From the mouth of Chuck Hagel (FEBRUARY 6th 2013)

At the end of my comment on Israel’s election results, I speculated on how long it would be before President Obama reneged on his pledge to not allow Iran to cross the nuclear threshold. Seems he didn’t waste much time.

At the Senate hearings for Obama’s nominee for Defense Secretary, Chuck Hagel, known for – among many other less than desirable qualities – his accommodating attitude toward Iran, the nominee inadvertently let slip that he supported the President’s belief that a nuclear Iran can be “contained.” Whoops ! He was swiftly passed a note from a staffer – which presumably informed him that containment was not (yet) official administration policy – and corrected his remark.

Hagel’s other views which might make one doubt his suitability for such a sensitive role in the administration include his remarks about the “Jewish Lobby”. How did he deal with that in the hearings ? The following, was reported by the Wall Street Journal:

Graham (Sen. Lindsay Graham, Republican Senator of South Carolina): Let’s talk a little bit about statements you’ve made…. You said “The Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people up here. I’m not an Israeli senator, I’m a United States senator. This pressure makes us do dumb things at times.” Name one person in your opinion who’s intimidated by the Israeli lobby in the United States Senate.

Hagel: I don’t know

Graham: Well why would you say it ?

Hagel: I didn’t have in mind a specific person.

Graham Do you agree it’s a provocative statement ? …Name one dumb thing we’ve been goaded into doing because of the pressure from the Israeli or Jewish lobby.

Hagel: I have already stated that I regret the terminology.

Graham: But you said back then, it “makes us do dumb things.” You can’t name one senator intimidated. Now give me one example of the dumb things that we’re pressured to do up here.

Hagel: We were talking in that interview about the Middle East, about positions, about Israel, that’s what I was referring-

Graham: So give me an example of where we’ve been intimidated by the Israeli Jewish lobby to do something dumb regarding the Mideast, Israel or anywhere else.

Hagel: Well I can’t give you an example.

Graham: Thank you.

Israel’s Elections – What Rightward Shift ? (Jan 27th 2013)

So, the much-vaunted shift to the right of the Israeli electorate, heralded in the European and US media (even the normally feet-on-the-ground Wall St Journal joined the chorus) did not happen. It seems that most of us headed for the center instead. Much as it would have satisfied readers to have their worst fears about devil-incarnate Netanyahu realized, it seems they will have to look elsewhere – virtually anywhere else in our region  – for their thrills.

What happened ? The major phenomenon of course is the huge success of Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid (There is a Future) party which is set to take 19 seats in the Knesset. This party will join the long line of Centrist adventures that have peppered Israel’s elections over the last 20 years.  Like the unlamented and nearly late Kadima (down from 32 to 2 seats), Shinui the party led by Lapid’s late father to a 15 seat triumph in 2003, the 2006 Pensioners Party, the so-called Center party of 1999, and others which have faded from memory, Yesh Atid will be a one or two election wonder. The problem is that – as the saying goes – the center cannot hold. Many of these parties (Kadima excepted) had worthy leaders who espoused important social causes or tried to straddle the Left/Right gap over the Peace Process. They have satisfied Israelis’ need for innovation and novelty, but none of them have stood  for anything that sustains a political party over the long term; almost by definition, being for the Center means not having any strong identifying principles.

What didn’t happen ? Likud of course lost votes both to the center and to the right. Whatever logic motivated the pre-election merger of Likud with Yisrael Beteinu, the party of Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, it proved faulty from Likud’s point of view. Probably, some wavering Likud supporters were put off by the association with Lieberman, while Yisrael Beteinu itself may finally be a spent force. The  Russian immigrants who were largely the raison d’etre of this party may have felt that its submersion under the Likud banner left them no reason for party loyalty, and they consequently followed their voting inclinations as regular Israeli citizens, rather than as immigrants. In fact, this might have happened  – merger or not – as a natural consequence of former immigrants’  – most of whom have been here for 20 years or more – assimilation into Israeli society.

The other thing that didn’t happen was the “Rightist/ Settler” triumph of Habayit Hayehudi (Jewish Home).  This party certainly improved its standing in the Knesset, but fell short of its own expectations and others’ fears. This is the old National Religious Party, that from the beginning of the state represented the non-Haredi orthodox community.  It had suffered for many years from a lack of relevance and invisible leadership which left it as a small rump party without the clout to leverage itself into governing coalitions. That has certainly changed; Netanyahu will definitely need them to put together a majority. But their resurgence in this election does not represent a takeover by the “extremist right-wing settlers’. My reading of it – supported by at least 4 people I know who feel like this – is that thanks to its new dynamic leadership, many regular religious people returned to what they would have regarded as their natural political home  without taking too much notice of the more provocative statements (like, let’s reoccupy Gaza) of its leader Bennett or of his wilder woolier colleagues.

With a much reduced majority for a Likud-led coalition, this looks to be a much shorter Knesset than the previous one. We will probably have to go through this again in a couple of years. Meanwhile, the most exciting issue Israel will have to face during this session is just how soon President Obama will reinterpret his pre-election pledges about “having Israel’s back” and not allowing a nuclear Iran. Perhaps he will make it all conditional on another settlement freeze; that should stop the Mullahs in their nuclear tracks !