Israeli public, politicians split on Iran (with advantage to skeptics)

Posted: November 4th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: In the News, Polls, the US and us | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off

The lack of national consensus makes an Israeli attack on the Iranian nuclear facilities unlikely, yet the escalating threats could create a dangerous dynamic in the longer run ● Public discourse is lacking a serious debate on the consequences of the attack

After months and years in which it has been kept in back rooms or limited to hints and remarks the true meaning of which was understood only by a few people, the Iran debate is suddenly so public that at times it’s hard to make any sense of it. Never has the possibility of a war – a war! – been debated so openly in Israel. Haaret’z top headline today (Thursday) was a poll showing the Israeli public split – 41 in favor and 39 opposing – on a possible Israeli strike against Iran nuclear facilities. According to those numbers, ultra-Orthodox Israelis are particularly keen on the attack (do they know something the rest of us don’t?) and a surprising 21 percent of Israeli-Palestinians are in support.

Some people find the idea of polling such issues bizarre (next – a reality show?) , but history has shown that when left alone to decide in secret on such issues, politicians and generals don’t exercise better judgment than the man on the street. Knowing that the public’s eye is on them, the military and political chiefs in Tel Aviv might be a bit more careful. I agree with Larry Derfner – a public debate on Iran is generally a good thing, and we should be happy that most of the Israel press is engaging in it. Unsurprisingly, it was the pro-Netanyahu tabloid Yisrael Hayon that had a quote in its top headline criticizing public statements made by ex-Mossad chief against the attack, reminding that Israel’s (former) chief spies are sworn to secrecy.

I was buying coffee near my home on Thursday when a siren sounded; I had a vague memory that a civil defense drill was due to take place, but people around me were genuinely concerned. Later, I read that the Home Front Command told reporters that the drill was scheduled a long time ago – just like the Air Force maneuver on the other side of the Mediterranean – yet one can’t help thinking that if Israel is not planning to attack Iran, it wants things to at least to be seen that way.

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It’s not clear whether Israel has the military capability to seriously damage the Iranian nuclear program, but an attack, some people argue, will send a message to the entire Middle East that Israel will act against any country in the region that attempts to develop a nuclear weapon. Even if this won’t stop Iran, such an attack might deter other countries in the region, and prevent the nightmare scenario of an all-out nuclear arms race. Some also hope that the possibility of Israeli attack might strengthen international pressure on Iran, or promote more effective sanctions.

But deterrence is a double-edged sword; it is meant to prevent the need to use military force but sometimes it ends up actually leading to it. It’s easy to see why: You start by threatening to use force if your national interests are jeopardized, and after a while, you have no choice but acting upon your threats in order to make sure that they are seen as credible in the future. This is the real danger of the current game Israel is playing: While I doubt if there is a real desire to attack in the political system or the military right now, as time passes the urge to strike is likely to grow, if only in order to prove to other countries that Israel’s threats are credible.

As for now, it seems that the “Iran Skeptics” camps still has the upper hand in the national debate: in the eight-minister cabinet that constitutes Israel’s top decision-making forum, four ministers are reported to oppose the attack (according to Haaretz those are Benny Begin, Moshe Ya’alon, Eli Yishai and Dan Meridor), three are considered in favor and one’s position is unclear, though it has been reported that he is leaning towards the opposition (that’s Finance Minister Yuval Shteinitz). Reports suggest that the military and Mossad are also not very enthusiastic about the idea, and as I mentioned, there is the very public campaign launched by the former head of the Mossad, Meir Dagan, with the silent support of former IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi and former head of Shabak (the Shin Bet internal security service) Yuval Diskin, though it should be noted that none of the three hold any formal role in security establishment right now.

Finally, the latest development is the criticism against Netanyahu’s push for attack, voiced by Kadima’s Tzipi Livni. This is pretty rare – the political tradition in Israel has it that the opposition does not question the government’s security decisions, certainly not in public, and never in advance. Livni wouldn’t have spoken if she had felt that she is alone on this issue.

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One thing that is missing from the public debate on Iran is a serious consideration of the consequences of an Israeli attack. The Iranian response – both direct and by proxies such as Hezbollah and Hamas – could be pretty tough, and if it actually causes great damage or result in a large number of civilian casualties, Israel might see itself as being forced to retaliate. Therefore, the correct framing of the question isn’t an attack on Iran, but a possible war with Iran and its regional allies. An escalation of this sort might result in drawing the United States and other countries, probably against their will, into the fight. Again, the consequences for all parties involved – Israelis, Palestinians, Iranians, Lebanese and maybe Syrians – could be terrible.

The fact that Natanayhu is far from enjoying a national consensus behind him on Iran, even before a single shot was fired, makes me think that maybe an attack is not around the corner, at least for the time being.


Legendary Shas leader returning to politics, vows to promote peace

Posted: June 23rd, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: elections, In the News, The Left, The Right | Tags: , , | Comments Off

A game changer? Former Shas leader Aryeh Deri has announced his return to politics tonight.

Speaking at the Presidential Conference in Jerusalem, Deri said: “In the State of Israel, one can make no contribution without political power, and I therefore decided to establish a movement. I’m coming back and I wish to use political power for the sake of unity and public responsibility.”

Deri said he will form a new movement. He won’t be able to match Shas’ machine, but his personal appeal might win him many votes. The common wisdom is that Deri can get between 5 to 7-8 Knesset seats, depending on the political circumstances and on the identity of other candidates.

Deri was the all-powerful leader of Shas in the late eighties and early nineties. For many secular Jews, he personified the rise of a new Orthodox threat, so only few mourned his conviction on corruption charges. The imprisonment of Deri was used by Shas for its biggest ever electoral success – 17 Knesset seats – but ironically, while Deri sat in prison, it was his rival Eli Yishai which used this power to secure his place in Israeli politics.

Under Yishai, Shas turned from the centrist party which supported the Oslo accord to an extreme rightwing movement, hostile to the peace process and second only to Avigdor Lieberman’s Israel Beitenu in its undemocratic initiatives.

Deri, on the other hand, maintained his good ties with Kadima MKs and leftwing parties. The same camp who once rejoiced at his downfall now envisions Deri as the new messiah that could make Sephardic Jews support the peace process.

Is it possible? Could Deri be the game changer that will bring a center-left coalition into power? I find it hard to believe, but a person who met Deri recently told me “he is very serious on the peace process.”

Deri clearly aimed to this public when he told Ynet that:

“I’m not coming from a place of vengeance or ambition,” Deri said. “In every poll out there I get seven or eight Knesset seats, despite jail and all the other things that happened to me.”

Turning his attention to the peace process, the former Shas chairman said: “My great fear is wars. I never voted in favor of a war or military operation.” He added that his return is motivated first and foremost by a desire to bring the public together, “so that if we go into a peace process we’ll be united.”

2011 is not 1992, and there is no major force in Israel that could offer the minimum the Palestinians would settle with – certainly not Livni’s Kadima. Still, it is Deri, not Channel 2 anchorman Yair Lapid or any of the Labor’s candidates, which presents the real challenge to the Netanyahu-Lieberman-Yishy coalition (unnamed sources in Shas have already attacked Deri). And this on its own is something to congratulate.


The Israel Project vs. J Street: from pro-Israel to pro-Netanyahu

Posted: October 4th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: In the News, The Right, The Settlements, the US and us | Tags: , , , , , | 12 Comments »

In the current political context, groups like “The Israel Project” and “Stand with US” represent more than anything the interest of extreme rightwing Israeli politicians

I have first heard of The Israel Project (TIP) when I traveled to Denver in 2008 to cover the Democratic National Convention for Maariv. TIP had a press conference with pollsters Frank Lunz and Stan Greenberg. Lunz is the guy who is teaching speakers for Israel to call the Palestinians “Arabs” because it makes Americans think of oil and money rather than refugees. Greenberg is the endangered specie of our time: a pro-Israeli liberal.

The spirits at Denver – and later, at the GOP convention at Saint Paul, were a similar event was held – were high. American support for Israel was at an all-time record, and the buffet was excellent.

The halt of peace negotiations, the humanitarian crisis in Gaza or the rapid expansion of the settlements didn’t seem like a problem. If these issues bothered anyone (They probably didn’t make Stan Greenberg happy), it was for what was labeled as the “challenges” that they might present for those repeating Israeli talking points abroad.

It’s easy to forget how many things have changed in the last two years. Now, Jennifer Mizrahi, Founder and President of TIP, has some concerns. Still, it’s not the expansion of settlements or the future of Israeli democracy that worries her. Her problem is J Street, which seems to deceive the Jewish-American public into thinking that opposing settlements is desirable.

This is what Mizrahi writes about the left-wing Jewish advocacy group on TIP Blog:

The real problem with J Street… is not that it misled people by hiding the fact that it received contributions from people whose support of Israel is suspect. Rather, it is that J Street uses a false premise to take time and resources from thousands of people – including American leaders — whose concern for Israel is unquestioned.

You get that? J street is dangerous because it makes pro-Israelis waste time and money on ridiculous ideas, such as actively engaging with the Israeli government over its control over the life of 2.5 Palestinians in the West Bank.

The same can’t be said about The Israel Project. TIP never wasted their time on such original thoughts, or any new idea regarding the Palestinian problem for that matter. They simply follow orders from Jerusalem, regardless of the identity of the person seating in the PM office.

No Israeli official is too hawkish for TIP. Mizrachi describes PM Netanyahu and his government – the one with Eli Yishai and Avigdor Lieberman as his senior coalition partners – as one that is willing to make “painful sacrifices” for peace. Both those ministers deny it, but let’s not get too obsessed with such details.

“20% of Israeli citizens are Arabs who have full rights,” she writes, while at the same week Israeli Foreign Minister is calling in the UN General Assembly for “population exchange”.

“Why is it so hard for some Arabs and Iran to accept that Israel should be the national and democratic homeland of the Jewish people,” adds Mizrahi, while Deputy PM Moshe Yaalon is declaring that there is not even a chance of a peace deal, and claims that all seven top cabinets ministers agree with him on this one.

TIP and similar pro-Israeli groups argue that Israelis want peace and quote polls showing that the Jewish public opposes the settlements and supports a Palestinian state, but at the same time, they go against the will of those very same Israelis and fight for settlements expansion. In short, they are not interested in Israel (and surly not in the Palestinians) but in the desires of the current political leadership in Israel, and especially those of PM Benjamin Netanyahu.

Recently, Netanyahu found himself facing some decisions that might force him to replace his coalition partners, so he can carry on the talks with Mahmoud Abbas. But TIP doesn’t want Netanyahu to be cornered. They want Abbas to face the pressure. So they attack J Street for not taking its talking points from the Israeli PM office.

I wonder where Jennifer Mizrahi is drawing her moral and political lines, if she has such. What kind of Israeli act or which politician she wouldn’t support? Twenty Five years ago, would she have explained why the Sabrah and Shatila massacre was OK? Will she be speaking for PM Lieberman in a decade?

Right now we have a very extreme Israeli leadership and a very moderate Palestinian one – to the point where most Palestinians don’t think Abbas and Fayad represent them. Jerusalem is currently insisting on its right to built settlements – something the entire world opposes, and even considerable numbers of Israelis. And we have a Foreign Minister who is our proud version of the neo-Fascists in Europe. Yet TIP and other Jewish lobbying groups are doing all they can to lead the Jewish community – one of the most liberal groups in the US – into supporting them.

And they say J Street is the one deceiving people.


The demographic war / will voting rights for world Jews be the next move?

Posted: February 10th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: elections, In the News, The Right | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Comments Off

The government is reviving the old idea of absentee votes, but Netanyahu and Liberman might lose the Knesset battle over this one

There isn’t anything I hate in Israeli politics more than the talks on the so-called “demographic battle”. More than ever, I see this concept as the source of all evil here: from the discrimination of Arab citizens to the shameful Knesset bill which will make it illegal to give aid or shelter to the refugees who crosses the southern border.

Viewing Jewish hegemony as a necessity is something that all Zionist parties have in common: it’s the pretext for Liberman’s plan for ethnic separation, as well as for Meretz’s and Labor’s believe in the two states solution as the only way to promise a permanent Jewish majority within the Green line. In both cases, none-Jews are seen as a national threat. And while there is no doubt that Meretz and Labor are much more committed to democratic values than Liberman, all of them share the demographic obsession.

It is in this context that we should see the government plan, announced Sunday, to grant voting rights to 750,000 Israeli expatriates. This idea was raised several times in the past by rightwing politicians, who saw it as the easy way to ensure a permanent “national majority” (the common belief is that most expatriates support the right), but it has always failed to pass the Knesset votes. The left was able to block all legislative attempts, usually with the help of some rightwing MKs who believed that the right to vote should be given only to those people who face the consequences of their political choices. The fact that the idea was never popular with the general public, who still views the Yordim is deserters to the national cause, left Israel as one of the few democracies which don’t allow absentee voting.

Maybe not anymore. Avigdor Liberman’s Israel Beitenu has put forward a bill that if accepted, will grant voting rights to all Israelis who left the country in the decade prior to the elections. With Netanyahu’s support, the coalition stands a better than ever chance of completing the legislation effort in a short time.

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But why now? The right enjoys an overwhelming majority in the Knesset, and risking it would be a foolish move. After all, the estimates on the way the absentee vote might break are no more than not-so-educated guesses, and polling of expatriates is almost impossible. What seems like a good idea now might easily turn out to be a disaster. If the right was in the opposition and desperate for new voters, this would have been an understandable move, but this is clearly not the case now.

The answer, as in so many cases, is demography. Discriminated as they are, the Arab citizens are still viewed as a threat by the public. The new generation of Arab leaders is more vocal in demanding its rights and in challenging the state’s ideological foundations. What’s more important is that right now, the Arabs reach only half of their voting potential. A Knesset with 22-24 non-Zionist MK’s (instead of the 11 we have now) would be much harder for Israeli nationalists to swallow. Half a million more Jewish votes could be a nice counter measure. Read the rest of this entry »