How Netanyahu’s Coalition Talks Will determine the Chance for Peace

Prime Minister Netanyahu and Shas' spiritual leader, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef. (Photo: Ilia Yefimovich/Flash90)
Prime Minister Netanyahu and Shas’ spiritual leader, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef. (Photo: Ilia Yefimovich/Flash90)

Binyamin Netanyahu’s recent electoral success has been described by some observers as “pyrrhic”. As the Israeli Prime Minister begins the process of forming a coalition government, Tova Norlen considers what the election results mean for the country’s domestic politics and the future of the Israel-Palestine peace process.

Not surprisingly, Binyamin Netanyahu’s Likud-Beiteynu coalition won a plurality of seats for the 19th Knesset in last week’s Israeli election. However, while his victory may have seemed certain, his post-election position is much weaker than some of the pre-election opinion polls had predicted and his struggle to form a government of his choice may have only just begun. A quick glance at the new electoral map shows that even with their projected 12-seat lead over the next largest party, forming a government with only right-wing parties (without the religious Orthodox) would leave Likud-Beiteynu short of the 60 seats needed for a Knesset majority. Representing the right-wing political establishment, Netanyahu has to reach out to one of the remaining three traditional Israeli political blocks; the ultra-Orthodox, the center-left and the Israeli Arab. Since no Israeli government is considered “legitimate” unless it has a Jewish majority, only the ultra-Orthodox and the center-left blocks are likely to be considered. (For various coalition scenarios click here)

Netanyahu’s choices all mean different things in terms of the direction the prime minister could take Israel in the coming years. On the one hand, only the prime minister can tell us which issues he deems to be national priorities.

Potential coalition partner, Yair Lapid, head of the center-left party, Yesh Atid (Photo: Ariel Schalit/AP).

Although we have a vague idea about Netanyahu’s Iran policies and his pro-settlement sentiments, it will really be his choice of coalition partners that will determine which national and international issues will make it to the top of the next Israeli government’s agenda. While the Iranian nuclear issue will surely continue to be a priority regardless of what shape the coalition takes, other issues—including the question of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks—may not be considered a priority at all.


Read the rest of this article, titled “The Israeli Elections and the Future of the Peace Process” on the webpage of the International Relations and Security Network (ISN), Zurich, Switzerland.


Is Peace Still on the Agenda? The Israeli Election Results and the Peace Process

Election poster for Prime Minister Netanyahu (Photo: Washington Post)
Election poster for Prime Minister Netanyahu (Photo: Washington Post)

This is a longer and re-worked version of a piece that appeared on the RAND blog on Jan 24. For that version, click here.

As expected, prime minster Netanyahu and the combined Likud-Beiteynu list won a plurality of seats for the 19th Israeli Knesset (See the results below). However, despite his victory, Mr. Netanyahu is not done, and he is likely to face some tough bargaining choices in the next few weeks. A quick glance at the electoral map shows that even with their projected 12-seat lead over the next largest party, forming the government with only right-wing parties (without the religious orthodox) would leave Likud-Beiteynu short of the 60 seats needed for a Knesset majority.

2013 Israeli Election Results (Haaretz)
2013 Israeli Election Results (Haaretz)

Despite the fact that both Israelis and Palestinians are calling the two-state solution dead, important voices both regionally and internationally continue to trumpet the need to seize the last fledging opportunity to make it happen.  As the first projections of the Israeli elections came in on Tuesday, Britain’s foreign minister is said to have warned Israel that the next Israeli government has the last chance for a two-state deal. Earlier in the week Jeff Goldberg reported in Bloomberg that President Obama had lamented that Netanyahu is not acting in Israel’s best interests. Obama’s complaint came after the Israeli Prime Minister had announced the Israel planned to build 3,000 additional housing units in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, including in an empty area that connects Jerusalem with the Jordan valley, essentially making a contiguous Palestinian state impossible. Obama’s complaint and Britain’s warnings are reminders that Netanyahu has done very little during his time in office to prove to Western leaders that he is serious about peace.While Netanyahu officially declared his support for a two-state solution in a speech at Bar-Ilan University in 2009, recent policies and actions have made his continued adherence to that commitment questionable. In the weeks before the elections, several hardline Likud officials were heard reassuring voters that Netanyahu was not really serious in his earlier statements and that Likud had never officially changed its staunch opposition to a Palestinian state. Hardline Likud MK Tzipi Hotovely even added that the Bar-Ilan speech was a tactical maneuver meant to placate the world. Even if Netanyahu, in a little-advertised rejoinder to his hawkish colleagues, did reaffirm his belief that he believed in “two free peoples living side by side in this small land,” the real test will come when he chooses his government.

Netanyahu thus has a number of alternatives with respect to forming a coalition, the choice of partners influencing the direction of Israeli policy over the next few years. His pick of partners will be influenced by his calculated priorities with regard to the most prominent issues that Israelis care about and his ability to tackle vs. ignore them. This includes the issue of the future of the peace process with the Palestinians.

While public opinion had projected that the Israeli electorate would shift the Knesset further to the right (shrinking the chances for a negotiated deal with the Palestinians), the preliminary election results did not entirely support those predictions. Even if the Likud party certainly lost seats to the right-wing national religious party, HaBayt HaYehudi (Jewish home), its chairman Naftali Bennet certainly did not garner as strong a support as he expected, making his pro-annexationist policies far from unchallenged in a future coalition. It is only in the unlikely scenario that Netanyahu decides to govern from a minority right-wing coalition that Bennet’s pro-settlement policies would be absolutely safe. What is perhaps more likely is that Netanyahu forms a center-haredi government or a right-center government, where he includes one of the larger parties from the center, such as Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid, or Tzipi Livni’s HaTnua. (See the possible scenarios here)

In fact, the most surprising outcome of the elections was the resurgence of the center left, this time with the new party of Yesh Atid. Under the leadership of former television host Yair Lapid, the new party managed to garner 19 seats, putting it in second place after Likud. Thus, the leftist-centrist block, which includes, Tzipi Livni’s HaTnua party and Shelly Yacimovich’s Labor, is in fact the strongest of the four traditional electoral blocks in Israel (right-wing, ultra-Orthodox, center-left and Israeli Arab). Should Netanyahu decide to form a government with any of the parties in this bloc, the Israeli-Palestinian peace process will not be dropped from the government’s agenda.

Scenes from the Israeli elections (Photo: Bloomberg)
Scenes from the Israeli elections (Photo: Bloomberg)

Ultimately, Netanyahu’s ability to form a government of his choice will also depend on the ability of the resolve of the center-left to “hold out” against him. In 2009, Netanyahu was “passed the torch” to form a government although Tzipi Livni’s Kadima party received a majority of the votes, after she failed to gather a majority left-center coalition. Although such a scenario is probably unlikely for Likud this time, the Labor leader, Shelly Yacimovich, has high hopes. In response to the preliminary results she announced that she would do everything in her power to create a coalition of parties with a “shared social and economic agenda, which will also kick-start the peace process.” However, Yair Lapid put such rumors partly to rest on Wednesday when he pledged not to obstruct Netanyahu’s efforts to form an effective government.

This brings us back to the point that was raised in the beginning of this piece—what are the chances that the next Israeli government will indeed make a renewed effort for peace with the Palestinians? While it is probably safe to say that a renewed effort is highly likely, given the way that the political ducks have lined up with Obama just having entered his final term, whether such an effort is successful depends on the shape and the content of such an effort, rather than whether an initiative takes place. The Middle East is used to seeing second-term US presidents launch half-hearted efforts to make history in the Middle East while not paying much attention to the formula or content of their proposals. The complexity of the Israeli-Palestinian relationship and the seriousness by which both sides view their own demands deserves a serious look at previous proposals and a re-crafting of some of the basic assumptions that have served as the foundation for the two-state formula. Thus, while the two-state solution may be dead, the new government will have the unique opportunity and the responsibility to craft a new formula that can better meet the complexities of the current Israeli-Palestinian impasse.

Graphics: BBC/Pat Carr

Warning: An Angry Post About Gaza

A rocket being launched from the Gaza strip into Israel
A rocket launched from Gaza heads towards Sderot, Israel. Photo: Jack Guez/AFP

I mostly feel hopeless right now…and a bit numb. My facebook page is exploding with hatred, ignorance, and even bigotry from people on both sides of the widening chasm. I just want to scream and swear and say “how the &$!#! can you be so unbelievably stupid to actually believe the old slogans that EVERY (with a big emphasis on every) Muslim wants to push Israel into the Sea,” or the opposite, that “Israel deliberately targets civilian areas in order to kill Palestinian children?”

The fact is that the Gazans live in a hellhole. Although Hamas is certainly partly to blame the truth is that they have lived in a hellhole long before Hamas took over the government. Yes, it’s true; Hamas is also responsible for this escalation, as they were for the escalation that led to Operation Cast Led. It’s also true that giving up Gaza in 2005 did not help Israel, but in many ways only made it worse. It emboldened Hamas and obviously made it more difficult for the IDF to keep track of weapons, bomb making, rocket labs, and tunnel smuggling. But it’s also true that except for a few years of economic upswing in anticipation of the Oslo agreement (a time during which support for Hamas and Islamic Jihad was at an all-time low), Gaza is a living hell and the only country that has the power to instigate a change is Israel.

Don’t tell me that the Gaza Palestinians can choose to go to any Arab state; you know that’s not true. Don’t tell me they were recent immigrants to Palestine anyways before 1948 so they are not really refugees anyways; it just shows you are bigoted and ignorant. Many of the refugees from Haifa and Jaffa had lived there for generations and probably even have Jewish genealogy. Somebody should check their DNA just for the heck of it. Could be funny – it would set off a firestorm on both sides.

Don’t tell me I am being anti-Israel, anti-Zionist or pro-Palestinian – seriously, what do you think happens if a million people are locked up in a big prison for over 60 years lacking even the most basic supplies and amenities, including access to adequate education? They may get a bit restless, and angry, and then somebody comes along and brainwashes them. At that point, deterrence does not work because they really have nothing to loose, especially if someone guarantees them 77 virgins in heaven. Most of them can’t double-check the facts anyways, as they have no computers.

I have no passion for Hamas or Islamic terrorists and I agree that they still have no right to shoot rockets into Israel and that something has to be done to stop it quickly – no country can live under a constant barrage of random missiles that are hitting civilians in apartment buildings, schools, and nurseries. I also agree that there is very little coverage in the international press about this constant barrage. But I am also a political scientist who studies world events and analyses the cause and effect. And, as Washington Post Jerusalem bureau chief Janine Zacharia asks in Slate: What is Israel’s long-term strategy for Gaza to try to change this situation?

An Israeli child seen through a window of a building in the Southern Israeli town of Netivot that was hit by a Gaza rocket. southern town of Netivot. REUTERS/Amir Cohen
Haaretz: A breakdown of the Fighting between Israel and Gaza

In fact, except for “cutting the grass” – in other words, “bomb them back to the Middle Ages” every ten years, the current government has NO STRATEGY. Why? Because “they are never going to stop hating us,” so why bother to make their lives better?

I do agree with Zacharia’s assessment when she says: “It’s time to declare Israel’s policy toward Gaza and Hamas a failure. This is not an anti-Israel statement. Rather, it is an honest acknowledgment of the facts, which are simply too numerous to avoid.”

Regardless of who was there first, who shot first, who hates whom, and who’s God is right, if Israel really wants to stop this from recurring it has to figure out a way to get rid of the problem. If the preferred outcome is to move the Gaza Palestinians to Arab states, then negotiate with those Arab states to allow them to emigrate. Bribe them, do whatever it takes! I am sure that at least 50% of Gazans would happily leave. If the preferred outcome involves leaving them where they are ask what can be done to educate the next generation of Gazans in order to prevent the indoctrination they are currently getting.

But most importantly, for Israel’s sake, look around the region. “Cutting the grass” and “bombing them back to the middle Ages” with impunity may leave them with a smaller stockpile of weapons for the next few years but it is not going to work for that much longer as Israel’s neighborhood is drastically changing. As U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta noted last year: “The question you have to ask: Is it enough to maintain a military edge if you’re isolating yourself in the diplomatic arena? Real security can only be achieved by both a strong diplomatic effort as well as a strong effort to protect your military strength.’’

Instead, Israel assassinates the guy who apparently was just about to put his signature on a cease-fire agreement. True, he had a lot of blood on his hands, but are his followers going to be more accommodating? And how about the kids and the grand kids?

Some sources for latest information and opinion:

The rocket count on IDF’s blog

LA Times: Israel attack on Gaza: Familiar tension, new circumstances

Live blog from Haaretz

Slate: Why Israel’s Gaza Campaign is Doomed, by Janine Zacharia

BBC blog/tweet page

NY Times, Nov 16th: As Battlefield Changes, Israel Takes Tougher Approach

The Daily Beast, Daniel Levy, Nov 16th: “Living By the Sword”

Confused About Where the Middle East is Heading? I don’t blame you!

I don’t blame regular hardworking citizens in the US and Europe for being confused and frustrated about what is going on in the Middle East. In preparation for a small talk about the Middle East this week in Switzerland, I sat down and searched the news for a pattern, or some kind of red thread that could provide me with that Zen-like power to explain what is really going on in the Middle East and why Europeans should care. Not surprisingly, my quest was unsuccessful. For the long list of seemingly random and contradictory events that took place over the weekend in various parts of the Middle East, please go to my blog on the Times of Israel.

This picture called the “Middle East confusion map,”  is a very good rendition of current events that I came up with (I am sorry I cannot find the name of the artist):

Artist unknown

To say that we understand what is going on in the Middle East is one thing. But to claim that we alone have the power to discern right from wrong, good from evil, or perhaps more accurately, evil from evil, is quite another. Anyone who does so without pragmatism is, in my opinion, 100% wrong. But then again, can you really blame people who grow up in an environment where you are either right or dead?

However, looking at this list of findings, it needs to be pointed out that most of the news items describe stories that involve human lives and reflect the yearning of individuals to live free from oppression and tyranny.  They are about the human desire to live in peace without rockets or sectarian violence, without dictators or foreign occupiers, and without the fear of religious persecution. What is missing in the Middle East is the realization that these desires cannot be mutually exclusive, or else the violence will surely continue.


U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak during visit to Iron Dome defense system launch site in August 2012/REUTERS/Mark Wilson/Pool

The reaction to the Arab revolts that began in 2011 was more skeptical in Israel than in other countries. This is because most Jewish Israelis agree that the net effect of the fundamental changes in the Arab world will be negative for Israel’s security. What Israelis do not agree about, however, is how the country should best respond to these changes. While there are those who argue that Israel should engage with its neighborhood in order to lessen its toxic image in the Arab world, many Israelis take the more hawkish view that the country should retreat and focus on enhancing its military capacity to counter future threats.

Although equipped with one of the most sophisticated intelligence gathering appa­ratuses in the world, Israel was just as sur­prised as the rest of the world when the Arab Spring erupted in February 2011. How­ever, while most countries reacted with guarded hope and anticipation, Israel’s re­action was one of deep skepticism, laced with a certain fear and trepidation.

In one of his first public announcements in response to the Egyptian revolution, Is­raeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu warned that the Arab revolutions may turn out to mirror that of Iran in 1979, in other words, the end result would most likely be Islamic, radical, anti-Western, and, most importantly, anti-Israel. In a major attempt to spread understanding about Israel’s dilemma, Netanyahu called to­gether his ambassadors to Western coun­tries and instructed them to emphasize the importance of the stability of the existing Arab regimes. In November 2011, in a “told-you-so” manner, he reminded the Israeli Knesset and the world that his warnings and predictions had indeed been fulfilled. The Arab transitions were neither democratic nor peaceful, and increasingly hostile to the West in general and Israel in particular. The Arab Spring, he said, had be­come an Arab Winter.

While it is clear that Netanyahu represents a side of Israeli politics that has been es­pecially skeptical towards the changes in the Middle East, early public opinion polls showed that a majority of Jewish Israelis shared this perspective. And indeed, it is hard to deny that Israel is now less secure in its neighborhood than before. How­ever, while most Israelis agree that the upheaval in the Middle East has had real negative security consequences for Israel, the understanding of those consequences and what should be done about them var­ies between two approaches that can be described as two schools of thought: the threat-dominated perspective and the op­portunities perspective.

Although most Israelis agree that the Arab revolts have far-reaching consequences for Israel’s security, the understanding of those consequences and what should be done about them vary roughly along the Israeli left-right political spectrum. Those on the right, heavily represented in the current political establishment, focus al­most exclusively on the “threat” coming from the rise in uncertainty in the region, and prescribe increased Israeli isolation and preparedness as a response. Those on the left, more commonly found in academ­ic and intellectual circles, acknowledge the threats, but focus more on the opportuni­ties that are brought by the change, and thus recommend engagement with the emerging regimes in order to increase Isra­el’s chances that the new Middle East will be a friendlier place.

The main areas of concern described in the full analysis are outlined on the map below:

Major Israeli neighbourhood concerns

For the full analysis of these two approaches and their policy implications, the full document can be downloaded from the website of the Center for Security Studies in Zurich, by clicking the thumbnail:

It’s the Balance of Power Stupid!

Israel may be afraid that Iran is acquiring a nuclear bomb, but what its leadership is even more afraid of is the changing Balance of Power in the Middle East.

When the Middle East erupted into chaos in the Spring of 2011, the Israeli Prime Minister, Benyamin Netanyahu warned the world to curb its enthusiasm, predicting that the Arab revolutions would most likely turn out to mirror the one in Iran in 1979, in other words, the end result would be Islamic, anti-Western and most importantly, anti-Israel. Since that time, Netanyahu continues to remind the world that he was right and that his warnings have been fulfilled. The Arab transitions, he claims, are neither democratic nor peaceful and the Arab spring has turned into an “Arab winter.” While the recent anti-Western violence across the Arab and Muslim world may have partially confirmed Netanyahu’s gravest predictions, it is far from clear what kind of long-run impact the possible failure of Arab democracies would have on the region in general, and on Israel in particular.

I would like to argue that neither the rogue violence coming from the Arab world, nor Iran’s possible acquiring of nuclear weapons present much of a threat to Israel’s ability to defend itself.  Even if Israel has a lot to lose if Islamic regimes that are openly hostile to Israel continue replace the “stable” dictators, what really threatens Israel’s long-term security is the changing balance of power in the region and the possible decline of U.S. power. Such a decline and subsequent retreat would reduce Israel’s maneuverability and hurt its ability to project a credible deterrence capacity in its neighborhood. Much of Israel’s foreign policy at the moment could in fact be explained by a desperate attempt to halt or even reverse such a U.S.  decline.

To read the entire article please go to the Times of Israel

U.S. interests in the Middle East (Map by Laura Canali/Eurasian Review of Geopolitics)

The Mutual Misunderstanding – America, Islam, and the First Amendment

Photo: Mohammed Abu Zaid/AP Photo. Protestors in Cairo scale the walls of the American embassy.

There is a fundamental misunderstanding in the Muslim world about American society and how it works, something that has become glaringly obvious in the week that followed the killing of the US Ambassador to Libya and three of his staff. As the world reacted to the initial attacks in Libya and Egypt, a spokesperson for the Egyptian President, Mohammed Morsi, condemned the violence and issued condolences to the US government, while also calling on the Obama administration to prosecute the “madmen” behind the US made video that is said to have sparked the violence. In response to the video (but before the violence) the US Embassy in Cairo issued a statement, condemning the “continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims — as we condemn efforts to offend believers of all religions.”

The statement of the US Embassy and the subdued US response to the continued violence during the past week illustrates the American dilemma in trying to improve its relations with Muslim countries in the Middle East while also preserving its own national interests. On the one hand, the US image suffers from decades of direct support to authoritarian dictators who suppressed Islamic political movements and basic freedoms. On the other hand, the US is a country defined by its civil liberties, allowing the administration has very little control over “free speech” content that is produced and published by private Americans on the Internet.

In societies where technology is relatively new and still largely controlled by the authorities, it becomes quite natural to believe that what appears on the internet from across the Atlantic has government backing and represent the united sentiments of all Americans. In addition, for the “Arab street,” it may appear strange that a superpower that has propped up their countries’ militaries and invaded three countries in the Middle East since 9/11 has no power—or willingness—to control its own population’s “hateful outbursts” against “other” religions.

Such a reaction shows that the biggest misunderstanding about American society in the Arab world is probably about how the principle of freedom of speech and religion works. While there are plenty of anti-Islamic fear-mongers in the US, Islam is not generally considered an “other” religion; it is one piece of a mosaic of religious traditions in the United States, all of which get criticized and bashed by those of other or no faith as a result of the imperfect society/democracy that we live in.  While Islam may have been unfairly targeted more recently (especially as a result of 9/11) Muslims are not alone in feeling like they are always on the defensive about their faith. While hate speech can be prosecuted in the US when it targets individuals, the principle of religious freedom in the US allows Americans to attack each other’s religions and Deities almost indiscriminately, as long as it doesn’t lead to attacks and persecution against individual members of those faiths.

This is why, for most mainstream Americans, one quick glance at the absolutely absurd controversial movie trailer “the Innocence of Muslims” would have been enough to realize that this one could not possibly be considered serious enough for anyone to get up from the couch to defend or attack religious freedom. Yet, as soon as it was translated into Arabic and went viral in the Arab world, it was understood as an orchestrated American attack on Islam and Muslims in general.

As violence is spreading in the Middle East, one wonders what, if anything, can be done to prevent similar episodes in the future? What can the US do to ameliorate relations with the Arab and Muslim world in order to prevent a further deterioration of the situation?

The classical answer—sending troops—will not be sufficient this time around. Instead, the US may need to take a hard look at its own national security strategy in order to formulate a more effective policy for improving the US image with the Arab—and Islamic—street. Such an approach will need to have both long-term and short-term elements and include a serious evaluation of how the US fundamental rights of freedom of speech and religion affects people outside of our borders. How can we explain to people, whose freedoms have been suppressed by US-sponsored dictators, that the US is not a “dictatorship” in its own country and is therefore unable to prosecute anyone who expresses anti-religious sentiments in a “public” forum, including the Internet?

One way would perhaps be to take a longer-term perspective, adopting a broader view on the first amendment that would allow a discussion about how such expression affects the religious sensitivities of those religious groups targeted. While the hate speech prohibition in the US protects individuals from persecution on the basis of their religious or ethnic/personal identity, it does not protect those communities from attacks that they themselves may consider the worst kind; blasphemy. In other words, we need to be aware that hate speech may be experienced differently from religion to the next.

Curtailing freedom of speech on behalf of national security is extremely controversial and is certainly not advocated in this piece. However, having the discussion about how something that we take for granted affects those outside of our borders would benefit both sides of the Atlantic while doing little harm.

NY Times/Damien Cave: An American woman protests the planned Gainsville Koran burning by photographing her daughter with a peace sign.

However, should the US have this discussion alone, or can we expect the Muslim world to meet us half way? Muslims also need to be aware that the recent spread of violence against US and other Western embassies in places as diverse as Tunisia and Australia does not improve the image of Islam in the eyes of non-Muslim Americans. Further, it is understandable that some Americans have a difficult time seeing how the burning of Korans and the making of insulting videos are any worse than flag trampling and church-burning in the Middle East. While some Muslim bloggers have pointed out that the timing of the Libya attack (on September 11th) was proof that the attack was orchestrated by Al-Qaeda and did thus not represent the mainstream view of Libyan Muslims, such an explanation does not fully carry over to the subsequent mass demonstrations and violence in other places around the world.

Moderate Muslims thus also have a difficult task ahead; to convince their societies that confrontation and violence is not likely to improve anything but will only make matters worse.