Saturday, February 20, 2016

Politics Israeli Style

Americans generally do not appreciate the complexity of parliamentary democracies, where the senior executive (the prime minister) is not elected by a direct popular vote but rather by the party that prevailed in electing the most members to the legislature. Great where there is a clear prevailing party, but as is often the case – particularly countries with lots of parties that win seats – there is no prevailing party. To secure the coveted PM post, the party with the largest number votes (but no clear majority) needs to lure one or more minority parties into a majority “coalition” to elect a PM. The horse-trading involves allocations of cabinet posts, agreements as to key political positions, etc. While the majority of Israel’s political parties are in what is basically a Zionist camp (the belief in a Jewish nation; Jewish nationalism), there are parties to the right and left of this positon.
But Israel is a cacophony of political parties, with new ones being formed all the time. Of those that have seats in the parliament, the Knesset, there are ten, half of which have fewer than 10 seats (60+ is a majority). The two top parties today, Netanyahu’s Likud (30 seats), Zionist Union (24 seats) together were insufficient to generate that majority, so a multiparty grouping generated the necessary coalition to hold Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu in power. This has diluted his power and required him to yield on certain high-level issues to his coalition partners.
Netanyahu’s underlying strategy has been to instill fear, argue that only he and his party (and sympathetic parties) can solve the problem, a tact that has worked well to keep him on top. Sound familiar? Like the second George W Bush campaign in the middle of the Afghan and Iraqi conflicts? Bibi and his coalition partners have pledged to continue building Jewish settlements on the West Bank, drilled down on the horrific Hamas extremists in Gaza, and have clamped down on Israeli Muslims who have been reduced to second class citizenship.
A comment to my February 3 blog sums up a common line of thought in Israel and much of the US today. “The other side of the story...Netanyahu said it best: ‘If the Arabs laid down their weapons, there would be no more war. If Israel laid down her weapons, there would be no more Israel.’" Since this is not going to happen on either side, the world is finding blame almost exclusively against Israel, an equally untenable position, but one where Palestinians are playing Netanyahu like a puppet on a string in world opinion. And as we shall see, Netanyahu’s party is losing some of its traction even in Israel. World opinion continues to go “the other way.”
Just as the world went strongly negative on W (and the US) when he rattled and then deployed sabers in his Middle Eastern conflicts (noting that today both our efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq are viewed by just about everyone as failures), so has the world turned on Israel and Netanyahu’s purported “defensive” postures. Recent votes in the United Nations General Assembly have been resoundingly in favor of Palestine and its quest for autonomy. Lame-duck UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-Moon, has lambasted Israel’s sincerity in seeking a peaceful resolution with Palestine (claiming each West Bank settlement makes peaceful resolution that much more difficult) and its treatment of local Muslims. Palestinian authorities feel no real obligation to negotiate with Israel under this growing trend. Knife-bearing Palestinians attacking local Israelis have upped their violence. Even these horrific attacks have not moved global opinion against the Palestinians a whit.
The Secretary General is not the only negative UN voice: “The U.N. human rights investigator for Gaza and the West Bank called on Israel on Thursday to investigate what he called excessive force used by Israeli security forces against Palestinians and to prosecute perpetrators… “Makarim Wibisono, United Nations special rapporteur on human rights in the Palestinian territories, also challenged Israeli authorities to charge or release all Palestinian prisoners being held under lengthy administrative detention, including children.
“‘The upsurge in violence is a grim reminder of the unsustainable human rights situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territory and the volatile environment it engenders,’ he said in a final report to the Human Rights Council… Israel, backed by its ally the United States, accuses the Geneva-based forum of bias against it.” Reuters, February 11th. With a rather clear pattern of the expectation of a US veto, Palestinians have given up getting a sympathetic vote at the Security Council level, but have been wildly successful in the General Assembly.
But only citizens of the local nation can elect their officials. So what may play badly in the eyes of the international community – making working with the rest of the world increasingly difficult – the vision of a powerful “us against the world” politician is compelling for local politics, even where that politician may have stirred the pot to make the world that much more dangerous… creating the need for him (or her) to solve the problem.
Look at our own presidential campaigns. If most of foreign policy presentations were in fact implemented, the US would go its own path, infuriating both military and trading partners, resulting in retaliatory economics, isolationism and a massive increase to our military budget should we choose to go it alone. But these slogans do get votes, even with all the likely consequences that would make life for Americans that much more difficult.
Israel’s policies often irritate American policy makers, and Netanyahu became a pawn in the political battle between a Democratic president and a Republican Congress, as he aligned himself rather clearly with the most conservative elements of the GOP against the policies of the President. Israel needs the US in its Iron Dome missile shield that has rendered Hamas rocket attacks fairly ineffective. We need Israel as our only consistent ally in a volatile Middle East, featuring a highly effective on-the-ground regional intelligence capacity and a technology sector that is nothing short of amazing in its creative excellence.
But as political realities within each of the US and Israel pull each country away from the global mainstream, terrorists rejoice. The ability to engender sympathies as “freedom fighters” doesn’t help either state in its obvious need to crush extremism growing in the Muslim world. Instead of presenting a stabilizing force for a troubled region, both the US and Israel may be moving in the wrong direction. But while the US continues to veer strongly to an isolationist right (there are even major forces among Democrats to pull the US further away from the global mainstream), forces in Israel may finally be realizing that Likud’s fear-creating strategy is not providing the safety that Israeli citizens are clearly entitled to. Israel is hardly getting safer.
Israel Today (February 2nd) presents the changing landscape in Israel today. While references to the individual parties may confuse you, the conclusion will not: “[In late January], Israel’s largest daily newspaper, Yediot Ahronot, commissioned a survey in which it asked Israelis for whom they’d vote if elections were held today. Netanyahu’s Likud would win 23 seats, down from its current 30, while Yesh Atid would gain nine, giving it 20 seats…The left-wing Labor Party, currently branded the Zionist Union, would drop from 24 to 16 seats, while the national religious Jewish Home party would increase from eight to 13 seats. The center-right Kulanu faction would lose just one of its current 10 mandates, and Avigdor Lieberman’s Israel Beiteinu would rise from six to eight seats.
“The ultra-left Meretz party would also gain slightly, going from five to seven seats, while the Orthodox Jewish parties Shas and United Torah Judaism would drop one seat for a combined 12 seats, and the Joint Arab List would remain steady at 12 seats… The overall picture does not bode well for Netanyahu’s ability to form the next ruling coalition, and if those numbers hold true, the possibility exists that Lapid could be tapped for that task.
“The general feeling in Israel is that while Netanyahu is a brilliant politician who knows how to win elections, he has once again fallen short when it comes to actually governing. Even within Likud, Netanyahu’s popularity is said to be waning, as his list of challengers and critics grows.”
In the end, a willingness to play well with others, the respect for human rights when that may not show well in local politics and an acceptance that compromise may be the only viable path are going to be filled with frustration – old patterns take time to unwind. Clearly the saber rattling/deployment in Israel is a bust, and Israel is rapidly becoming a nation that will have a Muslim majority. Without a change in direction, safety in our ally on the Mediterranean coast is going the wrong way. When a strategy simply fails to generate the promised result, it just may be time to change that strategy.
I’m Peter Dekom, and once heels are dug in and egos committed, it is exceptionally difficult to reverse directions, admit errors and readjust… even if that is the only path that might work.

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