Israel's two tribes: which will Netanyahu choose?

Could the Israeli prime minister be tempted to turn away from the far right and look left? Unlikely but not impossible.

In his 2004 essay Contemplations on Peace, the left-wing Israeli novelist David Grossman said this about the "flare of identity" in Israel. "It reaches as far as the Green Line," he argued, but "no farther." Beyond, "the nature of the blaze changes: it either cools and melts away indifferently, alienated from what is occurring there, or becomes an exaggerated frenzy, among the settlers and the various messianic Jews."

Two tribes

The election campaign has proven Grossman’s assessment to be acute. For at its heart has been a radical disconnect between the tribe of the frenzy and the tribe of the indifference. The fateful choice facing Binyamin Netanyahu, the likely winner, on Wednesday morning will be which tribe he turns to when he forms his governing coalition.

Netanyahu could rule with those who feel the "exaggerated frenzy" on their pulses. A new annexationism is rising on the right and the story of the election so far has been the surge of Habayit Hayehudi (Jewish Home) and its leader Naftali Bennett. He proposes annexing ‘Area C’ of the West Bank, including all the settlements and their environs. On Bennett’s List is Rabbi Eli Ben Dahan, who motivated annexation on religious grounds. Likud itself is not only running a joint list with Lieberman's hard-right Israel Beytanu, but saw its own party primaries oust secular nationalists Dan Meridor and Benny Begin (who did damage control in the last Knesset when it came to anti-democratic legislative proposals) and boost Moshe Feiglin - a man who ran the violently anti-Oslo Zu Artzeinu (‘This is Our Land’) and now proposes paying Palestinians half a million dollars to leave the West Bank.

Could Netanyahu be tempted to turn away from all that and look left? Unlikely but not impossible.  

According to the Times of Israel editor David Horovitz, as "the right has become the far-right" then Netanyahu is now "a discordant relative moderate" and "the closest thing the Likud has to a political dove." Most importantly – this being the hard-headed calculation that might yet make Netanyahu look left for his partners – he is "a constrained figurehead." And if he wants to escape that constraint, he knows the stats: 82 per cent of the electorate say that the answer to the budget deficit is to defund settlements, while 43 per cent say economic issues are the most important to them, and they are mostly left-wing and centrist voters.

Unlikely may be the choice, unstable may be the resulting coalition, but Netanyahu committed himself to two states at Bar Ilan University in 2010 and he could decide that the danger of a drift to bi-nationalism is too great, the price of international isolation too costly, and his own position to hemmed in, to form a coalition with the right. He could decide to look instead, or as well, to the centre-left parties – Shelly Yachimovich’s Labour, Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid, and Tzipi Livni’s Hatnua are likely to win 33-36 seats. He could decide to look ‘westwards’.

A coalition with the centre or centre-left parties, some of which now include leaders of the 2011 social protest movement, would include strains, to say the least. Of course on the peace process – Netanyahu has said he would not allow Livni to negotiate with the Palestinians. However, the real fights would be on the economy itself. 

Two economies

The Israeli economy offers a mixed picture: In 2010, Israel’s GDP was calculated at $220bn and, the USA aside, Israel has the largest number of start-up companies in the world, mostly in hi-tech. From 2009 to 2012, the Israeli economy grew by 14.7 per cent – that’s more than any other developed nation. The credit ratings agency, Savings and Poor, gave Israel an A+ rating in 2012 citing "consistent growth and careful macroeconomic management." The impact of an anticipated slowdown in 2013 is being offset somewhat by the expectation that Israel’s offshore gas finds will start to come on stream.

But the centre and centre-left parties would want to focus on widening social gaps, frayed public services, and the 20 per cent of the population that lives below the poverty line. Israel’s middle class feels like ‘frayers’ (Hebrew for ‘suckers’) – squeezed and neglected, increasingly angry about both the growing welfare stipend given to the ultra-Orthodox, and revolted by the ostentatious displays of wealth enjoyed by the super-rich. While the price of food in Israel is higher than in the UK, the median annual salary in Israel is around £12,000 compared to around £21,000 in the UK.

Amongst OECD countries, Israel ranks fifth out of 27 when it comes to income inequality. For a range of social, cultural and political reasons, Arabs and ultra-Orthodox Jews are the poorest sectors of Israeli society.

The issue which angers middle class swing voters, and which is therefore the one of most relevance to the election outcome, is the concentration of ownership of the economy in the hands of a few super-rich families, with the lack of adequate competition driving up prices, whilst wages in many sectors, including the public sector, remain low. A 2011 report found "the average wage of an Israeli worker was NIS 8,741 (some $2,300), and the minimum wage for full-time work was NIS 4,100. In contrast, the CEOs of the 100 largest companies received an average of around NIS 540,000 per month, 62 times the average wage and 132 times the minimum wage."

Doing anything about that inequality is unlikely, as the most immediate challenge for any coalition will be passing a budget as the economy slows and the outlook is for regional and global uncertainty.

Netanyahu is a fiscal conservative and is expected to try and tighten belts. The Finance Ministry announced last week that Israel’s budget deficit for 2012 was more than double the government’s target. Public debt is 74 per cent of GDP. Pay raises awarded to public-sector workers during the Netanyahu government – many of whom were previously so poorly paid as to qualify as low-income workers – amount to NIS 15-16 billion. (Most achieved by a militantly social-democratic Israeli trade union movement.) The social protest movement, since adopted by Labour, would oppose swingeing cuts and call for expanding the public purse with income tax increases for higher earners and businesses.

Another economic issue any coalition will have to agree on is a policy on so-called ‘burden-sharing’, i.e. the failure of the Haredim to contribute a fair share to the economy. This is a central campaign issue in particular for Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party. Ultra-Orthodox men are on the whole still not being drafted to the army, despite the law under which they were exempted having been made void by Israel’s Supreme Court, and continue to receive stipends to study in Yeshivot (religious seminaries). They are also not contributing in significant numbers to the work force. There was a 57 per cent growth in ultra-Orthodox elementary school enrolment between 2000 and 2010, yet their education, focused on religious study is simply not preparing students for the workforce.

The one socio-economic issue Netanyahu has made a clear stand on is the question of housing, the issue that triggered the social protest protests in 2011, when disgruntled tenant Daphni Leef pitched her famous tent in Rothschild Boulevard. Netanyahu committed to reforming the housing market and freeing up more land for construction at the beginning of his last term but house prices still rose steeply.

Interestingly, in the last few weeks Netanyahu has stated that he will keep the housing ministry in the hands of his own party, and not allow the ultra-Orthodox Shas party to keep control of it. Shas has been criticised for skewing housing assistance to its own constituents, the Haredim. Netanyahu’s commitment to wrestle the housing ministry away from Shas has sparked a harsh war of words between the parties. Could that be a glimpse of a dynamic that might yet produce a political realignment?

The editor of the Times of Israel has issued a "storm warning". "It’s the one in which an obdurate, sometimes insensitive right-wing Israeli leadership smashes into a confident, frequently wrong-headed and far more powerful American administration." He sees a long-shot alternative: "Perhaps if Lapid and Shelly and Tzipi (or two out of three) go in, they can replace the far-right and the ultra-orthodox partners."

Perhaps. But prepare for rain.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chairs the weekly cabinet meeting at his Jerusalem office on January 20, 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.

Alan Johnson is the editor of Fathom: for a deeper understanding of Israel and the region and senior research fellow at the Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre (BICOM).

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Who is set to win the Syrian civil war?

The ceasefire is largely holding. So what happens next?

The Syrian civil war is without doubt the worst and most brutal conflict in the world, a generational war without real historical comparisons.

The most recent efforts to bring about a ceasefire, in talks between Turkey, Russia, Iran and the Assad regime at the end of last year, did provide some respite from the fighting in some areas. But the regime’s forces have continued to attack armed rebels around Damascus and particularly in Wadi Barada.

The UN mediator for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, hopes to convene further peace talks in Geneva on 8 February but for now the conflict continues.

On the ground, a classic hereditary tyranny that survives only through force and external contrivance is fighting disparate militias across the country for control of the state. World and regional powers fight with and against it, for reasons of their own. At the same time, much of the actual fighting is local: one village or businessman against another.

The armed opposition is flagging. From Islamic State (IS) to Jabhat an-Nusra, Jaysh al-Islam (the Army of Islam) to Ahrar ash-Sham, extreme religious conservative militias – many of them led by veterans of the Jihadist insurgency against the United States in Iraq – have long since taken over as the main bulk of the rebel forces.

The original Syrian uprising was libertarian, anti-hierarchical, and revolutionary in character – as most popular movements are – but these sentiments were either lost in the general dirt and blood of civil war, hindered by external support for Jihadist forces, or caved in under the extreme brutality of the regime. A significant constituency that believes in the first principles of the uprising survives in the exiled diaspora but its numbers fighting on the ground are now few and marginal.

The existing Sunni Arab armed opposition, regardless of ideology, generally has little to no understanding of the parallel but different fight of the Kurdish militias led by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in the North and even less sympathy for their cause. In some cases they are openly contemptuous of historical Kurdish grievances and current Kurdish ambitions and cling like the regime to a statist insistence on the integrity of Syria’s existing borders.

The Kurdish militias while they despise the regime do not trust the main of the Arab opposition and have largely refused to work with them on the wider project of overthrowing it, choosing instead to consolidate their gains in the North.

Outside of the Kurdish enclaves, the conflict today is really a series of set-piece sieges around the remaining opposition strongholds (and a couple of rebel sieges of regime outposts) punctuated by village to village and hamlet to hamlet skirmishes.

Almost all of the armed opposition has become detached from the civilian population and this year the reality of its fight as being over territory and to establish or protect lucrative looting and smuggling businesses will become clearer.

Of the major sieges, it is those around Damascus that will draw the most attention in the early part of the year. The rebel positions in Yarmouk and Hajar al-Aswad are likely to be forced into an ignominious surrender by regime forces in the next few months.

The crown of the opposition’s strongholds near the capital, in the Eastern Ghouta oasis, is also likely to fall to regime forces within the year. The Syrian army has already retaken chunks of rebel-held Eastern Ghouta and took advantage of the 30 December ceasefire to mass for a push on rebel positions around the enclave.

“With Aleppo city retaken in its entirety, the regime can afford to focus manpower on the area, which has been severely weakened anyway by siege conditions and rebel infighting,” Aymen Jawad al-Tamimi, one of the few analysts with knowledge of the Jihadist opposition and the current balance of forces within Syria, tells me.

Using its superior diplomatic position and fire superiority, the regime is set to re-take the last anti-government bastion around the Syrian capital.

The regime’s capture of Aleppo late last year was a significant victory which was a long time coming. The successes that the armed Syrian opposition enjoyed from late 2011-15, and that allowed them to take Aleppo’s centre, were dependent on critical Turkish support and reinforcement through the open Turkish border.

During 2016 Turkey, recognising that the regime wasn’t going to be overthrown without massive US intervention, reduced the scope of its support, sealed the border, and moved towards diplomatic normalisation with Russia.

The armed opposition in the area has predictably fallen apart and never had much hope of holding east Aleppo. What fighting forces remain are open Turkish proxies working to keep IS away from the Turkish border and fighting Syrian Kurdish forces, not overthrowing the regime.

The armed opposition is not entirely spent however. In the city of Idlib, rebel forces remain strong and still control almost all of the surrounding province.

The area is dominated by Jabhat an-Nusra, commonly referred to as the al-Qaeda franchise in Syria, which expelled the secular Syrian Revolutionaries Front from Idlib in 2014. As the Century Foundation’s Sam Heller has documented, Ahrar ash-Sham are also influential there alongside a coalition of other extremist militias.

“I see Idlib as more likely to remain a rebel bastion over the next year, with strong supply lines still coming in through Turkey, and the regime still needing to clear out the north Hama and Latakia fronts, which have proven to be a nuisance,” Tamimi says.

In the south of the country, the US and Jordan have set up their own proxy forces to work with the armed opposition, but their efforts have proved non-committal and ineffective. The US/Jordanian force is currently trying to dislodge IS forces in the city of Deraa, but to little effect.

In Homs the regime has lost ground to IS of late but its forces there pose no serious threat to the regime and the same applies vice versa. Its stronghold in al-Bab is besieged by Turkish proxies and beset by Russian and Turkish air strikes.

Understanding the war in Syria in 2017 will necessitate discarding the propaganda. The Assad regime is not merely defending the country from fanatical outlaws, although there are plenty of them, and neither is the armed opposition only an expression of resistance to state tyranny, which is similarly real. The US and Europe are not supporting democratic forces and Russia, Iran, and the Assad regime are no more fighting “terror” in Syria than the US was in Iraq.

Contrary to claims that the world is ignoring the conflict, there has been constant intervention by regional and world powers. The US and UK have intervened consistently on the side of the armed opposition since the onset of the war and the effect was mostly to perpetuate the conflict as a bloody stalemate.

Since October 2015 Russian intervention – alongside Iranian incursions – has proved critical in shifting the fight in the regime’s favour by the use of brute force and violence. The recent rapprochement between Russia and Turkey is an ill omen for Kurdish aspirations for autonomy in the North.

No one can seriously argue that the problem in Syria is insufficient foreign intervention. Ascribing the brutality of the war to a lack of external involvement may be a convenient way for the usual suspects to push for future aggressive foreign policy but it has no basis in the historical record.

With Russia and Iran’s assistance the regime is winning. Saudi Arabia is focused on Yemen and without substantial Turkish support and Saudi funding the armed opposition is already falling apart. The chances of a great revival are slim.

But the rebels still have Idlib. And even with Damascus and its suburbs fully under its control the regime must contend with a committed insurgency and its own fundamental illegitimacy. So the war goes on.

Tom Stevenson is a freelance journalist based in Istanbul