Brexit Blackmail

Has David Cameron gone too far in threatening to pull Britain from the EU?

LONDON — The late William F. Buckley once summed up the purpose of National Review, the magazine he founded, as to "[stand] athwart history, yelling Stop, at a time when no one is inclined to do so, or to have much patience with those who so urge it." It was, he suggested, "out of place" not least because "there never was an age of conformity quite like this one." Something similar might be said of Britain's awkward relationship with the European Union.

Much of the continent has long favored an ever closer union. Britain, however, has stood alone, demanding opt-outs from the provisions of European treaties (on matters such as the euro and border currency) and stubbornly resisting anything that smacks of the creation of a European "superstate." Britain, proud and stubborn, was late to the European party and ever since has loitered on the fringes, never quite sure whether it was a good idea to come at all. The EU has proved a poor replacement for the long-lost glories of empire. If Europe was to be the future, it was still only a pale shadow of the past.

Until recently, however, the idea that Britain might actually leave the EU -- the so-called "Brexit" -- seemed most improbable. That is no longer the case. The previously impossible now seems quite possible. British Prime Minister David Cameron announced on Wednesday, Jan. 23, that his Conservative Party now favors a popular referendum on Britain's continuing membership in the European club. The "in or out" referendum, which Cameron considered unnecessary even two years ago, is, at least in part, a response to the eurozone's economic crisis and the resultant moves toward an even stronger political -- as well as fiscal -- union. Britain will have no part of that. And because polls show a majority of Britons favoring a referendum (and some showing more Britons want to leave the EU than remain in it), we may expect the opposition Labour Party to eventually endorse a plebiscite too.

Cameron says he does not want to leave the EU, but merely reform it. Britain, he says, must grasp the opportunity afforded by the eurozone's woes and fundamentally alter the terms of its membership. Sovereignty must be repatriated, and Europe's ability to impact British social and business policies sharply curtailed. (The only example Cameron cited, mind you, was the EU-inspired working conditions for doctors in Britain's hospitals. Would Britain really leave the EU over such an ostensibly trivial matter?)

If Cameron persuades his European colleagues to accept these reforms, then he promises to campaign "with heart and soul" for Britain to remain within the EU. But if he fails -- and "success" has not yet been defined -- then he, as well as his party, will presumably press for a British exit. In other words, the status quo will not be enough. It is not quite clear why a status quo that Britain can -- however unhappily -- live with now (otherwise, Cameron would favor leaving immediately) would become intolerable in 2017. This, however, does not appear to trouble the prime minister or his deeply Euroskeptic party.

By acceding to pressure to commit to a referendum -- assuming he wins the next general election, scheduled for 2015 -- Cameron has made the "Brexit" more likely. This Overton window has shifted. Cameron's own future is now inextricably tied to the European issue. If he thinks a single speech can solve his domestic problems, he is liable to be disappointed. But there's a bigger risk in this brinkmanship. There is a danger that other European leaders will conclude life with Britain is more exhausting and frustrating than it is worth. Should they do that, then Cameron may be forced to support a British exit after all.

Cameron, however, was at pains to try to present his ultimatum as a constructive contribution to the debate on Europe's future. As the prime minister reminded his European colleagues, thousands of British bodies lie in European cemeteries -- bodies of those who died fighting for peace on the continent. Britain, the none-too-subtle subtext was, will take no lectures from its European partners. Nor will the country be accused of being a "bad European." On the contrary, his suggestions for reform were meant constructively and should be shared by all EU members. Predictably, this proved an unpopular message. As Guy Verhofstadt, the former Belgian prime minister, warned in an op-ed in the Independent: Cameron is "playing with fire.... He can control neither the timing nor the outcome of the negotiations, and in so doing is raising false expectations that can never be met and jeopardising both Britain's long-term interests and the unity of the EU."

Cameron's message is that the EU should concentrate on boosting its international competitiveness, rather than on moving toward an ever more centralized union. The continent should make a virtue of its diversity. Any "one-size-fits-all" solution, he said, is a recipe for guaranteed failure. Most of all, Cameron stressed, the single European market -- which remains a work in progress -- needs to be protected and expanded (to include, for instance, a true single market in services). This, it should be noted, is a sensible message and one that might be approved by plenty of other European countries.

Yet pulling out isn't quite as easy as it seems. Britain is not always quite as isolated from Europe as it likes to think it is. Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, and some of the newer members from Eastern Europe see Britain as a useful -- and free market -- bulwark against French influence in Europe. Nevertheless, despite German Chancellor Angela Merkel's kind suggestion that some "compromise" will have to be found, it is hard to envisage an outcome that can simultaneously satisfy Cameron, the British Conservative Party, and other European leaders.
Although Cameron was careful not to divulge the details of Britain's "shopping list" of powers that London believes should be repatriated to national capitals, he offered a clearer sense of his agenda at the weekly Prime Minister's Questions in the House of Commons: "I want Britain to reform the European Union.... We have been very clear about what we want to see changed. There is a whole series of areas -- social legislation, employment legislation, environmental legislation -- where Europe has gone far too far, and we need to properly safeguard the single market. We also want to make sure that ever-closer union does not apply to the United Kingdom."

In truth, Cameron's speech on Wednesday was an admission of defeat. For years, he preferred to avoid talking about Europe, mindful that divisions on the subject helped terminate Margaret Thatcher's career and crippled John Major's premiership. The Tory obsession with all things European has often damaged the party's standing, especially with nonaligned, centrist voters for whom Euro-mania is extremely off-putting.

However, the combination of the eurozone's crisis and increasing levels of Euroskepticism within his own party forced Cameron's hand. It did not help that the UK Independence Party -- a once minor group of obsessives who wish Britain to leave the EU immediately and fully -- has, according to recent opinion polls, supplanted the Liberal Democrats as the third force in British politics. That may be a temporary blip, but it's a telling indicator of the political winds in Britain: The country's most Euroskeptic party is now more popular than its most Europhile.

A poll commissioned by Conservative Home (an influential website for Tory members and activists) reported that 85 percent of Conservative members thought that Cameron was only giving his speech because he'd been forced to by the party's increasing distrust of the EU. That poll also showed the limitations of Cameron's approach: Some 38 percent of members want Britain to leave the EU now, while another 40 percent desire nothing more than a free trade agreement with the rest of the EU.

The "better off out" brigade at least has a position rooted in some measure of logic, even if it is not a position favored by the prime minister. Britain could doubtless survive quite comfortably outside the EU, but its international influence might very well be diminished and its businesses would still find themselves forced to abide by numerous EU-issued regulations.

The "free trade only" grouping, however, pine for an impossible pipe dream. Cameron gently attempted to tell them as much, pointing out that Norway -- a member of the European Economic Area but not of the EU -- must also abide by EU rules, but lacks the ability to shape or influence those rules. That's one reason Cameron still wants Britain to remain a member: Markets are governed by laws, and London would lose the ability to influence those laws and regulations if it left the EU. But Britain's European partners are unlikely to be impressed by this "cherry-picking" approach. Cameron hopes Merkel and other leaders need him more than Britain needs Europe -- but his bluff may well be called.

In truth, a large dollop of British disgruntlement with the EU often has little to do with Brussels and rather more to do with the European Court of Human Rights and its perceived interference in British affairs. For instance, one long-running and festering dispute concerns the court's ruling that Britain's blanket ban on prisoners voting in elections is in contravention of human rights. This, like similar cases -- notably those involving the deportation of terrorist suspects -- has aroused the ire of Britain's most ferocious tabloid newspapers, which love nothing more than denouncing any European infringement of British "sovereignty."

Such a distinction, however, seems to make little difference to Britain's endless Euro-argument. It is, in the end, a debate dominated by symbols rather than actual policy. Britain, for instance, already enjoys one of the most liberal labor markets in the world. Despite popular sentiment to the contrary, it has not been strangled by red tape from Brussels.

In the end, however, the British really are poor Europeans. They wish access to the single market but are wary of the rules and regulations that come with it. Most of all, they don't feel or consider themselves European. They are happy to lecture their neighbors -- one reason that many on the continent have lost patience with Britain's ceaseless grumbling -- but disinclined to take suggestions from anyone. They consider themselves different -- an island people apart -- and maintain a keen and lofty skepticism toward all things continental.

Ultimately, this is not simply a struggle to define Britain's national interest. In many ways, it's a battle for Britain's political identity -- which is another reason the prevailing wind is a Euroskeptic breeze. If Britain does remain a member of the EU, it is liable to do so with some reluctance. But for the prime minister, his bid to placate his own party has made it dramatically more likely Britain might actually leave. As legacies go, this isn't quite what David Cameron had in mind when he entered 10 Downing Street but, forced by his party and by events beyond Britain, it may prove the defining moment of his premiership.

Oli Scarff/Getty Images


The Man Who Brought Down Bibi

Benjamin Netanyahu finds himself besieged by a resurgent Israeli left and an old ally-turned-rival on the right.

JERUSALEM — In the heart of Ajami, the last remnant of what was once the thriving Palestinian coastal city of Jaffa, dozens of religious students at the Song of Moses Yeshiva bicker over their Talmudic interpretations. "We are here to restore Judaism on the coast and turn Jaffa into a spiritual home in the heart of Tel Aviv," says its administrator, Hanan Hochster.

Hochster is part of the vanguard of Israel's national-religious settlers who, over the past half-decade, have swept down from their hilltop garrisons in the occupied West Bank. Their mission is nothing less than to conquer metropolitan Israel. "After the disengagement from Gush Katif [the Jewish settlements in Gaza], we realized that we lost the land because we lost the people, and had to win them back," he says. As part their studies, which combines Talmud with military training, each student is obliged to spend five hours a week on community service.

Their political arm is Jewish Home, a right-wing party whose rise inside mainstream Israel has been no less startling. Like the Jaffa Yeshiva, which has almost doubled its student body in a year, Jewish Home quadrupled its seats to 12 in Israel's Jan. 22 election, turning it from the Knesset's smallest party into the fourth largest. Its leader, millionaire Israeli businessman Naftali Bennett, has become the rising star on Israel's political scene over the course of the campaign.

The rise of Yair Lapid, a media personality-turned-politician, has become the story of this Israeli election -- but it is Bennett who was responsible for the poor showing of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud Party. While other parties fought over the scraps from Kadima, a centrist party that imploded, Bennett targeted Netanyahu's voter base, depleting his party's coalition from 42 seats to 31. As a result, Netanyahu faces a series of tough decisions as he mulls how to assemble a governing coalition that will return him to the premiership.

To Israel's ruling elites, Jewish Home seeks to supplant not only the remains of historic Palestine but the secular Israel they built on its ruins. Secular Jews have railed at the descent of hilltop zealots and ultra-orthodox Jewish rabbis, who consider their military zeal and nationalism a perversion of biblical tradition. Fearful that Bennett would strip him of voters on the religious right, Netanyahu warned settlers against making "a historic, fatal mistake ... of splitting their votes, weakening the Likud, and bringing a left-wing government to power."

But amid rising social discontent, Israelis are increasingly looking for alternatives -- and both Bennett and Lapid fit the bill. As elsewhere in the Middle East, hundreds of thousands of young Israelis took to the streets in protest at their rulers in 2011, while religious nationalists capitalized at the ballot box on their discontent with crony capitalism and security regimes that ride roughshod over the aspirations of their people. Bennett likens religious Zionism's rise to the Arab Awakening, which has seen Islamists topple old elites across the region. It is, he says, "a Jewish Spring."

In part, Bennett is the beneficiary of a protest vote against the two older right-wing parties: Likud and Foreign Minister Avigdor Liebermann's Yisrael Beiteinu. Once the party of Israel's underdogs, Likud under Netanyahu seemed increasingly the voice of the establishment and its business interests. Critics accused its leaders of being lackluster and uninspiring -- concerned with their own survival and devoid of diplomatic initiatives or fresh ideas on getting Israel's ultra-orthodox and Arab population off welfare and into work. Lieberman's image, meanwhile, was tarnished by an indictment on corruption charges. His predominantly Russian followers have also abandoned him in droves, upset that the Moldavian immigrant has forsaken their interests for mainstream political success.

The Netanyahu-Lieberman alliance is no less controversial within Likud. A powerful national-religious caucus inside the party has berated Netanyahu for embracing Lieberman, an ardent secularist who wants to ease rabbinic restrictions on Jews marrying non-Jews. An ultra-orthodox election broadcast parodied the party in a sketch that imagines the party sending fax machines to weddings so that a non-Jewish partner can receive instant conversion certificates.

Many are equally disenchanted with leaders who have parroted hawkish rhetoric but left the status quo with the Palestinian Authority largely unchanged. "The Likud believes that all of the land of Israel belongs to the People of Israel. That's our manifesto," says a national-religious settler in the senior ranks of Likud's Central Committee. "Netanyahu has not come up strong enough to instill confidence that he will follow a right-wing platform." In a silent protest, many party members stayed at home rather than canvass, contributing to the party's decline.

Netanyahu tried to recover lost ground, vowing that his government would never remove settlements and campaigning at the Wailing Wall, a Jewish holy site in Jerusalem's occupied Old City. Likud campaign posters in religious suburbs of Jerusalem show a Netanyahu wearing a black skullcap and lighting ceremonial candles -- an about-face for a prime minister who works on the Sabbath, in contravention of Jewish tradition, and who once married a non-Jew.

But the charm offensive failed to convince. Where Netanyahu donned his skullcap on Jewish ceremonies when the cameras were watching, Bennett wore it permanently -- and moved in to exploit the mounting skepticism in the religious Zionist camp.

In some ways, Bennett's Judaism looks as opportunistic as Netanyahu's. His national-religious persona has waxed and waned throughout his career: He was born in the port city of Haifa to California migrants who were secular Zionists, lives in a coastal suburb of Tel Aviv rather than a settlement, and for much of his career did not wear a knitted skull-cap, the headdress of national-religious Jews.

Bennett's rise in 2010 to head the Yesha Council, the body representing over 300,000 settlers in the occupied West Bank, may have been similarly motivated as much by personal interest as ideology. Hired by Netanyahu as his chief of staff to hound then Prime Minister Ehud Olmert over his shoddy management of Israel's 2006 Lebanon War, he quickly turned on his master. After an acrimonious 18 months, which ended in his dismissal, he took revenge by turning Yesha into a tool to puncture Netanyahu's right-wing support. Using the emails and telephone numbers he procured as Netanyahu's chief of staff and campaign manager in Likud's 2007 primaries, he mounted a sustained attack on Netanyahu's agreement, under U.S. pressure, to a 10-month freeze in settlement expansion.

Bennett's next move was to enlist Netanyahu's disillusioned followers as members in Jewish Home, which he took over earlier this year. While in Yesha, he further helped 15,000 predominantly national-religious sign up as Likud members to propel hawks to the party's most senior positions, and undermine Netanyahu from within.

Other Israeli politicians similarly tried to capitalize on Netanyahu's tensions with the religious right. Shelly Yachimovich, leader of Labor, which is set to be the main opposition party, risked bitter criticism from within by downplaying Israel's conflict with the Palestinians and refusing to condemn settlers. Though her party spawned the 1993 Oslo Accords with the Palestinians, her political program did not even include a reference to the word "peace." Lapid, a secular television presenter who used to host Israel's prime-time news program on Friday nights, when religious Jews turn off their televisions, recruited a settler rabbi as the deputy of his party, which won 19 seats.

But neither had Bennett's knack for draining Likud of its votes. He straddles the two Israels -- the coast of Israel proper and the peripheral highlands of military occupation, the secular and the religious. He is both a resident of the Tel Aviv bubble and a religious settler leader. He founded a hi-tech start-up in the United States that made him millions, realizing the dream of secular Tel Aviv yuppies. His military accolades as a soldier in an elite unit operating behind enemy lines in Lebanon, which he repeatedly parades, have won him the support of conscripts.

Above all, he represents the majority of Israelis born after 1967, who have only known Israel as a military occupier of Palestinian territories and feel fairly comfortable about it.

To placate voters nervous of tilting rightwards, Bennett has sought to shed some of the millennial traits religious Zionism acquired after Israel's 1967 conquests of biblical lands: He emphasized his movement's pre-1967 commitment to social causes, and said Jewish values outweighed devotion to land.. He denounces Netanyahu for creating a state grounded in fear of annihilation, rather than one rooted in a positive spiritual tradition, and calls for cuts in Israel's bloated military budget.

Bennett certainly downplayed the communalism common amongst other national-religious firebrands. While Moshe Feiglin, a prominent religious settler on Netanyahu's electoral list, proposes paying Arabs to get out, Bennett said he would refuse orders to evict Arabs as well as Jews. While he opposes partition, he has entertained other ways of ending Israel's 45-year military occupation: As Yesha leader he considered fully annexing the West Bank, granting its population full Israeli citizenship, and creating a single binational state. For now, he calls for keeping the Palestinian Authority -- but has proposed restoring the status quo of the pre-Oslo years, ending Israel's role as overseer of Palestinian bantustans.

"Right of movement is not good enough inside Judea and Samaria [the right-wing term for the West Bank]," he said in an interview last year. "If I was prime minister I would tear down the fence [the separation barrier] tomorrow. I'd remove the roadblocks. Arabs from Nablus should be able to go beach in Tel Aviv, as they did in the 1980s."

There is, of course, a darker side to Bennett's movement. Jewish Home is a composite that also includes Tekuma, a movement of national-religious settlers governed by a triumvirate of rabbis with more extremist tendencies. Bennett's deputy is Uri Ariel, a parliamentarian who regularly parades on the forecourt around the Muslim shrine of Dome of the Rock, where the Jewish temple once stood, to promote Jewish rights to worship there.

Bennett's list of candidates also includes Jeremy Gimpel, who has posited "blowing up" the Dome of the Rock and rebuilding a Jewish temple on its ruins, and a Hebron rabbi, who advised officials on how to settle national-religious Jews in Upper Nazareth and keep Israel's Arab citizens out. Bennett has also authored his own plan proposing to annex Area C, the rural 60 percent of the West Bank, where Jewish settlers outnumber Palestinians three to one, and retain military control over the rest. While party faithful suggest it could be the first stage for a broader rollout of citizenship to more Palestinians, in its current guise it amounts to an unabashed Israeli land grab.

Moreover, for all its pretensions to coexistence, Jewish Home has shown little regard for the marginalization of Israel's Arabs, who make up one in five of its citizens. Like other parties in Netanyahu's coalition, it declined to sign a charter committing an incoming government to end the yawning socioeconomic gap between Israeli Jews, 15 percent of whom live in poverty, and Arab Israelis, 55 percent of whom are poor. This disregard for Israel's Arab citizens is also evident at the grassroots level: Though the Jaffa Yeshiva is in Arab neighborhood, its student volunteers help only Jews.

Bennett insists that he, not Tekuma's rabbis, will dictate policy. But his bad blood with Netanyahu could mean that he will remain excluded from government for the time being. The two leaders' antagonism may just decide what sort of coalition Netanyahu forms: The prime minister is unlikely to readily forgive the former chief of staff who betrayed him, nor the settlers who filled the ranks of Likud and then voted for a hard-right party.

Moreover, a shift to the center could help Netanyahu restore old-time loyalists unpopular with the hard right, and ease pressure from the international community to moderate his positions. While few expect the new Israeli government to make the Israeli-Palestinian peace process a priority, Netanyahu could yet form a majority government comprised of Lapid's party and the ultra-orthodox party, Shas, leaving Bennett and his fickle following of settlers out in the cold. Ironically, by targeting Netanyahu's base, Bennett may have deprived the settlers and religious Zionists of power -- at least until the next election.