Rumblings on the center right

Moves are afoot to build a new center-right bloc united around a single goal – ousting Netanyahu as prime minister.

Yisrael Beytenu MK Avigdor Liberman ‏ (photo credit: KOBI ZOLTAK)
Yisrael Beytenu MK Avigdor Liberman ‏
(photo credit: KOBI ZOLTAK)
IN LATE February, Yair Lapid and Avigdor Liberman dramatically summoned the Israeli media to the Knesset to lambast the Netanyahu government’s foreign policy failings.
Lapid, the centrist Yesh Atid leader, and Liberman, the far-right Yisrael Beytenu boss, had both been senior members of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s previous administration. Now in opposition, under the banner of “fighting for Israel’s international standing,” they painted a bleak picture of ongoing diplomatic ineptitude and impending international isolation. Netanyahu, they charged, was “systematically destroying all Israel’s foreign policy achievements.” “Our international standing – in all the years of our existence since 1948 – has never been as bad,” Lapid declared.
Both men aimed their barbs directly at Netanyahu, who is also the foreign minister.
“The foreign ministry is nobody’s private property, not even the Netanyahu family’s,” Liberman bellowed in a broad swipe aimed both at Netanyahu’s multiple portfolios and his wife Sara’s reputed involvement in her husband’s most sensitive political and diplomatic appointments and decision-making.
The personal assault on Netanyahu was no accident. The sudden, out of the blue Lapid-Liberman alliance is part of wider behind-the-scenes moves to build a new center-right bloc united around a single goal: forcing new elections and ousting Netanyahu as prime minister. The attack on his handling of foreign policy was just the opening salvo.
The alliance serves both Liberman and Lapid’s more immediate goals. By association, Liberman confers on Lapid a healthy dose of the right-wing aura he has been trying so hard to cultivate; Lapid gives Liberman mainstream respectability.
The wider aim though is to bring in other players – for example Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu party, Likudnik-at-large Gideon Sa’ar and former chief of staff Gabi Ashkenazi – to form an impressive center-right bloc capable of cutting deeply into the Likud vote and winning the next election. The biggest hurdle will be agreeing on a leader.
Political machinations aside, the Lapid-Liberman critique raises the question of just how precarious Israel’s international situation is. Critics argue that Israel is headed for a foreign policy crash leaving it isolated in the face of mounting pressure to move on the Palestinian track; Netanyahu counters that countries from all over the world are beating a path to Israel’s door and that the scope and quality of its foreign ties have never been better.
The argument came to a head in a major Knesset debate in early March, a week after the Lapid-Liberman joint media conference.
Lapid collected the signatures of 40 Knesset members to force the plenum to discuss the proposition that “the continuous erosion of Israel’s international standing poses a real threat to its national security.”
Opening the debate, Lapid argued that Israeli power is based on a combination of military capabilities and strategic alliances; for example, the Dimona reactor would not have been possible without the French; state-of-the-art Dolphin submarines came from Germany, and aircraft, anti-missile defenses and other key military hardware from partnership with the US. But, he asserted, under Netanyahu all Israel’s key strategic alliances have been seriously undermined.
In addition, Lapid continued, Israel is facing a host of challenges resulting from other diplomatic failures: Russian arms to Iran, EU labelling of Israeli goods manufactured in the West Bank and the growing menace of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, BDS.
The government’s response, he said, is self-contradictory. On the one hand, it puts all international criticism down to anti-Semitism; on the other, it argues that there is no problem and that Israel’s international situation has never been better.
Part of the problem, Lapid maintains, is the Netanyahu government’s dysfunctional handling of foreign policy. Foreign ministry work is divided among six ministers and PR conducted by five different ministries.
Worse, it does not seem to have a policy on the Palestinian issue that can be explained. In all his meetings with foreign ministers, top diplomats and other officials, Lapid says he is invariably asked the same question, “What is Israel’s policy?” Where are we [Israel] going?” “What do we want to happen?” Although he makes many of the same points, Zionist Union opposition leader Yitzhak Herzog has been deliberately left out of the new center-right calculus. It makes it easier for Lapid, Liberman and co.
to challenge Likud for the right-wing vote if they can mark Herzog and the Zionist Union as “the left,” and everything to the right of it as bona fide right.
In the debate, Herzog expounded on the argument that Israel has no effective PR because the Netanyahu government has no Palestinian policy to speak of. The result of its do-nothing approach, he maintained, would be an eventual single Arab majority state with Israel losing either its Jewish or its democratic character. “We need a policy that stops the slide to one Arab-Jewish state, restores security, gives hope and can be explained.
This would restore Israel’s international standing and deliver BDS a knockout blow,” he declared.
In reply to his critics, Netanyahu delivered an upbeat tour d’horizon on the status of Israel’s foreign relations worldwide.
Some of the highlights: • Of the 193 UN member states, Israel has full diplomatic relations with 161; and with several of the remaining 32, many of them Arab or Muslim states, there are significant covert ties.
• Far from being isolated, Netanyahu insists that Israel is much sought after – for two main reasons: its military/intelligence prowess and its cutting-edge technology.
Many countries that fear radical Islam are keen to share Israel’s intelligence and operational experience; Israel also has much to offer in advanced cyber, medical, energy, water, agriculture and industrial technologies.
• Innovative Israeli out-of-the-box thinking has enabled a great leap forward over the past few years in relations with the Asian giants, China, India and Japan. Israel is also making diplomatic inroads in Africa, where it is partnering with Germany in agricultural, water management, food security and health assistance to Kenya, Ghana and Ethiopia.
• After Russia’s reentry through the Syrian backdoor as a major regional player, Netanyahu claims to have opened an ongoing dialogue with Moscow. He says he speaks to Russian President Vladimir Putin every few weeks and has set up a coordinating mechanism between the Russian military in Syria and the IDF to prevent accidents or misunderstandings.
• Despite the strains with the Obama administration and all the talk of BDS on American campuses, the favorable opinion of Israel among the American people is actually growing. A February Gallup poll showed that in 2015, 71 percent of Americans held a favorable view of Israel; the figure when Netanyahu came to power in 2009 was just 63 percent. (Asked whether they supported Israel or the Palestinians, the result was 62-15 percent in Israel’s favor; among Americans of college-going age, Israel was also well ahead by 54-23 percent.) • Netanyahu claims a growing number of countries in the region recognize that their enemy is not Israel, and that it is on the same side as they are in the fight against Iran and ISIS. There is in this huge potential for a transformation of political realities in the region, he insists.
• Netanyahu quoted a global survey by Pennsylvania University’s Wharton School that rated Israel as the 8th most powerful country in the world. He neglected to quote the grade he and his government got for leadership – 2.7 out of 10; by way of comparison, Germany’s Angela Merkel scored 9.1 and the Obama administration 10.
Both Netanyahu and his critics make valid points. Netanyahu’s glowing account of Israel’s extensive international ties and the critics’ warning of impending pressure are not mutually exclusive. Israel does have good working relations with most of the world – but it also faces the prospect of concerted international pressure to move on the Palestinian track.
The question is what strategic lessons are drawn from this ambivalent situation. The opposition argues that Israel should exploit favorable international and regional conditions to move on the Palestinian track with maximum Israeli input before key international players try to ram a far worse deal down its throat; the government holds that Israel is strong enough internationally as is, without a deal, and, because of what it offers in military prowess and innovative hi-tech, will be able to fend off international pressure to make one indefinitely.
Pressure on Israel, however, is likely to mount in the run-up to the UN General Assembly session in September, especially in light of the French initiative for an international conference in the summer to kickstart Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. And that pressure will only intensify in 2017, the year that will mark 50 years of Israeli occupation. The lack of a clear Israeli policy by a government blinded by the positive aspects of Israeli power and international relations could be seriously damaging to Israel’s overall strategic interests.
This is partly why talk of replacing Netanyahu – seen to be in thrall to the more radical elements in Likud and the national religious movement – is gathering pace.
The idea is to create a big center-right bloc that can bring over right-wing votes to the center and so defeat Likud, much the same way as Kadima did in 2006, when it won 28 Knesset seats to Likud’s 12. The second “big bang” in Israeli politics would be similar to the first – creating a pragmatic center-right capable of winning enough of the right-wing vote to gain power and then, theoretically, move toward a two-state accommodation with the Palestinians.
However, compared to the Kadima model, there are several problems. Kadima had an agreed leader in Ariel Sharon, with an agreed policy of separation from the Palestinians.
The budding new center-right alignment has neither.
Polls consistently show that two-thirds of Israelis would like to see Netanyahu ousted. But for that to happen the center right would have to produce a leader with obvious prime ministerial gravitas, someone, with strong security credentials, who can convince the voting public that Netanyahu is not irreplaceable.
For now, it not even clear that the center- rightists will be able to coalesce around an agreed candidate. Most of the names being bandied about in the center-right context, Lapid, Liberman, Kahlon, Sa’ar and Ashkenazi, have prime ministerial aspirations and would be loath to defer to anyone else. Moreover, it is not clear that if they came to power they would follow a twostate policy. Herzog is the only self-styled centrist leader pressing separation from the Palestinians as a central policy tenet. And he is not in the center-right frame.
What is clear is that Israel’s international standing is evolving for better and for worse.
It may still be in a relatively good place, despite the occupation, but it could be in a much better place without it. And, if the occupation continues, it could find itself, sooner rather than later, facing the diplomatic tsunami its critics have long been predicting.