No up side to Israeli meddling in US politics

From The Washington Post: Obama and Kerry must see the [Iran] negotiations through to completion in June, a goal that remains in question, given some of the missing details. Obama, in particular, must try to sell any final agreement in the face of fierce opposition from Republicans and some Democrats at home — and Israel abroad — and skepticism across the Middle East, including from its ally Saudi Arabia.

From The New York Times: As the proposed agreement over Iran’s nuclear program is debated in coming weeks, President Obama wwill make his case to a Congress controlled by Republicans who are more fervently pro-Israel than ever, partly a result of ideology, but also a product of a surge in donations and campaign spending on their behalf by a small group of wealthy donors.

Without comment on the emerging deal to regulate Iran’s nuclear program, or on the pros-and-cons of President Obama’s foreign policy, it is becoming increasingly clear that the politics surrounding the deal will be an unmitigated disaster for Israel.

According to a ABC News/Washington Post poll, nearly 60 percent of Americans support a deal to reign in Iran’s nuclear program, with identical numbers saying they have little confidence that such a deal would work.

Significantly, the Republican majority in Congress leads American opposition to dealing with the Ayatollahs, and skepticism about the possibility of Iran keeping the terms of a negotiated agreement. Congressional opposition to a deal would certainly align with Israeli, Saudi and other US interests in the Middle East.

But it should be clear that both Republicans and Democrats alike view the deal in strictly American terms. In other words, the American debate over the framework agreement has only to do with whether or nor the deal will serve American interests, not whether plusses or minuses of the deal for American allies in the Middle East. Viewed with that lens, the debate between Congress and the White House boils down to this: Congress believes that a deal that exposes US interests to a nuclear Iran is bad for America. President Obama believes it is in America’s interest to pursue a negotiated settlement that brings Iran back into the family of nations. If that means (potentially) exposing Israel and the Sunni Arab states to a nuclear, the president appears to believe either that that threat has been greatly overstated, or he has re-thought America’s foreign policy needs on the most fundamental level. In either event, the risks to traditional US allies inherent in a world-sanctioned Iranian nuclear program are no longer of primary concern to the White House.

Regardless of one’s analysis of that debate, it is hard to see a positive side to the perception that Israel now yields direct political clout over US politicians, influence paid for with big bucks from Israel supporters like Sheldon Adelson, on an issue that Americans believe should be entirely a domestic US debate.

Traditional “winners-and-losers” analysis would appear to finger Israel as a “winner” if Congress were to scuttle a deal favoured by the Administration. In that case, Prime Minister Netanyahu would have successfully bypassed the president and thrown his considerable political weight behind a movement to oppose the Framework Agreement, and emerged with a favourable result.

In real terms, however, that Israeli “victory” would look quite a lot like a group of international Jews using their influence to affect American domestic and foreign affairs. It is hard to see the upside in that formulation for Israel.

In contrast to Saudi Arabia’s King Salman – no less threatened by a deal with Tehran than Israel – who kept largely silent in recent months as negotiations proceeded in Lausanne and reacted last week to the deal saying only that he hoped it would bring “stability and security” to the region, Prime Minister Netanyahu has taken a central role on the American political stage to oppose the deal.

Supporters of the prime minister will correctly note that support for Israel across the United States remains high. Seventy percent of Americans continue to identify with Israel’s narrative of the Israel-Palestinian conflict (we tried to make peace, the Arabs have rejected peace plan after peace plan and repeatedly attacked us).

But a deeper analysis of that fact shows that Israel is becoming a partisan issue in the U.S.: Since 1988, when Republicans and Democrats said they supported Israel in about equal numbers (c. 47 percent), today those numbers are widely disparate: 83 percent of Republicans say they sympathise more with the Israelis than with the Palestinians, while just 48 percent of Democrats hold the same view.

It is hard to see a positive side to that split.

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Going out on a limb

Prophecy is the handiwork of fools, as the saying goes (or something like that). Still, at the risk of falling into the well-known trap, a small prediction about what we’ll see in the coming days and weeks. I, like many others, believe the country will be in for a shock tomorrow night at 10. In contrast to many others (and especially many of my neighbours who I believe are afflicted with hopeful blindness), I believe the results of tomorrow’s election will be something like this:

Zionist Camp 26
Jewish Home 16
United Arab List 14
Likud 14
Kulanu 14
Yesh Atid 14
Haredim 13
Meretz 6

The main reason for this layout, I believe, is Bibi Netanyahu. While neither the Zionist Camp nor the Likud campaigns addressed any substantive issues (both said merely “it’s either us or them/him”), the economic situation faced by most Israelis will deliver this election definitively to Labour. Simply put, life in Israel is simply too expensive. Too many people work too hard, only to fall deeper and deeper into debt every month. Too many people say our schools do not meet the needs of today’s Israeli children, and they do not prepare them for adulthood in the 21st century. Too many people feel our elected officials have turned John F. Kennedy’s dictum on its head, asking themselves primarily “what can this country do for me?”.

Worse, Netanyahu has fallen deep into the trap of surrounding himself with yes men, sidelining those who present differing opinions, and believing that adulation from committed supporters is an indication of widespread support. This was seen most clearly during his trip to Washington earlier this month. Yes, the prime minister delivered polished, convincing speeches both to AIPAC and to Congress, both time to rousing applause.

But even before arriving at those forums Netanyahu was assured of a fawning reception (indeed, there is ample indication that Netanyahu would never have agreed to travel to Washington had there even been a question about those standing ovations). But in influential circles that take a cautious view of Netanyahu, or even of Israel – the State Department, the White House, academia, Europe, the United Nations – Netanyahu’s voice simply is not heard. It isn’t that they argue with the facts that he presents, or with his analysis of the danger presented by a nuclear Iran. It is that they find the messenger so objectionable that they simply cannot hear the message.

This is equally true on the domestic front, which is why he is likely to lead his party to a crashing defeat tomorrow. As Nahum Barnea reported from last night’s demonstration in Tel Aviv, “the audience was overwhelmingly religious Zionist, overwhelmingly men, nearly all from outside Tel Aviv.” Rather than address the left-wing rally last week earlier – i.e. the people who say they will not vote for Netanyahu – the prime minister preferred to look out at an adoring choir and assumed his passionate preaching had convinced the masses. Rather than addressing the very criticisms of the anti-Netanyahu camp, the Likud campaign has focused only on amorphous slogans suggesting that Herzog and Livni will divide Jerusalem, that they aren’t strong enough on security, that they will endanger the very future of Israel.

But if my non-scientific observations are accurate, people aren’t buying it. Netanyahu’s condescending assumption that there is no other viable candidate is clearly not true. Working class Israelis who form an important part of the Likud voter base, and many of whom take a hawksh stance on security issues, have told this reporter for months that they would not be voting for the Likud, and they feel strongly it is time for change.

“Bibi has been carrying on about Iran for 20 years,” one Jerusalem shopkeeper said, “but nothing happens. In the meanwhile, my daughter and her husband live with us because there’s no way they can afford to rent an apartment of their own.

“I don’t know if I’ll vote at all, but if I do, it certainly won’t be for Netanyahu,” the man concluded.

With that layout, Yitzhak Herzog will easily put together a narrow, 61-member coalition consisting of the Zionist Camp, Meretz and Yesh Atid and Kulanu – barely scraping past the threshold for a government, but scraping past nonetheless.

In order to broaden the coalition to a very stable 74 members, Herzog could try hard to make peace between Yesh Atid and the Haredi parties. To those who say “bah, forget it, Andye you’ve lost the plot!”, it pays to bear in mind that the Haredim’s true political venom is reserved for the religious Zionist camp, not Yair Lapid. Yes, United Torah Judaism and Shas will drive a hard bargain in order to reverse some of the draft legislation passed in the 19th Knesset, but this is an area in which Yesh Atid can afford to be flexible: As long as there is movement towards expanding the draft (or civilian national service inside the Haredi community) and bringing Haredim into the work force, Yesh Atid will be able to tell its voters that there is overall positive movement, and that that is what counts. The Haredim, for their part, will be able to tell their voters honestly that their agreement in this area represents a victory over proposed criminal charges for draft dodgers, as well as a cost-free recognition of developments that have been going on in the Haredi community for years in any event.

So there it is: If I’m wrong, I’ll be the first to shrug my shoulders and admit openly that I’m very, very far from being a prophet, political or otherwise. But if I’m right, or even close to being right, don’t forget that you read it here first.

From Canberra to Jerusalem

From 1996 to 2007 John Howard served as prime minister of Australia. Although Howard’s conservative politics were anathema to the country’s vocal left wing, the country flourished under Howard’s leadership in away it never had previously. Economically the country flourished. On the international stage Howard forged close ties with two US presidents, Clinton and George W. Bush, and he asserted Canberra as a regional power in southeast Asia, and as a second-tier world power, one rung under the United States, England and France in global forums such as the United Nations.

Ultimately, however, Howard’s political successes proved to short lived. Throughout his in office -both as prime minister and as head of the Liberal Party, Howard stiffly resisted repeated attempts to establish a number two personality in the party that could assume the reigns of power when the time came for Howard to retire. When Howard was elected prime minister in 1996 the event was barely noted on the world stage; in contrast, as the result of his successes, his electoral defeat in November 2007 garnered international news coverage.

But his unplanned departure from the political stage left Australia in turmoil. Labour prime ministers Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard quickly showed themselves to be unprepared for the task at hand: the Labour Party has a long history of fierce infighting, something that ultimately Rudd and Gillard proved unable to overcome. Rudd enjoyed widespread popularity for a limited period of time, but a serious of unpopular tax initiatives and foreign relations gaffes prepared fertile ground for a blindside attack by Gillard two years later that was described as a “midnight knock on the door, followed by midnight execution”.

Gillard proved no better: One commentator said she “dug an enormous political hole for the Australian Labour Party” and added that “it is really difficult to draw up a list of achievements of her time in office”. Eventually, current Prime Minister Tony Abbott returned the Liberal Party to office in 2013, but Abbott cannot compete with the towering shadow left by Howard nearly a decade ago.

From Canberra to Jerusalem 

The Australian example is relevant as Israel prepares to go to the polls next Tuesday. Binyamin Netanyahu, already the longest-nerving prime minister in Israeli history, is seeking an unprecedented fourth term in office. Like Howard, Netanyahu has moved repeatedly to sideline potential successors, most recently Gidon Sa’ar and Moshe Kahlon, viewing them instead as potential threats. As a result, Netanyahu is not wrong in his assertion that there is not one left i the Likud that could reasonably claim to be “prime ministerial material.”

The Australia comparison is relevant, too, to the Zionist Camp, the current incarnation of the historic Labour Party. Here, too, there is no Labour leader with the leadership qualities to lead the country, and party infighting threatens to derail any Labour-led government sooner rather than later.

It is on this point that Netanyahu has rolled the dice – he is betting hat the lack of seasoned leadership personalities in other parties – Zionist Camp leaders Yitzhak (Boogie) Herzog and Tzipi Livni hardly inspire confidence or excitement, even amongst their own voters – will push voters to select the Likud on March 17. With little to show for six years in government, on the economic, domestic or diplomatic fronts, Likud ads say simply “it’s either us or them,” with the threat of a left-wing camp clear.

(Significantly, the Zionist Camp has adopted the identical campaign strategy. In an apparent admission that Israelis will simply not get excited about Boogie or Tzipi, the Zionist Camp campaign message goes no further than “at least we’re not him.”)

But there are growing signs that like John Howard, Netanyahu may have run one race too many. In traditional Likud strongholds such as Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda outdoor market, shopkeepers who run stalls adorned with posters of mythical Likud prime minister Menachem Begin spit derisively at the mention of Netanyahu’s name. In national religious communities such as Efrat, Raanana, Netanya and elsewhere, voters who have supported right-wing politics for years say they will cast their ballots for Naftali Bennett or Moshe Kahlon (not for the “Jewish Home” or “Kulanu’ parties, mind you, but for the compelling personalities that head those groups). There, sighs of frustration are common when people are faced with the prospect of four more years of Netanyahu’s “just do nothing” policies.

There are clear reasons for this. Like most Israelis, double-salary right-wing and centre-right voters are frustrated by their inability to meet their monthly expenses. Like left-wing Tel Avivians, they line up for treatment in the hallways of overcrowded Israeli hospitals an send their children to under-funded schools that cannot address the needs of 21st century students, thanks both to a debilitating bureaucracy and outmoded thinking throughout the ministry of education.

Like most people, potential Likud voters understand that the current Palestinian leadership will not sign any deal with Israeli, no matter what party is in power nor what potential deal is put on the table. In short, the minimal Palestinian demands are far in excess of Israel’s maximum ability to compromise, regardless of who is sitting in the prime minister’s chair. Given that reality, the issue of “concessions” to the PLO are irrelevant, meaning that one of the two central elements of Netanyahu’s scare campaigns is irrelevant.

On Iran, too, Netanyahu’s fear mongering has begun to wear thin after 20-plus years. While the notion of a nuclear Iran is indeed the blackest of nightmares for Israel – and while few Israelis doubt the veracity of Netanyahu’s analysis – it is equally clear that that situation is one that Israel will eventually have to deal with, like it or not. If Israel had had the ability, either militarily or politically, to eliminate the program Osirak-style, it would have been accomplished a decade ago or more. Ditto for Washington: Had the United States viewed Iran’s nuclear program as a strategic threat in the 1990s, or even after September 11, the issue would not be a topic for discussion any longer.

Given these realities, there is reason to believe that Netanyahu’s scare tactic s vis-à-vis the Palestinians or Iran have lost their potency. Yes, the threats are real, but after two undecided mini-wars with Hamas in Gaza – operations that were not fought to bring about Hamas’ unconditional surrender, but rather with the evasive goal of “restoring security to the citizens of Israel,” as the prime minister’s spokesman told this reporter in 2012 and again in 2014 – Netanyahu’s self-portrayal as Mr Security has little validity.

If non-scientific discussions and observations are any indication – at Shabbat kiddushes and coffee shops in both Tel Aviv and Jerusalem and on line at the bank – a strong majority of Israelis feel that a Herzog/Livni-led government would indeed be terrible for Israel, but a smaller disaster than a redux of Netanyahu. Livni – she of the Likud-Kadima-Hatnua-Labour Party – is the ultimate political opportunist, committed only to remaining in politics at any cost, regardless of the principles that must be shed in order to do so. As for Herzog, it is difficult to imagine a more un-statesman like politician representing Israel on the international stage. Domestically, it is hard to see how a man who made a career as one of Israel’s leading corporate lawyers can serve the people as the Great Hope of the middle class.

But one gets the feeling that Netanyahu’s rhetorical, sneering question – “heh, what – do you want to vote for them?” – is losing currency, and fast. For whatever disaster a Herzog/Livni government creates, Netanyahu’s repeated clashes with world leaders and his uncanny ability to alienate friends of Israel – think California Senator Diane Feinstein and German Chancellor Angela Merkel – have rendered his astute analysis of Middle East politics irrelevant. In short, his objectionable personality and inability to act within global and regional political realities has silenced his voice in Europe and the White House.

In that light, the threat of European boycotts and international censure is far more of an immediate threat to average Israelis than the very real political and military challenges Israel is sure to contend with in the coming decade.

Likud Still Doesn’t Get It

Could it be that the LIkud has failed to understand the main message of the 22 January elections? Is it possible that veteran party MKs are so stuck in the “old politics” that they simply cannot fathom the degree to which ordinary Israelis want a new politic, and the degree to which political newbies Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett are committed to making that happen?

If one listens to Environment Minister Gilad Erdan, the answer to that question would appear to be “yes.” Speaking on this mornings “Hakol Dibburim” radio show with Keren Neubach, Erdan praised Prime Minister Netanyahu for agreeing to the joint Lapid-Bennett demand to exclude ultra-Orthodox (“haredi”) parties from the government, calling it a “tremendous concession”. Erdan then proceeded to warn the upstart politicians that they are playing with fire (my phrase, not his) by dragging out coalition negotiations.

“Netanyahu has already made tremendous concessions,” Erdan said. “The public will remember who made the concessions and who was stubborn”, insinuating that voters would punish the Yesh Atid and Jewish Home parties in favour of the Likud, were a second round of elections to be held.

From where I sit, however, Erdan has got it perfectly backwards. There is a strong majority of Israelis – secular and religious alike – who want fundamental change, both with regard to the way politics are conducted here and especially with regard to the country’s relationship with the haredi minority. Few Israelis will see Netanyahu’s decision take Lapid and Bennett over Yaakov Litzman and Eli Yishai as a “painful concession.”

Rather, most people will see it as a move that expresses – horror! – the will of the people. As I’ve written before, the party that stands to lose the most from new elections would be the Likud. Were that to happen, the public would indeed remember a) just how badly Netanyahu wanted to keep the haredi parties in the coalition, b) the fact that he’s promised to save the foreign minister’s job for Avigdor Lieberman, and c) the fact that he has promised both to evict and not to evict Jews from their homes in Judea and Samaria.

Divisive Hot Potato

It should be noted, however, that the exclusion of haredi political parties from the government will not necessarily translate into far-reaching, fundamental change on issues like haredi military or civilian national service, welfare payouts to adult kollel students (“avreichim”) or demands that all educational institutions that receive public funding teach the core Israeli curriculum and prepare students for matriculation exams.

It remains to be seen whether or not the Yesh Atid faction will make good on its promise to begin to deal with these issues, but if it does, the issue is sure to become a divisive hot potato between the two largest factions in the presumptive government, Yesh Atid and the Likud. Netanyahu may have agreed to exclude the haredim from the government this time around, but this does not mean he has broken his historic partnership with them, and he will be sure to keep an eye out for their interests as the new government takes shape.

One last point: One of the major Hebrew-language columnists (I think it was Yedioth’s Sima Kadmon, but I could be wrong) suggested the following scenario: Netanyahu leaves the haredi parties out, but assigns the ministries they would want – interior, religious services, housing – to the Jewish Home party. Three months from now, he could orchestrate a crisis to prompt Bennett to quit the government (start thinking settlement evictions), thus making room for Shas and United Torah Judaism to ride in to save the day. At that point, Lapid would be unlikely to bolt (standing strong to get the government you want is one thing; bringing down a government that you’re a part of is something else), and Netanyahu would have what he desperately wants now: A centre-right government, clearly prepared to sacrifice settlements if need be, without alienating the Haredi parties.

Okay, so Bloomberg’s not running…

Okay, so I got it wrong about Mike Bloomberg. Hizzoner squelched rumors of a White House bid last month, writing in the New York Times that he will suffice to “continue to work to steer the national conversation away from partisanship and toward unity; away from ideology and toward common sense; away from sound bites and toward substance.”

That should just about put an end to Bloomberg’s political career. He’ll be 70 at the next presidential election in 2012, and Rudy Giuliani’s example of a once-popular, high-profile New York mayor who couldn’t mount a serious challenge for the Republican nomination will seriously dissuade Bloomberg from throwing his billions at a campaign in four years.

Predictably, he’s been mentioned as a vice presidential candidate on McCain’s ticket, but I don’t see it happening. His break with the Republican Party was so public, and he’s been so critical of “the system” that it would be hard for him to retrace his footsteps to the party, and it is even more unclear whether or not the party would accept him back if he applied for re-instatement.

Furthermore, McCain doesn’t need Bloomberg as a VP. The two are nearly identical candidates – probably the reason Mike B. stayed out of the race – and McCain needs a little variety to expand his voter base, as well as a way to neutralize Barack Obama’s appeal to black voters or Hilary Clinton’s presumed appeal to women.

Early eyes should focus on JC Watts, a conservative former representative from Oklahoma and the last black Republican to serve in Congress. Watts is a devout Christian and a former church youth leader, and since retiring from the House of Representatives he has demonstrated his commitment to public service, serving on the national board of Boy Scouts of America, the United States Military Academy and more. Apart from his obvious appeal to black voters, he could shore up McCain’s appeal in the Bible Belt

Another potential running mate is Susan Collins, the popular senator from Maine. She’s the perfect age to stage a run for vice president (55), and her moderate voting record has caused some conservatives to label her a RINO (Republican In Name Only).  “Green” groups have praised her concern for environmental issues, her strong support of abortion rights has irked religiously conservative Republicans, and she is known as a voice of moderation amongst Congressional Republicans. More importantly, she has voted against Republican majorities on several occasions, showing she’s committed to doing what she considers to be the right thing, even at the expense of party unity. Here, too, she would not only appeal to many women voters, as well as shore up McCain’s campaign in a critical region of the country – the northeast.

In any event, McCain is sure to wait until after the Democratic ticket is set. With several highly-qualified black and female candidates to choose from, he can comfortably wait to see who his opposition will be, and choose a running mate accordingly.