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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Israeli Echoes

I’ve finished reading Stan Greenberg’s new book, Dispatches From the War Room, and will have more to say later this week about a couple of big strategic issues it raises that merit considerable discussion.
But for today, thinking about the remarkable chapter in Stan’s book about his interactions with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak during the intense period of negotiations with the Palestinians in 1999 and 2000, I’m struck by some of the echoes easily heard in the frantic efforts of Bibi Netanyahu to form a government in the wake of the recent Israeli elections. It’a all particularly ironic since Bibi was a major player in that fateful period of Middle East history as well.
As Stan explains in detail, Barak won the prime ministership of Israel in 1999 after a campaign that focused on craven attitude of Netanyahu towards ultra-orthodox parties who kept him in power in exchange for heavy subsidies to religious schools and a continuing exemption of yeshiva students from Israel’s otherwise-universal military service obligation. At Greenberg’s urging, Barak successfully tied these Likud political concessions to serious problems in the Israeli economy, and to deep cultural resentment of the ultra-orthodox death grip on family policy.
After the election, however, Barak formed a government with the assistance of the ultra-orthodox Shas Party, and sacrificed much of his domestic agenda in the pursuit of stunningly bold but eventually unsuccessful peace negotiations with Syria and with Yasir Arafat.
This year Netanyahu’s trying to form a government after an Israeli election defined not by domestic but by Israel-Palestine issues, but is running into familiar problems in trying to put together a coalition of right-wing parties who are at odds over cultural and economic policies. As Gershom Gorenberg explains for The American Prospect:

“Right wing,” in Israeli terms, is defined by attitudes toward land and peace. It translates as unwillingness to give up any significant portion of West Bank territory, unqualified support for settlement-building, and disinterest in reaching a peace agreement with the Palestinians. Netanyahu’s own Likud and the other parties of the right share that stance, with gradations in their bellicosity. In other respects, they have much to fight about.
Economically, Netanyahu is a free-market fundamentalist. As finance minister under Ariel Sharon between 2003 and 2005, he cut income tax, particularly on top earners. In parallel, he slashed government payments to large families — a blow to the ultra-Orthodox minority. Two of the right-wing parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism, represent the ultra-Orthodox. To regain their support, Netanyahu has apparently promised to backpedal his stance on aid to families. But the budget battles won’t end there.
There’s a cultural fault line as well. Avigdor Lieberman, head of the Israel Is Our Home Party, is best known for demagogy against Israel’s Arab minority. But Lieberman’s platform also includes introducing a form of civil marriage. That plank is crucial to his key constituency, former Soviet immigrants, many of whom aren’t Jewish under religious law and can’t marry through the state rabbinate. The change is anathema to Netanyahu’s other presumed coalition partners. Before the election, Shas’ aging rabbinic leader, Ovadiah Yosef, saidthat anyone who backed Lieberman “supports Satan.” Shas has 11 Knesset seats; Lieberman’s party has 15. If either bolts a coalition of the right, Netanyahu will need to call new elections.

According to Gorenberg, Netanyahu is desperate to get out of this box by forming a “national unity” government including the ex-Likud “centrists” of Kadima, along with Labor–now headed again, ironically, by Ehud Barak–that will not only bypass the intra-right-wing fights over economic and cultural parties, but could help insulate Bibi from international and particularly U.S. hostility to his foot-dragging over peace talks.
It doesn’t look like this will happen, but the contrast between Barak in 1999 and Netanyahu ten years later is fascinating. Barak wanted a broader coalition to take audacious steps towards peace-with-security. Bibi wants a broader coalition to maintain the status quo.
Read Dispatches From the War Room if you want to see the differences between these two models of leadership.

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