Analysis from Israel

Speaking at the Saban Forum last weekend, President Barack Obama reiterated that the election of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani heralded a new direction in Iran that Washington would be irresponsible to ignore. “The Iranian people responded [to the sanctions] by saying, we need a new direction in how we interact with the international community and how we deal with this sanctions regime,” Obama declared. “And that’s what brought President Rouhani to power. He was not necessarily the first choice of the hardliners inside of Iran … And we should not underestimate or entirely dismiss a shift in how the Iranian people want to interact with the world.”

This explanation has been enthusiastically echoed by the media for months. But while it might have been possible for reasonable people of goodwill to believe it initially, today we know it’s a brazen lie. Obama didn’t start negotiating with Tehran because Rouhani’s election signaled an Iranian change of direction; his secret talks with Tehran started in March, three months before Rouhani’s election. Nor did Rouhani’s election in fact signal a public demand for change. On the contrary, it was deliberately engineered by Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei himself–a fact that even the Iranians now admit, as the New York Times reported just last week: “A Tehran-based analyst with ties to the senior leadership, Amir Mohebbian, has said that Ayatollah Khamenei ushered Mr. Rouhani into power with the idea of shifting course from the Ahmadinejad years and testing President Obama’s sincerity about reaching a nuclear deal,” the paper wrote.

There was, of course, ample evidence of this even back in June, which I detailed at the time. But we now have the missing link in this evidence–the motive for Khamenei’s ostensible about-face in ensuring the victory of the most “moderate” of the eight regime-approved candidates allowed to run, after having backed the most conservative candidate in the previous election. Having opened exploratory talks with Washington three months earlier and concluded that the Obama administration was prepared to give him the kind of deal he wanted, Khamenei naturally sought to put his best negotiator at the helm to conduct the talks.

Rouhani was unquestionably that. Prior to his election, he boasted–correctly–that as chief negotiator with the West a decade earlier, he secured a deal that enabled Iran to dramatically expand its nuclear program: The number of centrifuges grew from 150 to 1,700, and the Isfahan facility for yellowcake conversion was completed. What Khamenei and Rouhani understood was that even when Westerners are dying to sign a rotten deal, you still have to give them the fig leaf of a smiling face rather than a brazen Holocaust denier like former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Thus once he decided to pursue the talks, Khamenei ensured Rouhani’s election.

One can understand why Obama seeks to portray the nuclear deal as a response to growing anti-regime sentiment among the Iranian public; that’s something most Americans (and Israelis) would obviously like to encourage. But nobody should be fooled by this transparent lie. The deal Obama made is one that the worst elements of the Iranian regime consider to be in their own interests, and they deliberately engineered Rouhani’s election to secure it. All the administration’s talk of how the Iranian people brought Rouhani to power is nothing but a smokescreen thrown up in a desperate effort to obscure just how bad the deal really is.

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How Israel’s Electoral System Brings the Country’s Fringes Into Its Center

Like Haviv Rettig Gur in “How and Why Israelis Vote,” I, too, think the advantages of Israel’s parliamentary system outweigh its disadvantages, and for essentially the same reason: because it keeps a great many people in the political system who would otherwise remain outside it.

Critics of the system’s plethora of small parties—as Gur notes, no fewer than 43 parties have been vying for Knesset seats in this year’s election—maintain that it should be streamlined and redesigned so that only big parties would be able to enter the Knesset. In that case, the critics argue, people who currently vote for small parties would simply switch their votes to large ones.

No doubt, some voters would do so—but many others would not. There are at least three groups among whom turnout would plummet if niche parties became by definition unelectable: Arabs, Ḥaredim (including some ḥaredi Zionists), and the protest voters who, in every election, propel a new “fad” party into the Knesset. (In 2015, as Gur writes, the fad party was Kulanu. This year, it’s been Moshe Feiglin’s pro-marijuana, libertarian, right-wing Zehut party, which Gur doesn’t discuss although polls have consistently showed it gaining five to seven seats.)

Together, these three groups constitute roughly a third of the country, and all three are to some extent alienated from the mainstream. If they were no longer even participating in elections, that alienation would grow.

Why does this matter? In answering that question, I’ll focus mainly on Ḥaredim and Arabs, the most significant and also the most stable of the three groups (protest voters being by nature amorphous and changeable).

It matters primarily because people who cease to see politics as a means of furthering their goals are more likely to resort to violence. Indeed, it’s no accident that most political violence in Israel has issued from quarters outside the electoral system.

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