Biden and Israel’s Unsteady Right

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In an interview with the New York Times Tuesday, presumptive President-elect Joe Biden reaffirmed his plan to return the US to the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran. The US will rescind its economic sanctions on Iran if it complies with the nuclear deal’s limitations on its nuclear activities. Once this happens, Biden said he will seek to negotiate a new, longer-term nuclear deal with Iran’s ayatollahs. The current deal expires in five years.

Biden insisted the goal of his policy is to prevent Iran from getting the bomb. But practically speaking, Biden’s policy guarantees Iran will develop a nuclear arsenal and the missiles to deliver them. This is true both because the nuclear deal will expire, and Iran will be free to build nuclear bombs as it likes in 2025, and because the 2015 nuclear deal has no effective enforcement mechanism.

The UN inspectors tasked with ensuring Iranian compliance are only permitted to enter civilian nuclear sites. Since Iran has sole authority to determine if a site is civilian or military, it can and has rendered the deal’s inspection regime a pathetic joke.

It goes without saying that Israel cannot accept this state of affairs. Just as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was compelled to oppose Barack Obama’s nuclear deal, so Israel has no choice but to strongly oppose Biden’s plans.

Unfortunately, Israel is currently incapable of clearly opposing Biden’s plan that will give the mullahs the means to carry out their plan to destroy the Jewish state. That is because currently, Israel doesn’t have one government. It has two governments pretending to be a unity government. But in practice, they disagree on everything, including how to handle Biden’s Iran policy and they pursue contrary policies on all issues.

Netanyahu’s Likud government recognizes the danger posed by Biden’s Iran policy. Last week, Netanyahu loyalist Ambassador Ron Dermer said flat out that it would be “a mistake” for a Biden administration to return to the nuclear deal.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz’s Blue and White government doesn’t understand the danger.

Two weeks ago, Gantz’s partner Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazy told the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee that Netanyahu’s uncompromising position is wrong. According to media reports, Ashkenazy said Israel can develop common ground with a Biden administration on Iran.

Biden’s advisers, he claimed recognize the problems with the 2015 deal and are open to suggestions regarding its improvement. Ashkenazy wants to persuade the members of Biden’s Iran team to link Iran’s nuclear program to its ballistic missile program and its regional aggression.

On paper, Ashkenazy’s position seems reasonable, but in the real world, it is fanciful. Biden’s determination to return to the nuclear deal without conditions except an unenforceable Iranian commitment to limit its nuclear activities makes clear that there will be no reconsideration of anything. As to his plan to negotiate a new deal, Iran will have little reason to do so. By ending Trump’s sanctions, Biden will lose all leverage.

The Blue and White-Likud clash over Iran policy, like their clash over Israel’s national and strategic interests in Judea and Samaria make clear that the farcical unity government has run its course. Facing an administration dead set on giving Iran the bomb and openly hostile to Israel’s rights and interests in Judea and Samaria and unified Jerusalem, Israel cannot afford to be governed by a two-headed government.

For Israelis convinced the country needs to defend its national interests even in the face of US opposition, the only type of government that will do is a coalition of right wing and Haredi parties. According to the polls, this is just the sort of coalition government Israelis are planning to elect. For several months, the Right-Haredi bloc has been polling 65-70 seats, giving it a comfortable majority in the 120-seat Knesset.

Unfortunately, the polls may not be telling the full story. A core member of the Right-Haredi bloc is Yamina, (“To the Right”). And it is far from clear that Yamina is a right-wing party in any meaningful sense today.

Ostensibly, the notion that Yamina may not be a right-wing party seems absurd. Yamina is a coalition of three parties to the right of Likud – the New Right, the National Union and Habayit Hayehudi (“Jewish Home”). Habayit Hayehudi party bolted Yamina to join the current government when it took office in May.

Today, Yamina is dominated by the New Right.

In late 2018, then-Education Minister Bennett and then-Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked abandoned the national-religious Habayit Hayehudi party to form the New Right. The day after their break, they asked me to be the first to join them in their run for Knesset in the elections that took place in April 2019.

I happily accepted their offer. As I saw it, the New Right was an ideologically driven right-wing party dedicated to advancing the causes most important to me – reform of Israel’s hyper-activist legal fraternity and applying Israel’s sovereignty to wide swathes of Judea and Samaria.

Oddly, rather than tailoring the campaign to rally like-minded voters, Bennett and Shaked focused on non-ideological and even non-rightist voters. Unsurprisingly, by ignoring their natural supporters and courting voters who didn’t care about their issues, the New Right came up 1,500 votes shy of the four-seat threshold to enter the Knesset.

In the following two elections, Bennett and Shaked played it safe. They formed Yamina and ran with Habayit Hayehudi and National Union. But they didn’t rethink their electoral strategy. In both the September 2019 and March 2020 elections, they doubled down on their courtship of the center-left and continued to tank at the ballot box.

In the April 2019 election, the New Right was just shy of four seats. Habayit Hayehudi/National Union faction won five. At the time, still in chaos following Bennett and Shaked’s abandonment, those five seats represented the rock bottom core of the national-religious sectoral vote.

In the second round, Yamina won just seven seats and this past March it netted a mere six seats. If the five mandates to the Habayit Hayehudi/National Union stayed loyal throughout, then by last March, the New Right was worth only one seat in the Knesset.

Since the current government was formed, the ground has shifted. Polls have Yamina consistently winning more than 20 seats and running second only to Likud. The pollsters claim that around half of the support for Yamina comes from the center-left, particularly from disgruntled Blue and White supporters. The other half comes from the right.

There are three sources of leftist support for Yamina. First, for the past several months, Bennett has been scope-locked on the coronavirus, insisting that it is the only issue that by rights ought to be on the public agenda. His all-consuming focus on the pandemic and the economic damage it has wrought, has brought Bennett supporters among Israelis hurt by the virus and impatient with the government’s efforts to mitigate it.

Second, and importantly for centrist and left-leaning voters, by staying out of the government, Yamina has managed to capture some voters motivated by hatred for Netanyahu.

Finally, Yamina is picking up support from leftists because over the past three months, Bennett has shed his loyalty to the right both politically and ideologically.

Politically, Bennett cut Yamina off from its core voters – the national religious community in September. At a toast for Rosh Hashana, Bennett said, “I don’t view Yamina as a sectoral party.”

Having abandoned Yamina’s political base, Bennett proceeded to abandon its ideological foundations: sovereignty in Judea and Samaria and legal reform.

In an interview last month with Army Radio, Bennett said, “In the coming years, I would put politics aside, including important things like annexation and a Palestinian state.”

Arguably the weirdest aspect to Bennett’s decision to desert the right’s core ideological cause is that it makes no political sense. Thanks to President Donald Trump’s peace plan’s call for Israeli sovereignty over parts of Judea and Samaria, the prospect of applying Israel’s sovereignty to large parts of Judea and Samaria has become a viable option. It is supported in various forms by a large majority of the public. So unless Bennett is specifically interested in courting the hard left, his move makes no sense.

Given the large majority of Israelis who support extending sovereignty to parts of Judea and Samaria, legal reform has become the main wedge issue dividing the Left and Right in Israel today.

The only way Israel can apply its sovereign rights to Judea and Samaria, and indeed, the only way a rightist government will be able to implement any of its policies is if the Knesset undertakes significant reform to limit the currently unchecked powers of the radicalized legal fraternity including the Supreme Court, the attorney general and the state prosecution. During her tenure as justice minister, Shaked presented herself – and her party – as the leaders in the field.

But in a shocking reversal, in an interview with Army Radio last month, Bennett’s right-hand man MK Matan Kahana said Yamina is no longer interested legal reform. “We’ve lowered the flag to two-thirds mast,” he said.
Earlier this week, Bennett balled up the flag and shoved it in the closet when he absented himself from the Knesset during a vote on his party colleague MK Betzalel Smotrich’s bill that would require senior prosecutors and the Attorney General to wait a decade before being eligible to serve in the Supreme Court.

If this weren’t enough to spark concern, Bennett announced he plans to select non-rightists to run on Yamina’s Knesset slate and he refuses to rule out forming a center-left coalition with Yesh Atid, Meretz and Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu party.

Bennett and Shaked’s associates insist that their partnership with Smotrich is proof they are still on the right. Smotrich, the fiery head of the National Union is certainly driven by ideology. But every statement Smotrich makes indicating Yamina will never form a center-left government is denied by Bennett and Kahana. Wednesday for instance, Kahana told Army Radio, “We don’t rule out cooperating with Lapid and Meretz in a government we will form and put aside all of our disagreements. No matter what, in the next four years there’s no chance of realizing the right’s diplomatic vision.”

So depending on how many seats Yamina wins from right wing voters, the Right-Haredi majority may lack the power to govern as a Right-Haredi government. Indeed, a coalition with them, (assuming Bennett agrees to enter one), may be reduced to the same incoherence that plagues the current two-headed “unity” government.

The light at the end of the coronavirus tunnel is coming into view with Britain and the US now beginning to vaccinate their publics. But as the pandemic comes under control, we are swiftly approaching the dark four-year tunnel of the Biden administration. For Israel to successfully contend with its twists and turns, it will need a strong, and sturdy Right-Haredi government capable of coherent and forthright action.

Originally published in Israel Hayom.

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