Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Israeli Elections 3: "Who Gets It?"

Last night I listened to former member of Knesset Einat Wilf speak about the upcoming Israeli elections (March 17) at the Kol Shofar synagogue in Marin County (San Francisco Area).  These elections are about "Who gets it?" she said. 

Wilf is an accomplished scholar and speaker, and she did not disappoint. She achieved the rank of lieutenant in the Israeli Intelligence Unit 8200, which attracts many of the best and brightest young Israelis. She also served as a foreign policy advisor to Shimon Peres. Today, she is an adjunct fellow at the pro-Israel think-tank Washington Center for Near East Policy.  Her talk was entitled: “Israel’s Future: An Insider’s Analysis of the Upcoming Israeli Elections."

Israeli elections are not really so frequent, she said.  The average duration between elections is 46 months.  In this case, it will have been less than 26 months since the last election.  This has not happened since 1963, she said, when Ben Gurion resigned in a contest with Levi Eshkol over the Levon affair. 

Here is Wilf's assessment of the upcoming elections. This is today, she cautioned, making no promises about how her opinion might change in this fast moving election: 

Netanyahu-Likud:  Netanyahu offers no plan. There is no solution he feels. But this tracks with what most Israelis think. “Reality is about the threat posed by Islamic terrorism and the fact that Israel lives in a ‘rough neighborhood,’" says Netanyahu.  Critics accuse him of trading in fear, that these are distractions, and that there are more pressing problems like the economy, corruption, and the lack of housing. But Netanyahu points to his past predictions to support his case that he "gets it."  Wilf says that she accompanied Netanyahu to Paris in 2011 to discuss the Arab Spring with prominent newspaper editors.  This was when euphoria and hope ran high. Netanyahu was very pessimistic. "The Arab Spring will collapse," he said. "It will bring to the fore Muslim extremists, it will result in a security crisis." The editors could not get him to say anything positive.  Four years later, Netanyahu says “See, I was right. I get it." 

Naftali Bennett—Jewish Home Party:  He’s the “man with the plan,” says Wilf. Bennet says “I get it, there cannot be a Palestinian state. It would be too dangerous. Israel will never support such a state." His solution is to Annex Area C (60% of the West Bank including the Jordan river valley), granting citizenship to the ~300,000 Palestinians (?) living there, and granting autonomous status to Areas A and B and the Palestinians living there, with Israel maintaining overall security control.

Avigdor Lieberman—Yisrael Beiteinu Party: He was in many ways the architect of this election, says Wilf. He blocked every path that might have avoided it.  Lieberman says he “gets it,” that what is needed is a regional peace plan. With Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf states all very concerned about the threat of rising Islamic extremism there is an opportunity to work with them to achieve a common goal of regional stability, to make peace with them, and to jointly impose a solution on the Palestinians. He has positioned himself to the left of Likud and says he is prepared to make substantial concessions to achieve such a plan.  

Isaac Herzog/Tzipi Livni—Labor-Hatnua: They call themselves the “Zionist Camp." They have no plan. It's less than two months before the election and it’s not clear if they will campaign on domestic or foreign policy issues.  Their main message is they are not Netanyahu. They imply they “get it” that Netanyahu is not liked, Israel is being isolated internationally, and its legitimacy questioned, and that Netanyahu is part of the problem.  They claim that they would be viewed more favorably by the international community and the world would cut them more slack. More slack for what, one might ask.

Yair Lapid—Yesh Atid:  They are focused on economic domestic issues like the cost of living, housing, and the economy. 

Wilf did not mention any of the Arab parties, but the question was raised whether Jews and Arabs can coexist in the land of Israel?  

Israel's president Reuven Rivlin presents a vision of coexistence, says Wilf. He wants to embody it as a possibility, even something desirable.  The obstacles are partly psychological.  She shared what an Arab colleague told her: “Jews are a numerical majority in Israel, but in their minds they are a minority, still victims; Palestinian citizens of Israel, by contrast, are a minority, but in their minds they are a majority.”  It causes problems. Arab Israeli citizens, says Wilf, perceive their minority status as a humiliating experience, and they react in two ways. On the one hand there is the feeling that the situation is good enough, and Arab Israelis should focus on making the most of it, get a fair share, and integrate into the society--the Jewish state. On the other hand, Arab Israelis have the feeling that they can never truly integrate while the state is a Jewish state, with Jewish national and religious symbols, and Jewish immigration, and no Palestinian immigration, let alone equality and full respect. The Jewish majority reacts very negatively to these demands for equality that threaten Israel as a Jewish state, says Wilf.  "These demands are not negotiable."

She discussed the Nation State Bill:  “It’s no big deal. These things are like motherhood and apple pie. It’s banal. If you are for a Jewish State, then of course you are for all these things," she said. As I have described here, I believe she is profoundly mistaken about that.


Wilf vividly described some of the challenges to co-existence. Palestinians who found themselves citizens of this country they did not want must come to terms with it somehow.  That is true, but I'm not sure she "gets it."  Palestinians will never be able to come to terms with their Israeli citizenship as long as their status in Israel is that of second class citizens. Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza will never be able to come to terms with Israel as long as they are under military occupation and blockade.

Netanyahu says there is no solution. Bennet's solution is relegating Palestinian Israeli citizens to permanent second class status, and condemning Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza to permanent military occupation. Herzog and Livni call themselves the "Zionist camp" and have no plan. Lieberman wants to cede majority Arab towns in northern Israel to a future Palestinian state, and offer Palestinian Israelis in Haifa and Jaffa economic incentives to give up their Israeli citizenship and move to the Palestinian state--where they can presumably look forward to living under permanent Israeli military rule. 

No one is talking about a commitment to equal rights for Palestinian citizens, no one is talking about ending the occupation, no one is talking about ending settlement expansion, no one is talking about how to form a Palestinian state, no one is talking about Gaza. It does not appear that anyone "gets it." 



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