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Why Jewish Home is making a splash – although Bibi is home and dry

Above, Naftali Bennett, head of the Jewish Home party, speaks in Ashdod, December 2012. Bennett was born in 1972, the son of American immigrants. After his military service in the Sayeret Matkal and Maglan special ops units he co-founded software company “Cyota”, sold in 2005 for $145,000,000. After working as Netanyahu’s chief of staff 2006-2008, he was appointed Director General of the settlements’ representative body, the Yesha Council (2010-12). Photo by Ariel Schalit/AP.

Israel’s Worst Nightmare

By Mitchell Plitnick, Souciant
January 04, 2013

The current Israeli election season has been surprisingly eventful. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu jump-started the process by joining forces with ex-Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s party. So far, it hasn’t worked. The kindest polls show the Likud-Yisrael Beitenu combo losing at least seven seats from what it has now. Say what?

Lieberman himself seemed to have dodged indictment, until his own deputy, Danny Ayalon, whom Lieberman had pushed out of the party, hinted that he might give the police more information about Lieberman’s misdeeds, leaving his ex-boss with too many legal problems to stay in government for now. Tzipi Livni made headlines by forming a new party, but isn’t gathering anything close to the support she expected, while Labor leader Shelly Yachimovich resolutely refused to rule out sitting in a government headed by Netanyahu until she flipped like a pancake and resolutely said she would never sit in a Bibigov.

However, the biggest story has been the rise of Naftali Bennett and the HaBayit HaYehudi (Jewish Home) party. This party, which currently holds three seats in the Knesset, is rocketing into a central position in Israeli politics and current polls indicate it will end up with between 14 and 17 seats, making it the third biggest party in the next Knesset. Many observers believe that Bennett is assuming the mantle of the “Face of the New Right.” There’s good reason to believe this is correct.

The party itself is a recasting of the National Religious Party. Yet Bennett himself, though religious, is far from a fundamentalist fanatic. He wears a kippah, but it’s not a prominent feature for him. He’s a businessman who made his money designing software. And he speaks very much like a pragmatist, not someone primarily motivated by his faith. His opposition to a two-state solution is based on typical Israeli security fears and interests, not a religious imperative to hold on to the entirety of Greater Israel.

Bennett’s appeal is based in large part on his image as a non-political politician. He comes across as honest and sincere in his beliefs, a stark contrast to the cynical manner of Netanyahu, Livni and Yachimovich. And Bennett is the clearest example of how Israeli politics are disconnecting themselves from the US, European Union, Palestinian Authority, and the Arab League, who continue to try to resuscitate a dead and decaying Oslo peace process.

Bennett made his splash when he presented what he calls “The Israeli Stability Initiative.” Under this plan, Israel would annex the part of the West Bank designated Area C, which is under full Israeli control, and allow limited Palestinian autonomy in Areas A and B. Israel would have full security control in all of the West Bank, but it would also eliminate the system of checkpoints, ostensibly allowing Palestinians to travel freely in the West Bank. Bennett believes this, along with granting citizenship to the 50,000 Palestinians in Area C, will deflect the charge of an apartheid system of Israeli control.

It’s highly unlikely that he’s right about that, not least because the arrangement he envisions is certainly still apartheid, as all West Bank Palestinians will be under ultimate Israeli control, autonomy or not, without the same rights and privileges as Israeli citizens. But Bennett may well be right about Israel’s ability to annex Area C. He points out that Israel has already incorporated annexed land in East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights and, while the world doesn’t “accept it,” it has nonetheless been reality for decades. All he’s recommending is adding Area C to “the list.”

Bennett is also refreshingly honest when he explains why Israel cannot agree to a two-state plan. In a video breaking down his Stability Initiative, he explains his security and demography concerns and then points out that the aquifers in the West Bank account for “50% of Israel’s water supply.” Water has always been one of the issues that are listed as “to be discussed.” It has never been seriously considered in any of the formulations of a two-state solution. This is not an issue that can be minimized; Israel-Palestine is a water-poor area, as is all of the Middle East. Water cannot be taken for granted there as it can be in most of Europe and the United States.

Any viable Palestinian state that can even maintain a pretense of independence, would, by definition have to control its water supply. This means a severe reduction in the amount of water that would be available to Israel. Israelis may not use water quite as freely as most Americans, but they do use it considerably more freely than most people in the Arab world. Palestinians, by contrast, face severe rationing of the water supply, which is entirely controlled by Israel. The average Israeli consumes four times as much water per day than the average Palestinian, who consumes considerably less than the World Health Organization recommends.

Rather than ignore this reality, as Israeli leaders across the political spectrum have almost always done, Bennett is quite clear about it. He realizes that Israel has no intention of cutting its water supply in half. So do Netanyahu, Livni, Yachimovich, Lieberman, Yair Lapid, Ehud Olmert, Ehud Barak and every other Israeli leader, past and present. The difference is that Bennett has no compunction about saying so.

The problems with Bennett’s plan are obvious. Palestinians living in the West Bank are no more likely to accept a situation of Israeli domination of their lives today than they have been for the past 45 years. Nor is an increase of Israeli refusal to address the refugee issue likely to encourage Palestinians in exile to simply accept their fate and integrate into their host countries, even if those host countries were suddenly eager to pursue such integration. Bennett’s plan to maintain and increase the Israel Defense Forces’ security responsibilities for all of the West Bank (implying that Israel would no longer subcontract such services out to the Palestinian Authority, or at least would diminish the PA security role) is a recipe for increased confrontation and conflict.

There are other issues, but ultimately, the problems with his plan are not the point. The point is that Bennett’s star is rising precisely because he is addressing the question of what is to be done now that the Oslo process has clearly failed. Bennett is offering Israel a vision of a better state of affairs. As he says, he doesn’t claim that his plan is a solution, but only that it is a significant improvement on the status quo.

Bennett envisions a future where Gaza is Egypt’s problem, where Israelis can continue to convince themselves that they are not practicing apartheid, where they can assuage their feelings about occupation by removing all checkpoints and permitting Palestinian travel throughout the West Bank, and where they get all of this without sacrificing key security concerns or half their water supply. Bennett also proposes measures to improve the Palestinians’ economic status, with the idea that this will help foster Palestinian acquiescence.

All of this comes together to create a post-two-state vision that can be sold in Israel. And, while this is certainly not going to be acceptable at the White House or in Europe, let alone in Arab capitals, it is likely that, given time, such a plan could get majority support in Congress and in enough influential spaces in other Western states that Israel could go forward with it.

Back in 1967, Deputy Prime Minister Yigal Allon proposed a partial annexation of the West Bank, with the rest being returned to Jordan. The plan was completely outside the political consensus of the day, both within Israel (which was far too drunk with victory to consider giving back any territory) and outside (where it was expected that Israel would withdraw from all the territories it captured in the war, with perhaps some change in the status of Jerusalem). But the plan never really went away; it morphed with the advent of new ideas and new political realities. In many ways, the route of the Separation Barrier, the borders Ehud Barak proposed to Yasir Arafat at Camp David, Bennett’s plan, and the various other maps that have been proposed over the years, are all the descendants of the Allon Plan.

However, where other proposed maps moved from the Allon Plan toward some semblance of a Palestinian state, Bennett’s changes direction and moves away from it. And, like Allon’s proposal, it may well live for a long time to change and mature as diplomacy and other circumstances shape it. This is the tragedy that progressives on this issue still refuse to grapple with: it is the right, not the left, which is bringing into the political arena the proposals for where to go out of the ashes of Oslo.

Whether the proposal is for one state, two states, three states or no states, until and unless the diplomatic and political arenas give up the idea that somehow the abject failure that is Oslo can somehow be revived, people like Naftali Bennett are going to be blazing the new trail. Leftists can fantasize about Israel being forced into accepting a solution to this conflict, but there is no reason to believe that this will ever happen. It would, in fact, be historically unprecedented for allies to use that level of coercion against one of their own. Centrists can hope Israel will listen to reason, but why would we believe this will happen now, when more moderate governments would not do so?

Without diplomatic alternatives, we are leaving it to Israel to decide where things go from here. As Israel tilts toward the right, it is particularly concerning when a leader like Bennett – one who is committed, apparently honest, charismatic and who is willing to take on the questions others are not – is the one charting the course.

Bennett is neither a blatant racist like Avigdor Lieberman, an elitist oligarch like Netanyahu, or a cynical politician like Tzipi Livni. He is a straightforward nationalist who puts his cards on the table with the tag line from his video presentation: “Doing what is good for Israel.” Whether one agrees with Bennett’s idea of what’s good for Israel or not, his implied intention to pursue Israeli interests without a care for what the rest of the world thinks is going to appeal to many Israelis.

That’s why Bennett and HaBayit HaYehudi are rising so fast. And it’s likely to continue, especially since Bennett, at least at this stage, looks a lot less vulnerable than Lieberman, or even leaders like Netanyahu and Ehud Olmert, who have had to overcome their share of scandals.

The rest of us have a choice: continue to cling to the failures of the past, or come up with our own superior visions of the future. Some have already done the latter, with various new proposals, mostly for bi-national or single, democratic states, but also with federated or updated two-state plans.

None of these visions is likely to be politicized in Israel, though. Nevertheless, they’ll need to find their way into political discourse somewhere – the US, Europe, the Palestinian Territories or the United Nations. Otherwise, the future will be ceded to the Naftali Bennetts of the world. It’s hard to imagine a fate worse than that. It is also, unfortunately, hard to imagine Bennett not succeeding, either.

Why Israelis Will Vote For Bibi

By Gil Troy, Daily Beast
January 02, 2013

Given the relentless mainstream media onslaught demonizing Bibi Netanyahu—and “Bibi’s Israel”—as anti-peace, anti-democratic, anti-women, and downright “suicidal” and dangerous, many Americans and especially many American Jews are dismayed to see Netanyahu’s consistent lead in the public opinion polls. “How can Israelis vote for that man?” one friend asked. “Bibi’s Israel is not my Israel,” another one said. Beyond my allergy to defining any complex, dynamic, contradictory, democratic country by any one individual, it is worth exploring Netanyahu’s continuing dominance of Israeli politics. I will not vote for Benjamin Netanyahu, especially since his Likud party overlooked Avigdor Lieberman’s legal troubles and moral turpitude in creating Likud-Beteinu. But I understand why many Israelis will vote for Netanyahu, including many who, according to a recent poll, endorse a two-state solution. Ultimately, in a world of difficult choices wherein politics is the art of the possible, Bibi is the status quo king, the politician delivering that which appears attainable.

A vote for Bibi is not a Herzlian dream-infused vote. It is not a Jabotinskyite moral statement. And it is not a Peresian leap of faith. It is a sigh-filled, world-weary vote. It is a best-of-bad-alternatives vote. It is a things-could-be-a-lot-worse defensive vote. And it is a post-traumatic-stress vote, a vote encouraged by the Palestinian political culture of demonization, Hamas calls for Israel’s extermination, Iran’s threatening rush toward nuclearization, world public opinion’s enabling of delegitimization, and the growing progressive chorus of repudiation.

In the 1980s, Garry Trudeau’s Doonesbury offered a tour of Ronald Reagan’s brain. The cartoon reporter Roland Hedley III discovered an overactive “hypothalamus, the deep dark coils of human aggression,” “many” frayed nerves in “the left hemisphere of Reagan’s cerebrum, traditionally …the home of logic, analysis and critical thinking,” and “The Fornix, Reagan’s memory vault, storehouse of images of an idyllic America. With 5 cent Cokes, Burma Shave signs, and hard-working White people.” A similar tour of the Bibi Voters’ brains would not find such an overactive hypothalamus, which regulates basic bodily functions including appetite, thirst and sleep—these voters have a reasonable, natural, appetite for quiet, a thirst for normalcy, and are willing to sleepwalk through some of the knottiest problems facing them. They have some frayed nerves in the left hemisphere of the cerebrum and in the Medulla Oblongata which controls automatic functions, instincts. They fear big, bold peace-making moves, and are running on instinct because they feel burned by their neighbors and the world. And that is because their Fornix, their memory vault, is a storehouse of images of past oppression and more recent aggression, with Ashkenazi memories of European anti-Semitism culminating in the Holocaust, and Sephardi memories of the dhimmi status and periodic riots that were a natural part of life under Islamic rule, culminating in the Great Expulsion of nearly one million Jewish refugees from Arab lands. These long-term Jewish memories mix with more recent, short-term Israeli memories of Yasir Arafat turning from negotiations back to terror, and Israeli peacemaking attempts from Oslo to the Gaza withdrawal yielding waves of suicide bombers and salvos of Qassam rocket fire—within Israel’s internationally accepted “Green line” borders, not just in the disputed territories.

Bibi Netanyahu’s bid for re-election rests with these voters on three solid foundations. First, he is one of the key architects of Israel’s current economic prosperity—and impressive stability when the American economy crashed in 2008. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon saddled Netanyahu with the Treasury Ministry, knowing that if the economy tanked, Bibi would be blamed, yet if the economy soared, there would be enough credit to go around for Sharon and Netanyahu. The social protests showed that the privatization plan Bibi implemented needs tweaking, and most Israelis want a more humane, equitable, economic and social order. But most Israelis are enjoying a level of consumption that seemed inconceivable just twenty years ago. Few are willing to give up their cars or their computers to return to the sourpuss semi-socialism that preceded Israel’s emergences as the world’s miraculous Start-up Nation.

The stability Bibi delivered economically and even socially—the protests were peaceful and constructive, no threat to the mass Israeli shopping spree—has been paralleled politically and militarily. Even many Bibi critics who would never vote for him admire his handiwork during the recent Gaza conflagration with Hamas. Unlike Ehud Olmert, a bolder but more irresponsible gambler who wagered on two limited wars and a sweeping peace offer, Bibi played the Gaza conflict cautiously. The result was a subtle triumph: Israel degraded Hamas’s weaponry, tunnels, and military infrastructure dramatically without getting mired in a mess with no exit strategy. Bibi played it cool, and showed that Israelis do not always win the military battles but lose the diplomatic skirmishes afterwards.

Yes, stability easily becomes stasis, then stagnation. But while most critics are prognosticating pessimistically and prematurely declaring the two-state solution doomed, Bibi voters appreciate the quiet after the traumas of 2000 to 2005. Most can support both a two-state solution and Bibi because they believe in enjoying some quiet in order to progress on the Palestinian question. If in the future a Palestinian state emerges, Bibi’s period will be seen as an essential transition phase, a time when even the right-wing prime minister normalized talking about a two-state solution, and, conditions on the ground stabilized, the political spectrum narrowed, while the consensus around leaving the Palestinians to run their own affairs built slowly, gradually, admittedly reluctantly, but possibly inexorably.

The Netanyahu voter is also grading Bibi on a curve. Bibi may be called “Empty” among Israeli politics’ Seven Dwarves, 2013, for not living up to his rhetoric and promises. But that might beat: Avi(gdor Lieberman), who is “Sleazy” – enough said; Shelly (Yachimovich), who is “Naieve-y” for dilly-dallying before articulating Labor’s foreign policy, as if Israel does not live in a tough neighborhood; Naftali (Bennett), who is “Smoothy,” for luring young secular voters into his national religious camp; Eli (Yishai), who is “Greedy” for defining Shas most as a grabby stipend-demanding machine; Tzippi (Livni), who is “Flighty” for abruptly resigning from politics and as abruptly returning; and Yair-i (Lapid), who is “Happy” although possibly a tad dopey, both celebrity pol and son-of-even-greater-celebrity pol.

So, yes, I wish Bibi voters developed their Occipital Lobes more—which control vision, because we need more faith, hope and long-term strategy. And I wish Bibi voters stimulated their Corpus Callosum, the neural bridge connecting the two hemispheres, because we need less polarization and more unity. But I understand—what may be the key word in understanding Israel’s Election 2013—their shikulim—their balances, their considerations. In a complicated world, in a hostile region, sticking with the guy who has already delivered more than three years of stability and relative quiet may be the most logical, reasonable, reassuring and ultimately radical, peace-making, epoch-changing step to take.

Israel’s shift to the right will alienate those it needs most

Ahead of the Israeli elections, ultra-ultra-nationalists are surging in the polls. But diaspora Jews might recoil from their views

Jonathan Freedland, Comment is free, Guardian
January 04, 2012

In a week when the dead number 60,000 in Syria – a figure considered an underestimate by the UN body that produced it – it can seem like displacement activity to speak of any other topic in the region. It is Syria, surely, that matters most, a slaughter whose scale shames a world that does so little to stop it.

And yet there are other conflicts in the Middle East that cannot be ignored. Not one of the Arab-Israeli wars of 1948, 1956, 1967, 1973 or 1982 left a death toll of even half the current Syrian number, but Israel-Palestine still matters – to Israelis and Palestinians most of all, but also to the many millions around the world who feel bound up in their fate.

For now the focus is on the Israeli elections of 22 January. The polls suggest that a government ranked as one of the most rightwing in Israel’s history is set to be replaced by one even further to the right. Binyamin Netanyahu’s Likud – now merged with the party headed by his ultra-nationalist former foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman – is losing ground to the ultra-ultra-nationalist Jewish Home party. Even the more modest projections suggest Jewish Home will emerge as the third-largest party, one that Netanyahu will find very hard to exclude from his next coalition.

And what kind of outfit is Jewish Home? Take a look at its leader, Naftali Bennett, born of American parents and a champion of the West Bank settlers. He demands immediate annexation by Israel of 60% of the West Bank. In a 2010 TV debate he dismissed a Palestinian member of the Knesset in these terms: “When you were still climbing trees, we had a Jewish state here… We were here long before you.”

Even if Bennett is kept out of coalition, Netanyahu will still head a more rightist government. The Likud’s few remaining moderates were purged in recent internal elections, replaced by hardliners such as Moshe Feiglin. Here’s what he told a reporter from the New Yorker: “You can’t teach a monkey to speak and you can’t teach an Arab to be democratic. You’re dealing with a culture of thieves and robbers … The Arab destroys everything he touches.” Not for nothing was Feiglin banned from entry to the UK in 2008.

Yet far from being ostracised, such overt racists are set to gain new seats at Israel’s ruling table. The centre of gravity is about to shift so far rightward that Netanyahu and even Lieberman will look moderate by comparison. Why is this happening? The conventional explanation for recent rightwing electoral success has been a loss of faith by the Israeli public in the peace platform that once defined the left. The failure of the Camp David talks of 2000 and the response to the 2005 Israeli withdrawal from Gaza – a steady stream of Hamas rockets aimed at Israeli towns – discredited the very idea of land for peace. “We give them land, they give us war,” was the bitter Israeli joke and the public resolved long ago that it won’t be fooled again.

But that explanation does not fully account for the current lurch to what was once deemed the lunatic fringe. Instead, the blame can be shared evenly between the Israeli centre-left, Palestinian leaders and the international community. Ever since Yitzhak Rabin was murdered nearly 20 years ago, Israel’s centre-left has failed to advance a vision of a modern, democratic country – one that would properly acknowledge and integrate those Palestinians living within the pre-1967 borders and no longer run the lives of those Palestinians living outside them, in the occupied territories. The Israeli Labour party typifies the problem, currently led by someone who prefers not to discuss the Palestinian question at all, focusing on “domestic issues.” The centre-left created a vacuum and the nationalist right filled it.

As for the Palestinians, Daniel Levy, director for Middle East and North Africa at the European Council on Foreign Relations, suggests they have failed to play an ANC-style role, one that would “challenge the mainstream Israeli discourse”. President Mahmoud Abbas makes threats of diminishing credibility – to dismantle the Palestinian Authority, for example – while Hamas’s militancy succeeds only in closing Israeli ranks (even if its military wing has just taken the intriguing step of tweeting in Hebrew). Neither approach makes the Israeli public pause and think again. Meanwhile, the international community, administering only the rarest slap on the wrist, has made the status quo cost-free. Israeli voters can put Bennett or Feiglin into government without fearing any consequence. It’s 20 years since the US last imposed any real price on settlement activity, with Bush the elder’s threat to withdraw loan guarantees – a threat, incidentally, which prompted the Israeli electorate to eject the Likud and install Rabin as PM.

So we ought to brace ourselves for an ultra-right government, one divided between those pushing for immediate annexation and those who seek a less overt entrenchment of the status quo. The already moribund two-state solution will be all but buried.

But it’s a new year and we can’t afford to be downcast. There are two shafts of light to be spotted in this gloom. First, Levy welcomes what he believes will be a clarifying kind of polarisation: “The layers of camouflage will now be removed.” The right will be exposed, the moderate fig-leaves of the past stripped away. Meanwhile, the centre-left will include a greater number of robust liberals and genuine democrats, the ex-Likudniks of the now-defunct Kadima party having mostly departed. Instead of clustering around an artificial middle ground, Israeli politics will present a clear left-right choice.

Second is the impact of all this on the Jewish diaspora, especially in the US. The American Jewish attachment to Israel is profound, but US Jews also tend to be liberal with a strong sense of social justice. They will find Feiglin and Bennett hard to stomach. The Haaretz blogger who asked, “Will 2013 be the year American Jews secede from Israel?” may have got ahead of himself. Diaspora Jews will not break from Israel, but they will surely recoil from this one, albeit dominant, Israeli political camp. Feiglin’s Israel is not the Israel their parents taught them to love.

A shift is already visible, with pro-Israel columnists Tom Friedman andJeffrey Goldberg both calling on President Obama to go ahead and nominate Chuck Hagel – the former senator unafraid to criticise Israel – as defence secretary, arguing that it’s time Washington told Jerusalem a few home truths. [see Gung-ho militarists use antisemitic smear to block Obama’s choices]

That Haaretz writer rightly declared that “American support, anchored by US Jewry, is the strategic asset which makes all other strategic assets possible”. But that support has chiefly been for the ideal of a democratic, peace-seeking Israel. If Israelis vote for those who display contempt for both peace and democracy, for those set on the path of Israeli self-destruction, they will one day find that essential bedrock of support cracking beneath their feet.


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