Political Dysfunctionality and Electoral Chaos: Isi Leibler, Jerusalem Post, Jan. 9, 2019— Setting aside the Gaza confrontations, 2018 was one of Israel’s best years since the establishment of the state.
The ‘New Bibi’ Lashes Out As Israel’s AG Continues to Dilly-Dally: Vivian Bercovici, National Post, Jan. 9, 2019— It was all very suspenseful.
Why are There so Many Parties, and is There Anything Wrong with That?: Israel Democracy Institute, Times of Israel, Jan. 27, 2019 — Why does Israel have so many political parties — and what’s wrong with that?
Heads of State vs. Ministers of Defense: Maj. Gen. (res.) Gershon Hacohen, BESA, Jan. 17, 2019— The recent resignations of Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman and US Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis shed light on the age-old professional tension between heads of state…
On Topic Links
Your Guide to the Obscenely Complicated World of Israeli Elections: Tristin Hopper, National Post, Jan. 23, 2019
Key Document on Bezeq Could Clear Netanyahu in Case 4,000: Israel Hayom, Jan. 25, 2019
Remembering Moshe Arens: David M. Weinberg, Jerusalem Post, Jan. 10, 2019
POLITICAL DYSFUNCTIONALITY AND ELECTORAL CHAOS
Jerusalem Post, Jan. 9, 2019
Setting aside the Gaza confrontations, 2018 was one of Israel’s best years since the establishment of the state. President Donald Trump’s administration has become the most Israel-friendly US government in history, appointing pro-Israeli officials in the administration, reinstating sanctions on Iran, championing Israel’s cause at the UN by stating the truth for the first time, recognizing Jerusalem as the capital, terminating funding for fictitious UNESCO refugees, demanding an end to payment of Palestinian Authority-sponsored financial incentives to terrorists and their families, and rejecting the Palestinian demand for the right of return of five million “refugees.” In short, a stark reversal from Obama, who appeased the Iranians while treating Israel almost like a rogue state.
But now storm clouds are gathering and we face serious new and intensified threats. We are at a loss to anticipate where Trump is heading after his precipitous and totally unexpected decision to withdraw US forces from Syria. Although the precise scope of the withdrawal has been qualified in recent days, Trump’s allies now fear that with the Russians effectively controlling the region, it will be a boon for the Iranians.
The IDF is probably at its highest level of preparedness and claims it would ably defeat an attack from all its adversaries, but concedes we would face heavy civilian casualties from missiles. We cannot become complacent and should remind ourselves of the disastrous events preceding the Yom Kippur War exacerbated by our hubris and note that the IDF Ombudsman warned of weaknesses on the ground and the need for additional supplies.
Notwithstanding deployment of Russian anti-aircraft missiles, the Israel Air Force is continuing its sorties in Syria while the Iranians remain engaged in preparing for a war to destroy us. In addition, Israel continues to face intensified terror from Hamas on the Gaza border. Israel is also concerned at the recent signs indicating that Russia has downgraded the warm relationship hitherto displayed by Putin. While there is military coordination of sorts still prevailing with the Russians, it is a highly fragile relationship which could easily break down.
In the context of these new threats, the burden of leadership falls primarily on our prime minister, who, aside from holding four ministerial portfolios, is diverted virtually every day by police interrogations and the imminent announcement by Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit poised to indict him for corruption. Yet, despite the immense pressure, he remains in control and is effectively the only person capable of making the necessary decisions that could determine war.
At times like this, the focus of the government should be to concentrate on the current security threats. Alas, in lieu of this we have been thrust into an election season where most politicians are bent on seeking votes rather than serving the national interest. What a contrast today to the personalities of yesteryear, like that of recently deceased Moshe Arens, a man of unquestioned integrity and political stature, a diplomat and leader who was utterly dedicated to the national interest.
Despite being more powerful militarily than we have ever been, it is the height of irresponsibility to be engaged in self-seeking electoral issues at a critical time when we should be uniting. We remain saddled with a proportional preference system, which may be the most democratic, but gives disproportionate power to smaller parties, enabling them to hold the balance of power and extort the majority for its own sectoral objectives.
We are in a period of political chaos. With the total collapse of Labor following Avi Gabbay’s ousting of his partner Tzipi Livni, there is no coherent mainstream opposition party. Ministers Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked defected from Bayit Yehudi to form a new party, and individuals like Benny Gantz decided to join the political fray and create yet another new party (Israel Resilience), but as of now have disclosed no policy beyond claiming to be centrist.
However, on the crucial issue of security and foreign affairs, if in government the centrist parties would undoubtedly promote the path supported by the vast majority of Israelis who believe that the goal should be to separate ourselves from the Palestinians – if we could achieve this and still retain security. They would emphatically oppose the creation of another terrorist state on our borders which would serve as a launching pad for the Iranians against us. Until that happens, the consensus is that the status quo must be maintained until the emergence of a Palestinian leadership willing to accept our existence and co-exist peacefully.
This approach, given minor nuances, is that of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The current prediction is that, despite his bitter personal adversaries and the demonizing media, Netanyahu will be reelected prime minister. Of course, with the present confusing proliferation of small parties and the impending indictment there is always the risk that opposition parties will merge and form a non-Likud government. There is also a genuine chance that many mandates of the Right shall be lost by votes cast for parties not passing the minimal electoral threshold.
However, on the assumption that Netanyahu does form the next government, it will likely be his final term. If he were to publicly announce this, it would be admired by the entire nation. He should then appoint ministers capable of fulfilling the vital jobs to enable him to concentrate exclusively on his role as prime minister.
Then he should approach the opposition and invite those willing to join a national unity government to deal with security issues and relations with the Palestinians. It should be noted that Menachem Begin despite his perpetual venomous relationship with the Labor Party, managed such a move before the Six Day War. Today, one could only dream that most opposition leaders – aside from the Arab Joint List and probably Meretz – could set aside their short-term personal and political ambitions and come to a consensus in supporting the government in relation to security issues and foreign affairs. Whatever his failings, few could deny that for the immediate future there is nobody who would be remotely as effective as Netanyahu in leading the nation at these levels.
In the highly unlikely event that such an arrangement could be achieved with the leading opposition parties, Israelis may begin to respect their political leaders, contrary to what is currently the case when most of them are despised as selfish opportunists rather than lawmakers concerned with the national interest. Aside from creating a sense of real unity in the nation, it will also have a major positive impact on Diaspora Jews who would be incentivized to support the State of Israel rather than identifying with partisan political groups.
It could also have a constructive influence on the many nations which currently distance themselves or oppose us. Alas, the probability of this becoming a reality is slim because most politicians are more concerned with their short-term personal ambitions. The likely outcome is that Netanyahu will be reelected, but there are many unpredictable factors that could deny voters their preference. Sadly, the next government is likely, once more, to be dominated by small parties led by egotistical individuals pursuing their own partisan self-serving interests, often at the expense of the national interest.
THE ‘NEW BIBI’ LASHES OUT AS ISRAEL’S
AG CONTINUES TO DILLY-DALLY
National Post, Jan. 9, 2019
It was all very suspenseful. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu let it be known…that he would be making a “dramatic” statement. Live. From his official residence in Jerusalem. The hour of the main nightly newscast in Israel.
As anticipated and choreographed, the television stations beamed up Bibi to allow the public to hear the urgent statement directly. Just over a month ago, Netanyahu resorted to the same high-tension tactic to announce the destruction of Hezbollah tunnels from Lebanon into northern Israel. A serious matter, to be sure, but. Commandeering the airwaves on an urgent basis for anything other than the most serious circumstances — like the outbreak of war — is problematic and ill-advised.
This is the new Bibi. Some say the “panicked” Bibi. For almost three years now the PM has soldiered on as the police have investigated multiple corruption allegations involving him and other close associates. Among those who have turned state witness, presumably proffering evidence against Netanyahu, are three former senior aides who worked in his office.
Several months ago, the police handed the investigation files over to the attorney general, Avichai Mandelblit, with a recommendation that the prime minister be indicted. And there the matter sits, as Mandelblit ponders: “To indict or not to indict?” The process requires that the police investigate and recommend to the AG whether or not to indict. The most senior prosecutors then review the evidence and recommendation to determine whether to further the process and hold a hearing, which must conclude before a final criminal charge is laid.
Last week Netanyahu lashed out, questioning the integrity of the most senior law-enforcement institutions in Israel. “For years now, left-wing protesters and media have levelled thuggish, inhumane pressure at the attorney general to get him to file an indictment against me at any cost,” he said, ”even when there’s nothing there. This pressure is now reaching a climax. They’re trying to force the attorney general to brazenly intervene in the elections by ordering me to a hearing, despite knowing that it won’t be possible to conclude the hearing process by election day. It’s unconscionable to start a hearing process before elections that can’t be concluded by the elections.”
These comments and others by fellow Likudniks have earned public rebukes from Mandelblit and the chief prosecutor for questioning the integrity of the justice system and irresponsibly undermining public trust in the professionalism of senior public officers. “Such utterances seek to harm the deepest foundations of the rule of law,” Mandelblit warned, adding: “They are irresponsible.” Wildly so. As is this unseemly and ongoing public brawl engaging such high office holders.
Netanyahu has become an increasingly polarizing leader in Israel, enjoying unwavering loyalty from his political base — comprised largely of Israeli Jews from North Africa and Middle Eastern countries. They are hardline on security and resentful of the historical control of all aspects of national and cultural life, including the media, by Jews of Eastern European descent, who tend to be more liberal.
As the polls bear out, the Likud base believes Netanyahu, whom they revere as “King Bibi.” The resolute, tough Bibi who came out swinging on TV Monday night is their guy. Under Israeli law, in circumstances where there is doubt regarding the credibility of certain evidence, the accuser and accused may meet in the presence of police, before indictment, in order to facilitate discussion and allow law enforcement to more carefully assess the evidence.
In his prime time Monday-night statement, Netanyahu blasted the police for refusing his requests that they exercise this discretion and arrange such meetings. “During the investigations, I demanded a confrontation with the state’s witnesses,” Netanyahu stated. “I wanted to look them in the eyes and show them the truth. I asked twice and was rejected.”
At the outset of his remarks, Netanyahu was careful to acknowledge the critical importance of an independent judiciary and law-enforcement function in a democracy, but also reminded the public that no branch of government is immune from criticism. And he pulled no punches in directly attacking the competence of the police and other law-enforcement personnel. “What do they have to be afraid of? What are they hiding? I am not afraid. I do not have anything to hide. Therefore, tonight, I repeat my demand for a confrontation with state’s witnesses. I am certain that I am right.”
It’s a bizarre spectacle. The prime minister at once taunting and deriding the law-enforcement establishment while professing respect for this independent function of democracy.
Whether Netanyahu is guilty or innocent, a central issue that is deeply disturbing is why Mandelblit continues to sit on his brief and indulge his Hamlet-like tendencies. Once he received the police recommendations it was his duty to act swiftly and decisively and either dismiss the matter for lack of sufficient evidence or indict the prime minister. His indecision has been grossly unfair to the prime minister and the nation. Indeed, his review must be done painstakingly, but he’s been waiting for those files for years now, and has been sitting on them for several months. If the matter is so egregious and urgent, one wonders, why the dilly-dallying?
WHY ARE THERE SO MANY PARTIES,
AND IS THERE ANYTHING WRONG WITH THAT?
Israel Democracy Institute
Times of Israel, Jan. 27, 2019
Why does Israel have so many political parties — and what’s wrong with that? Israeli society is extremely diverse, with multiple political divisions that run along ideological, ethnic and religious fault lines. Israel also has an extreme proportional system of government, which grants representation in the Knesset to any party that clears a 3.25% threshold in general elections that take place in a single, nationwide district.
The result of these two factors is political fragmentation. On the one hand, this is a good thing because minorities in Israel are adequately represented in parliament. However, representation comes at a price in terms of political stability and good governance. In order to form a coalition in Israel, the prospective ruling party has to attain a majority of at least 61 seats out of the 120 seats in the Knesset. Because of the proliferation of political parties, this task is impossible without cobbling together an alliance of several smaller parties.
In the last elections, held in 2015, ten electoral slates (representing 16 political parties) passed the electoral threshold and made it into the Knesset. The largest party (Likud) won a mere 30 seats — a quarter of the seats in the parliament and less than half the majority needed to form a coalition. It took Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seven weeks to form a coalition — made up of 21 ministers coming from six parties, each of which has its own worldview, constituency and demands. This fragmentation has been typical of election results of the last several decades. As a consequence, Israeli prime ministers worry constantly about political stability, and sometimes cater more to the demands of small sectoral parties than to the national interest.
“The current system grants small parties disproportionate power, leads to excessive preoccupation with coalition management, does not provide strong incentives for creating an effective opposition, and leads to the allocation of over-sized budgets to sectoral interests,” says Prof. Gideon Rahat, Senior Fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute. His solution? “We need to create a system of incentives which will solidify the political system into two main blocs. The task of forming the next government should be given to the head of the largest faction. This will encourage politicians to forge alliances before the elections, and will encourage citizens to cast their vote for the largest electoral list.”
HEADS OF STATE VS. MINISTERS OF DEFENSE
Maj. Gen. (res.) Gershon Hacohen
BESA, Jan. 17, 2019
The recent resignations of Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman and US Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis shed light on the age-old professional tension between heads of state, who are charged with running a country’s national affairs, and their defense ministers, who are tasked with overseeing national security.
From time immemorial, the successful conduct of wars has been considered the ultimate test of kings and kingdoms. The tribes of Israel, when demanding a monarchy, asked the prophet Samuel for “a king like all other nations, who will lead us to battle and enable us to fight our wars.” It is true that even warlike monarchs, like King David, were assisted by able military commanders. But from the point of view of ordinary people, it was always the monarch to whom they looked for deliverance from wars and their horrendous consequences. This primordial yearning for heroic leadership to save the day in stark moments remains as abiding as ever in the modern nation state.
The recent British movie Darkest Hour, which articulated Winston Churchill’s heroic leadership at the gravest moment in Britain’s modern history, aroused tacit yearnings for leadership of similar stature. As long as security affairs run their normal course, entrusting them to an appointed minister does not cause complications. But in times of grave national crisis that require fateful decisions, public hopes and expectations are pinned on the head of state. At such critical junctures, when prime ministers and presidents take matters into their own hands, defense ministers often find themselves steamrolled, their views ignored.
In the US, the issue is less problematic given the president’s position as Commander-in-Chief, operating directly vis-à-vis arena commanders within a well-defined chain of command. But in Israel it is the government, not the prime minister, which is Commander-in-Chief. This not only constrains the PM’s ability to conduct wars but also raises questions about the true role of the minister of defense, who enjoys no superiority over fellow ministers in the war cabinet (or security cabinet, as it is known in Israel). Are ministers of defense guardians of security affairs during routine times alone, only to surrender their powers and responsibilities at critical moments?
To be sure, this dilemma exists even in the well-regulated US system, where at key moments secretaries of defense may find themselves stripped of the influence they would have expected to wield. There have, of course, been influential defense secretaries, such as Robert McNamara and Donald Rumsfeld, who had a huge impact on the Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq wars. But this was due to the deep mutual trust they enjoyed with their respective presidents. The moment these factors weaken and the president sees matters in different light, the secretary’s resignation is often a foregone conclusion.
Aware as they are of this inherent tension, Israeli prime ministers, from David Ben-Gurion and Levi Eshkol to Yitzhak Rabin and Ehud Barak, have preferred to serve concurrently as defense ministers. Indeed, the separation of the two functions can become highly problematic, not only at times of war but also in situations where the prime minister is trying to uphold a strategic outlook on key issues that is best kept undisclosed. Were the PM forced to act in full coordination with a defense minister of a fundamentally different outlook or political agenda, this hidden strategic logic might be exposed, to the detriment of the national interest.
This was probably the dilemma confronting PM Netanyahu when he decided to avoid an all-out confrontation with Hamas in the summer and autumn of 2018 against the view of his seemingly more belligerent minister of defense. Some seventy years ago, at the height of Israel’s War of Independence, PM and defense minister Ben-Gurion found himself in a similar situation when deciding to forego the capture of East Jerusalem. In such circumstances, it is preferable for the national leader to serve concurrently as minister of defense.
On Topic Links
Your Guide to the Obscenely Complicated World of Israeli Elections: Tristin Hopper, National Post, Jan. 23, 2019—In 2015, Canadians complained about having to endure a two-month federal election. Right now, Israelis are in the midst of an election campaign that will last more than three months and feature the usual dizzying array of new parties, new splinter factions and new alliances.
Key Document on Bezeq Could Clear Netanyahu in Case 4,000: Israel Hayom, Jan. 25, 2019—A newly unearthed document could undermine a key premise in Case 4,000, a corruption case in which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is considered a suspect.
Israeli Arabs Seek to Turn Netanyahu’s Controversial ‘in Droves’ Comment From 2015 Election Against Him in Next Vote: Algemeiner, Jan. 22, 2019—Israel’s Arab lawmakers plan to commandeer Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s claim in the last election that Arabs were heading to the polls “in droves” to encourage their own voters in April’s election.
Remembering Moshe Arens: David M. Weinberg, Jerusalem Post, Jan. 10, 2019—In the course of working on my master’s thesis in 1999, I had opportunity to interview Yitzhak Shamir and Moshe Arens regarding Israel’s decision not to retaliate against Iraq during the First Gulf War. I also had the privilege of knowing Arens, who passed away this week, through the security think tank I ran for 25 years at Bar-Ilan University. (Arens served on the institute’s board and spoke at many of our conferences).