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Published initially at The Conservative Prof.: https://theconservativeprof.wordpress.com/

California Gov. Jerry Brown was in a feisty mood. A few days ago on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” he declared that presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz was “absolutely unfit to be running for office.” Continue Reading »

Part Three of a Theme: What’s At Stake in the Israeli Election.

The Dead Heat That Wasn’t.

My local newspaper, the Ottawa Citizen, arrived at our door around 6:00 AM with the latest news from Israel under the headline: “Netanyahu’s Likud and Herzog’s Zionist Union Must Now Get To Work To Try To Form A Coalition Government.” The article begins: “Israel appeared to be headed for weeks of political wrangling Tuesday night after exit polls indicated that the two leading parties were in a dead heat following the parliamentary election.” Continue Reading »

Part Two of a Theme: “What’s At Stake in the Israeli Election of March 17, 2015?”

A Goy’s Guide to Israel’s Political History.

Sixty-six years ago, in March of 1949, the first of Israel’s Knesset elections took place.
Most well-informed people at that hour were under the spell of the postwar spirit of liberal utopianism, whose first principle was that democracy was about to break out everywhere as European imperialism collapsed, giving way to nationalism. There was no particular reason, most thought, for Israel to be an exception to this inevitable blessing.

Indeed, there were plenty of reasons to guess that Israel was no closer to accomplishing authentic democracy than any other of the new nations in her neighbourhood. One conspicuous obstacle to Jewish national unity was the deep divide at that time between the secular politicians who for the moment dominated the political scene and the many religious parties who seemed dedicated to keeping the nation disunited over the place of Judaism in public. Certainly, that is what the Arab Hands in the State Department believed; and that is how they spelled things out to Presidents Roosevelt, Truman and Eisenhower.

But the democratization of the post-colonial Arab world never happened. In fact, we have just undergone four years of Arab Spring that have resulted in dragging the Arab world further back than it ever was from democracy — or for that matter from stable government of any kind. Today Israel remains the only democracy in that part of the world – with the qualified, wobbly, exceptions of Turkey and bomb-scarred, corpse-strewn Lebanon.

Throughout the years of Britain’s Palestine Mandate it had been obvious that the Mapai (Labour) party, led by David Ben-Gurion would dominate Israel’s politics and its Government when Independence came — and no doubt for a long time to follow. Mapai was by far the most popular political movement in the country; it had usually dominated proceedings in the several Zionist organizations and in the Jewish Agency during the Mandate Years. But that was not the whole story: Mandate-era Jewish electioneering had always been based on proportional representation; and now, so keen was the first generation of Israelis to advance ideas, to participate in the founding of institutions for a new nation, that every man and his brother (provided he was not a Mapai apparatchik) got busy at once and founded a new political party, intended to realize whole-heartedly some principle that was not prominently advanced or was even smothered in compromise by Ben-Gurion’s party.

In the first Knesset, formed on March 8, 1949 there were 12 parties having at least one seat, and a larger number that had contested the election without winning any seats. And so inevitably the first Government of Israel, formed by David Ben-Gurion as Prime Minister, was a Coalition, with Labor at its core, but with Ministers representing the United Religious Front, the Progressive Party, the Sephardim and Oriental Communities and the Democratic List of Nazareth. With the qualified exception of the last-named, none of these could plausibly be considered to the Left of anything real.
All governments of Israel thereafter have been coalitions. Following the election of March 1977, Menachem Begin overturned the Labour-Alignment coalition by cobbling together Likud (Consolidation), a coalition of most of the also-ran parties and their leaders, with his own Herut party at its core. For nearly forty years now, government of Israel has alternated at irregular intervals between coalition of the Centre-Left (more or less on the Ben Gurion model) and Coalitions of the Centre-Right (more or less on the Menachem Begin model.

But, just to keep things lively – and just so that outside historians like me should remain in their place – Israel’s leading politicians, belonging to both the Coalition of the Left and the Coalition of the Right, all of them world-class egoists, developed a passion for suddenly throwing to the winds the party that had made them powerful, resorting to the easy-going ground rules for formation of a new party and demanding personal fealty from an entire generation of political followers. Ben-Gurion pioneered this shtick when he bolted the Mapai/Alignment and formed the short-lived National List.

More recently, in late 2005, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon abruptly ordered his troops to follow him into a brand-new political party, Kadima (Forward), a party with only one plank that mattered — unilateral withdrawal from occupied Gaza and simultaneous withdrawal from the calcified Oslo Process. This gesture was meant to shut down the complaint of all the world (led by the United States) that Israel was clinging to land that it had no title to. Sharon’s shining idea was that the United States and other interested outsiders would now be able to persuade Mahmoud Abbas, the Partner for Peace, to acknowledge his loss of the moral advantage, and return to negotiations in better faith over the much-reduced remaining business. Of course, nothing of the sort happened.

An instant success in the election of 2006, winning 29 seats, Kadima became the nucleus of a new governing coalition under Ehud Olmert (Sharon having been abruptly retired from active life by a massive stroke) . Although Kadima again won the most seats in the 2009 elections, it went into opposition under Tzipi Livni’s leadership when Netanyahu formed his new government. In the 2013 elections Kadima became the smallest party in the Knesset, winning only 2 seats. Thereupon a new party Hatnuah (The Movement) was formed by Kadima’s former leader, Tzipi Livni.

In a variation on this theme (the well-established egoistical politician who skips the traces of his well-established party and in a moment of time founds a new party on fealty to himself) we see another model in such recent political parties as Yesh Atid (There Is a Future), founded in 2012 by former journalist Yair Lapid.) In the Yesh Atid model, a political amateurs or a small group of amateurs, usually with lots of personal money, become inspired by the need for new directions in politics, start up a brand new party and draw a blue-ribbon list of candidates from well-known public figures, military heroes, journalists and so on. The latest example of this type is Kulanu (All Of us) formed November 2014 under the leadership of Moshe Kahlon; as I write, pollsters are predicting that it will gain anywhere from 5 to 13 seats.

Another variant on this theme is the party like Meretz (Vigour) formed in 1992 by a long-time Knesset member Shulamit Aloni out of remnants of three small parties that had been declining for many years (Ratz, Mapam, Shinui.) Meretz exemplifies the ability of the Israeli system to keep alive the commitments of smaller parties while including them in new outfits, benefitting in the short term from the popularity of a suddenly-emerging political super-star. Meretz is a secular party, loyal to the two-state solution to the Peace Process. It was at its peak in the 13th Knesset (1992-1996) holding 12 seats, it declined to six seats at the 2013.

(Given the vastly greater population of the United States and the greater venerability and rigidity of the American two-party system, one does not expect to find parallels to this story in American politics. The closest modern parallel might be the capture of the New York Republican party in the 1950s by Nelson Rockefeller and the capture of the West Virginia politics in the late 1960s by another Republican outsider, Winthrop Rockefeller.)

The proportional representational model seemed providentially appropriate to the situation of the several waves of Jewish refugees fleeing from persecution in Arab states following 1949. Under Israel’s basic Law, these immigrants were citizens from the moment of arrival; and finding the governing parties in situ all of Ashkenazi (European) background and generally unfriendly to the Eastern way of life, they of course founded brand new parties that even today draw almost exclusively on fractions of Sephardic Jewry or Jews of African origin. Several of these ethnic-based parties were subsumed into Shas (Guardians of the Torah) founded in 1984 under the leadership of Sephardi Chief Rabbi Ovadia Yosef.

A similar pattern played out with respect to the massive immigration of Russians who suddenly found themselves free to migrate to Israel following diplomatic pressure by the American government in the 1980s and who moved eventually into the ranks of Israel Beitenu (Israel Our Home), founded in by Avigdor Lieberman (Foreign Minister in the current Netanyahu government.

Recent Patterns and Prospects.

This bird’s-eye summary does not does not do justice to all the permutations and combinations of possibility that there are in Israeli politics. There were, after all twelve parties represented in the Nineteenth Knesset, not to mention the thirty registered parties that did not have seats in the 19th Knesset and a roughly equal number running with little hope for the 20th Knesset. Each of these thinks of itself at least as deserving of voter support precisely because it is in class all by itself.

When the votes were counted in the days following the 2009 Israeli legislative election it was found that Kadima had earned 28 seats, while Likud had won 27 seats; but then as now Likud is better able to win the loyalties of a larger number of the smaller parties, which tend to be on the right-hand side of public issues. After more than a month of coalition negotiations, Benjamin Netanyahu was able to form a government and become Prime Minister.

While this matter is always relative, it did seem that Netanyahu’s coalition was less stable than others had been in recent times. When the religious parties over-played their hands, Netanyahu showed them the door and brought in Yisrael Beiteinu. In the 2013 election, the Likud/Yisrael Beitenu alliance won 31 seats. Twelve parties came out with at least a single seat. A governing majority was achieved by inviting in Yesh atid , Bayit Yehudi and Hatnuah (whose leader, Tzipi Livni, had defected from the moribund Kadima (which has since been taken off life support.)

A Democracy Like No Other.

Anyone who has ever visited the Israeli Knesset in session has come away upset (at a minimum) or downright shocked by the shouting, the shaking of fists, sometimes verging on bedlam. In The Blood of Abraham (1985), Jimmy Carter goes back to that day in 1979 “When I addressed the Knesset …”

It was a shock to observe the degree of freedom permitted the members of the parliament in their relatively undisciplined exchanges…. Instead of being embarrassed by the constant interruptions and by the physical removal of one of the members from the chamber, Prime Minister Begin seemed to relish the verbal combat and expressed pride in how unrestrained the shouted argument was. During an especially vituperative exchange, he leaned over to me and said proudly, “This is democracy in action.” (Jimmy Carter, Blood of Abraham, p.33.)

Carter’s disgust with such “undisciplined” political behavior became one enduring strand in the pattern of contempt for Israel that has made him perhaps Israel’s most formidable adversary in the arena of public opinion today. But we should pause long enough to reckon that the model for parliamentary behaviour that Carter has in mind is that of the U.S. Congress, where the “deliberative process” comes down on a daily basis to one member at a time bloviating from behind a podium to an all-but-empty house.

Still, Israel’s undisciplined and sometimes uncouth Knesset is responsible for creating and presiding over one of the world’s miracle economies. It has won public confidence and has sustained a high degree of patriotic pride and respect for its civilian authority from military forces involved in the most dangerous kind of duty in the world.

Current Prognostications.

The hit-and-run effort I have made in this essay to make sense of Israel’s politics should bring out at least how malleable and how unpredictable Israeli politics has always been and how irrelevant to this story is our own history of partisan politics.

About ten days before election day reputable polls were suggesting a result more-or-less along the lines of 2013: Netanyahu’s Likud and the Herzog/Livni joint list (Zionist Union) were virtually tied for first place (between 24 and 26 seats each, out of the total 120 seats); Bayit Yehudi and Yesh Atid, Netanyahu’s partners in the 19th Knesset, with perhaps 15 seats and 12 seats respectively. In recent elections the pattern has been for the smaller parties, including the “religious” ones – after much display of distaste – to sign on to the Netanyahu combination, giving the margin of victory over any combination of Herzog and Livni with the other small parties.

But who can really say! Israel is a democracy like no other. It is much more truly “democratic” in its procedures than is our own system – if we understand “democracy” to be measured by the possibility that voters have to participate in its methods and procedures. (Canada still has an unelected Senate, in case you haven’t; and we are still at least a century behind the United States in the matter of providing “primary” elections for political officers and candidates.)

Perhaps the best way for testing the vitality of a democracy is simply to find how hard political leaders must work at keeping their followers in line behind them while responding to what the citizens are demanding. No democracy passes this test with higher marks than that of the State of Israel.

Published initially at The Conservative Prof.: https://theconservativeprof.wordpress.com/

There are some individuals destined to take on giants. Born in 1925, conservative William F. Buckley, Jr. became one of the most impressive American public intellectuals of the twentieth century. Founder of the conservative magazine the National Review, a prolific author of numerous books and articles, and the creator and host of the debate-style television show Firing Line, Buckley certainly left his mark. And he started young. At age 25, he tweaked the nose of the Yale University establishment. Continue Reading »

Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne is experiencing some economic, legal, and religious difficulties.

The province of Ontario was once the economic powerhouse of Canada. It has declined to have-not status due mostly to the misguided economic policies and excessive spending of the present and previous Liberal government.

How bad is the situation in Ontario? Continue Reading »

PART ONE: JERUSALEM AND WASHINGTON.

News bulletin, New York Times, February 25, 2015:

WASHINGTON — Susan E. Rice, President Obama’s national security adviser, sharply criticized Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel on Tuesday [February 14] over his plans to address a joint meeting of Congress next week, saying his actions had hurt his nation’s relationship with the United States.

As citizens of Israel go to the polls on March 17 to elect their Twentieth Knesset, a very great deal is at stake, not only for citizens of Israel, but for all of us.

“An Increasingly Nasty Grudge Match.”

So far, little attention is being given in our part of the world to the contest between Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Isaac Herzog, leader of the Labour Party, the man presumed most likely to be called upon to form a government if Netanyahu stumbles. It is not as though Herzog were a non-entity. Herzog has a distinguished pedigree — son of a former Israeli President and grandson of a one-time Chief Rabbi of Ireland; he has been Leader of the Opposition since becoming Chairman of the Labour Party in November, 2013, having served previously in important Ministries under both Ehud Olmert and Ehud Barak. Since the present election was called, he has improved prospects for victory by folding his Labor Party list into a broader list, Zionist Union, that includes Tzipi Livni’s Kadima as well as other leaderless factions on the left.

No one can pretend that the choice between Netanyahu &co and Herzog & and co is one between Tweedledum and Tweedledee. Herzog insists that the economy is heading for the tanks and needs reforming on all fronts. As for external affairs, Herzog has denounced Netanyahu for effectively turning his back on the Peace Process and says that in doing so Netanyahu has, all by himself, caused the present diplomatic impasse with the United States while bringing down the outrage of civilized people everywhere. (“ ‘Netanyahu ‘loathes’ Obama, Israel’s opposition leader charges…,” The Times of Israel, (June 6, 2014.)

American Presidents and Israeli Elections.

Rather than focusing on the contest between these two leading Israeli politicians and their two causes journalists and editors have been talking about an ugly confrontation going on between Netanyahu and the President of the United States.

Since at least the days of Kennedy, American Presidents have involved themselves as much as they have dared in Israeli elections – sometimes, right up to their eyeballs. In a private meeting just prior to the Israeli election of May 17, 1999, President Clinton promised Ehud Barak to do everything possible to help out; when the election came; several of Bill Clinton’s own campaign consultants, were lent by him to the Barak campaign, from whose bosom they briefed the President with privileged details. Clinton directed major supporters of the Democratic Party to give generously to the Barak campaign. Stories reflecting the Clinton Government’s unhappiness with Netanyahu’s neglect of the path of peace were leaked to the media. But in his oily way, Clinton managed to carry off the impression of dignified impartiality when the press asked him about political affairs in Israel. (Paul Charles Merkley, American Presidents, Religion, and Israel, Praeger, 2004, p. 206.)

Obama versus Netanyahu.

Journalists who are unacquainted with history (is there another kind?) are giving out the impression that the current “feud” has suddenly appeared out of current events. But the difficulties began right at the beginning of Obama’s Presidency – and it is important to grasp that these difficulties follow from the largest possible differences of philosophy and as well from fundamental differences of character.

From the beginning, President Barack Obama, has been as fully-invested as Clinton ever was in care and feeding of Netanyahu’s opposition, but he has never thought it necessary or even appropriate to pretend impartiality in the contest; indeed, he has made it clear to all who will listen that anything that assists the candidacy of Netanyahu contributes to the ruin of his grand vision for mankind and is thus a form of treason to the best interests of American, Israelis and The World.

For years Obama has been dedicated to cutting Netanyahu down to size: that is, to a posture of deference such as befits the leader of a minor player in world affairs in the presence of the world’s leading statesman, the man who represents mankind’s best hope for peace.

The first of many personal encounters between the incumbent President of the United States and the incumbent Prime Minister of Israel Binyamin Netanyahu took place in May, 2009. It was a conspicuously awkward encounter. The news-site Arutzsheva, (Israel National News) recalled the event (nearly four years later) as “marked by a rude display of public disrespect by the American leader in which he abandoned the Israeli prime minister to wait in the White House while he went off to enjoy a private evening meal alone with his family. Netanyahu was subsequently escorted from the White House through a side door, rather than openly through the front — a further humiliation that left unpleasant memories with which both leaders have since been forced to contend.” [http://www.israelnationalnews.com, February 7, 2013.] The neglect of ceremonial courtesy on this occasion, whether intended or not, brought to most minds a stark contrast to the elegance of Obama’s meetings a few weeks earlier with King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia – before whom he bowed out of respect for “His Majesty”. These gestures, taken together, were meant to signal a revolutionary re-calculation of America’s foreign policy priorities.

Netanyahu’s Visit to Congress, March 3, 2015.

Glad to have an opportunity to play the statesman in the largest possible arena, and to thereby widen the public-relations advantage over Herzog and his ally Tzipi Livni, Netanyahu has managed to acquire an invitation to address a special meeting of Congress on March 3.

Netanyahu made it clear at once that he intended to speak frankly and bluntly about the contrary understandings of his government and Obama’s government regarding what Netanyahu regards as the most dangerous development in international affairs— the imminent prospect of a diplomatic agreement that would allow Iran to expand its nuclear capabilities under yet another version of the kind of international observation that has in the past failed to prevent the nuclear- militarizing of Pakistan and North Korea. At a Likud Party event in Jerusalem Netanyahu recently proclaimed: “A bad deal with Iran is taking shape in Munich, one that will endanger the existence of Israel. Therefore I am determined to travel to Washington and to present Israel’s position before the members of Congress and the American people.”

The Day Before Purim.

Journalists who describe the current donnybrook between Netanyahu and Obama in terms of personal feud, get away with this only because they are either ignorant of or indifferent to the most important fact among all the important facts involved in this case — that Israel is a near neighbour to Iran, while the United States is half a world away.

The consequence of any miscalculation that the United States may make in course of its negotiations with Iran will inevitably fall upon Israel. Any subsequent diplomacy for the purpose of re-settling Iran’s “rights” will take place after Israel has been removed from the world.

President Obama ought at least to step up and acknowledge this – but, to my knowledge, he never has.

Elie Wiesel in a recent full page advertisement in the New York Times draws the world’s attention to the fact that Netanyahu’s appeal to Congress and the world will come “in the day before Purim” — “the day when, in ancient times, ‘a wicked man in Persia named Haman’ sought to destroy the Jews… Now Iran, modern Persia, has produced a new enemy. The Ayatollah Khamenei has been as clear as his predecessor in declaring his goal: ‘the annihilation and destruction’ of Israel. He is bent on acquiring the weapons needed to make good on the deadly promise.”

What’s At Stake for Barack Obama.

The Obama Administration believes that Israel has uncovered more than it is entitled to know about the secret negotiations between the U.S and Iran and is simultaneously using scare tactics about the realities and violating the trust that decent leaders and allies depend on. According to the New York Times,

A senior and respected Israeli politician said the White House is risking Israel’s future for the sake of its own selfish interests … ‘There’s no question that some of the things that the Israelis have said in characterizing our negotiating position have not been accurate ….. Israeli leaders say the deal America is negotiating would leave the Iranian nuclear program largely intact, trusting to the word of the mullahs to not develop a nuclear weapon …. [“Obama accuses Israel of Lying About Iran deal,” Israel Today, February 19, 2015. See also, inter alia: “Obama and Netanyahu clash from afar Over Israeli’s Planned speech,” NYT, February 9; “Netanyahu; ‘Israel in profound disagreement with Obama Administration,” Israel Today, February 1.]

Prime Minister Netanyahu attempted to make Iran the major foreign policy issue of the American Presidential election of 2012, and, in doing so, blatantly allied himself with Obama’s Republican rival, Mitt Romney. Following the rules of statesmanship as he understands them, Obama is now seizing his turn to sabotage Netanyahu’s campaign for re-election by causing him to fail to get his message into the Senate chamber.

Caroline Glick of the Jerusalem Post , widely read and admired for the exceptional realism of her commentary, writes:

Officially, the election on March 17 is among Israelis. Depending on how we vote, either Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu will remain in office and form the next government led by his Likud party, or Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni will form a government. But unofficially, a far greater electoral drama is unfolding. The choice is not between Netanyahu and Herzog/Livni. It is between Netanyahu and US President Barack Obama .… As the White House sees it, if Herzog/Livni form the next government, then Jerusalem will dance to Obama’s tune. If Netanyahu is reelected, then the entire edifice of Obama’s Middle eat policy may topple and fall.” (Caroline Glick, “ Netanyahu’s true electoral rival,” Jerusalem Post, February 19, 2015.)

On the Eve of Netanyahu’s Speech to Congress.

As I write, two days before the speech is due to be delivered, President Obama appears to have failed in his misguided campaign to kick Netanyahu off the stage. (“Obama’s Boycott of Netanyahu is collapsing,” http://www.algemeriner.com, February 18. Under direction from their boss, both Vice-President Joe Biden and Secretary of State John Kerry will be unavailable to attend the speech. Joe Biden was scheduled to be visiting Uruguay, but has since cancelled that on account of a bad cold. Kerry’s destination on that day was not announced for certain yet, but it will definitely be abroad. Still, only a handful of Congressmen have taken the hint. It looks likely to be a nearly full House.

Most students of American history and politics will concede that there is some merit in President Obama’s protest that Netanyahu’s gambit has put American politicians – right up to the President – in a position where they must appear to be taking sides in a foreign election. The larger fact is that Congress is co-equal with the Executive in responsibility for foreign Policy and has every right to listen to anybody whose thoughts might help it in its deliberations. There is no reason on earth why the Prime Minister of Israel should apologize for doing his job. It is entirely Obama’s own fault if the transparent efforts of his various elves to deny a platform for the elected leader of a major ally have failed.

But quite apart from any merit that there may be in Obama’s protest his failure can be sufficiently explained as manifestation of the low estate to which his prestige as a world leader has fallen since his re-election less than two years ago.

A news bulletin from the Guardian:

Brussels, February 12: The new Greek government’s confrontation with its Eurozone creditors over its campaign to relieve its staggering debt burden while also relaxing the terms of five years of austerity resulted in stalemate late on Wednesday …. It appeared that Alexis Tsipras, the new Greek prime minister, ordered his finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis, to stand firm against the pressure to make any concessions.

New Politics for Old in the Cradle of Democracy

On January 25, 2015, the Greek people elected a team of politicians who imagine themselves – probably correctly – as harbingers of a generational change that is swiftly taking place everywhere throughout Europe. Continue Reading »

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