News Comes in Threes, Israeli Edition
The past three days have seen three important events in Israeli politics, which, taken together, will have ramifications for American policy and the region as a whole.
On Tuesday—as the title of my prior, almost optimistic post suggested might happen despite my best wishes—Kadima left the governing coalition because of disagreements about how to replace the Tal Law. This had seemed increasingly likely after the failure of a Kadima-led compromise committee to agree on anything—and suspicions from within Kadima that it was all for show. The Tal Law, which exempts the Ultra-Orthodox from military service in favor of yeshiva study, will still be revised and/or replaced in some way; what this new law looks like, however, will be more heavily influenced by religious parties than appeared likely in May.
Yesterday, six Israeli tourists were murdered and several dozen injured by what appears to have been a suicide bombing in Bulgaria. The Israeli government is blaming Iran, though Iran denies responsibility. As Jeffrey Goldberg explains, staving off confrontation just got harder:
This is what may have changed earlier today. Prime Minister Netanyahu will be under extraordinary political pressure to retaliate in some serious way, and he will be under more pressure from himself than ever to deal with a regime he believes seeks the annihilation of six million Jews. As Amos Harel put it in Haaretz yesterday, the nuclear clock seems to be ticking more quickly than ever, and the “the key question will be whether…Netanyahu can fulfill his ideological and historical commitment to prevent what he describes as a potential second Holocaust.”
I doubt Netanyahu will retaliate for the Bulgaria bombing by launching an immediate attack on Iran’s nuclear sites. But there is a good chance he will launch attacks on Hezbollah targets and individuals, and possibly certain Iranian targets as well, and this sort of back-and-forth can only escalate tensions further, which could only bring us closer to an Israeli preemptive strike on Iran.
Goldberg omits mention of the timing of the bombing—not the anniversary of the slaughter in an Argentinian JCC, but the coincidental relationship to Kadima’s coaltion departure. Netanyahu’s government, that is, has lost its centrist/moderating element on matters of foreign affairs. This, certainly, will affect the nature of Israel’s responses, whatever they may be.
But yesterday also saw a smaller, less immediately momentous news item. The replacement for the Tal Law proposed by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Yisrael Beiteinu—which would, in effect, have demanded full and immediate drafting of eligible yeshiva students—failed. Had there been no bombing, the central news item in Israel would have been the head of Netanyahu’s key coalition partner taking a futile and defiant stand against the Prime Minister on a prominent and controversial issue.
Lieberman framed the vote on his bill as “a litmus test for who believes in equality,” and accusing Netanyahu of giving in entirely to Ultra-Orthodox parties on this issue. His assurances that he won’t quit the government have been a little too loud—not so much that one should suspect he’s lying, but that it’s clear he wants the possibility in the minds of Israelis. He wants this contrast to be clear: Yisrael Beiteinu is the party of the secular right, while Likud, on this and related issues, is in the pocket of the Haredim.
At some point, in some way, the Iran tensions will be resolved; at some point West Bank settlements will or will not be normalized as permanent parts of Israel. When one or both of these occur, there will be much less need politically or practically for Yisrael Beiteinu to ally itself with Likud. Netanyahu is still on top, for the foreseeable future. But at some point he will retire or be (re)proven a fallible politician.
Lieberman is 54—a teenager, by the standards of Israeli politics—and provided he dodges corruption charges, he’ll be around for a while. Certainly long enough for the demographically inevitable clash between secular and Ultra-Orthodox Israelis to come to a head. At that point, Lieberman and Y.B. are betting, the secular left will still be desperately weak (perhaps even desperate enough to endure him), and they will be in a position to challenge Likud as the leaders of a truly secular Israeli governing coalition.
It’s just a hunch, and I’ve a horrible track record on these things. But provided that Israel and the Israeli right survive what promises to be a too-interesting half-decade, this third, under-reported event may prove just as central as the news that has dominated.