Salih Zeki Fazlioglu—Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
Below is a conversation between CWCP President and Co-Founder Brad Nelson and CWCP Vice President and Co-Founder Yohanes Sulaiman on this week's Israeli elections. We hope you enjoy.
Brad Nelson: Well, to start, Bibi's Likud won, which has seemed to surprise the media. Sure, the polls had his party down a few points, but was his win that much of a surprise? Thoughts?
Yohanes Sulaiman: There's a very good article in Politico Magazine that asks why the media always gets Israeli elections so wrong, and it blames the complexity of the Israeli electoral system, which in turn causes the polls to be very unreliable. But my gut feeling is that James Taranto, whose blog is always provocative and fun to read, even if you sometimes disagree with him, got it right when he quipped,"What’s curious about all this is that the media’s and the Obama administration’s hostility toward Netanyahu appear to have made his victory resounding rather than routine."What in my opinion is very interesting is that the Gulf States seem to welcome Netanyahu's victory -- because like them, Bibi is concerned about Iran, which seems to be unlike the view from Washington and the mainstream media in the US.
BN: Let’s talk more about Sunni Arab issue. It does lend credence to the blog post you wrote a while back on how “Everyone Loves Israel.” Of course, you were referring to Arab leaders/governments (not to Arab citizens), who value Israel’s push back against Iran’s move for regional hegemony. Israel is an important bulwark against Iran in the ME and the Sunni governments know it. The potential Iran deal—which is perceived by these states, along with Israel, as treating Iran too lightly–only heightens the importance of Netanyahu to them. Plus, they all have to be concerned about Iran’s de facto cooperation with the US on ISIS. On the one hand, ME countries fear that Iran’s effort to beat back ISIS is tempting Washington to make hasty and far-reaching concessions on Iran’s nuclear program. But they also wonder if Team Obama is tilting toward Iran.
YS: The biggest problem here is the clear lack of a US strategy in the Middle East. From the botched responses to the Arab Spring to the "Red Line" in Syria, the Obama administration has again and again confounded states in the region through its apparent incompetence. Of course, the fact that Obama is not at all close to any of the leaders (unlike Bush) also hurts, and this is the type of culture where "chumminess" is important, that everything is based on personal relationships.
Moreover, I do think that the Gulf States actually do not consider ISIS as much of a threat as Iran. ISIS is seen as a more manageable group, even though in the end it might bite its former masters. But it seems to me that they are very sure that they can handle ISIS, but not Iran. Thus you don't see Riyadh freaking out over ISIS taking over Mosul, but it is very jittery over a small Shiite protest in Bahrain.
Not surprisingly, the Gulf states are very skeptical about Obama's negotiations with Iran. They looked at how he botched events in the Middle East and how he seems not to understand the real threats from those Iranians. In fact, I think it is given, from the Gulf States' perspective, that they are not thinking of how good the treaty would be, but how bad it would be.
With the US seemingly lost at sea, Israel, regardless of how distasteful it is seen by the Arabs, remains the only state willing to join the rest to tackle Iran.
BN: Let’s shift gears. What won the election for Netanyahu?
YS: It is a combination of several factors -- but I think he won with the argument that he was the only one who could provide security and deal with Iran. I won't be surprised if the revelation that there's a possibility that Obama administration was trying to influence the election also had impact.
BN: It will be interesting to see, once the dust settles, whether Netanyahu’s move to the far right gained him any votes. After all, in recent days he squashed any plan for a two-state solution, at least on his watch, promised settlement expansion in East Jerusalem, and went into hysterics about Israeli Arabs voting en masse and determining the electoral outcome. Of course, his comments on these issues were politically motivated, designed to rile up the hardliners. And it’s easy to say they were decisive, that these late-game statements were the reason that the polls were wrong. But I’m not so sure.
YS: Not sure, but I doubt that a single speech or two in the last days of elections matter, unless there's a strong "current" leading to it.
For instance, in my discussion on Jokowi's electoral victory, I made two statements that seemed to confirm the late surge effect, notably the election day fiasco in Hong Kong and the massive pro-Jokowi weekend concert leading to the election. The Hong Kong fiasco in essence confirmed to many of Jokowi's supporters and those already wary about Prabowo that the political elites were really up to game the system, to cheat in order to steal their votes -- a confirmation bias -- that further galvanized them to go to the polling station. Same thing with the concert -- it was more of an affirmation of the youth enthusiasm to Jokowi. In effect, it is more of factors that encourage people to go to polls, thus reducing the number of people who don't vote.
I am not sure if Netanyahu's speech changed the dynamics that much, that people who were voting for the rightist parties suddenly got epiphanies and all voted for Netanyahu.
BN: I think you’re probably right—but it’s something to watch as empirical analyses come out in the coming weeks and months ahead. But what about the regional and international impact of Netanyahu’s comments? How do you see that playing out?
My take is that Netanyahu’s statements won’t be good for Israel; they only create more unnecessary obstacles for the country. The Palestinians, believing that the peace process is dead once and for all, will likely step up their attempts to get recognition from the UN and into various UN bodies. I fully expect in the near future another round of violence from Gaza-based groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Relations with the US will likely worsen. After all, the Obama administration, especially since John Kerry took his post as Secretary of State, has invested considerable time and effort in the peace process and is against further settlement expansion. And now all of that is for nothing. There’s also the prospect we will see once again protests against and attempts to boycott Israel from foreign leftist activists. And of course, Europe won’t be happy.
The question, then, is how bad this will be for Israel. A headache? Or a disaster? It seems that Netanyahu made a bet. He’s willing to suffer any blowback from hawkish moves for a few votes and a strengthened domestic political coalition. And there’s the distinct chance that the international and regional blowback might not be as high as we’d ordinarily think. At bottom, the geostrategic problems in the ME actually mean that the wind is at his back for now. Ian Bremmer sums it up nicely. He writes: “Israel’s position in the Middle East has actually strengthened in the past couple of years. The Israeli and Egyptian governments have common enemies in Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood. Israel and Turkey share enmity toward Syria’s Bashar al-Assad. The Saudis, Emiratis and others are far more concerned with future threats from Iran than with current help for Palestinians. All these factors ease pressure on Netanyahu to change direction on current policy.”
YS: On Netanyahu: he has backtracked, stating that he doesn't oppose two-state solution, but just the current arrangement of Abbas-Hamas. Obama, I think, has disliked Netanyahu anyway. It is not that I approve of Netanyahu's policies -- I think some of his policies, notably the expansion of settlements, are very counter productive and I do think that this guy does not have a long term plan, unlike Ariel Sharon, whom by the end of his life before he got ill, I started to give him a grudging respect. Unlike what others think, I do think that had he not been incapacitated, he could have delivered a settlement.
Back to the result of the election: I could be wrong, but I am not sure that both the PA and Obama would react differently had Herzog and the left won the election. The PA would act belligerently (ask Ehud Barak and Olmert about it), thinking that they would have a pushover in power. I mean, this is an incompetent and corrupt organization with old fogeys with no long term vision leading it, and very unpopular to boot, and the only thing that could keep it alive without Hamas killing it is to snatch the mantle of "Palestinian nationalism" from others. Keep in mind that there has been no Palestinian election in the past couple of years ever since Hamas trampled over the PA in the Gaza strip.
And Obama, who has zero vision and plan on the Middle East (ask Dennis Ross about that), might actually pressure Israel hard, thinking that he could make a breakthrough on Israel's expense to burnish his legacy. I believe that Hamas and Islamic Jihad would increase their attacks, thinking that the leftist government in Israel would concede to their demands. In essence, aside from the rhetoric congratulating that good sense had prevailed, nothing much would change -- and it's possible that this hypothetical outcome would even make things worse. I think the Israeli voters realized that and thus around 60% of the voters chose the right-wingers anyway.
BN: Yeah, Netanyahu walked back a bit his comments on the two-state solution. At this point, it’s too late. The damage has been done. However, you do make an interesting argument, that perhaps not that much would have changed had Netanyahu lost and Herzog won. It’s possible. I’ve heard Israeli watchers say that as well, but for a different reason: that Herzog isn’t the liberal the West believes, and that Israeli domestic politics, which leans to the right, will place enormous pressure on any prime minister to exact maximal concessions from the Palestinians.
It has occurred to me that Netanyahu is simply waiting out Obama. Obama has less than two years left in office. (I’m sure Netanyahu is counting down the days!) After that, he will deal with a new American president—from the right or left—who will place far less pressure on Israel than Obama has over the last six years. So for now, Netanyahu will keep Obama at arm's length and scuttle any peace talks. But come 2017, things might well change. I could see Netanyahu fully repairing the Israeli-US relationship and also going back to the negotiating table with the Palestinians at that point, once a new president is in the White House and he has full US support of his policy positions.