Bibi or Tzipi?

Martin Sherman’s lowdown of the Israeli general elections

General elections in Israel have thrown up what Indians know as a hung parliament. Tzipi Livni’s Kadima and Binyamin “Bibi” Netanyahu’s Likud have 28 and 27 Knesset seats respectively, which will require them to form a coalition with Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu (16 seats) or Ehud Barak’s Labour Party (13 seats), or indeed, with each other.

The Acorn asked Israeli scholar Martin Sherman to give us his opinion.

Q: Who are you in favour of? Why

Bibi (Mr Netanyahu) is by far the most talented politician presently in the system. He was a brilliant foreign minister and a very competent finance minister (although to much Friedman and too little Keynes in his mix for my personal taste) and as a prime minister was far better than was given credit for. He is however an anathema to the media who will maul him whatever he does—or doesn’t do. This will make it very difficult for him to operate as he is will be under tremendous pressure—particularly internationally. Thus I am very concerned over his resolve. In the past he has not been the free of blunders and has often snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.

Ms Livni is all spin and no substance and a stunning example of the success of failure in Israeli politics. Her success is inexplicable in terms of any rational calculus. On a party level, the platform she was elected on in 2006 proved to be a delusional disaster. Her party was wracked by corruption scandals and led the country to two non-victories in poorly managed wars which it itself initiated. In the personal level she has shown herself to be devoid of any qualities that could conceivably justify her as a choice of leader. By abandoning her 2003 electoral pledges not to support unilateral withdrawal she proved that she has no intellectual integrity or commitment to principles. This might have been excused in the utilitarian world of politics if the policy she abandoned her principles for proved to be a stunning success. However it was a crushing failure, proving that she also has no political wisdom or judgement. Again this might have been excused in the utilitarian world of politics if she proved to be a astounding success in the sphere of practical policy implementation—but the present unprecedented assault on Israel can only be described as a diplomatic debacle, which, as foreign minister for the last three years Livni must take responsibility for. Her main asset was the aversion people have to Bibi, especially among the supposedly “intellectual” elites here—for whom he is a red flag

What are the implications for Israel’s relations with India?

Very little—I expect the the external constraints and inducements will the principle factor driving the relationship together with the inherently compelling structural logic of the relationship.

I think both Bibi and Livni (perhaps more so Livni) are very Atlantic-centric (US-EU focused). Yuval Steinitz (a Likud MP) who is close to Bibi and was formerly head of the Foreign Policy and Defence committee in the parliament, is, however, very mindful of the value of India-Israel relations.

But I believe the depth and warmth of relationship will be determined more in New Delhi than in Jerusalem—hopefully not only by the career diplomats in South Block—where like their counterparts in Romema (the seat of the Israeli foreign ministry) and Foggy Bottom in Washington it not always easy to discern that drives policy decisions—national interest or politically correct diplomatic nicety.

13 thoughts on “Bibi or Tzipi?”

  1. Perhaps we could get another perspective on the candidates from someone not Israeli but knowledgeable about the scene.

  2. Israel’s politics are as crazy as India’s, and yet both are stable democratic polities. For that very reason, it is important for Indians to watch Israel, maitain close links, and draw inspiration from. I think India has finally discovered Israel, and there can be no going back. A brilliant piece of analysis by Sherman.

  3. It would be tragedy if an ugly hawk like Netanyahu became the PM with support from even uglier people like Avigdor Lieberman

  4. xyz,

    As far as Sherman tells us, it doesn’t matter to India if an ugly hawk becomes prime minister. It’s none of your business or mine to pass judgement on who the Israelis elect as pm.

  5. Excellent column overall, but this American observer takes two exceptions.

    First, while one can make a case the Israel “initiated” the 2006 war (but what did the kidnapping of Israeli soldiers constitute?), the recent Gaza war was clearly provoked by the Palestinians. No minimally responsible government of any sovereign state could have reacted any differently to thousands of rockets and mortars being fired into their territory. Indeed, Israel’s restraint was exceptional in this instance. The only mistake made by Israel in this latter case was that – as in Lebanon, only Lebanon was worse – the job was left unfinished.

    This brings me to the second point. Mr. Sherman speaks of the “unprecedented assault on Israel” in the world community, laying the blame on Israel’s foreign policy establishment under Ms. LIvni. They may take some of the blame, but to lay it all on their doorstep is ludicrous. This assault has been going on for decades, and represents the coordinated efforts of the Arab/Moslem SW Asian bloc, funded by the petrodollars of the oil states, whose PR campaign against Israel is historically unprecedented in size and scope. Never in history has such effort been expended to demonize and delegitimize a sovereign state, with no real basis other than medieval bigotry. This would be taking place regardless of who is in charge in Israel.

    This PR assault on Israel is the major reason why the Gaza war in particular turned out in a less than satisfactory fashion. What started out as a “war to the bitter end” – as it should have been -per Defense Minister Barak, became a ‘war to the bitter reestablishment of deterrence’, and not even very effective deterrence at that. Israeli leaders, policy spokespeople, their UN ambassador, etc., all tried to make Israel’s case to the world community, but this was drowned out by outrageous media coverage from almost every major venue. I’d say Israel did a better job in the “media battle” this time than in 2006, but that is not saying much. They are still learning, and they are up against a very well-funded, entrenched, and organized foe in this regard.

    One more observation: Bibi vs. Livni sounds eerily similar to McCain vs. Obama, respectively. Do we see a pattern here?

  6. To abc & xyz

    You should remember that:

    A – Hawks support strong deterrence as policy – and, as we are often prone to forget, DETERRENCE IS A DOCTRINE OF NON-VIOLENCE. Indeed, in the case of status quo powers (as both India and Israel are), violence only flares when deterrence fails – either (a) when actual deterrence failure makes repelling of aggression the only alternative to surrender; or (b) when imminent deterrence failure makes preemption unavoidable.

    B – The greatest tragedy of war in human history (which cost up to 70 million lives) was the result of the policy of DOVES – that of Britain and France in their forlorn attempt to appease tyranny rather than deter it.

    So why would you portray hawks as ugly?

  7. Dear Robert,

    Thanks for your generally kind assessment of my comments.

    Some words to perhaps to address the exception you take part to parts of my previous post.

    A- As for who initiated the 2006 war in Lebanon – I am at all not disputing the fact that Israel had a right – indeed an obligation – to respond to Hezbollah aggression – not only to the abduction of the two soldiers from inside the internationally recognized border, but also to the shelling of Israeli positions inside that border, which accompanied the abduction. However, operationally the war was “initiated” by Israel in the sense that Israel had the time to choose when, where, on what scale and in what format to launch its retaliation. It was not forced into a hurried, unplanned defense to meet a surprise invasion.

    B- The reason for failure was psycho-political. Tethered, emotionally and mentally, to the delusional notion of “unilateral withdrawal” which ha just brought them to power, Olmert, Livni and other Kadima leaders found themselves imprisoned within the confines of a distorted intellectual architecture that precluded any possibility of effective policy responses to a reality that threaten to make their then-recent election platform look absurd. The result of this was that the war was CONCEPTUALIZED POORLY, CONDUCTED BADLY and CONCLUDED DISASTROUSLY – with the noxious UN resolution 1701- that for some mysterious reason Livni insists on taking credit for, and which instead of bringing about the intended disarming of the Hezbollah brought about the multiplication of the weaponry in its possession. (For more details on why the source of failure in Lebanon – and perhaps to a lesser extent in Gaza- was not so much MILITARY MISMANAGEMENT but POLITICAL MISPERCEPTION which prevented a Kadima-led government from ordering appropriate use of the IDF – see my article “Enlightened or unhinged?” http://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-3289040,00.html

    C- While it is true that Livni does not bear the entire burden of blame of Israel’s dismal international image, she has certainly done precious little to improve it – in spite of the fact she purposefully adopted a very pliant and accommodating posture vis-à-vis the conventional-wisdom demands of the international community from Israel. Moreover, in spite of the fact that on the outbreak of the military campaigns in Lebanon (2006) and Gaza (2008) Israel enjoyed a rare and unprecedented surge of understanding from the global community –including tacit approval of several conservative Arab regimes– this was not capitalized on and soon degenerated into a – perhaps equally unprecedented – frenzy of anti-Israel fury. This process was not unexpected and no preparations were undertaken to prevent it occurring, or containing it once it had – partly for reasons detailed, or hinted at, below.

    D- Although it is true that not all the fault is with Livni, much of it is: her unreserved intellectual allegiance to the myth of Palestinian moderation that prevented her from formulating and launching any strategic public diplomacy initiative and locked her into generally unpersuasive tactical apologetics; her pre-occupation with shallow spin rather than serious substance which precipitated the (predictable) failure her “branding of Israel” initiative, the main thrust of her public diplomacy endeavor – based on the futile attempt to circumvent the thorny Palestinian issue and focus on portraying as Israel a cute and chic paradise for trendy hedonism; rather than a valiant and beleaguered democracy surrounded by a sea of tyranny fighting for its very existence against forces of unspeakable brutality (A SAMPLE OF WHICH WAS RECENTLY EXHIBITED IN MUMBAI) . This showed a deplorable lack of understanding of the cognitive mechanisms that shape the way Israel is seen by outside eyes…

    E- But I am probably beginning exceed the interest span of most of the readers of this blog. So for those who wish to explore these issues further see my articles: Myth of moderation http://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-3372315,00.html;and
    Explaining Israel’s PR failure http://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-3584454,00.html

  8. Martin,

    I will try to be brief, as I am loathe to nitpick back and forth with someone who is essentially “on the same side” as myself on these issues.

    First, we agree completely on the 2006 war, and I appreciate your clarification. I was only saying “a case can be made” for Israel “initiating” that war, for the reasons you list.

    As to the more recent war in Gaza, we diverge somewhat. I don’t know how much media you monitor outside of Israel, but I can tell you from my vantage point in the U.S., that whatever sympathy may have seemed to exist to you in the world community from the onset of either Lebanon or Gaza, it sure didn’t exist in the press.

    From day one, you were brutalized in practically every major media venue. Even FOX, which tends to pay more attention to your side, was not so great, and the rest (CNN, ABC, CBS, NBC, LA Times, NYT, Reuters, etc.), were simply awful. Just variations on what you’d see on Al Jazeera, and that is not an exaggeration.

    I get the sense that you underestimate the level of pressure that is mobilized against Israel by the actors I list in my previous post. It is amazing how coordinated this all is.

    An example: About a week into the Gaza war, there was an anti-Israel demonstration in NYC that attracted about 5,000 people. It was all over the news. Correspondents were sticking microphones in the faces of participants, getting the Palestinian line, no critical comment from the other side, nothing. The following week, there was a pro-Israel demonstration in NYC that attracted twice the number of the Palestinian demonstration. This got NO coverage to speak of. I would not have known of it myself were it not for the extent to which I am “plugged in” via the Jewish community organization. The same thing happened in Britain: a big pro-Israel demonstration in Trafalgar Square also went largely unreported. I’m sure this sort of thing happened in many places.

    I know from friends who do more detailed media monitoring here in the U.S. that a lot of local newspapers were sympathetic to Israel, but the big ones with a national following were all awful. Even then, a lot of the smaller newspapers depend on newsfeeds from organizations such as Reuters and AP; these articles are almost always slanted against Israel.

    You are right – we agree enormously – that Israel must be more pro-active in dealing with this problem. But the size and scope of the problem is huge. The bad guys have been building their capabilities up in this regard for a long time. It is all they can do, since they can’t win on the battlefield, and they can’t compete with Israel in any other venue.

    Israeli leaders often do say the right things. At the beginning of the war in Gaza, for example, Ehud Barak was quoted as saying that asking Israel to agree to a cease fire with Hamas was like asking the U.S. to agree to a cease fire with Al Queda. His mistake was that he said this only once, apparently expecting everybody the world over to immediately appreciate the obvious truth of his statement and leave Israel alone. But the key is repetition: a lot of people won’t hear it the first time, so it must be said over and over again, by everybody with access to the media, until it sinks in. Also, in the UN, the Israeli ambassador, as I noted above, gave a fantastic, brilliant speech in defense of Israel. But did it get any coverage? No. Again, I only knew of it because of the “Jewish” network. What can we do when we are muzzled?

    This doesn’t mean we give up, it means we must be more persistent. But we have to realize what we are up against, above and beyond leaders of questionable competence in the moment.

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