Forget the pre-election spin from enthusiastic Israeli lefties and despondent righties. Forget the three-day-old polls. Don’t start popping the champagne or sitting shiva (whatever your preference). At the voting booths, it’s still anybody’s game.
Overall turnout, which was expected to be high due to the intense emotions surrounding the campaign, has been unexceptional. As of 6:00 p.m. Israel time (noon Eastern) it was 54.6% according to Maariv, almost a full point below the 55.5% who had turned out by 6 p.m. in 2013, the last time Israelis voted. (Ynet has a chart here of voter turnout going back to 1984.) It’s also not clear who would be helped or hurt by turnout. Would a strong showing mean Israelis were pouring out to register their discontent with Prime Minister Netanyahu, or that Bibi had managed to rally his troops at the last minute to turn back the leftist tide? Unclear.
There are conflicting reports about turnout among Israel’s Arab citizens. Activists have been predicting for weeks that the unification of the three Arab and Arab-backed parties — Islamist, Palestinian nationalist and Jewish-Arab communist — would increase enthusiasm and turnout, boost the Joint List up from the 12 seats predicted in the polls to 14 or 15 and effectively block the right from returning to power. Prime Minister Netanyahu played on that to raise fears among his own voters, “warning” in a video this morning that Arabs were being bussed to the polls “by the left” and voting “in vast numbers.” The left-leaning Haaretz reported just after noon that turnout was above average in Arab precincts. But Ynet reported just before 4 p.m. that Arab voter turnout was about average or slightly below, and Maariv reported the same thing from its own sources at 6:45 p.m.
Maariv said turnout was high in cities where the communist-led Hadash faction runs strong, but lower in villages where the Islamist Ra’am dominates. Ahmed Tibi, a veteran Arab Knesset member who’s regularly waved in front of Jewish voters like a red flag, told Ynet that Netanyahu’s morning video about “vast” Arab turnout had actually depressed Arab turnout by convincing potential voters that their vote wasn’t needed.
Recently published analyses teach the following lessons:
Lesson 1. The Arab uprisings are not necessarily democratic in nature, and liberal readiness to back them — morally or with arms and material aid — is at best foolhardy romanticism. We should stand back and avoid getting involved. Why undermine existing regimes when the replacement might be no better and possibly much worse?
Lesson 2. The Arab uprisings show that ruthless dictators are finished, and proves the wrongheadedness of previous administrations’ willingness to work with them rather than seek their removal. The failure of the Obama administration and the rest of the liberal West to back the brave Syrian rebels shows the liberals’ hypocrisy and unwillingness to stand up to tyranny.
Lesson 3. The uprisings show that the Arab street never cared about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. What Arab citizens care about are their own lives and welfare, not the Palestinians. It is misguided and reckless to assume that granting concessions to the Palestinians will improve Arab attitudes toward America or the West. Palestinian rights are just not on the minds of ordinary Arabs.
Lesson 4. The uprisings show that peace agreements are foolish because any regime that signs an agreement with Israel could be gone tomorrow and you can’t expect the replacements to honor the agreements. Successor regimes will be under more pressure from the Arab street to turn against Israel, if only to gain popularity with the public. Not that the Arab public cares about Israel (see 3 above). Agreements with Arab governments are unreliable because Arab governments are unstable. Successor governments will be more vulnerable to popular moods and less able to defy public hostility toward Israel.
Sub-Lesson 4(a). The Palestinian Authority’s refusal to commence negotiations with no preconditions is unreasonable. Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu is naturally unwilling to resume talks where they broke off during the former government of Ehud Olmert and rejects the terms that Olmert had already put on the table — including a future border based on the 1967 Green Line, the Jordan Valley under Palestinian control and a divided Jerusalem. Netanyahu has a different assessment of Israeli security needs and is not bound by his predecessor’s assessments. The Israeli electorate repudiated the Olmert concessions when it chose Netanyahu as its prime minister in 2009. Elections have consequences (except U.S. elections, which should not affect undertakings by previous presidents — they’re supposed to be sacred).
Note: All of the linked articles making the above arguments are taken directly from the Daily Alert, a comprehensive digest of news and commentary chosen to discredit Palestinian moderation and maximize fears of Israeli vulnerability, prepared daily for the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. Your charity dollars at work.
One of the debates simmering just below the surface this week is the question of whether Israel is a strategic asset or burden to the United States. Pro-Israel advocates have maintained for decades that it is an asset, and a darned valuable one. This view has been emphatically restated in the past few days by, among others, the Anti-Defamation League (here), AIPAC and 334 members of the House of Representatives in (a letter) to President Obama.
The view of Israel as a burden is usually identified with folks like “Israel Lobby” authors Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer and others who would like to see America cut Israel loose.
This week the Israel-as-burden crowd was joined by none other than Meir Dagan, the ur-hawkish director of Israel’s crack Mossad intelligence agency. He explained it on Tuesday in a fraught appearance before the Knesset foreign affairs and defense committee. It’s no less than a bombshell, though it got only minor coverage in the Israeli papers (here’s how Haaretz, Ynet and the Jerusalem Post covered it) and was almost entirely ignored over here.
Why should Israel have to freeze new Jewish housing construction in East Jerusalem, when it has already conceded so much and the Palestinians and their Arab patrons have given up so little?
Well, for one thing, that Israel-gave-lots/Arabs-gave-little equation is not as cut and dry as it seems. But that’s a separate discussion for another day. The essential question is this: America says it needs the freeze for reasons of American security. Does Israel owe it to America to answer American security needs as America answers Israel’s security needs? And if it doesn’t, what are the consequences?
Haaretz has two opinion essays right now arguing that Israel should freeze construction because it needs to stop Iran’s nuclear project and it needs America to lead the effort. One piece is by Ari Shavit, the prolific and unpredictable center-left interviewer/essayist. Its bottom line is that Bibi Netanyahu has boxed himself into a corner through a series of missteps over the past year and he needs to do something dramatic to get himself out of it:
The road to Iran also passes through Palestine. The price of stopping the centrifuges is giving up settlements. Only if Netanyahu acts with determination in this spirit can he right the great injustice he has done to himself over the past year. Only Netanyahu can save Netanyahu from destruction.
The other piece is considerably more substantive and compelling. It’s by Ephraim Sneh, a reserve brigadier general, former West Bank civil administration head (military governor), former deputy defense minister, former transportation minister, former health minister (he’s also an MD). Unlike Shavit he stays away from personal issues of Netanyahu versus Obama and sticks to a cold analysis of Israeli strategic interest.
Sneh lays out 10 “assumptions” that he says must be taken into account when attempting to unravel the current “fundamental and serious” crisis in U.S.-Israel relations. I won’t try to summarize them, because Sneh presents them in a terse, compelling flow. Here’s how he puts it:
The Nobel committee may not have done President Obama much of a favor in awarding him the Peace Prize. At best it’s a double-edged sword. As Yediot Ahronot’s Washington correspondent Yitzhak Ben-Horin points out in a smart news analysis on the paper’s Ynet Web site (in Hebrew — not yet translated into English as I post this), the prize is apparently intended to encourage Obama’s efforts on the international scene. But it could very well boomerang on him back home by sparking ridicule and deepening public skepticism toward him.
Most of the ridicule of the prize is off-base. As admirers and critics alike are pointing out, the peace prize has been used over time in two different ways, sometimes to honor achievements and sometimes to recognize efforts in hopes of encouraging them and moving them along. The mere fact of Obama’s winning the presidency on a platform of multilateralism abroad and a stronger welfare state at home has changed the nature of discussion around the world. America came to be viewed during the Bush years as an obstacle to human progress in countless areas where it very much counts, particularly reducing tensions between the West and Islam and addressing climate change. America is now part of the game. There’s hope once again for progress on basic global crises. That itself is an accomplishment.
Still, it’s at home that his legacy will ultimately be determined. The American right tends to take the Nobel Peace Prize as a badge of shame, in line with its general views of Europe, the United Nations, multilateralism and the rest. Will ridicule of Obama’s prize hurt him politically and slow his legislative agenda? That’s the core question right now. He needs to pass credible health reform or he’ll lose momentum and credibility on every other front. He needs to find a way to get the economy moving on the ground, where it counts, in employment and access to credit. He needs to pass climate change legislation, or the whole Kyoto-Copenhagen will stall once again.
Speaking of Obama’s credibility, it’s worth checking out this essential analysis of the current moment in Israeli-Palestinian relations by Haaretz’s Aluf Benn. Among other things, Benn argues that the administration’s efforts to deflect the Goldstone report effectively touched off the latest rioting in Jerusalem. The administration bluntly pressured Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority not to push for action on the report in the U.N. Human Rights Council. That badly weakened Abbas politically. The Jerusalem riots are the response, the Palestinian Authority’s way of showing its public that it still knows how to stand up to Israel.