At nearly the last hour, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu finalized the smallest possible coalition possible.
After Netanyahu’s foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman resigned on Monday and announced that his Russian-interest, secular nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu (ישראל ביתנו, ‘Israel is Our Home’) would head into opposition, it left the prime minister scrambling to build a government with a Wednesday night deadline looming.
Having secured agreements with Moshe Kahlon’s center-right Kulanu (כולנו, ‘All of Us’) and with two ultraorthodox parties, it left Netanyahu and his center-right Likud (הַלִּכּוּד) dependent on the final right-wing party, Bayit Yehudi (הבית היהודי, ‘The Jewish Home’) to form a working coalition. Kahlon, a former Likud communications minister, will serve as the government’s finance minister, is particularly concerned with policies to reduce inequality and rising domestic prices.
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With just eight seats (four fewer than in the previous Knesset) and hard feelings between Netanyahu and the Bayit Yehudi leader, Naftali Bennett, Lieberman’s decision suddenly gave Bennett much more negotiating power. Without Bennett, Netanyahu would not have a majority; Israel’s president Reuven Rivlin could thereupon turn to the leader of the opposition, Isaac Herzog, to seek an alternative government coalition.
The result was a poisonous 48 hours of negotiation between the Netanyahu and Bennett camps, with Bennett angling to win the all-important justice ministry for Ayelet Shaked and, perhaps, improving his own ministerial portfolio from education to the foreign ministry. With Likud’s ranks already grumbling about handing over the education ministry to Bennett, Netanyahu’s allies were downright furious — and embarrassed — to cave to Bennett on the justice ministry. It’s an important post because it will allow Bayit Yehudi to demand changes to the Israeli supreme court and it will give Bayit Yehudi the power to shape the appointment of Israel’s next attorney general.
Bennett, who served as Netanyahu’s chief of staff briefly in the 2000s, headed a pro-settler organization in the West Bank before assuming Bayit Yehudi’s leadership in 2013. The religious, right-wing Zionist party is in favor of greater settlements, and Netanyahu’s lurch rightward during the election campaign was designed to steal its voters to Likud’s ranks — a gambit that seemed to work.
In Netanyahu’s previous government, Bennett served as economy minister, though he enhanced his profile during the Israeli offensive in the Gaza strip in the summer of 2014, criticizing Netanyahu for not taking even stronger action to thwart Hamas.
The deal salvages Netanyahu’s third term as prime minister, but it comes at a huge cost. With just 61 MKs, Netanyahu can be held hostage in the future over any piece of legislation or government action by a single member of his own coalition. Just a couple of rebels could conceivably bring the government down, which could force a new government or fresh elections. After such contentious negotiations, moreover, trust between Netanyahu and Bennett, never strong, is at a nadir. Likud officials are already telling the Israeli media that they’ll seek ‘revenge’ for Bennett’s ‘extortions.’
To make matters worse, Bayit Yehudi is not entirely united behind Bennett’s leadership, and members of the even-harder-right ‘Tekuma’ faction were demanding that their leader, Uri Ariel, be given the justice portfolio instead of Shaked. For now, however, Ariel seems to be happy with the agricultural ministry.
Netanyahu still has another week to win a formal vote of confidence from the 120-member Knesset. But Netanyahu’s first task will start immediately — to build out his existing coalition on an ASAP basis so as to reduce the possibility of political blackmail or even to push Bayit Yehudi out of government altogether.
The most tantalizing option would be for Netanyahu to convince Herzog to form a ‘national unity’ government with the Zionist Union (המחנה הציוני), a coalition between the center-left Labor Party (מפלגת העבודה הישראלית) and a bloc of moderates led by former justice minister Tzipi Livni.
For now, Herzog has been adamant that he will not join any government headed by Netanyahu, and he was quick to criticize the instability of Netanyahu’s latest coalition:
Herzog criticized Netanyahu’s newly formed government shortly after it was announced Wednesday night, saying in a statement that the 61-seat coalition “lacks responsibility, stability and governance.” He called it a “national disaster of a government. A weak and narrow government, susceptible to blackmail, that will advance nothing and will quickly be replaced by a responsible and hopeful alternative.”
Netanyahu purposefully held open the foreign ministry position with an eye to convincing Herzog to join a national unity government.
But if Herzog cannot be convinced to do so within the months ahead, Netanyahu might try to split off a handful of Labor hawks or the faction loyal to Livni, who most recently served as Netanyahu’s justice minister between 2013 and 2015.
Netanyahu’s former finance minister, Yair Lapid, is adamant that he will not return to an alliance with Likud, especially after Netanyahu agreed to the ultraorthodox parties’ request to revisit the crackdown on exemptions from military service for religious students. But that doesn’t mean Netanyahu can’t try to poach several members of Lapid’s centrist Yesh Atid (יש עתיד, ‘There is a Future’).
His final option, and perhaps the easiest of all, is to find a way to soothe his onetime ally Lieberman’s concerns and bring Yisrael Beitenu back into government.
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.
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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It’s worth taking a moment to state just how right-wing the ‘Netanyahu IV’ government will be.
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
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.
When Gideon Sa’ar, Israel’s interior minister, and a leading figure in the governing center-right Likud (הַלִּכּוּד), announced his sudden resignation on September 17, it set the tongues of Israeli pundits wagging.
Why would one of the most ambitious Likudniks leave government at a time when prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s politically unpopularity seems to be growing? Especially as one of the leading contenders to succeed Netanyahu as Likud’s leader.
A sex scandal was imminent, some said.
No, Sa’ar would be forming a new party with former communications minister Moshe Kahlon, others said. (Though it wasn’t the reasons for Sa’ar’s resignation, it’s not an impossibility in the future.)
But if you take Sa’ar (pictured above, left, with Netanyahu) at his word, he simply wanted to take a breather from politics and spend more time with his child David, who was born just nine months ago. He’s also admitted that a growing rift with Netanyahu, who has been in power since 2009, contributed to his decision to step back from the daily grind. Continue reading Top Netanyahu rival within Likud leaves politics… for now
With word that Tzipi Livni, former foreign minister and leader of Hatnuah (התנועה, ‘The Movement’), will become the first major figure to join prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s governing coalition for a third term in office, nearly a month after Israel’s legislative elections, we’ve reached a new critical phase of the coalition-building process.
Livni will not only serve as justice minister in the new government, according to the agreement with Netanyahu, but will also be the government’s exclusive negotiator for any peace talks with the Palestinians. Her party, Hatnuah, will also receive another cabinet position, most likely environmental protection.
Netanyahu has until mid-March to form a government, six weeks from the date when Israeli president Shimon Peres invited him to form a coalition. Although Netanyahu may be granted a 14-day extension, the pressure is now on to form a broad-based government, even though Netanyahu’s own Likud (הַלִּכּוּד, ‘The Consolidation’) holds just 20 seats in the Knesset (הכנסת), Israel’s 120-member unicameral parliament.
With his electoral coalition partners, the secular nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu (ישראל ביתנו, ‘Israel is Our Home’) of former foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman, ‘Likud-Beiteinu’ holds 31 seats, so even the merged coalition is likely to be a minority within the larger governing coalition.
Hatnuah, which includes Amir Peretz, former leader of the Labor Party (מפלגת העבודה הישראלית), and defense minister from 2006 to 2007, and Amram Mitzna, also briefly a former leader of Labor (from 2002 to 2003) and former mayor of Haifa, won only six seats in the election, so Netanyahu has a long way to go. But by bringing Hatnuah into the fold, and by giving it two portfolios,‡ Netanyahu is signaling that it’s more important to have Livni within government than outside it.
It’s somewhat surprising to see Hatnuah become the first party to join forces with Netanyahu after January’s elections, given Livni’s steadfast opposition to joining a Netanyahu-led coalition four years ago.
Livni led the centrist Kadima (קדימה, ‘Forward’) in the previous 2009 elections, and she managed to win 28 seats to just 27 for Likud. Livni, however, couldn’t find enough partners to form a coalition and when she refused to join Netanyahu’s coalition, Netanyahu found more willing allies in Lieberman and former prime minister Ehud Barak, then the leader of Labor.
Kadima, in opposition for three years and declining in the polls, dumped Livni as leader in March 2012. She promptly resigned from the Knesset, only to return to politics in advance of the 2013 elections with her new party, Hatnuah.
So where does the Netanyahu coalition go from here?
Here are four things that the Livni-Netanyahu alliance signals to us about the next Israeli government: Continue reading Four things that the Netanyahu-Livni deal tells us about Israel’s next government
From the looks of things, the center-right and the ultraorthodox haredim parties have taken just slightly more seats than the center-left and the Arab parties in Israeli’s Knesset (הכנסת). Israeli voters went to the polls on Tuesday to elect all 120 members of the Knesset, Israeli’s unicameral parliament. Seats are awarded by proportional representation, with a threshold of at least 2% in voter support to win seats.
Here’s the breakdown of an average of the exit polls, as reported by Haaretz:
So on the basis of these results, who are the winners of today’s election? Continue reading Winners and losers in today’s Israeli election
Expectations, from day one of the campaign, have been nearly unanimous that prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu will remain as prime minister, but we still don’t know what the ultimate government will look like because there are so many options for Netanyahu in crafting a coalition.
So what options will Netanyahu have when he wakes up on January 23?
Let’s start with the final poll from Haaretz, Israel’s oldest newspaper, printed on Friday, which is relatively consistent with most polling in the final two weeks of the campaign:
‘Likud Beiteinu’ — the merger of Netanyahu’s Likud (הַלִּכּוּד, ‘The Consolidation’) and the more nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu (ישראל ביתנו, ‘Israel is Our Home’) of former foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman — is expected to win the largest bloc of seats by far. The proliferation of other right-wing parties and the remaining fragmentation among various center-left, leftist, ultraorthodox haredim, and Israeli Arab parties means that there’s virtually no way that any party other than Netanyahu’s bloc can form a viable governing coalition.
As in the last Knesset, it is expected that the two major ultraorthodox parties, Shas (ש״ס) and United Torah Judaism (יהדות התורה המאוחדת), will join the Netanyahu coalition, giving him about 15 more seats for a total baseline of around 50 seats, according to current projections.
Kadima (קדימה, ‘Forward’) seems assured to fall from the largest single party in the current Knesset (28 seats to just 27 for Likud) to merely two seats, if that. There are certainly many reasons for Kadima’s implosion — its years in the opposition wilderness, the refusal of former prime minister Ehud Olmert to run for office, the uncertain leadership of Shaul Mofaz (who joined, and then left, Netanyahu’s prior coalition), and the proliferation of no less than five center-left parties vying for the same pool of centrist voters.
If Kadima does win just two seats, though (and it may not win the 2% share of votes that represents the current threshold for representation in the Knesset), those two seats will go to Mofaz and Yisrael Hasson. Mofaz, a former defense minister in Ariel Sharon’s government a decade ago, has a Likud background; Hasson left Yisrael Beiteinu only in 2008 to join Kadima. So both likely MKs hail from Kadima’s right wing, and it seems likelier than not that they too would join Netanyahu’s coalition.
So that brings the baseline a little higher, perhaps even into the 50s. Given that there are 120 members of the Knesset, this requires Netanyahu to find anywhere from around seven to 12 additional seats in order to form a bare majority (although for many reasons, he may well want a wider coalition).
The three Israeli Arab parties (Hadash, Balad and United Arab List Ta’al) are projected to win a total of 12 seats, but are certain not to join any Netanyahu-led coalition, nor would the Zionist leftist party Meretz (מרצ, ‘Energy’), which is projected to increase its representation from three seats to six.
So that leaves us with a relatively narrow handful of coalition options.
Here are the five likeliest: Continue reading A guide to the five likeliest Netanyahu-led governing coalitions for Israel
It’s virtually certain that Benjamin Netanyahu will remain Israeli prime minister after the January 22 elections.
But what remains unknown is whether he’ll pivot to the center or to the right in order to build the coalition he’ll need to command an absolute majority of Israel’s parliament, the Knesset (הכנסת).
One of the most important factors — if not the key factor — that will determine the composition of Netanyahu’s coalition is the state of the personal relationship between just two men — Netanyahu and his former chief of staff, Naftali Bennett, who as the rising star and leader of the stridently conservative Bayit Yehudi (הבית היהודי, ‘The Jewish Home’), is expected to win between 12 and 16 seats after Tuesday’s elections, according to polls.
The rise of Bayit Yehudi, a religious Zionist party that’s even more pro-settlement than Netanyahu and which opposes the two-state solution and, has been the most dominant storyline of the 2013 elections, with Bennett heralded as a rising star of Israeli politics and, in particular, the rise of religious Zionism.
At the outset of the election campaign, Netanyahu merged his Likud party (הַלִּכּוּד, ‘The Consolidation’) with the secular nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu (ישראל ביתנו, ‘Israel is Our Home’), led by former foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman. But Lieberman’s resignation, stemming from an indictment on breach of public trust charges, has led to a more subdued campaign, and Netanyahu has watched as polls show the combined ‘Likud-Beiteinu’ coalition fall from its current 42 seats in the Knesset, Israeli’s unicameral parliament, to somewhere between 32 and 34.
Enter Bayut Yehudi, to Likud’s right — polls show that Lieberman’s troubles and Likud Beiteinu’s losses have all been to the benefit of Bayit Yehudi.
Although Bayit Yehudi, with its three seats in the outgoing Knesset, is a member of Netanyahu’s current coalition, Bennett has a complicated relationship with Netanyahu, to say the least. Both Netanyahu’s camp and Bennett’s camp agree that Bennett left as Netanyahu’s chief of staff on less than optimal terms.
Throughout the campaign, Netanyahu has reserved his harshest criticism for Bennett — in comparison, he’s been relatively tame in going after other party leaders, including Tzipi Livni and Yair Lapid, who he may turn to as potential coalition partners.
Haaretz details the Netanyahu-Bennett relationship in a story this weekend (read it all), noting not only the tension between Bennett and longtime Likud advisers, but also between Bennett and the prime minister’s wife, Sara. The article highlights the disappointment that Netanyahu felt over Bennett’s performance as chief of staff:
Bennett left after a lengthy period of tension with the boss. At least four sources who worked with Netanyahu at the time noted that he was not satisfied with Bennett’s performance, and felt that he “was not delivering the goods.”
Netanyahu’s confidants maintain that it was Bennett who put out the story that he left because of his poor relations with Sara Netanyahu. According to these sources, “Sara didn’t like him, but she didn’t fire him. That was an excuse that was invented in retrospect.” They add that after leaving the bureau Bennett was behind various leaks against Netanyahu, but that nowadays he tells everyone that relations between them were excellent.
Has Netanyahu already decided there’s no room for Bennett in his government? Has he decided that it’s safer politically to keep Bennett in check inside government rather than allow him to remain in opposition? No one knows the answer to that, and we won’t until we see the ultimate composition of Netanyahu’s next coalition.
On the one hand, the MKs likely to be elected under the Likud-Beiteinu ticket are even more right-wing than its current caucus, so there’s a logical natural affinity for a coalition between them and Bayit Yehudi. Bennett has openly stated that he hopes and intends that Bayit Yehudi will be part of any center-right coalition. He’s shrewdly argued that a vote for Bayit Yehudi is really also a vote for a Likud-led center-right government: vote for us, and we’ll make sure we keep Netanyahu’s government firmly on the right path.
His pitch, according to polls, has attracted even secular voters, who are attracted to his firm stance against a two-state solution — Netanyahu in June 2009 came out tentatively in support of the two-state solution for the first time in his career.
But if Netanyahu returns to government with the support of an even more conservative coalition, it’s likely to make already-tense relationships with the international community, including U.S. president Barack Obama, even more difficult. The last thing Netanyahu wants over the next four years is further estrangement from his global allies at a time when he’ll need as much U.S., European and international goodwill as he can get on any number of issues, from the rise of Islamist rule in Egypt to Palestinian negotiations to dealing with Iran’s nuclear weapons program.
Beyond those considerations, of course, are the very intimate personal dynamics between Netanyahu and Bennett, and those dynamics remain uncertain.
What’s certain is the tenacity of the Likud attacks on Bayit Yehudi — earlier this week, Likud attacked Bennett for misleading advertisements (shown below), and Israel’s Central Elections Committee agreed, ruling that Bayit Yehudi must remove them. The ads show Bennett and Netanyahu together, shrewdly linking the notion that a vote for Bayit Yehudi is a vote for a broad Zionist right-wing coalition led by Netanyahu.
Likud’s leadership was none too pleased, and the bad feeling Bennett has engendered may inhibit the role Bayit Yehudi could play in any future government. Continue reading The Netanyahu-Bennett relationship will define the next Israeli government
Shelly Yacimovich took over Israel’s Labor Party (מפלגת העבודה הישראלית) in 2011 with a clear message — she would focus on Israeli economic policy, wagering that Israeli voters would welcome a message that has more to do with jobs than jihad, that emphasize incomes over Iran.
After all, many elections have been won on the maxim of ‘it’s the economy, stupid,’ so it’s not necessarily a bad strategy.
Nonetheless, the conventional wisdom is that Yacimovich’s wager hasn’t worked out, with Labor forecast to win just 17 seats in the latest Haaretz poll in advance of Tuesday’s elections for control of the Knesset (הכנסת), Israel’s 120-seat unicameral parliament, despite the ridiculous fragmentation of the center-left among five parties.
But Labor remains by far in the strongest position among the five center-left parties competing in Tuesday’s election, and given that Labor currently holds just 13 seats in the Knesset, it’s actually somewhat of a triumph.
The prevailing narrative in the campaign so far has been the rise of the very conservative Bayit Yehudi (הבית היהודי, ‘The Jewish Home’) and its leader, Naftali Bennett, who unrepentantly supports new settlements and unrepentantly opposes a two-state solution, and who parted ways with Netanyahu in 2008 after previously serving as his chief of staff.
But there’s a strong case to be made that the elections will be a turning point for the Israeli left.
In the latest Haaretz poll, 47% of voters believe that Israel’s socioeconomic position is the most important issue — in contrast, just 18% cited the Palestinian negotiations, 12% cited exceptions for ultraorthodox haredim to serve in the Israeli Defense Force, and 10% cited the Iranian nuclear weapons program. Meretz (מרצ, ‘Energy’), an even more socially progressive party on the Zionist left, would win six seats, doubling its current representation in the Knesset.
When she became leader in 2011, social justice protestors were agitating throughout Israel over rising costs, income inequality and the stability of public spending on health and education.
Labor’s platform calls for a new 5% estate tax on estates of more than around $4 million (15 million new shekels) and the reintroduction of import duties previously cancelled by the government of current prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Those revenues would finance additional funding for health care, education and housing assistance, as well as raising the minimum wage.
Upon assuming the Labor leadership, Yacimovich (pictured above with Israeli president Shimon Peres) was also trying to distinguish herself from her predecessor, Ehud Barak, the former prime minister who left the party in 2011 to continue as Netanyahu’s defense minister. Barak announced late in 2012 that he would not stand for reelection to the Knesset and, while there’s a chance Netanyahu may ask him to return to the defense ministry from outside the Knesset, it seems equally likely that Barak could become the next Israeli ambassador to the United States.
Traditionally a dovish party, Labor nonetheless joined Netanyahu’s government following the 2009 elections, and Barak, who had served under former prime minister Ehud Olmert as defense secretary since 2007, continued in that role for Netanyahu. Unlike Barak, who had a storied career as a leading general in the IDF, Yacimovich was a television journalist before moving into politics.
But though polls show a fairly predictable result on January 22, the real question is whether Netanyahu will pivot to the center or to the right in order to build his governing coalition, and that decision will have perhaps even greater consequences for economic policy than even security policy.
The current snap elections are happening in January, and not later this year, because of the Knesset’s failure to agree to a budget, and so the most pressing issue before the next government — barring any regional security crisis or a surprise military action in Iran or the Gaza Strip– will be Israel’s fiscal situation.
Just last week, the Israeli government announced that its budget deficit would be 4% of GDP, nearly twice as high as expected than expected, so the next government will be under incredible pressure to cut spending or even raise taxes, although Netanyahu’s finance minister Yuval Steinitz has ruled out any new taxes, though education minister Gideon Sa’ar is tipped to replace Steinitz in any new government.
The fiscal discussion will come at a time when Israeli growth is stalling. Although the Israeli economy’s GDP growth estimate for 2012 has edged up to 3.3% from 2.7%, it’s less than the country’s 4.5% growth in 2011 and a trend of the past decade of around 4% to 5% growth.
The Israeli economy is expected to grow this year by an estimated 2.5% or 3%, also well below trend, although newly discovered natural gas deposits could boost the economy by up to 1% of GDP. Moreover, the factors that motivated the 2011 social protests in Israel haven’t disappeared in the meanwhile.
So Yacimovich is right. It really is the economy. Stupid. Continue reading Fiscal, budget issues loom large in Israeli election
The next U.S. secretary of defense will affect world affairs in profound ways — the drawdown of troops from Afghanistan in 2013, the use of military drones to launch attacks on Yemen and Pakistan, and the ongoing strategic interest of U.S. armed forces in the Asia/Pacific theater.
It wasn’t pre-destined that the nomination of former U.S. senator Chuck Hagel as U.S. defense secretary would come to be defined by U.S.-Israel relations. But Hagel’s nomination has been hit with a wall of criticism against his record as being anti-Israel, and while that makes his confirmation in the U.S. Senate trickier, it’s also given Obama somewhat more power to influence the shape of the next Israeli government.
The main charges against Hagel are that he’s not sufficiently pro-Israel, that he’s not sufficiently serious about Iran’s potential nuclear program because of his call for unilateral talks with Iran, and, most recently, that he’s somehow anti-gay because he made some less-than-charitable remarks in 1996 about James Hormel, who was then-U.S. president Bill Clinton’s nominee as ambassador to Luxembourg, even though Hormel has accepted Hagel’s apology and Hagel fully supports openly LGBT servicemembers, and he supported the end of the ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ policy in September 2011.
The Israel charges, however, will dominate Hagel’s confirmation hearings, which may well coincide with Israel’s upcoming election for the Knesset, its 120-seat unicameral parliament.
Although Benjamin Netanyahu’s center-right Likud (הַלִּכּוּד, ‘The Consolidation’) is expected to win the largest number of seats, it remains unclear whether his ultimate governing coalition will be more right-wing or more centrist — it’s likely he will have several paths in cobbling together a majority. That’s the key fact of the Jan. 22 election, and that’s what makes the ongoing dynamics of the Hagel nomination so intriguing.
The New Yorker explains the anti-Israel rap against Hagel as well as anyone: Continue reading Hagel’s Defense nomination may be about Israel — but not in the way you think
While Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu contemplates the rise of his former protégé-turned-rival Naftali Bennett, leader of the surging conservative Bayit Yehudi (הבית היהודי, ‘The Jewish Home’), he’s probably still not too worried about his chances to return as Israeli prime minister after January 22’s elections to the Knesset (הכנסת), Israel’s 120-seat unicameral parliament.
That’s because he’ll have his pick of any number of orthodox or conservative parties to bolster his own conservative Likud (הַלִּכּוּד, ‘The Consolidation’), which — for the purposes of this month’s election, at least — has partnered with the secular nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu (ישראל ביתנו, ‘Israel is Our Home’) of former foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman, who recently resigned in light of an indictment on charges of breach of public trust.
But, even more, it’s also because the remaining center-left opposition to Netanyahu is horribly fractured in at least five different groups:
- the centrist Kadima (קדימה, ‘Forward’) of former prime minister Ehud Olmert;
- Hatnuah (התנועה, ‘The Movement’), a new party formed by former foreign minister Tzipi Livni, who lost the Kadima leadership in March 2012;
- the longtime center-left Labor (מפלגת העבודה הישראלית) party, led by the more leftist Shelly Yacimovich since 2011;
- Yesh Atid (יש עתיד, ‘There is a Future’), a vaguely reformist center-left party formed this year by former television news anchor Yair Lapid; and
- Meretz (מרצ, ‘Energy’), Israel’s far-left, social-democratic Zionist party.
Together, conceivably, they could have united to form an anti-Netanyahu coalition. In the span of one week, as it turns out, Livni has gone from public musing about joining Netanyahu’s next coalition to calling for one last attempt, with 18 days to go until the election, at a united front. Livni’s tenure as foreign minister featured lengthy negotiations with the Palestinian Authority over a potential Israeli-Palestinian peace plan, though Netanyahu has reassured Likud colleagues that Livni won’t serve as foreign minister, even if Lieberman remains too beleaguered by legal problems to resume his role.
With the exception of Labor, which has pushed a much more economically liberal platform than the other centrist parties, it’s hard to believe that the failure of the center-left has more to do with arrogant personalities than it does with real ideological differences.
At the heart of the center-left’s dilemma is the disintegration of Kadima, the party established by former prime minister Ariel Sharon in 2005 to give him the political space necessary to begin dismantling Israeli settlements in the West Bank and engage the Palestinian Authority in serious peace talks. At the time, Kadima drew support from prominent Likud members as well as from senior Labor figures as well, including, notably, Shimon Peres, who now serves as Israel’s president.
But Kadima’s power started leaking away with the stroke in January 2006 that incapacitated Sharon by leaving him in a permanent coma.
His successor as prime minister, Ehud Olmert (pictured above, with Livni), left office in 2009 under a cloud of scandal and although he was largely acquitted of corruption charges earlier this year, state prosecutors are appealing the acquittal, so Olmert’s not completely out of legal trouble.
In the previous 2009 Knesset elections, Livni, who served as deputy prime minister to Olmert as well as foreign minister, led Kadima admirably enough, winning the highest number of seats in the Knesset (28 to Likud’s 27). But Netanyahu ultimately formed a governing coalition with other allies (including Labor which, at the time, was led by former prime minister and defense minister Ehud Barak). Livni refused to join that coalition, and so Kadima went into opposition.
Fast forward to early 2012. Kadima MKs, disgruntled with Livni’s performance, replaced her as leader with Shaul Mofaz, who served as Sharon’s defense minster earlier last decade. Mofaz, after initially refusing to join Netanyahu’s coalition, promptly did so in May, only to leave the coalition in August over disagreements over the Tal Law. Mofaz, in making such a hash of coalition politics, managed to worsen Kadima’s already precarious electoral position.
Livni promptly resigned from the Knesset in a bit of a huff, returning to politics only last month when she formed Hatnuah, which in English is literally known as ‘The Tzipi Livni Party.’ Ideologically speaking, it’s difficult to see much daylight between her views and Kadima’s views or even Lapid’s views.
While Olmert’s legal troubles may have stopped him from running in this month’s elections himself, it certainly hasn’t stopped him from making mischief — earlier this week, he in no uncertain terms urged Israeli voters to support Kadima rather than his one-time deputy Livni:
Speaking at an event for Kadima mayors in Ramat Gan, Olmert sang the praises of current Kadima chairman Shaul Mofaz and mocked The Tzipi Livni Party’s slogan.
“I hear that the hope will vanquish the fear,” Olmert said. “That is indeed a nice slogan, and I am not against slogans. But what is the practical content behind it? If there is anyone who has already proven that he knows how to defeat fear in the streets and provide security and hope to the citizens of Israel, it is the man who, as IDF chief of staff, commanded Operation Defensive Shield and defeated the second intifada.”
Olmert was even harsher at an event in late December:
“She lost the party leadership by a huge margin, because when she headed the party its members lost trust in her,” Olmert said.
“That is the truth. She did not succeed as head of the opposition.”
The change of heart is fascinating, given that just two months earlier, the two former Kadima leaders seemed much more in concert about uniting against Netanyahu, releasing a joint statement on October 31 indicating they would both return to politics as a united force.
That Israel’s hard-line foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman will resign following indictments Thursday for breach of trust doesn’t mean he’s leaving politics.
To the contrary, Lieberman’s move seems calculated to allow him to return to the forefront of Israel’s coalition government, headed by Benjamin Netanyahu, upon the strong likelihood that Netanyahu emerges from upcoming elections as prime minister. Given that Israel’s essentially in campaign season, Lieberman (pictured above) is moving aggressively — and wisely, probably — to lift his parliamentary immunity in order to bring investigations to resolution as fast as possible about the charges that remain.
Those charges, by the way, are only derivative of the main charges against Lieberman that stem from a 12-year investigation with respect to money laundering and fraud — Lieberman stood accused of receiving millions from international businessmen while he was serving in office. Israel’s attorney general Yehuda Weinstein determined not to pursue charges against him on those accusations. The remaining charge is that Lieberman breached public trust by appointing Ze’ev Ben Aryeh as ambassador to Belarus without disclosing that Ben Aryeh had alerted Lieberman that he was being investigated by Belorussian authorities. So all things considered, Thursday was somewhat of a victory for Lieberman in that it lifted a decade-long shadow from his public life.
Netanyahu is holding Lieberman’s portfolio ‘in trust’ and will serve simultaneously as prime minister and foreign minister until the January 22 elections for the Knesset (הכנסת), Israel’s 120-seat unicameral parliament.
In advance of the election, Netanyahu had teamed up with Lieberman to merge Israel’s longstanding center-right party Likud (הַלִּכּוּד, ‘The Consolidation’) with Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu (ישראל ביתנו, ‘Israel is Our Home’). At the last election, Yisrael Beiteinu, with a strongly nationalist secular profile that appeals to many of Israel’s ethnic Russian Jewish population, won 15 seats to 27 for Likud, and 28 for the more centrist — and now-imploding — Kadima (קדימה, Forward). The coalition between Netanyahu and Lieberman has remained the core of Israel’s government since 2009, and their combined ‘Likud Beiteinu’ ticket ensures that Lieberman and his allies will take at least 15 seats if the coalition retains its combined 42 Knesset seats.
The news threatens to sidetrack Lieberman less than a month after Netanyahu’s defense minister and former prime minister Ehud Barak said he wouldn’t stand for election in the Knesset, just two years after leaving Israel’s longstanding center-left party, Labor (מפלגת העבודה הישראלית) to found his own breakaway party, ‘Independence’ (סיעת העצמאות). Netanyahu could still, however, re-appoint Barak as a non-MK defense minister after the election.
But despite the conventional wisdom that Netanyahu will easily glide to reelection, things are looking decidedly less secure for him in the wake of a number of disappointments for his government — Netanyahu was widely seen to have publicly challenged U.S. president Barack Obama over Iran and also to have favored Republican candidate Mitt Romney in the U.S. presidential election, so Obama’s reelection was widely seen as a setback for Netanyahu.
Furthermore, the eight-day bombing campaign in Gaza in November, the United Nations vote on Nov. 30 to recognize Palestine as a non-member observer state and the Israeli announcement of further settlements in the West Bank have called into question Netanyahu’s sincerity on achieving Israeli-Palestinian peace, but his diplomatic abilities as well, given Israel’s increasingly negative image in the world. Those defeats came after Netanyahu’s cartoonish Cassandra siren demanding ‘red lines’ with regard to Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons program.
Those troubles are borne out in a poll released today — conducted before Lieberman’s resignation — that finds ‘Likud Beiteinu’ would win just 37 seats in the election, a bit of a retreat from their current 42 seats. In the poll, 54% of Israeli voters say that Israel’s diplomatic position has gotten worse in the past four years, at a time when Israeli diplomacy will remain vital throughout the Middle East in 2013 and beyond — on Egypt, on Palestine, on Syria and Lebanon and on Iran.
But Likud Beiteinu’s loss — so far — has not meant a gain for the forces of Israel’s horribly fractured center-left. Instead, the even more stridently Zionist, conservative Bayit Yehudi (הבית היהודי, ‘The Jewish Home’) would win 16 seats, up from just three in the current Knesset.
That party — or rather coalition of parties — is led by Naftali Bennett, who served as Netanyahu’s chief of staff in opposition from 2006 to 2008, and it has been a component, albeit a small component, of Netanyahu’s coalition, and could be expected to join future Netanyahu-led coalitions as well. Bennett is rapidly becoming a rising star in Israel, and he’ll be headed for a major cabinet post if he places third — or higher — in January’s elections. Bennett, born to American parents and a former New York City resident, founded and sold a company in his 20s to become independently wealthy before returning to Israel, serving in the Israeli Defense Force during the short-lived 2006 war in Lebanon and then in politics as Netanyahu’s chief of staff.
For now, then, while Lieberman’s troubles could result in harming Lieberman’s reputation, it shouldn’t affect Netanyahu’s position to remain prime minister — though a stronger Jewish Home bloc in the Knesset would arguably make a future Netanyahu government more Zionist in nature and less secular.
The poll showed that the center-left, currently fragmented among three major groups, would win just 36 seats total, meaning that, even if a world where the three parties could unite somehow, they still don’t command enough support to form a government: Continue reading Lieberman resignation complicates Netanyahu coalition’s election chances