Saturday 28 March 2015

The People of Israel Have Spoken

The ballots have been counted in Israel's election 2015, and people have recovered from the surprise of a result which has deviated substantially from the opinion polls and exit polls.  I believe that the surprise comes, not from the result itself, but because of the extent to which people's expectations were inaccurately set by the polls in the media.  The people of Israel have spoken, and they have spoken loud and clear.
It is possible to draw a number of conclusions from the comprehensive and unexpected manner in which Prime Minister Netanyahu and his Likud party have been returned to power.

1.  Security issues are at the top of the national agenda.
Prime Minister Netanyahu's election platform was based upon security issues, and the nature of the threat that exists against the State of Israel.  Some have called it scare-mongering people to believe that Israel is under an existential threat, in order to convince people to vote for him.  He even appeared in front of the American Congress during the latter stages of the election campaign,  in an attempt to reinforce this point for the Israeli public, the American public and the world at large.  With the strength of anti-Israel feeling evident within the international community, within the United Nations and evident from individuals around the world, it hardly comes as a surprise that the Israeli people believe him when he is says that Israel is under threat.  And when considering the rhetoric coming from countries like Iran and countries along Israel's borders, it is easy to understand why this feeling is so great.  When adding the growing levels of anti-Semitism, much of it dressed up as anti-Israel views, I don't believe that this threat arises from paranoia.  It is true to say that Israel is not on the verge of being wiped out, as was the case a few times in the past.  The Israeli army is certainly strong enough to stand up to any physical threat to our country.  This does not, however, diminish the threat and the desires of Israel's enemies to destroy her.  The majority of the Israeli electorate believe that Israel is under a substantial international threat, and have good reason to believe this.

2.  Peace with the Palestinians is not a priority.
It is noticeable that the issue of peace with the Palestinians played no role in the election campaigns of any of the parties.  The left-wing parties did not seek election on the strength of promises to bring compromises in the interests of reaching peace with the Palestinians, and the right-wing parties did not seek election on the basis that they would not be prepared to enter into peace with the Palestinians.  It would appear as though the Israeli public has understood that peace is unattainable with people who are not prepared to recognise that Israel is a Jewish country.  This is despite the fact that it is a most basic Israeli aspiration to seek a just and equitable peace.  The realisation that the Palestinians are not willing or ready to agree upon the compromises that are necessary to reach a peace, has not been easy to understand.  It is tough to accept that the Palestinian leadership has no intention of entering into a peace agreement at all.  It is unfortunate that the international community continues to try to squeeze a square peg into a round hole, and to insist that now is the time to force the parties to negotiate to reach a peace agreement.  It is even more unfortunate that the international community places the blame on Israel for the lack of progress towards peace.

3.  Tzipi Livni is unelectable.
Isaac Herzog sought out Tzipi Livni to join him at the head of the Zionist Union list.  The combined list was regarded as greater than the sum of its component parts, and this was borne out by the election result.  It seems unlikely that Labour and Hatnua could have secured 24 seats if they had run as separate lists.  When agreeing to form the Zionist Union list, Herzog and Livni also agreed to rotate the position of prime minister between the two of them in the event that their list should win the election.  There were many in the Labour Party and across the country who wondered why Herzog had agreed to conceed such a strong position to Livni, when her power to bring support to the Zionist Union was questionable.  Only one day before the election, Tzipi Livni announced that she was giving up on her right to be prime minister in the rotation agreement.  This was widely interpreted as the Zionist Union acknowledging that more people would be inclined to vote for them if they knew that Livni would not be prime minister.  The act was also seen as an immense act of weakness on the part of the tough lady.  It was also the final word in confirming that Tzipi Livni is unelectable as prime minister.  She lost credibility while she migrated from the Likud, across Kadima and Hatnua to ultimately team up with Labour at the opposite end of the political spectrum.  She was unable to form a government in 2009, despite her Kadima party won the highest number of seats in the general election.  This act of her giving up her right to be prime minister is the final nail in her prime ministerial ambitions.  It also opens a broad debate about whether Isaac Herzog is electable as prime minster.

4.  Toughness by Israel's leaders on the international stage is desirable and respected.
Prime Minister Netanyahu has always been a master at presenting Israel's case on the international stage, and showing toughness and being unashamed and uncompromising in doing so.  He is the new type of Jew that Jabotinsky could only dream of during the years of the pogroms in Eastern Europe.  Despite the fact that a number of generations have come and gone since Jabotinsky's time when he dreamed of this Jew, it seems as though Israelis continue to like, respect and desire this quality that Netanyahu possesses.  At a time when attacks on Israel in the international community  are at an unprecedented high and when anti-Semitism around the world is rising to levels that are unknown since the Shoah, there is something appealing to Israeli eyes and ears in a leader who is prepared to confront and beat these attacks by facing them head-on.  The sight of him addressing the US Congress just before the election will have confirmed Netanyahu's ability and willingness to do this for any Israeli who doubted it.

5.  Bias in the media counts for nothing.
There can be no doubt that the Israeli media waged a campaign against Prime Minister Netanyahu in order to remove him from the prime minister's residence.  He tried calling out the Yediot Haachronot and its online version Ynet during the course of the election campaign, by accusing the editor Noni Moses of publishing untruths in an attempt to discredit him.  Israel's media, and its lack of independence and editorial integrity, has come under scrutiny in recent months.  It is not only the anti-Netanyahu camp that stands accused, but equally Sheldon Adelson's Yisrael Hayom, and its unashamed support for Netanyahu.  The Israeli people have shown that, despite the vicious and overwhelming anti-Netanyahu sentiments published in many Israel printed and online newspapers, they have been able to make up their minds independently about who they wish to lead the country over the next 4 years.  Even the opinion polls, that did not even get close to the election result at any point, could not influence the electorate.  Since the election result has been made known, the anti-Netanyahu lobby has not given up and continues to castigate Israelis for making the wrong choice in the election.  They make an even greater laughing stock of themselves by doing this.

6.  Even Obama cannot unseat Netanyahu.
US President Barack Obama refused to meet with Prime Minister Netanyahu during his recent trip to address the US Congress in Washington.  The reason given for him not meeting with Netanyahu was that he did not wish to influence Israel's election result in any way.  When looking at Obama's actions in the period leading up to the election, and particularly his response to the election result, it seems that nothing could be further from the truth.  There is no secret that Obama has no time or patience for Prime Minister Netanyahu.  There is no secret that Obama would have been much happier if somebody else, anybody, would have been elected as the prime minister in the election.  There were strong rumours that Obama was somehow behind funding the V15 group that rose up in Israel prior to the election in attempt to unseat Netanyahu almost at any price.  The slogan of this group, and also much of the rhetoric behind the Zionist Union's election campaign, was anti-Netanyahu.  They were encouraging people to vote against Netanyahu, as opposed to enticing people to make a positive choice and to vote for something that they do want.  My interpretation of Obama's decision not to meet Netanyahu prior to the election, was a real attempt to influence people to vote against him, and not to stay neutral as he was trying to get us to believe.  Perhaps he was concerned that a meeting may have helped to convince people to vote for a man that he would like to see consigned to the dustbin of history.  The Israeli people have shown that even the most powerful politician in the world cannot influence their choice.  This is not a happy moment for Obama, and his concerted campaign against Netanyahu and Israel since the election has demonstrated that he is a very sore loser.   It seems inconceivable that US foreign policy in the Middle East can suddenly change as a result of an election result and a few statements from Netanyahu.  Obama's message that "this is not personal" has shown to be completely false.  Ultimately, the vote of the Israeli people is stronger, even than Obama.

Israelis are notoriously independent in their views and actions, and have a reputation for being steadfast and stubborn.  This has come through very loudly in the 2015 election.  And all of this with a turnout of voters in excess of 70%, the highest number since 1999.  Even the number of Arab voters was more than 60%, the highest number in history.  Despite numerous attempts to influence against the re-election of Prime Minister Netanyahu, he has returned to power with a stronger mandate than before.  He is on the verge of becoming Israel's longest-serving prime minister in history.  Israel is held up as the only real democracy in the Middle East, and the democratic process has spoken.  The time has come for those who preferred a different result, and who would have liked to see Herzog as prime minster, to rally around and accept the result that Israeli democracy has selected.  Continuing to fight against it does not serve a purpose.  This is not to say that those who justifiably oppose Netanyahu's policies should be silent and not express their views.  There is, however, a democratic way of doing this.  This does not include intervention from the US president, or unjustified attacks from the media.  Democracy is alive and well in Israel, and the people have spoken.

Tuesday 17 March 2015

The Arabs Hold the Key to Israel's Next Government

The polls are open, and Israelis are flocking to the polling stations to elect the next Knesset and government.  While the opinion polls are all suggesting that the left-wing "Zionist Union" grouping that comprises the Labour and Hatnua parties in a joint list will receiving the most votes, the country is on tenterhooks as to who will form the next government and who the next prime minister of Israel will be.  The reason for the uncertainty is down to the complexity of Israeli politics, and the number of parties that sit in the Knesset.  No single party has ever achieved an outright majority in an election in the history of Israel.  No single party has even come close to achieving this.  As a result, Israeli governments have always been a conglomerate of political rivals that somehow reach a compromise to get into the ruling coalition.  And this is exactly how the next government will also be made up.  Not an ideal recipe for political stability.

The position of the Arab citizens of Israel has always represented a controversial point in our democracy.  They represent a substantial minority (1.7 million out of a total population of 8.3 million, or 20% of the population), despite the fact that their representation in the Knesset has been approximately half of the proportion that they represent in society.  The Israeli Arabs also represent the sum total of all Arabs with full democratic rights in the Middle East, a fact that is often overlooked.  Despite this and the relatively good life that Israeli Arabs enjoy, they have struggled to fully find and assert their identity in Israel.  Much of this emanates from the criticism that they have been forced to endure from neighbouring Arab countries, which have accused them of colluding with the Jews by remaining in Israel.  This has been reflected in their reluctance to vote, and greater reluctance to support Arabs sitting in the Jewish parliament.  It has also called into doubt their loyalty towards Israel, the country that provides them with their livelihood and existence, particularly when members of the Arab community (even those sitting in the Knesset) have publicly shown support for terrorists and for those who seek to destroy the State of Israel.  Some of this behaviour can be regarded as treasonous.

Many Jews have questioned the logic of extending full democratic rights to the Arabs living in Israel.  The decision for this was made many years ago, however, when first Prime Minister David Ben Gurion called upon the Arabs living in Israel to stay and share in the new-found democracy.  With population growth in the Arab sector greater than that in the Jewish sector, there is a fear that the Arabs will outnumber the Jews in the future.  This essentially spells the end of a Jewish homeland where Jews have the right to self-determination.  While it is generally expected that this will happen when the Arab population outnumbers the Jewish the population, I suggest that we have already reached the moment when the Arabs essentially hold the key to determine who will govern the Jewish homeland, and who will be its prime minister.

Out of the Knesset of 120 seats, the coalition requires 61 seats to govern and more in order to establish a more stable government.  When totting up the seats that the right-wing group (Likud, Habayit Hayehudi, Yisrael Beiteinu and Kulanu) is likely to achieve (according to the most recent opinion polls), indications are that they will have approximately 47 seats.  A similar count  for the left-wing group (Zionist Union, Meretz and Yesh Atid) gives approximately 42 seats.  The religious parties together are likely to garner 18 seats, which they would probably contribute to any bloc that will give in to their specific demands to service the religious electorate.  Even if the left-wing group succeeds in recruiting the religious parties, they still do not have a majority and certainly not a majority that can govern the country.  The missing element is the Joint Arab List, that will command approximately 13 seats in the next Knesset.  If Labour leader Isaac Herzog is prepared to bring an Arab party into the left-wing ruling coalition for the first time in the history of the State of Israel, he could be the next prime minister.  If not, he will almost certainly not be.

The decision to include the Arab list into the coalition is not a simple one.  Israel has had Arab members of government, and even Arab ministers before.  Arabs hold senior civic positions in the High Court of Justice, and in many other governmental and municipal bodies.  All of this has been accepted by the Jewish public.  With the background of the ongoing controversy surrounding the true loyalty of Arab citizens of Israel to the state, however, and especially with attention having been drawn to this by Arab member of Knesset Hanin Zouabi who stands accused of treachery and treason, it is my sense that having an Arab party in  the governing coalition may be a step too far for the Israeli public.  The problem for Herzog is that he is damned if he does, and is damned if he doesn't.  He is likely not to lead the next government if he does not include the Arab party in his coalition, and he is likely to have a real battle against public feeling and emotion if he does.  This is not an easy situation for a leader who wishes to be the next prime minister almost at any price.

Some noises coming from the Arab Joint List may help to resolve this situation for Herzog without him needing to decide.  The leader of the Arab party has indicated that they would be unwilling to sit in a coalition with the Zionist Union.  The reason is that the Zionist Union is a Zionist party, something that the Joint Arab List opposes in principle.  We have previously experienced many examples of parties not being prepared to join coalitions on the day before the election, and then joining that same coalition on the day after the election.  So I would not necessarily accept all of the comments made by the Joint Arab List at face value.

It seems that even those who predicted that the Arabs would hold influence over the Jews in their own homeland, could not have anticipated that the influence would come in this way and at this time.  This situation arises partially from the law change to the minimum threshold required to get into the Knesset which forced the smaller Arab parties to unite into one list, and partially from the style of Israeli politics that gives undue power to the smaller parties.  And while I predict that the Arab party will not be in the government and that Herzog will not be prime minister, it does give immense food for thought about how this will play out in future elections.  These are probably nearer than we would like them to be.

Sunday 15 March 2015

Netanyahu's True Colours

An interesting document has been published by Israel's Yediot Achronot and its on line publication, Ynet.  It is claimed that the document was prepared by officials in Prime Minister Netanyahu's government, something that the prime minister vehemently denies.  The document, which is addressed to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, purports to offer huge concessions on the part of the Israeli government in the search for a peace agreement.  Netanyahu claims that he would never have offered the things that were contained in the document, and accuses the newspaper's editor, the Moses family, of trying to play a dirty political trick to discredit him.  Another journalist, who claims to have investigated the matter of this document, says that the document is genuine but was developed by the US administration rather than by the Israeli government.  Another theory that has been put forward is that Israeli ambassador to the US, Ron Dermer, was involved in putting together the document with Netanyahu's blessing.

Whatever you wish to believe about the source of the document, it does contain some interesting information.  The document is formulated in the style of an offer to the Palestinians, which sets out major concessions on the part of the Israeli government.  The document was developed in August 2013 as part of the ill-fated peace talks under the sponsorship and auspices of US Secretary of State, John Kerry.  The concessions incorporated in the document include a proposal for Israel to revert back to the 1967 land borders with certain land swaps, a deal on allowing a Palestinian state a part of Jerusalem as its capital, and even a concession to allow the return of some Palestinian refugees.  One version of the story suggests that they were presented by Prime Minister Netanyahu's personal representative Yitzchak Molcho to Hussein Agha, affiliate of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, soon after the talks were initiated in July 2013.  If this is to be believed, these concessions represent possible compromise solutions to the main sticking points that the Palestinians continue to present as being the key reasons for the ongoing lack of agreement between themselves and Israel.

It is not clear whether or not the document was presented to the Palestinians, but it seems inconceivable that they were not at least aware of it.  It is interesting that there was never public comment made on their part about it.  Some would hold this up as evidence of the fact that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is not negotiating in good faith.  If he had been negotiating in good faith, and had received a proposal that provided a reasonable response to the main outstanding sticking points or was at least aware of it, it seems likely that he would have referred to it.  So is this an indication of bad faith?  It feels almost like the revelations that came out of Camp David in 2000 when then Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat is reported to have turned down major concessions offered by Ehud Barak, specifically on the matter of a solution to share Jerusalem.  There was shock that Barak had made such a far-reaching offer, and even greater shock that it was rejected.  This "outed" Yasser Arafat as negotiating in bad faith, and having no intention of reaching a peace agreement with Israel.  Is this also true of Mahmoud Abbas?

Even though there is a strong argument that the reason behind Abbas not being prepared to refer publicly to the offer is because he is negotiating in bad faith, I am not sure that this is the whole story.  I contend that he would have reason to jump on such a proposal even if he was not negotiating in good faith.  After all, gaining access to such substantial concessions on Israel's part, even if he never had any intention to stand by undertakings given in return, would represent greater possession for the Palestinians.  It could be argued that this would be major progress for them if their unholy quest is to destroy the Jews and take over Israel for themselves.  So why not try to promote it publicly?

It seems to me that Abbas is determined to remain a "struggle leader".  Unlike Nelson Mandela who led the struggle in order to transform society so that he could be a leader of a legitimate majority-rule democracy, Abbas does not see him or his people in this legitimate role.  Instead, they prefer to be in a state of "struggle" on an ongoing basis.  It seems as though the advantage of the international sympathy and support that the Palestinians are enjoying, could all be lost in the event that they become a full-fledged member of the international community.  The only explanation that I can offer for Abbas not jumping on the concessions that were set out in the letter, is because he wishes to remain the leader of a struggle.  The Palestinian leadership has demonstrated on numerous occasions that it is unable to fulfil the role of legitimate leaders who have the objective of guiding a country to fill its place among the nations, and be prepared to abide by all rights and obligations that come with that.  Perhaps Abbas fears that accepting the concessions would result in the Americans forcing him and his Palestinian Authority to become responsible leaders as required in the international arena.  The way in which the Palestinian leadership has dealt with refugees over the years, the way in which aid from the international community has been skimmed off for their own private consumption and the ongoing sponsorship of terror and wars against Israel represent only some of the evidence of their unwillingness to become a legitimate leadership, government and country.   It seems more convenient to be regarded as the downtrodden underdog of the world, with all the international support and sympathy that is associated with that.

There can be no doubt that the Palestinians are playing an extremely shrewd political game in achieving their objectives.  I have no doubt that the objectives of the leadership are not the same as their published objectives as laid down before the international community.  The so-called "occupation" that Israel is constantly accused of is without foundation, and their stated quest to set up a Palestinian state could have been achieved ages ago with a little political will.  It is a well documented fact that the State of Israel was established in 1948 with far less than has been offered to the Palestinians for their state.

It is also interesting for me to try to understand why Netanyahu has been so sensitive about the attribution of this document to him.  He was quick to say that he would never offer parts of Jerusalem as a capital of a Palestinian state, or agree to return to the 1967 borders.  This is all despite the fact that he has publicly accepted the establishment of a Palestinian state.  Was he concerned of a right-wing backlash against him in the days leading up to the election?  It may perversely serve to assist him in his election campaign, to show up the Palestinian leadership for what they are by acknowledging some association with the document.

Middle East politics is certainly a strange beast.  The only thing that one can be sure of, is that all is never what it seems.

Monday 2 March 2015

A Storm in a Teacup, or Diplomatic Snub?

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is on his way to Washington this week to present his case on Iran to a joint session of Congress on 3 March.  This is despite huge pressure that was put on him, both in the USA and in Israel not to go ahead, or at least to postpone his trip to Capitol Hill.  Having accepted House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner's invitation to make the address, it always seemed unlikely that Netanyahu would change his mind.  Many Israelis seem undecided as to whether this is a good or bad thing, and whether this is likely to do more harm than good to already troubled relations between the US and Israel.

The prime minister was certainly justified in accepting what appeared to be a genuine invitation from a legitimate source.  House Speaker Boehner is within his rights to invite guests to address Congress, and Boehner's office has issued a statement confirming that the invitation was already well on its way to Netanyahu before the Israeli election date was set early in December 2014.  The prime minister has used every possible opportunity to make known his (and Israel's) opposition to the agreement currently under negotiation between Iran and the P5+1 countries, and it would have come as no surprise to anybody that Bibi was quick to jump at this opportunity as well.  The timing of the invitation was particularly attractive, to address the US lawmakers just prior to the date that was set for the finalisation of the agreement.  Where the discussions with Iran are concerned, Boehner and Netanyahu are on the same side of the fence in opposing US President Barack Obama's seemingly single-minded intention to come to an agreement with Iran almost at any price.  If Boehner wished to find a like-minded international leader to address the US Congress on this matter, Netanyahu was the most obvious person to turn to.  Like Netanyahu, Boehner fears that giving Iran the green light to enrich Uranium with an official international stamp of approval, even at low levels of enrichment, would destabilise the balance of power in the Middle East and the world.  Obama's desire to establish a legacy before leaving the White House next year, could leave a most dangerous problem for Israel and the western world following his departure.

It is easy to be suspicious about Obama's reaction to Netanyahu's visit to Washington, and his his true intentions behind the reaction.  We know that Obama has little time or respect for Netanyahu, and this visit to Washington, coming as it does at the invitation of Obama's arch-rival in the Congress, is a perfect opportunity for Obama to make his negative feelings for Bibi more public.  The White House has accused Netanyahu of not following protocol by not advising them of his visit to Washington.  The prime minister's office says that the same protocol was followed this time as for previous visits.  John Boehner has admitted not following protocol on his part, and he purposefully did not advise the White House of Netanyahu's upcoming visit.  He says that the reason for this, was the fear that the White House would make every effort to undermine the visit in an attempt to prevent the visit from going ahead.  This is precisely what we saw happening when details of the visit were made known in the press.  The administration moved immediately to say that no meetings would be accommodated between the prime minister and administration officials.  Obama went further by hiding behind the fact that the administration has a policy of not meeting with foreign visitors in the weeks leading up to a general election.  The Obama administration also announced that they would no longer provide updates to Israeli government officials about the progress of the talks with Iran.  This laid the groundwork for Secretary of State John Kerry to accuse  Netanyahu of having no knowledge of what is happening in the talks with Iran, and therfore having no right to make comments about the terms of the agreement.

The reactions all reek of a combination of anti-Netanyahu behaviour, and US party politics.  The Obama-led Democrats seem hell-bent on reaching an agreement with Iran, while the Republicans are doing all that they can to scupper the deal from proceeding.  Throwing Netanyahu into the centre of this battle is an ideal plan, particularly for Obama's Democrats.

For Netanyahu, even if the visit to Washington was not originally designed as an attempt to strengthen his position just before the election, it still presents an ideal opportunity to do so.  Netanyahu's election platform is based almost entirely upon foreign relations and security issues.  As opposed to candidates like Yair Lapid and others who focus more on  the economy and internal matters, Netanyahu's plan of attack plays to his personal strength of international diplomacy.  There is nobody in Israeli politics who can represent Israel on the international stage as Netanyahu can, and those voters who have forgotten or overlooked this are about to be reminded in this week's speech to Congress.  Israeli TV has decided that they will broadcast Netanyahu's speech to Congress live, except for a short delay to allow it to remove any election-specific comments that they be included in the speech.

The local and international press has come out in strong criticism of Netanyahu for cynically using an opportunity to promote himself before the election.  There seems equally to be a case against Obama for using the opportunity to try to put Netanyahu down to ensure that he is not re-elected, and for using this to promote the deal with Iran. 

The matter that has been lost in the crossfire, is the agreement with Iran.  It is of grave concern that Iran may be granted the right by the international community to have the capability of producing a nuclear bomb, or coming very close to it.  The highly aggressive language that Iran uses in public against Israel, and the acknowledged military threat that Iran presents to Israel, make this possibility a frightening prospect.  Coupled with the increasing anti-Semitism around thw world, much of it tied to vehement anti-Israel attacks, there seems to be a strong case in favour of Netanyahu using every opportunity to present Israel's case where he can.  While politicians play little political games in Washington and do all that they can to discredit individuals, the door is left open for Iran to freely pursue its contruction of a threat that could put future generations of Jews and Israelis in grave danger.  This danger is not unique to Jews and Israelis, but ultimately extends to all of the Middle East and the western world.  President Obama seems somehow to have lost sight of this, but perhaps it concerns him less than his own personal battles and legacy.

Prime Minister Netanyahu has his weak points, and has been known to behave to promote his own interests on numerous occasions.  There can be no doubt that he is fighting for his political survival, as the opinion polls show he is struggling to gain any advantage over his political rivals ahead of the upcoming election.  There are, however, some international issues that are above party politics and that don't wait for elections.  The Iran problem is surely one of these.