Steven Simon chose to open his new book, “The Great Illusion”, in September 1982, on the outskirts of Lebanon. Ronald Reagan was the American president, and when he sent the marine force to the divided country he explained to his citizens that they “owe it to themselves and owe it to their children”. What exactly do they owe? Do what is necessary, because “the whole world will be a safer place when this region, which has known so much trouble, begins to recognize the possibility of peace.”
The marines landed and left, the presidents came and went. Simon served one of them, Barack Obama, as a senior adviser on Middle East affairs at the National Security Council. “The Great Illusion” is a summary of a career, of a life, of a political failure. Simon also does not spare questions about the American relationship with Israel, its reasons and its future.
He also did this in a previous book, at the end of the Obama administration’s term, and at the height of the Israeli-American dispute over Iran. His book “The Great Illusion” does not renew much, but places the history of the past decades as a warning sign for the decades to come. Mainly, it signals the Americans to continue what they seem to have decided to do a long time ago: lowering their profile here to raise their profile elsewhere – South and East Asia.
This is one of the reasons why while Israel is fighting with the annoying mosquito in Gaza, a small player, a pawn in a big campaign, in the Middle East the ground is shaking. Syria returns to the Arab League. “A glorious return,” an Iranian newspaper called it. The wait paid off, sticking to the goal paid off. Bashar Assad will probably hand over to his successors a country whose death a decade or more ago was premature and exaggerated.
Turkey is facing the possibility of a change of government. Those who were born when Erdogan came to power are today 20 years old. And it is not certain that they will see him go. There are leaders, and not all of them are alike of course, who do not tend to go easy. This is how the Americans learned from Donald Trump, this is how the Israelis are learning from Benjamin Netanyahu, this is how the Syrians learned from Assad.
Meanwhile, the Iranians are advancing on the nuclear path almost unhindered. Meanwhile, the Saudis are recalculating the regional force array. Meanwhile, the Egyptians are also talking to the Iranians. Because there is no choice. And all this while we wait – for the rocket to come, for the talks at the President’s house to progress, for the budget to pass, for the Eurovision final.
The Iranians are supported by China and Russia, who have apparently decided that an Iranian stick over the West’s head is more effective for them than it scares them. Accordingly, Beijing is playing a more active diplomatic role in the Middle East. It is Saudi Arabia’s top trading partner and the largest buyer of its oil. Riyadh has begun importing Chinese military missile technology.
Iran’s success in escaping, at least partially, from the political isolation worries some elements in the Israeli elite, the few who bother to think beyond the immediate horizon of Gaza and the political chaos. Tightening the relationship between Tehran and China is an economic lifeline. It further lowers the already low chance of a US-sponsored nuclear deal.
Perhaps a regional agreement is the right solution, suggested one research institute. May the Iranians, the Saudis, the Egyptians and the Turks reach agreements. Israel will of course insist that its concerns be taken into account, or that the agreement does not concern it and does not bind it in any way.
But Iran is no longer alone in the battle against America (a little) and Israel (more). Behind it stand an economic and military power (China) and a nuclear power (Russia). The Russians have pledged to sell fighter jets to the Iranians. The Iranians are sending drones to the Russians. Any such rapprochement will make it difficult for Israel to conduct a major campaign against a country many times its size. Any such rapprochement indicates that Israel must prepare, at least in terms of planning, for the possibility of an urgent need for a new regional strategy in a new Middle East – and not the kind that Shimon Peres dreamed of on him
And in Gaza, business as usual. Look ten years ahead, 20, 30 years ahead – and what do you see in Gaza? Since the disengagement, which created a rare window of opportunity for improvement, 18 years have already passed. These are 18 years of stagnation. Not that Israel is to blame for this. Not that it matters if Israel is to blame for this. Israel is stuck with it. There is no long term plan.
Maybe the Egyptians will agree, one day, to take Gaza under their protection (but why would they agree?). Maybe the Palestinians will come to their senses one day, and grow a ruling elite that wants the good of the public it is responsible for (when was the last time you saw such an event in the Middle East?). Maybe foreign investors will come and enable an economic boom that will bring political moderation (yes, right after solving global warming).
And if all these do not happen, Israel is stuck with a chronic problem. A controllable problem in itself, but it joins a large backlog of issues that Israel refuses to find a solution for. And this may be a real problem.
We have come of age
Avi Gil, the former director general of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, published an important article a few days ago. At least in my opinion, it is important. Not everyone will want to listen to him, because Gil is from the group sometimes known as “Oslo criminals”, that is, in the eyes of a large majority of Israelis, he was wrong in his predictions at least once One. The MID’s decision-making survey, which we published two weeks ago, shows that about half of the Jews in Israel believe that the decision to sign the Oslo Accords was “bad”, and another 15% believe that it was “not good” (13% say “excellent”).
Still, I will insist that Gil made an important argument that warrants discussion. “The current crisis,” he wrote, referring to the socio-political crisis, “reveals once again the ongoing inability of Israeli society to define agreed upon goals and steer its course as a solidary nation whose members feel a shared destiny. The gaping divisions within us, together with the coalition system, encourage political conduct whose purpose is to circumvent fundamental differences The art of not making decisions has become the favorite weapon of Israel’s leaders who wish to seize the wheel of power.”
Not all of Gil’s conclusions in this article will please government critics. For example, one can conclude from it that perhaps it would have been better for the government to stick to its mission and impose the legal reform on Israel, and not submit to the demand for restraint – just as Yitzhak Rabin’s government imposed Oslo on Israel, with a morally and practically dubious parliamentary majority.
Here – read another line from Gil: “This approach well reflects the will of the majority of the public, who prefer a center coalition dominated by parties with no appetite to drag the state into principled struggles. It is not for nothing that the latest polls show that the Likud is paying a significant electoral price for its attempt to lead Israel to a decision on fundamental issues Benny Gantz, on the other hand, receives a lot of sympathy because he symbolizes the one who has the power to blur disputes and stay away from taking positions that provoke discussion.”
Is this what the poet meant (Gil is a writer, not a poet. Look around and you’ll find his nice book)? The exact intention can be debated. Or ask Gil. Obviously he didn’t mean to say that you should insist on every idiotic move, just because it’s better to do than not do.
On the other hand, it is clear that Israel has been stuck in a state of inaction for several years, and mainly avoids touching on the fundamental issues that pose a strategic challenge to it – the lack of a stable constitutional order, the future of Israeli rule in Judea and Samaria, the growth and influence of ultra-orthodox society, and other issues.
Gantz, in Gil’s version, is the symptom. There is no doubt that he wants the best for Israel. There is no doubt that he wants to prevent a rupture and act with moderation. That is why he is a leader who is hard to hit. He does not seek to evacuate settlements, nor is he ready to accept excessive proposals of annexation, the ultra-Orthodox are not afraid that he will cut their budgets, the liberal camp understands that he will oppose a political supreme court.
In an era of confusion and turmoil, Gantz is a relaxed beach of safety. But the ease is deceptive. The complacency allows for a slow, ongoing erosion of the foundations of Israeli power without responding to it.
The results of the index (photo: None)
The price of the ultra-Orthodox
Last week it was evident that Likud decided to flex a muscle. That is, to signal to the other partners in the coalition that the threat of a possible dissolution will not deter the Likud from choosing a policy that seems right to it. It must be said – the leaders of the Likud did not have much choice. The party is losing public support, and if it continues to accept dictates from its partners, it will lose more support.
At some point a decision had to be made: not a big risk of going to the elections (if Ben Gabir or the ultra-Orthodox decide to go crazy), versus the certainty of continuing to lose public support. And at least for a few days, a decision was made that meant risk. Ben Gabir didn’t like what was happening in Gaza (and in retrospect, he seems, as always, a bit pathetic), in Likud they said he didn’t have to stay in the government. The ultra-Orthodox insisted on the conscription law, Likud continues to insist that this is not the time.
Who will bend whom in this struggle is not yet completely clear. Ben Gabir has a lot to lose, the ultra-Orthodox maybe a little less. They believe they will get what they want in the next round as well, and in any case, their businessmen will have work. There is no reason to assume that Torah Judaism will receive fewer mandates in the next elections (the question regarding Shas is a bit more complex, but Shas is not the party that insists on the conscription law now).
So in the end, there will probably be a walk on the threshold to see who blinks first. Is Benjamin Netanyahu so afraid of losing the coalition that he will submit to any dictate, no matter how much the polls cry out against him? Or maybe he will feel that he has no choice but to press hard on the brake, hoping that others will blink?
In the weighted average of the polls of the index website, Likud currently stands at a little more than the predicted 25 seats if the elections were held today. A decrease of 7 mandates compared to the situation in the Knesset, a decrease that means a certain loss of power. Of course – all this will happen if there are elections, and if the voters who abandoned Likud do not return to it, and if and if and if.
At the moment, all these mother-mothers are not materializing, they are just a cloud over the head of the coalition. A cloud that can actually help her in strengthening loyalty, an addition of glue. No party has a clear interest in breaking up the coalition. No party is looking at a likely scenario of a large gain in the event of new elections.
And the Likud has a justified concern. The drop in the polls, even if it will not be fully realized, is no longer a momentary signal, but an ongoing and consistent trend. What causes Likud voters to abandon? There are a number of reasons for this, and today we will point to one of them – which adds a layer to the current insistence on the postponement of the conscription law.
We’ll say it in a short title, and then we’ll present the explanation. The title is this: Voters who leave the Likud do so, in part, because they do not like the willingness to give the ultra-orthodox parties everything they ask for. And to put it another way: Adherence to the ultra-Orthodox will cost the Likud mandates.
Now a detail: ten days ago we conducted a survey on the index website that examined, among other things, the positions of Likud voters on the question of recruiting ultra-Orthodox. The data was collected by Noah Selfkov and analyzed by Prof. Camille Fuchs. Likud voters from both the 2021 and 2022 elections were included in the survey, and the question was also asked who these voters would vote for today.
In other words: we could check for each and every one of the participants in the survey if they voted for Likud in 2021, if they repeated their vote in 2022, and if they would repeat their vote in 2023 (meaning today).
We cross-referenced this data with the questions about recruiting the ultra-Orthodox, to see if there are any differences in the approach of former Likud supporters and current Likud supporters on this issue – and the answer is yes. There’s a difference. Likud supporters who left Likud are supporters whose positions on questions concerning the ultra-Orthodox are more critical.
We will present one example: in the survey we asked the male and female participants to agree or disagree with the statement “The exemption for the ultra-Orthodox makes me angry”. This is, of course, an exemption from conscription for yeshiva candidates. And it should be said: he does not anger the majority of Likud voters. Admittedly, most of them are in favor of “all citizens serving” in “military/national/civilian” service. But the fact that they are in favor of service, does not mean that the exemption for the ultra-Orthodox necessarily “angers” them. Anger is a strong emotion and not everyone is comfortable being angry, certainly not at a large population, certainly not at political partners.
So only a minority of Likud voters are “angry”, but this minority represents one of the clear differences between voters who stayed with the Likud even in the 2022 elections, and voters who abandoned the Likud after the 2021 elections. In other words, one can assume that one of the considerations that kept voters away from the Likud in the last election was anger On the exemption for the ultra-Orthodox.
In fact, as we move forward on the timeline, from the 2021 elections to the 2022 elections, to the question of what the voters would do today, we see that those who remain with the Likud all along are those who are willing to accept the government’s policy on the ultra-Orthodox. On the other hand, those who left the Likud in 2022, or say they would leave the Likud in 2023, demonstrate tougher positions towards the ultra-Orthodox.
Here are some more illustrative numbers: Among Likud voters in 2021, 61% agree that “the ultra-Orthodox should serve in the IDF like everyone else.” Among Likud voters in 2022, 49% agree that the ultra-Orthodox should serve like everyone else. Among those who would have voted for Likud in 2023 There are 41% who agree that the ultra-Orthodox should serve like everyone else. What do we learn from this? That Likud voters who stay with the Likud are the same voters who are willing to put up with the possibility that the ultra-Orthodox will not serve.
Maybe it’s easier to see if you look at the data from the other side – if you check what proportion of voters disagree with the statement that ultra-Orthodox should serve like everyone else. Among the Likud voters of 2021, 39% disagreed (that is, they thought it was okay for ultra-Orthodox not to serve). Among the voters of 2022, the rate increased to 43%. Among 2023 voters, the rate jumps to 54%. And again the same conclusion: who stays with the Likud? Those who are more willing to accept the exemption for the ultra-Orthodox. Who does not stay with the Likud? Those who are less willing to accept the exemption for ultra-Orthodox.
And the same thing about anger. Those who say they will leave the Likud are more angry with the ultra-Orthodox, those who say they will stay with the Likud are less angry with the ultra-Orthodox. Meaning – the anger over the exemption for the ultra-Orthodox (and probably also about all kinds of other things that concern concessions to the ultra-Orthodox) alienates some of the Likud voters. Meaning – politically, and regardless of the question of what is right to do for the benefit of the state, Likud leaders have to choose between accepting the dictates of the ultra-Orthodox in order to maintain the coalition, and rejecting the dictates of the ultra-Orthodox in order to maintain the voters. It is not an easy choice.
This week we used data and information from the Index website, Avi Gil’s article from the Wynet website, Steven N. Simon’s books, Foreign Affairs magazine, the Wall Street Journal and New York Times newspaper reports. Full disclosure: The survey of Likud voters was conducted by the index website at the invitation of the Free Israel movement.