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While there is a difference in rhetoric between the two leaders, there’s not much Netanyahu can do to block a U.S. deal with Iran and Herzog would not change Israeli policy towards the Palestinians

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay. As we do this report, the Israeli vote is being counted, many say still too close to call. One way or the other, it’s more or less a tie. Both of the leading contenders, Herzog and Netanyahu, are claiming they’re in the best position to form a government. Well, what will it all mean if Herzog wins, Netanyahu wins, or perhaps they even form a coalition? Now joining us to talk about all of this is Phyllis Bennis. Phyllis is the author of many books, including Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: A Primer. Thanks for joining us, Phyllis. So what do we know so far? PHYLLIS BENNIS, FELLOW, INSTITUTE FOR POLICY STUDIES: Well, it looks like–and the–we’re far from out of the woods here. It looks like, as–at the moment, that the votes are almost exactly tied. There’s two reports. One says that the two sides have about 27 votes each. Another says that Likud wins with 28 to 27. But either way, they’re very, very close. The question now is which leader–Herzog or Netanyahu–will be asked by the Israeli president to create a coalition. So this is now all about who can jockey for power within the myriad of political parties that make up the Israeli parliament. There’s 120 seats in the parliament, and there’s about 12 or 13 parties that will have enough votes to get in there [incompr.] going to be what happens here. Are we going to have a coalition led by Netanyahu and the right, or led by Herzog and the center? That’s really the two choices. JAY: Now, in the Canadian and British tradition, normally they would ask the outgoing prime minister and give him the first chance to form the government. The president of Israel’s already come out and said he wants a government of national unity. Does he actually have the leverage or power to push for that? BENNIS: Well, he has the power to push for it. Whether he has the leverage to get it is another story. Netanyahu particularly has seemed, publicly, at least, quite opposed to the idea of a national unity government, although there have been rumors that there are already negotiations underway between Herzog and Netanyahu’s people on exactly that question. The fact that Tzipi Livni, the partner of Herzog who used to be in the Labour Party and then was in another couple of centrist parties, the fact that she is no longer arranging to be an alternate prime minister, which was the original plan between her and Herzog, some people are interpreting that as an indication that Herzog and Netanyahu are already negotiating what a shared prime ministership–one would do it for six months and then the other, some version of that in a national unity government–what would that look like. JAY: Yeah, it’s hard to imagine Netanyahu would agree to such a thing. BENNIS: It’s hard to imagine. But it’s also hard to imagine that he would allow his own defeat if he is actually having an even number of votes with the opposition. The reality is: his big commitment is staying in power. And it may be that if staying in power requires that, he might well do it. The differences between them are absolutely bridgeable. JAY: Now, there’s no doubt President Obama would like to see Netanyahu leave the scene. Do you think there is significant difference on the question of Iran vis-à-vis Herzog, Netanyahu? We know Herzog’s given some interviews. It certainly sounds like significant difference. He told The Atlantic and The Washington Post that he trusts Obama to get a deal, a good deal. He even, according to The Washington Post, quote, declined to say that Iran is an existential threat to Israel, which is certainly different rhetoric than Netanyahu. BENNIS: Yes. The rhetoric is different. On the other hand, just couple of days ago, Herzog said very specifically, there is no daylight on Iran between him and Netanyahu. I think that’s probably more accurate. Where there is daylight is on the optics, on the rhetoric. The big difference between the two parties is that Herzog is pragmatic, he’s not as much filled with bombast as Netanyahu. He’s not going to antagonize the United States as much. And he has said that he sees his first job and his most important job [is] to repair the damage to the relationship to the U.S. that Netanyahu has achieved. The Palestinian citizens of Israel make up more than 20 percent of the population. They have the right to vote, despite the fact that there are 50 separate laws that legally discriminate against Palestinian citizens. But in this election they voted in higher numbers than in the past, and they ended up with what looks like it will be about 13 seats in the Knesset. The significance of that: they had about 11 seats the last time. But in the past there have been four separate Arab parties. This time they ran a united list. So, with 13 seats in total, they emerge as the third-largest bloc in the parliament, which gives them a certain amount of power in terms of not necessarily being part of the government–no Jewish government coalition has ever wanted the governments, the actual government, the cabinet, to include Palestinians. But if they agree to vote with the government, which presumably would not be with Netanyahu, but with the Herzog centrist faction, it would give them a certain amount of power. Now, whether that would mean anything seems quite dicey. It seems, in my view, quite doubtful that they would actually have the power to move affirmatively on any of the economic and social, as well as the political demands of the Palestinian community inside Israel. It might give them enough power to block some of the most egregious laws, some of the really racist laws that have been promulgated in recent years and just passed with easy majorities. That might put them in a position, because they would be operating unanimously as a group, to have an influence there. JAY: That seems pretty contradictory to his other statements. BENNIS: It does. But if you look at his earlier statements, they really have more to do with the United States than with a substantive position on Iran. He can say, I’m not going to call it an existential threat; I’m going to call it a significant strategic threat. Well, that doesn’t necessarily mean very much in terms of what Israel is going to want to do about that threat. So I think that the key question here is about the relationship with the United States on Iran. JAY: But it is not also about sort of a partisan alignment as well? Netanyahu is very much connected to the Republicans, to the neocons. And Obama, it seems to me, is more connected to the Herzog type Israeli politicians. And they’d be more likely, you would think, to go along with I trust Obama to get a good deal rather than ally with the Republicans who are pushing for war. BENNIS: This is about Netanyahu making it a partisan issue and Herzog wanting it to be a nonpartisan issue. So he’s saying yes to the president. I don’t think he’s so interested in antagonizing the Republicans. He wants it to remain a nonpartisan issue, where everybody in Congress is supporting Israel uncritically, as opposed to only the Republicans, though it’s really a return to that kind of nonpartisanship. JAY: But if there is a deal in the works–and it sure seems like there is–he’s more likely not to be hysterical about it. He might actually go along with it if Obama says it’s a good deal. BENNIS: Well, I think that he will go along with it. I think at the end of the day Netanyahu would go along with it too–he would just complain about it more. Netanyahu is not about to launch a unilateral strike against Iran, not least because his generals are quite likely to disobey such an order. That’s never happened before. But I think Netanyahu knows that it is a possibility, and he would not risk it. He is making a political point out of this claim that Iran would be an existential threat to Israel. And that’s not the politics that Herzog brings to it. It’s not a strategic difference. It’s a political difference. JAY: Right. And just finally, is there any difference at all between the two when it comes to the Palestinian people? BENNIS: Well, this is the most important question in some ways. And I think overall the answer is not very much. Again, there is a stylistic and a rhetorical difference. The political base of Netanyahu’s coalition includes the settlers and the supporters of the settlers. That’s not the case for Herzog. But Herzog, no more than Netanyahu, is certainly not going to be willing to plan to expel more than a few thousand of the 650,000 illegal Israeli settlers that now live in the West Bank and East Jerusalem who are violating international law every morning simply by getting out of bed. The difference is that Netanyahu is now saying, suddenly, there will be no Palestinian state on my watch, and Herzog is saying, there’s not going to be a Palestinian state any time soon, but I probably am not going to announce new settlement blocks when the U.S. secretary of state is here on a visit. So it’s that kind of difference. I think it’s for that reason that you’re not seeing enormous engagement by Palestinians in the occupied territories or among the refugees and exiles around the world, because at the end of the day, the difference is not that extreme. There is one important difference, however, and that has to do with the international position of Israel. And in many ways it means that a victory by Netanyahu to become the new prime minister might actually be better for the Palestinians in the next period than a victory by the supposedly more centrist Herzog. That’s because if Herzog becomes the prime minister, there will be an enormous sigh of relief in Washington, in Brussels, in every European capital. Everybody will say, oh, thank heavens we now have somebody we can deal with, somebody who’s not so extreme. He talks a good talk. He wants to go back to the table, he wants to go back to the negotiations. And that means we can go back to the status quo. And that could mean another 23 years of failed negotiations, no different than the 23 years of failed negotiations we have just finished. With Netanyahu in office, the willingness of Europe to begin to consider sanctions against Israel, to isolate Israel in certain ways, the willingness of many in Congress to begin to criticize Israel will dissipate. But that will make it even harder to bring pressure to bear on U.S. policymakers to stop enabling Israeli occupation and Israeli apartheid. JAY: Alright. Thanks very much for joining us, Phyllis. BENNIS: Thank you. JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


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Phyllis Bennis is a Fellow and the Director of the New Internationalism Project at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington DC.  Her books include Understanding ISIS & the New Global War on Terror, and the latest updated edition of Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: A Primer.