Israel’s new finance minister, Yesh Atid party leader Yair Lapid, gave his first Knesset speech as a cabinet minister on Monday, April 22, the opening day of the parliament’s spring session, and in defiance of longstanding tradition, he seemed to be thoroughly enjoying himself. Longtime Knesset observers say they can’t remember ever hearing such a frontal, direct confrontation with the Haredi parties from the Knesset rostrum.
Beforehand, the session heard six opposition motions of no-confidence, including several attacks on Lapid’s government budget proposal. Meir Porush of the opposition United Torah Judaism party (the seated man with the white beard; to his right, with a black beard, is UTJ’s Moshe Gafni) complained about the impact of the budget on Israel’s security and also charged that the government was “starving children.” Instead of defending his budget proposal, Lapid delivered a stinging, sarcastic attack on the Haredi parties.
If you understand Hebrew, it’s worth watching. In fact, even if you don’t understand Hebrew well, you can watch it while following along with my translation, which appears after the jump. Lapid’s exchange with the Haredi lawmakers goes up to 7:15. After that he begins to respond to a no-confidence motion of MK Moshe Mizrahi of Labor. I stopped translating after a few sentences of this exchange, because it starts getting into budget technicalities.
For context, you can read this Haaretz report on the proposed cuts in government budgets for Haredim. Also worth reading: this column on the speech and its fallout by Jerusalem Post commentator Ben Caspit, as well as we this one by Haaretz Jewish World writer Anshel Pfeffer on the challenges facing Lapid and this one by Haaretz columnist Carlo Strenger looking at ways Lapid and the Haredim can find common ground. But above all, watch Lapid, Porush and UTJ’s Israel Eichler go at each other. It’s great theater.
And my translation:
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s April 23 visit to Israel has yielded some interesting fallout. Not least is the apparent puncturing of the image his opponents tried to paint of a sworn enemy of Israel. Haaretz’s Chemi Shalev does a pretty nifty job of skewering the anti-Hagel crowd, suggesting satirically that the secretary’s effusive embrace of Israel and the huge new arms sale he announced (details of which are here and here) are meant to “lull Israel into a false sense of security,” which “will only make it easier” for Hagel, Obama & Co. “to fulfill their lifelong dream of ‘throwing Israel under a bus.’”
It’s a sinister plot, Shalev writes. Hagel couldn’t have changed his tune in response to the “intimidating” powers of the “Jewish lobby,” since we all know those powers are imaginary. The only other two possibilities are that he’s engaging in psychological warfare, to lower Israel’s guard—or that “Hagel’s critics were wrong.” But that last possibility, he concludes, “can’t possibly be true, because by now Hagel’s critics would have owned up to their mistake and profusely apologized, no?”
Also essential reading is this analysis of the Hagel visit by Bloomberg News columnist (and former Forward staffer) Jeffrey Goldberg (no, for the last time, he’s not me). The new weapons systems Israel is to receive, especially advanced long-distance radar systems, the KC-135 midair refueling tankers and the V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor transport aircraft (a combination helicopter and jet plane, never before sold to another country), all make it easier for Israel to attack Iran. But given Hagel’s longstanding opposition to attacking Iran, what does this sale mean? Goldberg makes two key points:
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:
Center-right commentator Shalom Yerushalmi at Maariv argues that the rockets from Gaza seem likely to turn the upcoming Israeli elections once again into a referendum on who has bigger guns, meaning a Likud reelection. Sadly, he says, that would again bury the election that seemed to be shaping up, the one that Israel deserves, the one that’s typical in normal democracies, over the country’s intolerable social and economic inequities.
This assumes, at least in part, that Israel launches a serious attack into Gaza to stop the rockets, in some sort of reprise of Operation Cast Lead in 2008-09. Military correspondents Amos Harel and Avi Issacharoff at Haaretz think that’s unlikely and will have to settle for less aggressive action, like resuming aerial targeted assassinations of Hamas leadership. They say Bibi’s freedom of action is limited because
…the diplomatic reality now is far different than it was when that offensive was launched in 2008: Israel fears a direct confrontation with the new regime in Egypt and it knows that neither the United States nor Europe will be as tolerant of a large-scale military operation this time around.
Here’s my question: Is it possible that Hamas has heated up the border, after close to three years of relative quiet (broken mainly by jihadi groups) because it wants the Likud to win – that it fears a possible victory by an Olmert- or Livni-led center-left leading to renewed negotiations with Abu Mazen? Is this Hamas’s bid to ward off a two-state solution and keep Palestine indivisible? I’m just saying …
Israel’s political map is about to upended when Netanyahu and Liberman go on television at 2 p.m. Eastern time to announce a joint Knesset run. They’re apparently not merging their parties but forming a joint list. The aim is to ensure that Bibi ends up with the largest Knesset bloc after the January 22 elections, guaranteeing that he can form the next government. A Haaretz poll last week showed that if Ehud Olmert enters the race atop a new list that includes Tzipi Livni and Yair Lapid, he would outscore the Likud by one seat, 25-to-24, and win the first shot at forming a coalition. An earlier Jerusalem Post poll showed the Olmert superlist doing even better, beating the Likud 31-27. News 1 reports today that Bibi and Liberman could jointly grab 40 seats, guaranteeing that they bury even an Olmert superlist.
The kink in the plan is the religious vote. Liberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party puts a very high priority on a secularist agenda. Haaretz reports today that the joint Bibi-Liberman list is expected to give high priority to Liberman’s secularist agenda, and might even reach out to bring Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party into a governing coalition. But the Likud relies heavily on religious voters who won’t like that. There’s a good chance that some of them will flee to the settler-based national-religious bloc, which appears to be running under a new banner that will join the Bayit Yehudi-NRP party with the National Union, reducing the Knesset strength of the Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu list. It’s possible, though, that some will break toward Shas, particularly now that Arye Deri is returning (sharing power with Eli Yishai, who remains no. 1 on the Knesset list but hands over the party chairmanship to Deri).
So the 60,000 shekel question becomes: Can Haim Ramon engineer a center-left coalition that brings back Olmert atop a new list uniting him and Livni with Lapid and Mofaz’s Kadima, and work out a platform that allows them to join after the election with Ramon’s old friend and fellow dove Arye Deri? Can the various personalities bury their egos and feuds and join together to restore the peace process and two-state solution before it dies forever?
Scanning our Twitter feed this morning we saw this unusual tweet from Haaretz, announcing that the paper’s employees were going on strike (the Forward has an online partnership with the Israeli paper in which we swap content).
And now Amos Schoken, the paper’s publisher, in an angry letter to his staff, lashed out, writing, “If it’s the fate of Haaretz to close, let it close now.”
Even though the method of transmission and Schoken’s response was something of a surprise, the strike was expected. Haaretz workers said yesterday that they would strike from 4 PM until midnight (Israel time) on Wednesday to protest the plan to lay off 100 employees and what they say has been management’s unwillingness to negotiate over further firings and cutbacks.
It appears that, at the very least, the strike will affect publication of the paper on Thursday.
It’s surely an irony of the current public spat between Israel and the White House: An Israeli government that tut-tuts every time important public figures speak their mind on Iran has no qualms about leaking sensitive information when it suits its own perceived interests.
Whatever the truth of the current spat between Jerusalem and Washington over whether Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tried to arrange a meeting with President Barack Obama, it grew out of Israeli leaks to the press. The White House denied that any meeting request was received, much less that Netanyahu was snubbed.
The dust-up highlights the contrast between the zipped lips Netanyahu expects of his critics in Israel on what he regards the ultra-sensitive Iran issue, and his own lack of resolve to be discrete to another vital element of the Iran issue, namely relations with the U.S. The leaks from his loyalists are only magnified by the fact that they are coming at the height of the American election campaign, in apparent violation of the unspoken rule against Israeli interference in domestic politics.
But many Israelis don’t scrutinize Netanyahu’s conduct in this way. What’s important to them isn’t why his office runs to the media with its grievances against the U.S., but why the Obama supposedly snubbed Netanyahu in the first place (people here are pretty certain that he did).
Mitt Romney started off his overseas tour on the wrong foot, with a series of gaffes in his first stop in London.
But the presumptive Republican nominee seems well aware of the pitfalls waiting ahead as he reaches Israel on Saturday night.
The main point for Romney is to avoid overtly criticizing President Barack Obama (he wants to adhere to the unwritten rule that partisan politics stops at the water’s edge) while expressing his views loud and clear.
Early reviews are he handled the balancing act well. The key is in the location of the interview.
Romney gave one interview to Israel Hayom on the sidelines of the VFW conference in Reno, Nevada. There, on U.S. soil, he felt free to throw punches at Obama regarding his relations with Israel. “I cannot imagine going to the United Nations, as Obama did, and criticizing Israel in front of the world,” he said. “You don’t criticize your allies in public to achieve the applause of your foes.”
He called Obama’s reference to the 1967 borders “not the right course for America to take” and said Obama “abandoned the freedom agenda” in his dealing with the democratic uprisings in the Arab world.
Israel’s state comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss, in his second-to-last report before retirement, delivers a searing critique of the Netanyahu-Barak government’s handling - make that catastrophic mishandling - of the lead-up to and aftermath of the May 2010 Turkish flotilla incident. The report charges haphazard, seat-of-the-pants decision making in place of planning, consultation and staff work. Yediot Aharonot political-military commentator Ron Ben-Yishai writes about the report’s broader implications for Israeli security - the evidence that Benjamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak simply ignore the elementary requirements (including legal requirements) of good defense and intelligence work when they make fateful decisions about Israel’s future. He worries - as do numerous other commentators in the last few days - about the fact that these are the guys who will decide whether or not to take Israel to war against Iran.
The report, and particularly Ben-Yishai’s analysis, flesh out what I wrote a few months ago about the disorder in Prime Minister Netanyahu’s bureau, with accent on his critical mishandling of the National Security Council set up three years ago, largely in response to his own legislative initiative as an opposition lawmaker before the 2009 election.
Having said all that, the most stunning piece I have read about the comptroller’s report and what’s not in it - namely the Israeli public’s response to the flotilla incident - is this blog post by Chemi Shalev in Haaretz.
In case you can’t get past the paywall, here’s the heart of his argument:
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to CNN:
Sanctions “better work soon” — so far they “haven’t rolled back the Iranian program — or even stopped it — by one iota.”
IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz to Haaretz:
The sanctions are beginning to bear fruit …
How do you know what they’re doing [building a bomb]? Netanyahu: Oh, we know.
IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz to Haaretz:
I don’t think Ayatollah Khamenei will take the next step and decide build a bomb … “I think the Iranian leadership is composed of very rational people.”
Two very important articles in Haaretz this week that shed light on the violent extremism emerging from the two main streams of Israeli Orthodoxy.
One, a feature article in today’s weekend section by senior correspondent Yair Ettinger, focuses on the growing furor over Haredi extremism, assaults on women’s rights and the violence in the Haredi sections of Bet Shemesh. He cites a open letter published this week by the top leader of the “Lithuanian” (non-Hasidic Haredi) wing, Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, urging Haredim to resist vocational education, military service and other efforts to integrate them into general society. Ettinger’s main point, though, is that Elyashiv’s letter, and the violent extremism of a few hundred fanatics, reflect the desperation of the losing side as pragmatism and economics drive more Haredim toward integration in the job market and the army.
Equally important is this news article from Wednesday’s paper, reporting that police have “discovered” the right-wing militants who attacked the Ephraim army base on the West Bank December 12 were mostly students at the Mercaz Harav yeshiva in Jerusalem, brought up to the base by chartered bus following careful surveillance of the base by activist leaders. This punches a big hole in all the hand-wringing and whining by settler leaders and their apologists (see here, here and here) about the rioters being a rabble of alienated, out-of-control hilltop youth and “violent youth gangs” beyond the reach of the rabbis and responsible Religious Zionist leadership. Mercaz Harav is the Harvard of Religious Zionism and the birthplace of the settler movement. What happens there isn’t outside the mainstream. It is the mainstream.
Haaretz’s Chemi Shalev scores an interview (via email) with Ron Paul, who seems to think he’s the only true Zionist in the race. How’s that? Well, Paul says,
Two of the tenets of a true Zionist are “self-determination” and “self-reliance.” I do not believe we should be Israel’s master but, rather, her friend. We should not be dictating her policies and announcing her negotiating positions before talks with her neighbors have even begun.
Paul also tells Chemi that American support for Israel was “a major factor” in causing the September 11 attacks (though he adds: “That in itself does not make our policies right or wrong”). Also of note: He has “no intention or interest in running as a third party candidate.”
Also worth a read: Chemi’s previous blog post, laying out the most cogent case I’ve seen yet that Obama may be preparing an attack on Iran’s nuclear installations as an October surprise.
And speaking of vital interviews on contemporary Jewish affairs, don’t miss this clip in which Scarlett Johansson aces (almost) MTV host Josh Horowitz’s Jewish literacy quiz. Key moments: Johansson defending gefilte fish, singing “I Have a Little Dreidel” (watch her non-Jewish co-star Matt Damon squirm as he tries to keep up with the rapid-fire questioning):
If you’ve been following the news in the American and international press, you’ve probably heard that the unity talks between Fatah and Hamas have reached a new and alarming phase. According to an Associated Press report that’s been widely reproduced, Hamas has agreed to join the Fatah-dominated umbrella Palestine Liberation Organization, the body that has been negotiating with Israel for the past 20 years, which “could have deep repercussions. Hamas has opposed the peace talks and rejects Israel’s right to exist. A strong Hamas voice in the group would further complicate the already troubled Mideast diplomatic process.” Not surprisingly, “Israeli officials reacted with alarm to the emerging agreement.”
But the Hebrew press is telling a different story. Both Haaretz and Ynet report—in their Hebrew versions only—that Hamas has agreed, as a condition of joining the PLO, to discontinue “armed struggle” against Israel and apparently has agreed to accept Palestinian statehood within the 1967 borders, alongside Israel.
The Ynet report quotes Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas directly, from an interview he gave to a Belgian television network a month ago, stating flatly that Hamas political secretary Khaled Meshaal had accepted both those conditions. The article appears in English translation on the Ynetnew.com website in a truncated version with the paragraph on Hamas peace concessions excised. Here’s what the original Hebrew version says:
The Israel Labor Party chose a new leader in a primary runoff on Tuesday. The winner, Shelly Yacimovich, is a former television news anchor whom polls show to have the most realistic chance of leading the battered party back to major-party status after a decade of what has seemed like terminal decline.
Yacimovich (ya-khee-MO-vitch) is a fiery, sometimes abrasive personality best known for her strong economic populism. She’s considered a moderate on the Palestinian issue, especially after an August Haaretz interview in which she infuriated the left by opposing boycotts and demonization of the settlements.
The latest polls show that Labor under her leadership would win 22 seats in the 120-member Knesset right now, up from the 13 seats it received in the last elections in 2009 (five of which bolted with Ehud Barak in January to form the pro-Netanyahu Independence Party). Most of those gains would come at the expense of Kadima, which would drop from its current 28 to 22, bringing it down to parity with Labor.
She is the first woman to lead Labor since Golda Meir in the early 1970s. She is also the first realistic contender for the Israeli prime ministership with a non-Hebraicized Galut family name. That sounds trivial, but it’s actually a serious moment of passage for Israel in its confrontation with the Jewish past, on which there will be more to say down the road.
The Republican upset victory in the Brooklyn-Queens special election to replace ex-Rep. Anthony Weiner is obviously bad news for Democrats. But it has more far-reaching ramifications, most of them bad, according to this take by Haaretz’s new New York bureau chief, former CNN commentator and onetime Forward Jerusalem correspondent Chemi Shalev.
Shalev thinks there are plenty of reasons for Democrat David Weprin’s loss, including anger at Obama over the miserable economy and especially the influence of social issues among the district’s many conservative Catholics and Orthodox Jews. But Republicans are certain to package it big time the way former mayor Ed Koch pitched it, as a “message” to President Obama about his policies toward Israel. (Here’s what the Republican Jewish Coalition is saying the morning after.) And that could cause a heap of very real collateral trouble, Shalev says.
For one thing, there’s going to be a negative impact on Jews and pro-Israel advocacy within the larger American body politic.
Emboldened by their astonishing achievement in a district held by the rival Democrats throughout the past 88 years, the Republicans are bound to try and exploit their newly-found “wedge issue” in order to pry the proverbial “Jewish vote” away from its historic Democratic tilt. In the process, many Jewish leaders fear, the Republicans may irreparably erode the bedrock of bipartisanship that has characterized U.S. support for Israel for many decades. And by appealing to the Jews to “vote Israel” at the expense of all other considerations, they maintain, the Republicans may also be lending credence, albeit inadvertently, to the age-old canard of “dual loyalty” leveled at American Jews by their detractors.
Beyond that, it’s likely to increase tensions in the Middle East. Here’s where Shalev, for years one of Israel’s most respected diplomatic writers, gets most subtle and alarming:
With political and social upheaval sweeping the Middle East, Israel is threatened by a tsunami of hand-wringing, angst-ridden warnings of impending doom. New York Times Jerusalem bureau chief Ethan Bronner summed up the situation in this news analysis over the weekend. Here is Reuters’ Crispian Balmer on the issues a week earlier, and here’s Haaretz’s Amir Oren the day before that.
There are basically four main worries: Bronner sums them up neatly:
As angry rallies by Egyptians outside the Israeli Embassy in Cairo this week have shown, Israel’s relationship with Egypt is fraying. A deadly exchange of rockets fired at southern Israel and Israeli airstrikes on Hamas-controlled Gaza this week showed the risk of escalation there. Damaged ties with Turkey are not improving. Cooperation with the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank seems headed for trouble.
Possible solutions all carry their own down-sides. Turkey insists its ties with Israel won’t improve unless and until Israel apologizes for the deaths of the nine Turks killed in the storming of the Mavi Marmara last year, but Jerusalem doesn’t want to because it feels it has nothing to apologize for. Security cooperation with the Palestinian Authority depends on restoring diplomatic momentum toward a peace agreement, but the Palestinians are headed down a dangerous unilateral road via the U.N., and they say they won’t come back to the table unless Israel either halts settlement construction or agrees to base future borders on the pre-1967 armistice lines. Israel was committed to do both in the 2003 Road Map but the government finds both unpalatable.
And then there’s this: As Bronner reports,
Last weekend, officials were contemplating a major military assault on Gaza. But that plan was shelved by the crisis that emerged with Egypt, by the realization that Hamas itself was uninvolved in the terrorist attack and by the worry about how such an assault would affect other countries’ views during the United Nations debate of a Palestinian resolution in September.
It’s all very awkward. And complicated.
The increasingly progressive Atlantic Monthly correspondent and former Forward staffer Jeffrey Goldberg (for the last time, no, we’re not the same person) posted a link on his blog Tuesday to an online essay — which he called “hard to disagree with” — by senior research fellow Hussein Ibish of the American Task Force on Palestine. Here’s the excerpt Goldberg posted on his blog:
The anti-boycott law isn’t about protecting Israel from boycotts that target the country in general, because basically these don’t exist in reality. It’s about protecting the settlers from boycotts of settlement goods, a movement that is very real and growing, especially in Europe. But the anti-boycott law is only the tip of the iceberg in a profoundly anti-democratic shift in Israeli political attitudes. This is partly a consequence of a siege mentality, but it also has a great deal to do with demographic shifts among the Jewish population.
The large Russian immigrant community is better organized than ever, and the extreme religious community is growing at a much faster pace than the rest of Israeli society. Both constituencies are pushing Israel toward a new form of authoritarianism, within Jewish society.
For the record, I’ve been writing about this Israeli demographic shift for a couple of years now: (Here and here with numbers on the overall demographic trend; here, here and here on the way it’s affecting the army and the alarm within the General Staff over the topic.) Up to now the issue hasn’t much entered the public discourse in this country, partly because it’s obscure and rarely hits the front pages in Israel; partly, too, because it touches on some pretty radioactive Jewish sensibilities. It seems like it’s taken the Boycott Law and the larger debate over anti-democratic legislation (here is a pretty sharply framed Haaretz piece on the trend) to put it on the agenda here.
The Israeli financial newspaper, Globes, reported some more details on Leonid Nevzlin’s recent purchase of 20% of Haaretz. I wrote about the initial news on Sunday and wondered whether this said something about the political diversity of the Russian Jewish community in Israel. The idea that Nevzlin — even if only a constituency of one — was revealing himself as a Russian Jew of the left by buying part of (and helping to keep alive) the biggest leftist brand around hinged on him signing on to the paper’s editorial line.
Even though Nevzlin tried to get the message out this weekend that there was no ideological motive behind the buy, Amos Schocken provided Globes with an agreement that the one-time oligarch endorsed. It’s the same six principles that Schocken made an earlier German investor put his signature on, agreeing that, “The editorial principles of “Haaretz” will be preserved.”
The Israeli paper Haaretz, reported yesterday that Leonid Nevzlin, whom I described last year as the Russian oligarch “who got away,” just purchased 20% of the company’s shares. Its value: 700 million shekels. This leaves the legendary Schocken family, owners of the paper since 1937, with a 60% stake (David Remnick recently had an illuminating profile of Amos Schocken), and the publishing company DuMont Schauberg of Cologne, Germany, with the last 20%.
It’s still too early to say what this means for the paper, but Nevzlin is a fascinating character who only barely escaped the fate of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, his onetime business partner, when he arrived in Israel in 2003. He has since remade himself into a Jewish philanthropist, bolstering projects that promote ” Jewish peoplehood,” an amorphous but currently trendy notion. His biggest project has been resuscitating Israel’s Diaspora Museum.
My immediate thought was that this offers proof that a left-wing exists among the Russian Jews of Israel. The popularity of Avigdor Lieberman and his party has allowed people to see this population as monolithically hard-right. For the influence-seeking Nevzlin to invest so much to (let’s be honest here) prop up what Israelis see as a leftist brand means that the paper and its editorial line must have sympathizers among the Russians. It’s also hard to imagine Schocken, not an easy man (see again Remnick’s portrait), joining with Nevzlin unless he felt some kind of political kinship with him.
For more on Nevzlin’s colorful background, here’s my profile of him from last fall.