We are having a lesson in the nature of politics. As ever in the case of this slippery science, the nature of the lesson is not especially clear. Neither is its implications for the near and distant future.
No doubt that feathers at the peak of the American government are ruffled. Hillary spent 45 minutes on the phone with Bibi. She spent most of the time talking, and we can imagine that she was at her shrillest. She went public with her charge that Israel had insulted the United States by announcing construction in Jerusalem during the vice president's effort in behalf of peace. According to some reports, she threatened, or hinted at a threat to reconsider American aid for Israel's security.
Earlier Bibi had said that his expression of regret for the timing, and his claim of no responsibility for the decision, had settled the crisis. So far he has not responded to Hillary's dressing down beyond appointing a committee to uncover who was responsible for the embarrassment.
Hillary says there is no indication that Bibi had a hand in the unfortunate incident, but that is a thin fig leaf. If Bibi or his key coalition partner and minister of interior did not actually bless the decision before it was taken, the bureaucrats and political appointees who did it could imagine that it would advance the government's agenda. One or more of those underlings may lose a job in the national interest, or the quest for responsibility may go on long enough to disappear in the noise of subsequent crises.
Bibi's political calculation is either simple or impossible, depending on him. He can turn leftward and give a concession to the Palestinians in order to placate the Americans. He may lose the ultra-Orthodox Sephardi party SHAS and the right wing, secular, and heavily Russian party Israel Beiteinu, but Tzipi Livni has indicated a willingness to bring the Kadima party into the coalition as a replacement. The loss of SHAS and Israel Beiteinu would also take the hot potatoes of a reformed conversion law and a law in behalf of civil unions off the government's table.
On the other hand, Bibi's heart--and those of his party colleagues in Likud--are closer to the feelings expressed by SHAS and Israel Beiteinu than to those of Kadima or the American White House.
Moreover, there are few Israelis convinced that peace with the Palestinians is attainable, and there is widespread wonderment at the obsessive pursuits by the Obama administration. The confidence in that administration with respect to Iran is no greater than with respect to Palestine. Should Bibi crawl and change his stripes, and risk his standing with his own closest partners, he would only postpone what is likely to be the reckoning with a stubborn and blind administration when he fails to satisfy Palestinians, and he would not lessen the threat of a nuclear armed Iran.
Several events, perhaps less than minor on the international stage, may develop in ways to defuse the present crisis, or make it more severe. Politics being what they are, the same items may move the big players in different directions.
Perhaps the least weighty, but most sexy politically is the issue of segregated buses. "Strictly kosher buses" serve ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods, which religious activists demand be divided between women in the rear and men in the front. Although the segregation is largely voluntary, supported by many ultra-Orthodox women as well as men, not all in that community are happy. And if anything is a red flag in the face of Israeli and international political correctness, it is this. Tzipi Livni was prominent in a recent flurry on the issue, so one can wonder if she would bring her party into a coalition that has one or two ultra-Orthodox parties.
Also coming to prominence is a resurgence of Palestinian protest. Some of this has been spurred by putting Rachel's Tomb and the Cave of the Patriarchs on the list of national heritage sites, some by a court decision favoring Jewish over Arab residents for a contested building in East Jerusalem, and some by the reconsecration of a prominent synagogue in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City that had been destroyed during the War of Independence and the 19 years of Jordanian control. And there has been an uptick in Palestinian violence directed at a highway built from the northern suburbs of Jerusalem to Tel Aviv through part of the West Bank. Israel closed that road to Palestinians beginning with the intifada, and the Supreme Court has ruled that it must be reopened to them. Security personnel and politicians are pondering how to comply with that ruling, and now, perhaps, whether to comply with it. Currently a weekend closing of all entry points from the West Bank to Israel for Palestinians has been extended, due to continued reports of incitements and preparations for violence.
"Have a good week" is a traditional greeting for "First Day," the Biblical name for what many of you call Sunday. One can extend the blessing, without expecting that much will come of it.
Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem