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Amid Regional Tumult, Israel’s New Government Looks to Domestic Agenda

March 18, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
As neighbors in the region grapple with uncertainty and conflict, Israel's new governing coalition seems to be refocusing on domestic concerns. Jeffrey Brown talks with former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk and David Makovsky of the Washington Institute for an assessment of Israel's new political lineup and priorities.

JEFFREY BROWN: And for more on the Israel that President Obama will encounter, I’m joined by Martin Indyk, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel, now director of the Foreign Policy Program at the Brookings Institution in Washington, and David Makovsky, head of the Project on the Middle East Peace Process at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Welcome to both of you.

Martin, let me start with you. As the president goes to Israel, what will he find in general terms in this new government? What do we know or not know?

MARTIN INDYK, Saban Center for Middle East Policy, Brookings Institution: Well, it’s only a couple of days old. And so it’s a very hard to tell exactly what it’s going to shape up to.

What we have is right-wing parties with a shift within the Likud further in the right in terms of its composition. And we have got a large center party, Lapid, this new rising star, who has 19 seats. And then to his left is Tzipi Livni, who was the only candidate to campaign on the two-state solution. And she only got six seats. So …

JEFFREY BROWN: Somehow, they all work together — or are supposed to work together.

MARTIN INDYK: There’s a special glue on the seats of Israeli cabinet chairs which kind of keep them stuck there for a while at least.

They have to respond to their constituencies. And that is I guess the key point here, is that their constituents want them to focus on domestic issues, on social issues, on sharing the burden of getting the ultra-Orthodox serving the army. Those are the primary issues that they’re going to have to deal with.

JEFFREY BROWN: David Makovsky, what do you see?

DAVID MAKOVSKY, Washington Institute for Near East Policy: Look, basically, both President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu were elected on a more domestic, I would say, platform.

And Martin is 100 percent right in the way he depicted it. Basically, the Israelis look out, see the Middle East, they think things are very murky, very tumultuous, uncertain. They don’t feel they have an ability to shape this Middle East. They don’t know where Egypt is going. They don’t know if Syria is disintegrating in front of their eyes. Hamas, they don’t like in Gaza.

So, they said, look, the one thing they can make a difference are — is the domestic scene. So, what they basically have I think is two sets of issues, one, a desire to integrate the ultra-Orthodox into the work force, into the military, which is compulsory in Israel for everyone but the ultra-Orthodox, and to wean away the ultra-orthodox from being the primary welfare class.

And the second thing is that Netanyahu, Lapid that we saw in the set-up piece, and this guy Bennett, both have kind of, I would say, a neo-liberal economic reform approach. And they want to move quickly on those sorts of things. So, those are, I would say, the two main domestic drivers of the government.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, and then when we get to the thing we always talk about, Israeli-Palestinian relations, Martin, is there — is it clear where the government stands? Is there any — is there an even a possibility, given this focus on domestic issues, for any movement there?

MARTIN INDYK: As we saw in the setup piece, the prime minister continues to say that he would like a historic compromise with the Palestinians.

But within his own party, his defense minister and his foreign minister say nothing can be done with the Palestinians. The other rising star, Naftali Bennett of the Jewish Home party, says that his platform is to annex 60 percent of the West Bank and he will never agree to a two-state solution.

So the only supporters of the two-state solution are Lapid and Tzipi Livni, and the prime minister, who is important in this. But it’s clearly any movement forward on this is going to split this government. And so it’s — it was hard to see how the previous government would move forward. I think it’s even harder to see how this government is going to handle it.

JEFFREY BROWN: Do you see any potential?

DAVID MAKOVSKY: Well, I think there is some potential here.

Look, out of 68 seats — remember, it takes 61 out of the 120 to have a majority in the Knesset. You have got 25, as Martin says, that are not part of this right-of-center bloc, which is actually double the number than you had the last time under — when Ehud Barak was the defense minister.

So you do have a group. And what keeps things the way for Israel to be a normal Western country goes through the Palestinian issue. So, it will be interesting how it turns out. But Martin is correct that the key positions, the defense minister, the housing minister and the Knesset finance chairman, are pro-settler.

The one glimmer I think here is this, is this idea of reciprocity. Ya’alon is known as someone believes, why can’t the Palestinians just say two states for two peoples? They don’t say that anymore. And I was in Ramallah last week too and I just came back yesterday. And I’m a little concerned.

On the Palestinian side, there’s a belief, you know, we’re on the highway. The Israelis are isolated. We went to the U.N. We will go to the International Criminal Court. And I feel they feel that there’s no reason to compromise.

I think the open sesame thing here is just to get the basics. If the president could get the Palestinians and the Israelis just to talk about two states for two peoples, it might sound like a cliche, but I think it’s the one thing that could have an impact on this, because it deals with, does each side recognize that there are Palestinian and Jewish nationalists movements?

The Israelis are willing to do it, but the Palestinians are not.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, we’re going to focus tomorrow specifically on the Palestinians.


JEFFREY BROWN: But I’m wondering, on the Israeli side, is it fair to say that their real focus now as a security issue is much more on Iran than on Palestinian relations?

MARTIN INDYK: Well, Iran, I think, in the exit polls only rated — 10 percent of the people said that that was their top priority in the Israeli election. So, it really didn’t play in this election campaign.

JEFFREY BROWN: What does that tell you?

MARTIN INDYK: Well, I think that, well, it does remain a threat, even an existential threat. But as the president said, it’s a year away before they get the bomb. He wasn’t challenged by anybody in Israel, as far as I know, which was kind of interesting, because Netanyahu had said summer of 2013.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes. He’s had a much closer deadline.

MARTIN INDYK: And he’s not challenging the president. I don’t expect he will when the president is there because he has every interest in showing that everything is hunky-dory between him and the president.

So, it’s not that the issue has receded. It’s just that the Israeli public are focused on their domestic concerns at the moment. Levels of violence are at an all-time low. There’s this turmoil around them everywhere they look. But somehow they have turned inwards and they want their government to address those issues.

JEFFREY BROWN: And yet there was — remember — we all remember Benjamin Netanyahu at the U.N. with the bright red line. And he was the one talking about a much closer deadline.

DAVID MAKOVSKY: I would say this.

I would say that where I might just differ just a little bit is this …

… is that I feel that the Israeli public largely wants the United States to take care of this problem, that they would love to see their first choice, diplomacy, works, there’s a breakthrough, they could forget about this issue.

Second choice, the United States of America is the superpower and let them deal with it. But I think that the third choice is, if you don’t get your first two choices in life, and the same security establishment that to a man and woman — mostly to a man — wants the U.S. to take care of it, including Ya’alon, who is not known as being — the defense minister — as energetic as Barak, if it turns out that Barack Obama doesn’t succeed with the diplomacy — and here there’s going to be definite — there’s going to be real tension on the ground in al Qaeda quiet meeting that what won’t come out to the public on what is a breakthrough on diplomacy.

And we might not have time to talk about that. But — and Obama doesn’t deal with it, he says, I’m not bluffing, but he’s bluffing, then the same people, I think, swing around to Netanyahu and — because I have been looking for years. I cannot find one supporter of containment, the idea that Israel can live with the bomb.

Both the U.S. and Israel share that objective of Iran not having a bomb. But I think the security establishment feels, if the U.S. doesn’t deal with it, they have to deal with it. So, I think this is going to be a huge issue behind closed doors, but it won’t come out in public. And, in public, it is going to be a great success story.


DAVID MAKOVSKY: Obama is going to succeed. You will see.


We will see what happens later in the week. And we will follow it.

Martin Indyk, David Makovsky thanks, both, very much.


MARTIN INDYK: Thank you.

GWEN IFILL: Margaret Warner is traveling with the president to the Middle East. Her first report tomorrow will examine the political and ideological rifts among the Palestinians.