Forward Thinking

Israel's Got No Business Banning Nazi Symbols

By Brent E. Sasley

A swastika symbol painted on the wall of a synagogue in Petah Tikva, Israel. / Getty Images

Israel’s Ministerial Committee for Legislation voted for a bill yesterday that, if it passes three readings in the Knesset, would impose penalties on those who use the term “Nazi” as a comparison, employ Nazi symbols, or call in some way for the work the Nazis began (killing the Jews) to be finished. Those who break the law could face a 100,000 shekel fine and six months in prison. But while Nazi comparisons are abhorrent, the law itself is dangerous and anti-democratic.

The bill — a second effort after a similar bill was proposed in 2012 — has broad backing for now. It was sponsored by Likud-Beiteinu, Yesh Atid, and Hatnua, while some members in Labor have in the past expressed support. And we can easily discern worthy motives behind it. Settlers fighting forced evacuation by the state have used Nazi symbols to claim the government is as evil as Hitler. In 2011, to protest the Haredi draft, several Orthodox demonstrators dressed in uniforms that resembled concentration camp clothing, complete with yellow star. Civil dialogue is difficult under these conditions, to say nothing of the deadly atmosphere that can be created when these accusations are carried too far — for example, the murder of Yitzhak Rabin.

And yes, comparing people you disagree with to Nazis is ridiculous and immoral. There simply hasn’t been any group or regime like the Nazis, who didn’t just torture and murder millions of people, but created the most efficient systems and organizations for doing so. The Holocaust isn’t the only case of mass killing in human history, but it is unique.

Moreover, because the term is associated with such horrific and sadistic acts of violence, calling your enemies or opponents “Nazis” obscures the real issues at stake, because of the emotional reactions and overly-sensationalist assumptions the name evokes. This, in turn, makes it that much harder to construct policies to resolve the problem or conflict at hand.

But Nazi comparisons are not for the Israeli state to forbid. Doing so only serves as a restriction on what citizens can say about their country and opens the door to further limitations on their freedom of expression.

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Jonathan Pollard and the Spying-on-Israel Scandal

By Sigal Samuel

Israelis call for the release of Jonathan Pollard on March 19, 2013 in Jerusalem, Israel.

“Hypocritical.” “Illegitimate.” “Unacceptable.” All these words and more are being used in Israeli political circles to describe Friday’s revelation that the NSA spied on former prime minister Ehud Olmert and former defense minister Ehud Barak in 2009.

And how does the Israeli right wing believe its government should respond to this revelation? Well, it should demand that the U.S. release Israeli-American spy Jonathan Pollard, a man sentenced to life in prison after he was convicted of spying for Israel, pronto. Because, obviously, right?

This reaction is so absurd that not even Netanyahu — a longtime Pollard advocate — can assent to it. He agrees that the NSA espionage constitutes an egregious breach of trust between allies — as he made clear in a statement Monday. And he agrees that Pollard should be freed — as he reiterated Sunday in a renewed request for Pollard’s release. But even he is too embarrassed to suggest there’s any sort of causal link between the NSA espionage and the case for clemency where Pollard is concerned. In fact, he went out of his way to clarify that his request “is neither conditional on, nor related to, recent events, even though we have given our opinion on these developments.”

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When Bibi and Peres Crooned Arik Einstein

By Ben Sales

(JTA) — Amid the grief over the passing of iconic Israeli singer Arik Einstein, the internet has given us a gem: Bibi Netanyahu and Shimon Peres — together, in the nineties — singing one of Einstein’s best-known songs, “Ani v’Ata” (You and I).

The clip starts with Israeli celebrities Ofra Haza and Dan Shilon singing the song on stage, but at about 1:30 they descend to Bibi and Peres, who stand and somewhat awkwardly sing along. Bibi — who wrote not one but two Facebook posts mourning Einstein yesterday — adds his confident baritone to the melody.

Peres, though, doesn’t appear to know the words to one of Israel’s most famous songs. After joining in for the opening line, his mouth hardly moves and we can barely hear his voice. I guess, unlike me, Peres was not forced to sing “Ani v’Ata” over and over at Jewish summer camp as a child.

The video’s description says it was shot in 1995 and calls Bibi the prime minister and Peres former prime minister.

But in 1995, Bibi led the Knesset opposition while Peres served as foreign minister under Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. One year later, Bibi would edge Peres out in an upset election victory. Now, of course, Bibi is prime minister and Peres is Israel’s president.

See the video below:

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Is Haredi Draft Glass Full — or Empty?

By Nathan Jeffay

After years of debate, pressure and protest, on Sunday Israel’s cabinet approved legislation to draft ultra-Orthodox men for national service. The lobby that agitated for legislation has been quick to label it a sellout, counter-productive, and a passing of the buck.

Pro-draft activists say that they wanted a law that makes service for Haredim compulsory immediately, while the actual legislation defers compulsion to serve until 2017. And as they point out, this means leaving the big task of implementing the draft until after the next elections.

They are right to be disappointed, as the government did promise to deliver the draft, and all it looks set to do is deliver the blueprint for one which may or may not end up being implemented after the next national poll. But in their pessimistic forecast they overlook an important fact.

They successfully pushed the issue of the draft to center stage in the last election, and made it a key campaigning issue. They created the unexpected scenario where the distribution of power meant that a coalition could be built that excluded Haredi parties, and legislation proposing a Haredi draft could actually pass the cabinet. This is further than any government has got on the issue in 65 years.

The government’s dragging out of the issue doesn’t mean it will get lost — but that it will probably dominate another election.

The parties in this government can’t go to the public ahead of the next election with just a general pro-draft position. Implementation time for the draft plan will be approaching, and the public will want guarantees that they will see through implementation. The draft issue is too electorally lucrative for them to abandon it — and to allow the parties to benefit from it the public will want a promise of further progress.

It is, indeed, rather cynical that the government is putting off implementing the draft until the next elections, but this doesn’t mean it is shelving the plan — but rather that its parties want to squeeze the electoral benefit out of it for a second election. If the pro-draft lobby keeps the pressure on, then the next election could all be about the implementation of the Haredi draft. True it will have taken two elections not one, but they may well yet succeed in forcing a government to take the challenge of implementation seriously.

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Bibi Wins Battle of Temple Mount — For Now

By Nathan Jeffay

Moshe Feiglin

We have watched the meteoric rise of Benjamin Netanyahu’s nemesis in the ruling Likud party with considerable interest. Moshe Feiglin has been battling for years to represent the party in Knesset for years, and finally in this year’s general election, he was too strong for the party establishment to stop him.

However, his fight was never just for a Knesset seat, but to institute his agenda in the party — and he seemed of recent to be making progress. This week, however, Feiglin finds himself more marginalized in his party than for years, and stripped of his position on an important Knesset committee.

Close to the top of Feiglin’s agenda is the issue of Temple Mount — he ascends monthly, and strongly argues against the site’s management by a Muslim trust and against the Israeli regulation that Jews can’t pray publicly there.

Earlier this month, Netanyahu banned Feiglin from going to the Mount, claiming that given his lawmaker credentials his visits there could prove a threat to public security. Feiglin reacted by suspending himself from the coalition. “I knew there would eventually be a crisis of confidence between me and the coalition over one diplomatic move or another, but I certainly did not think it would come so soon,” he said..

With no end in sight to his coalition rebellion, he has been replaced on the Knesset Education Committee. But there’s no sympathy from the rest of Likud, even lawmakers who are ideologically drawn to Feiglin’s position on Temple Mount.

Why? Because Netanyahu has strategically brought other right-wingers in the party close to him. For example, the keen rightist Yariv Levin, who would’ve been an obvious candidate to side with Feiglin, is now the coalition chairman whose job it is to discipline Feiglin for his boss Bibi. And Levin is also his replacement on the Education Committee.

It seems that Netanyahu has used the Temple Mount, the cause that many expected Feiglin to employ to catapult his political career forward, to rein him in.

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'Dormant' Arab Peace Plan Gets Annual Tune-up

By J.J. Goldberg

getty images
John Kerry

American and Israeli press outlets (Washington Post/AP, Detroit Free Press, Times of Israel, Arutz Sheva/Israel National News) are carrying unsourced reports that Secretary of State Kerry, currently visiting Turkey, Israel and the Palestinian Authority, is hoping to revive Israeli-Palestinian peace talks on the basis of the “dormant” Arab Peace Initiative, which is “suddenly” springing back to life.

That would be the Saudi-initiated plan adopted unanimously by the League of Arab States in 2002, and reaffirmed in 2007. It offered Israel full recognition, normalized diplomatic relations and a formal end to the Arab-Israeli conflict in return for a return to the pre-1967 borders and an “just” and “agreed” resolution of the Palestinian refugee problem. Kerry reportedly wants to dust off the supposedly long-forgotten plan and introduce certain “sweeteners,” such as better security guarantees and border modifications, to make it more palatable to Israel, which has never formally responded to the offer.

The funny thing is, from the Arab point of view the plan isn’t dormant at all. It turns out the Arab League considers it very much alive and actually has a standing Peace Initiative Follow-up Committee that’s been meeting regularly (2010, 2011, 2012 to discuss the plan and figure out how to get it moving. The committee is meeting today in Doha, Qatar, with the Palestinian Authority’s president Mahmoud Abbas, foreign minister Riyad Malki and chief negotiator Saeb Erekat in attendance, to finalize plans for a delegation of foreign ministers that will go to Washington on April 29 to meet with Kerry.

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Meeting Obama: Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon

By Nathan Jeffay

Moshe Ya’alon was one of the first ministers that Obama met for more than a handshake and a brief chat, as he was part of the small party that accompanied him to the Iron Dome.

Moments before they viewed the installation, Obama said: “We stand together because peace must come to the Holy Land,” which for him means the two-state solution. “Even as we are clear eyed about the difficulties, we will never lose sight of the vision of an Israel at peace with its neighbors.”

Well, actually, Ya’alon is pretty clear that he’s lost sight of the kind of vision for peace Obama refers to. He is a left-winger who has taken a sharp turn. As the Forward reported last week, he thinks that the two-state option is a lost cause, and has said that anybody who sees a solution on the horizon is engaging in “self-deception” and promoting a “golden calf.”

And Ya’alon, while often portrayed as restrained on the issue of Iran, has been rather cutting about where Obama stands on the issue in the past. Early last year he claimed that his administration was too cautious over imposing sanctions on Iran because of “election year considerations.” Britain and France, he said, were being very firm on sanctions, but not so America.

“In the United States, the Senate passed a resolution, by a majority of 100-to-one, to impose these sanctions, and in the U.S. administration there is hesitation for fear of oil prices rising this year, out of election-year considerations,” he said. “In that regard, this is certainly a disappointment, for now.”

Ya’alon’s predecessor Ehud Barak signed off settlement building plans, as is required of his office, but wasn’t pro-active in this area, delayed a lot of applications, and evacuated some illegal settler homes. Ya’alon by contrast is enthusiastic about settlements, and sees them growing.

When the last Israeli government, Washington often communicated with Barak out of preference to with Netanyahu, finding his positions, in some respects, close to those of Washington. Obama’s encounter with Ya’alon will have directed his attention on just how different the atmosphere between Washington and this government office is likely to become over the coming months.

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Back to Future for Obama at Ben Gurion Airport

By Nathan Jeffay

getty images
President Barack Obama

It was like a return from the dead today at Ben Gurion Airport’s Terminal 1. Ever since it was replaced by a newer terminal a decade ago, it has been a graveyard of abandoned conveyor belts, gaps where vending machines used to be, and check-in desks for a couple of budget airlines that can’t afford the main passenger-check facilities. But this morning it leaped back in to life as the HQ for the first part of Barack Obama’s Israel visit.

Press and security officials started arriving at 6am Israel time, ahead of his landing at 12.25 p.m. All 1,000 of them passed through Terminal 1 for repeated security checks, ready to board buses to an especially constructed outdoor stadium next to the landing spot for Air Force One.

In the stadium, as soon as they saw the sun shining staff pulled the rainproof plastic wrapping off the newly laid red carpet. But it’s going to take more than good weather to make this trip a success, given the troubled background between Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Obama and Bibi have met nine times in the past, and it’s never particularly easy, given the very different ideological orientations of the two, personal discord, and deep divisions on the issue of settlements. But this time is even more complicated, given the fact that only on Monday, Bibi inaugurated his new government which is a far from Obamaphile line-up.

As the visit progresses, here at Forward.com we’ll be taking a look at where some members of the new ministerial team stand on the issues that are important to Obama, the first being Israel’s new Minister of Defense Moshe Ya’alon, who will be accompanying him to see an Iron Dome battery shortly after he lands.

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New Israeli Defense Chief: Tough-talking Hardliner

By J.J. Goldberg

Ynet.co.il, the news site associated with Yediot Ahronot, has a profile of incoming Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon (known since his youth by the nickname “Boogy”). It’s important reading, so I’ve translated it below.

Here’s the background that’s not in the profile: Born Moshe Smilansky in 1950, raised in suburban Haifa, he was active in the Noar Oved ve-Lomed youth movement and was in a garin (settlement group) named Garin Yaalon (from which he took his name), which joined with a sister garin from American Habonim to rebuild Kibbutz Grofit near Eilat. He returned to the army after the Yom Kippur War in 1973 and rose through the ranks. Commanded the elite Sayeret Matkal commando unit, became chief of Military Intelligence in 1995 and chief of Central Command, in charge of the West Bank, in 1998. During this period he underwent a famous conversion from left- to right-wing, claiming publicly that he now realized the Palestinians had no intention of making peace. In 2002 he became chief of staff, serving three years after Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz denied him the customary fourth-year extension due to his outspoken opposition to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s Gaza disengagement plan. It’s worth noting that of the 18 living ex-chiefs of the IDF, Mossad and Shin Bet, he is the only one who opposes a two-state solution. - JJG

Political Hawk and Loose Tongue

Moshe “Boogy” Yaalon called his General Staff colleagues “snakes” and the organizations on the left “a virus.” He believes that evacuating settlements is “perverse” and that the IDF can attack any nuclear installation in Iran. Over the years Yaalon’s statements have reflected a determined, activist security philosophy. In his gunsights: leftists, Turks and of course Ehud Barak.

By Roy Mandel, Ynet 3/18/13

In April 2012 Moshe “Boogy” Yaalon absorbed criticism at home when he dared to declare that he was Benjamin Netanyahu’s heir and would one day run for the leadership of the Likud and the country. The prime minister, as we learned from the negotiations with Yair Lapid, does not like politicians who openly declare that the house on Balfour Street is the object of their dreams. But ever so quietly, under the radar and almost without opposition, the former chief of staff has found himself in an excellent launching pad for the fulfillment of his vision, now that he has been named defense minister in Israel’s 33rd government. The man who declared on the day he was demobilized from the IDF that he was careful to keep his boots on at General Staff headquarters because of all the snakes will soon enter much taller shoes and march in them to his new office, which is located in the same General Staff compound, the Kiryah.

Moshe Yaalon, ID no. 2057989, is a kibbutznik who returned to active duty after the 1973 Yom Kippur War, a retired chief of staff, the commander of the IDF during the second half of the second intifada and a person who ended his military service in grating tones when his tenure was not extended on the eve of the Gaza disengagement. Now, after a term as minister for strategic affairs, he is returning to run the entire system.

The man who led a hawkish line at the General Staff and in the government, who believed that Yasser Arafat had never deviated from his goal of destroying the state of Israel, who insisted that the paradigm of two states for two peoples was unworkable—will now navigate the security establishment, effectively oversee millions of Palestinians and deal with Israel’s security and strategic challenges. Many on the dovish side of the political and military map fear that his line will drag Israel into diplomatic and security complications.

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Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Yom Kippur War, Yisrael Hasson, Yasser Arafat, Turkey, Turkel Commission, Shin Bet, Shaul Mofaz, Second Lebanon War, Second Intifada, Sayeret Matkal, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Plessner Committee, Palestinians, Palestinian Authority, Noar Oved ve-Lomed, Mossad, Moshe Yaalon, Moshe Smilansky, Moshe Feiglin, Mavi Marmara, Likud, Lebanon, Kibbutz Grofit, Kadima, Jewish Leadership, Iran, Hezbollah, Harpaz Report, Gaza Disengagement, Ehud Barak, Dana Weiss, Dan Shomron, Ariel Sharon, Benjamin Netanyahu

Israel's Big Losers — Not Just Ultra-Orthodox

By Nathan Jeffay

Dizzying Fall: It’s not just the Haredim that got shafted. Kadima boss Shaul Mofaz capped a dizzying fall from grace by being left out of the cabinet.

The Forward looks today at some of the winners in Israel’s new coalition deal, but who are the losers?

Apart from the obvious answer which is the Haredi parties, who were left out in the cold, Kadima leader Shaul Mofaz is one of the biggest losers. His party has just two seats in the new Knesset, and it is difficult bit to conclude that it will disappear in the next elections — if it survives that long.

Mofaz could have negotiated a coalition spot with a half-decent ministry to salvage at least his own political prospects if not those of his party. But instead of cutting a deal with Prime Minister and Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu he tried to align himself with Jewish Home and Yesh Atid when they were in their hard-bargaining phase. So he got snubbed by Bibi.

Also punished by Bibi was Reuven Rivlin, who has been critical of what he regards as his autocratic and pushy leadership style. Rivlin, who belongs to Likud, has questioned Bibi’s commitment to democratic principles. He has been replaced as Knesset speaker by Yuli Edelstein and left without a ministry — despite the fact that he won seventh spot in Likud’s primaries back in November.

A third loser is Likud’s Gideon Sa’ar, who had the humiliation of having his ministry, Education, given away to Yesh Atid. Though many educationalists regard him as a reactionary, he was keen to stay in the Education Ministry, where he claims he is making positive changes. He may become Interior Minister, though it is currently unclear if he will receive a ministerial appointment at all.

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Labor's Turn To Play Ball With Bibi?

By Nathan Jeffay

The official deadline on Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition building falls this weekend, but with just one faction on board apart from his own — the six-seat Tzipi Livni Party — he is still short of the Knesset majority he needs.

Only 37 of the Knesset’s 120 seats are in the bag, meaning that another 24 are needed for a majority — and many more for the kind of majority that Netanyahu wants. He is desperate for a coalition large enough that no single party can bring it down.

Netanyahu’s Likud-Beytenu faction says that it is close to a deal with Jewish Home, and announced today that it will meet with Yesh Atid tomorrow, but relations are far from simple with both of these potential partners. Which leads some to ask, could it be the time for Labor to re-enter the game?

Labor said that it wouldn’t serve in a rightist-led government, but the slow progress in coalition building has led to this suggestion being raised from the most unexpected of quarters: the staunchly left-wing Yossi Beilin, former Labor and Meretz lawmaker.

Beilin, who initiated the secret negotiations with the Palestinians that led to the Oslo Accords, has written that things have changed since the January 22 election.

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Poll: New Vote Would Net Lapid 30 Seats, Bibi 22

By J.J. Goldberg

A new opinion poll shows that if Israel were to hold new elections today, Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party would win with 30 seats in the 120-member Knesset, up from its current 19, putting the former television personality in line to be prime minister, while Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud-Beiteinu would drop from 31 seats to 22. Naftali Bennett’s pro-settler Jewish Home party would gain three seats for a total of 15, while the Labor Party would drop two seats to 13. The poll of 510 respondents, released Thursday, was conducted by Panels Ltd. for the Knesset Channel.

A second poll, conducted by Maagar Mochot for Maariv and published Friday, gave Lapid 24 seats and Netanyahu 28. Bennett would rise to 13 and Shas to 12, while Labor would drop to 11 and Kadima would disappear.

Israelis could be forced to return to the ballot box this spring if Netanyahu fails to assemble a coalition by mid-March. President Shimon Peres could forestall new elections by tapping another candidate to try and form a coalition within two weeks after Netanyahu’s deadline runs out, but at present no such coalition seems likely.

At present, new elections are looking more likely than any other option. Since the January 22 elections Netanyahu has managed to sign one coalition deal, with the dovish Tzipi Livni and her six-seat Hatnuah party, promising Livni the Justice Ministry and control of negotiations with the Palestinian Authority. To win a 61-seat majority he now needs to sign two of the next four largest parties—either Yesh Atid (with 19 seats), Labor (15), Jewish Home (12) or Shas (11). But under current conditions, any such combination is impossible, because no two parties have indicated any willingness to sit together. Here’s how the breakdown breaks down:

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What Is Tzipi Livni Thinking?

By Nathan Jeffay

Given that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is hardly famed for his enthusiasm on the peace process, it’s interesting that his first signing for his new coalition is the party that ran the campaign with the strongest make-peace-with-the-Palestinians emphasis

Today, Netanyahu recruited the six-seat Tzipi Livni Party, and announced that the party’s leader Tzipi Livni, will become a “senior partner” in the government on this issue. She is widely expected to lead negotiations, and will also serve as Justice Minister.

One wonders what was going through Livni’s mind as she made the agreement. She spoke of her “strategic and moral imperative” to “become a part of any government that commits to bringing peace.”

Now, when did she come to that conclusion? This statement showed a huge change in her thinking since the 2009 election. She won that poll, returning her then-party Kadima to Knesset as the largest party, but flatly refused to form a unity government or any other kind of alliance with Netanyahu. Then, going in with Likud would have made her Prime Minister; now, it will make her a “senior partner” on the Palestinian issue and Justice Minister.

Why was sitting with Likud inconceivable in 2009, but an imperative now? Has her political philosophy changed? If so, how?

It’s worth wondering where Israel would be is she had come to this conclusion back in 2009 and served as Prime Minister, either alone or in some type of rotation with Netanyahu. Would she have continued the progress of her predecessor Ehud Olmert towards peace — maybe even closed a deal? Would Kadima still be a large party instead of the shriveled two-seat entity it is today? And could Livni possibly be, right now, starting her second term as Prime Minister?

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Third Time Lucky for Bibi?

By Nathan Jeffay

getty images

Any hopes that Avigdor Liberman had for a quick trial in time to become part of Israel’s new government were dashed today, when his trial opened in Jerusalem and looked set to become a slow affair.

Yisrael Beytenu party head Liberman, who was Foreign Minister until he resigned to face his charges shortly before the election, is accused of fraud and breach of trust. He allegedly promoted an Israeli diplomat in gratitude for information in to a police investigation against him.

He pleaded not guilty and denied all charges against him. But Liberman will pay a heavy price for the trial whatever its outcome, as the timescale under discussion is lengthy, to May and beyond — long after the new government is in place. This means that there’s no way he’s going to be cleared and ready to take up his old job in the Foreign Ministry by the time the new government takes office later this month or next month.

For Liberman this is the ultimate frustration. His party was at an historic juncture — it ran the election on a joint ticket with the ruling Likud party bringing it closer than ever to the real power it has longed for since he set it up in 1999. He had taken Beytenu from a niche Russian speakers’ party to a mainstream party of the right, and this was his big break. Plus, ironically the investigation that had dogged him for years — the one about which the diplomat allegedly gave him information — has been dropped.

As if things can’t get worse for Liberman, his former right hand man in the party and the Foreign Ministry Danny Ayalon is expected to be one of the key witnesses and seems to have lots to say even before he appears in court. The Jerusalem Post reports that he has said that Liberman shouldn’t go back to the Foreign Ministry even if cleared, that the “world treated him like a leper,” and that while the diplomatic appointment in question was appropriate, he “put pressure [on the selection committee] to appoint certain people to the Foreign Service, which I succeeded in blocking, because I convinced him that they were not worthy.”

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Naftali Bennett Says 'No' to Bibi (Or Not Yet)

By Nathan Jeffay

The new star of the Israeli right may be heading for the opposition benches. Israeli media are reporting that Naftali Bennett and his religious-Zionist Jewish Home party have rejected an offer that would have made it part of the government with control of the Education Ministry and other prominent positions.

To Bennett’s irritation Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, head of the Likud-Beytenu alliance and convener of the new government, informed them of the offer via the media, so he rejected it via the media.

In addition to the education portfolio the Likud offer would have reportedly given the staunchly pro-settlement Jewish Home a socioeconomic portfolio and a deputy defense minister who would deal with settlements.

This is undoubtedly part of a bargaining game by Netanyahu and Bennett, along with a working through of bad blood that has existed been them since Bennett’s stint as his Chief of Staff, a position he left in 2008.

But it does appear that beneath all the negotiating talk, Bennett truly is unhappy with the offer, which is interesting. In years gone by the National Religious Party, the faction which rebranded to become Jewish Home, was excited at talk of holding the Education Ministry. One of its key priorities was impacting Jewish identity in the state, and it saw the educational realm as an important route for doing this.

The difference is that the NRP was focused on its religious-Zionist ideology and putting it in to action, and wanted the ministries that would best help it to do that. The Bennett Revolution in Jewish Home keeps largest of the ideology, but it’s all about making the party a contender to become the biggest mainstream right-wing faction in the country — he hopes bigger than Likud. Which is why, unlike most of his predecessors he sniffs at the Education Ministry and is desperate for a post where he feels that he can prove his ability to lead the nation. Can he bargain his way to what he considers real power? Well, let’s just say that nobody really believed that the leader of the formerly-niche immigrant party Yisrael Beytenu, Avigdor Liberman, could become Foreign Minister, and he held the position for the last Knesset session.

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Shaul Mofaz, Israel's Unlikely Kingmaker

By Nathan Jeffay

Could a politician who almost disappeared in to obscurity be poised to take up one of the most powerful positions in Israel?

It is safe to say that as chairman of the Kadima party Shaul Mofaz hasn’t been the greatest of successes. It’s hard to believe but Kadima was actually the biggest party in Knesset after the last election, yet in the poll 16 days ago it almost failed to pass the electoral threshold, and in the final reckoning scraped in with two seats.

To Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is busy building his coalition, every mandate counts, and ever since the election he has apparently been keen to get Kadima on board. Now, with US President Barack Obama set to visit Israel and focus attention on the peace process, wooing Kadima has become more attractive for Netanyahu — and he may well be prepared to make him Defense Minister.

Kadima has a reputation as centrist and pro-peace, and can help with the challenge of giving international credibility to his government on issues of peace. Though the party only has two lawmakers, it’s a pro-peace name on the list of coalition parties, which will allow him to present his government as more centrist. If he also persuades the six-seat Tzipi Livni Party to join, as expected, he will have notched up two pro-peace factions in his coalition — despite the fact that their smallness would compromise their ability to promote a diplomatic process with the Palestinians.

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Will Obama Israel Trip Be Lapid Love-In?

By Nathan Jeffay

getty images

Is Barack Obama’s upcoming visit to Israel going to turn into a Yair Lapid love-in?

The Israeli daily Yedioth Araronoth, suggested in its editorial yesterday that Obama decided to come because Netanyahu is currently weak — because of the staggering success of Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party. The administration is working on the premise that “Netanyahu won, but he really lost, and therefore, he will do what is demanded of him,” Yedioth estimated.

So, as a result of Lapid-the-centrist’s success “Obama is coming to press Netanyahu’s weak point after the Israeli people have had their say and partly disproved the American concern over an Israeli lurch to the right.”

For a further Yair Lapid-related aspect of the trip, some are suggesting that it will compel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to his Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party in his coalition. Take, for example, this Haaretz article which reports:

One [Israeli] source even argued that Obama’s visit, scheduled for late March, is so close on the heels of the Israeli election as to constitute “inappropriate interference” in local politics, and that it would pave the way for Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid into the Israeli coalition.

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The Cartoon and Anti-Semitic 'Mission Creep'

By Eddy Portnoy

When it comes to cartoons, it’s usually Muslim fundamentalists that throw hissy fits. But, in a turn of events, some of our storied communal defenders, Abraham Foxman and Marvin Hier among them, have been taking the lead. Indiscriminately tossing around accusations of anti-Semitism, our fearless leaders have attacked at least three editorial cartoonists over the past few months on charges that they have defamed the Jewish people.

Representing important institutions, you’d think that Foxman, of the Anti-Defamation League, and Hier, who represents the Simon Wiesenthal Center, might have figured out how to differentiate an anti-Semitic cartoon from an editorial cartoon that criticizes Israeli policy. Although both are undoubtedly experts on anti-Semitism, they both seem to take leave of their senses when it comes to criticism of Israel. And yet both claim to be ardent supporters of free speech. Except when it comes to that one thing, that Israel thing.

So when the London Times published a cartoon showing Benjamin Netanyahu cementing Palestinians between bricks of a wall, it was a perfect opportunity for Foxman to pipe up, accusing the cartoonist of evoking the blood libel. Britain’s Chief Rabbi opined that the cartoon caused “immense pain to the Jewish community in the UK and around the world.” The Israeli ambassador to Britain, who also chimed in on behalf of the International Jewry, argued that the cartoon added insult to injury, as it was published on European Holocaust Memorial Day.

Okay, so the cartoon and its timing were a bit ham-handed, for which Acting Editor of The Sunday Times Martin Ivens apologized. Gerald Scarfe, who has been visually excoriating British politicians since the late 1960s, was the artist behind Pink Floyd’s, The Wall. It appears, walls are, when all else fails, his fallback metaphor.

Sure, his cartoon wall dripping with Palestinian blood references the separation wall, which incidentally, isn’t particularly newsworthy right now, so it doubles as a symbol of Netanyahu’s recalcitrance vis-à-vis the peace process and how it crushes Palestinian life. Netanyahu comes in for some harsh criticism here, but so do all the other public figures Scarfe has drawn over the years. In fact, compared to Margaret Thatcher, Bibi gets off easy. It’s an obnoxious cartoon, but it’s not anti-Semitic. It’s also been removed from the Times website.

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What's Yair Lapid's Next Move?

By Nathan Jeffay

getty images
Yair Lapid

What is Yair Lapid’s next move?

The man who shocked Israel with a stunning showing in the elections could try to establish a “blocking coalition” by uniting parties that want to stop Benjamin Netanyahu from forming the next government. Labor would definitely be game for that, as would Meretz, Hadash, the Arab parties and probably the Tzipi Livni party. But according to the exit polls, there would not be quite enough mandates to make this possible.

If he could convince the Haredi Shas party he could make it work, and such a move may appeal to Shas’ recently returned dovish leader Arye Deri. However, given that Yesh Atid is all guns blazing to draft Haredim to the army and Shas is dead against the draft, it’s difficult to imagine Shas cooperating with Lapid.

Lapid’s other hope is that exit polls may have underestimated Livni’s showing and Labors. If this is the case he could pull off the blocking coalition.

But even without a blocking coalition, Lapid’s victory is big news. If the figures are right Netanyahu could form a coalition It means that Netanyahu could leave the Haredi parties out in the cold and push through the Haredi draft. If he did this Lapid, who after all went in to politics to become a minister, could negotiate handsome portfolios for his party — I predict he will become Education Minister. The other coalition partners would be the Tzipi Livni Party and Jewish Home.

The difficulty with this option is that both Yesh Atid and the Tzipi Livni Party say they wouldn’t enter a government that won’t negotiate for a peace deal, while Jewish Home is totally opposed to a two-state solution. This raises the possibility that Netanyahu could substitute Jewish Home for Shas and resolve to advance negotiations. It’s hard to imagine given that much of his party is against a Palestinian state, but it’s a possibility nevertheless.

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Bibi Faces Grim Math of Polls

By Nathan Jeffay

getty images

Exit polls are just out in Israel, and the results are, simply put, astonishing. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s list — an alliance between his Likud party and the further-right Yisrael Beytenu — was placed with 31 of the Knesset’s 120 seats according to all three polls that were conducted. The Yesh Atid party headed by political novice Yair Lapid, a popular journalist, surprised pollsters and is placing at 18 to 19 seats.

On the surface, this doesn’t seem amazing, but take a closer look. Netanyahu’s own Likud party will control just 20 seats if you discount Yisrael Beytenu’s seats. This is a very real calculation, as Yisrael Beytenu’s lawmakers will be loyal to their party leader Avigdor Liberman, and not necessarily to Netanyahu.

Labor looks set to come in close behind Yesh Atid with 17 seats. So what is the bottom line? Netanyahu probably will still get to form the coalition, but as a far weaker leader than he would have hoped. And he will do so with either a very strong opposition led by Lapid, or a powerful Lapid inside his coalition, trying to keep him central.

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