Bibi’s upset comeback

BibiopenDemocracy, 19 March 2015

Benyamin Netanyahu, already Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, is about to put together his fourth government. Two hours before midnight on 17 March 2015, exit polls by Israel’s three main television channels indicated a tie of roughly 27 seats each between his party, Likud, and the opposition Zionist Union.

By the next morning however, the tally respectively showed 30 to 24, a clear margin of victory for Netanyahu’s party which grew by 50% compared to 2013. Gambling on a joint list to challenge Netanyahu, the Zionist Union, an alliance of Yitzhak Herzog’s Labor Party and Tzipi Livni’s HaTenuah (‘the Movement’), may have secured significant gains compared to 15 and 6 seats respectively in 2013, but not nearly enough to form a government.

Votes streaming to these two neck-to-neck contenders enfeebled most other parties but pushed to third place a highly improbable party whose constituents have been historically marginalised in Jewish Israeli politics – Israeli Arabs. The four Arab parties had merged to form the Joint List, in order to overcome the barrier for representation in the Knesset, recently raised to 3.25%. Still, the 14 seats won will fail to make any substantive difference, at least for now.


In a fiercely contested parliamentary democracy based on proportional representation, even a clear electoral victory must still be followed by horse-trading, capped at 42 days, that would normally bring into existence a governing coalition of 61 seats at minimum out of the Knesset’s total of 120. In 2009, then Kadima head Tzipi Livni won by a narrow margin the largest number of seats, but it was the runner-up, the current prime minister, who eventually managed to create a governing coalition.

As it stands there are two probable coalitions. A rightwing nationalist-religious coalition led by Netanyahu’s Likud (30) which would include Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home (8), the Sephardic ultraorthodox Shas under Aryeh Deri (7), United Torah Judaism (6) and Bibi’s erstwhile campaign partner, the archconservative Avigdor Lieberman (6), would secure 57 seats – 4 short of the threshold. Conversely, a center-left coalition encompassing the Zionist Union (24), Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid (11), Zehava Galon’s Meretz (5), and the Joint List would still be 7 seats short of the necessary minimum.

Which is why this makes Moshe Kahlon, the popular head of Kulanu (‘All of us’), Israel’s most powerful politician at this precarious moment. Kahlon only relatively recently split off from Likud but has stated he would join any coalition that accepts his platform of pocketbook reforms and his singleminded bid for the finance ministry. Should Kahlon’s 10 seats join the nationalist-religious coalition – an almost foregone conclusion – Bibi would have a broad government with 67 mandates. Should Kahlon surprise everyone by looking center-left instead, the latter – with Arab participation – could still carry the day. A third possibility, also extremely unlikely the way things are going right now, is a national unity government with Kahlon playing third wheel.

Banking right

Like 2013, the elections this time round – brought forward owing to irreconcilable disputes within the previous Netanyahu government – wasn’t about foreign or security policy but rather about long festering domestic bread-and-butter grievances. But the impact of the new government on the broader outlines of Israel’s foreign policy will matter tremendously.

If Netanyahu’s second government (2009-2013) presided over a deterioration of Israel’s international standing, his third government (2013-2015) very publicly wrenched to breaking point Israel’s relations with its most important ally, America. With Republican prompting, Bibi decided to undercut the White House by directly addressing Congress about the demerits of the emerging Iran deal.

Netanyahu’s domestic constituency was likely as important a target audience as America’s lawmakers, if not more. Hours before the 17 March elections Netanyahu made what was then widely interpreted as intensifying desperation. In hindsight, however, it proved a high-risk/high-gain gambit.

Netanyahu publicly backpedaled on the ‘two-states-for-two-peoples’ pledge he made at Bar Ilan University in 2009. ‘If I’m elected, there’ll be no Palestinian state’, he vowed. On election day itself, he banked even more sharply right and raised hell by warning that Israeli Arabs, ostensibly funded by foreign governments, were pouring out to vote en masse and ‘twisting the true will of all Israeli citizens.’

More of the same

And so, coalitional negotiations pending, it appears we’re on the verge of a fourth Netanyahu government. Netanyahu hasn’t yet proven an ability, or perhaps the political will, to dislodge himself from the narrowest possible definition of national security, certainly not with him repeatedly pointing to the looming twin threat posed by the Islamic Republic and the Islamic State. With Bennett and Lieberman, though weakened, still guarding his far flanks, Netanyahu’s new government is unlikely to deviate much from its Israel-vs-the-world mindset, while remaining sanguine about keeping in over 4m non-Israeli Palestinians.

Having already ridden roughshod over its US ally on an Iran deal that has yet to reach a conclusion acceptable to Israel, the initial impression is that a fourth Netanyahu government is unlikely to quickly ditch the grosser instruments of statecraft for a more subtle approach.

Meir Dagan, the ailing former head of Mossad, Israeli’s intelligence service, called Netanyahu ‘the person that has caused Israel the most strategic damage when it comes to the Iranian issue.’ More understated though perhaps no less scathing was the charge by Yitzhak Ben Yisrael, Israel’s leading military scientist, that Netanyahu’s government had turned on its head Ben Gurion’s adage that ‘Gentiles only talk while we Jews do.’

The elections’ final figures look set to entrench Israel’s nationalist-religious camp, even though an empowered Likud also means a greater margin of maneuver for Netanyahu when it comes to intracoalition bargaining, especially with its more extreme members. Having invested so much of his rhetoric – and to be fair, a quantum of effort – in matters of national security, there is something approaching consensus among Israel’s security czars that Bibi has nonetheless brought Israel one step closer in the opposite direction. Having said this, after defying the odds in a close election, Bibi may yet surprise us again.

Picture credits: Demotix/David Bar Dov

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Iran: The Ayatollah Succession Question

KhameneiThe Diplomat, 11 October 2014

Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Sayyed Ali Khamenei recently underwent prostate surgery, following recurrent rumors that he suffers from some form of cancer. At 75, the Mashhad-born Khamenei, who is half Azeri-Turk and hence only half Persian, has been the Islamic Republic’s top arbiter and ultimate enigma ever since he replaced its founder in 1989. Although he has managed to go hiking following his surgery, questions about his health reinvigorates debate over the single most important question in Iran. Continue reading

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Gaming the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty


Open Briefing, 10 October 2014

The tensions surrounding the nuclear negotiations between Iran and the P5+1/EU3+3 continue unabated ahead of the November 2014 deadline, with the eventual outcome inevitably carrying implications for international relations and the future of non-proliferation.

As such, it is worth reviewing the strengths of the existing Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) and its executive arm, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), as well as the flaws that have attended the pageant of past proliferation crises. Beyond that, in order to strengthen the NPT and the IAEA in the longer run, there are seven areas that the non-proliferation regime needs to take into account. Continue reading

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Q&A session with Robert D. Steele on big data and the intelligence process

Robert Steele

Here’s the link to a recent Q&A chat I had with Robert D. Steele, CIA and Marine Corps Intelligence veteran, a leading proponent of OSINT, and something of an intelligence establishment iconoclast. I asked him how big data fits in within the intelligence process in terms of methodology, how it complements traditional subject matter expertise (SME), and other things.

See link.

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Israel and Kazakhstan: Assessing the State of Bilateral Relations



The Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies (BESA), Mideast Security and Policy Studies No. 107 (with Gil Feiler)

1 May 2014



The relationship between the State of Israel and the Republic of Kazakhstan, a Muslim nation of 18 million, offers a fascinating case study in international relations. On the surface, one finds little common ground. Yet over the past two decades, mutual relations have acquired significance. Israel’s experience, innovation, and qualitative edge continue to provide solutions to Kazakhstan’s development imperatives. Diplomatic relations have evolved overtly and against the general grain of Islamic politics, and in some ways dovetail with Kazakhstan’s wider foreign policy outlook. Both countries report ongoing bilateral trade across a wide sweep of economic sectors. Likewise, there is evidence that suggests more extensive defense and security cooperation than meets the eye.

While high-tech and first-rate human capital stream towards the Kazakh steppe, raw energy and wheat flow toward the Mediterranean, the precise volumes of which are rarely ever presented to public scrutiny. Kazakh foreign policy draws strength from balance as well as the ability to parley with diametrically opposed actors. Relations with Kazakhstan allow Israel to circumvent its hostile near abroad, but also provide a bridge for Israel to re-engage with the wider Islamic world, particularly through the more neutral terrain of inclusive, interfaith dialogue that Astana has prominently championed. In all these ways, historical and material conditions have converged to facilitate cooperation. However, all this notwithstanding, much still surprisingly remains in potentia, and Israel’s decision-makers would do well by not losing sight of a key partner in the Islamic world.

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Photo: Wikicommons

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