As Israel’s March 17 snap election date approaches, the electoral map continues to change faster than Taylor Swift’s outfits.
The ink hasn’t even dried on the merger between Tzipi Livni and Labor’s Yitzhak Herzog that vaults them to first place in the polls, but the Likud’s reply is already in the works. According to a new poll released today by the Midgam organization, a merger between the Likud and Naftali Bennett’s settler-backed Jewish Home party would win them 33 seats in the 120-member Knesset.
That’s fewer than the 38 seats they’ll win if they run separately, according to current polls. But it also might be Bibi’s one path to a second term, giving him a prohibitive lead over the 24 seats predicted for the merged Labor-Livni List, or LLL, as I’m calling it. (LLL is also the yodeling mock-laugh perfected by the late David Twersky.)
On the other hand, Jewish Home might not end up offering the dowry that’s now on the table. The leader of its far-right faction, housing minister Uri Ariel, whose semi-Kahanist Tekuma party holds four of Jewish Home’s 12 current seats, is threatening to bolt. Running alone, he just might fall short of Knesset membership and disappear after the election.
But Ariel might have a new partner waiting in the wings: Eli Yishai, former chairman of Shas. Since being demoted to No. 2 after the 2012 return of founding party chair Arye Deri, Yishai has become increasingly alienated. Deri is firmly left-of-center both on the Palestinian issue — he favors a two-state solution — and on economics, where he leans social-democratic. Yishai is on the far right on both issues. Party sources are quoted (in the left-leaning Haaretz, the center-right Maariv and the right-wing Yisrael Hayom, among others) as saying Yishai is on the verge of leaving Shas and either setting up a competing Sephardic-Haredi party or joining forces with Uri Ariel.
A Yishai-led Haredi party would damage both Shas and Likud, though the damage might be slight. A joint Yishai-Ariel list, however, could badly hurt Likud, Shas and Jewish Home alike.
Answers are expected next Monday, when last-ditch reconciliation meetings are scheduled for both rifts — Bennett-Ariel and Deri-Yishai.
There’s turbulence as well at the center of the map, where three popular figures — Avigdor Lieberman, Yair Lapid and Moshe Kahlon — are watching their popularity slowly fade.
Hours before Israel’s Knesset voted Monday evening to disperse and head to elections, Prime Minister Netanyahu asked the finance committee to approve an “emergency” grant to settlements in the West Bank of some 160 million shekels ($40 million).
Netanyahu was acting in his capacity as acting finance minister, following his firing last week of incumbent finance minister Yair Lapid.
The allocation request was blocked in committee by the ranking representative of the opposition Shas party on the committee, Yitzhak Cohen. Cohen is an outspoken peace advocate and a close ally of Shas leader Arye Deri.
A revote on the settlements grant was then rescheduled for Tuesday by committee chair Nissan Slomiansky of Naftali Bennett’s settler-backed Jewish Home party.
On Monday evening, following the committee’s rejection of the settlements grant, the Finance Ministry submitted a request to the committee for a $38 million allocation to the Shas school network, Ma’ayan HaTorah.
Lapid’s party, Yesh Atid, condemned the school funding request as an attempt to buy Shas’s votes for the settlement grant. Yesh Atid asked the Knesset legal adviser to investigate, but was turned down.
Cohen of Shas countered that the school allocation was merely an installment of a routine allocation to Shas schools, contained within the 2014 state budget approved by the Knesset months ago. He said it would not affect Shas’s votes on the settlements grant.
The Finance Ministry confirmed Cohen’s account of the allocation request. However, the prime minister’s office said it was unaware of a previous approval for the allocation.
The settlements request included 95 million shekels ($24 million) in direct grants to settlements for security and other needs, plus 70 million shekels ($18 million) for operating costs of the Settlement Division of the World Zionist Organization.
The Settlement Division is a nominally independent body, attached to the non-profit WZO but funded by the government, that carries out most of the contracting work for settlement construction and expansion in the territories. Its status as a stand-alone section of an international non-profit organization is a little-known but important part of the reason why the settlement movement is frequently able to operate outside the normal constraints of Israeli law.
If the pre-election polls out of Israel teach us anything, it’s about the strength and weakness of pre-election polls.
The strength is that they’re a pretty accurate reflection of what people are thinking. The proof of this is that the flood of polls coming every day from just about every media outlet, right, left and center, and every polling organization regardless of technique, show pretty much the same thing.
The weakness is that they only show what would happen if the election were held today. They don’t tell you how unexpected events in the real world might influence voter opinion. The shift can be dramatic.
Exhibit A: Today’s Rafi Smith poll, published in Globes (the Hebrew original differs slightly from the English translation, so I’m going with the Hebrew). Unlike all the other polls (watch Jeremy’s Knesset Insider for a daily roundup), Globes asked not only how respondents would vote today, but also how they’d vote if Tzipi Livni ran on a joint list with Labor Party leader Yitzhak Herzog. Answer: It would change everything, putting Herzog in the lead. Incumbent prime minister Bibi Netanyahu would lose.
The polls have been showing consistently all week, since Netanyahu called on Tuesday for early elections, that if the vote were held today, the Likud would lead the pack and Bibi would get another term. Likud would get 22 to 24 seats in the 120-member Knesset (just over 1/6 of the total), followed by Naftali Bennett’s settler-backed Jewish Home party with 17 or 18. Labor would be a distant third with 13 (in some polls 14 or 15). Lapid would drop to 10 or 11 from his current 19,
As Jeremy points out, that would give the religious and right-wing parties 77 seats, versus 33 for the anti-annexation parties of the center, left and Arab blocs. (The current Knesset has the two blocs nearly even at 61 to 59.)
If Herzog and Livni joined forces, though, their combined slate would jump ahead to 24 seats, besting the Likud’s 22. That would give Herzog first crack at trying to assemble a coalition.
Sound far-fetched? The deal is believed likely to be sealed this weekend, when Herzog and Livni are together in Washington at the Saban Forum.
Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday fired the heads of the two center-left parties in his coalition, finance minister Yair Lapid and justice minister Tzipi Livni. He’s expected to address the media at 10:10 p.m. Israel time (3:10 Eastern) to discuss the political situation.
The dramatic event came less than a day after Netanyahu and Lapid had met Monday evening, ostensibly to patch up their differences. Sources in Lapid’s Yesh Atid party said Netanyahu had presented Lapid with a list of demands that were designed cause the talks to fail, allowing the prime minister to go to the public and point his finger at Lapid. Among them were support of the controversial Jewish Nation-State bill.
It now appears inevitable that Israel is heading to early general elections next spring. The current Knesset was elected in January 2013 for a statutory four-and-a-half year term that would end in June 2017.
Efforts have been underway from both right and left to woo the Haredi parties Shas and United Torah Judaism into a government within the current Knesset, avoiding elections. Shas leader Arye Deri told a press conference today that he had been approached yesterday — he wouldn’t name names — to form “an alternative government without Netanyahu.” He said despite the economic burden of a new election, it was the only way out and he had rejected the proposal. He said Shas’s “iron-clad” conditions for joining any government were raising the minimum wage to 30 shekels an hour and ending the value added tax on basic commodities (such as milk and bread).
An alternative government with a more moderate policy on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could theoretically be formed within the current Knesset, with 65 of the house’s 120 seats, by including Lapid and Livni, Labor, Meretz, Kadima and the two Haredi parties. However, it would require a great deal of swallowing hard by Lapid and the Haredim, given the bad blood between them.
Ironically, current polls show that in new elections, Lapid and Shas would each lose nearly half their seats.
Netanyahu had reportedly presented Lapid with five conditions to continue the current coalition. According to Haaretz, they included: First, that Lapid back away from his signature housing bill, which would eliminate the value-added tax for first-time homebuyers. Second, that Yesh Atid support the so-called Jewish nation-state bill. Third, Lapid and his allies had to cease their attacks on government policies, including construction in East Jerusalem and deteriorating relations with the United States.
The fourth and fifth conditions involved releasing funds for the military that Lapid had been holding up. One is a 6 billion shekel ($1.53 billion) addition to the defense budget requested by the IDF. The other is a release of funds budgeted to move military installations to the Negev from their current locations on valuable real estate in the center of the country.
Netanyahu had told a meeting of his Likud Knesset faction that morning that the government couldn’t continue to function while ministers continually undermined it and attacked it from within.
Yesh Atid sources told Ynet that the meeting and subsequent statement were all a “show” put on by the prime minister in order to justify early elections that would benefit his own political standing while paralyzing the economy for months and costing the nation billions.
The latest opinion poll, published Sunday by Haaretz, showed that if elections were held today for a new Knesset, Likud would rise from 18 seats to 24 in the 120-member body, while Yesh Atid would drop from 19 seats to 11.
More mystery and intrigue in the senior ranks of the Israel Defense Forces: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is reported (Maariv, Haaretz) to be stalling the nomination of Israel’s next military chief of staff. His reasons are a topic of hot speculation, though the facts seem to speak for themselves.
By law the nomination of a new chief of staff is the job of the defense minister. He’s supposed to present his choice to the cabinet for approval three months before the incumbent’s term ends. That deadline was November 15. Since then, though, Netanyahu has twice asked for delays so he could interview the candidates, most recently last Friday. He’s now asked to meet with the defense minister, Moshe Yaalon, before a name is presented to the cabinet.
Yaalon has stated publicly that his preference is the current deputy chief of staff, Gadi Eizenkot, who is also the unanimous choice of the top generals who make up the General Staff. The other nominee is Yair Naveh, a former deputy chief of staff who retired two years ago.
Suspicions are running high within the senior military command, according reporter Noam Amir in the right-wing Maariv, that Netanyahu is deliberately trying to sideline Eizenkot despite his support from the IDF and the defense minister. Officers tell Amir that if Eizenkot isn’t appointed there will be an “earthquake.” Cohen in Haaretz reports speculation that Netanyahu is weighing in to avoid accusations later that he failed to pay attention, as some accused him of doing in 2010 and in a previous round in 1998.
Eizenkot is identified with the mainstream IDF defense doctrine that favors minimum necessary use of force and activist pursuit of diplomacy to settle disputes. Naveh is an Orthodox Jew and identified with the political right, though he’s clashed with the settler movement in the past over his refusal to disobey orders involving dismantling settlements, including the 2005 disengagement from Gaza.
Three of Israel’s most senior ex-defense officials came out last week, almost simultaneously, with blistering attacks on the security policies of the Netanyahu coalition. Appearing in separate forums, the three — former Mossad director Shabtai Shavit, former Shin Bet director Yuval Diskin and former IDF chief of staff Gabi Ashkenazi — each charged that the government is endangering Israel’s future by allowing right-wing extremists to sabotage prospects for a two-state solution, putting the country on a path toward a single, binational state that will be plagued by continuing ethnic strife.
Two of the attacks appeared as op-ed essays in last Friday newspapers. One, by Diskin, appeared in the mass-circulation Yediot Ahronot. Titled “What lies ahead for Israel” (in English here), it argues that the current “Jerusalem intifada” is a “microcosm” of what awaits Israel if it does not resume serious peace negotiations with the Palestinian leadership. Diskin is particularly critical of the “inflammatory propaganda” and “brainwashing” that depicts Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas as an obstacle rather than a partner, when in fact, he writes, Abbas is strongly opposed to terrorism and maintains a “clear policy” of security cooperation with Israel.
The second, by Shavit, appeared in the liberal-leaning Haaretz. Titled “Blindness, Stupidity, Cause for Concern” (here, Hebrew only), it worries about the “haughtiness and arrogance” among “central factors in religious Zionism,”
together with more than a bit of the messianic thinking that rushes to turn the conflict into a holy war. If this has been, so far, a local political conflict that two small nations have been waging over a small and defined piece of territory, major forces in the religious Zionist movement are foolishly doing everything they can to turn it into the most horrific of wars, in which the entire Muslim world will stand against us.
I also see, to the same extent, detachment and lack of understanding of international processes and their significance for us. This right wing, in its blindness and stupidity, is pushing the nation of Israel into the dishonorable position of “the nation shall dwell alone and not be reckoned among the nations” (Numbers 23:9).
[Postscript: An English version appeared Monday morning under a different title: “Former Mossad chief: For the first time, I fear for the future of Zionism.” I’ve replaced some of my translations with Haaretz’s text.]
The director of Israel’s Shin Bet domestic security service, speaking in the wake of today’s massacre in a Jerusalem synagogue, told a Knesset committee that Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas “is not interested in terrorism and is not leading [his people] to terrorism. Not even under the table.”
His remarks directly contradicted a string of statements (English) by Israeli leaders, from Prime Minister Netanyahu on down, accusing Abbas of “inciting” the attack by his calls to “defend Al-Aqsa.” Netanyahu called (Hebrew) the synagogue slaughter “the direct result of incitement led by Hamas and Abu Mazen, incitement that the international community is irresponsibly ignoring.”
The security chief, Yoram Cohen, was addressing a closed meeting of the Knesset foreign affairs and defense committee. His remarks were described to reporters afterward by participants.
Cohen acknowledged that there were “factors within the Palestinian Authority” who interpret Abbas’s criticisms of Israel as “giving legitimization to terror.”
However, in describing the sequence of events that led to this morning’s bloodbath, he said the confrontations began after the July 2 murder of Palestinian teenager Muhammad Abu-Khdeir. He said the tensions were exacerbated by Knesset discussions of a bill to permit Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount, submitted last spring by Likud lawmaker Miri Regev, and by high-profile visits of politicians to the Temple Mount that are seen as supporting the legislation.
Israelis last week watched their defense establishment undergo its nastiest and arguably most dangerous meltdown in decades as the heads of two main branches, Benny Gantz of the Israel Defense Forces and Yoram Cohen of the Shin Bet security service, publicly traded insults and questioned each other’s integrity and professional competence.
The public dispute erupted last Tuesday, November 11. That evening the popular television newsmagazine Uvdah (“Fact”) aired a report in which senior Shin Bet officials, their faces and identities obscured, claimed the military had mishandled critical intelligence before last summer’s Gaza war. The officials said the Shin Bet had warned the army last January that Hamas was planning a July war, but the army failed to act. A military officer appeared on camera to deny that any such warning had been received.
The broadcast sparked a furious war of words between IDF chief of staff Gantz and Shin Bet director Cohen. On Wednesday morning Gantz wrote a letter to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (Hebrew text here) charging that officials of the secretive security service had “crossed all moral and ethical lines” by appearing in public and portraying the IDF as incompetent. He categorically denied that the military had received any warning of a planned war, whether in January or later. He also charged that the Shin Bet, “as an intelligence agency,” had set a “dangerous precedent” in permitting its personnel to appear and expose classified information and methods of operation.
After a three-way make-up meeting late Wednesday between Netanyahu, Gantz and Cohen, the Shin Bet Thursday morning issued a public “clarification,” itself a rare act, saying its agents had not really claimed to have warned of a July war (despite the fact that they’d been shown on camera saying just that). Later that day, however, Cohen backtracked and counterattacked (Isn’t that an Elton John song?). In an open letter to Shin Bet retirees (here) he said he stood by everything the agents had said on television and blamed the feud on Gantz. He claimed he’d “decided to cooperate” with the newsmagazine to “show the Shin Bet as a professional, relevant organization that made important contributions to the success of Operation Protective Edge.”
Superficially, the dispute centers on the mutual accusations themselves: On one hand, the Shin Bet’s claim that it warned the IDF of Hamas’ July war plan, but that the IDF mishandled or ignored it. On the other hand, IDF’s counter-claim that there was no such warning.
On a deeper level, the incident represents an escalation of a serious debate that’s been going on since August, over whether or not Hamas actually intended to launch a war. The IDF and its intelligence directorate continue to maintain, as they have since the war began (and as I reported in mid-July), that Hamas didn’t plan the war but stumbled into it through a jumble of miscalculations and miscommunication.
The Netanyahu government’s most left-wing member, environmental defense minister Amir Peretz, quit the cabinet on Sunday and declared war on the prime minister, vowing to work for a new government committed to peace and economic justice. Peretz, a onetime Labor Party chairman and defense minister, is a member of Tzipi Livni’s Hatnuah party.
The move comes amid growing signs of internal weakness in Netanyahu’s coalition. Just a week earlier Netanyahu accepted the resignation of interior minister Gideon Saar, a popular Likud rising star who’s long been considered a possible successor to Netanyahu. He’s now expected to emerge as a rival.
And on Thursday Netanyahu came under an attack of unprecedented fury from a senior coalition ally, Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett. In a speech at Bar-Ilan University Bennett declared that a “government that hides behind concrete barricades has no right to exist.” Deriding static defense tools like the Iron Dome missile defense as well as the separation barrier, Bennett called for the government to respond to the current wave of Palestinian violence with a new “Operation Defensive Shield,” referring to the massive military assault against Palestinian population centers in 2002 that broke the back of the Second Intifada.
All three moves come against a backdrop of escalating Palestinian violence that’s stirring fears of a third intifada, and the growing likelihood of new elections next spring, two years ahead of schedule.
Of the three defections, Peretz’s is of the least immediate consequence to Netanyahu, but it could have the strongest long-term impact. Saar announced his resignation in September, saying he planned to take a break from politics to spend more time with his family. Rumors abound, though, that he’ll join forces before the next election with another former Likud up-and-comer, onetime social welfare minister Moshe Kahlon (kach-LONE), who retired from politics before the 2013 elections but announced plans this year to form a “new political framework.” Kahlon soared to stardom after winning the top spot after Bibi in the 2006 Likud primaries. Saar did the same thing in 2008.
Polls have shown Kahlon winning 10 to 11 Knesset seats, mostly at the expense of Shas — because of his Sephardic working-class background — and Yesh Atid, with its middle-class economic message. That’s not enough to challenge Netanyahu’s leadership, either in the Likud or with the electorate, but it would almost certainly make him a senior partner in any future Netanyahu coalition.
In what appears to be the largest-ever joint protest by senior Israeli security personnel, a group of 106 retired generals, Mossad directors and national police commissioners has signed a letter to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu urging him to “initiate a diplomatic process” based on a regional framework for peace with the Palestinians.
Several of the signers told Israel’s Mako-Channel 2 News in interviews that Israel had the strength and the means to reach a two-state solution that “doesn’t entail a security risk,” but hadn’t managed to reach an agreement because of “weak leadership.”
“We’re on a steep slope toward an increasingly polarized society and moral decline, due to the need to keep millions of people under occupation on claims that are presented as security-related,” reserve Major General Eyal Ben-Reuven told Mako’s Roni Daniel. “I have no doubt that the prime minister seeks Israel’s welfare, but I think he suffers from some sort of political blindness that drives him to scare himself and us.”
The letter was initiated by a former Armored Corps commander, reserve Major General Amnon Reshef. He told Yediot Ahronot in an interview published Friday, and posted in English today on Yediot’s Ynetnews.com website, that he was “tired of a reality of rounds of fighting every few years instead of a genuine effort to adopt the Saudi initiative.”
He was referring to the Saudi-backed peace proposal that was adopted unanimously by the Arab League in 2002 (here is the full text) and later endorsed 56-0 by the 57-member Organization of Islamic Cooperation, with Iran abstaining. It has since been repeatedly reaffirmed and its terms softened. As currently framed, it offers full peace, diplomatic recognition and “normal relations” between the Arab states and Israel in return for Israeli withdrawal to borders based on the pre-1967 armistice lines, with negotiated land swaps, and a “just” and mutually “agreed” compromise solution to the Palestinian refugee problem.
The generals’ call echoes a proposal for a regional peace conference that was floated during the Gaza war this summer by Israel’s science minister, Yaakov Peri, a member of Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party and a former director of the Shin Bet security service. It’s currently being advocated within the security cabinet by Lapid and justice minister Tzipi Livni.
The policies of Israel’s longest-serving prime minister are starting to bear an eerie resemblance to climate change: The critics all look like a bunch of whining scaremongers prophesying an implausibly apocalyptic ruination that’s sure to come in some fuzzily distant end-time. Even if it’s true, it’s too far away to worry about. That is, until one day the oceans overflow, and here we are.
Not that the arrival of payday alters anyone’s behavior.
In the case of Israel, the past week brought three headline events that look like important turning points in Israel’s growing international isolation. Two were genuine canaries in the coal mine, signals that we’re entering a new and sharply more perilous period for the Jewish state. The third was a farcical episode that doesn’t signal much of anything, except as an anecdotal mile-marker of how far we’ve slid down the slippery slope.
So which one made us sit up and take notice? Why, the third one, of course. The farce.
That would be ChickenshitGate, the international furor over an unnamed U.S. government official’s description of Benjamin Netanyahu as a bit of poultry-poop. It erupted Tuesday night, when the quote appeared online in an essay by journalist Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic, “The Crisis in U.S.-Israel Relations Is Officially Here.” Goldberg followed the “chickenshit” quote with a list he’s kept of other insults Washington officialdom has directed at Netanyahu in recent years (“recalcitrant,” “myopic,” reactionary,” “obtuse,” “blustering,” “pompous,” “Aspergery”) before proceeding to explain how and why relations between the two allies have gotten worse than ever.
When you think about it, “chickenshit” wasn’t really the worst insult on the list. Most of the others describe worse qualities than timidity. What caused the uproar over this latest entry was the locker room language. Apparently Israel’s leading defenders were, to quote from “Casablanca,” “shocked! — shocked!” — to find that Washington bureaucrats use dirty words when the microphones are off.
The shock was strangely lacking in self-awareness, given the fact that Israeli cabinet ministers had been directing an open stream of personal invective at Secretary of State John Kerry since January. It began with Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon calling Kerry “obsessive” and “messianic.” Yaalon got paid back in October with humiliating rejections of his requests for meetings during a Washington visit with Kerry, Vice President Joe Biden and National Security Adviser Susan Rice. And yet he still managed to find time while he was in Washington for one more insult, telling the Washington Post’s Lally Weymouth in an interview that the Obama administration’s Middle East policies were based on “ignorance” and “naivete.”
Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is planning a massive new wave of construction in the West Bank, according to a report Sunday night on Israel’s Channel 2 News. It’s part of a deal to calm his restive allies in the settler-backed Jewish Home party. The Channel 2 report has since been confirmed independently by Haaretz, Walla News and other news outlets.
The plans reportedly include some 2,000 new homes, mostly but not all in the so-called settlement blocs that Israel expects to keep permanently. Also included are 12 new roads, infrastructure projects, a park, student housing and the legalization of several illegal settlement outposts. The deal also includes a renovation of the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron, a plan that’s likely to cause new flare-ups at the site, a constant flashpoint that’s holy to both Jews and Muslims.
The plans are to be finalized at a meeting Wednesday between Netanyahu, economics minister Naftali Bennett and housing minister Uri Ariel, both of Jewish Home, transportation minister Yisrael Katz of Likud and finance minister Yair Lapid. Haaretz reported that Netanyahu had not yet approved the 2,000 housing units, which he fears will increase tensions with Washington and Europe, and is trying to appease the rightists with the transportation and infrastructure projects. Lapid issued a statement following the Channel 2 report that he opposed construction outside the settlement blocs, and that the timing of the overall deal “will cause harm to Israel.” He said the plan “will lead to a serious crisis in Israel-U.S. relations and will harm Israel’s standing in the world.”
The decision comes at an explosive moment in U.S.-Israel relations. Just this past Friday analysts across the Israeli political spectrum were describing the relationship as having plunged to a historic low point in the wake of defense minister Moshe Yaalon’s visit to Washington last week. Shortly after departing Washington, Yaalon was dealt a humiliating slap when unnamed administration officials told Yediot Ahronot that the minister had been refused permission to meet with senior administration officials including Vice President Biden, Secretary of State John Kerry and national security adviser Susan Rice.
The refusals come in apparent retaliation for a series of recent incidents in which Yaalon attacked administration policy and personally insulted Kerry.
In a potentially explosive report, veteran Yediot Ahronot defense commentator Ron Ben-Yishai writes on Ynet that Israel is headed toward a new confrontation with the United States and its allies in the wake of this summer’s Operation Protective Edge. The Americans and Europeans insist that Israel must strive for a two-state solution with the Palestinians, arguing that it’s unacceptable for Israel to wreak destruction on Gaza every few years, leaving them to pay for its repeated reconstruction. They also claim that renewing Israeli-Palestinian peace talks will help them to mobilize the Arab world to join the fight against ISIS and other extremist groups, Ben-Yishai writes.
Israel, Ben-Yishai writes, is reaching the opposite conclusion. In what he calls “a dramatic reversal,” Israeli officials say that at a time of extreme instability in the Middle East, it would be suicidal for Israel to consider allowing full sovereignty in most of Judea and Samaria, even if the territory is demilitarized. Even renewing negotiations over a peace agreement is unacceptable, the Israeli officials say, because such talks would lead to deadlock, frustration and unrest on the Palestinian street. Moreover, Israeli officials express doubt that the moderate Arab states need “an incentive” on the Palestinian front to motivate them to fight the jihadists, who threaten their own regimes.
Ben-Yishai writes that Israel now seeks to “manage” the conflict with the Palestinians rather than try to “solve” it. Toward the goal of maintaining calm in Gaza as well as the West Bank, he writes,
Israel is even willing to pay a serious price for this to happen and thus — without much fanfare –— Israel waived its objection to internal Palestinian reconciliation and the formation of the Palestinian unity government between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas.
Israel will also work to improve economic conditions in the West Bank and Gaza and ease restrictions on movement between the two territories, Ben-Yishai writes. In fact:
Hamas is eager to have Mahmoud Abbas’s U.S.-trained Presidential Guard take control of the border crossings between Gaza and Israel. But the Islamist organization isn’t likely to give in to pressure from Abbas and the West to put its own military wing under Abbas’s control, nor to let officials of the proposed Fatah-Hamas unity government take the reins of civilian government in Gaza.
So says Colonel M., head of the Palestinian unit in the research department of Israel’s Military Intelligence Directorate, in a wide-ranging interview with Arab affairs correspondent Avi Issacharoff of the English-language Times of Israel website and the Hebrew-language Walla! News site.
Colonel M. (the Times of Israel incorrectly translates his title as lieutenant colonel) also describes the IDF intelligence reading of the events that led to the outbreak of this summer’s war in Gaza. He states flatly and firmly that Hamas neither wanted nor planned a war, but stumbled into it unintentionally as the end result of a series of missteps beginning with the kidnapping of three Israeli yeshiva students in the West Bank in early June. He says that published accounts of Hamas planning for a “July War” are “nonsense.” His account of the events is virtually identical to the scenario I laid out in a column in July.
The colonel emphasized, Issacharoff writes, that the views he expressed aren’t his own personal assessment or that of his unit but the consensus view of Israeli Military Intelligence as a whole. He says the assessment is shared by the Shin Bet security service. (This contradicts a recent news analysis in Yediot Ahronot by military correspondent Alex Fishman, who claimed the Shin Bet disagrees and believes Hamas planned the war).
No less intriguing than what the interview says is what it doesn’t say. Issacharoff writes that Colonel M. refused to discuss the situation on the West Bank or Abbas’s strategic thinking, “apparently out of fear of appearing to criticize the political echelon.” It’s yet another indication of the deep and growing divide between Israel’s security professionals and their politician bosses over Israel’s security needs.
This should have been Bibi Netanyahu’s big year at the United Nations. World revulsion toward ISIS was at a peak, putting Islamist terrorism at center stage. President Obama, long derided by Netanyahu and his allies as a naïve peacenik, had suddenly become a wartime president. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict was, at last, the least of the world’s problems. If Bibi wanted the world to leave Israel and the Palestinians alone to fight things out in their own way, all he had to do was show up and play it cool.
But, of course, you knew he wouldn’t. He had to go and take this opportunity — nay, engraved invitation — to show gracious statesmanship and use it instead to show the petulance and short-sightedness for which he’s famous.
Obama, addressing the assembly September 24, hit all the right notes. In a 39-minute speech that ranged from Ukraine to Ebola, Iran, poverty and climate change, more than one-third was devoted to the fight against radical Islamism, as epitomized by ISIS. He called on “the world to join in this effort” to destroy “this network of death.” He declared, uncharacteristically for him, that there could be “no reasoning, no negotiation with this brand of evil.” He demanded that “the Arab and Muslim world” end funding of extremist ideologies. He called on Muslim youth to choose between pluralism and stagnation. He even pooh-poohed the “illusion” that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is “the main source of problems in the region.”
The president wasn’t just talking through his hat. Before showing up in New York he’d assembled a global coalition of more than 60 nations to join the fight against ISIS. Some are just providing funds (not a small thing in these tight-budget times; that’s the role our ally Japan played in the 1991 Gulf War). Others, notably the Europeans, are fighting with us in Iraq but haven’t crossed the border into Syria.
On the other hand, five Sunni Arab states have mobilized to join our attack on the Islamist army’s bases on Syrian soil. That’s a historic achievement — getting Arab states to fight openly alongside us Western infidels to extirpate a diseased branch of Islam. You might think back to World War I and T.E. Lawrence leading Arabs against the Ottoman Turks. But that was to dismantle a bloatec empire. This is to defeat concentrated evil that wraps itself in the pages of the Quran.
Fresh from the long war with Hamas in Gaza, tensely facing down simmering unrest in the West Bank and chaos on the Syrian border, Israel’s defense establishment is now bracing for what’s shaping up to be the most bruising confrontation of all: the choosing of the next chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces.
The process looks to be a replay of the last race, an ugly slugfest in late 2010 and early 2011 that resulted in the selection of the current chief, Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz. That got so nasty that the lead candidates fought each other to a draw amid mudslinging and dirty tricks that ended up in criminal investigations and indictments. Weirdly enough, the lead candidates are back again.
The lead candidates that fall were Maj. Gen. Gadi Eizenkot, chief of the Northern Command, who was favored by then-chief of staff Gabi Ashkenazi and most of his colleagues at General Staff HQ; and the chief of the Southern Command, Maj. Gen. Yoav Galant, favored by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and then-defense minister Ehud Barak, but fiercely opposed by the army brass. The mudslinging exploded into a scandal that effectively sidelined Eizenkot, though he wasn’t directly involved. Barak went on to nominate Galant, as expected, and the cabinet duly approved him. Days before Galant was to take over in February, however, he was suddenly charged with real estate fraud and disqualified. In the end the job was handed to everyone’s second choice, the inoffensive Gantz.
Everything fell apart so suddenly that an interim chief of staff had to be appointed, the newly installed deputy chief of staff, Maj. Gen. Yair Naveh. That prompted yet another eruption when Israel’s Supreme Court sharply criticized Naveh as unfit to lead the army even temporarily.
This year all the old ghosts are returning, along with some new ones. The lead candidates are, once again, Eizenkot and Galant. Eizenkot is currently deputy chief of staff, and was thought until recently to be the heir apparent. Galant, meanwhile, cleared up his real estate mess last year and recently nominated himself for the post, announcing on television that he’d be available if “called to the flag,” as he grandly put it. He’s reportedly still backed by Netanyahu, though not by the new defense minister, Moshe Yaalon.
If past were prologue, Galant would now reclaim the job dangled by the prime minister but snatched from him at the last minute in 2011. But under Israeli law, nominating the chief of staff is the sole prerogative of the defense minister. And Yaalon shares the generals’ dislike of Galant and respect for Eizenkot.
Well, I said he’d do it and he’s doing it. Israel’s foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, has reportedly (see here and here) offered the job of United Nations ambassador to the information and homefront defense minister, Gilad Erdan, when current ambassador Ron Proshor steps down in December. Erdan’s departure would bring the next candidate on the joint Likud-Beiteinu 2013 electoral slate, Leon Litinetski of Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party, into the Knesset.
All else being equal, that would boost Yisrael Beiteinu’s Knesset representation to 13 seats and reduce Prime Minister Netanyahu’s Likud to 18, making Likud the second-largest party in the Knesset after Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid (with 19).
Of course, all else is not equal. Netanyahu is said to have given his approval to the Erdan nomination, but “sources in the Likud” are telling reporters (Maariv, Jerusalem Post) that the party won’t accept Erdan’s nomination unless a Yisrael Beiteinu minister quits the Knesset (while remaining a cabinet minister) to make way for the next person on the joint list, Likudnik David Bitan.
Agriculture minister Yair Shamir, a Lieberman ally, was reported in August to be willing to leave the Knesset. At the time I reported that it wasn’t clear how that would help Lieberman, since trading Shamir’s seat for Litinetski’s wouldn’t change the balance between Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu. Now it becomes clearer.
It’s still not clear whether Lieberman can bring in Litinetski without sacrificing Shamir’s seat to preserve the current party balance, but nobody ever went broke betting on Lieberman. Martin Indyk told an audience in Aspen in July that Lieberman is “the smartest politician in Israel.” And nobody underestimates the bad blood between Lieberman and Bibi.
All things being equal, falling to second place wouldn’t necessarily threaten Netanyahu’s prime ministership. During his last term, from 2009 to 2013, he had one seat fewer than Kadima (27 to 28) but became prime minister when then-Kadima leader Tzipi Livni couldn’t cobble together a Knesset majority to form a coalition.
But again, all things aren’t necessarily equal. Bibi has trouble brewing on other fronts as well.
In an unusual step, Ynet has published an English translation of Nahum Barnea’s weekly Friday column from the August 28 Yediot Ahronot weekend supplement. It’s a powerful indictment of the way the Gaza war was managed, its costs to Israel’s long-term security and political integrity. He talks to the soldiers and officers as well as the cabinet ministers and shows you not just what was done wrong but also what was done very right.
Barnea is always among the best political writers in Israel, but this week he outdid himself.
Here’s a taste:
In one of the common ceremonies at wrestling matches, the wrestler leaves the confines of the ropes. He jumps out of the ring into the audience, his chest puffed up, and stages a victory lap. He is handed a microphone, and he makes a long speech of self-congratulation and humiliation of his rival. The audience responds with a combination of cheers, applause and boos. And then, from the other side of the stadium comes a wrestler we were unaware of, who jumps the puff-chested wrestler from behind, and everything starts anew.
On Wednesday, the prime minister and his entourage landed at the Hatzor Airbase. This was one of the stops on a long journey, a journey only loosely tied to what had happened during the fighting, but strongly tied to what would happen to the prime minister in the near future, in the political arena and in public opinion polls.
This wasn’t a victory lap, but rather a marketing trip. In his early years in politics Netanyahu knew how take a look at himself from the outside — an ironic, sober look. During those years, he was capable of understanding just how similar were the Israeli prime minister’s victory lap to former Hamas prime minister Ismail Haniyeh’s victory celebrations in Gaza. The actions at their hands are damned, and yet they are singing.
“Destruction and killing, this is how wars end,” said one of the most senior officers in Military Intelligence. In this one sentence he manages to sum up the dilemma that accompanied the military operation from its early days: How to kill and destroy to an extent that would force Hamas to stop, but not to an extent that would turn the world against Israel.
The politicians use the word “moral” a lot on this issue. The IDF is the most moral army in the world, Yair Lapid repeatedly says, as do others. When the IDF enters a war while enjoying accurate intelligence, freedom of aerial and naval action, mighty firepower, protection from rockets and sophisticated weaponry, while facing an isolated terror organization under siege — it should be enough for us. When the gap in military might is so large, when the space to maneuver is unlimited, we don’t have to crown ourselves as the overlords of morality as well.
Those who follow me online have observed that I don’t usually respond to my critics. I confess: I have a little fan club that hangs out in the Comments section and on my Facebook page, cursing my ancestry and generally whooping it up, and they seem to be having so much fun that I hate to spoil it. Besides, as Rabbi Tarfon used to say, life’s too short and there’s too much to do (Pirkei Avot 2:20). Usually, I figure the facts will speak for themselves.
Lately, though, I’ve started noticing a weird phenomenon: critics attacking me for holding strange, dangerous or anti-Israel opinions when all I’ve done is quote mainstream Israeli defense doctrine or, on occasion, simply report major stories in the Israeli Hebrew press that haven’t made it into the American media.
On Friday afternoon, for example, Commentary editor John Podhoretz tweeted a snarky dismissal of my latest weekly column, headlined “Who Leaked Israel’s Top-Secret Briefing About Reoccupying Gaza?” My column notes that Israel’s attorney general has been asked formally to open a criminal investigation a security leak that the IDF considers extremely dangerous, and that Prime Minister Netanyahu is the leading suspect. John’s observation:
This is what is known as deranged wishful thinking on the part of anti-Bibi liberals. http://t.co/Z6XMWO9HVY— John Podhoretz (@jpodhoretz) August 22, 2014
Now, there are several possibilities here. Perhaps he only read the headline and blurb, or perhaps the first few paragraphs, and therefore didn’t realize, as my column carefully noted, that this is a news story that’s been all over the Israeli press, liberal (Haaretz) and conservative (Maariv) alike, and that Israel’s attorney general Yehuda Weinstein has been formally asked to open a criminal investigation by Labor Party Knesset whip Eitan Cabel.
It’s possible that John followed up by reading the English Haaretz story, which pins the leak on one of Bibi’s opponents, but couldn’t read the Maariv story, which is in Hebrew and notes that virtually everyone else who’s examined the evidence thinks Bibi did it. Then again, to be fair, my weekly columns in the Forward Forum (as opposed to my blog posts) generally don’t contain links to source material. So he’d have to search online for the actual quotes, using the sourcing information that I did provide in print. To tell the truth, though, I have a sneaking suspicion that he didn’t bother reading the column at all, but merely read the headline, decided it was nuts and decided to vent. This, then, raises the age-old question, Why Can’t Johnny Read?.
More inexplicable is the lengthy critique by John’s Commentary colleague, my friend (for real) Jonathan Tobin, of my previous week’s column, “What Happens in Israel Doesn’t Stay in Israel.” Jonathan wrote a blog post on August 20, titled “Israel Doesn’t Cause Anti-Semitism,” in which he carefully deconstructs my argument that Israeli behavior toward the Palestinians is partly responsible for the growing wave of anti-Semitism among Muslims in Europe.
I know he read the column he’s criticizing, because he quotes from it and takes on its arguments one by one. Here’s his most telling point:
Indications are mounting that the indirect Israeli-Palestinian cease-fire talks in Cairo could be heading for failure, possibly resulting in renewed fighting when the current 5-day truce expires Monday night.
Early reports were that the two sides were close to agreement on an Egyptian compromise proposal for a long-term cease-fire. On Friday and Saturday, however, declarations on both sides indicated that positions were hardening as fierce internal divisions emerged, pulling the leaderships on both sides away from the center. The Palestinian side appears to be stymied by the refusal of the organization’s Qatar-based political secretary, Khaled Meshaal, and the head of its military wing, Mohammed Deif, to go along with the compromise proposals laid out by the Egyptians and mostly accepted by both delegations.
On the Israeli side, meanwhile, chaos appears to be reigning. Prime Minister Netanyahu, who rode a wave of popularity during the military operation, has been facing a tsunami of criticism over the past week from the left, the right, the residents of Gaza-adjacent communities and his top coalition ministers. Two of his senior coalition partners, foreign minister Avigdor Liberman of the Yisrael Beiteinu party and economics minister Naftali Bennett of the Jewish Home party, have repeatedly attacked the prime minister’s management of the Gaza conflict from the right, demanding a continuing assault until Gaza has been taken over and Hamas disarmed or dismantled. Broad circles on the right accuse him of giving away the store (i.e. lifting the blockade) in return for “nothing” (i.e. Hamas-Jihad agreement not to shoot, bombard or tunnel).
The other coalition partners, justice minister Tzipi Livni of Hatnuah and finance minister Yair Lapid of Yesh Atid, have been pressing Netanyahu from the left, demanding that he seek to end the fighting by convening an international Middle East peace conference in cooperation with the Arab League. The goal of the conference would be to negotiate an agreement for an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza. Netanyahu hasn’t said no to either minister, by some accounts because he’ll need their votes in the cabinet for the limited cease-fire he’s aiming to obtain in Cairo.
Livni and Bennett have also attacked the Cairo cease-fire negotiations on principle, saying the process amounts to Israel negotiating with Hamas despite its international status as a terrorist organization and effectively gives the Islamist group diplomatic legitimacy. Both also complain that the Egyptian proposal for a long-term cease-fire, by guaranteeing Gaza’s border, would constrain Israel’s ability to reply to terrorist actions from Gaza while failing to prevent Hamas and other terrorist groups from rearming and mounting attacks.
Under the Egyptian proposal, the Palestinian factions in Gaza, principally Hamas and Islamic Jihad, would agree to refrain from all attacks on Israel by land, air and sea, and to refrain from digging tunnels into Israeli territory.