Foreign funding for Israeli politicians undermines Diaspora ties

This article first appeared in Ha’aretz 12/31/14

The role of Jews from around the world in Israeli politics has been the third rail of Israel-Diaspora relations. Can we be critical? Should we be supportive? Do we get a say on peace and security? Do we get a say on immigration? How about the role of the non-Orthodox?

Yet, all of these careful discussions, which have been calibrated over years of tinkering, are thrown out the window during election season. It is now that the niceties of this conversation are thrown aside and the real dynamic between Israel and the Diaspora is laid bare.

For the majority in the Diaspora, an Israeli election is a confusing affair, a circus of different political parties flashing across the headlines. Israeli journalists, think tankers and communal professionals will come to synagogues and community centers and attempt to explain what the main issues are, and who might come out on top. Election season is the busy season for Israel educators across the world.

For the global Jewish donor community, however, the Israeli election season is a chance to boost favorite candidates.

Likud’s primaries, which take place on Wednesday, consist of two separate elections: One to pick the party’s leader, and another to determine its Knesset slate. This year, ahead of these ballots, Likud politicians have received donations from across the world. As of last week, Benjamin Netanyahu raised 539,000 shekels ($137,000) from 14 U.S. donors and one from Spain. Danny Danon, who is challenging Netanyahu for the leadership of Likud, raised 261,000 shekels ($66,800) from 11 donors, 10 of which are in the U.S. Zeev Elkin, who is vying for a preferential position on the party’s slate, was backed by donors from U.S., Russia, Switzerland and Britain.

Likud members are not the only ones receiving funding from abroad. Labor MK Nachman Shai reportedly received 79,352 shekels ($20,300) from donors in the U.S. and Canada, as well as Israel. MK Ayelet Shaked from Habayit Hayehudi received 51,976 shekels ($13,300) from donors from the U.S. and Israel.

Nearly every democratic system struggles to deal with the issue of money in politics, the U.S. being a prime example. Yet, the extent to which it is acceptable, both legally and publicly, for Israeli political candidates to receive direct funding from foreign interests is astonishing.

Israeli politicians should be joining the time-honored global political tradition of whispering political promises into the ears of their own tycoons, not foreign nationals; at least the tycoons need to obey the laws of those they are seeking to put in power.

This bizarre allowance, both legally and in the eyes of the public, shows the real nature of the Israel-Diaspora relationship: Rich boosters from abroad are allowed to have undue influence in the political process of a country they care enough about to try and buy off, but not move to.

The political donor dynamic undermines every argument of those Israelis, on the left and the right, who say that Jews from abroad should not have a say in Israeli politics. Those who have always maintained that Jews abroad should serve as Israel’s cheering section, that they should sit quietly if they disagree with Jerusalem’s policies, are hypocritical when they stand by and allow foreign funding for Israeli political careers.

It makes a mockery of the efforts that Jewish foundations have made, via seminars and dialogues, to make Knesset members understand the complexities of life in the Diaspora.

As long as it is a publicly accepted, legal norm for Jews from around the world to donate to political candidates in Israel, whether in the primary or general elections, the unhealthy dynamic between Israel and the Diaspora will continue unabated.

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Naftali Bennett’s annexation plan: A report card

This piece appeared on +972 Mag on 12.25.14

When Naftali Bennett first entered the coalition, I wrote of his plan to create a de facto one-state solution. Now that the current government is in its final days, it is worth taking stock of his progress and looking at what his plans are for round two.

Strengthening the belief in the supremacy of claims to the Jewish homeland and the justness of measures to maintain control of it.

The last straw of this current government was the Jewish Nation-State Bill. As he stated in his much-watched performance at the Brookings Institute, Bennett’s next target is the Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty, the constitutional basis in Israel for civil and human rights. He believes the “balance” was tipped by the Supreme Court and that Israel has become too democratic and not Jewish enough.

It is therefore no surprise that Bennett’s Jewish Home party has indicated it will demand the Justice Ministry in the next government.

Uniting the nation and its leadership

Though it was clear that Jewish Home’s Uri Ariel was Housing Minister only for the West Bank settlements, Bennett’s personal popularity has only grown. His latest campaign video shows him trying to break out of the ‘settlement party’ box.

Military strength and controlling of the territory through the security establishment.

Bennett scored big political points during the last war in Gaza by arguing in favor of a ground invasion to shut down the tunnels early on in the operation. The fact that he was ahead of the curve has been important for his profile. Based on this performance (and his previous military service), he now regularly dismisses security officials who disagree with him.

The elimination of terror and cessation of incitement in Palestinian schools.

Bennett has maintained that there is no partner in the PA, pointing to incitement. He continues to do so at every available opportunity.

Making clear to the international community that a second state west of the Jordan River is not viable.

Many folks were surprised by the strength of Bennett’s performance during the Saban Conference in Washington earlier this month. Bennett’s main calling card is that he fully rejects the two-state solution and wants to shift the conversation in a different direction. The cornerstone of his plan is the annexation of Area C and some sort of self-rule in Areas A and B. Gaza isn’t worthy of inclusion in his plan. The more he can get people to agree that the two-state solution is dead, the more he can claim that he is the only person with a path forward.

Advancing the immigration of one million Jews to Israel to secure a permanent Jewish majority in Israel.

Bennett rather enjoyed his position as Minister for Diaspora Affairs. He was Chairman of Birthright and champion of the World Jewry Joint Initiative, a program designed to scale up the concept of Birthright and have Israeli tax-payers responsible for ensuring a strong Jewish identity within the diaspora. As I’ve written previously, the idea of having struggling middle-class Israelis subsidize the humongous costs of Jewish day school education in the States is a losing concept. More importantly, being a third-party funder will give the Diaspora Minster a say over Jewish educational content in the U.S. and will give Bennett a whole new platform — targeting a new generation — to continue advocating and advancing his one-state vision.

One million Jews in Judea and Samaria, tripling its Jewish population.

As Labor MK and Knesset Finance Committee member Stav Shaffir consistently showed, under Bennett’s priorities, the Finance Committee would give larger and more subsidies to West Bank settlements than to the socioeconomically weak towns and cities in the south of Israel. Between the Housing Ministry and the Knesset Finance Committee chairmanship, Bennett’s party has ensured that cash continues to flow across the Green Line in disproportionately larger and larger sums in order to make this his vision a reality.

The creation of large residential areas surrounding the current West Bank settlements.

Though there was no formal settlement building freeze during this government, there were constant rumblings about an informal freeze outside the major settlement blocs. Bennett hopes to continue advancing his one-state vision through his annexation of Area C, which he will be in a greater position to do if he takes becomes Israel’s next Defense Minister.

Palestinian construction workers in an Israeli settlement (Photo by Yotam Ronen/Activestills.org)

Executing a construction, development and economic plan for the million Jewish Israeli residents of the West Bank.

The Defense Minister is the de-facto sovereign of the West Bank. Not due to any lack of effort, many of Housing Minister Uri Ariel’s initiatives never got approval from the Defense Minister under this government. It is no wonder that one of Bennett’s main anticipated demands from Netanyahu in the next coalition is being given the reigns to the Defense Ministry.

Over all, Bennett has done remarkably well. What has stood in his way has been the Supreme Court and his inability to get final approval for settlement projects in the West Bank. It is little wonder that he wants to push through the Jewish Nation-State bill, while insisting on the Justice and Defense portfolios as his price for ensuring Bibi’s return to Balfour Street in Jerusalem.

Whether or not Bibi gives him everything he wants, Bennett is riding high.

What of the anyone but Bibi coalition (AOBB)?

For the math to work for AOBB, either the ultra-Orthodox need to sit with Lapid (not a chance in hell) or Meretz needs to sit with Avigdor Liberman. With the role of the Arab parties still unknown (as they struggle with the Left to work out how, if at all, they should work together) they have been left on the outside, at best in a supporting role.

Thus the savior of the two-state camp (Avigdor Liberman) is a man who wants to transfer Arab citizens out of Israel, the implementation of which would mark the formal departure of the concept of coexistence from the two-state paradigm.

If Bennett has accomplished anything it is this: he has forced the two-state camp to rely on a party whose main plank is the transfer and disenfranchisement of Arab citizens of Israel.

Until the Left finds a way to include the Arab parties in their potential coalition, the result will be depressing and the coalition-building formula will mean that the two-state solution may no longer be worth the price.

Nine Steps that will Kill the Two-State Solution

Daily Beast 3/21/13 also Ottomans and Zionists

With Obama visiting Israel, many groups are trying to get his attention so they can let the President know what they think he should do. Included within the pleas from the peace camp and the ‘Free Pollard’ camp is a document prepared by the Yesha council titled, “Judea and Samaria – It’s Jewish, It’s Vital, It’s Realistic.”

Questions answered within this Kafkaesque document include: why the demographics are on the Settlers’ side, why are the Palestinians stealing water from Israel, and what is the legal history of Israel’s settlement enterprise. Most interesting, however, is the nine-step plan that the Yesha council has created at the end of the document to fulfill their vision.

The main tool that the Yesha council has to achieve its vision are its political advocates in the Knesset and in the government. Their building in the West Bank happens through the good graces of the state authorities. Of course the main party for the Yesha council is HaBayit Hayehudi, but they also have representation through the Likud and Yisrael Beytanu and a scattering of MK’s in some of the center parties. Members of their communities operate across the center and right of the Israeli political spectrum.

Looking at the nine steps we can see the underlying HaBayit Hayehdui strategy during the coalition talks. Additionally we can start to make sense of some of the other Knesset and moves and statements by members of the settler community on the national stage.

Step 1: Renewing the strong belief in the supremacy of the Jewish claim to the Jewish Homeland and the justness of taking measures to maintain control of it

In the coalition agreement between Likud and HaBayit Hayehudi was a bill to make the Jewishness of the State supreme. This is a redo of the Avi Dichter bill from the last Knesset. No one is quite sure of which version will hit the Knesset, if it gets through Livni, but it is part of a big move to decouple the concepts of Jewish and Democratic state as equal and promote the former at the expense of the latter. The motivations behind this become clear in a strategy that is tied into biblical land claims and preparing for a situation where the civil rights of millions of Palestinians are going to have to be restricted.

Step 2: Uniting the nation and its leadership

Throughout the coalition talks, Bennett was the peacemaker between Lapid and Netanyahu and has pledged to be a leader for all of Israel, not just the settlers. His party has also taken over key ministries that can affect the cost of living across Israel. Bennett has been very keen to be seen as responding to the J14 protests and be a transformative politician that can transcend the tribal politics of the moment and be one of the new leaders of Israel alongside Lapid. By also slipping in the raising of the electoral threshold into the coalition agreement, he can ride the wave of HaBayait Hayehdui current popularity and force others from his camp to work with him if they want any representation at all. By forcing people into a broad tent he gives himself a broader appeal and solidifies himself and by extension the Yesha council firmly into the mainstream.

Step 3: Military strength and control of the territory by the security establishment

Though many ex-military and security men veer to the left after they retire from service (just see The Gatekeepers), the new Defense Minister, Moshe Yaalon, most definitely veers to the right and was the first choice of the settler community. Though the security establishment is pretty much entrenched in the West Bank already, Barak had been the thorn in the side of the Yesha council. With him removed the security establishment can work in concert with the Yesha council in helping it expand both from the Knesset and on the ground itself.

Step 4: The elimination of terror and cessation of incitement in Palestinian schools

While all Israelis want to see an end to terror and incitement, the previous governments’ flat-out rejection of the State Department’s school textbook report demonstrates a complete unwillingness to examine the issue of incitement on both sides of the border. It is essential to demonize the Palestinian national narrative while maintaining that individual Palestinians are ok and stating that the Settlements actually have had great relationships with the communities pre the first intifada.

Step 5: Creating a situation where it becomes clear to the international community that another state west of the Jordan River is not viable

The serious policy community is split about whether the two-state solution has already been killed by the settlements and the Yesha Council or if it is merely on life support. Needless to say, the Yesha Council is well on its way to pulling the plug. The new Deputy Foreign Minister, Ze’ev Elkin, already ascribes to this point of view. Though many advocates of one-state agree that the settlements have killed the two-state solution they do not share the Yesha councils vision of what a one-state solution would look like. The power and establishment will be with the Yesha council and in doing so they will have a tremendous momentum on the ground when two-states is officially abandoned to fulfill their vision before anyone else gets a look in. Yes Israel will lose friends and allies and there might be a brain drain that could seriously affect the economy. But I sadly have less faith that pressure will force Israel to give up its reason d’état of providing the Jewish People with self-defense and power by giving those they have been occupying full civic rights. The death of the two-state solution will mean the Yesha council has won, read the rest of their document to see how they view Palestinians.

Step 6: The further immigration of one million Jews to Israel to secure a permanent Jewish majority in Israel

In the coalition talks, Bennett managed to carve the Diaspora portfolio out of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and into his own portfolio. The reason for this now becomes crystal clear, he is desperate to get more Jews to immigrate. Bennett demanding this portfolio always seemed odd. The Settlements are often the largest bone of contention between Israel and her Diaspora (amongst Jews who are engaged at least). Passing on this responsibility to the former general secretary of the Yesha council looks on the surface to be a recipe for disaster. This step helps us understand the real consequence of why this demand was made. What will be interesting to see is how Bennett attempts to bring the Diaspora to Israel and how their aliyah will be tied to step 7. Is the aim just to lock in the demographics regardless of where the Jews live or to get them to move to the West Bank and lock in the settlements?  We will have to wait and see but watch to see where new job incentives will be made for new immigrants, Bennett has the ability through Trade and Industry to create incentives where he chooses.

Step 7: One million Jews in Judea and Samaria, tripling its Jewish population

With the housing and trade ministries, Habayit Hayehudi can now start working on this. The proof will be in where the new low-income housing is built. Even if just restricted into the settlement blocs, if this plan is being followed the aim will be a massive increase in settlers. As with step 6, we will have to see if alyiah and settlement are linked. President Bush (1st one) conditioned the aid to help resettle the Russian Jews on them not being housed in the West Bank understanding the threat there. One other important step to remember, Bennett received the public diplomacy portfolio as well. Through this he can push the settlements into the official Israeli government narrative both at home and abroad.

Step 8: The creation of large residential areas surrounding the current communities of Judea and Samaria

Housing, Trade, Knesset Finance chair – between these three portfolios and a willing defense minister the sky is the limit on step 8. I predict the concept of settlement bloc will expand and large scale projects begin to be planned as expansions in key areas. Even more so then Yaalon, Danny Danon is a particular fan of the Yesha council and he is deputy Defense Minister.

Step 9: The execution of a construction, development and economic plan for the million residents of Judea and Samaria

Habayit Hayehudi has already indicated that they would rather release prisoners and transfer taxes to the PA than freeze settlement construction. Looking at this nine-step plan, it is easy to see why he would rather give any other ‘confidence building measure’ than allow the slowing of the settler population.  The one thing that they cannot allow is a settlement freeze as it destroys the plan above.

This should be seen as nothing less than a strategic effort to kill the two-state solution. Keep in mind that Prime Minister Netanyahu just committed his new government to two states for two peoples in his joint press conference with the President on Wednesday. Looking at how this is planned out it is clear that the only thing that could stop this from happening is freezing settlement construction. The sad fact is that a settlement freeze has already been tossed by the US administration as a failed attempt.

The Yesha Council is very open about their aims, objectives and methods. If people want to do more than pay lip service to the idea of two-states, they must not only oppose the Yesha council at every turn of this plan but offer their own step by step approach to how to create a two-state reality today. Though it is the establishment opinion that two-states will happen, those opposing it literally are executing on a plan to kill it. Those of us who wish to see it come about must equally set out a plan and start building today facts on the ground to make it so.

Initial thoughts on the Israeli election #israelvotes

So I am happy to say I was wrong, like most other people – Yair Lapid was the major winner of the elections.

Of course the important factors are who will make up the coalition. In that regards I see a Bibi,Bennett,Lapid,(Mofaz if he makes it) being the core and the option for the religious parties to join if they want, but with few if any sweeteners.

There are three burning issues, the budget, religious /secular and the Palestinians, this coalition can go some way in answering the first two, and hopefully due to the size of Lapid’s bloc, can at least attempt to do no harm to the third. Though I work for the two state solution day and night, the fact is that Lapid is in the mainstream of the Israeli public discourse, sure on Two States, just uncertain how to get there. He will block any annexation attempt so it seems for now that worry is gone.

Additionally Bibi will not be able to dump him without going into the arms of the ultra-orthodox and in doing so destroying more of his base vote.

Interestingly it will be the Likud party that will be the hardest for Bibi to wrangle with and the least practice on a whole range of issues.

Despite the dictatorial nature of Yesh Atid (Lapid cannot be removed as party chair for 8 years) he seems to have genuinely brought in some great talent to the Knesset. I am very excited about Rabbi Piron and Rabbi Lipman going a long way to help heal the religious secular divides. Added to this Bennett who shares a lot of the same concerns on this issue.

What you will see is a far more moderate modern orthodox approach to both the office of the Chief Rabbi in Israel and other issues in education et al then we have seen before. I don’t believe that the progressive streams, Reform, Conservative, will get anything from this (their hope still is with Meretz and Labor) but the ultra-othodox hold over every aspect of state and religion seems to be crumbling.

The 6 for Livini and the 6 for Meretz shows that there are 10% of Zionist voters who put the Palestinain issues ahead of all others. There are of course people who value it who voted for Labor and others but those who put it front and center represent 10% of the country for sure. I worry about the lack of urgency but am happy that the anti-democratic far right vision that could of happened.

Additionally the healing of society on religious secular issues can go a long way to paving the way to have real discussions on other issues such as Two States among other things not from a tribal political standpoint but as a nation that is more united then divided.

Give us your donations but not your votes – Distancing and Dependency in Israel

Ha’aretz 10/29/12

To what extent should the Diaspora be involved in the upcoming Israeli elections? To your average Israeli taxpayer, the answer is, not at all. Without the burden to pay tax, send your kids to the army and live with the consequences of your vote, you should have no role to play on determining who runs Israel.

This argument seems correct in theory. Yet in practice Jews abroad are having a tremendous impact on the election. As Haaretz recently reported, 96.8% of the Prime Minster’s personal fundraising took place overseas. In total over 53% of all political donations over the past two years has come from abroad. The only party who has not taken a dime it seems has been Meretz.

How politicos in Israel choose to raise money doesn’t bother me; that is for their electorate to decide. What irks and worries me is how this phenomena, a public distancing while maintaining private cash dependence, is maximizing the worst stereotypes we have of each other.

I don’t think that Diaspora communities should have a voice in decisions yet we cannot ignore the fact that in every Zionist educational program the question is asked whether Jews around the world should have a say in Israel’s internal affairs. The Israeli prime minister, declaring themselves the leader of the Jewish People, and reserving Jerusalem as an eternal Jewish capital, spurs this question on.

If someone purporting to be my leader, and declaring a city my capital uses me to strengthen his or her legitimacy, surely I should have some say in the matter. The question is made sharper by the fact that they come to me for my money in their pursuit for public office.

The mismatch of public Israeli feeling, with the private reality feeds the unhealthy ATM relationship between Israel and the global Jewish community. The bounds of the current relationship are outdated and eroding. The distancing mixed with dependency culture is unsustainable and both sides will need to demonstrate a willingness to change.

What the global Diaspora offers Israel today is a petri dish of public policy ideas and solutions to tough problems currently facing Israel. How does one square pluralist Judaism with an Orthodox establishment? What are the best methodologies of integrating an ultra-Orthodox community into a secular society? How do we encourage a culture of philanthropy to sustain our public institutions? What is the correct way we should approach interfaith programming, where are the pitfalls and opportunities?

These are just some of the questions that can be helped by plumbing the depths of the various Jewish communities around the planet to find answers. Using the modern Jewish experience from abroad, rather than just our checkbooks, will open the door to a far more productive relationship than one of dependence. Jewish communities want to have a deep and meaningful connection to Israel.  Yet as long as it is publicly disrespected and privately pandered to, this relationship will continue to be dysfunctional.

#Biberman – quick thoughts on new right wing super party in Israel

One can always be sure that an Israeli election season can throw some curve balls and the current one is not disappointment. Today Benjamin Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman decided to join forces in forming a right wing super party (or should that be a super right wing party) list in the upcoming elections.

Bibi’s Likud, currently the head of the coalition government and the largest predicted party in most polls, is the traditional center right party in Israeli Politics. Its ideological forefather being Jabotinsky, the father of revisionist Zionism, they have always been skeptical of land for peace but fiercely tethered to democracy.

Lieberman’s Yisrael Beytanu was founded to help represent the new Russian influx into Israel. Tracking slightly to the right of the Likud in their national security policy, they draw their political inspiration more from a Russian understanding of democracy and are fiercely secular in their approach.

Though most observes in the UK see the Israeli political spectrum as one of right to left in only the war and peace realm, the parties in Israel occupy different places depending on what right to left axis one is using.

By choosing to run with Lieberman, Bibi has decided to link with an avidly anti-religious party whose policies are not embedded in western democratic thought. In doing so he hopes that the sum of both parties will be big enough to create a mega party with enough clout to get what ever he wants through without having to give up too many unpopular concessions to the religious parties of Shas and UJT.

By focusing in on a secular-citizen agenda, the new party will attempt to form a collation without the religious parties of Shas and UJT, needing the center and even possibly Labor to come in. In doing so they can pledge real reform in the realm of church and state.

The issue of universal conscription and welfare in particular are of critical importance to the average Israeli voter, and Bibi’s concessions to the ultra-orthodox were giving him some electoral worries.

With this big move however there are some definite winners and losers:

Winners:

Lieberman – Having always been seen as a powerful but second tier party leader, Lieberman has the chance to become Bibi’s heir apparent with even rumors of a Blair/Brown esk deal.

HaBayit Yehudi – The new mega right wing party is still nominally interested in negotiations, HaBayit Yehudi can now claim it is the only real home of the true rejectionist right wing. Additionally it will attract the religious right that will leave the Likud due to its adoption of the secularism of Lieberman.

Yesh Atid – The new center party might be able to pick up center right votes that were Likudniks due to their discomfort with Lieberman’s lack of respect for free speech and dissent.

Losers:

Shas – Bibi’s other rock in his current government, they were not made aware of the deal and it has been clearly made to alienate the religious party. The union might have been pushed by the return of Arieyh Deri to a leadership position within Shas. He has always been comfortable working with the Center Left that could have spooked Bibi.

Moderates and the Religious Right in the Likud – Moderates in the Likud will now have no chance of getting high up enough on the list to make it into the Knesset. Additionally Gideon Sa’ar and Gilad Erdan, both jocking to be Bibi’s heir are going to be seriously out of sorts now that Lieberman is the new number 2. Both have been spinning it’s a joint list rather then a joint party.

It’s hard to see until new polls come out what the result of this move will be. Internal polling within Lieberman’s party sees this new party getting 51 seats. As voters come to terms with these two personalities coming together, it will add another twist and turn to this electoral cycle.

UPDATE: will make a bet that Likud’s very popular Sephardi Minister Moshe Kahlon left was due to this deal being worked out. Especially as its so anti-Shas