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Unsettled Times in Israel

Interviewee: Elliott Abrams, Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR.org
July 18, 2012

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Israel's coalition government is collapsing and its leaders remain concerned about U.S. policies toward Syria and Iran. CFR Middle East expert Elliott Abrams calls it an unsettled time in the country. In the wake of the Kadima Party quitting the coalition with Likud over the issue of ultra-Orthodox serving in the military or national service, there could be new elections in Israel as early as next January, he says. In many ways, Israel is "watching and waiting" to see who wins the U.S. presidential election before dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and other issues, says Abrams, though it's possible that Israel could decide that in Iran, "the window is closing fast and they really need to make a decision to act even before the U.S. election."

What was the mood like in Israel on your latest trip?

On foreign policy matters, I'd describe them as almost wistful in wishing the United States would take a greater role in Syria and with respect to Iran's uranium nuclear program. It was wistful in the sense that the United States has so much more power than the Israelis, yet we don't seem to be willing to use it, either with regard to Iran or Syria. When I was there a couple of weeks ago there was not much being said about domestic policy issues, but that has heated up recently.

Yes, the new coalition government is in the midst of collapse.

There are two big issues. One is the old question of social and economic equity, which led to some big demonstrations last summer. This summer had been quieter until an individual actually immolated himself in a protest last weekend [July 14]. Now the question is whether that will spur large demonstrations again, or [if] that is going to be seen as the act of a disturbed man.

The other question is the so called Tal Law--the law that exempts ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students from military service, or alternative service. The Israeli High Court said it must be changed by the end of July, and there [had] been a dispute between Shaul Mofaz--the leader of the Kadima Party, who recently joined in a coalition government with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud Party.

What are the differences?

When Mofaz led Kadima into the coalition, the main issue he said needed fast action was the exemption given almost all ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students from military service. The majority of Israelis, and certainly the majority of Kadima voters, see this as unfair: Why should these young men not carry part of the burden of defending the state? The debate is over the number or percentage of ultra-Orthodox young men who are not required to serve. Mofaz, as a former IDF [Israeli Defense Forces] chief of staff, feels strongly about this. Netanyahu probably agrees with him, but Netanyahu needs the support of the religious parties--and they do not agree. Efforts to hammer out a Mofaz-Netanyahu deal have failed, so Mofaz seems to feel he had no choice; he felt Bibi made him a promise and did not keep it.

What does the collapse of the coalition government mean for Israel's political future? Will there be an early election?

The withdrawal of Kadima from the coalition does will not bring down the government, which still has a majority. But it probably means that elections, which were expected in the fall of 2013, will come sooner; there is talk of elections in January or February. It probably also hurts the reputations of both Shaul Mofaz and Benjamin Netanyahu, who could not make the coalition work, and it makes Netanyahu more reliant on the support of the religious parties. A January election only gives Mofaz seven months as the leader of Kadima to strengthen its poor results in opinion polls.

What's still missing is a strong alternative candidate who can beat Netanyahu next year. Polls over the last few months have always had him winning re-election against all comers. I doubt that will change.

Israeli leaders are asking: "What is the United States doing? Why do we seem to be sitting on our hands? Why are we making speeches about Syria but not providing any leadership?"

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was just in Israel for the first time in two years. Would Israel like to see American military forces involved somehow in Syria?

No, what they would like to see is an end of the Syrian crisis. It's been dragging on for some fifteen months, in the Israeli view, partly because the United States has failed to do much. President Obama called for the departure of President Bashar al-Assad as long ago as the summer of 2011, but we did not follow it up with the required kind of action--for example, arming and financing the Syrian opposition--that might have led to the regime's downfall. So it drags on and drags on, which has an impact on Turkey and on Lebanon, and on Jordan.

Israeli leaders are asking: "What is the United States doing? Why do we seem to be sitting on our hands? Why are we making speeches about Syria but not providing any leadership?" For many years they've been happy with the stability in Syria under the Assad regime, because the Golan Heights border between Israel and Syria was quiet. They now see the border as unstable.

They are not anxious to hit Iran, but there's a view in Israel that at a certain point the window closes and they will have to make that decision. The $64 million question may be: What is that point?

In their view, if the United States had provided leadership, the Saudis, the Qataris, the Turks--all of whom want the Syrian regime to fall--would've joined with us in more support for the opposition. Each of these countries is providing some support, [but] what you don't have is a concerted effort to get rid of Assad. The Israeli view is that only the United States could have led such an effort, that we should have done so and should be doing so now.

The $64 million question still remains: What is Israel going to do about Iran's nuclear program? Is Israel more anxious now about Iran, or are they still willing to let this diplomatic track continue?

They are not more anxious. They are almost resigned to the situation in which they find themselves. I believe they're not prepared to see Iran develop a nuclear weapon. They know that the United States and the Security Council and the IAEA have all said they are opposed to it and that it would be unacceptable. They're not sure whether we mean it. The Israelis would like to postpone having to make a decision as long as possible, on the off chance that the diplomatic track reinforced by sanctions will work, or on the off chance that the United States would at some point strike the Iranian nuclear program. They know the United States has far more power that it can bring to bear than they do. Also they're going to suffer from any Iranian counter-attack, particularly if they lead the strike instead of the United States.

So they are not anxious to hit Iran, but there's a view in Israel that at a certain point, the window closes, and they will have to make that decision. The $64 million question may be: What is that point? A year ago, people were saying, "It's the summer of 2012." It isn't clear to me when that window closes.

No country follows the American elections more closely than Israel. What is their view of Romney? Do they know him well?

You're certainly right that they're following the election closely. I was asked by most people I spoke with, "What is happening? Who's going to win? What will a reelected Obama's Middle East policy be? What would Romney's Middle East policies be?" They don't know Romney well; he isn't someone who, for example, has been a senator for twenty years and has been in touch with Israeli officials through that period. So they have a million questions. And, as you know, polling data suggests that President Obama is not very popular in Israel.

What is striking in talking to Israelis, and for that matter in talking to Arab diplomats, is that they do want to talk about Syria, and Iran, and Egypt, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict doesn't arise, or arises only very late in the conversation.

What about the Israeli-Palestinian dialogue, which was featured as a major Obama initiative in 2009?

What is striking is that we have been discussing Syria and Iran, not the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and what is striking in talking to Israelis--and for that matter in talking to Arab diplomats--is that they do want to talk about Syria, and Iran, and Egypt, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict doesn't arise, or arises only very late in the conversation.

Secretary Clinton's visit was her first to Israel and the West Bank in two years, which is remarkable. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice visited Israel as national security adviser or secretary of state more than twenty times. Some of her predecessors also made numerous trips to the region, so it's striking that Secretary Clinton has not. I don't say that critically. It seems to me to reflect the policy [of] George Mitchell, later Dennis Ross, [who] were the lead diplomats on that conflict, and partly a judgment on her part that it wasn't moving anywhere, that she would be wasting time and that she needed to address other world problems. Most people in Israel would agree that the Israeli-Palestinian situation is not going to change until after the U.S. elections and the elaboration of a policy by President Obama or President Romney.

I guess Israelis are in a watch-and-wait mode over the U.S. elections.

Israelis and Palestinians, with respect to the Israeli-Palestinian situation, are in a watch-and- wait situation. There isn't really anything the Israelis can do about Syria, so they are watching the Americans, the Turks, the Arabs. When it comes to Egypt and Sinai, the Israelis are actually doing one significant thing; they are building a very elaborate security fence separating Israel from Sinai, in an effort to prevent both illegal immigration and smuggling on the one hand, and to prevent terrorist attacks on the other. And they are trying to prevent any kind of confrontation with Egyptian security officials. So when it comes to Egypt, though they're generally watching to see what the new Morsi government will do. On security in Sinai, they are able to act on their own and are doing so. And when it comes to Iran, the Israelis are indeed watching and waiting, unless they reach the conclusion that the window is closing fast and they really need to make a decision to act even before the U.S. election. I think that's still possible.

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