th season). Today I did something I have done less than a handful of times - I walked out on a movie. It was that shitty. It wasn't scary, it wasn't coherent, and it wasn't good.
I should have known. The author of the book had already disavowed the shooting script. Their was plenty of web chatter I hadn't paid attention to. This $200 million dollar CGI extravaganza was global disaster by Hollywood committee - no vision, none of the insightful observations of the book - and most importantly - no Battle of Yonkers. The movie insulted my intelligence. A series of silly set pieces strung together by interludes of nothing.
The only two recognizable settings for the movie drawn from the book were North Korea (only by dialogue) and Israel. Apparently, the Israel section of the movie has generated a bit of controversy amongst Middle Eastern tweeters. The movie script brings hero Brad Pitt to Jerusalem, one of a very few countries to survive the zombie onslaught (so too the book). None of the interesting aspects of Brooks' tale appear in the movie. In the credited writers' rape of the book, Israel has indeed built a massive wall to keep zombies out, and has opened its borders to non-zombified Arabs at special checkpoints. But nothing of the book's civil war between ultra-religious Jews and the Israeli army over this open policy is mentioned. In the movie, Israel is overrun as the noise of an Israeli peace song (started by Jews, and then joined in by appreciative Arabs) awakens the zombies to clamor over the wall. I cannot imagine the group-think argle-bargle of Hollywood story and marketing meetings and the directorial oversight which could have produced something this idiotic.
Now I am hoping the upcoming Israeli-produced "indie" movie Cannon Fodder (IDF and Hezbollah forces join together to combat zombies) might work.
As for World War Z - save your money. Read the book.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

The Binge Rewatch: My Brush With The Sopranos

It's been less than a week since James Gandolfini died. The night his death was announced, I decided, as per my last post, to undertake a binge rewatching of the legendary HBO series The Sopranos. I'm now in the middle of season 3, which I remember as one of my favorite seasons, and specifically to episode 32 ("University"), about the experiences of three college-aged women - two at Columbia University and one at the Bada Bing. At the time of its first broadcast, it was regarded as one of the most shocking and violent episodes to date. Juxtaposed against the recent violent rape of Dr. Melfi - this episode graphically showed Ralph Cifaretto beating to death his pregnant stripper girlfriend Tracee in the back lot of the Bing. The episode at the time caused quite a stir.
This episode also represents the one time my own life directly crossed paths with The Sopranos. That is not to say I didn't feel a deep personal connection to the show for other reasons. No, I am not from New Jersey, and I am not connected. But I had married a woman whose father owned a strip club in Minneapolis. The dysfunction of Tony and Carmela Sopranos' home was poignantly familiar to my outsider eyes. Strippers and fences, all friendly associates of my soon-to-be father-in-law, were invited to my wedding. Years later, I once asked my then father-in-law in a moment of sheer stupidity, "Are you part of organized crime?" and without missing a beat he answered me: "We're not all that organized."
But one time my life directly crossed The Sopranos. Not long after "University" aired a student came to my office. She wanted to take an adjunct course I wasn't teaching, but which I supervised, so my signature was required. It was all very mundane. Only after she got up from her chair and was headed to the door, I had to blurt out what I and some others of us already knew through the grapevine: "You were great in the episode 'University' - it was a fantastic performance."
"Thanks," said undergraduate Ari Graynor, who played Meadow Soprano's anxiety-ridden dormroom mate Caitlin Rucker.
Never spoke to her again.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Honoring James Gandolfini: The Binge Rewatch

When I first saw the news that actor James Gandolfini had died this past Wednesday, I was saddened - and I knew how I would spend the next week: a full-scale binge re-watching of all 86 episodes of The Sopranos. I've done it before, but never on the scale I will now undertake. Honestly, I've owned the DVDs for the first 5 seasons for years, and somehow I remember not being all that enthralled with season 6, but parts I and II of that final season are on their way to my house (this time in Blu-ray) and I will do the entire thing.
So here it is Saturday morning, and I've just completed season 1, the season that hooked us onto Tony Soprano and HBO forever, and I am overwhelmed by the stunning performance of this amazing actor, who was given the brilliant character by David Chase. But whatever the words and plotting, there is something overwhelmingly amazing in Gandolfini's performance. More words have been inked over this series than any in television (except maybe The Wire). Nothing I can say hasn't been said already. All I can say is that I am glad I decided to honor this actor in this way - and I recommend that you do the same.

Saturday, June 08, 2013

Big Data meets Big Brother

Prescient? 2 days after I made the decision to sever my ties between my Twitter feed & my Facebook timeline, PRISM is outed, with FB identified as a major supplier of data (and Twitter not). I know there is no such thing as privacy in a surveillance society lusting after the wonders of "big data," but I'd expect the "cool" internet companies I interact with to put up at least a little fight against the government. They certainly try to leave us with the impression that they are all on our side. Sure, we know they are monetizing every click we make...but naively I assumed that passing it all on to the USG was not part of their greedy consumer agenda.
One other thing - if you use GoogleDrive to store your documents - you probably made a mistake. Dropbox so far has reportedly resisted lifting its skirt to the NSA.
To put it simply, when it comes to unconstitutional overreach, the former constitutional law scholar Barack Obama makes George W. Bush seem a rank amateur.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Israel Election 2013 - Iran off the Table

So it looks like there will be no Israeli attack on Iran in 2013. That might be the big takeaway from the January 2013 legislative elections just held in Israel.
What just happened?
First, overall turnout was slightly higher than in 2011. Possibly the longish hiatus between elections prompted more Israelis to cast a participatory vote after a decidedly uneventful and far from mesmerizing campaign. Rather than shifting to a more hard-line right-wing pose (as many had predicted), the country moved away a slight bit from the hard-line pro-settler, pro-muscular security and foreign policy orientations of "fortress Israel."
I've yet to see any turnout numbers by electoral sector, but it looks like the Arab-Israelis voted at a rate close to previous elections, bringing to a halt the long decline that has been noted by poll watchers. In fact - though the numbers aren't yet final - it looks like the 3 so-called "Arab" parties improved their standing, possibly picking up a seat between them.
Second - and here is what I think is the big story - an unprecedented 29 seats went to religious parties (though with a proviso). This is an unheralded new number - the last benchmark was 27 seats set in 1999. Almost a quarter of the Israeli electorate voted for parties that insist they have the interests of the Torah-observant as either their ultimate or central focus. The proviso is that it is hard to pin down precisely what Naftali Bennett's Jewish Home party is all about, and the likelihood that a sizable number of non-religious voters neverthless turned to Bennett's rebranding of what in the end is nothing more than the National Religious Party, version 2.0.
Third - the demise of incumbency. An unprecedented 53 new faces will be sworn into the new Knesset. That means more than a 40% changeover in lawmakers. Many pundits argue that the massive disgruntlement of the general population with the socio/economic condition of the country (remember the tent city protests of 2010?) resulted in the "out with the scoundrels" turnover of legislators.
Fourth - the collapse of Kadima, the vanity party created by Ariel Sharon in 2005, and the wholesale shift of the centrist voter from Kadima to the New Kid on the Block, Yair Lapid. This is being touted as the "big story" of election night. I'll have more on that later. 
And finally - elections 2013 was a serious setback for Netanyahu. Bibi will still  be selected to form a new government, though as a much weakened leader who in all likelihood will have to bring into his next government the 19 new faces which make up Lapid's Yesh Atid party (though at least 2 are seasoned security veterans). A domestically weakened Bibi, forced to turn to his left, will take an Iran attack off the table.
Until the next election...which will come much sooner than 2017.
Here is a not particularly outlandish prediction for the coming month of coalition negotiations: watch for at least one "rotten deal" - some improbably underhanded alliance between sworn political enemies - to be floated, or consummated.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Israeli Election Eve 2013 - No Change

It has been my practice on this blog to make predictions about American and Israeli elections. My track record on American presidential records has been simply awful. I was embarrassingly wrong in 2008 and wrong again in 2012. I should just stop trying.
But...when it comes to Israeli elections, I do much better. I got the 2006 elections pretty much right. The 2009 election was much harder to call, insofar as it ended with a dead tie favoring the right, but I didn't too badly.
Which brings us to 2013.
The last set of scientific polling has been published. The polls all point to an outcome that will require the President of Israel, Shimon Peres, to conduct his mandated consultations with party leaders and then designate Binyamin Netanyahu with the task of assembling a coalition government under his leadership.
What will Netanyahu then do?
This is the same question that emerged in February and March of 2009, after similar political consultations led Peres to reluctantly request Netanyahu to form a government. Normally, the President is mandated to turn to the winning parliamentary bloc with the task of forming a government. But back in 2009, even though Netanyahu's Likud party came in a close second in the race for Knesset seats, Peres learned that a coalition of smaller religious/nationalist and conventionally designated "right-wing" parties were prepared to join Likud, and not the leading bloc of Kadima. For Peres it must have been a bitter pill to swallow. It was also a disappointing outcome for the incoming Obama administration, which clearly preferred a Kadima-led government.
Netanyahu indeed assembled a comfortable coalition government in 2009. Starting with his 27 seats in the 120-seat Knesset, he reached an agreement with Avigdor Lieberman's Russian immigrant Yisrael Beiteinu ("Israel is Our Home") faction of 15 seats (=42), and then added to his total Labor's 13 seats and Shas's 11, as well as the 3 seats of the former National Religious Party, now renamed The Jewish Home (ha-Bayit ha-Yehudi) (=69). A day after he presented the government to the nation, the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism added its 5 seats to the coalition, creating an unassailable majority of 74 seats.
Netanyahu's government survived for nearly its full 4-year term. A number of changes whittled away slightly at the coalition's majority. Many Laborites were unhappy with Ehud Barak's decision to join the Netanyahu government, forcing Barak out and withdrawing their support. Barak formed a rump party and took 3 Laborites with him. The remaining wreck of Labor (now a mere 8 seats) went into opposition.
In the early summer of 2012 Netanyahu attempted a short-lived "national unity government" with Kadima (after Kadima had ejected its leader in the 2009 campaign, Tzipi Livni, for her internal rival, Shaul Mofaz). That experiment, which created a super-majority of 96 seats and prompted Time magazine to call Netanyahu "King Bibi," lasted for all of 70 days. 
In the fall of 2012 Netanyahu calculated that new elections would strengthen his already strong hand. He announced a call for elections by dissolving the parliament, and immediately merged his Likud with Lieberman's party, beginning therefore with an unassailable bloc of 42 seats.
Two "new" parties have emerged this election cycle: one was formed by a popular former news reader and talkshow host, Yair Lapid, with the name Yesh Atid ("There is a Future"). A second party was cobbled together by Livni, with the simple and bombastic name ha-Tenu`ah ("The Movement"). The Jewish Home went through a rebranding, and for all intents and purposes can be regarded as a "new" political force. And finally, Barak's Independence party simply disappeared from the scene, with Barak "retiring" yet again from politics.
Internally, each of the parties held primaries to determine the order of their lists. Israeli elections are national, not regional, enterprises - a voter votes for a party, and then the vote is divided into 120. Every seat won is designated to a list - and if your party wins 17 seats, and you appear as number 18 - you're shit out of luck. So the higher you appear on a party's list, the more likely you will become a MK (member of Knesset). The newsworthy outcome of the party primary voting took place in Likud - a sizable number of current ministers and conventionally-described Likud "moderates" were ousted from their high positions, to be replaced by right-wing settler representatives. Likud turned harder to the right.
So that sets the stage for Tuesday's voting: a more right-wing Likud now merged with Yisrael Beiteinu, campaigning with the slogan: "A strong Prime Minister - a strong Israel"; a new Labor under the leadership of (yet another) former media star, Shelly Yachimovich; a collapsed and no longer relevant Kadima under loser Mofaz; a rebranded Jewish Home under the leadership of American immigrant and hi-tech tycoon Naftali Bennett; a new party led by the cipher Lapid; and a new party under perennial loser Livni.
It is simply too much to follow, all these comings and goings. So most pollsters and pundits neatly divide the squabbling parties into 3 blocs: the right-religious; the center-left; and the Arab parties (who never play a part in coalition formation). Looked at that way, the current situation of the outgoing Knesset is thus:

Right-Religious coalition - 67
Center-Left "blocking" opposition - 42
Arab parties - 11

First, notice the low numbers for Arab parties. Though Arabs constitute 20% of the population of Israel, they hold only 10% of Knesset seats (though there are a handful of Israeli Arab candidates scattered amongst the Jewish Zionist parties). This is because of the question of voter turnout. Essentially, Arab voters have given up voting in Israeli elections. But this question of turnout relates to a bigger trend: religious and nationalist Jews turn out at a much higher rate than either the secular Jewish Israeli or the Israeli Arab. In 2009, overall turnout was 65% (in fact slightly up from 2006) - certainly impressive when compared to other democracies. But there persists a wide gulf between the turnout of self-defined religious voters (over 85%) and secular voters (slightly more than 50%). Mobilized small-sector interest groups rule the roost in contemporary Israeli democracy. Put another way - if Israeli secularists were as interested in participating in democracy as the Orthodox, then the religious and right-wing camps would be proportionally smaller factions in parliament.There has been a concerted effort to stress the issue of voter turnout, but it is likely the results will vary little from historic patterns.
Noisy foreign protagonists and antagonists of Israel devote a great deal of time to her conflicts, and can get quit passionate in their advocacy. On the other hand, a sizable number of Israelis couldn't give a shit one way or the other.
That brings us to the polls. First, going in to the weekend the polls uniformly report that 15% of likely voters are undecided. This is not as newsworthy a number as it might first appear. Many undecided voters know what they believe - for them the question is simply which party in the Israeli political smorgasbord will best enable their vote.
Even though the larger outcome - an easy Netanyahu victory leading to a 3rd government under his leadership - is all but certain, there are still a few small surprises to be had.
Let's take a look at the numbers of the last round of polls (current size in parentheses):

Likud Beiteinu (merged parties - 42) - 32-34
Labor (8) - 16-17
Yesh Atid (0) - 12-13
Shas (11) - 10-12
Kadima (28) - 0-2
Jewish Home (7) - 12-14
Movement (0) - 7-9
Meretz (3) - 6
Arab Parties (11) - 11-12

So what have been the main story lines? First, it has been a dull and uneventful campaign - hardly an energizing civic exercise. Given all the fateful decisions facing a new government - Iran, continued tension with the US administration, the seething Palestinian powderkeg - this election campaign has generated minimal interest amongst Israeli voters. Unlike elections past, there hasn't been a single nationally televised candidates' debate. Imagine that - no debates.
Second, the merger of Netanyahu and Lieberman (sometimes dubbed "Biberman") has been a tactical failure - the constituent parts equal more than the combined whole by a wide margin.
Third, the surprise new party (and there always seems to be at least one each election cycle) has got to be Lapid's. Livni's new party and its single-digit results has been described as a bitter disappointment for her. What we are likely seeing is the scattering of Kadima voters (who might be described as right-centrists) for smaller factions. And the rebranding of the old NRP under Bennett is notable (Likud Beiteinu defections?).
Finally - it is worth noting the recovery of Labor under Yachimovich to at least semi-respectable size, and the apparent doubling of the leftist bastion Meretz party.
Now let's look at the final polling numbers by breaking them down into the 3 aforementioned big blocs:

Right-Religious coalition - approx. 66
Center-Left "blocking" opposition - approx. 42
Arab parties - 11-12

And look! - bottom line...nothing changes. Only if there is a serious divergence - a swing from bloc to bloc of 7 or 8 seats - does there emerge a serious opportunity for Peres to entertain the option of turning to anyone other than Netanyahu to form the next government. Highly unlikely.
Netanyahu always has the option of reaching out to some of the Center-Left opposition in order to abandon the religious-Orthodox (a persistent pipe dream of secularists - and hinted at for a time in his short-lived national unity government of 2012), but his likely route to a stable coalition is to turn to his "natural" partners. Depending on the final numbers, that is what he will do.
Will there be any surprises? In other words, polls have a history of getting something wrong. What will be the electoral surprise of 2013? I think that the numbers for Bennett are too high - Israelis are enamored with his personal story, but there are many unpalatable forces underlying his rebranded party, and I suspect he won't do as well as the polling suggests. Expect a better outcome for Likud Beiteinu than 32, and a poorer showing for The Jewish Home than 13.
Finally, there is an interesting rule in Israeli parliamentary elections - a party must garner a minimum 2% of the raw vote in order to gain one seat in the Knesset. Are there any current parties who will fall below the threshold? Yes, possibly Mofaz and Kadima - the party created by Ariel Sharon in 2005 as a vehicle for implementing his short-lived and new-found conversion. Good riddance to pointless Kadima.
Will any tiny party break through the threshold in 2013? I always hold out hope for Green Leaves (`Alei Yaroq) - the decriminalization of marijuana party, now trying to recast itself as an economic, anti-corruption party. Much more likely is Strength to Israel (`Otzmah la-Yisrael), a rightist splinter group.
Bottom line - to repeat - nothing changes. One of the most pointless and insubstantial Israeli elections in history. Then comes the month-long rug-trading to form a coalition. That's where the story - if any - will emerge.

Sunday, January 06, 2013

First Look at 2013 Israeli Elections

One of the most volatile and fickle electorates in the world - certainly in the Middle East - is about to go to the polls. I've not ventured yet into the thorny subject of the 2013 Kenesset elections in Israel, as has been my wont in elections past, because I firmly believed this election would not be decided until the last few weeks of campaigning. I just didn't believe the story was worth my time - not until the shifting political players had finally dug in for the final push. And we've now reached that point.

Outgoing (and the smart money says incoming) PM Benyamin Netanyahu has been enjoying a comfortable lead in opinion polls, and the left-center potential opposition has been fractured, rudderless, and ineffective. Thus, every imaginable pundit and pollster has predicted a comfortable majority for an even harder right Netanyahu-led coalition once the voting takes place.

But as any seasoned Israeli election watcher ought to remember, there is a general rule of thumb that renders all early punditry meaningless: there is a solid, consistent 40% of the Israeli electorate which votes for the right/religious/nationalist parties (the "Fortress Israel" crowd), and a solid, consistent 40% of the Israeli electorate which votes for the left/secular/centrist parties (the accommodating "peace process" crowd). It is the 20% perennial undecideds, the moody feel-it-in-their-kishkes Israeli voters, who make the difference. These bipolar voters often do not decide until the final 48 hours of a campaign.

And this year, despite the collective wisdom of the pundits, the undecideds are definitely in play.

It looks for the moment like the undecideds are leaning to the right. That's why all the polls are showing an easy majority for "Fortress Israel." But now that the election, which has been bereft of issues and debate-free (not a single one has been scheduled between any of the principal contenders), is heating up, watch for some surprises. I'll try to highlight some of these surprises in the coming days.

Take this weekend: the most recent former heard of the General Security Service (known in Hebrew as shabak - think of the FBI with spycraft and special ops) gave an interview published Friday in Israel's largest circulation daily newspaper, in which he labelled Netanyahu and outgoing Defense Minister Ehud Barak as unfit to lead the nation. We've heard these complaints from other former Israeli intelligence chiefs - but the gravitas of Yuval Diskin's critique is a carefully timed body blow to Netanyahu's carefully messaged narrative of a strong national leader.

Will Diskin's charges have any effect on the undecideds? There are new and untested parties and political figures in the hunt, and thus there is no historical data for predicting how Israeli voters will respond to reading yet again of credible doubts concerning their current PM. Unfortunately, there has yet to emerge any Nate Silver-like authority who has an accurate read of voter preferences, and historically, pre-election polls are often wildly off the mark.

So I'll simply put it this way: it's time to start paying attention to the campaign. All the electoral verities of the last 2-1/2 months are melting away in the harsh light of the looming election scheduled for January 22.

Election Day may yet turn out to be an easy rout for Netanyahu. But don't lay odds just yet. The game has finally begun.