Tuesday, February 24, 2009

National Unity: Promising To Talk

Benjamin Netanyahu and Tzipi Livni have promised to keep talking. A Netanyahu government that does not include Livni's Kadima will be "more hawkish," right? And Netanyahu has finally agreed to pursue U.S.-sponsored talks with the Palestinians, right? If Livni stays out of the goverment, this will presumably make the Israeli side in the talks less, well, "dovish?" So does not her demand for rotation of the prime minister's job border on political selfishness?

Probably, but this is also a stupid question. The status quo serves the interests of the settlers and the 65 newly-elected defenders of Greater Israel in the Knesset. The only serious question is whether the status quo will be radically changed. Talking with the Palestinians about changing it, or talking about talking with them in some national unity government, is just another way of playing into the settlers' hands.

As I said in my last post--and Gershon Baskin has just said better--we cannot know if Livni's position on Palestine is ultimately very different from Netanyahu's, at least not from party platforms or party pedigree. We know that Livni has signaled a willingness to share Jerusalem (hence, her break with Shas) and that she certainly cares more than the 65--well, 64 if you include Netanyahu--about how Israeli policy plays in the West. Then again, we have reason to doubt that she will split the country, and her party (which includes people like Shaul Mofaz), to confront the settlers head-on--doubt that peace talks will produce anything valuable if they are not actually a cover for an American fiat.

BUT, ANYWAY, IF Netanyahu is serious about achieving, not just talking about, a two-state solution, he has an obvious way of signaling, too: he can agree to a coalition of Likud, Kadima and Labor plus others (which would be an initial bloc of about 75 MKs); agree to a rotation agreement, in which Livni would exercise the prerogatives of the premiership in a couple of years. Meanwhile, Kadima and Barak's Labor party, acting together, could bring down this government if Netanyahu just stalls. 

Netanyahu, in other words, would be agreeing to genuine partnership in a government Obama could engage. Need I add how utterly unlikely this is? Half of the Likud list would revolt; many would defect. Serious negotiation with the PA would leave Netanyahu no choice but to try to take Likud from the "national camp" into the globalist center--in effect, to join the more pragmatic rump of the his Likud, people like Dan Meridor and Eitan Cabel, to the more pragmatic rump of Ariel Sharon's Likud, that is, Kadima; to turn 65 into 50, at least until the next election.

If Netanyahu does not agree to rotation, however, it is a clear signal of a different kind: that (distasteful as this is) he is holding onto his 65 to leverage continuing inaction; that he merely wants Livni to paint lipstick on his pig. She would be a fool to go along. Whatever else she is not, she is not that.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

The Dangers Of National Unity


"Can't you understand simple arithmetic? Why, the very point of [our] program is to have as much land as possible and as few Arabs as possible!" 

Avigdor Lieberman in 2009? Actually, Yitzhak Navon, Labor leader, and former president of the state, at an election rally in Yoqneam in 1984.  

My point is that there is a bigger crisis here than the emergence of a "neo-fascist," as Marty Peretz called Lieberman (or shall we say even Marty Peretz, as Fareed Zakaria implied). There is the question of what national unity means, or at least how it plays. By 1984, the great danger to Israeli democracy was allegedly Meir Kahane, the caustic, menacing, ultra du jour. But his power stemmed, much like Lieberman's today, from his saying bluntly what a generation of leaders before him had fudged politely.

That Israel is for Jews, and let's not be too fine about what Jewish means. That "Jewish and democratic" means doing what we've done to privilege "Zionism"--exclude non-Jews from "nationalized" land, empower (or pander to) orthodox rabbis, root identity, even citizenship, in bloodlines, sacralize Jerusalem--and continue doing so as long as there are more of us than them. That Israel's fate is to hit regularly at Palestinian insurgents and other enemies--"mow the lawn," in the words of an Israeli intelligence officer I know--and that so long as we are not at peace, we might as well cultivate national unity by supporting, or just overlooking, West Bank settlements, whose leaders are custodians of classical Zionism's heroic spirit.

Lieberman ran on the unremarkable idea that Israeli Arabs are not really capable of feeling allegiance to this Jewish state; that they should be denied citizenship if they fail to swear allegiance to it. In practical terms, Lieberman's line means "as much land as possible and as few Arabs as possible," that in any peace deal entertained by Israel, the Israeli Arab villages of the Little Triangle should be transferred to a Palestinian state. Incidentally, not four years ago, in the fall of 2005, Peretz's New Republic published an article by Uzi Arad--the former head of research at the Mossad, the Princeton-educated convener of the prestigious Herzliya Conference (a man I know and otherwise respect)--that called for exactly the same plan as Lieberman's.
 
I DO NOT mean to dwell on little hypocrisies, which we all engage in at times.  But it is important to emphasize how this trans-Atlantic handshake reveals what is conventional, and dangerous, in Lieberman's thinking. Netanyahu is calling for national unity, to "topple Hamas," face the threat of Iran, and meet the "economic challenge." He is begging the question, and inviting Tzipi Livni and other centrists to go on begging it with him. But Livni surely knows (and how can Netanyahu not?) that he cannot attack Hamas more without strengthening it even more; cannot take unilateral action against Iran; cannot do anything significant to alleviate the effects of the world economic slump, at least no more than the mayor of Los Angeles. 

What he can do is stall on confronting the sorry legacy of Israel's national unity: stall on confronting a settlement project that continues to spread like a cancer across the West Bank (and with over 160 settlements, Netanyahu's claim that he will only allow "natural growth" is like a doctor saying, after metastasis, that he will only allow natural growth); stall on confronting a warped Israeli state apparatus that is turning Arab citizens into radical enemies.

IT IS HARD to know if Livni will go along. If Lieberman has become the poster-child for the logic of the "demographic problem," she has become the poster-child for a professional and entrepreneurial class that knows Israel cannot at once embrace globalization and defy the globe. All she can really do by joining the government is help Netanyahu charm American officials and otherwise stand up to pressures to change the status quo. Of course the status quo is a disaster, and many in the Tel-Aviv middle class voted for her because she seemed, precisely, a force for change.  

At the same time, it is not at all clear that her vision, or Ehud Barak's for that matter, is much different from Netanyahu's, or Lieberman's for that matter--one of the reasons Livni has been so coy. Indeed, it is not at all clear, as Haaretz's Nehemia Shtrasler wrote recently, that Israel really has a political party that envisions both secular, democratic principles as the basis for internal peace, and global enterprises as the building blocks of an external peace.

This is the great disappointment of the last election, a shame, truly, since so many Israelis would know what to do with peace. Just last week, as was widely reported, a team of Israeli scientists announced a breakthrough invention, an "artificial nose" that was able to "sniff" cancer in 92% of cases. What was not widely reported is that the lead doctor, Hossam Haick, is an Arab from Nazareth, the child of a family which a 1948 version of national unity failed to drive away.

One last thing: if Netanyahu were serious about creating a "unity" goverment to take hard decisions, to tip from defending the inertia of the "national camp" to cooperating seriously in a regional diplomatic initiative based on the Saudi Plan, all he would have to do is form a coalition with Kadima and Labor.  But then he would be, in effect, the junior partner, and half of his own party list (Benny Begin, Moshe Yaalon, and others) would go into a kind of internal exile. This is his moment of truth, too, and ours about him.  

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Do The Math: Three Scenarios

Do the math, given these results (more or less):

1. To get the president's mandate to form the next government, Benjamin Netanyahu, who has fewer seats than Tzipi Livni, will need to lock-down a majority of Knesset members, which means a coalition of

Likud+Lieberman+Shas+various ultraOrthodox and ultraNationlist parties.  

This he can almost certainly do, and, given his victory speech, intends to, although Lieberman and Shas despise one another. And Netanyahu will find himself in Obama's Washington and the mainstream media about as popular as Rush Limbaugh.

2. For Tzipi Livni to get to a majority, she would need:

Kadima+Labor+Shas (or Lieberman)+Meretz (or Arab parties).

Shas (or Lieberman)+Meterz+Arab parties? Forget it.

3. Netanyahu or Livni or both could work toward a "national unity" government: 

Kadima+Likud+Labor (or Lieberman, or Shas).  

Netanyahu would (in one version) have to concede the prime minister's chair, as the major party with fewer seats--which he would be utterly opposed to, since he could form a rightist government of his own.  

Or Livni would (in a second version) concede the prime minister's chair and lose the chance to anchor a fighting opposition, with Labor in opposition, and Netanyahu busy alienating the world.

There is talk of a rotation agreement, as in 1984.

MY BET IS that Netanyahu will form a rightist government, take his chances with Washington, the collapse of relations with the PA, and riots among Israeli Arabs. 

Brace yourselves.  

Monday, February 9, 2009

The Center: The Players And The Program

If all one means by center is a vague desire to contain Palestinian terrorism yet distance oneself from settlers’ excesses—to do the former without alienating Washington, and the latter without splitting the Jewish people—then a stable majority has been centrist since 1967.  But this is a free-floating desire, not the basis of a political identity.  You can see how much good vague desire is when others create facts.

ISRAELIS ANGUISH OVER five issues, actually.  First, there is the question of whether to rely primarily on military power when dealing with the troubled Middle East.  Second, there is the collateral but more ideologically charged question of whether to withdraw from occupied territory, historic Eretz Yisrael, in order to advance to a “two-state solution” with Palestinians.  Third, there is the question we have examined thus far, whether a democracy can accord exclusive privileges to legally defined Jews—a question linked to the first two, but not limited by them.  Next there is the question, tucked into the last one, of whether to privilege orthodox religious practice.  Finally, there is the question of economic privilege, even class: who wins and who loses in a global market economy?   

One cannot easily find a center in the permutations these questions produce, which is why as many as twenty political parties typically compete in Israeli elections.  But when pundits speak about a center now, they mean leaders who—though they’ll want to have things both ways on many of these issues—have tipped in certain directions: immediate toughness over eventual diplomacy; “painful concessions” in the territories over “Zionist” devotion; some civil reform yet Jewish privilege over scrupulous attention to Arab rights; the religious Status Quo over secular discomfort; and global markets over working-class discomfort.  

Some of these choices are short-sighted, no doubt, but the ambivalence is promising.  Centrists will often advance contradictory positions: shows of social compassion for the poor wedded to reassurances to venture capitalists; civil marriage, yet jobs for Rabbis. 

To add to the complexity, Israel’s elections bring out five more or less permanent tribes to debate these issues: groups of electors defined by primordial ethnic or religious loyalties.  Each comprises about 20 percent of the electorate, or something around a million and a half people.  The tribes have had immigrant experiences at very different times, and so tend to think of Israel in different ways.  They sometimes melt into each other and more often chafe against one another.  For some time now, Israeli coalition politics has been a game of temporarily patching them together.   

THE FIRST TRIBE—call it Tribe One—is dominated by veteran Ashkenazim (of European origin), most of them “Sabras.”  They were born in the country, are now well-educated and cosmopolitan, secular and (if anything) observant of Judaism in the emancipated sense, live-and-let-live by instinct—and living very well indeed in fashionable neighborhoods like North Tel-Aviv, Jerusalem’s Bak’a or Haifa’s Carmel.  These are the Israelis Americans usually run into, members of the educational and professional élite, often drawn by opportunities abroad: a visiting appointment at the University of Pennsylvania, a stint at A.T. Kearney.  Their old-timers tell harrowing, personal tales of ideological non-conformism and political prescience, of immigrant courage and pioneering struggle during the Mandate.  Successful entrepreneurs will yet justify their businesses in the rhetoric of the old pioneering communitarianism.  Tribe One are Israel’s WASPs.  Clearly, they are crucial to an understanding what the Israeli center is and can yet be.  Think Kadima and Labor.

Tribe Two, in contrast, are the residual core of the rather larger North African immigration of Mizrahi Jews, who came to Israel in the 1950s and 60s en masse.  They were as shocked as the Arabs by Tribe One’s ideological and sexual avant garde.  Most had been petit-bourgeois, small merchants and tradesmen back in Casablanca, Tunis, Tripoli, etc.  Their most educated or affluent leaders often went to Paris or Montreal.  Back in the Maghreb, men ruled and plotted family survival.  Women were generally illiterate.  The collapse of colonialism, and the birth of Israel, left Mizrahi Jews exposed to unexpected retaliations in their countries of origin; businesses and friends were left behind in heartbreaking haste.  

Once in Israel, however, the Mizrahim found themselves in an underclass, much less well-educated than the Eastern European Labor Zionists who ran the place.  They were pressured to work for, and become like, the socialist bosses who presided over the kibbutzim, union-owned factories, and government agencies.  Their old culture heroes were the French bourgeoisie.  

On average, Tribe Two still actually earns a third less than Tribe One.  Pride in Tribe Two is pride in the family, not in tales of some old commune or movement.  But it is a pride that tips easily into social anger, for they see the state as a kind of great family that ought to take care of its own. Many have now made it in retail businesses, or car repair shops, or real estate.  Their children have become lawyers, police officers, and contractors.  Yet most of Tribe Two remain hungry for status, and tens of thousands still struggle with unemployment in inner-cities and neglected development towns. Think Likud. 

Unlike Tribe One, Tribe Two follow Halakha naturally, if not quite piously.  They still feel they have a score to settle with “the Arabs,” the Muslims, who drove them out, mainly after the Sinai War.  They still cannot believe how they could have been so marginalized by the old Labor aristocracy. Think Shas.

As with the Boston Irish, their social resentment gets passed on from generation to generation and gets channeled into cultural politics: over-zealous devotion at soccer matches, or overt nepotism in the smaller city councils, where Tribe Two politicians tend to dominate. 

TRIBE THREE, THE newest tribe, have their origins in about 900,000 immigrants from the former Soviet Union, most of whom came in the 1990s.  They include people from the Ukraine, the Baltic states, etc., but are generally known as “the Russians.”  Hyper-educated, hyper-secular (about 25 percent were never “real” Jews back home in Moscow or Kiev), the Russians were beneficiaries of both a rigorous Soviet education and a vital anti-Soviet “refusenik” underground. Fo them, Jews are victims of perpetual hatred, and their national retaliation defines them. They are repelled by the orthodox and are gluttons for high culture and, horrors, non-kosher food: symphonic music, experimental theater, cosmopolitan styles, mathematical science.  

In the 1990s, when Israeli high tech was taking off, about a third of the research programmers, materials scientists, etc., were from Tribe Three.  But they are also hyper-nationalist, certain of their purchase on Europe’s grim history, scornful of Muslim fanaticism and backwardness (their Vietnam was Afghanistan, after all), and dismayed by the squishy liberal intellectuals of Tribe One who allegedly pander to the Muslim world.  They came to Israel to join the “West” and to save it from itself.  They are searching for an Israeli Putin.  Think Lieberman and Yisrael Beiteinu.  

Haaretz’s Lily Galili, who has followed this community for years, told me that a majority of the Russians are feeling chronically embattled, “a combination of seeing impending catastrophe and a certainty that toughness will bring progress.”  They are quick, she says, to see Nazis in Palestinians, and yet they are certain about Israel’s ability “to exercise a kind of omnipotence” on a world stage:  

“This is very Russian, the idea that ‘liberalism’ is holy and yet something for Jewish suckers, which is why they have such common language with American neo-conservatives.  Natan Sharansky is in many ways their hero—the chess player, the intellectual, the world prophet.  He appealed to international liberal conscience while he was in prison, but after coming to Israel, he seems to have found that he could both lecture to the world about democracy and lecture Israelis that the Jewish claim to Jerusalem was a ‘higher value’ than liberalism—that the Arabs  had better learn to accept it—that Israel, being a better ‘democracy’ than its neighbors, should be immune from Western criticism.” 

These first three tribes intermarry at a high rate, and their edges are getting blurry.  Some vote their class interests, some their security fears—none of the three is monolithic.  The melding of Ashkenazim and Sephardim is especially great in the twenty-something generation.  More educated Mizrahim and more cosmopolitan Russians tend to vote Labor and embrace liberal ideas.  Nevertheless, “identity politics” play out among these tribes in unpredictable ways, depending on who leads or what buttons get pushed—say, whether security concerns or economic issues dominate the headlines.  

On the whole, economic issues pull people leftward, that is, toward concessions to the Palestinians, while security issues pull rightward. Though a majority in each tribe has tended to hold to certain directions—Tribe One to Labor, Two to Likud, Three to rightist splinter parties, claiming Russian loyalties—it is in Tribes Two and Three where virtually all of Israel’s swing voters live today.  

IN THE FRAUGHT election of 2001, which brought Sharon to power, the affluent mainly Ashkenazi suburb of Kfar Shmaryahu voted 78 percent for Labor, while 81 percent of the comparatively poor Mizrahi town of Beit Shemesh voted Likud.  In 1999, some 65 percent of the Russians voted for Barak in 2001, about 70 percent voted for Sharon. All of which brings us to Tribes Four and Five, more familiar by now—also more monolithic and predictable. 

Four is made up of Israel’s ultra-nationalist, theocratic groups, bronzed West Bank settlers wedded politically, if not temperamentally, to pale Haredi Yeshiva students.  Tribe Four are devotees of the Land of Israel.  Yet they tend to be economically socialist—“national socialist,” one settler told me with a kind of creepy pride—for many of the orthodox live off the state, either in state schools or embattled settlements. Tribe Four disdains Israeliness as an effort to decouple the national life of the state from the Jewish world of Torah and commandments. It refuses the distinction between the covenantal people and the Israeli nation. 

Its bane is Tribe Five, Israeli Arabs, living in towns segregated by both archaic land policies and the discrimination of Zionist institutions.  Poor but up-and-coming, willing if not eager to enter Israeli democracy, Israeli Arabs are enraged by the existing version of the Jewish state.  Five is counting on, if anything, Israeliness.   

ORDINARILY, THEN, TRIBE Three hates Four, condescends to Two, and doubts One; Two hates One, resents Three and (for different reasons) Four; One is afraid of Two, patronizes Three and hates Four; Four hates One, proselytizes Two, and is afraid of Three.  All four are afraid of Five. 

So imagine how, if at all, any winner of tomorrow's election will be able to form a government, and how long any such government will last. The real question is whether a government will form that will be able to respond to an American initiative, which is the only hope.   

(Many of these observations are taken from 

Friday, February 6, 2009

The Back Of My Mind

I have been perusing my friend Amos Elon’s great book about the Jews of Germany, The Pity of It All, whose narrative culminated in a sorrowful look at Weimar. I confess that re-reading those later pages is not a good idea just now. Avigdor Lierberman's Yisrael Beiteinu Party is surging; the centrist parties are all finding ways to say they will work with him. 

Here is what Amos has to teach us about Weimar in the late 1920s, or at least what we derive from his vivid narrative:
  • There was a national consensus, left over from a generation of war, that the people has suffered deadly, degrading blows which must never be suffered again; a people encircled by mortal enemies and nervous about internal traitors infected with a naïve liberalism; a people grieving for the dead, bonded by blood and sorrow and an ancient myth of transcendence.
  • Even leaders in the “center” of German politics appealed to this consensus, believing that the demagogues who appealed to it most stridently, violently, tearfully, would remain marginal and controllable nuisances. But rightist activists were up and coming, disproportionately youthful, hardened by combat, exhibiting discipline but scoffing at laws, creating chaos and then clamoring for order.
  • Given Weimar's sad consensus, disunity seemed the main danger, while order seemed the charge of prestigious military leaders, who were accustomed to command in a state of siege.  Some had mentored the law-breakers and praised their sincerity. They certainly were willing to go along with those who argued about the need to find a solution to the threat of internal enemies.
  • Politicians of the left, in contrast, were considered mere opportunists, too distant, petulant and cosmopolitan to do any ordinary worker much good—especially when the common good was being sacrificed to a freer market economy, booming intermittently because of foreign loans and shifting markets, but allowing manifest disparities of wealth.  And the disparities were between, on the one hand, unemployed (or near-unemployed) workers, half-educated, half-pious, prudish, feeling deprived at the family table, and, on the other, an élite, over-educated, over-sexed, well-connected, too-conspicuously enjoying luxurious stuff and decadent, worldly art.
THE MERE SUGGESTION that there might be any parallels here to Israel’s “situation,” or to the fate of its center, is a serious violation of the consensus here.  Could any Israeli extremist ever seriously be compared to any Nazi?  

Elon makes clear in his book that the triumph of fascism in Germany was not at all inevitable; that, as he later told me, it might well have been preempted in various European countries by a timely show of force—in fact, by a coalition of centrist generals and social democratic leaders buttressed by outside powers.  

Still, it would be less disquieting to witness this election without the patterns projected from Elon’s book in the back of my mind.

He Told You So

Paul Krugman's influence on American politics has become indispensible. At the same time, like most macroeconomists, he can underestimate the technological (read, entrepreneurial) revolution that's hit the real economy in recent years--you know, the business innovations whose details that other Times columnist sweats. It is clear from his work that government must (in Adam Smith's phrase) "facilitate commerce in general." But it is not always clear how. My review in The Nation of his prophetic book from 1999, The Return of Depression Economics, can be read here.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Obama's Mission In Short

The (appropriately) laconic George Mitchell has come and gone, and the Israeli press, particularly radio, is full of knowing talk about an impending clash between Bibi Netanyahu, almost certain to be the next prime minister, and the Obama administration, mainly over settlements. There is something surreal about this: Netanyahu's lead in the polls has not really eroded, and the rightist, pro-settler coalition he will rely on to anchor his personal power in any unity government is gaining. The government is going ahead with plans to join Maale Adumim to Mount Scopus. It is as if the commentators were talking about a clash between Israel and the American Reform movement over conversion. 

Israelis have lived so long under American protection they have confused America's power for their own, and have utterly underestimated the sober, changing attitude toward Israel since the Gaza attack--around the world, but also in America. More about this presently. For now, a shorter, more succinct and shareble version of my double post on what Obama should be doing has been published by London's Prospect magazine.  It can be read here