Disarray in Israel’s ruling group

This is how Haaretz’s Uzi Benziman describes what’s been going on:

    June 2008 may be remembered as the month when the Israeli public’s patience with its leaders and their style of politics runs out, as citizens are currently witnessing the inner workings of the parties exposed for all to see. In the past, backroom dealings were kept secret, but now the politicians themselves are shedding light on their dark practices, and they are doing so with gusto, in a sort of unabashed striptease revealing all their deformities. Thus, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert informed the public that Defense Minister Ehud Barak allegedly imposed upon him to reach an agreement with Hamas [huh?? Interesting if true, though Benziman’s qualification of “allegedly” implies he doubts it… ~HC] over a calm in the Gaza Strip not because it was in the national interest, but because of the Labor leader’s political considerations.
    Members of the defense minister’s inner circle say in return that the prime minister allegedly reneged on an agreement regarding a prisoner swap for abducted Israel Defense Forces solders held by Hezbollah because of interests concerning the Kadima leader’s political survival.
    Furthermore, the prime minister said the defense minister is imposing his will on security establishment officials, which prompted the defense minister to claim that the prime minister’s policy is as stable as a seesaw. Neither take into consideration that they are using the fate of the three abducted soldiers as ammunition to fire charges against each other.
    Olmert’s pride prevents him from doing the honest thing of stepping down, even for a period of three months, and turned authority over to Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni until the police investigation against him clears up. His purely selfish interests, which are completely alien to the common good, have driven him to pull a maneuver that may lead to early elections.
    Had Olmert allowed Livni to take over, or given the green light for his party to hold an early primary election, then he may have boosted the chances of the current government coalition to continue, and averted a political crisis. But Olmert has his urges, and he would rather throw everything down the drain then have Livni, or anyone else from his party, take over from him.
    Say he manages to pull off a last-minute deal with Shas that keeps it in the coalition, or he succeeds in delaying the preliminary reading over the proposal to dissolve the Knesset – will he then have the right to make fateful decisions? Does he believe that a dubious deal with Shas promising the ultra-Orthodox party funds will endow him with the moral authority to conduct the nation’s affairs with Hamas, Hezbollah, the Palestinian Authority and Iran?
    Olmert’s public behavior these days are a repeat of his performance during the Second Lebanon War, which the public was not aware of in real time. Now like then, he lacks a cohesive opinion and is not displaying leadership. Also, his relationship with the defense establishment is problematic and, much like in July 2006, he does not trust his defense minister. Concerns about appearances are considerable factors in the prime minister’s decisions over returning abducted IDF soldiers Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev.
    Even if Olmert is trying to implement the recommendations of the Winograd Committee war probe, he is failing to implement its main requirement of his job: Confidence and assertiveness, two further reasons why he should step down.

I guess I hadn’t been paying attention to the continuing breakdown in the integrity an coherence of Israel’s ruling group. It must be incredibly hard for anyone who’s trying to negotiate with this chaotic government to figure out who they can rely on, or even who they should be dealing with.
One big concern. If this ruling system (I shall not say the two words “spider’s… web… “) is really this close to chaos, doesn’t that mean that these leaders’ motivation to spark a war or some other form of national emergency to distract attention from their own deep shortcomings as leaders, and even if it looks quite reckless or otherwise counter-productive, correspondingly grows?
Best precedent: Peres’s big, reckless, and quite counter-productive attacks against Lebanon in 1996. Also a precedent: Olmert’s ditto of 2006.
Recklessness in the present circumstances might take the form of launching an act of war against Iran that would have a very high probability of sparking retaliation against the United States’ very long and very vulnerable supply lines in Ira and the rest of the Gulf…
Or a big military assault against Gaza that would likely spark an explosion of anti-US actions throughout the Middle East…
Are people in the Bush administration worried about the political incoherence and instability in Israel’s current leadership? They should be.

19 thoughts on “Disarray in Israel’s ruling group”

  1. “Had Olmert… given the green light for his party to hold an early primary election”
    Which happened this morning, so Benziman’s ruminations may have been a bit premature.

  2. Israel cannot attack Iran without US approval since their planes would have to fly over US controlled airspace.
    The Iranians are well aware of this and would be quite justified in hitting back both at Israel and US forces in the region.
    I don’t think the American people are going to let Israel and its US fifth column get away with shedding still more American blood in their drive for Mideast hegemony

  3. I don’t think the American people are going to let Israel and its US fifth column get away with shedding still more American blood in their drive for Mideast hegemony.
    I don’t think the American people will see an Israeli attack on Iran as anything but “Israel defending itself” against a “grave and growing threat”. If Iran does what it has every right to do and strikes back at the United States it will be seen as an unwarranted attack by Iran on America, because, after all, “they hate us for our freedom” or some such thing.

  4. The U.S. doesn’t have the guts to stand up to Israel and tell it to stop its cruel oppression and starvation and killing of the Palestinians, and the rest of the world doesn’t have the guts to stand up to the U.S. and tell it what it thinks of the situation, so the occupation goes on, the attacks and reprisals go on, the killing goes on, and the suffering of the poor Palestinians goes on and on, just as it has for over fifty years now.
    The U.S. government, which portrays itself as the defender of the poor and helpless, is speechless when it comes to the Palestinians—except for calling them Muslim fanatics and killers of innocent Israelis. The reality, however, is that the Palestinians have been occupied and subjected to terrible oppression and tyranny for decades now, and when they strike back, the Israeli government cries out, “You see, they’re crazed terrorists! They don’t want peace! We have no partners for peace talks. These brutish Palestinians only understand force.” And overwhelming, ruthless force is what they get from Israel, with a ratio of 20 or 30 Palestinian “eyes” for every Israeli “eye,” and the cycle of blind revenge continues, while the Israelis claim it’s all the Palestinians’ fault.
    Now the Israelis have managed to divide the Palestinians and to set Fatah and Hamas against each other. Fatah is Arafat’s old organization, which controls the little Palestinian cities and enclaves in the West Bank, and Hamas is the more radical Islamic group that controls the Gaza Strip, virtually imprisoned by the Israelis. It suits the Israelis just fine that these two factions hate each other and fight each other, because that way they expend less energy on fighting the Israelis.
    Ted Rudow III,MA

  5. The U.S. doesn’t have the guts to stand up to Israel and tell it to stop its cruel oppression and starvation and killing of the Palestinians
    The U.S. doesn’t care. The overwhelming majority of the population has bought into the propaganda about poor, beleaguered victim-hero Israel just trying to defend itself against the primitive, hate-filled hordes that surround it, and American politicians just don’t care.

  6. There has been a curious incident some two days ago, when Sarkozy departed from Israel : a gunshot was heard which shortened the departure ceremony. The Israel authorities quickly asserted that nothing had threatened the life of either Sarkozy or the Israelians leaders accompanying him. The Israelian authorities have since declared that the cause of the gunshot was that an Israelian officer chose that moment to suiccide himself. Second this short report in the NYT, the officer in question was a druze. I’ve read this morning in one French newspapers that his family doesn’t believe that it can have been a suiccide. One has to wonder what succeeded exactly.

  7. The Times on line tells more on the conditions of the incident : the Druze officer was on a roof and a band was playing when the gunshots went off; this prevented the presidential couple from hearing the sounds of the guns. I find all this very suspicious. The family too, since they hired a lawyer.

  8. Hamas is no longer smuggling huge amounts of weapons into Gaza. It simply doesn’t need to. Since the Gaza pullout in 2005, more than 120 tons of explosives have made their way in; more than 1,000 machine guns, 32,000 Kalashnikovs, 4,000 RPG launchers, hundreds of rockets, dozens of anti-aircraft missiles, and several hundred mortar shells. These are astronomical quantities for a military organization which has only 11,000 people who can operate weapons.
    Today, weapon smuggling in Gaza is a professional, state-run business, sponsored largely by Iran. Tehran sees Hamas as a long-term investment – much like Hizbullah. The smuggling operation is a huge, well-oiled machine which cannot be stopped by a verbal agreement with Egypt.

  9. For Muslims, the challenge is to move from a worldview that sees all other religions and all non-Muslim people as inferior, Satanic, ignorant, and subject to Muslim conquest to one that coheres more closely with modern thinking, where religious hatred is increasingly relegated to the history books. The extent of Islamic terrorism, and the gulf between Islamic thinking on human rights and the norms of the original Declaration of Human Rights, justify concentration on Islamic intolerance as a special problem.

  10. Megan Spade – I find your comment very interesting. Just like the Israeli government, you have a very accurate count of weapons smuggled and numbers in the militia. Where do these numbers come from? Does someone count the weapons and munitions during the smuggling and send reports back to Israel? How do you know the relatio9nship with Iran? Perhaps it is the Iranian government that publishes its smuggling statistcs? Why does the counter not stop the shipments? Perhaps Hamas reports regularly to Israel. I certainly hope you are not relying on the same US and Israeli intelligence agencies that so accurately counted Saddam Hussien’s weapons of mass destruction before the invasion.

  11. Wow, you call this analysis?
    One big concern. If this ruling system (I shall not say the two words “spider’s… web… “) is really this close to chaos, doesn’t that mean that these leaders’ motivation to spark a war or some other form of national emergency to distract attention from their own deep shortcomings as leaders, and even if it looks quite reckless or otherwise counter-productive, correspondingly grows?
    Best precedent: Peres’s big, reckless, and quite counter-productive attacks against Lebanon in 1996. Also a precedent: Olmert’s ditto of 2006.
    What in Uri Benziman’s article even suggests this scenario? Let’s forget that, apparently, Olmert plans to use the exact opposite approach to maintain his position:
    And your “precendents”?
    In April 1996, Peres was ahead in the polls. He was winning the election. In July 2006, Olmert had a stable coalition and a solid majority in the Knesset. He was in a better position than any prime minister in years.

  12. Christiane, perhaps you’d like to share with us exactly what it is that you suspect?
    I think that the officer’s family is questioning that it was a suicide (which is normal for a family to do) and suggest that it was an accident. In any event, the pathalogical evidence seems to suggest that the wound was self-inflicted.

  13. Helena, a few points:
    First, with all due respect, and I believe that a great amount of respect is due, you really ought to know better. I’ve noticed that, from time to time, you interpret dissension or personality conflicts within the Israeli government (yes, I know, a more conventional term than “ruling group”) as a sign of impending anarchy. It might appear so to a neophyte in Israeli politics, but you are not that. You’ve been to Israel, you know many Israelis and are well informed on Israeli affairs, so you know that strong personalities, posturing and manufactured crises are a frequent part of Israeli politics. Most such crises end in a deal, which is often negotiated precisely while the posturing is at its highest – and that’s exactly what happened here with Barak and Olmert’s agreement to hold early Kadima primaries.
    A second and related point is that, when a crisis doesn’t end in a deal, Israel has 60 years of institutional experience in handling what happens next. There are rules for what happens when governments fall or parties leave the coalition, and the rules are followed. There also isn’t any tradition in Israel of political factions (or their leaders) resorting to extra-constitutional means, such as street fighting, to settle their differences. Israel has dealt with this kind of thing before – indeed, while the current angst looms large because it’s happening now, but it’s as nothing compared to the maneuvering that accompanied the fall of Bibi’s government in 1999 or Golda Meir’s fall from power in the 1970s.
    Third, the Israeli political system also has methods of functioning while these crises are still in progress. Key among them is cabinet voting. One of the virtues of Israeli cabinet government – it doesn’t have many, I’ll agree, but there are some – is that it provides a means for the government as a whole to make decisions and function while the top people are at odds. Note that the cease-fire was decided upon in the middle of the recent crisis, when Labor’s continued participation was very much up in the air.
    Fourth, you appear to be conflating the decision-making process with the enforcement of decisions already made. Right now, the first of those is somewhat disrupted (although, as stated above, still functional), but the second isn’t. Israel, unlike certain other countries I could name, isn’t divided into competing fiefdoms, and the civil service and army will abide by the government’s decisions. Those who may rely on Israeli governmental policies can safely trust that they will be carried out.
    There is really zero chance of anarchy coming out of this crisis. The most likely outcome, in my estimation, would be the establishment of a Livni government after the September Kadima primaries, which would bode well for continuity in the negotiations with Syria.
    Anyway, it’s funny that you would mention the “spider’s web,” because I’d argue that crises like the present one show exactly why that description doesn’t apply to Israel. Any country can function when its leaders are in concord, but only a stable one can do so when they aren’t. Belgium showed its stability last year by remaining functional for six months without a government, and Israel likewise continued to function when its top ministers were bickering like children. I’d actually say that the “spider’s web” metaphor applies much more to Nasrallah’s own Lebanon than to Israel – and even Lebanon, I’ll point out, still exists.

  14. If you want a peek inside how the Israeli government works, how Israelis differ from diaspora Jews in all regards, read Gregory Levey’s hilarious yet alarming account in Shut Up, I’m Talking And Other Diplomacy Lessons I Learned In The Israeli government. Prospects for rationality are dim

  15. I don’t pretend to be an expert when it comes to Israeli politics but I suspect that with Sharon gone from the scene, Kadima is a spent force. In my view, Labor and the Likud will compete to forge a working majority – largely with help from some of the religious parties.
    The weakness of the Israeli political system is that the threshold for awarding seats in the Knesset is set too low. As a result, minor religious parties and interest groups have inordinate political power.

  16. It would be useful to speak more accurately of Iran’s retaliatory capabilities. Particularly against our naval forces in the Gulf. It is not unreasonable to expect that they would be able to destroy a number of American warships, killing as many American military personnel in a day or two as have died in Iraq to date.
    A vague threat to “long and vulnerable supply lines” isn’t quite the same thing as getting clear in the mind images of American capital ships in flames and sinking.
    And then?
    We are truly on the edge of a precipice here, and need to think more clearly about what is at stake. Grossly underestimating Iran’s capabilities and our vulnerabilities is not clarity.

  17. Azazel, I love the name. Thank you for the description of Israeli politics. I am pro-Israel and anti many of their policies. The stability you describe shows the fact that Israel is a concrete fact and that denying its existence is not going to work. That is the beginning of peace. I’m afraid there are no good guys left however.
    I’m more concerned that the US government, which is also in a transitional state may be looking for another disaster before the election and the scenario of an attack on our ships in the Gulf is chilling.
    Helena, I’m new here and I’m glad to have found you.

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