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Political Pivot in Israel?

Interviewee: David Makovsky, Director, Project on the Middle East Peace Process, Washington Institute for Near East Policy
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
January 30, 2013

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In the wake of the January 22 Israeli parliamentary elections, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is seeking the largest coalition government he can secure, says expert David Makovsky, because "the biggest government means no one faction can hold him by the throat." He says that U.S. officials were pleased by the surge of votes toward the center and the likelihood that newspaper columnist and radio host Yair Lapid is destined to play a major role in the new government. "There will be more moderate people in the government who happen to have positions on peace that would certainly be preferable to a right-wing government," Makovsky says. Outside of the elections, he says that Israelis are also increasingly concerned about developments in Syria, particularly the fate of Syria's chemical weapons, which they do not want to see fall into the hands of Hezbollah or other anti-Israeli elements.

The Israeli elections are now about a week old, but the maneuvering to form a new government has just begun. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Netanyahu expressed great concern about Syria's chemical weapons falling into the wrong hands. Is this something we have to take seriously, or is this just a distraction?

Israel has tried to stay out of the Syria situation for a variety of reasons. It's not because Israelis are not appalled by the slaughter, but they're fearful that if they openly side with the opposition, it will be a bear hug. Secondly, the Israelis are very nervous about reports of jihadis in the opposition. They see the choice as between bad and worse. They want President Bashar al-Assad to go, but they don't have confidence in who he'll be replaced by. Israelis believe they cannot influence the shape of the outcome in Syria and they are focused on the worst-case scenario, which is that there could be proliferation of chemical weaponry or a transfer of them to Hezbollah. They are also concerned that the loss of a centralized state in Syria could mean weak borders that could easily be infiltrated.

Let's talk about the elections. Almost every expert predicted a major victory for Netanyahu and his colleagues. Instead, we've had a surge of votes in the center. How do you think this new government is going to turn out?

"The good news from the U.S. perspective is that the slide to the right seems to have halted."

The good news from the U.S. perspective is that the slide to the right seems to have halted. The surge of the economic center is very good news for Israel. In the United States and Europe, the axis points have always been defined by economic issues; in Israel, the axis points have been defined by territorial issues. For instance, if you want to give up the West Bank, you're to the left; if you don't, you're more to the right. What we are seeing is perhaps the beginning of a hybrid system in Israel--that some of the public wants Israel to become a normal Western country and they want the focus in elections to be more on economic issues. The surprise winner in this election, the columnist and talk show host Yair Lapid, is a charismatic Israeli whose father, Tommy, was also a columnist who went into politics.

Where was Yair Lapid's popularity?

"Many people think that because the Middle East is so tumultuous, its inhabitants are turning inward because they feel they can make an impact domestically, if not in the region."

He won north Tel Aviv, and some very solid middle-class and upper-class suburbs in the Tel Aviv area as well. The votes for him reflect the view held by many Israelis who are impatient with the old system and would like to see a center that has some basis in the socioeconomic strata of the country. You've got Shelly Yachimovich's Labor Party, which was the party under David Ben Gurion, Yitzhak Rabin, and Shimon Peres. They all focused on foreign policy. Yachimovich campaigned much more on income inequality, on the economic differences in society. Azhkenazi voters and Jews of European origin used to solidly vote Labor, but now they are really split and Lapid has capitalized on this. Tel Aviv wants a normal, Western existence. Lapid captured that sentiment, just as he captured the sentiment of Israelis thinking that it's unfair that the Ultra Orthodox do not have to serve in the military, and that they need to enlist militarily, or at least in some sort of civilian services. He tapped into something. Lapid doesn't have the sharp elbows that his dad had, is more inclusive in his tone, and even has some religious people on his party list. Many people think that because the Middle East is so tumultuous, its inhabitants are turning inward because they feel they can make an impact domestically, if not in the region.

People have been speculating what kind of position Lapid would get in the new Netanyahu government. Do you think he's likely to become the new foreign minister, or would he likely take over one of the domestic jobs?

It's hard to know right now because we're at a fork in the road. The month of February will have a lot of ups and downs in terms of the shape of the new government. At the core are Netanyahu and Lapid. That's fifty votes: thirty-one Netanyahu, nineteen Lapid. You need sixty-one to govern. So the question is, what is going to be the agenda? Is the agenda going to be focused on greater peace efforts? Ironically, the new government might bring in more Ultra-Orthodox who won't focus on peace issues as long as they get money for their schools and subsidies for their kids. Or perhaps the issue going to be the Ultra Orthodox burden-sharing, some sort of compulsory civilian service to match the three years' cumpulsory military service for men above the age of eighteen, two years' service for women.

Do you think Netanyahu wants a very large coalition, representing many factions?

I think Netanyahu wants the biggest government he can get, because the biggest government means no one faction can hold him by the throat. In the United States, the president can afford to be unpopular for a while because he only faces the voter every four years. In the Knesset, the government faces a no-confidence vote every single week. The magic number for a government to surive is sixty-one votes. You always want a wider government because you don't want any party to blackmail you and pull you down. So that Netanyahu would love to get the Ultra Orthodox in--he would even like to get Livni in--focusing on the Palestinian peace. He would like to get Neftali Bennett, who has a lot of former Netanyahu voters and has moved to the right of Netanyahu by securing many settler voters. Bennett was once Netanyahu's chief of staff, who left him to set up his own party. But I think Netanyahu wants Bennett inside his coalition; he wants the Ultra Orthodox inside, he wants Livni inside, Mofaz inside.

What would that add up to?

"In Israel, the period between the election and the formation of the government is most critical because that's when policy is really set."

Netanyahu has to figure that instead of just having sixty-one seats, he could have anywhere up to eighty-eight seats. But he must resolve the conflicts between the people in his coalition. Number one is Lapid versus the Ultra Orthodox. The Ultra Orthodox have been part of Netanyahu's loyal base since he started politics. And he's taken great pains not to offend them. But Lapid says he can't join a government with the Ultra Orthodox unless they join the army or some sort of civilian service. In Israel, the period between the election and the formation of the government is most critical because that's when policy is really set. That's why Netanyahu is going to try to be the mediator between Lapid and the Ultra Orthodox and say, "I want you both inside the tent; what's it going to take?" Is there a formula that would reconcile the contradictory pulls of these two different parties so he can put them both inside the tent? That's the biggest knot to untie.

The other knot for him to untie is the conflict between Bennett, the head of this Jewish Home Party, who says that he wants to annex 60 percent of the West Bank, and former foreign minister Livni, who says that Israel will be judged by the world on how we handle the Palestinian issue. She got only six seats. Bennett got twelve. Bibi would like to get them both in the tent. He might say to Bennett, "Look, there will be no land given back to the Palestinians unless there's a national referendum." That might be a way to untie that second knot, to get Livny and Bennett in. It will be interesting.

If Bibi could untie both knots and get them under his tent, that would be his preference. There's no doubt that Lapid is a moderate guy, and he'd rather have a moderate guy as Israel's face to the world than Avigdor Lieberman.

What's Washington's view of all this?

Washington is relieved by the emergence of this center with Lapid, which means there will be more moderate people in the government who happen to have positions on peace that would certainly be preferable to a right- wing government. Clearly they wouldn't want Bennett to hold the balance of power. If it's just Netanyahu, Lapid and Bennett, that gets you only sixty-two. Then, any day of the week at the drop of a hat, Bennett can say, "I'm leaving." So there's a relief in Washington that these moderate forces were voted in, even though they were voted in more for reasons having to do with economics and cultural issues, and fear of the [ascendant] Ultra Orthodox.

Do you think Obama has to do more? A lot of people have been saying he has to visit Israel.

Obama's big mistake was in 2009, when he went to Cairo and skipped Israel. [During his first term], he did not connect on a gut level with the Israeli public. Bill Clinton was very successful with the Israelis because he did a three-fold identification with Israel. He identified with Israel's past, it's historic connection to the land; he identified with Israel's future, it's aspirations to peace and security; and he identified with its present, that the Middle East is a tough neighborhood and he sought to minimize the risks living in that tough neighborhood. Obama and others can learn from that Clinton gold standard on how to connect directly. I think Obama feels that he's done a lot of things on security that he thinks are unappreciated by the Jewish people. Even though he got 69 percent of the American Jewish vote, that has not translated in Israel. There's no gratitude there for things he's done on security--it's been overshadowed by his tensions with Netanyahu. But to be fair to Obama, when the Gaza crisis arose in November 2012, there was no one who was more helpful to Israel than the president of the United States. That that tells me that he's not into score settling, he would like to have a good relationship with Netanyahu, he would like Netanyahu to have a good relationship with him, and 2013 will be the year that they will be tested more than any before--not by each other, but by the diplomacy with Iran and whether that yields a breakthrough. This is going to be an important year for these two leaders to manage their differences for the sake of the greater good.

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