Analysis from Israel

The most critical issue to be decided by the upcoming election came clear last week, yet it seems to have gone virtually unremarked. It isn’t tensions in the north, terror in Tel Aviv, Iran’s nuclear program, relations with America or any socioeconomic issue. Rather, it’s whether Israel will unilaterally withdraw from the West Bank.

There have been hints of this for a while. But the clincher was last week’s announcement by the Labor-Hatnuah joint ticket – the self-proclaimed “Zionist Camp” – that its candidate for defense minister, should it form the next government, is Amos Yadlin.

Yadlin is probably Israel’s leading advocate of unilateral withdrawal. He has used his current post as head of the Institute for National Security Studies to push the idea relentlessly, in forums ranging from briefings for Israeli reporters to articles in prestigious American journals. And it’s highly unlikely that someone of Yadlin’s stature – a former director of Military Intelligence who now heads one of Israel’s most prestigious think tanks – would agree to be any party’s candidate without assurance that his flagship policy would be on the table. Someone like Yadlin doesn’t enter government just to decide whether the IDF should add or cut another tank brigade.

Granted, both Labor leader Isaac Herzog and Hatnuah leader Tzipi Livni would prefer a final-status agreement with the Palestinians, so any government they form would first try to reach one. But every round of final-status talks for the last 20 years has ended in failure, and the Herzog-Livni effort is unlikely to fare better. And once the talks collapse, it would be time for Yadlin’s Plan B – unilateral withdrawal from 85% of the West Bank.

Indeed, Livni hinted as much in a Jerusalem Post interview last week. Asked why she thought yet another round of talks with Mahmoud Abbas would do any good, she replied, “The real question for me as an Israeli leader is not who is to blame, but how can we move forward in accordance to the vision of two states for two peoples, that represents the Israeli interest. Assuming that Abbas chose a strategy of going to the UN and International Criminal Court against Israel, as an Israeli leader we need to find a way to move forward – whether with him or in another direction.”

In other words, if an agreement with Abbas is unattainable, Israel needs to find “another direction” through which to advance toward two states. That’s Yadlin’s position as well – and in his view, that “other direction” is unilaterally quitting most of the West Bank.

Still, polls currently show Labor-Hatnuah winning only about 24 Knesset seats (out of 120), so it would need support from several other parties. And since polls also show that most Israelis oppose leaving the West Bank unilaterally, such a Knesset majority would surely be hard to find, right?

Wrong. It would be depressingly easy.

First, there’s Moshe Kahlon’s Koolanu party, whose diplomatic platform is being drafted by another leading advocate of unilateral withdrawal: the party’s number four, Michael Oren. Like Yadlin, Oren has pushed this idea in repeated articles and interviews in both Israeli and American media outlets. And someone of his stature – a former ambassador to Washington and acclaimed historian – is similarly unlikely to have joined any party, much less a brand-new, untested one, without assurance that his flagship policy would be on the table. So that’s another eight or nine votes in favor.

Meretz and the Arab parties will vote for any withdrawal, even if they’re outside the coalition; as evidence, see the 2005 disengagement from Gaza. That’s another 17 or 18 votes.

And United Torah Judaism can always be bought, just as Ariel Sharon did when his government was in danger of falling over the Gaza pullout. Then, UTJ’s price for rescuing the government was NIS 30 million. It would presumably demand more for the West Bank, but there’s no reason to think Labor-Hatnuah won’t pay. So there’s another seven votes.

Shas voters lean right, but party chairman and strongman Aryeh Deri leans left. It was Deri who, by all accounts, persuaded Shas’s founder and spiritual leader, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, not to oppose the 1993 Oslo Accord. Later, after Eli Yishai replaced Deri as party leader, Shas opposed the Gaza disengagement. But since then, Yosef has died, Yishai has been forced out and Deri’s control over Shas is absolute. Another six to nine votes.

Finally, there’s Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid. Before entering politics, Lapid avidly supported the Gaza pullout as a journalist. And in recent months, he has declared repeatedly that Israel must “separate” from the Palestinians and draw its own borders. In short, if another round of Israeli-Palestinian talks fails, he’ll back unilateral withdrawal. Another 10 or 11 votes.

Add it all up, and that’s 72 to 78 votes in favor of withdrawal – far more than the 61 needed. Thus if Labor-Hatnuah forms the next government, unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank is highly likely.

That’s grim news for the many centrists who are fed up with the current government but have no wish to repeat the disastrous experiment of the Gaza pullout in the West Bank, because it means such a pullout can be averted only if Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu remains in power. And that means voting for one of the only three parties certain to back him to form the next government: Likud, Bayit Yehudi or Yishai’s new party. Even Yisrael Beiteinu – which probably wouldn’t support a unilateral pullout – has indicated that it would prefer Herzog over Netanyahu as the next premier, and most of the other small parties have hinted the same.

True, Labor-Hatnuah isn’t publicly touting unilateral withdrawal, and neither is any other party. But that’s because doing so would likely result in being trounced at the polls. So instead, withdrawal advocates are keeping quiet and hoping nobody notices that this is what’s at stake in the upcoming election.

But it is. And therefore, anyone who doesn’t want the West Bank turned into a missile-launching pad like Gaza must vote for a fourth Netanyahu government – even if they have to hold their noses and swallow hard to do it.

Originally published in The Jerusalem Post on January 26, 2015

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Physicians, Heal Thyselves

It’s no secret that many liberal Jews today view tikkun olam, the Hebrew phrase for “repairing the world,” as the essence of Judaism. In To Heal the World?, Jonathan Neumann begs to differ, emphatically. He views liberal Judaism’s love affair with tikkun olam as the story of “How the Jewish Left Corrupts Judaism and Endangers Israel.” In fact, he believes tikkun olam endangers Judaism itself. Anyone who considers such notions wildly over the top should make sure to read Neumann’s book—because one needn’t agree with everything he says to realize that his major concerns are disturbingly well-founded.

Neumann begins by explaining what he considers the modern liberal Jewish understanding of tikkun olam. It is taken, he says, not just as a general obligation to make the world a better place, but as a specific obligation to promote specific “universal” values and even specific policies—usually, the values and policies of progressive Democrats.

He then raises three major objections to this view. The first is that the only way to interpret Judaism as a universalist religion with values indistinguishable from those of secular progressives is by ignoring the vast majority of key Jewish texts, including the Bible and the Talmud, and millennia of Jewish tradition. After all, most of these texts deal with the history, laws, and culture of one specific nation—the Jews. The Bible’s history isn’t world history, nor are its laws (with a few exceptions) meant to govern any nation but the Jews. Judaism undeniably has universalist elements. But to ignore its particularist aspects is to ignore much of what makes it Judaism, which therefore corrupts our understanding of Judaism.

The second problem is that if Judaism has no purpose other than promoting the same values and policies touted by non-Jewish progressives, there’s no reason for Judaism to exist at all. Consequently, the tikkun olam version of Judaism really does threaten Judaism’s continued existence, and it’s no accident that the liberal Jewish movements that have embraced it are rapidly dwindling due to intermarriage and assimilation. After all, why should young American Jews remain Jewish when they can do everything they think Judaism requires of them even without being Jewish?

This also explains why, in Neumann’s view, tikkun olam Judaism endangers Israel. If there’s no reason for Judaism to exist, there’s certainly no reason for a Jewish state. Indeed, Israel is anathema to the tikkun olam worldview because it’s the embodiment of Jewish particularism—the view that Jews are a distinct nation and have their own history, culture, and laws rather than being merely promulgators of universal values. Thus it’s easy to understand why tikkun olam Jews increasingly abhor the Jewish state.

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