J Street, the dovish pro-Israel lobby that was shunned in its early years by Israeli government officials, is now making another step toward the acceptance by Israeli politicians.
This coming September, J Street will host, for the first time, a member of Knesset from the ruling Likud Party and a member of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party at its annual conference in Washington.
Tzachi Hanegbi, a hardliner turned peace supporter, will be the first member of the Likud to participate in a J Street event. Hanegbi is the son of Geula Cohen who was a fighter in the Irgun underground organization operating before the establishment of the State of Israel and who later became a right-wing politician.
Hanegbi’s first steps in politics were as a pro-settlers activist and he was one a handful of Israelis who refused to evacuate the settlement of Yamit during the Israeli withdrawal from Sinai which was part of its peace agreement with Egypt.
He was also a vocal critic of the Peace Now movement during the 1980’s.
In the Knesset, Hanegbi was first elected in 1988 as part of the Likud Party, but in 2005 he broke off with other members led by Ariel Sharon to establish the more moderate Kadima party. Later Hanegbi returned to the Likud and has since spoken in favor of a two-state solution. Still, in interviews and statements Hanegbi has stressed the responsibility of the Palestinians for the lack of progress in peace negotiations.
Hanegbi’s participation at the J Street conference, a result of outreach efforts conducted by the lobby’s office in Israel, is viewed by organizers as a mark of success. It is a sign, said Jessica Rosenblum, the group’s director of media and communications, “of the growing acceptance of J Street and the growing recognition of the common purpose,” of advancing a two-state solution.
J Street’s founding in 2008 was initially met with a cold shoulder by the Israeli government. Officials refused to meet with the lobby’s activists and the Israeli embassy boycotted its events. Since, however, the group established working relations with the embassy and an Israel senior diplomat delivered a speech at last year’s conference gala dinner. Hanegbi’s participation will signal yet another step by J Street away from its lefty image and closer to the Israeli mainstream.
Another first at this year’s conference will be the participation of Yitzhak Vaknin of Shas at the event. Shas, a Sephardic ultra-Orthodox party has supported in the past Israeli-Palestinian negotiations but has since shifted to the right. Currently it is not a member of the Netanyahu governing coalition.
With Prime Minister Netanyahu just days away from his final deadline to install a new government or lose the option, observers on all sides have their own ways of explaining what’s holding things up. Most of them are correct, but there’s a larger truth that overshadow them all: The Likud hasn’t internalized the fact that it lost the last election, and can’t retain all the goodies in the next coalition that it enjoyed in the last one.
The other explanations are worth reviewing, as they provide the background for Bibi’s current dilemma. One theory is that Bibi stalled until the last minute—that is, until Friday, March 8—before beginning earnest negotiations, in hopes of breaking up the Yair Lapid-Naftali Bennett alliance, bypassing Lapid and bringing in his old ultra-Orthodox Shas allies into a coalition alongside Bennett and Tzipi Livni. Another theory is that Lapid and his chief negotiator, businessman and onetime Ariel Sharon aide Uri Shani, are dragging the current, bare-knuckled negotiations until a minute before midnight—that would be Thursday, March 14—in order to force Bibi to accept their demands.
The bottom line, though, is that the second-tier Likud leaders on Bibi’s bench haven’t yet internalized the fact that they lost the January 22 election and can’t keep what they had in the last election. Accordingly, they’re making it impossible for Bibi to give Lapid what he earned from the voters. Unfortunately for them, Lapid isn’t ready to fold. He’s already given up too much.
Lapid’s reasoning is that he effectively leads a bloc of 33 seats in the 120-member Knesset, including his own Yesh Atid party (19 seats), Bennett’s Jewish Home (12) and Shaul Mofaz’s Kadima (2). That makes his bloc larger than Bibi’s 31-seat Likud-Beiteinu bloc (which is not a party but rather an alliance of Likud, with 20, and Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu, with 11). Following that logic, Lapid spent days insisting on receiving two of the four senior ministries in the new government: foreign affairs for himself and finance for Bennett. Bibi would keep the prime ministry for himself and the defense ministry for his number 2 (more on that later).
Bibi couldn’t do that, ostensibly because he had promised to keep the foreign ministry open for Lieberman, who had to resign to face trial on corruption charges but is hoping to return after an acquittal or misdemeanor conviction. In fact, keeping promises has never been Netanyahu’s signature issue, but he had two other, more compelling considerations:
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?
The Israeli Presidential Conference, Shimon Peres’s vanity international blabfest, continues today with a series of panel discussions on the woes of the global economy and the future of the Jewish people. I don’t think we’ve solved the world’s economic problems, but there have been a few bombshells dropped into the field of Jewish identity.
The most interesting was a panel on conversion, which included Rabbi Peter Knobel (Reform), Rabbi Gilah Dror (Conservative), Professor Dov Maimon (modern Orthodox think-tanker) , Israeli justice minister Yaakov Ne’eman and Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky.
It was supposed to include a Haredi rabbi, Yehezkel Weinfeld, but he phoned moderator Shmuel Rosner an hour before and said he couldn’t attend. No suggestion that he was sick or called to an emergency, Rosner tells me. He just couldn’t come. At the end, during Q and A, a Haredi gent rose from the audience, one Shmuel Jakobovits (son of the late, revered British Chief Rabbi Lord Immanuel Jakobovits) and said that Rabbi Weinfeld had asked him to attend in his place. Not to sit on the dais with the Reformim and lady rabbis, mind you - just to be there.
So what happened? Maimon proposed the introduction of a new form of conversion that he called “civilizational conversion,” in which one would seek membership in the religious community of the Jewish people, but without necessarily committing oneself to observe the Orthodox commandments, as Orthodox conversion now requires. This sort of reframed the discussion. He had few details — it’s apparently still an idea in infancy — but we’re going to hear more about it in months to come, you betcha.