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Yohanan Plesner on Netanyahu and Gantz

Octavian Report: What are your thoughts on the recent accord between Israel and the UAE?

Yohanan Plesner: There is a very wide consensus here that this announcement is good news for Israel and the region. While some argue that normalization of relations “only” made public a clandestine relationship that has existed for the past twenty years, it has immense strategic value for both Israel and the UAE,  who both seek to diminish Iran’s growing influence while bolstering the American presence in the region. There is also hope that this agreement will open the door for closer relations with other countries in the region in the near future.

In addition, as opposed to the high “cost” of progress with the Palestinians (territorial concessions and the dangers of terrorism) or even the existing “cold peace” with Egypt and Jordan, this relationship includes the possibility for mutually beneficial trade and commerce between the two countries and hopefully a genuine exchange of ideas and even tourism between the two peoples. Nevertheless, we should also wait and see whether the normalization aspects of the expected agreement are actually implemented. We still remember similar high hopes for a genuine bilateral relationship here in Israel when the agreements with Egypt and Jordan were signed — and the disappointment when the “fruits of peace'”never really materialized.

OR: You’ve described the Gantz-Netanyahu coalition government as an opportunity. How do you see that working, and what issues are driving retail politics in Israel?

Plesner: Let me start by saying that it is still far from certain that elections in the fall will be avoided. We will only know for certain on Monday when the Knesset will vote on a bill to delay the state budget. If this bill does not pass, the Knesset will disperse and we will automatically head to an election in November. It is important to note that even if this bill does pass, it is merely a reprieve and we are likely to find ourselves back in the same place when the additional one hundred days to pass a budget expire.

Nevertheless, the agreement with the UAE, and some signs of the Likud weakening in recent polls as Netanyahu’s rival on the right Naftali Bennett has seen his numbers rise, could signal a possible de-escalation. Only the more extreme elements of the right wing are disappointed with the possibility of annexation fading but the question now is: would Netanyahu risk heading to an election after alienating this right-wing base — something he has avoided at nearly all costs since returning to office in 2009? This is especially relevant as we head towards the more intense portion of his corruption trial in December, when he’ll have to start appearing in court three times a week and he is likely to rely on this support from his base more than ever.

This political crisis is likely to continue as long as we have a Prime Minister who is lacking a solid majority of allies in the Knesset while at the same time taking his personal legal problems into account when making national decisions. In the end, it is Netanyahu who will ultimately have to make the decision of whether to head back to the polls or not and he will do so mainly based on his assessment of the possible effects on his personal legal prospects.

So there is a potential opportunity in this government, but there’s also potential downside. It can either end up with paralysis which will be a continuation of the deadlock via other means, i.e. a continuation of the political crisis. Because there are certainly mechanisms within that coalition agreement that regulate the relationship between the two main partners that can bring about a complete paralysis. Both sides have ample, mutual veto tools. And if they decide to use them, if they don’t agree on an agenda, this could end up being the worst government. But it also has the potential of being a government that will actually make significant decisions — I would say mainly in the economic area — if it can avoid the above outcome, because it has a broad parliamentary base, it represents the two main blocs of Israeli politics, and because there’s a deep economic crisis which provides a good backdrop for instigating reforms. So this can be an opportunity. It’s not necessarily an opportunity in the area of reforms and decision-making.

The same applies to the domestic and internal rifts and conflict that characterized our politics over the past, say, five years, and in a more pronounced manner in the past two years during the political crisis. This is something that wouldn’t be foreign to an American. The level of divisiveness between the blocs has risen to new highs (or lows, if you will).

This government, since it represents both sides, has the potential to lower the internal flames, and that’s why I chose to label it a democratic ceasefire. Yes, some of the initiatives that characterized the former Netanyahu government — dozens of populist anti-constitutional legislative initiatives — are off the table. The ability to subvert law enforcement institutions from within the government by the very ministers that are in charge of those institutions, for example the justice minister — this is very much off the table, so it leads to a kind of ceasefire. An agreement on the main constitutional matters that divide our country and society would be the difference between just a ceasefire and a proactive, positive historic change.

So the political opportunity, despite everything, is out there. Whether there will be the leadership and willpower to exploit it or make use of it, I don’t know.

What do Israelis care about politically? Number one, Israelis wanted and hoped for an end to the political crisis. After three consecutive election campaigns, there was very little appetite for a fourth election campaign that might have produced another indecisive outcome. In addition, Israelis very much expect the government to deal with the immediate economic crisis presented by the COVID-19 pandemic. Like other countries in the developed world, Israel’s economy experienced its deepest recession in decades: negative growth, negative per-capita growth, unemployment levels that are completely unprecedented with about 26 percent unemployment post-COVID versus three percent in the beginning of March.

Israelis first and foremost expect the government to restore growth to deal with the economic crisis, and perhaps to not only initiate immediate measures to deal with the crisis, but also to instigate necessary economy reforms and structural reforms that would put our economy on a long-term trajectory of growth. The two former deep economic crises that we had — one during the Second Intifada and the one before that during the hyperinflation of mid-’80s  —  were both utilized as a good opportunity for economic and structural reforms.

The last point is worth mentioning is that while the degree of divisiveness of our politics in many ways has never been higher, and the wedge between the center-left and the right-wing camp has been very pronounced, the actual policy or ideological differences are to some extent at an all-time low. The main divide focuses more on issues of identity than on actual policy preferences: on security or the economy it would be difficult to identify clear ideological differences.

OR: How and why have Israeli politics reached this realignment?

Plesner: This is probably the most difficult issue in Israeli public and political life. We can divide our policy areas into three main categories. The first would be defense and foreign affairs. Historically the political spectrum of right, center, and left, was defined around approaches to foreign policy and security issues. The more hardline you were, the more you wanted to hold on to “greater Israel,” the more you were to the Right. The more dovish and prone to negotiation and to a two-state solution, the more you were on the Left. And then there was a broad middle.

What happened with foreign policy and security issues is that the two main dogmas that characterize this divide — the right-wing dogma of a greater Israel and the left-wing one of two states — both have been refuted by reality. The Left wing tried its agenda during Oslo, and then there was the Second Intifada. Ever since, a clear, broad majority of Israelis have basically very little faith that there would be another Palestinian leadership willing or able to make the necessary compromises in order to create a stable two-state solution. That led to a huge movement of, I would say, about a third of Israelis from the left-wing camp to the centrist camp on issues of security.

The right wing, on the other hand, and its idea that there’s no Palestinian people and millions of Palestinians can be just disregarded and we can control all the territory, also died out again during the Second Intifada. So when you try to distill the question “What is the debate about?”, it’s very difficult.

The other issues in defense and foreign affairs area have to do with how to deal with various groups that have a declared policy of annihilating the Jewish state — whether it’s Hamas, Hezbollah, or Iran — and how to deal with the moderate Arab states. In all of those areas, there isn’t much of an ideological debate. There are those who are somewhat more inclined to use force, and those who are less inclined. But generally speaking, on all of those debates on how to erode the Iranian presence and deal with the Iranian threat, it’s more an argument around competence: whom do you trust? Generally, the defense establishment — which is very competent and institutionally strong — pretty much determines policy in those areas.

There’s a second axis: economic and socioeconomic issues, the main axis that defines the politics in most developed democracies. In our case, ideologically speaking we don’t have on the one hand a libertarian approach and on the other we do not have serious approaches saying the state will resolve everything and the market is the problem. Mainstream politics center around the idea of open markets with solidarity, an open welfare state, a commitment of the state to the individual, to a broad public education and a broad public provision of health to all citizens while at the same time allowing for the business sector to grow and increase wealth. In other words, a small open economy that very much depends on exports. So again, while there are differences or nuances, they focus on questions of competence: whom do you trust to deal with the economy? It’s not like if you voted Blue and White you had a very clear economic approach versus Likud. Likud and Blue and White voters might have the same outlook. It doesn’t represent a deep-rooted ideological difference.

The final axis that has to do with identity and the related policy issues. This is I would say the axis that mostly defines our politics, and if you will, the tribal nature of our politics. It’s about how you view Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. About which of the components you think is more important. About how to strike the balance between those normative components that define our state.

On the civic axis, probably the single most important parameter that defines where people situate themselves is level of religiosity. On one side of the spectrum you see ultra-Orthodox that regardless of issue demonstrate a very tribal voting pattern. The size of the ultra-Orthodox parties’ representation in the Knesset mainly reflects the demographic size of those communities and voter turnout. So here you have perhaps now 16 seats in our Parliament that have next to nothing to do with whatever the issues are on the table in a specific election campaign.

Then you have the national-religious, also in high numbers. Around 85 percent belong to the right-wing camp and either vote for Likud or for the sectorial parties of the national-religious group. They have a different view, both on matters of religion and state, on issues of conversion, marriage, and religious law versus civic law.

On the other end of the spectrum — before we get to the traditional versus secular Israelis — there’s the Arab minority. Around 90 percent of the Arab minority voted for the Joint List that represented this group. Then, between Likud and Blue and White, generally speaking the more you are Blue and White, the more you are secular and living in central Israel. The more you are Likud, the more you are traditional and living more towards the periphery, whether the geographic or social periphery.

When you look at those parameters, they are what affects voting behavior far more than issues. Some of the issues that are most divisive have to do with those. The constitutional divide has to do with the role of the Supreme Court in ensuring equality, where some of the religious parties aspire towards the Jewish religious law regulating the domestic affairs of state and therefore are opposed to the constitutional role of the court.

This civic cultural identity divide is translated into a number of issues with respect to our democracy and religion and state. These are probably the deep-rooted issues that mostly affect voting behavior, and also are responsible for the fact that movement between political blocs in Israel is actually extremely limited

OR: How do you assess the long tenure of Binyamin Netanyahu? How do you understand him as a politician and leader of government? What is the source of his political longevity?

Plesner: Netanyahu is probably the most talented politician we’ve had in decades, with very, very strong willpower. He wants to be there. He wants to be a politician. The single most important factor that Netanyahu’s political power is based on is his communication skills. He honed them back in the U.S. when he was there in the ’80s in diplomatic roles representing the state of Israel. He was one of the first Israeli politicians that really mastered TV. Now he does an extremely good job in communicating with his base of supporters using social media and digital tools. So as long he manages to communicate effectively with his base of supporters and preserve his level of support within that group, it doesn’t require that all Israelis him. Only about a quarter of Israelis voted for Mr. Netanyahu, but as long as this quarter is stable, he’s able to convert that into political power.

The other strategic imperative that characterizes his tenure is the alliance with the ultra-Orthodox, beginning in ’96 when he won the election by very effectively relying on the dual nature of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state and always knowing how to emphasize the Jewish component for his benefit.

Netanyahu also has two main assets in the way he conducts himself. First of all, he learns from mistakes. His government was toppled in 1998 because he was deserted by the fringes of the right-wing base. His conclusion was: never give up on that base. This rule was violated in the recent coalition deal when he left the Yamina out, but otherwise he has been very strict on not letting go of the base. It means also therefore not sliding towards the center in his views, and always making sure that nobody flanks him from the right.

Another important element is that he knows how to correct the mistakes and has no problem apologizing and fixing his mistakes. As finance minister in 2002 and 2003 under Mr. Sharon, he was a very effective reformer. But his conclusion was that economic reforms cause you to pay a political price within your base, and ever since, as prime minister, he barely introduced any reforms and didn’t confront any serious interest groups.

I think probably the final point is the fact that he lacks inhibitions. It’s very much manifested now in the bloated government that he introduced to the Knesset in May, which seems based on the idea that no basic law, no constitutional issue, and no normative limitation is actually a barrier. As long as there’s a political end and a political interest, then boundaries can be crossed. When you have very few inhibitions, it expands your set of political tools tremendously. Observe how he sliced like a salami our public sector in order to provide bits and pieces of government goodies to various Likud members in a way that completely negates any kind of public-policy or managerial logic.

OR: Do you think that the criticism of Netanyahu for undermining democratic governance in Israel is a fair one?

Plesner: Yes. Until 2015 in many ways Netanyahu was a block and a barrier to some of the initiatives intending to undermine the rule of law and the independent judiciary. A wave of populist, anti-democratic initiatives began to emerge about a decade ago as a result of other reasons that have nothing to do with Netanyahu, such as the rise of social media and the fact that people wanted to nurture their own echo chambers. There was also the growth in power and demographic growth of the ultra-Orthodox community, which has a different vision for Israel’s democracy — a vision more based on religion and religious law than on civic law and civic code. The settler movement felt very strong in parliament in the political circle but felt that its hands were tied when it came to the judiciary that ensured that law is equally enforced in the territories. So there was a group of overlapping interests.

Netanyahu wasn’t really a part of it. He wasn’t vehemently against it, because he’s a very skillful politician and he didn’t want to pay a price within his base. But essentially, he had no problem with the fact that the vast, vast majority of anti-constitutional initiatives, or initiatives that were aimed at subverting the principles of separation of power and concentrating all power within the political majority, were thwarted and subverted. In many ways, he supported the subversion of these initiatives behind the scenes.

But after 2015 — and especially with the intensification of his own legal investigations and the fact that the narrative that he told himself was that he’s now a victim of politically motivated persecution by law enforcement institutions — he began to not only stop blocking those anti-rule of law initiatives, but actually to give them additional oomph. This included some initiatives that were aimed at weakening the police, the independence of the judiciary, the independence of the attorney general. Once Netanyahu joined those other interest groups in targeting some of our institutions of rule of law, he actually became a much greater challenge to our young democracy.

I say young democracy because while we have a democracy that we’re very proud of, it’s also a very fragile one. We don’t have a constitution. The fact that we don’t have a constitution means that a simple Knesset majority can change our basic laws. This could lead to a complete concentration of all power among the political majority. So the preservation of the principle of separation of powers in Israel is delicate and has been threatened over the past few years. Once Mr. Netanyahu joined those who were threatening rather than defending those precarious democratic principles and institutions, it raised the degree of threat to our democracy.

This is why those three consecutive election campaigns were actually quite crucial to our future as a democracy. The fact that Netanyahu was not able in three consecutive election campaigns to achieve a decisive outcome in many ways protected our democratic institutions from him fulfilling an agenda that would have had long-term negative repercussions for our democratic vitality.

OR:  Do you think the drafting of a formal constitution is necessary for Israel’s political future? Do you think it can be done? How do you see the Gantz/Netanyahu government playing out?

Plesner: It’s very difficult to tell about your second question. It will depend on the dynamics created between Gantz and Netanyahu. And in many ways, to be fair, it depends on Netanyahu and the way he decides to conduct his government. Because nobody will say that Gantz is not coming with a lot of good will to this government. He would not be a barrier to turning this government into a vehicle for positive change.

It depends on whether Netanyahu will get a trial and how he will choose to conduct himself. If both of them don’t agree on agenda, nothing will move forward. I tend to think that this government will actually be, from an economic perspective, willing and able to make some significant decisions. I don’t see it like the government we had in the mid-’80s that really overhauled the structure of our government and put us on a different trajectory for decades. I hope it will be done, but I’m not as optimistic.

On the issue of whether this will create a truce on some of the identity questions I raised, I’m more skeptical. I think at most we can hope for some kind of a ceasefire both in initiatives in rhetoric. And hopefully that the government will agree on reasonable nominations for this next state prosecutor and next attorney general. I wouldn’t look for agreement on the fundamental constitutional matters that divide us.

That brings us to the first question. Obviously a constitution would be much desired and necessary for our fragile democracy, but I don’t see the political circumstances that will enable it to materialize. The Israel Democracy Institute (IDI), the organization that I head, actually led the process of designing a constitution by consent. We had leading intellectuals from across the spectrum agreeing on a blueprint for a constitution, and tried to promote it within the political system. But perhaps passing a constitution requires a constitutional moment, a formative moment. Whether it’s a big crisis or the moment of the emergence and establishment of a state. As long as we don’t have a constitutional moment — and to some extent I hope we won’t have a constitutional moment, because that means a crisis — then what we can hope for is passing chapters of the constitution. Chapters on how we legislate basic laws, on what the relationship between the judiciary and the Knesset. If we had reasonable leadership I think we could pass some of those chapters with very broad consensus. From the data that we collect at IDI, some of the ideas that we’ve put forward win support of 70 percent of Israelis across identity and tribal groups. I think passing chapters of our constitution is a reasonable political goal, but requires more than reasonable leaders – it requires visionary leaders and good circumstances. I hope this government will produce that, but I’m more skeptical about it.