Handicapping the race to succeed Cameron as Tory leader

Boris Johnson Theresa MayPhoto credit to David Levene.

British prime minister David Cameron is gearing up to fight the toughest campaign of his life to win reelection on May 7.United Kingdom Flag Icon

Nevertheless, his announcement earlier this week that he intends to serve out two terms — and no more — has started the race to determine his successor. Despite Cameron’s efforts to signal that he will step down in 2020, there’s no guarantee that Cameron will be so lucky. The next Conservative Party leadership race could start immediately after the British election if Cameron leads the party to defeat or, possibly, after 2017 when Cameron has pledged (if reelected) to hold a referendum on continuing the United Kingdom’s membership in the European Union.

But even if the Tories win a renewed mandate (an outcome that seems more likely today than at any time in the past two or three years), a second Cameron term will now become even more consumed by the debate among his would-be successors to define the party’s future. Notwithstanding the planned 2017 EU referendum, the party’s next leader will determine whether the Conservatives should be relatively more pro-Europe or anti-Europe in an era that features the rise Nigel Farage’s populist and eurosceptic UK Independence Party (UKIP). The next Tory leader will also face a fragmenting political environment that appears to be transitioning from a two-party to a multi-party system and a growing sense of constitutional crisis in the aftermath of last September’s referendum on Scottish independence. Moreover, the next Tory leader will also have to choose between two strains of economic policy — a pro-market Thatcherite approach or the more centrist ‘one nation’ Tory approach of her predecessors that concedes a stronger role for government social welfare.

Obviously, a lot depends on timing — a leadership contest in 2015 could bring a different result than a contest in 2017 or 2019.

Cameron, in his remarks earlier this week, singled out Johnson as well as chancellor George Osborne and home secretary Theresa May as particularly strong candidates. Though Cameron almost certainly prefers Osborne, whose leadership stock is certainly on the rise as the economy improves, the two frontrunners today are clearly Johnson and May (pictured together above), whose personalities and approach to politics and government couldn’t be more different.

Here’s a look at what Johnson, May, Osborne would bring to the leadership — along with four other potential candidates waiting in the wings. Continue reading Handicapping the race to succeed Cameron as Tory leader

Socialists thrive in Andalusian regional elections

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After last Saturday’s election, it’s no exaggeration to say that Andalusia’s regional president Susana Díaz might be the most popular politician in Spain.Spain_Flag_Iconandalucia flag

Díaz, who heads the Partido Socialista Obrero Español (PSOE, Spanish Socialist Worker’s Party) in Andalusia, the largest region — or ‘autonomous community’ — in Spain, won her first term as regional president since taking power in 2013 upon the abrupt resignation of her predecessor, José Antonio Griñán. Both Griñán and Manuel Chaves, who governed the region between 1990 and 2009, are under investigation for their connection to a wide-ranging ‘ERE’ corruption scandal involving the diversion of funds designated to assist laid-off workers in Andalusia, where the unemployment rate remains stubbornly high at 34%, the worst in Spain, where joblessness also remains stubbornly high, despite its economy’s tepid 1.4% growth last year — the first year of GDP expansion since 2008.

Those two concerns, jobs and corruption, dominated the campaign in Andalusia, the sprawling southern region of Spain.

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RELATED: In Andalusia, Díaz takes office with staggeringly high unemployment, economic woes (September 2013)

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Though Andalusia has been a Socialist stronghold since the return of democracy in the late 1970s, disillusionment with widespread corruption and with Spain’s deteriorating economy gave the center-right Partido Popular (PP, People’s Party) of prime minister Mariano Rajoy its first Andalusian electoral victory in March 2012. Despite the Socialists’ losses, the party remained in power by forming a coalition with a smaller left-wing coalition of parties, Izquierda Unida (IU, United Left).

The Socialist-IU coalition continued under Díaz, who at age 40 is pregnant with her first child and who still marks a sharp contrast, generational and otherwise, with the region’s previous Socialist leaders. Díaz, a sharp-tongued populist who declined to contest the party’s national leadership, has also declined (so far) to challenge the PSOE’s leader Pedro Sánchez to become the prime ministerial nominee in November’s general elections.

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Her victory in Andalusia’s March 22 snap election, called in January after Díaz wearied of the IU’s demands as junior coalition partner, will give hope to Sánchez and the national PSOE leadership that it can thrive throughout the 2015 electoral gauntlet.

An additional 13 regions will hold elections on May 31, including Madrid, the Valencian Community and Castile and León, the third, fourth and sixth most populous regions in Spain, respectively. Rajoy’s PP and its allies are defending governments in 11 of the 13 regions, including each of Madrid, Valencia and Castile and León. The party’s 17-seat loss in Andalucia, therefore, is an alarming sign for the ruling party.  Continue reading Socialists thrive in Andalusian regional elections

Cameron ‘no-third-term’ bombshell launches Tory leadership intrigue

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It was certainly the kind of move German chancellor Angela Merkel would never have made.United Kingdom Flag Icon

Surprising reporters and many members of his own party alike, British prime minister David Cameron earlier this week announced that he will not stand for a third term — that is, if he and the ruling Conservative Party win reelection on May 7.

What’s certain is that with 42 days to go until the vote, everyone in British politics today was talking about Cameron and the future of the Tories — and not about his opponents. Cameron not only indicated that he wouldn’t stand for a third term; he named three potential successors:

  • Boris Johnson, the blond, floppy-haired mayor of London;
  • Theresa May, Cameron’s home secretary and a tough eurosceptic; and
  • George Osborne, the chancellor who’s taken as much heat as Cameron for the budget cuts of the past five years and who, insiders say, Cameron prefers as his successor.

It’s too soon to tell if the strategy will help Cameron and the Tories win what has become a very tight race with the center-left Labour Party.  On the one hand, it’s a little presumptuous for a British prime minister to look past an election in just over five weeks’ time to proclaim that he won’t be running for reelection in five years’ time. Cameron’s shot at winning a second term is precarious enough as it is. Moreover, there’s a real question that he’s now made himself a lame duck for the second term, which promises to include a tough 2017 referendum on the country’s membership in the European Union if Cameron wins. What happens, by the way, if the Conservatives win a shaky minority government in May, lose a confidence vote in early 2016? Will Cameron resign when early elections follow? (Notwithstanding the new law purporting to establish fixed-term parliament.) Needless to say, it’s not the most intuitive step for a prime minister to launch a slow-motion leadership race so close to a general election.

On the other hand, it’s not out of character for Cameron, who’s never seemed to crave the premiership in the same way as former occupants of 10 Downing Street. It stands in contrast to Margaret Thatcher, who said he hoped to ‘go on and on’ after winning a third term and who finally left office after 11 years as a result of Tory regicide or to Labour prime minister Tony Blair, whose chancellor, Gordon Brown, pushed him out after a decade of intraparty sniping. Though the British media will spend this week talking about Cameron’s statement, the succession question will burn out by the time the real campaign begins, so you can expect relatively little off-the-record briefing about when Cameron will leave. His casual remarks end the speculation, for example, that he might resign after the 2017 referendum or in 2018. After all, if he hangs on until 2020 as he hopes, he will have served as the Conservative Party leader for fully 14 years — just as long as the Iron Lady herself.

Arguably, it frees Cameron to wage the most full-hearted campaign possible, because if he loses in five weeks’ time, his political career will end. No one doubted that would be the case (even without his remarks), but Cameron has now underlined that this is it. In a race where voters view Cameron as much more greatly suited to the office than Miliband, that could actually boost Cameron’s chances. If Cameron wins, he’ll be able to devote his full efforts to renegotiating British EU membership (and winning a referendum on EU membership) without worrying about the 2020 election.  Continue reading Cameron ‘no-third-term’ bombshell launches Tory leadership intrigue

Netanyahu set for six-party, right-wing coalition

bibikahlonPhoto credit to Marc Israel Sellem / Jerusalem Post.

After Israeli president Reuven Rivlin finished talks with all of the country’s parliamentary parties on Monday, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu was set to amass a governing majority in a six-party coalition that will easily prove more right-wing than either of Netanyahu’s governments following the 2009 and 2013 elections.ISrel Flag Icon

While coalition talks are not likely to begin until Wednesday, when Rivlin formally asks Netanyahu to begin negotiations, the contours for the next government seem clear.

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RELATED: Eight things we know after Tuesday’s Israeli election results

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It’s worth taking a moment to state just how right-wing the ‘Netanyahu IV’ government will be.

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In 2009, when Netanyahu returned to the premiership after a decade-long stint in the wilderness, his coalition included a former center-left prime minister, Ehud Barak, and the other traditional Israeli party, the Labor Party (מפלגת העבודה הישראלית).

In 2013, after a long round of negotiation talks, Netanyahu ditched the ultraorthodox haredi parties in favor of two moderates — Tzipi Livni, a centrist and former foreign minister and Yair Lapid, the leader of the secular centrist Yesh Atid (יש עתיד). Lapid, who would serve for two years as finance minister, demanded that Netanyahu eschew the haredi parties, especially in light of a contentious debate about the exemption of haredim from the Israeli Defense Forces.

Today, however, Netanyahu is set not only to welcome those ultraorthodox parties back into government, but to exclude Labor, Yesh Atid and any other real centrists. For all the hand-wringing among Israeli allies, most especially the United States, over the past six years of Netanyahu’s dominance, Netanyahu’s third consecutive term will be something like ‘Netanyahu squared.’

Lapid, Livni and the Labor Party leader Isaac Herzog have all ruled out joining a Netanyahu government, to the dismay of centrists (including, allegedly, Rivlin) who would prefer a more balanced government with a ‘national unity’ flavor.

The six parties aren’t firmly set yet, but all of them, representing 67 members of Israel’s unicameral, 120-member parliament, the Knesset (הַכְּנֶסֶת), recommended Netanyahu as the new prime minister and, accordingly, all six are expected to take part in the next Netanyahu government: Continue reading Netanyahu set for six-party, right-wing coalition

Why does the Cruz 2016 logo look so much like the Front National logo?

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Without weighing in on the merits or dismerits of Texas senator Ted Cruz’s presidential campaign, it’s striking that his logo seems to mimic the logo of the far-right Front national in France, the anti-immigrant, anti-Islam Eurosceptic party led by Marine Le Pen that opposes the growth of Islam in France.USflag

It certainly doesn’t seem intentional, but the similarity is uncanny to my eyes. I also wonder whether Cruz might see eye-to-eye with Le Pen on a great number of matters.

Cruz announced his presidential campaign earlier today at Virginia’s Liberty University, and he is the first formal candidate to do so in the race for either the Republican or Democratic Party nomination campaigns. A favorite of the ‘tea party’ movement, Cruz hopes to bridge the economic populism of ‘tea partiers’ with the enthusiasm of the evangelical Christian supporters in the Republican coalition.

Interestingly, the National Front isn’t the only far-right party to deploy a torch as its logo — it’s a common symbol for the parties of the far right in Italy, as well, including the Fratelli d’Italia, a nationalist conservative party formed in 2012 out of the remnants of the old National Alliance:

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While the British Conservative Party adopted a torch logo for a time, David Cameron changed it to a green tree in 2006 when won he won the party leadership (a logo that’s changed in the intervening nine years). In any event, the Tory torch was a much different kind of logo — more like the Olympic torch and in no way resembling the Italian or French far-right logos:

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It’s not clear why, exactly, the Cruz campaign would choose a logo with questionable far-right baggage (at least in Europe), nor is it clear that US political commentators would even make a link between the two. But it’s a reminder that at the presidential level in the United States, every little thing, no matter how minor, will receive much more scrutiny than Cruz has received in the past.

Is Lee Kuan Yew’s role in Singapore’s rise overrated?

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The father of modern Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew, died Monday at the age of 91.Singapore Flag Icon

Obituaries, prepared long ago by news outlets for Lee’s passing, will note that Lee presided over Singapore’s economic transformation from an uncertain city on the Malaysian peninsula into one of the world’s wealthiest countries on the strength of a strong central government, a thriving market economy, strict social conformity and a bit of soft authoritarianism.

The deal that Lee offered Singapore in 1965, for the next 25 years of his premiership and the ensuing 25 years of his ‘retirement’ that saw the rise of his son, Lee Hsien Loong, as prime minister in 2004, is simple: the promise of sustained economic growth and a robust social safety net at the expense of real democracy, liberal freedoms of speech and expression and a strong free press. It also entailed a nanny state, enforced by cultural norms as much as by government diktat, that deployed housing quotas to integrate Indian and Malay minorities among the larger ethnic Chinese population, forced retirement savings, compulsory two-year military service for Singaporean men, and strict rules that imposed the death penalty on drug offenses and that nudged (or pushed) Singaporeans to be more polite, learn English, stop chewing gum and self-censor any dissent of Lee and his ruling People’s Action Party (PAP).

As many of Lee’s obituaries will proclaim, it’s a deal that appeared to work — Singapore today has a (nominal) GDP per capita of over US$55,000, slightly higher than the United States, and political and economic experts alike routinely use words like ‘miracle’ to describe Singapore’s rise to become one of the wealthiest, most developed countries in the world.

Central to the Singapore story was Lee himself — indeed, the first in his series of memoirs is entitled simply ‘The Singapore Story.’

But how central was Lee to the modern creation of Singapore? He’s become a beloved figure, especially in the United States in the business-school-case-study-set kind of way. It’s impossible to separate Lee’s life and his role in Singapore’s rise, but it’s not impossible to argue that Lee was shrewd, competent and… very lucky.

Continue reading Is Lee Kuan Yew’s role in Singapore’s rise overrated?

What Malcolm Fraser can teach the United States

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In some ways, Malcolm Fraser was the ‘George W. Bush’ of Australian politics.australia new

For many Australians, especially on the left, his road to the premiership was tainted by the original sin of having taken power in a bloodless coup, when he convinced Australia’s governor-general to appoint him prime minister (and ousting Labor’s Gough Whitlam) in the middle of a political meltdown that, to this day, serves as a touchstone for constitutional crisis in Australia. As defence minister from 1969 to 1971, Fraser was among the first officials who bore responsibility for bringing Australia into the US-led Vietnam quagmire.

Fraser, who quickly won his own mandate in 1975, and again in 1977 and in 1980, died today at age 84. He served as prime minister from the center-right Liberal Party and, though he came to office with a reputation for very conservative rhetoric, governed more as the patrician Ted Heath than free-marketeer Margaret Thatcher. Though he’d become Australia’s third-longest serving prime minister — he left public office after his 1983 defeat by popular Labor leader Bob Hawke — he became in his later years a pariah  in Liberal circles, beginning with what many young Liberal firebrands believed to be a milquetoast and unambitious record for an eight-year premiership.

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RELATED: Remembering Gough Whitlam —
Australia’s progressive martyr

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In his later years, however, Fraser became something else altogether. When his former treasurer, John Howard, returned the Liberals to power in 1996, he quickly found in Fraser more of a critic than an ally. The most searing rupture came over Iraq, ironically, with Fraser denouncing Howard’s willingness to send Australian troops to fight an American war in the Middle East.

By the end, Fraser had made peace with his ally Whitlam, who preceded Fraser, his old rival, in death by just five months. Fraser had so alienated Howard and the Liberal hierarchy that Fraser became he of an inconvenient fact, too contrarian to embrace with a record too long to forget.

Like Bush, however, whose efforts to reverse the HIV/AIDS plague across sub-Saharan Africa loom larger to his legacy with every passing year, Fraser too had a humanitarian side. He was a friend to the opponents of South Africa’s apartheid regime before it became a politically safe position, and he even opposed white minority rule in what was then Rhodesia, hastening the rise of majority rule in the new Zimbabwe (at a time when no one could have known just how horrendously Robert Mugabe would betray the promise of its independence). He pushed forward legislation to boost indigenous Australians, and he boosted immigration by welcoming Vietnamese refugees to Australia.

He died unloved — neither by the Liberals who viewed the Fraser years as a wasted opportunity nor by the Labor stalwarts who thought Fraser nothing more than a usurper. But his final message is one that US policymakers should hear more often, as outlined in his 2014 book, Dangerous Allies, a critique of the bilateral relationship between the United States and Australia.

Fraser’s most enduring legacy, beyond the disastrous constitutional plotting that ended Whitlam’s premiership, will be the voice he found later in life, two decades after the end of his own premiership in questioning Australia’s passive willingness to join the United States in short-sighted foreign policy. Continue reading What Malcolm Fraser can teach the United States

Scotland could easily hold the balance of power in Britain

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A poll late last week confirmed that, if survey trends hold, it will be very difficult for the Labour Party to form a new government without the support of the pro-independence Scottish National Party (SNP) after the United Kingdom’s May 7 general elections.scotlandUnited Kingdom Flag Icon

Presumably, that makes Labour leader Ed Miliband’s declaration this week ruling out any coalition with the SNP somewhat awkward with the reality that the SNP may win between 40 and 50 of Scotland’s 59 seats in the House of Commons, many of which are currently held by Labour MPs and which for years were reliable seats on the Labour backbenches — so reliable, in fact, that none of those 59 constituencies changed parties between the 2005 and 2010 general elections.

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No longer.

With polls showing that Labour’s narrow lead against the governing Conservative Party has vanished, the SNP earthquake means that Labour is unlikely to form a government without at least some form of SNP support and, notably, Miliband didn’t rule out an informal arrangement whereby the SNP supports a Labour minority government. Nevertheless, just six months after Scottish voters narrowly rejected independence, they are now set to determine the balance of power throughout the entire United Kingdom.

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RELATED: Scottish referendum results — winners and losers

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Post-referendum, Scottish voters are now flocking to the SNP not only in regional politics (the SNP controls a majority government in the Scottish parliament) but in national politics as well. With the SNP winning nearly half of the Scottish vote and with a lead of around 20% against Labour, it could turn Scotland almost universally yellow (the SNP’s color), wiping out Labour’s Scottish heartland and depriving the Liberal Democrats of many of their 11 seats as well, nearly 20% of the LibDem MPs in total.

It’s not entirely surprising. Scottish voters are keen to hold Westminster accountable for promises of ‘devolution max,’ a set of promises made desperately by Labour and Conservative leaders alike in the last days of the referendum. When the ‘Yes’ campaign lost the referendum, Alex Salmond stepped down both as SNP leader and as Scotland’s first minister. Though he remains a relatively beloved figure in Scotland, his replacement, Nicola Sturgeon (pictured above) is even more popular, especially among young voters, evincing a more progressive edge than Salmond’s hard-edged leftism forged in the divisive politics of the 1970s. Continue reading Scotland could easily hold the balance of power in Britain

Israeli election results: eight things we know after Tuesday’s vote

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As the results started to trickle in early Wednesday morning (Jerusalem time), the world started to get a better sense of the verdict of Israeli voters in the country’s second general election in three years.ISrel Flag Icon

Exit polls that initially showed the two leading camps tied turned out to be wrong — the results showed that Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s center-right Likud (הַלִּכּוּד‎) won a bloc of 30 seats in the Knesset (הַכְּנֶסֶת), Israel’s unicameral parliament.

That’s in stark contrast to polls that showed that the Zionist Union (המחנה הציוני‎), a merger between Isaac Herzog‘s center-left Labor Party (מפלגת העבודה הישראלית) and a bloc of moderates led by former justice minister Tzipi Livni, would emerge as the largest party. It instead won just 24 seats.

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So what do these election results tell us? Continue reading Israeli election results: eight things we know after Tuesday’s vote

Netanyahu takes graceless turn in election-day message

A quick thought experiment with Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s election day message to supporters to compare how it would sound in the context of American politics:ISrel Flag Icon

  • Replace the word ‘Arab’ with ‘African-American.’
  • Replace the words ‘Likud’ and ‘Labor’ with ‘Republican’ and ‘Democrat.’
  • Replace the military reference to calling up the Israeli Defense Forces reserves to a generic ‘national security state of emergency.’

Here’s what you get:

The right-wing government is in danger. African-American voters are coming out in droves to the poll. Left-wing organizations are busing them out. We are in a national security state of emergency, we have only you. Get out to vote, bring your friends and family, vote Republican in order to close the gap between us and the Democrats. With your help and with God’s help.

If any politician in the United States made the statement above, he or she would be hounded out of office and out of public view — and rightly so.

Remember that Netanyahu here was referring to Israeli Arabs, not Palestinians in the West Bank or Gaza. He’s referring to the 20% (or so) of Israeli citizens that are Arabs, many of whom are Muslims, but some of whom are Druze or Christian as well. It’s not a message that rests well with the notion that Israeli democracy is healthy and thriving.

Though it may bring more right-wing voters to the polls, it seems even more likely to arouse Israeli Arab, long among the most apathetic voter groups in the country, to support the newly united Joint List, a merger of all four Arab parties, running together for the first time under the leadership of socialist attorney Ayman Odeh.

Netanyahu’s verbal strike comes hours after he revoked his formal support for a two-state solution to Israeli-Palestinian peace. Netanyahu is stuck in a fierce battle in his bid for reelection against the center-left Zionist Union, a merger of Isaac Herzog’s Labor Party and a faction led by former justice minsiter Tzipi Livni. Polls show that the Zionist Union may edge out Netanyahu’s center-right Likud to win the largest number of seats. But that won’t necessarily guarantee a Herzog-led government, which will depend upon days or weeks of coalition consultations with Israel’s many political parties.

The definitive chart to deciphering Israel’s coalition negotiations

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No matter who wins Israel’s election tomorrow, no party is expected to win more than a fragment of the seats necessary to win a majority in Israel’s unicameral 120-member parliament, the Knesset (הַכְּנֶסֶת).ISrel Flag Icon

That means that for days and, likely, weeks after the voting ends, Israel will be caught up in the battle to form a new governing coalition. That process will begin as soon as Tuesday, when Israel’s president Reuven Rivlin begins talking to party leaders to assess who should have the first shot at forming a coalition.

That individual, whether it is current prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu or Labor Party leader Isaac Herzog, will then have 42 days to build a government that can win at least a 61-vote majority in the Knesset.

The bottom line is that Israel and the world could be waiting a long time for a new government, though Rivlin is said to be anxious to speed the process along. That, in part, will depend on Israel’s many parties.

Rivlin, previously the speaker of the Knesset and, until his presidential election last year, a member of the center-right Likud, will have some discretion in naming a prime ministerial candidate, but it will almost certainly be the leader whose party wins the most votes in Tuesday’s election (unless a clear majority of other party leaders, over the course of presidential talks, support the second-place winner to lead the next government).

So how to keep track of the various coalition possibilities?

Suffragio‘s guide to the Israeli political parties and each party’s compatibility with every other party, as determined on a subjective scale of four degrees. Here’s what each of the colors mean: Continue reading The definitive chart to deciphering Israel’s coalition negotiations

Palestine comes to the fore on Israeli election eve

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With polls set to open within hours in the most competitive election in Israel since prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu returned to the premiership in 2009, both parties aiming to form Israel’s next government made their final cases to voters — and in doing so, provided election eve bombshells.palestineISrel Flag Icon

Netanyahu’s decision to denounce the two-state solution and former justice minister Tzipi Livni’s decision to renounce her claim to the premiership both, in their own ways, brought the Palestinian issue back to the forefront of voters’ minds. That follows a three-month election campaign during which Israeli-Palestinian relations, a matter of existential importance to both voting Israelis  and non-voting Palestinians, figured less prominently than economic concerns, sniping between secular and ultraorthodox politicians, Iran’s nuclear energy program or bilateral relations with the United States. For all the controversy over Netanyahu’s speech to the US Congress two weeks ago, the most notable aspect of his address might be that he never once uttered the word ‘Palestine.’

Netanyahu denounces two-state solution

Netanyahu announced, obliquely by way of an interview with NRG, that no Palestinian state would come into existence so long as he remains prime minister, reversing his prior 2009 commitment to a two-state solution, a stand that many Netanyahu observers always believed was less than full-hearted:

“I think that anyone who moves to establish a Palestinian state and evacuate territory gives territory away to radical Islamist attacks against Israel,” Netanyahu said. “The left has buried its head in the sand time and after time and ignores this, but we are realistic and understand”…. During a visit to the East Jerusalem settlement of Har Homa earlier Monday, Netanyahu warned that if he were not elected, “Hamastan B.” would be established in Jerusalem. “If Tzipi [Livni] and Bougie [Isaac Herzog] form a government, Hamastan B will be established here.”

Netanyahu’s strategy is clear. By tying himself to a hard-line stand on Palestinian statehood, he hopes to appeal to a handful of voters on the right — settlers and other conservatives that might otherwise be inclined to support the secular nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu (ישראל ביתנו‎, ‘Israel is Our Home’) of foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman or the religious conservative Bayit Yehudi (הבית היהודי, ‘Jewish Home’) of economy minister Naftali Bennett. Though Lieberman and Bennett are both members of Netanyahu’s government, Netanyahu must maximize his right-wing supporters if he hopes to win the largest number of seats in Israel’s unicameral legislature, the Knesset (הַכְּנֶסֶת), thereby strengthening his claim for a third consecutive term as prime minister.

Livni clears way for Herzog to serve full term as PM

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Meanwhile, Livni, Netanyahu’s former justice minister and, only a year ago, the Israeli government’s chief negotiator in the abandoned peace process with the Palestinians, delivered her own shocker today when she gave up her claim to the premiership.  Continue reading Palestine comes to the fore on Israeli election eve

The case for O’Malley in the 2016 presidential election

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The most damning thing that you can say about former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley isn’t that he was underwhelming, either as governor or as Baltimore mayor.marylandUSflag

It’s that we were merely whelmed by him.

Even today, as O’Malley prepares to become the most serious challenger to former US secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination, there’s not a whole lot you can pin on O’Malley, for good or for ill. He lacks the psychopolitical baggage of a Clinton candidacy, but he also doesn’t own any single issue or represent any broader movement. He’s a set of technocratic biceps with a penchant for data-driven policy and Celtic rock.

There’s nothing wrong with any of that, though. Formidable as Clinton is, O’Malley has all the tools to wage a compelling campaign for the US presidency.
Continue reading The case for O’Malley in the 2016 presidential election

Obama’s top two foreign rivals could be vanquished in one week

putinnetanyahuPhoto credit to Kobi Gideon / GPO / Flash90.

It’s still irresponsible chatter to suggest that Russian president Vladimir Putin’s nine-day absence from public view is anything more serious than the flu.USflagRussia Flag IconISrel Flag Icon

But as Julia Ioffe wrote Saturday in The Washington Post, even if Putin’s absence is, as very likely, caused by something as mundane as the influenza epidemic currently sweeping through Moscow, it is becoming a more serious event because of the highly personalized system of Russian government where everything has become so micromanaged by Putin and his close allies. The longer Putin’s absence, the greater the chances of an internal coup or putsch, perhaps by the internal security forces, the siloviki, upon whose support Putin rose to power in the 2000s:

You can see why some in Russia are panicking right now—or veiling their discomfort in humor. It certainly doesn’t help that Putin’s disappearance comes at a particularly nervous time for the country. It is at war in Ukraine, its economy is shuddering under sanctions and historically low oil prices, and the opposition leader, Boris Nemtsov, was recently gunned down steps from the Kremlin. There is a sense in Moscow that the wheels are coming off. To Moscow’s chattering class, Putin’s disappearance confirms that impression.

Meanwhile, on Tuesday, in national elections, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s center-right Likud (הַלִּכּוּד) is set to win fewer seats in Israel’s parliament, the Knesset (הכנסת) than the center-left Zionist Union (המחנה הציוני‎) of Labor Party leader Isaac Herzog and former justice minister Tzipi Livni. Though it’s too soon to write off a third consecutive mandate for Netanyahu, the March 17 vote is the toughest electoral fight for Netanyahu since he lost his first bid for reelection in 2001.

Even if Israeli president Reuven Rivlin, a former Likud speaker in the Knesset, convinces Likud and the Zionist Union to form a national unity coalition, polls show that Herzog, and not Netanyahu, would become prime minister. That would place deadening pressure on Netanyahu’s leadership of Likud, where capable replacements, such as former interior minister Gideon Sa’ar, are waiting in the wings.

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Remarkably, that means that US president Barack Obama’s two most nettlesome rivals in international affairs could be sidelined in the course of the same week — or even the same day. Continue reading Obama’s top two foreign rivals could be vanquished in one week

Israel’s split haredi parties still hope to hold balance of power

yishaideryPhoto credit to Marc Israel Sellem / The Jerusalem Post.

Since the emergence of Shas (ש״ס‎) in 1984, there’s hardly been a government that hasn’t included the ultraorthodox party.ISrel Flag Icon

In 31 years, Shas has joined the opposition just twice, including a stint between 2003 and 2006. It’s been out of government since 2013, not out of its unwillingness to work with Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who hopes to win a third consecutive mandate on March 17, but because of opposition from Yair Lapid, who joined Netanyahu’s government as finance minister.

In the current election, however, a recent split between the two men who have led Shas for the past quarter-century now holds massive consequences for whether Netanyahu will win a fresh mandate as prime minister. The split risks not only diluting the haredi vote in the upcoming elections, but could also complicate the already difficult arithmetic for any leader to achieve a governing majority in the Knesset (הכנסת), Israel’s 120-member unicameral parliament. Ironically, the split on the ultraorthodox right comes at the same time that Israel’s Arab parties have united into a single movement.

Aryeh Dery served as Shas’s leader in the 1990s and held several top positions, including minister of internal affairs. He was convicted of bribery in 2000, however, and ultimately served 22 months in prison. Eli Yishai replaced him as Shas leader and, for the next 13 years, followed Dery’s lead of bringing Shas, more often than not, into government. Yishai (pictured above, left, with Dery, right) served as deputy prime minister under each of Ariel Sharon, Ehud Olmert and Netanyahu.

Dery’s return to politics, however, caused a personal rift between the two leaders. Dery muscled his way back to the Shas leadership in 2013, which precipitated Yishai’s decision last December to form a new party to contest the 2015 elections, Yachad (יחד‎). The differences between Dery’s Shas and Yishai’s Yachad  are subtle. Both parties appeal to the haredi right, and both continue to draw support primarily from Sephardic Jews.

Though Shas is widely and accurately described as a party of the haredi, the ultraorthodox Jews in Israel, it is also traditionally a party that appeals chiefly to Sephardic Jews, which hold just a slight majority among Israel’s Jewish population, though the Ashkenazi Jewish population, which has roots primarily in Eastern Europe, has grown, in large part to an influx of Russian Jews after the fall of the Soviet Union. Today, however, the Sephardic label applies not only to the Sephardic tradition that developed on the Iberian peninsula, but to the wider group that includes Maghrebi Jews from north Africa and Mizrahi Jews from the Middle East.

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In the current campaign, Dery has emphasized social and ethnic solidarity, with slogans as blatant as ‘Mizrahi votes Mizrahi.’ Nevertheless, Yachad still appeals to core Shas voters, and Yishai has capitalized on the impression that he is the more authentic standard-bearer of the late rabbi Ovadia Yosef, who served until his death in December 2013 as Shas’s spiritual guide. Videotapes emerged late last year of Yosef critizing Dery in 2008 in very harsh terms.

But Yachad is also targeting disappointed voters of Bayit Yehudi (הבית היהודי, ‘The Jewish Home’). In joining Netanyahu’s most recent government as economy minister, its leader Naftali Bennett (himself a former chief of staff to Netanyahu) was sure to disappoint some of his most conservative supporters. But Bennett often criticized Netanyahu in the last two years for not being aggressive enough in Israel’s offensive against Gaza, his Jewish Home party sits to the right of Netanyahu’s Likud (הַלִּכּוּד‎) on most issues, and Bennett has been a leading proponent for Jewish settlers in the West Bank. Polls predict that his party will maintain or even improve its 11-seat caucus in the Knesset.

Yachad is angling to the right of Bennett, however, and the second member on Yachad’s party list is Yoni Chetboun, a renegade MK who found himself too far right even for Bennett’s Jewish Home. Yishai hopes to become to Bennett what Bennett has become to Netanyahu — a more credible right-wing voice. This constant race rightward among the fragmented Israeli right is one of the chief reasons that Netanyahu is now struggling to hold the premiership, and it explains why his recent speech in Washington was aimed more toward right-wing voters in Israel than to moderates or even to US politicians.

While Yishai declared his support for Netanyahu’s premiership back in December, Dery has been more coy about his intentions. In a country where post-election coalition-building has become just as important as elections themselves, promises aren’t worth much after March 17. Both parties would clamor to join a broad-based unity government that includes both Likud and the center-left Zionist Union (המחנה הציוני‎). Perhaps the worst-case scenario for the religious parties is a split, whereby Dery ultimately backs Herzog and Yishai backs Netanyahu. That could dilute the once-formidable leverage that the Sephardic haredi once deployed through Shas. More importantly for international affairs, that could even make it impossible for either bloc to amass a majority.

Continue reading Israel’s split haredi parties still hope to hold balance of power

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