Israel and Latin America: It’s Complicated (The Times of Israel, 13 September 2017)

Prime Minister Netanyahu’s visit to Latin America is welcome and long-overdue.  Indeed, it is astonishing that no Israeli prime minister before him ever paid an official visit there.  As Israel is trying to counter Iran’s global reach and to crack the “automatic majority” at the United Nations, investing diplomatic efforts in Latin America is the right thing to do.

Latin America played an important role in the birth of Israel.  Three of the eleven countries that constituted the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP) were Latin American (Guatemala, Peru, and Uruguay).  The representative of Guatemala at UNSCOP was George Garcia Granados, a pro-Zionist who had met twice with Menachem Begin in secret when the British were trying to kill him.  Granados pushed hard to get UNSCOP to adopt partition and to get it approved by the General Assembly.

The President of the General Assembly at the time of the vote on partition was Oswaldo Aranha from Brazil.  Like Granados, Aranha also had strong Zionist sympathies.  The vote on UNSCOP’s partition proposal had been scheduled to take place on the 27th of November 1947.  As the vote was approaching, however, it became clear that there was no majority for the approval of partition.  More time was needed to gather support, especially among Latin American countries.  Aranha came up with an idea that saved the day: November 28 was Thanksgiving, he reminded delegates, and it would be unfair to keep American workers at the UN.  He therefore suggested renewing the debates and votes over the UNSCOP proposal after Thanksgiving.  His proposal was accepted, and the extra 48 hours enabled the Jewish Agency to gather more support among UN delegations.  During the vote, the support of Latin American countries was critical.  At the General Assembly, 33 countries voted “yes,” 13 voted “no,” and 10 abstained.  Of the 33 “yes” votes, 13 were from Latin America (i.e. 40%).

Despite this diplomatic support, however, relations were overshadowed by the shelter offered by Latin American governments to senior Nazi criminals such as Adolph Eichmann, Klaus Barbie, and Joseph Mengele.  After Israel captured Eichmann in Argentina in 1960, the Argentinian government complained that Israel had violated diplomatic étiquette, but it did not apologize for granting Eichmann a save heaven in the first place.  Other Nazis lived a happy life in Argentina and died in old age, such as Erich Priebke who died in October 2013 at age 100.  Like many other Nazis, he lived a comfortable life in the Argentinian ski resort of Bariloche, where Joseph Mengele took his driving test and where Erich Priebke ran a deli.  It was said to be the best in town, and customers used to call it “the Nazi deli.”

While most Latin American countries voted in favor of partition at the UN in 1947, their voting patterns at the General Assembly became unfavorable to Israel from the 1960s onward.  In 1964, a voting group of third world countries (known as “Group of 77”) was formed at the General Assembly.  Latin American countries were part of this bloc, which was very much influenced by its Arab and Muslim members.  To Israel, Latin America was “lost” diplomatically but it still mattered economically because of its oil reserves.  After the Iranian revolution of 1979 Israel lost a major oil supplier and oil exporters such as Venezuela, Mexico, Brazil and Ecuador became valuable alternatives.

In addition, Latin America once again became diplomatically relevant to Israel after the 1973 Yom Kippur War.  Due to the oil embargo, most African countries cut their diplomatic ties with Israel, while Western Europe and Japan kowtowed to Arab demands.   Israel tried to bypass its diplomatic isolation by leveraging common interests with unsavory regimes.  In the case of Latin America, this policy meant selling weapons to anti-Soviet and authoritarian countries.

Of all Latin American states, only Cuba severed its diplomatic relations with Israel after the Yom Kippur War.  Latin America became the last bastion of Israel’s presence in the Third World after 1973: Israel was isolated from Africa, and it had no diplomatic relations with China and India.  Except for Cuba after 1959 and Nicaragua after 1979, Latin America did not become “red” during the Cold War.  The United States was eager to prevent a Communist “domino effect” in what it considered to be its backyard.  In Chile, the Socialist Salvador Allende was eliminated by the CIA shortly after his election in 1973.  Latin American dictators knew they could count on the United States to keep Communist rebels at bay.

Yet this policy was suspended under Jimmy Carter’s presidency (1977-1981).  Carter stopped giving carte blanche to anti-Communist dictators in Latin America because of their human rights violations.  For example, Carter vetoed in 1977 the granting of a loan to Argentina for the purchase of US weapons.  Israel filled the void temporarily left by America by becoming a major arms supplier to most Latin American countries, such as Argentina, Ecuador, Guatemala, and Honduras.  In 1980, for example, Israel was reportedly providing 80% of El Salvador’s military hardware.

Except for Nicaragua after the 1979 Sandinista Revolution, all Central American countries bought weapons from Israel.  This was a win-win relationship since Latin America needed Israel’s weapons as much as Israel needed Latin America’s oil (especially after the 1979 Iranian revolution).  Communist guerillas also happened to have close ties with the PLO and with anti-Western Arab leaders.  The Sandinistas in Nicaragua, for example, had been cooperating with the PLO since 1969 and they enjoyed the military and financial support of Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi.

In recent years, relations between Israel and Latin America are overshadowed by the influence of Iran and Hezbollah.  On the 18th of July 1994, the Jewish community center of Buenos Aires was bombed, killing 85 people.  It was revealed in October 2006 that Iran had ordered the bombing and that Hezbollah had carried it out.  In June 2013, Alberto Nisman, Argentina’s special prosecutor, issued a 500-page report showing that Iran had been building a network in Argentina for 30 years.  Nisman’s report revealed that Iran’s intelligence activities in Latin America are conducted directly by Iranian officials and through Hezbollah.  Nisman was found dead on 18 January 2015, hours before he was scheduled to testify in Congress.  Nisman has drafted warrants for the arrest of President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner for her alleged role in covering-up the role of Iran and Hezbollah in the 1994 bombing.

Hezbollah’s presence in Latin America is growing through the expansion of Iran’s diplomatic and intelligence missions, businesses and investments.  Hezbollah started its infiltration of Latin America in the mid-1980s, establishing its first major stronghold in the Tri-Border Area, a relatively lawless region along the frontiers of Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay.  From this base, deep in the heart of South America, Hezbollah set up illicit enterprises to fund its operations in the Middle East and elsewhere. Among the organization’s reported major undertakings are money-laundering, counterfeiting, piracy and drug trafficking.  The Tri-Border Area constitutes Hezbollah’s most significant source of independent funding.  Hezbollah has gained entry into Latin America through Iran, which has strengthened ties with Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua.

Argentina’s previous president, Cristina Kirchner, had developed strong ties with Iran.  Her successor and political opponent, Maurizio Macri (elected in December 2015), has rectified Argentina’s foreign policy.  He is well-disposed toward the West and toward Israel, and Netanyahu is right to build a personal relationship with him as well as with other like-minded Latin American leaders.  The prime minister’s trip to Latin America is timely, and his diplomatic initiative praiseworthy.

 

New Likudniks legitimately play by the rules of a flawed game (The Times of Israel, 30 August 2017)

Prime Minister Netanyahu’s Likud party is in the throes of a public family feud.  Thousands of freshly registered Likud members, self-branded as “New Likudniks,” are accused by some (including by Netanyahu himself) of being closet leftists that are crashing the party (pun intended) to move it leftward.  Likud’s legal advisor, Avi Halevi, claims that the New Likudniks’ registration drive is illegal because it is “manipulative.”

In Israel, Members of Knesset (MKs) do not run in districts but vie for the highest slots in the (many) parties competing for the Knesset’s 120 seats.  Parties are entitled to select their candidates as they wish, and they do so in different ways.  Yair Lapid and Avigdor Lieberman singlehandedly handpick their candidates by order of preference.  In ultra-orthodox parties (Shas and UTJ), candidates are selected by a “council of sages.”  In Likud, Labor and Jewish Home, Knesset candidates are elected by registered party members in primary elections (the English word “primaries” has imposed itself in modern Hebrew).

It did not take long for the Jewish mind to figure-out how to take advantage of primary elections.  Interest groups sign-up thousands of members to force the hand of candidates.  This is not mere lobbying: candidates do not stand a chance it they don’t toe the line of vested interests with large numbers of registered party members.  “Organized groups,” as they are called, multiply their influence by trading votes (“We’ll support your candidates if you support ours”).  Among Likud’s 100,000 or so registered members, organized groups include quite a range of vested interests: settlers, trade unionists, gays, taxi drivers, divorcés, and even cabbalists.

This free-for-all contest produces awkward results.  Trade-unionists impose their socialist agenda on a pro-market party; settlers block any move toward a two-state solution officially endorsed by the Prime minister since 2009; and showing-up at gay parades has become de rigueur for MKs of a supposedly conservative party.  Vested interest groups know that MKs pledge their allegiance disingenuously and for lack of better choice; but those groups care about submissiveness, not about good-faith.  Yet the side-effect of this cynicism is the rewarding of opportunism and of deceit.  Indeed, a quick glance at most Likud MKs is worth a thousand words about the shortcomings of party primaries.

Not only are the New Likudniks no different in their methods than other organized groups; but they are not, in fact, promoting vested interests.  Rather, they want to bring back sanity and balance to a party that has lost both.  To a party whose charter calls for free markets (Article 1.G), for the rule of law and for equal rights to all (Article 1.E); a party in which Dan Meridor, Benny Begin and Michael Eitan failed to get elected in the 2012 primaries.

For praiseworthy at it is, however, the New Likudniks’ undertaking is not what is needed to cure the ills of party primaries.  The solution lies in introducing open lists in Israel’s electoral system.

Like in most democracies (65% of them), Israel’s voting system is one of party-list proportional representation (Knesset representation is proportional to the number of votes obtained by parties on election day).  Yet unlike most democracies that practice proportional representation, Israel does not allow voters to influence the composition of the list they vote for.  In open list elections, voters not only choose a party but also the order of candidates on the party’s list.  Israel belongs to a minority of countries (16%) that still practice a system of closed lists, i.e. a system in which voters are not able to reward or penalize their representatives.  In open list elections, candidates are selected based on their ideas, record and personality, and not by murky party machinations.  They are answerable to their voters and not to party stalwarts and vested interests.  In open lists, parties are still free to select their candidates as they wish (either by the party chairman, by a “council of sages,” by a central committee, or by primaries), but the last word belongs to voters.

Adopting open list elections in Israel would require legislation.  Chances of gathering a Knesset majority for such legislation would be higher were the adoption of open lists made optional, i.e. if parties are entitled but not compelled to open their lists to voters’ judgement.  Parties will be entitled to have the only and last word on their Knesset list, but they will have an incentive to adopt open lists because voters who hesitate between two similar parties on election day will go for the one that enables them to choose their candidates.  As for one-man-show parties that care a lot about their public image (think of Yair Lapid), open lists will enable them to repel the accusation that they are undemocratic.

Pre-Knesset primary elections (which Likud adopted in 2006 upon Netanyahu’s insistence) are fictitious and corrupt.  The New Likudniks a legitimately playing the by the rules of a flawed game.  In the 2015 Knesset elections, Netanyahu opened Likud’s campaign by promising to change Israel’s electoral system “within 100 days.”  It is not too late for him to honor this commitment by promoting a reform that shall improve the level of MKs and make them answerable to their voters.

 

Narendra Modi in Israel: The Apex of India’s Diplomatic Realignment (The Times of Israel, 3 July 2017)

The historically unprecedented visit of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Israel may come as a surprise to some.  India’s early leaders were lukewarm at best toward Israel, and the two countries were at odds during the Cold War.  Today, India and Israel are strategic partners and Modi’s visit confirms a diplomatic realignment that began years ago.

India and Israel both obtained their independence after a fierce struggle against Great-Britain, and the two countries were partitioned because of religious and ethnic strife.  The partition of the Indian sub-continent in 1947 between a Hindu-majority India and a Muslim-majority Pakistan produced a double Hindu/Muslim refugee tragedy (estimated at 14 million people) and a geographically divided Muslim state (Pakistan was split between its main landmass in the west and its eastern province, which became Bangladesh in 1971).  British Palestine was also partitioned de facto in 1949 (with the Rhodes armistice agreements) between a Jewish-majority Israel and a geographically divided Muslim polity (the Jordanian-controlled West Bank, and the Egyptian-controlled Gaza Strip).  This partition also produced a double-refugee phenomenon between Jews and Arabs.

Mahatma Gandhi opposed partition as a matter of principle.  He strove for a pluralistic and unified India.  So he certainly did not apply a double-standard by opposing the partition of Palestine, too.  But he also opposed Zionism.  Because he considered the Jews a religion and not a nation, he rejected their right to national self-determination (especially in Palestine which, he claimed, was the sole property of the Arabs).  India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, formerly recognized Israel in 1950 but he refrained from establishing full diplomatic relations.  Despite partition, India still had a large Muslim minority and Nehru did not want to provoke further unrest with a divisive diplomatic move.  India also needed diplomatic support in its conflict with Pakistan, and would therefore not unnecessarily alienate Arab and Muslim states by upgrading relations with Israel.

During the Cold War, India aligned with the Soviet Union in spite of its officially “non-aligned” foreign policy.  This diplomatic alignment further widened the rift between India and Israel, especially after the 1967 Six Day War (at the end of which the Soviet Union severed its diplomatic relations with Israel).  The pro-Soviet foreign policy of India was institutionalized under Indira Gandhi’s premiership (1966-1977, and 1980-1984).  Despite this official chasm, however, Israel provided weapons to India in its conflicts with China (in 1962) and with Pakistan (in 1971).

With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, India lost its international backer.  The United States, which had nominally supported Pakistan during the Cold War, was now interested in developing a strategic relationship with India, especially to counter-balance China’s growing power in Asia.  This shift in US foreign policy was materialized by the 2008 Congress bill which allowed India to use nuclear technology (despite the fact that India was not a signatory of the Non-Proliferation Treaty).

India and Israel established full diplomatic relations in 1992.  India’s conflict with Pakistan over Kashmir entered a danger zone when Pakistan detonated its first nuclear bomb in 1998 (India had been a military nuclear power since 1974).  India could now benefit from Israel’s technological and military expertise at a low diplomatic cost.  Hence the emergence of a strategic partnership between the two countries.  In 1999, for example, Israel provided India with surveillance drones and laser-guided missiles during the “Kargil war” with Pakistan.

India’s rapprochement with Israel was also influenced by Indian domestic politics.  There is a striking similarity between the political history of the two countries (besides partition).  Both India and Israel were uninterruptedly ruled during the first three decades of their independence by a Socialist party: The Congress Party in India, and Mapai in Israel.  The two countries had a marginalized and ostracized nationalist right: the Janata party in India (today’s BJP) and the Herut party in Israel (today’s Likud).  Both the Indian and Israeli right-wing parties won their first election in 1977.  BJP won the 1998 general election and it led a diplomatic realignment, which included a rapprochement with Israel.  The Indian right was always staunchly pro-Israel and critical of Congress’ pro-Soviet and pro-Arab foreign policy.  Narendra Modi brought BJP to power again in 2014 and he renewed his party’s pro-American and pro-Israel foreign policy.

Today, India is Israel’s largest importer of military equipment, and Israel is India’s third largest provider of military equipment after the United States and Russia.  Prime Minister Modi has approved a $250 billion multiyear plan to modernize the Indian army (India’s two major regional rivals are Pakistan and China).  Israel has been chosen by India as a key player in this modernization plan.  In April 2017, for example, India’s Defense Ministry signed a $2 billion contract with the Israel Aircraft Industry (IAI) for the supply of missile defense systems.

Prime Minister Modi has also taken the unprecedented step of breaking ranks with the UN General Assembly’s “automatic majority,” which Arab States have exploited for four decades to pass one-sided resolutions on the Arab-Israeli conflict.  Modi will not be visiting the Palestinian Authority during his trip to Israel, something the Palestinians will likely interpret as a snub.

Modi is uninhibited by the “Muslim vote” (14% of India’s population), as his BJP party draws its political strength from Hindu nationalism.  He sees in radical Islam the common enemy of both India and Israel.  As for Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, strengthening ties with India is part of a wider strategy of diplomatic diversification meant to reduce Israel’s dependency on its growingly critical European partners.

The Sixth Decade of the Seventh Day (The Times of Israel, 6 June 2017)

On the seventh day, the Kremlin regretted its gamble: it had provoked the war to improve its regional standing but its Arab client-states ended-up being humiliated.  The alliance between Israel France was over, but it is with French fighter jets that Israel annihilated the Egyptian air force.  Whether or not Israel had weighted the nuclear option, that option had been made possible by France too.  De Gaulle had warned Israel to hold its horses but, having been ignored, he lashed out at “the Jews” castigating them as “elitist, self-assured and domineering.”

Israel eventually ceded the Sinai Peninsula for a Realpolitik bargain originally concocted by Henry Kissinger.  Egypt traded its Soviet alliance for a territory delivered by American arm-twisting on a dependent Israel.  To his former Arab partners, Anwar Sadat was a traitor.  But the outcome of the Yom Kippur War had convinced him that Sinai would be recovered only through diplomacy and not by force.  Hafez al-Assad remained steadfastly loyal to the Soviets, thus guaranteeing Israel’s control of the Golan Heights.

With the West Bank (“Cis-Jordan” as it was called then), things were more complicated.  It was the cradle of Jewish history, but it was also densely populated by Arabs.  “We like the dowry but not the bride” was Levy Eshkol’s spot-on summarization of Israel’s indecisiveness.  Then there was inter-Arab feud about property rights: King Hussein wanted to recover the territory he had controlled since 1949, but Arafat wanted to “liberate Palestine.”  The two clashed bloodily in September 1970.  Far from sharing Sadat’s conclusions from the Yom Kippur War, Arafat drew his inspiration from America’s defeat in Vietnam (which also occurred in 1973): if the communist guerilla could defeat the US, couldn’t the PLO defeat Israel?  The brilliant Võ Nguyên Giáp explained to Arafat how to combine guerilla, propaganda, and gradualism.  Hence did the PLO adopt its “phased plan” in 1974.

Arafat, however, was a serial miscalculator.  After King Hussein waivered his claims over the West Bank in 1988, the Reagan Administration engaged in a dialogue with the PLO (despite Israel’s protests).  Yet when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait two years later, Arafat threw his weight behind him.  The US wrote him off, and Saudi Arabia (which had been threatened by Saddam Hussein) ceased to fund him.  Bankrupt and isolated, Arafat helplessly watched from Tunis the collapse of his allies (Iraq and the Soviet Union) and the massive immigration of Soviet Jews to Israel (which temporarily tilted the demographic balance to Israel’s advantage).  Israel offered him a Faustian bargain: we’ll rescue you if you accept our terms.  Hence did Arafat sign the Oslo Accords.  Edward Said cried foul, accusing Arafat of capitulating.

Said was only partly right, for Arafat’s capitulation was tactical and temporary.  He said so himself in Johannesburg on May 24, 1994: Oslo was a mere reenactment of the Hudaybiyyah Treaty signed in 628 between Mohamed and the Quraysh tribe.  Signed for lack of better options, the treaty was torn and the enemy beaten once Mohamed improved his position.  By unleashing his Trojan Horse in September 2000, Arafat dealt a fatal blow to the Israeli left and to the prospect of Palestinian statehood.  Ariel Sharon knew that Arafat could not be trusted, but he also knew that the status quo was demographically untenable (incidentally, he also realized that his premiership was at risk due to criminal investigations).  Hence his decision to implement unilateralism, which in effect renounced both territory and peace for the sake of demography.

Unilateralism, however, soon proved its dreadful limits as Hamas bypassed Israel’s fortification from above (with missiles) and from beneath (with tunnels).  Israel had hit a Catch-22 dead-end: peace was unreachable, the status-quo untenable, and unilateralism unmanageable.  The two-state solution keeps working in theory and failing in practice, but none of its alternatives make sense.  Full annexation would turn Israel into a binational state (or a nearly binational one if Gaza were to be excluded from the scheme).  As for the annexation of Area C, it would merely entrench the current logistical quagmire with no tangible benefits: Israel controls Area C anyways, and formally annexing it would do nothing to replace the archipelago of some 30 separated Palestinian enclaves.

Eventually, however, Israel will have to choose between annexation and separation.  Given that Israel is a success story, a military powerhouse and an economic wonder surrounded by failed states, it certainly has some breath for calculated risk.  The allegorical iron wall advocated by Jabotinsky in 1923 has been completed beyond anything that Jabotinsky could have imagined.  This unprecedented power is welcome and should be cleverly, and carefully, leveraged.

 

 

The Titanic of the French Left (The Times of Israel, 1 March 2017)

France’s left-leaning media have recently been hit by an embarrassing revelation: Mehdi Meklat, a twenty-four-year-old Muslim blogger turned media star by sympathetic journalists, was exposed on Twitter as a rabid anti-Semite, homophobe, and misogynist.  While still in high-school, Meklat started a blog on life’s harshness in French banlieues (suburbs).  He caught the attention of journalists and, within a few years, the articulate and soft-spoken wunderkind became the poster child of moderate Islam and of successful integration.  Until, in February 2017, old tweets he published under a pseudonym between 2011 and 2015 were dug-out and exposed.

Meklat’s rants are jaw-dropping.  Charlie Hebdo’s journalists? “They should die.”  Jews? “Bring back Hitler to finish them.”  Bin Laden? “I miss him.”  Mohamed Merah’s apology of death? “Movingly beautiful.”  Whites? “You must die ASAP.”  Marine Le Pen? “I’ll slit your throat in accordance with Muslim rites.”  French journalists, many of whom turned Meklat into an icon, are divided.  Some disowned him; others are circling the wagons.

Pascale Clark, who hosted Meklat for years on her radio show, took his defense and praised his “intelligence and humanity.”  Veteran journalist Claude Askolovitch poo-pooed Meklat’s tweets as “a kid’s silly jokes.”  Radio anchor Xavier de La Porte blamed himself and his listeners for not getting it: “There must be something in Mehdi Meklat that is too complex for us to understand.”  Médiapart (an online opinion journal) and Libération (a daily newspaper) took on Meklat’s critics: for them, the fachosphère (a French idiom for “Fascist blogosphere”) is to be blamed for unearthing Meklat’s old tweets in the first place.

The “Meklat Affair” not only exposed, once again, the moral bankruptcy of the French left.  It also confirmed its stubborn refusal to face the fact that there is such a thing as Muslim anti-Semitism.  French philosopher Pascal Bruckner has described the Meklat Affair as “the Titanic of the yuppie left.”  As Bruckner explains, the French left will not let go of the axioma that former colonized people are always innocent by definition.  They cannot possibly be racist, anti-Semitic, or oppressive.  Impossible.  In addition, Islam has acquired a special status in France: it is the only religion that cannot be scrutinized or criticized, and which enjoys a de facto protection from blasphemy.

If the Meklat Affair is the Titanic of the yuppie left, the upcoming presidential election may turn out to be its Berezina.  France’s left-leaning media, as well as key figures in the judicial system, have declared a war of attrition on François Fillon.  The once front-runner conservative candidate is now fighting an uphill struggle for political survival.  Fillon did nothing illegal by hiring his wife as a parliamentary aid, and the claim that she did not actually work has yet to be proven.  But the accusation is sticking, and Fillon’s likely indictment might be fatal.  According to most polls, the presidential election’s runoff will likely be between Marine Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron.

Macron is the darling of France’s media.  He gets a free pass over his political Ponzi scheme.  An Ivy League graduate and former banker, he claims to be running “against the system.”  A former senior cabinet member in François Hollande’s government, he now disowns his former boss’ legacy.  Less than two months before election day, Macron still hasn’t published a program and he tells voters to just trust him.  There are savory rumors about his private life, but the media are mum about them.  France’s left-leaning media, in other words, are promoting a political charlatan because he is not a Thatcherite and a conservative like Fillon, and because he is the most likely to beat Le Pen in a runoff.

This strategy may backfire.  In a recent poll published by Le Figaro, Le Pen would get 45% of the vote in a runoff against Fillon, and 42% in a runoff against Macron.  Considering that polls predicted the defeat of Brexit and of Trump, a Le Pen victory can no longer be ruled out.  If Le Pen wins, she’ll partly owe her victory to the defenestration of Fillon and to the promotion of Macron by the French left.  Don’t expect French left-wing journalists to take the blame, however.  Instead, a Le Pen victory will give them another reason to excuse Meklat.

 

French Inquisition and the Temptation of Exile (The Times of Israel, 1 February 2017)

François Fillon, whom I endorsed for reasons I explained here, might have to quit the race for the French presidency because of allegations that he arranged phony jobs for his wife.  He was leading in the polls until last week, but no longer.  People in the French Republican party are beginning to discuss a Plan B in case Fillon is forced to quit the race.  The political defenestration of Fillon would be a shame, because he is the only serious candidate capable of rescuing France from its economic decline.

The other main contenders for the 2017 French presidential election are demagogues and amateurs.  The Socialist party recently selected in its primaries Benoît Hamon, a radical whose economic platform makes Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders look sane.  Marine Le Pen blames China, globalization and the EU for France’s economic woes, a cheap and easy diversion from the fact that the French state overspends and overtaxes, and hasn’t balanced its books since 1974.  Emmanuel Macron is a 39-year-old former banker and Ivy-league graduate who incredibly claims to run against “the system.”

Fillon says that he is the target of a political machination aimed at making it impossible for the French right to win the 2017 presidential election.  Ongoing investigations shall determine whether the allegations against him and his wife are substantiated.  But the French judiciary is finding itself dragged into political battles –either willingly or reluctantly.  The lawsuit against Georges Bensoussan is a case in point.

Bensoussan is a renown French historian who has authored seventeen books on the Holocaust, on Zionism, and on Jewish life in Muslim countries.  In 2002, Bensoussan edited (under a pseudonym) a book titled The Lost Territories of the Republic (“Les territoires perdus de la République”) which claimed among other things that anti-Semitism is alive and kicking among young French Muslims.  By mentioning Muslim anti-Semitism, Bensoussan touched a raw nerve and attracted many enemies.  Far from giving-up, however, Bensoussan has been researching and exposing the phenomenon of Muslim anti-Semitism –thus lengthening the list of his enemies.

In October 2015, Bensoussan claimed on the radio that “We are witnessing the formation of another people within the French nation, a people that is pulling us back from our democratic values.”  He then declared that one of the obstacles to the integration of Muslims in France is their anti-Semitism.  Bensoussan quoted Algerian sociologist Smain Laacher who openly and bravely condemned popular anti-Semitism in Arab societies.  But Laacher denied that he had used the controversial expression referred to by Bensoussan on the radio (namely that Arab mothers feed their babies anti-Semitism while nursing them).

The French Association Against Islamophobia (“Collectif contre l’Islamophobie en France”) decided to sue Bensoussan for racism and incitement.  It was joined by other French NGOs such as LICRA, SOS Racism, and the League for Human Rights.  Following LICRA’s decision, French philosopher Alain Finkielkraut announced that he was quitting the organization of which he had been a member for many years.  According to Finkilekraut, Bensoussan is being sued for exposing a politically incorrect yet existing phenomenon: Muslim anti-Semitism.  Rather than suing Bensoussan, Finkielkraut says, French Muslims should fight anti-Semitism itself.

The phenomenon of Muslim anti-Semitism in French society was researched by the French think-tank Fondapol and documented in its 2014 report on Anti-Semitism in French Public Opinion (“L’antisémitisme dans l’opinion publique française”).  Bensoussan is far from being the only scholar dealing with this issue.  The “nursing” expression he used on the radio might have been clumsy, but the NGOs suing Bensoussan are clearly using this expression as an excuse to silence him.

“For the first time in my life” said Bensoussan to the judge who heard his testimony in court “I have been tempted by exile” (i.e. leaving France).  If Marine Le Pen wins the 2017 election, Bensoussan’s temptation will surely be boosted.

Netanyahu Owes Us An Explanation (The Times of Israel, 27 December 2016)

Emotions are still running high in the wake of President Obama’s decision not to veto the recent Security Council Resolution on Israeli settlements (Resolution 2334).  Comments range from accusations of betrayal to thankful praise.  The Israeli government’s reactions have been mostly emotional and sometimes bizarre (Michael Oren claimed that the resolution’s underlying motivation is to annihilate Israel).  Foreign policy, however, is not meant to vent out emotions but to promote the national interest.  One needs to understand what the Resolution is about and what Israel can and should do about it.

Resolution 2334 actually repeats the content of previous Security Council resolutions, which were also deemed hostile by Israel and which were not vetoed by the United States.  Security Council Resolutions 446 (22 March 1979) and 452 (20 July 1979) declared that the Fourth Geneva Convention applies to all territories conquered by Israel in June 1967 (including Jerusalem), and that Israeli settlements “have no legal validity.”  These resolutions passed because President Carter did not veto them.  Security Council Resolution 605 (22 December 1987), confirmed the applicability of the Fourth Geneva Convention and defined the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and Jerusalem itself as “occupied Palestinian territories.”  This resolution was not vetoed by President Reagan.  Security Council Resolution 1515 (19 November 2003) endorsed the Roadmap for Peace, which included a complete freeze of Israeli settlements (including for natural growth).  This resolution was not vetoed by President Bush.  Indeed, President Bush himself did not veto a Security Council resolution in the last days of his presidency: Resolution 1850 (16 December 2008) reiterated the endorsement of the Roadmap and, therefore, of an Israeli settlement freeze.

Resolution 2334 does introduce one new element, which constitutes a serious setback for Israel.  Article 3 of the resolution states that the Security Council “will not recognize any changes to the 4 June 1967 lines, including with regard to Jerusalem, other than those agreed by the parties through negotiations.”  Even though previous Security Council resolutions denied the legal validity of any Israeli presence beyond the 4 June 1967 line (the armistice lines of 1949), the new resolution makes it explicit that this line shall constitute Israel’s future eastern border.  As for possible changes “agreed by the parties through negotiations” they are moot since the Palestinians have rejected them in previous negotiations and continue to reject them (they have agreed, at most, to land swaps which would deny Israel any territorial gain).

By contrast to Resolution 2334, Resolution 242 left the question of final borders open.  In Resolution 242, Israel was expected to withdraw “from territories” to “secure and recognized boundaries.”  Israel’s final border was negotiable, and 242 implicitly recognized future changes to the 1949 armistice lines.  Resolution 2334 explicitly rejects them.  Israel, therefore, has been cornered on the border issue.

The implicit recognition by 242 of changes to the armistice lines of 1949 was made explicit by President George W. Bush’s letter to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on 14 April 2004.  The letter states that:  “In light of new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli populations centers, it is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949.”  In July 2010, President Obama declined to publicly confirm the US Government’s commitment to this letter.  On 19 May 2011, President Obama declared that “the borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps.”  This statement left no room for Israeli territorial annexations beyond the 1949 lines (in a swap, annexations are mutual and net territorial gains nil).

By not vetoing 2334, President Obama has made it virtually impossible for Israel to change the 1949 lines to its advantage in future negotiations.  Israel has therefore a good reason to be upset.  But that outcome might have been prevented had Netanyahu been trustworthy and coherent –which he was not.

George W. Bush issued his 2004 letter based his understanding with Ariel Sharon that Israel would trade isolated settlements for the three settlement blocs.  It was a give-and-take, and the only way for Israel to modify the 1949 armistice lines to its advantage in accordance with 242.  This asset has been lost, not only because Obama was unsympathetic but also because Netanyahu was untrustworthy.

Since publicly accepting the idea of a Palestinian state in June 2009 (Bar-Ilan speech), Netanyahu has repeated many times his commitment to a two-state solution.  On the other hand, however, he has not frozen settlement construction (except for the nine-month moratorium imposed by the Obama Administration in November 2009).  In recent months, Netanyahu has gone out of its way to relocate the Amona settlement, and he has given in to political pressure to legalize unauthorized and isolated outposts.  Had it not been for those moves, Obama may have refrained from calling Netanyahu’s bluff.

As US ambassador to the UN Samantha Power said at the Security Council: “The Israeli Prime Minister has recently described his government as more committed to settlements than any in Israel’s history … At the same time [he] has said that he is still committed to pursuing a two-state solution.  But these statements are irreconcilable … One has to make a choice between settlements and separation.”  Exactly.

That choice needs to be made and Netanyahu should be clear and honest about his plans.  As Abraham Lincoln quipped, you can fool some people all the time and all people some of the time, but you cannot fool not all people all the time.  Netanyahu thought otherwise, and he was proven wrong.

I do not blame Netanyahu for the absence of peace, and I agree with him that Palestinian rejectionism was and continues to be the ultimate obstacle to peace.  But precisely because peace is beyond reach, the choice must be made between annexation (which sacrifices demography for the sake of territory) and separation (which sacrifices territory for the sake of demography).  As for the status quo, it is also an option (though one for which Israel’s allies and US Jewry are losing patience) but it is impossible to sell as a “status quo” a situation in which Israel continues to build outside the settlement blocs.

Even with a more well-disposed Trump administration, Israel can no longer evade the need to make tough choices about its future.  Both Israel’s government and opposition owe us an honest explanation about their endgame before the next elections.

Francois Fillon’s French Revolution (The Times of Israel, 29 November 2016)

Political pollsters and pundits who were confounded by Brexit and by Trump’s win must now face yet another challenge to conventional wisdom: the stunning victory of François Fillon in France’s conservative primaries for the 2017 presidential election.  Fillon embodies all that France’s socialist, secular, and moralist elite reviles: He is a Thatcherite, a devout Catholic, and a political realist.  The fact that he won the primaries by a two-third majority is but another confirmation of the gap between elitist narratives and popular feelings.

A partially secularized Catholic country with mercantilist traditions and a reverence for the state (État is always spelled with a capital “e”), France has a cultural hostility toward Anglo-Saxon capitalism.  As Margaret Thatcher was rescuing the British economy in the 1980s, France elected in 1981 the socialist François Mitterrand who increased taxes, government spending, and state ownership.  As Germany’s (socialist) chancellor Gerhard Schröder cut taxes and slashed unemployment benefits in 2003, France made it illegal (in 2002) to work for more than 35 hours a week.  When Nicolas Sarkozy was elected president in 2007, he promised to catch-up with Germany and with Britain.  Sarkozy did increase the retirement age from 62 to 65, but he turned out to be erratic and inconsistent, and the 2008 financial crisis deflated his reformist zeal.

The consequences are for all to see.  Unemployment rates are 10.5% in France, 4.8% in Britain, and 4.2% in Germany.  France’s GDP growth of 1.3% lies behind Britain and Germany’s 1.9%.  While Germany has a budget surplus of 0.6% of GDP, France has a budget deficit of 3.3% of GDP.  The French government overtaxes and overspends: government spending is 57.3% of GDP in France, 44.1% in Germany, and 43.8% in Britain.

François Fillon has been warning that France will be bankrupt and doomed if it does not get its acts together.  His says he will curb public spending (he has committed to cut 500,000 government/civil service jobs), repeal the 35-hour limit on the working week, and trim a 3,000-page long labor code that discourages employment and repels foreign investors.  The French left is up-in-arms against what it calls “ultra-liberalism” (whatever that means), but French voters seem to finally be willing to take their medicine and reverse their country’s decline.

Fillon’s economic platform was decried as too harsh (“ultra-liberal,” bien sûr) by his run-off contender in the conservative primaries, Alain Juppé.  As for Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far-right Front National, her economic ideology is hardly distinguishable from that of the far left: she reviles globalization and free-trade, wants to pull-out from the Euro, and would enroll the French state to subdue the market.  François Fillon’s Thatcherite economics, therefore, makes him an outsider in France’s political landscape.

But Fillon is also an outsider because of his social conservatism and of his foreign policy realism.  He is a practicing Catholic in a country where religion is mocked by the elites (Fillon is dubbed a “Catho,” the secularists’ catchword to deride church-goers).  He is a faithful husband of 36 years and a father of five in a country where divorce, mistresses and affairs are de rigueur for politicians.  And while he has vowed not to repeal abortion and gay marriage, he is an unabashed and proud conservative when it comes to family and to education.

His foreign policy ideas are unorthodox, too.  He thinks that the West has mishandled Russia, and that cooperation with both Russia and Iran is necessary to completely defeat the Islamic State.  Some accuse him of being a Russophile, but he seems in fact to be a classical Kissinger-type of a realist.  His approach to foreign policy is one of Realpolitik -or raison d’État in French.  Tellingly, the concept of raison d’État was developed by Richelieu, himself a devout Catholic who knew how to separate his faith from the interests of his country, and who explained this duality thus: “Man is immortal, his salvation is hereafter; the State has no immortality: its salvation is now or never.”

Fillon realizes that his willingness to cooperate with Iran for the sake of decimating the Islamic State raises eyebrows in Israel.  “I know many will comment on this point of view, especially in Israel” Fillon admitted.  “But for a question of survival, Israel has always known how to ally with people who do not accept international morals.  And no one can blame them” he concluded.  Fillon happens to be factually correct on that. He typically defends a Realpolitik approach to foreign policy.  It is based on such an approach that Richelieu allied with the Protestants during the Thirty Years War, that Churchill joined forces with Stalin during World War II, and that Kissinger made an overture to Mao’s China during the Cold War.

If he gets elected and coordinates his moves with the Trump Administration, François Fillon might be able to diffuse tensions with Russia and to partially stabilize Syria.  If France strictly adheres to the Iran nuclear deal, its coordination with Iran to fight the Islamic State might be tacitly acquiesced by the United States and by Israel.

By French standards, Fillon’s economic liberalism, social conservatism, and foreign policy realism are no less than revolutionary (in Anglo-Saxon countries, they would be rated as conservative).  This might be the last chance for France to pull itself out of decline.  Bonne chance, Monsieur Fillon.

A Reply to Hagai El-Ad (The Times of Israel, 25 October 2016)

On October 14, on the eve of Sabbath and of the Jewish holiday of Succoth, B’Tselem’s executive director Hagai El-Ad addressed the UN Security Council (UNSC), pleading for concrete and urgent measures to end Israel’s control of the West Bank.  I disagree with what El-Ad said at the UNSC, and I disagree with the method he chose to advance his agenda.  But on one point (which he made here), I do agree with him: his many critics (like me) should address his arguments.

Before I do that, let me make a remark on the venue picked by El-Ad to make the case of human rights and for international law.

At the UNSC, two permanent members (Russia and China) are occupiers, human rights abusers, and international law violators.  Russia partially occupies Chechnya, Georgia and the Ukraine.  It is committing war crimes in Syria.  Critical journalists and opposition leaders are eliminated by the Kremlin.  China occupies Tibet.  The Communist Chinese government tramples human rights at home (including those of formerly British-ruled Hong Kong residents) and defies international law abroad (as recently as July 2016, China defied the International Court of Justice’s ruling on the South China Sea, while threatening Japan and the Philippines with military action).

Then there are the UNSC’s non-permanent members such as Venezuela and Egypt.  Venezuela is a corrupt and bankrupt autocracy.  Egypt strangles the Gaza Strip with a sealed border, thus contributing to a humanitarian misery which the likes of B’Tselem generally blame on Israel alone.

The UNSC, in other words, is hardly an appropriate venue to make the case for international law and for human rights.  Indeed, what Hagai El-Ad did was almost tantamount to pleading for chastity in a brothel.

Now to the content of El-Ad’s statement at the UNSC.  In his presentation, El-Ad denounced Israel’s “distractions from the big picture.”  Yet El-Ad did just that himself.  The “big picture” is that the stalemate that El-Ad denounces has many causes and that it cannot be blamed on Israel alone.  One of these causes is the Palestinians’ rejection of territorial compromise on five occasions: in 1937 (Peel Commission); in 1947 (UN partition plan); in July 2000 (Ehud Barak’s proposal at Camp David); in December 2000 (President Clinton’s “parameters”); and in 2008 (Ehud Olmert’s proposal).  Past attempts to end the stalemate have failed, mostly because of the Palestinians’ rejection of plans that would have granted them a state over most of the West Bank and over all of the Gaza Strip.

Theoretically, Israel could withdraw unilaterally from the West Bank (or most of it) to end its partial control of the Palestinian population (I say partial, because this control is also exercised by the autocratic and corrupt Palestinian Authority, something El-Ad chose not to mention).  But the precedent of the 2005 Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip has taught us a lesson foreseen by many: that the alternative to partial military rule after unilateral withdrawal is recurrent and military confrontation.  Is it more or less moral to partially control the population of Gaza or to conduct deadly military operations every two years to end Hamas’ rocket attacks at Israeli civilians?  These are typically tough questions that decision-makers have to face in the complicated real world and in the hopelessly cruel Middle East.  In El-Ad’s world, by contrast, there are neither dilemmas, nor context or complexity.  There is only an Israeli oppressor and a Palestinian victim.

El-Ad claimed at the UNSC that he and his organization “are fighting human rights violations.”  In fact, they only fight human right violations that are not perpetuated by the Palestinian Authority and by Hamas.  Palestinian human rights activist Bassem Eid used to work for B’Tselem.  After the establishment of the Palestinian Authority (PA) in 1994, Eid started monitoring human rights violations by the Palestinian leadership.  He was arrested by the PA and, after his release, founded the “Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group.”

El-Ad said at the UNSC that “Palestinians have the right to life and dignity.”  They certainly do.  But that right is also denied to them by Hamas in Gaza and by the Fatah leadership in the PA.  Even if Israel were to end the legal military blockade of Gaza, Palestinians there would still be oppressed by Hamas.  Even if Israel were to pull out from the West Bank, Palestinians there would still be denied their right to life and dignity by their own rulers, just like in the rest of the Arab world (with the possible exception of Tunisia).  I am not saying this to justify the stalemate, but to point out to the extreme bad faith and naïveté of Hagai El-Ad.

El-Ad called upon the UNSC “to send to the world, to Israelis and to Palestinians, a clear message, backed by international action: Israel cannot have it both ways.”  In other words, if the stalemate persists, Israel, and Israel alone, should pay a price for it.  The Palestinians, by contrast, can continue to have it both ways.  They can continue to officially advocate a two-state solution while demanding that the “right of return” be applied to Israel proper (the two being incompatible).  They can continue to have their two oppressive and corrupt governments (in Gaza and in Ramallah) regale the world about freedom and human rights.  They can continue to receive funding from Western governments to teach their children that the killing of Jews is rewarded in heaven.

While El-Ad did not specify which “international action” the UNSC should undertake against Israel, he most likely meant a Chapter 7 resolution to force Israel out of the West Bank.  El-Ad, however, did not call for a parallel “international action” to protect Israel from the missiles that would be launched from a Fatah or Hamas-controlled West Bank surrounding Jerusalem and overlooking Tel-Aviv.  And in his plan, there would be no UNSC resolution declaring that the so-called “right of return” has no basis in international law and is incompatible with a two-state solution.

Finally, El-Ad claimed that Israel was “established through international legitimacy granted through a historic decision” by the UN in 1947.  This is inaccurate.  The UN General Assembly (UNGA) vote on 29 November 1947 was a declaratory recommendation, not a binding decision.  This recommendation became moot the moment it was rejected by the Arab League.  The vote was symbolic and emotional, but it did not establish the State of Israel.  Had the Jews not rebuilt their land for the decades preceding the vote, and had they not won the war imposed on them by six Arab armies in 1948, the State of Israel would not have been established.

What El-Ad was telling the UN, in substance, was this: you gave birth to this child, now tell him to behave.  Besides being factually wrong, this statement ignores the fact the UN of 1947 is not the UN of 2016.  In 1947, the UN was composed mostly of free nations that had fought together to defeat Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan.  Today, the UN is an organization where Muslim states and autocracies have a numerical majority at the General Assembly, at UN agencies, and at the Human Rights Council.  It is the UN that elected Assad’s Syria to the Security Council in 2002, and Ghaddafi’s Libya as Chair of the human rights commission in 2003.  It is the UN that sat idle as a genocide was taking place in Rwanda in 1994 and as a massacre was perpetuated in Srebrenica in 1995.  It is the UN that has looked the other way for five years as more than half-a-million people have been killed in Syria.  And it is the UN that has just “declared” that the Jewish people has no historical connection to the Temple Mount.

That Hagai El-Ad would rely on such an organization to solve the intricate Israeli-Palestinian conflict and to uphold human rights is naïve at best and malicious at worse.

The Electoral Reform Netanyahu Should Promote (The Times of Israel, 7 September 2016)

During the 2015 Knesset elections, Benjamin Netanyahu committed to reform Israel’s voting system so as to free the prime minister from the permanent blackmail of his coalition partners. More than one year after the swearing in of the current government, this commitment seems to have been forgotten even though the blackmail of junior coalition partners is far from having abated, as we were just reminded by the threats of the ultra-orthodox parties over railway constructions during the Sabbath. Whether or not Netanyahu intends to honor his campaign pledge, he would be well-advised to accurately assess the actual ills of Israel’s political system and to avoid counter-productive reforms.

When he presented his government to the Knesset in May 2015 Netanyahu claimed Israel needs electoral reform because its governments are chronically unstable. He mentioned that in the past 66 years (since 1949), Israel has had 33 governments.  An average two-year lifespan for a government is indeed a clear sign of instability. Yet this two-year average is misleading because, in most cases, the tenure of Israeli government was shortened not because of motions of no confidence or coalition crises, but because of extraneous circumstances.

Only once in Israel’s history has a government been toppled by a motion of no confidence (in 1990). Nine governments were shortened because of the prime minister’s resignation (in 1950, 1952, 1954, 1955, 1958, 1963, 1964, 1974, and 1993), and two because of the prime minister’s death (Levy Eshkol died of a heart attack in 1969, and Yitzhak Rabin was murdered in 1995). Between 1984 and 1988 there were two governments because this is what had been agreed in the “rotation agreement” between Labor and Likud. In 2001, a new government was formed after Ehud Barak called a snap election.

As in other parliamentary democracies, there are every so often early elections in Israel, but not within unreasonably short intervals: the average lifespan of the Knesset has been three-and-a-half years since 1949 (i.e. six months short of the four years mandated by law). So Israel suffers neither from chronic early elections, nor from serial motions of no confidence (which characterized the Third and Fourth French Republics, as well as Italy before 1994). And yet Israelis have been eager to reform their political system since the 1990 political crisis, when the ultra-Orthodox parties extorted both Labor and Likud for the formation of a new government.

Because the 1990 political crisis exposed the excessive powers of mid-sized parties, the public mood wanted to take away from them the ability to determine the prime minister’s identity.  In 1992, a new law was passed for the direct election of the prime minister. This reform created an awkward system with no parallel or precedent.  In parliamentary democracies, the prime minister and his government are appointed by parliament, while in presidential systems the government is appointed by the president who is himself directly elected by the people. In the new and hybrid Israeli system, voters had to cast two ballots: one for the prime minister, and one for the party of their choice. The new system, therefore, eliminated the incentive to vote for Labor or Likud in order to improve the chance of either party’s leader to become prime minister.  As a result, both Labor and Likud decreased in size, thus making it harder to form and maintain coalitions (the 1992 law was subsequently repealed in 2001).

The short-lived law on the direct election of the prime minister was not the only counter-productive reform of Israel’s political system. Since small and middle-sized parties were widely thought to have overplayed their leveraging power in 1990, some thought of simply barring them from parliament by raising the electoral threshold, which stood at 1% until 1992. The electoral threshold was raised to 1.5% in 1992, to 2% in 2003, and to 3.25% in 2014.

Yet, as predicted by political theory and as confirmed by political practice, high electoral thresholds make it actually harder to form and to manage coalitions. The larger the amount of small parties, the wider the coalition options of a designated prime minister, and the wider the coalition alternatives of an acting prime minster blackmailed by his partners. Once small parties are eliminated, those options evaporate and the extortion power of middle-sized parties increases. And, indeed, after the 2015 elections (which took place with a 3.25% threshold), the prime minister had no other choice but to give in to the last-minute demands of the Jewish Home Party, because no coalition alternatives existed.

High electoral thresholds have proven counter-productive in other countries as well. In Germany, for example, the electoral threshold for the lower house (Bundestag) is of 5%. In the 2013 elections, the Liberal Party (the natural ally of Chancellor Angela Merkel) was unable to enter parliament because of the high electoral threshold (and a poor showing), and as a result Merkel was compelled to form a bizarre and unnatural coalition between her conservative party and the Social Democrats.  The reason why Germany no longer suffers from the endemic political instability of the Weimar Republic is not because of this 5% threshold but, among other things, because the 1949 constitution introduced the principle of “constructive no confidence” (parliament can topple the government only if it can propose an alternative government backed by a new coalition).  Israel also adopted the principle of “constructive no confidence” in 2014. So far, this has been the only positive reform of Israel’s political system. Yet Israel needs an additional reform.

Israel’s political system suffers less from instability than from a lack of accountability.  Members of Knesset (MKs) are not answerable to voters. In parties where candidates are selected by the chairman (such as Yair Lapid’s “Yesh Atid” or Avigdor Lieberman’s “Israel Beitenu”), MKs are only answerable to their boss. In parties that hold primaries (such as Likud and Labor), MKs are answerable to interest groups and to shady deal-makers who determine the results of primary elections. On election day, voters select a party but not their representatives.

In countries where voters chose their parliament representatives via electoral districts, such accountability exists. Yet this accountability is, in fact, a trompe l’œil. In the Anglo-Saxon “first past the post” system, voters have a representative whom they can reward or penalize on election day.  But since penalizing your representative means voting for his political rival, you need to cross political lines in order to express your discontent. Most polls show that, in district elections, only a small minority of voters (less than 10%) hold their representative accountable to the point of jumping ship politically (in the United States, for example, less than 10% of Democratic voters will vote for a Republican House or Senate candidate because they are dissatisfied with the Democratic incumbent, and vice-versa).  So accountability in district elections is theoretical at best.  Besides, district elections are not a realistic option in Israel: most MKs oppose them, and Israel is probably too complicated geographically, demographically and politically to design electoral districts.

There is another way, however, to make MKs answerable to their voters: by enabling voters to influence the composition of the list they vote for on election day.  Instead of just voting for a party, voters can select the candidates they want to promote on the party’s list before casting their ballot.  This system, which exists in some twenty democracies around the world, would partially free candidates from the corruption and Byzantine deal-making that characterize Israel’s pre-Knesset primaries. Admittedly, this “open primaries” system tends to give an advantage to famous candidates, but the Internet and social media offer affordable and effective self-promotion tools.

Such reform would require legislation. The new electoral law should make “open primaries” optional so as not to antagonize political parties that may not want to adopt them, but whose vote will be needed to pass the reform. Even if “open primaries” are optional, parties will have an incentive to adopt them because voters will likely prefer to vote for lists whose composition they can influence. In addition, the electoral threshold should be lowered in order to widen the range of coalition options and alternatives, thus limiting the extortion power of middle-sized parties.

Netanyahu should promote this reform not only to honor his pre-election commitment, but also because it would introduce a long-overdue accountability in Knesset elections and because it might even encourage honest and achieved Israelis to enter politics.