Tag Archives: Netanyahu

Stuck in the Middle East with you.

Israel’s new coalition government: Who’s the boss?

Israel’s new coalition government: a three-headed monster pulling in two different directions.

Stuck in the Middle East with you.
Stuck in the Middle East with you.

Israel’s 33rd government is on the cusp of being formed. It has been a tortuous coalition negotiations path, and the fact that it has gone all the way to the 42nd and very last day of the mandated time allotted to form a coalition does not speak well about the ability of the erstwhile political partners to work together in the future.

Assuming that there is no final [really final this time] glitches, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid, and Habayit Hayehudi’s Naftali Bennett will sign a coalition deal Friday afternoon.

Netanyahu’s government will be made up of the Likud-Yisrael Beytenu [31 seats], Yesh Atid [19], Habayit Hayehud [12], Hatnuah [6], a thin ruling majority of 68 MKs.

Significantly, this government will not include the haredi Shas and United Torah Judaism parties. It is the first time, apart from one brief stint of two years in the Knesset opposition, that the haredim have not been included in an Israeli government for almost forty years – an entire generation. What was not possible with the haredim in government – teaching core curriculum in haredi schools, drafting haredim into the army and increasing their participation in the workforce – may now be possible. Possible, but perilous, as much rests on how much is done with the cooperation of the haredi leadership. While the haredim are out, the settlers of the religious Zionist stream are in, and they’re making a beeline for the institutions of religion and state, most significantly the position of Chief Rabbi. Again, the outcome of any potential changes to the fabric of haredi society relies on a smart and humanistic combination of kosher carrots and sticks.

Once installed in his third term as prime minister, Netanyahu’s first challenge will be to pass the national budget, ostensibly the reason he called elections in the first place. Israel is in murky financial waters, and the government will have to cut over NIS 30 billion in the state budget, as well as increase taxes and institute other painful austerity measures. He will have to do this while keeping the coalition intact, if that’s what he wants. It will be interesting to see how Lapid fares as Finance Minister in what is shaping up to be a severe austerity economy [it is telling that Netanyahu all but begged Lapid to take on the finance portfolio.] Lapid will have to immediately cut at least NIS 14 billion from state expenditure and may even need to raise taxes. “I’ve got your back,” Netanyahu told Lapid. Just Do It, go find the money.

On socioeconomic issues, the coalition may be able to make some important reforms to the structural flaws in Israel’s society and economy, but any far-reaching, root-and-branch reforms, if they happen, will take time. While some change can be expected to the institutions of religion and state in Israel, it is unlikely that Likud and Habayit Hayehudi will agree to transportation on the Sabbath, for instance. While the coalition will move to redress the imbalance in the equality of national burden, don’t expect to see thousands of young haredi men join the ranks of the IDF, or, alternatively, be locked up behind bars for draft dodging.

Not a lame-duck Prime Minister

Netanyahu’s second order of business will be to quell the uprising within his own Likud, borne out of deep and discernible dissatisfaction of many Likud ministers and MKs with the results of the elections and the results of the coalition talks. Netanyahu will move quickly to change the primaries system in the Likud, which was abused by interested parties, like the settlers and their supporters, to vote in hard-line politicians ahead of the moderate, old-guard conservatives. Tens of thousands of settlers, card-carrying Likud members all, voted in the Likud primaries to make sure that certain politicians were in and others out, but then voted for Habayit Hayehudi and other parties in the general elections. This was one major reason why the Likud fared so badly in the general elections. If he doesn’t want to be a lame-duck prime minister, Netanyahu first, and foremost, has to reassert his authority within the Likud party. Make no mistake, Netanyahu wants to run for a fourth term.

Divide and Conquer

His third order of business will be to make sure that Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett don’t make his bid for a fourth term impossible. The country may have voted for Lapid and Bennett to ease their financial burden, but they also voted for Netanyahu to steer the country through burning Middle East sands. And this is how the government has ended up being divided: socioeconomic issues go to Lapid and Bennett, defense and foreign affairs stay with Likud-Beytenu. Lapid and Bennett can tackle the labor unions, striking nurses and dissatisfied teachers. Netanyahu and Ya’alon will tackle the Ayatollah. Lapid can “look for the money” leaving Netanyahu to “look for the centrifuges.” If Finance Minister Lapid wins, Netanyahu wins. If Lapid loses, Netanyahu wins.

The story of this post-election coalition-forming period was undoubtedly the historic and ironclad alliance between Lapid and Bennett. It began because of Netanyahu’s negative emotional response to Bennett’s electoral success which pushed Bennett into Lapid’s arms, and ended with Bennett becoming the real power broker behind Netanyahu’s ability to form a coalition.

Apart from their ideology over the peace process with the Palestinians, the two ascendant leaders see eye-to-eye on almost every socio-economic issue, especially the tough nut that is the inequality in the national burden, also known as the non-participation of the majority of the ultra-Orthodox sector in the military and, more crucially, the workforce.

The alliance worked well for both Bennett and Lapid, essentially forcing Netanyahu to bring them both into his coalition, as forming a government without them would have forced Netanyahu to form a coalition with Labor’s Shelly Yachimovich and the haredi parties – something he tried desperately to do but failed, largely because Yechimovich wanted to stay in the opposition and build herself up there.

But the alliance between the centrist Lapid and the rightist Bennett was for coalition negotiations leverage only, and should, by all accounts, flounder on the rocks of serious diplomacy with the Palestinians, should such diplomacy actually happen.

That’s not to say that even if serious diplomacy happens, the Palestinian Authority will come to the party. They refused Barak’s offers, they refused Olmert’s offers, they refused to come to the table during a ten-month settlement freeze – so any offer they’re liable to get under Netanyahu now is not going to be better than anything previously offered them. Which is why Bennett is not sweating it.

Jewish Home won’t leave the coalition if talks with the Palestinian Authority restart. It won’t even leave the coalition if a limited settlement freeze is implemented to get PA President Mahmoud Abbas to the table. Bennett will only leave the coalition if a real deal is likely. Israel and the Palestinians can talk all they want, as long as there is no deal, no practical outcome to the talks that leads to a Palestinian state, says Naftali Bennett, the Jewish Home leader.

The truth is that this suits Netanyahu just fine: the kind of Palestinian state he’s willing to agree to is the kind of Palestinian state the Palestinians will never agree to. And in any case, there is absolutely no appetite in Jerusalem to make any bold moves in the current regional turbulence, and especially the implications of a rapidly imploding Syria and an uncertain Egypt.

The Americans can push to restart the talks, but the ball is really in PA President Abbas’ court. If he comes to the party without any preconditions, then it’s game on.

During the election campaign, Netanyahu said repeatedly that should he form a government, he would make sure that Tzippi Livni gets “nowhere near” the negotiations with the Palestinians. Livni was the first person Netanyahu signed a coalition deal with, placing Livni in charge of peace talks with the Palestinians, with the caveat that a Netanyahu representative is in the room with her whenever she’s meeting the Palestinians. It’s obvious why Livni accepted this: she had no choice. With six mandates, her and her “Movement” would have disintegrated in the Opposition. Livni was not a very effective Leader of the Opposition with 28 Knesset seats, so a b backbench with 6 seats and a slow death, or “Justice Minister and person in charge of talks with the Palestinians that go nowhere.” The choice was clear and Livni signed on to become this government’s centrist fig leaf. Bennett however is demanding that Netanyahu amend his coalition deal with Livni, to make doubly sure that she is not able to give away any meaningful concessions [read settlements] to the Palestinians.

Some movement on the diplomatic track does seem likely, even though the consensus in Washington, Israel and the Palestinian territories is that a deal is very, very far off, if even possible. Right now, Israel, the Palestinian Authority, and the second Obama administration have an interest in restarting the process and keeping it going. Whether Abbas can deliver the Palestinians [he does not speak for Gaza] has always been a sticking point. And the same goes for Netanyahu’s right flank.

The upcoming visit by US President Barack Obama, and the planned visit to the region afterward by Secretary of State John Kerry do not represent an American administration imposing a peace plan on both sides. Obama and Netanyahu have much bigger fish to fry, namely the Iranian nuclear program, Syrian chemical weapons, and an Egypt spinning out of control. But there will be increasing pressure by the international community to move towards a two-state solution.

2013 could be the year of Iran, or it could not. What we are seeing however is an increasing military threat from the Sinai and the Golan Heights, both formerly quiet borders, now major issues on the Israeli national agenda. The next government then is likely to focus on internal issues such as the haredi question and the cost of living, and gird for possible violence against jihadis in Sinai and the Golan.

Netanyahu, convincingly drubbed in both the elections, and in coalition negotiations, is not going to let Lapid and Bennett dictate his premiership.

The prime minister has already stated his intentions for his next term in office:

“The coming term will be one of the most challenging in the country’s history. This is no exaggeration. We face security and diplomatic challenges. The important thing is for this government to be able to meet the challenges. We did our best with 31 Knesset seats; we’ve kept the important portfolios. We’ve taken back the defense portfolio and we’ve kept the foreign affairs portfolio.”

In other words: this will be the government that deals with Iran; this will be the government that deals with the Sinai and the Golan Heights; this will be the government that deals with fallout from Syria’s implosion; this will be the government that deals with the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood across the region. Equalizing the national burden is important, lowering the cost of housing is important – and best of luck to Finance Minister Yair Lapid and Economics Concentration Minister Naftali Bennett. But what’s more important is facing the most challenging security and diplomatic challenges this country has ever faced. And for that, I’m the boss.

Israeli politics and coalition building for the Knesset

Israeli political analysis – Three’s a crowd

Israeli political analysis – Three’s a crowd

Why doesn’t Prime Minister Benjamin want to give Yair Lapid the Foreign Ministry?

It’s not just because he promised it to Lieberman, but because he doesn’t want Lapid to get the diplomatic-security experience necessary for an Israeli politician to become Prime Minister in the future. Israelis demand a security background from their prime ministers – this is just the way it is here. Lapid made a serious mistake when, in his hubris following his electoral success, he told a TV channel that he would “without a doubt” become the prime minister after the next elections. That didn’t go down well with Netanyahu. Lapid all but placed a gun on Netanyahu’s table, and indicated that he would be back in the third act to shoot it. Netanyahu’s main political goal then is to neutralize Lapid’s potential as a candidate for prime minister in the next elections, whether they’re held in 2 years, three years, or four. That job, as far as Netanyahu is concerned, is already spoken for.

But Lapid knows what he’s doing by insisting on the foreign ministry portfolio: There have been 17 Foreign Ministers in Israel’s history [with Netanyahu serving currently as foreign and prime minister] and seven have gone on to become prime ministers. By contrast, only 1 finance minister has gone on to the top job. The fact that Likud is offering Lapid the finance portfolio should make him wary of it, it’s a poisoned chalice.

Lapid got his 19 Knesset votes largely because his campaign slogan “where is the money?” resonated with the secular middle class. Now that slogan is coming to bit him in the ass, as Likud hammers him on the question of the Finance Ministry: “You asked where the money is. Well it’s in the Treasury. So why refuse the Treasury?”

And they have a point.

But Lapid knows that he’s a rookie who has no chance of succeeding to carry out any meaningful policies in the Finance Ministry. He knows that the macroeconomic policy is actually formulated out of the Prime Minister’s Office, and executed by the Treasury’s powerful bureaucracy. Lapid could do the right and smart thing and accept the Finance portfolio for his party, and then give it to a real professional, someone Netanyahu listens to, someone Israelis respect, someone who can withstand withering criticism of severe austerity cuts and not care about his electoral future, someone like Stanley Fischer. That would be the right thing to do. Lapid could serve as Education Minister, which is something he’s always wanted to do, and from there go on to a more senior position in three or four years.

Israeli politics and coalition building for the Knesset
Don’t let me go. Netanyahu holds Lieberman in a Russian bear hug.

For his part, Lieberman has been a controversial foreign minister, to put it mildly. He’s a red flag for many in the international diplomatic arena, especially in ‘old Europe.’ He hasn’t been incredibly successful in the job either. And he’s also embroiled in what looks like a serious corruption probe involving a former ambassador to Latvia. Lieberman has Netanyahu by the balls. Israel Radio reported Thursday that Yisrael Beytenu has given Netanyahu an ultimatum: either keep the foreign ministry for Lieberman, or Yisrael Beytenu splits from Likud. Netanyahu folded and gave up on his “natural partners” the haredim [who, in their rage at being spurned, are vowing to become Leftists], but he cannot give up on Lieberman because the latter will pull his Yisrael Beytenu party, leaving Netanyahu’s Likud with just 20MKs – just one more mandate than Lapid’s Yesh Atid.

Lieberman could do the right thing and say he’s not interested in Netanyahu keeping the foreign ministry for him until he clears up his legal issues. He could do the right thing by saying that if the foreign ministry were held for him, several witnesses in his case, who currently serve in the diplomatic corps, could be intimidated into not testifying against their former, and perhaps future, boss. Lieberman could do the right thing and say that Israel needs a full-time foreign minister, and that Netanyahu already has his hands full as prime minister. And Netanyahu could agree with him. This would be the right thing to do, for both Lieberman and Netanyahu. But don’t hold your breath.

Netanyahu is being forced by Lapid to renege on his promise to Lieberman to keep the foreign ministry for him, and by Bennett to renege on his promise [an actual signed coalition deal] to Livni to let her conduct peace talks with the Palestinians.

Not the best situation for Netanyahu to be in, and it will be interesting to see how he manages this state of affairs. But with eight days to go until he must present a government, the prime minister could still pull a rabbit out his hat.


Bibi’s love of Labor


For a few days now the “accepted wisdom” in political circles is that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is close to striking a deal with Yesh Atid’s Yair Lapid and Habayit Hayehudi’s Naftalie Bennett. He has realized that it is impossible to break up the Lapid-Bennett alliance [one won’t enter the government without the other], so he has decided to buckle and bring them into his government.

But one lone newspaper is reporting something else. The haredi newspaper “Mishpacha” reported on Monday that Netanyahu has ordered his coalition negotiating team to make huge efforts to bring Labor’s Shelly Yachimovich into his coalition. “Hamishpacha” reported that Netanyahu told Yachimovich that she had until the end of this week to present her positions for entering the government, and that the Labor party chairwoman is apparently drawing up such a document. Should Yechimovich enter the government, Netanyahu could form a government with Labor [15], the haredi parties [18], Tzippi Livni’s Hatnuah [6], Kadima [2] as well as the Likud-Yisrael Beytenu list [31], to give him 72 Knesset seats. With that, Netanyahu could leave both Yesh Atid and Habayit Hayehudi out of the government. According to the paper, Netanyahu told the three heads of the Shas party at a meeting on Sunday that “I am meeting with you for one purpose, and that is to get your help in getting Yechimovich into the coalition.”

Netanyahu fears Lapid [who could become prime minister] and he hates Bennett [it’s personal]. He would rather sell out large swathes of his economic vision [the socioeconomic gaps are widening and we need to bring Israeli society together, not pull it apart] and in return get Labor’s support for the serious security challenges facing Israel in the region, including a nuclear Iran, and the implosion of Syria.

So if that’s Netanyahu’s plan, it goes something like this: Netanyahu tells Yechimovich “You deal with the socioeconomic problems, I’ll take care of the security challenges, Tzippi will talk to the Palestinians, and the haredim will promise to build lots more houses so that apartment prices go down. And they promise to start entering the workforce in greater numbers. Everyone wins.”

But what about Netanyahu’s aversion to Yechimovich’s economic worldview?

Netanyahu is focusing all of his energies on coming up with a formula for bringing Labor into a coalition with his Likud-Beytenu and the haredi parties. He would rather give up significant powers over the country’s financial direction in return for Labor’s support for his undisputed leadership, something that would be significantly in jeopardy were Netanyahu to form a government with Lapid and Bennett. Netanyahu believes, rightly or wrongly, that the two political upstarts will do everything in their power to weaken him ahead of the next elections [in which he has vowed to contend], and stymie every one of his decisions. It will be a government of three heads, or so the thinking goes.

If Netanyahu can say “Livni won’t get anywhere near peace talks” and then give her peace talks, he can sit with Yechimovich in coalition after calling her economic policies “disastrous.”

A Netanyahu-Lapid-Bennett coalition is a coalition of big internal changes: haredi draft and workforce participation, change in the system of government, breaking the haredi monopoly on religious institutions, and other such things, which the haredim will never agree to. It is not a coalition of big diplomatic changes, as this coalition will only last if no concrete proposal is made to establish a Palestinian state. Talks yes, agreement no.

A Netanyahu-Labor-Hatnuah-haredim coalition is a coalition more to Netanyahu’s liking, as it is devoid of any real challengers to his leadership. It is also a coalition of potential external changes: a peace process with the Palestinians, as long as it is slow, measured, and fully backed by strong security guarantees. This coalition might even go for a settlement freeze to get the talks going again,  and the haredim would love nothing better than that, to stick it to the “Gentiles and Reformim” of the national-religious camp. A settlement freeze might not even be that big of a risk for Netanyahu because, hey, he did it once before and the Palestinians didn’t come to the party.

I don’t know how likely this scenario is, but Netanyahu and his teams are working very intensively to bring Yechimovich on board. For her part, Yechimovich could strike gold with an appointment as finance minister, and perhaps some other serious socioeconomic portfolios. For the protest leaders in her party, getting into positions of real power must give them food for thought.

Israeli Politics: The Historic Significance of the Lapid-Bennett Alliance

Israeli Politics: The Historic Significance of the Lapid-Bennett Alliance

Until March 1, and then for 14 days after that, all we are going to see is Prime Minister Netanyahu’s attempt to break the Lapid-Bennett alliance. He is going to throw the kitchen sink at them [mostly at Bennett, where he has more of a chance of making an impact]. Make no mistake, the outcome of the battle between Netanyahu and the haredim on the one hand versus Lapid and Bennett on the other will set the course of Israel’s history. It is a battle of historic significance. Since the Likud government of Menachem Begin in 1977, and apart from the second Ariel Sharon government from 2003-2005, the Likud and the haredim have had an ironclad alliance which has cemented the status quo here. The haredi parties joined Rabin in 1992, which shows they have no real ideological principles, only monetary. So, apart from one brief stint of two years in the Knesset opposition, the haredim have been in government for some 36 years. Israeli politicians come and go, but the rabbis behind the haredi politicians do not change. The alliance of the liberal Zionist Likud, the religious Zionist settler parties, and the anti-Zionist haredi parties has stood firm for over thirty years.

But now there is prospect for real change, and the stakes couldn’t be higher.

If Netanyahu succeeds in forcing Bennett to abandon Lapid and join his government, we will not see a true change in the way this country is run. Haredim will not join the army in any substantive numbers, haredi children will not learn core subjects such as math and English, and their parents will not join the workforce in substantive numbers. What was will continue to be. There will not be a substantial change to the status quo of the inequality of national burden. Netanyahu will likely adopt a watered-down version of the Eugene Kandel plan, which is a watered-down version of the Moshe Ya’alon plan, which itself is a watered-down version of the Plessner plan, which is a watered-down version of the Lapid plan. Netanyahu vowed equal sharing of burden, so did Mofaz, so did Livni, so did Lapid, so did Lieberman, so did Bennett. The only people who want to keep things as they are, are the haredim. So what’s the problem? Why is it so hard for Netanyahu to form a coalition without the haredim? The majority of Israeli voters have spoken: they demand an equal sharing of the national burden. Even if that means Torah study in secular schools [which I think is a great idea but which the haredim apparently believe is a catastrophe]. Any government that arises here now and does not significantly change the status quo will be an illegitimate government.

Tzippi Livni

On the Israeli-Palestinian peace process front, Netanyahu will allow Livni to conduct peace negotiations with the Palestinians that won’t really be peace negotiations. Livni, as is her wont, failed to understand the significance of Netanyahu’s offer to enter the coalition. The only people disappointed in Livni are those that still had any hope in her in the first place. When will you learn?

What will Livni say to her Palestinian interlocutor when Netanyahu’s government, her government, builds houses in E1? Will she quit? How will she explain something she is dead set against? What serious Palestinian will take Livni seriously, knowing full well that she’s not serious? Hatnuah’s coalition agreement with the Likud specifically states that a Netanyahu representative will be in the room whenever Livni conducts peace talks. What the hell is that supposed to mean? That Livni will have a chaperone? That she’ll have to look to this person every time she says anything and wait for his nod? Livni’s Hatnuah party is led by three failed leaders [Peretz, Mitzna and Livni  herself] who just don’t want to walk away from it all. They all lost the leadership of their respective parties, they’ve all been shown the door, but they persist. Why? At least Yechimovich had the brains not to fall into the same trap that Livni did when Netanyahu offered the Labor leader the Treasury. Can you imagine Shelly Yechimovich as Finance Minister in a Netanyahu government? The Lion lies down with the Lamb, so maybe the Messiah will come..

The Lapid-Bennett alliance is aimed at changing the structural imbalance within Israeli society. That is what the Israeli voters want. If and when that is properly addressed, then Lapid and Bennett can go their separate ways over the peace process with the Palestinians [who don’t really seem to want a real peace]. Lapid and Bennett talk in terms of ideology, policy and principles, while the Likud talks about portfolios, ministries, and jobs.

The pressure now is on Bennett. Much more than it is on Lapid. The latter will have to do whatever he can to help the former withstand it. The pressure is coming from the losers of the election: the Likud-Beytenu list and the haredim. They realize that the secular middle class in Israel has voted for a break with the old politics, a break from the 40-year-long alliance between the Likud and the haredi parties. They voted for Netanyahu to be prime minister, and they want him to do the following things:

  1. Compel haredi schools to teach the core curriculum, including English and math, so that their children can one day join the workforce
  2. Compel haredi adults into the workforce so that they are not such a heavy and growing financial burden on the secular middle class
  3. End the haredi monopoly on the institutions of religion and state so that Judaism becomes more inclusive and less degrading for the non-haredi
  4. Lower the cost of living, with a special emphasis on the cost of housing, and to take the Housing and Construction Ministry out of haredi hands.
  5. Restart peace talks with the Palestinians so that we can reach a two-state solution with serious, iron-clad security guarantees.

The question now is what Netanyahu will do with the conditional mandate he has received from the Israeli public. He has threatened that if he cannot form a government with the haredim and the nationalist camp, he will call new elections. This is spin, and polls show that if Netanyahu does this, he’ll lose and Lapid will be prime minister. So what is Netanyahu’s plan? What guidelines does he want to set for his coalition? Will his guidelines be the five demands set by the majority of Israeli voters? In what directions does he want to take the country over the next four years? Why is he not adopting these guidelines now and finding the coalition partners that will go down this road with him?

Ask yourself, why is Netanyahu expending all of his energies on prying Lapid and Bennett apart?  He could, if he wanted to, find a face-saving way of bringing them both in and sign a broad coalition government within days. Instead, he’s sticking to the haredim, his “natural partners” that don’t take part in the workforce and don’t serve their country.  Why? Why doesn’t Netanyahu choose other “natural partners” – those that do work and serve the state?

The answer, I’m afraid, could be that, at the end of another four years in office, Netanyahu wants there to be nobody to compete against him for another term in office, just like there wasn’t anyone competing against him this time. Netanyahu must break the Lapid-Bennett alliance so that Netanyahu can keep his alliance with the ultra-Orthodox, thus securing their allegiance for the next elections. It’s always about the next elections, isn’t it? Israeli history hinges on the Lapid-Bennett alliance. They must not break. What they can do now is find a way of working with Netanyahu, a way of acquiescing to some of his demands, a way of saving his face, so that he can take them both in without feeling humiliated and threatened. Netanyahu fears that if he takes them both on, he will be hostage to their agendas, and will not be able to be a strong prime minister. He fears that Lapid will work to undermine him from within. He may be right. But Lapid and Bennett also have a job to do. They need to work with Netanyahu, and they need to make it work. This is now their challenge. They were the victors of the January elections, and now they must be magnanimous. And Netanyahu needs to lead according to the will of the people.


photo (14)

10 comments on the situation in Israel

  1. Netanyahu did all he could to thwart Obama’s reelection. But Bibi is now forced to deal with him. Netanyahu did all he could to thwart Bennett’s election. But Bibi is now forced to deal with him. Next week Netanyahu will have to put his personal animosity for Bennett aside and meet with the young leader. Next month, Netanyahu will have to put his personal animosity for Obama aside and meet with the powerful leader.
  2. Obama is coming here to give Netanyahu a second chance. The question is whether Netanyahu understands that, and seizes this lifeline. Former IDF Military Intelligence chief Amos Yadlin said this week that, and I quote: “The impression is that the EU is on the verge of imposing concrete sanctions against Israel, principally by distinguishing between products originating in Israel proper and products from Jewish settlements in the West Bank. Particularly grave is the possibility of deteriorating relations between Israel and a second term Obama administration.” So just before Israel finds itself in a real “meat grinder” our government should take the opportunity to set a course for itself that would balance between Israel’s rights to land in Judea and Samaria, and Israel’s existential need for international legitimacy and alliances. On the Iranian front, Obama and Netanyahu will have to come to agreement on when non-military means have exhausted themselves. Again from Yadlin: “Mutual trust between the leaders is essential in order to reach a plan of action.” I know this has been said before, but I do believe that 2013 is the year of decision on Iran. And so, as the old maxim goes, if you want Israel to take risks for peace, make it feel more secure, not less. It could be that Obama is coming to “wrap his arms around Israel” to make us feel more secure, and in that way, allow us to take more risks on the Palestinian peace process, and perhaps even on Iran diplomacy.
  3. Last month, National Security Adviser Yaakov Amidror told Israel’s ambassadors that if they couldn’t explain Israel’s settlements policies, then they should quit. He slapped down our UN Ambassador Ron Prosor. It caused quite a stir. This week Amidror said that it was impossible to explain Israel’s settlements policies anymore. Should he quit? Ironic isn’t it?
  4. In the past six months, Netanyahu has lost his National Information Directorate chief Yoaz Hendel, and his Bureau Chief Natan Eshel. Last week Cabinet Secretary Zvika Hauser announced his resignation. This week Netanyahu’s closest aide, Policy Planning Chief Ron Dermer told his boss that he would be leaving in a few months time.
  5. Talking about settlement construction, I’d be interested in knowing whether the government has ordered all building and planning councils not to announce any new construction tenders immediately preceding, and during, Obama’s trip to Israel in mid-March. Netanyahu does not want a repeat of the Biden debacle of 2010.
  6. The haredi parties’ attacks on Lapid and Bennett lately remind me of an addict forced to go into cold turkey, spitting and hissing. When you take the source of the addiction [state funding] away from the addict [haredim] one is to expect a certain amount of resistance. But the haredi rabbis and politicians have gone overboard. They have accused both Lapid and Bennett of being ‘heretics’ and of being anti-Semitic. They’ve thrown the kitchen sink at them. Fine. In the end, hopefully, their addiction will subside.
  7. Netanyahu vowed equal sharing of burden, so did Mofaz, so did Livni, so did Lapid, so did Lieberman, so did Bennett. So what’s the problem? Why is it so hard for Netanyahu to form a coalition without the haredim? The vast majority of Israeli voters has spoken: they demand a equal sharing of the national burden. Even if that means Torah study in secular schools [which I think is a great idea]. Any government that arises here now and does not change the status quo will be an illegitimate government.
  8. Lapid wrote this on his Facebook wall after all the haredi attacks against him: “King David was a warrior, Maimonides studied secular subjects, Nachmanides and Rashi both worked.” Enough said.
  9. The army has reported that 1 in every 2 Ethiopian IDF soldiers spends time in the brig during his army service. That’s just crazy. We brought these people here; they’re part of us now, have been for quite some time. We can’t abandon them like this. The army has to take these soldiers under its wing and help them with whatever it is they need help with.
  10. The European Union is scared of labeling Hezbollah a terrorist organization because the Europeans are scared that Hezbollah will attack European targets on European soil, and not just Israeli targets on European soil, like it did in Burgas. The Europeans are cowards. They’re worried that if they put Hezbollah on their terror list then their UNIFIL soldiers in southern Lebanon will be attacked. So pull them out. Or tell them to fight if they’re attacked. They’re soldiers aren’t they?
Don't call me in the morning

Yair Lapid’s Catch 33

Political kingmaker Yair Lapid, whose party now controls the makeup of the next government headed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, has a problem. In Israel it’s called “Hatzarot shel Ashirim” [a rich man’s dilemma]. He has such power now that it is almost inconceivable that Lapid himself not take one of the three main government portfolios: Finance, Foreign Affairs, or Defense.

If he takes Finance he’ll be responsible for implementing a severe austerity budget. Israel’s deficit is double what it should be and stands at some 38 billion shekels [$ 10 billion]. That’s a fiscal cliff he doesn’t want to fall off. Lapid was voted in by the middle class, and there’s nothing that Netanyahu would want more is for Lapid, as Finance Minister, to institute cuts to programs and raise taxes and to be the bad guy. But Lapid’s election campaign message was “Where is the Money?” Well, the money is in the Treasury, so many people will be wondering why they voted for Lapid if he doesn’t take the Treasury. Tough one.

Number 5 on Yesh Atid’s list Yaakov Perry says Lapid could be a great foreign minister and “take us out of our international isolation. He’s a quick study,” says Perry.

But if Lapid takes Foreign Ministry he might well be feted in Washington and Paris, but might well run into failure on the peace process. Netanyahu and Lieberman [the latter who wants to come back as foreign minister if and when his legal troubles clear] has already instituted a 10-month settlement freeze, in which the Palestinians didn’t come to the negotiating table. Tzippi Livni had a much less conservative prime minister [Olmert] as her boss, and she couldn’t get a deal done with the Palestinians. Abbas never even responded to Olmert’s far-reaching deal. The last thing Lapid wants is to expend his political capital on a peace process that could go nowhere fast. And as I mentioned above, Lapid was catapulted into power by the middle class on internal issues. They won’t forgive him if he doesn’t deal with the cost of living and housing.

Lapid can’t well take the Defense Ministry because his only military experience was as a writer in the IDF’s newspaper BeMachane.

But Lapid has to take one of the senior ministries as befits his senior role in the next government.

Definitely a Catch 33.

But here’s a thought for Mr. Lapid: in the absence of a real peace process and a willing Palestinian partner; and in the absence of wars; who says Finance, Foreign, and Defense should be the top three portfolios? The country has spoken, and Israelis are more concerned now with internal issues. So perhaps the most important portfolios should be Finance, Interior, Education, and Housing. Maybe, finally, these portfolios could be considered launching pads for the prime minister’s job?

Lapid should think about that.

And another thing: both of the centrist parties in the recent decade have risen and crashed: his father’s party Shinui rose to 15 mandates and is now gone; Kadima rose to 28 mandates and now may get into the Knesset with 2.

What he can count on is that Netanyahu will want to rehabilitate the Likud: not only because he wants to serve as prime minister for a fourth term, but also because he doesn’t want to leave the Likud at the end of his political career as a moribund party of the past. Netanyahu won’t want to see Lapid as the next prime minister: it will be either Netanyahu or someone else he chooses from inside the Likud.



Israel’s election in 1 picture and 1 word: Bibinett

In my mind, the central theme of the 2013 Israeli elections was that there was no challenger to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Within that context, all the main political battles that took place occurred within the political blocs: Yechimovich vs Lapid vs Livni; but more interestingly, between Netanyahu and Habayit Yehudi chairman Naftali Bennett. The latter were canvassing for essentially the same voter base. And if the polls hold true, Bennett emerged victorious – even if he is not crowned prime minister. He will be a major player in the next governing coalition.

Why did Bennett do so well? How did he manage to take away so many votes from the Likud? And how did they succeed in attracting voters so distant from their traditional national religious Zionist base?

For one, Bennett modeled himself on Netanyahu, and that drove the prime minister absolutely up the wall. And talking about walls, take a look at the following two pictures, I think they speak volumes about the two men, and the battle they waged between them.



Bennett did what no other religious and right wing politician has managed to do since Netanyahu: attract secular right-wing voters. Bennett managed to break out of the sectoral pigeonhole that his national religious predecessors locked themselves into and appealed to a much broader, wider audience – directly threatening the Likud voter base. On the personal level [and these elections were all about personalities, not platforms] Bennett managed to unhinge Netanyahu, to an extent that the Prime Minister thought it necessary to attack [his protege?] all throughout the campaign with some of the most vicious political and personal attacks seen around here for quite some time. The fact that Netanyahu had nobody to fight on the Left, left him free to fight his challenger from the Right. But this seems to have backfired, as many on the Right were confused by Netanyahu’s attacks on Bennett: “What our enemy is now on the right, not on the left?” Bennett became the underdog, and Netanyahu became the bully. Bennett as David and Netanyahu as Goliath. And nobody likes Goliath.

And so, my image and word for the singular most important theme of these elections is: Bibinett


Israel our place in the sun

Why the world doesn’t understand Israel

I often hear Israelis and our friends abroad ask the same question, with varying permutations, over and over again:

Why doesn’t the world understand us?

Why does the world favor the Palestinian narrative? [The Palestinians say the exact opposite.]

What’s wrong with our public diplomacy, with our hasbarah?

Well, to answer that question I think we need to look at two glaring examples of how Israel operates on the diplomatic/ public diplomacy level.

In 2009, just after taking office, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gave a speech at Bar Ilan University in which he said that he supports a two-state solution with the Palestinians. Officially, Netanyahu has never repealed that policy statement – and when a prime minister makes a diplomatic speech it is a policy statement.

The next example is from one of Netanyahu’s senior ministers, Public Diplomacy Minister Yuli Edelstein. Now, to my mind, the job of a minister of public diplomacy is to explain the Israeli government’s position on diplomatic issues.

Here’s what Edelstein said at the Third Annual Conference on Annexing Judea and Samaria which took place three weeks ago:

“By annexing this land we signal to the international community that this whole thing about 1967 borders, an agreement with small border adjustments and territorial swaps – this talk is essentially over, we are saying loud and clear, in a clear and unmistakable voice, that we have rights over this land, and that we have exercised our sovereignty. From this point onward we can look for ways to coexist, we obviously acknowledge that there is another population, and we need to find a modus operandi on how we can live together. We have to return to the public discourse the fact that we did not occupy a Palestinian state, that there never was a state like this.”

So, in a nutshell folks, the international community doesn’t understand us because we haven’t yet officially, formally, decided what we want. And if we don’t know what we want, how are we supposed to convince the rest of the world to support us? The Palestinians know what they want: they want a state [whether it’s inside the 1967 or 1948 borders is up to you to decide], but their message is simple: they want a state, they want self-determination.

Our message is not so simple: We have historical, legal, religious and cultural rights to much of the land that is called the West Bank [we call Judea and Samaria]. We tried several times to offer the Palestinians a great peace deal, and they have refused time and again; every time we withdrew from territory they responded with terror. Distilled, our official message [and when I say official I mean from the Prime Minister’s Office and the Foreign Ministry] is “we want peace, but we don’t believe the Palestinian side is willing.”

But when the [official] Minister for Public Diplomacy gets up and tells the world that “we want to coexist with the Palestinians after we annex much of the West Bank” you can forgive our friends for not understanding what we want. So either Edelstein doesn’t understand what his job is, or, and this is more likely the case, he has been told by the Prime Minister that he is free to explain whatever policy he deems fit to explain, which puts the rest of us citizens in an awkward position.

By the way, there’s no guaranteeing that even if we decide what we want as a nation, and even if we find a coherent way to explain that policy, that our friends will agree with us on it. But at least we’d be deciding; at least we’d be setting our own course; at least we’d stand a realistic chance of convincing our friends to support us.

What a pity that these elections aren’t about that. Maybe they will be next time round. At some point in time, they will have to be about this.



The Nine Lives of Benjamin Netanyahu

The political attacks on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over the past month seem to now be taking their toll, as polls published Wednesday show the joint Likud-Beytenu list sliding to some 33 Knesset seats.

From the start of its campaign, Likud-Beytenu has placed Netanyahu front and center in its campaign, arguing that only Netanyahu is able to deal with the serious security and diplomatic challenges that Israel faces.

So it is no surprise that Netanyahu’s foes have focused their attacks on him. Throughout the campaign, the ad hominem hits on Netanyahu have been coming thick and fast, and their pace and ferocity are escalating the closer we get to elections.

1. First, popular Likud minister Moshe Kahlon announced he was quitting, ostensibly to “take a time out” from politics, but really because he figured Netanyahu was not going to promote him to finance minister in the next government. Kahlon lashed out at Netanyahu, saying he was disappointed with the prime minister’s economic plans.
2. Next, at the end of December, the Bibitours case cropped up again, which accused Netanyahu of irregularities in non –government financed trips abroad.
3. Netanyahu doesn’t have anyone but himself though for his “disproportionate force” attacks on Naftali Bennett, whose party has been siphoning off voters from the Likud at a steady pace. Netanyahu turned Bennett into the underdog and himself into a bully, as well as making Bennett a household name.
4. Then there was former Shin Bet chief Yuval Diskin’s vicious attack, saying in an interview with Yediot Aharonot that Netanyahu didn’t have a “trustworthy, hard core and placed his personal interests above the interests of the nation”  – essentially attacking Netanyahu’s principle campaign message: that Netanyahu is a strong and responsible leader.
5. After Diskin came an attack from former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who accused Netanyahu of spending vast sums of money on Iran ” “harebrained, megalomaniac adventures” attack plans that were never going to be carried out.
6. At around the exact same time, president Shimon Peres attacked Netanyahu in an interview in the New York Times, essentially accusing the prime minister of not being interested in peace with the Palestinians. “If the people of Israel heard from the leadership that there is a chance for peace, they would take up the gauntlet and believe it. He may do nothing, but that doesn’t mean that things won’t be done. This idea, that history is a horse that can be held by the tail, is a foolish idea, ” Peres said.
7. Next came Amos Oz, who said Netanyahu’s government was the most anti-Zionist in the country’s history because it was killing the two-state solution. “”In my mind, the Netanyahu government is the most anti-Zionist government Israel has ever had. It is doing everything so there will be not two states here, but one,” said Oz.
8. Next came the terribly timed – for Netanyahu anyway – report by the Finance Ministry that Israel’s deficit was in fact double what Netanyahu’s government had planned for. Netanyahu was slammed for this and the message of fiscal irresponsibility is exactly what he’s trying to avoid. Netanyahu has been struggling to get his version out: that the deficit was expected, and that no new taxes will have to be levied to address it.
9. And finally, there was Obama, who dropped possibly the biggest bomb of them all. “Netanyahu is a political coward that is leading his country to near-total isolation. Israel doesn’t know what its own interests are,” the US President was  quoted as saying. There is very little that the average Israeli fears more than total international isolation. We live in a frightful neighborhood, where the vast majority of people hate us [even Egypt’s new president says we are all descendants of apes and pigs].

This is a very strange elections indeed. It has been mostly centered around personalities, not issues – there is no binary “war or peace” or “capitalism or socialism” ideological battle – despite the best attempts of some to make it so – the Israeli population isn’t in the mood for either war or peace, outright capitalism or outright socialism.

Just as importantly, there is no real contender against Netanyahu for the top position. So most of the attacks against him have come from outside the official political system: Olmert is not running, and neither are Diskin and Peres.

So, despite the recent ad hominem attacks on the prime minister, Netanyahu is still very likely to be elected for a third term. The cumulative effects of the attacks against his leadership won’t change that, but as we are seeing from the polls, they are chipping away at his party’s electoral strength.


Palestinian state

What Netanyahu talks about when he talks about a Palestinian state

Does Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have a vision for the Palestinian issue? Does he know what he wants?

I don’t believe people who say that he doesn’t.

For instance, in an oped today in Haaretz, David Landau writes:

The British elder statesman Sir Malcolm Rifkind, a proud Jew, pointedly told delegates at a conference in London last week that he has never been able to get Benjamin Netanyahu to answer one straightforward question: “What is your strategy? I understand your short-term tactics, but what is your long-term strategy?” That meant, said Sir Malcolm, that Netanyahu doesn’t have one or, worse, that he doesn’t want to share it because it does not provide for a viable, contiguous Palestinian state living in peace alongside Israel.

But one only has to look at Netanyahu’s speeches and actions to understand what Netanyahu talks about when he talks about a Palestinian state. Continue reading What Netanyahu talks about when he talks about a Palestinian state

Recently, every time Israel has come under withering international approbation – usually for its settlement activity or rounds of retaliation against terrorists – the government reverts to the following line: “Loh naim, loh nora,” which translates loosely into: It’s not pleasant, but it’s not awful either.

When we lose a UN vote by 138 to 9, it’s not pleasant, but it’s not terrible either. We always lose UN votes. It could have been 147 to zero. But even then, it would be uncomfortable, but not catastrophic. When England, France, Sweden and Australia summon our ambassadors to read them the riot act, it’s not pleasant, but it’s also not so terrible. They could have recalled their ambassadors from Tel-Aviv, or even expelled our ambassadors. That would have been awful. But you know what? Awful is still OK; awful is not disastrous. Continue reading Kosher frogs’ legs, or Israeli diplomacy

It won't work

In Netanyahu-Liberman deal, Haredim may be kingmakers again

חרדים ירושלמים. צולם על ידי אפי ב.
חרדים ירושלמים. צולם על ידי אפי ב. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If the parties on the Center-Left unite in response to the Likud, Yisrael Beytenu merger, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will need the Haredi parties even more than before, which is exactly the opposite of what’s in the national interest, and exactly the opposite of what his spokespeople are saying was the rationale for this merger.

Even Yisrael Beytenu is talking this merger up as a great chance to reform the electoral system and to end the Tal Law fiasco.

But if the Left can put away its ego and unite, then Netanyahu’s maneuver could backfire and none of his stated reforms will be implemented.

If both left and right wing blocs need the haredim to put them over the top of 61 votes in the 120 member Knesset, then once again the haredi parties will serve as the kingmakers in the electoral system.

So forget about reforming the system of government, which the Haredim are against. Forget about a constitution, and forget about drafting the haredim into the workforce, the army, or national service.

By uniting with Lieberman, Netanyahu may have inadvertedly galvanized the Left to unite – so Israel goes back to the way it’s been here before the big Kadima bang: two blocs: left and right, with neither being able to form a coalition on its own, and having to pay off the ultra-Orthodox or the Arabs for their votes.

In the end what we might have is a situation where the blocs are tied at 60-60 and then the question is who is going to break the tie.

And in that case, someone will have to decide who to give the chance to form the next government to, and that person will have to then decide between the Arab parties and the Haredi parties – two non-Zionist factions.

If this is the eventual outcome of the Likud, Yisrael Beytenu merger, then the haredim, far from being stripped of their relevance, once again become Lords of the Land.

Haredi Judaism in New York City
Haredi Judaism in New York City (Photo credit: Alex E. Proimos)

Likud needs a Kahlon clone, darker than Dichter

Some thoughts on the political machinations this week:

The race is on and the two main political rival camps, the left wing bloc led by Labor’s Shelly Yechimovich and the right wing bloc led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are trying to frame the issues to best suit their platforms.

The Likud started the week off badly with the announcement by Social Affairs and Communications Minister Moshe Kahlon that he was leaving politics. With his departure, the Likud lost a serious socioeconomic star, as well as a Sephardi minister. This in a party whose rank and file are Sephardi but whose ministerial representation is almost entirely Ashkenazi. The Likud doesn’t want to be portrayed as the “white” party whose voters make up a large cross-section of the Israeli population, chiefly among them Jews of Sephardic origin.

This is why the Likud doesn’t really want Avi Dichter in its ranks [Dichter dumped Kadima this week and officially joined Likud]. It wants Moshe Kahlon back. And if it can’t get Kahlon back, it wants a Kahlon clone – someone who is darker than Dichter; it wants a socioeconomic maven to replace the one it lost, it doesn’t need another Mr. Security; it has plenty of those. It doesn’t want another light-skinned security man, it has those in spades: Moshe Yaalon, Dan Meridor, Yariv Levin, and Netanyahu himself.

It’s the height of irony that the two main parties heading into the next elections are looking for the unique value proposition traditionally held by the other: Labor, which is running on the socioeconomic ticket is looking for a Mr. Security, while Likud, which is running on the security ticket, is looking for a Mr. Socioeconomic.

Labor will try make these elections about socioeconomic issues, while Likud will try make them about stability – security and economic stability.

Meanwhile, former Shas minister [and conviced criminal] Shlomo Benizri let the cat out of the bag this Friday when he said that the real reason Israel is heading into early elections is because Netanyahu wanted to cut some of Shas’ welfare allowances budget. Shas refused; Netanyahu couldn’t fight Histadrut Labor Federation Chairman Ofer Eini [not wanting the latter to flood the streets with striking workers during an election season] and he couldn’t slash the defense budget without seriously damaging the Likud’s main election platform of security stability.

Netanyahu was thus in a bind. He couldn’t pass the budget because his coalition partners wouldn’t let him; he couldn’t carry on with the 2012 budget because there was no money left and the overdraft in the bank is growing to monstrous proportions. So to elections we go.

The main story of the week however, was undoubtedly the return of Aryeh Deri to the leadership of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party.

Netanyahu and [up until this week Shas Chairman] Eli Yishai have been working together well on the illegal migrants issue: Netanyahu built the fence to keep new ones out, and Yishai goes after the ones already here. The issue serves them both well. To his constituents Yishai can say he’s safeguarding the Jewish character of the state and ensuring that we Israelis don’t get infected with all sorts of terrible diseases that you get in Africa; and our Jewish girls are being kept safe from the unthinkable. To his constituents, and possible voters in the center, Netanyahu can point to having stopped the flow of migrant laborers, thus alleviating the pressure on neighborhoods that have a high population of African migrants; and he can also point to the security benefits of the border fence vis-a-vis the terrible situation in the Sinai. This cooperation has served both the Likud and Shas well.

But with Aryeh Deri back in a leadership position at the helm of Shas, the Likud can be slightly less certain that it has Shas in the coalition bag after the elections. It’s a long-shot, but Deri is not as predictable as Yishai, and he’s got strong ties to Haim Ramon and Ehud Olmert of Kadima. Furthermore, his relationship with Netanyahu is reportedly not so strong.

If we are to believe Benizri, that Netanyahu planned to cut Shas welfare allowances in an effort to balance the budget, then Shas has also been put on notice that they can expect more of the same from Netanyahu after the election. In 2009 when Tzipi Livni’s Kadima won more seats than the Likud, she made a rookie negotiating mistake: she made Shas a coalition offer in writing. Shas then took that offer to Netanyahu, who looked at the document, and simply gave Shas a better offer – and thus Netanyahu was able to form a coalition and Livni was not.

This time around, with Deri at its head, and an austerity budget on the horizon, Shas may be more receptive to a better offer from the left or center-left camp [if there is one]. Deri is not as ideologically fixed to the right wing camp as Yishai is.


For Netanyahu and Barak, the knives come out

Ehud Barak is fighting for his political future. And if there’s anyone in Israel who knows how to fight against impossible odds, it’s him. Israel’s most decorated soldier of all time, the legendary commander of the IDF’s most elite unit, the man who spent most of his life biting on a dagger between his teeth – is now facing a hopeless battle for political survival. Hopeless because, apart from a fistful of nondescript members of Knesset, the defense minister has no political base, no allies in any of the other parties, and has been finally precluded from an assured place on the next Likud list. With no real political home [his Independence Party is not polled to clear the electoral threshold] and nowhere else to go, the warrior is cornered. And now he’s doing what all good warriors are trained to do: fight their way out, by all means possible, take no prisoners, no holds barred.

First, Barak went after Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, a former nightclub bouncer who knows a thing or two about scrapping. After Lieberman launched into Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ for his speech at the United Nations General Assembly [in which Abbas labeled Israel an Apartheid state carrying out ethnic cleansing of Palestinians], saying that Abbas should be removed from power, Barak issued a statement saying that Lieberman “should not be formulating his own private diplomatic policy with the Palestinians, should not be calling for the removal of Abbas, and in any case does not represent Israeli government policy.”
Ouch. In other words, Barak was saying: “you can visit Bosnia and Tonga, but let the big boys handle the real diplomacy with America and the Palestinians.” It was not a shot across the bow; it was an invitation to a knife fight. So far, Lieberman hasn’t accepted, yet. And he might not have to.

For just as Barak was wiping Lieberman’s blood from his dagger, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was once under Barak’s command in The Unit, dropped a bomb on his own minister of defense. In leaked comments to Channel 2 television, the most widely viewed prime time news show in the country, Netanyahu was reported to have told Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz that Barak was “stoking conflict” between Jerusalem and the White House, and then presenting himself as the “savior” of the crucial alliance.

Steinitz, who has never seen a day of battle in his life, has been directing sniper fire at Barak for months, mostly over Barak’s obstinate refusal to cut the defense budget but also over Barak’s demand to be included on the Likud list in the next election. Two weeks ago Steinitz traded his sniper rifle for an RPG when he publicly warned Netanyahu to be wary of Barak’s “treacherous nature.”

But on Tuesday night, the hand-held weapons were put down in favor of much bigger munitions. Netanyahu and Steinitz were ostensibly meeting to discuss the severe, and necessary, cuts to the 2013 national budget, and the trouble they’re going to have passing it through their coalition partners. But what came out of the meeting instead of a balanced budget was a blistering political attack on Barak, accusing him of the worst possible treachery.

“He traveled to the US to stoke the conflict between us and the Americans in order to come off as the savior – the moderate party that reconciles between the sides,” Netanyahu said, according to a source who was present at the meeting.

Barak must have been stunned by the shockwaves, but regained his footing and responded quickly.

In press releases to the media, both on the record but mostly off, Barak intimated that it was Netanyahu’s clear and public preference for Mitt Romney and his pressure on the Obama administration to take action on Iran which was causing serious fires in the relationship between Washington and Jerusalem. Furthermore, Barak seemed to be saying, it was the minister of defense who was trying to put those fires out. Barak’s media statements left no room for doubt: Barak was the guardian of the most strategically valuable asset the State of Israel has: its bipartisan support from both sides of the aisle in Congress; guarding it against Netanyahu, who was recklessly placing that support in grave danger. Barak’s media briefing is a burst of well-aimed cover fire.

But Barak is hopelessly isolated and outgunned. He has no friends in any of the center-left parties; certainly none in Labor, which he abandoned and tried to dismember. He has no friends in Kadima or in Yair Lapid’s new party. Barak has taken the word ‘Independence’ – the name of his party – to an entirely new level. He may as well call it ‘Completely Alone.”

But Barak is not the only one pinned down and taking fire from several directions. Netanyahu’s attack on his defense minister is an indication that the prime minister finds himself in an impossible situation regarding the 2013 state budget. Netanyahu has to pass a particularly austere budget and has to find some 15 billion shekels of cuts in it. When he looks to make cuts to Shas’ child and housing alliances, he hits a wall of rejection. Cuts to child allowances and housing benefits spell catastrophe for the ultra-Orthodox sector, so Shas will fight them tooth and nail. Netanyahu doesn’t want to lose their electoral support though, which comes in at about 18 Knesset seats, all told [together with the UTJ].

When Netanyahu looks to make cuts to the bloated civil service, he runs into the powerful Histadrut labor federation chairman Ofer Eini, who can threaten to flood the streets with protesting workers. The one thing Netanyahu doesn’t want to see going into elections are streets full of protesting blue-collar workers, and definitely not people setting themselves on fire, as was a brief trend here recently. I’m not the bad guy, Netanyahu says, I’ve governed responsibly and spent responsibly. But deep cuts are necessary. So if Netanyahu can’t cut from the haredim, and he can’t cut from the government workforce, and he can’t raise taxes any more than he already has, the only other place he can get such a big chunk of change is the defense budget. Hence his need to weaken Barak, who has stood firm against cuts to the military’s finances.

Netanyahu confidants said Barak has decided to separate himself from the prime minister due to electoral considerations and that Barak is hoping that the Independence party, which he founded in 2011 after he left Labor, will earn enough votes in the next elections to surpass the threshold required to receive seats in the Knesset.

If this is really what Barak hopes to achieve, his fight with the prime minister might not get him there, as Netanyahu remains popular, and has recently moved to lower the volume in Israel’s tempestuous relationship with the Obama administration. The sad and ironic fact is that, more than Israel has become a wedge issue in the American election, America has become a wedge issue in the upcoming Israeli elections. All options remain on the table, but the tables have definitely turned.

In unity deal, a hint of Sayeret Matkal

Men were sent out in the dead of night to scan the area and report back on the possibilities and dangers. An advance team was dispatched to lay the ground and keep an eye out for interference. Complete radio silence was maintained. It was an audacious mission, a high-risk, do-or-die operation cooked up by veteran commandos with everything to lose and everything to gain; veiled in secrecy, subterfuge, and Omerta-like silence; cloaked in an extremely loud and incredibly convincing decoy, a vivid and palpable illusion that fooled absolutely everyone; the main movement executed with a lighting-fast strike, in, out, and done, before anyone knew what was happening, leaving shock and awe in its wake. Continue reading In unity deal, a hint of Sayeret Matkal