It's not an easy time for someone in the wide center of Israeli politics.
The area at issue is fuzzy, with a shifting collection of political parties, party factions, and individuals. At its greatest, it includes much of the Knesset delegations of Likud, Labor (i.e., Zionist Union), and the parties led by Yair Lapid and Moshe Kahlon, as well as Avigdor Lieberman when he is expressing himself as a responsible Minister of Defense.
This is not the same as the governing parties, which are tilted more to the right with Jewish Home, and the ultra-Orthodox Torah Judaism plus SHAS concerned about goodies for their congregations.
Till now, the centrist groups not in the government have been kept dormant by the skill of Benyamin Netanyahu, whose shrill language has made the right wing happy, while his moderate behavior has frustrated their craziest dreams of finally solving the problems with Palestine, entirely according to Jewish whims.
Tension is increasing along with daily drips of information about details of the Netanyahu family's maneuvers for personal or political gain. So far we're lacking signs of connection between gifts in exchange for governmental decisions, but the value of gifts has reached the point of wide spread wonder about how many cigars, bottles of champagne, or how much expensive jewelry the first family requires.. There is judicial precedent for seeing gifts to officials of the value being described as improper in their own right, even if not clearly tied to the issue of bribery. Other shenanigans with respect to what we hear about the Prime Minister's efforts to manipulate the media, and the efforts of aides and relatives to gain personal benefits also give Israelis pause.
A recent polls shows close to 60 percent of Israelis saying that it's time for Bibi to go. A cartoon in Ha'aretz shows him smoking a cigar, eating an inexpensive meal of humus, pita and salad with the Finance Minister, and telling the Finance Minister to put it in the government budget.
Israeli law requires a government official to resign in the event of an indictment, except for the Prime Minister. That office holder is protected against too easy an ouster by a requirement to resign only when found guilty.. Israeli judicial procedures can eat up a decade, or more than the life spans of two Knessets (elections required after a maximum of four years). Yet a Prime Minister under indictment may carry too heavy a burden to remain effective, and party rivals can force a resignation.
We're hearing of maneuvers among key politicians for who'll take charge after Netanyahu. It's like planning for a funeral before doctor has declared a death.
Among the worries is an increase in the noise from the messianic right. Its most prominent element is Jewish Home, led by the ambitious Neftali Bennett with the wildness of MK Bezalel Smotrich, who first came to wide notice with a racist demand that Jewish women should have the option of refusing to room with Arab women in maternity wards. He's now advocating legislation that would give the Knesset the opportunity to overrule decisions of the Supreme Court, and joins with Bennett and other party members in supporting annexation of some or all of the West Bank, with artful ways of not including additional Arab citizens in Israel.
Jewish Home has shown a capacity to excite Likud voters, and to press Likud MKs to join their calls in behalf of seeing all the Land of Israel (or at least that version of the muddied concept West of the Jordan River) as properly Jewish.
The intellectual fluff of their claim rests on what God is said to have promised as recorded in the Hebrew Bible, without noting that there are several competing definitions of the Promised Land in Holy Text, and that a lot has changed since relevant documents were received from the Lord by Moses on Mt Sinai, or composed by numerous hands some hundreds of years before the Common Era, depending on one's views of theology or history.
A favorite argument of the religious-nationalist right is that the Palestinians are an artificial people, self-created only in the most recent century or half-century. That may be true, but all national groups are creations in process. Americans are not the people I lived with in the first half of my life, and the British are deciding about no longer being European. No one can be sure about the origins of the Jews, who are still quarreling about the propriety of individual conversions.
Against the madness of Palestinians, Jews have a good argument about a significant presence here from perhaps a thousand years before the Common Era, and that Jerusalem was the religious and governmental center of a Judaic regime.
Much has happened in the two thousand years since then, giving Arabs/Palestinians some rights of a holy place and settlement in Jerusalem and elsewhere hereabouts, without recognizing their assertions that they were the prime sufferers from the wars of 1948 and 1967.
Just as the events of the 1940s, 1967 and subsequently can't be undone as demanded by Palestinians, so it seems unlikely that Israeli rightists can get away with undoing the patterns of Arab/Palestinian settlement where they currently exist.
For outsiders not familiar with Jewish nuances, it's important to note that the messianic right does not include the ultra-Orthodox. For the most part, they have avoided signing on to any element of Zionism, except for demanding financial support and the right to be otherwise left alone where they are. The demands of their political parties are heavily weighted toward assuring benefits for their schools and housing, discounts on taxation and water bills due to large families, plus exclusion from the military draft. They enjoy opportunities to live in crowded towns created for them just over the 1967 lines, without joining the Orthodox assertions about formally absorbing the Land of Israel into the State of Israel.
An irony in this time of increased worry is that tweets of Donald Trump may offer the way through the immediate present. He opposes the mantra of Obama et al that Israeli settlements are the key obstacle to peace, but urges Israel to avoid extensions of the settlements.
With Trump, however, it isn't clear what he means, and what he may do about it.
Lots of Israelis can live with a situation where it is possible to build more housing within established settlements and Jerusalem, without expanding the outer borders of West Bank settlements.
Speculation is that Netanyahu passed a message to Trump asking him to express himself as he did, in order to help Bibi with Jewish Home and right wing Likudniks.
If that's true, it's yet another indication of Bibi's duplicity for the sake of moderation.
Observers can curse or cheer.
Getting through this period of Netanyahu's fading and the maneuvering of messianic rightists to decide on his successor also depends on reasonable behavior from Palestinians. A significant increase in attacks on individuals, or a dramatic incident like blowing up a bus or coffee house is likely to bring about a tough response from the IDF. If things escalate as duringg the Second Intifada, there'll be a worsening of opportunities to reach any accord on what is then the territorial status quo.
Among our worries is that Trump's accommodation with the status quo may escalate support for him among Israeli Jews, while American Jews firm up their Liberal Democratic loyalties by shrill opposition to what he says, tweets, and does.
We'll hope for the best, without expecting it.
Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem
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