In the end it wasn’t even close. Pre-election polls had Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud trailing the Zionist Union of Yitzhak Herzog and Tzipi Livni by four Knesset seats, nearly 4% of the popular vote. Analysts around the world were falling over each other to write Bibi’s political obituary. Then came election day. Exit polls found he’d amazingly closed the gap. With the two parties effectively tied, Netanyahu suddenly appeared far better positioned than Herzog to form the next coalition.
When the actual vote-count ended, it was a Netanyahu landslide. He’d left his challenger gasping in the dust, winning 30 Knesset seats to Herzog’s 24. He’s now poised to shape Israel’s next government more or less as he chooses. The only question, it seems, is whether he’ll choose a narrow coalition of the right or a broad unity government with Herzog.
So it seems. In fact, though, his situation is devilishly complicated. En route to his come-from-behind victory he left a trail of bad blood that will haunt him for months. His last-minute outcry to save Israel from the votes of its Arab citizens arguably won him the election. But it opened a deep rift in society that will take a long time to heal. He presides over a society wounded by his own hand.
The immediate damage of Netanyahu’s the-Arabs-are-coming slur mustn’t be underestimated. It infuriated Israel’s Jewish liberals and moderates along with non-Jewish minorities. It reverberated worldwide, evoking shock and revulsion even among Israel’s admirers. It will deepen rifts within the American Jewish community. It will be cited endlessly by Israel’s enemies as evidence in their ongoing campaign to demonize and isolate Israel as a racist, apartheid state. Worst of all, this is one bit of evidence they won’t be making up.
Nor was the slur an isolated incident. It came just a day after Netanyahu’s cynical declaration that he won’t allow a Palestinian state as long as he’s prime minister. Put together, the two bombshell statements make him look more than ever like a far-right extremist. They’ll increase tensions with Western capitals at a time when healing is badly needed.
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.
While Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his allies insist that Israel must maintain military control over the Jordan River in order to make sure that hostile forces don’t cross over and turn a Palestinian state into a forward base for attacks on Israel, Israel’s main security professionals continue to argue that Israel can accept other security arrangements that would meet Palestinian objections and still fulfill Israel’s needs. But we don’t often hear them explaining how Israel could maintain its security without control of the river.
Yesterday retired brigadier general Ephraim Sneh spelled it out in an op-ed article on Yediot Ahronot’s Ynet Hebrew news site. I’ve translated it into English, below. He argues that the monitoring and control provided by a full military deployment can be maintained today from afar by new technological developments, and that together with the strong security cooperation that currently exists between Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority, Israel can safely reduce its presence to a minimal level that would meet Palestinian objections.
Sneh was a leader of the Labor Party’s hawkish wing until he quit before the last elections to form his own party, Yisrael Hazaka, which failed to win a Knesset seat. He served in the past as minister of health and minister of transportation as well as two stints as deputy minister of defense. Before entering politics in 1987, he was a career soldier and served as commander of Israeli forces in Lebanon and military governor of the West Bank.
It’s worth noting that another former general, recently retired major general Gadi Shamni, has been arguing recently for a more gradual removal of Israeli troops from the river. In a recent Haaretz opinion essay he wrote that the handover of security control of the river crossings from Israeli to Palestinian security forces will take time, and a firm deadline can’t be set. It sounds on first read like an argument for Netanyahu’s position, but on closer examination it’s not very far from Sneh’s.
Shamni is a former chief of Central Command, as well as military secretary to prime ministers Ariel Sharon and Ehud Barak and most recently Israeli military attaché in Washington.
A New Approach to the Jordan Valley
Technology and Israeli-Palestinian-Jordanian security cooperation make it possible to reduce to a minimum the need for an Israeli presence in the Jordan Valley within the framework of a peace agreement.
By Ephraim Sneh
Those who read my Friday blog post about the Israel-Diaspora deliberations going on in Jerusalem this week might have noticed that I mentioned a paradox in the way the discussions are going, but I never detailed the substance of the paradox. The sun was setting over the Mediterranean before I had a chance to finish my thought. So let’s try it again.
There are two main topics on minds of delegates attending the governing council meetings of the Jewish Agency, the World Zionist Organization and the Jewish Federations of North America. One is Jewish religious pluralism in Israel—the monopoly of the Orthodox rabbinate over Jewish religious life and the limits and hurdles placed before non-Orthodox denominations. The other is the Pew survey of Jewish Americans released October 1, with its stark intimations of a steady dilution in the strength of non-Orthodox Judaism. News summary], full survey report.
The first, religious pluralism, tops the agenda of Reform, Conservative and other liberal delegates to the various meetings. They make up a majority of the American delegations at all the major gatherings. True, Americans aren’t a majority at these events; Americans make up about 40% of world Jewry, Israelis another 40% and the rest of the world about 20%, and the non-Orthodox denominations are weak outside America. But the liberal denominations have formed an alliance with the left-wing Zionist delegations from Labor and Meretz, partly to counter the longstanding alliance between Likud and Orthodox. The result is that the liberals dominate wherever you look.
Ynet, the Yediot website, reports that the Libyan blockade-buster ship headed for Gaza this week agreed to divert to El-Arish in Egypt following a secret Israeli-Libyan deal. Under the deal, mediated by Egypt, Israel agreed to let Libya send $50 million worth of construction material into Gaza, via the U.N., for post-Cast Lead rehabilitation.
The report says the deal was sealed in a phone call from Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak to Egypt’s intelligence minister, Omar Suleiman.
Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, chairman of the Gaddafi International Charity and Development Foundation which tried to send an aid vessel to Gaza, says he reached an Egyptian-mediated agreement with Israel on Wednesday, allowing him to infuse $50 million for the restoration of the Strip and transfer construction materials to Gaza.
“We got the grapes, so why kill the vineyard guard?” the son of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi told the London-based Arabic-language al-Sharq al-Awsat newspaper.
“We will soon start funneling $50 million in coordination with UNRWA (the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees) to begin rebuilding Gaza and transfer humanitarian aid and construction materials, without any objection on the part of the Israeli government.”
Would the deal have been reached if the Labor Party were in the opposition and Moshe (Boogie) Yaalon or Avigdor (Yvet) Lieberman were defense minister? Hardly likely. Do such small mercies justify Labor remaining in the Bibi-Yvet coalition and keeping Barak at the helm? Hmmm. You decide.