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.
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.
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.
So what do these election results tell us? Continue reading Israeli election results: eight things we know after Tuesday’s vote
After weeks of tension, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu sacked justice minister Tzipi Livni and finance minister Yair Lapid on Tuesday, accusing them of trying to lead a ‘putsch’ against him, and the Knesset (הכנסת), Israel’s unicameral parliament, has now voted to dissolve itself in advance of snap elections in early 2015.
Just two years and two months after Israel’s last parliamentary election, Israel is set to go to the polls on March 17, two years sooner than the current parliamentary term ends. Despite Netanyahu’s bravado in triggering early elections, neither he nor Lapid nor Livni are assured of increasing their share of the vote.
While Netanyahu remains the favorite to return as prime minister as the head of his center-right Likud (הַלִּכּוּד), he will be vying to win a fourth term leading government after two of the toughest years of his political career. Though the election is likely to focus, increasingly, on domestic issues, it follows this summer’s ‘Operation Protective Edge’ against Hamas in the occupied Gaza strip that lessened global support for Israel. It also follows Arab-Jewish violence in Jerusalem in recent weeks, and after Sweden formally recognized Palestine’s sovereignty in October (as the French parliament voted on the issue earlier this week).
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RELATED: Twelve lessons to draw from Netanyahu’s new Israeli cabinet government [March 2013]
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Nevertheless, unless terrorism or religious violence increases, the Palestinian question will invariably fade from the agenda of the country’s leading politicians — for at least the next four months.
Accordingly, the election will be a referendum on Netanyahu’s leadership over the past two years, including the management of his coalition, the struggle of Israel’s middle class, and global matters like his handling of the Gaza war and testy relations with the United States and the Obama administration. Critics from both the left and right will target Netanyahu during the 2015 campaign. Moreover, if Netanyahu falls short next March, his position within Likud is even more tenuous after he wasted precious political capital attempting (and failing) to block former Knesset speaker Reuven Rivlin’s presidential candidacy.
With allies like these, who needs enemies?
The unwieldy coalition Netanyahu formed in 2013 has been increasingly unstable since the end of the military action in Gaza earlier this year. The causes lie not only among moderate critics to Netanyahu’s left like Livni and Lapid, but among conservative critics to his right, including his one-time chief of staff, economy minister Naftali Bennett and his nationalist foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman. During the Gaza conflict, Netanyahu nearly fired Bennett after his strident criticism that Israel’s military action wasn’t going far enough. Continue reading Netanyahu sacks Lapid, Livni, seeks snap 2015 elections
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
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
The news out of Israel throughout election day — now confirmed by preliminary exit polling — is that Yair Lapid (pictured above) and his new party Yesh Atid (יש עתיד, ‘There is a Future’) have performed significantly better than expected, making it the second-largest party in the Knesset (הכנסת), Israeli’s unicameral parliament.
As I wrote yesterday, prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu will have some difficult choices to make in determining how to cobble together a majority coalition of at least 61 members of the Knesset — Lapid is now certain to be a major factor in Netanyahu’s negotiations.
So it’s worth taking a little time to focus on what Lapid has apparently accomplished and what he’s focused on in the campaign.
Lapid entered politics in Israel only in January 2012, and amid rumors that Netanyahu would call snap elections in April 2012, hastily named his party ‘Yesh Atid.’ But he’s long been a well-known figure in Israeli public life, first as a well-regarded columnist in the 1990s and then as a television anchor and talk-show host.
He’s also pretty easy on the eyes.
On the campaign trail, he’s gone out of his way to describe Yesh Atid as a center-center party:
Ideally, Yair Lapid’s self-described “Center-Center” party should present the perfect balance between the Right and Left blocs that this country needs so desperately. The danger though, is that Yesh Atid is just another example of a neither-here-nor-there party that is doomed to fail like so many centrist platforms before it.
For now, Netanyahu must realize that it means that Lapid would be more likely than Labor (מפלגת העבודה הישראלית) or Meretz (מרצ, ‘Energy’) to support planned budget cuts, in light of a growing budget deficit (over 4% in 2012). That will be good news for Netanyahu regardless of whether Yesh Atid joins the next government.
In many ways, Yesh Atid has replaced Kadima (קדימה, ‘Forward’), the centrist party that Ariel Sharon founded and that is projected to have lost all 28 of the seats it held in the prior Knesset.
Notably, Lapid’s father, Tommy Lapid, who died in 2008, was also a journalist who also entered politics later in life — he became party chair of the secular, liberal Shinui (שינוי, ‘Change’) Party in 1999 and won a seat in the Knesset and six seats.
In the 2003 elections, however — a decade ago — Tommy Lapid’s Shinui broke through with 15 seats, making it the third-largest party in the Knesset and a victory, like today’s victory for Yesh Atid, for secular Israel over the ultraorthodox parties. After that election, Tommy Lapid joined the government of Ariel Sharon as deputy prime minister and minister of justice, although Tommy Lapid and Shinui ultimately left the government in 2004 over disputes with the more conservative ultraorthodox members of Sharon’s coalition. As the 2006 elections approached, infighting within the party led to Shinui’s loss of all 15 seats, however.
In 2012 and 2013, his son Yair Lapid has also brought a secular centrist sensibility to the campaign trail:
Lapid is perceived as the “least left” in the political bloc that extends from Netanyahu to Hanin Zuabi. He has no personal or ideological feuds with the prime minister, as do most of the other candidates. A two-digit number of seats could enable him to hook up with Netanyahu as a replacement for Shas, and reduce the price the Likud would have to pay the Haredim.
Lapid is touting himself as a candidate for education minister, and even now his background as a volunteer civics teacher stands out. He could even learn a thing or two from the outgoing minister about how to exploit the ministry for self-advancement: Gideon Sa’ar bought the silence of the teachers’ unions that had made life hell for his predecessors, and focused on politicizing the system and making headlines, which turned him into the right’s chief ideologue and the winner of the Likud primary.
Given his apparent success today, Lapid may want to hold out for a position bigger than just education minister. Continue reading Who is Yair Lapid?
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
Israeli defense minister — and prime minister from 1999 to 2001 — Ehud Barak announced earlier this week that he would not be contesting Israel’s Knesset elections on January 22.
Although he’ll stay on as defense minister until a new government is formed, Barak’s departure, at age 70, appears to end what has been a long and twisty career in Israeli politics — there remains a chance, however, that prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu could re-appoint Barak (pictured above with U.S. secretary of state Hillary Clinton) as defense minister from outside the Knesset if Netanyahu forms the next government. That outcome, by the way, seems more than plausible, given Barak’s longtime impatience with parliamentarian politics.
A longtime veteran of the Israeli Defense Force and its most decorated veteran (his most famous exploit in Israel’s elite special forces was a commando raid against Palestinians dressed incognito in high heels and a wig), Barak entered politics in 1995 as foreign minister in Shimon Peres’s government and after Peres lost the 1996 Israeli election to Netanyahu, Barak became the leader of Israel’s Labor Party (מפלגת העבודה הישראלית).
His political career has been a bit schizophrenic — he won, overwhelming, a race to become prime minister, but he’s more often than not been relatively unsuccessful and unloved in Israeli politics.
In the 1999 direct prime ministerial election, Barak defeated Netanyahu by 56% to 44%. As prime minister, he oversaw Israel’s withdrawal from southern Lebanon (after more than two decades of occupation) and engaged in the most serious negotiations since 1993 with the Palestinian Liberation Organization (نظمة التحرير الفلسطينية), then still under the leadership of Yasser Arafat, culminating in the Camp David summit in 2000 that nearly succeeded in bringing about a peace accord between Israel and the PLO — last week’s Israeli attack on Gaza, masterminded by Barak himself, was a depressingly clear sign that Israeli-Palestinian relations, at least with respect to Gaza, have worsened in the past 12 years.
Barak lost the 2001 election to Likud’s then-leader Ariel Sharon in the wake of the failure of the PLO talks. He aborted an early attempt to return to the Labor leadership in 2005 (Barak ultimately backed Peres in that year’s leadership race, who lost to Amir Peretz), but won the Labor leadership in 2007 and became defense minister in 2007 under then-prime minister Ehud Olmert. Although Labor won just 13 seats in the 2009 election — the lowest-ever total for Labor or its predecessor — Barak has continued as defense minister under Netanyahu. Barak’s continued presence in the Netanyahu government wasn’t without controversy within Labor and in 2011, he left Labor altogether to form his own pro-Netanyahu faction, Independence (סיעת העצמאות), comprised of Barak and four other former Labor MKs.
Shelly Yachimovich was elected Labor’s leader in March 2011 and has led the party very much in opposition to Netanyahu, and Yachimovich is generally seen as the chief opposition leader to Netanyahu going into the elections (although she has some competition from political newcomer Yair Lapid and former Kadima leader Tzipi Livni).
Even as relations between the U.S. government under president Barack Obama and Netanyahu remain strained over Iran — and now over Gaza — Barak has long been widely respected by U.S. policymakers as a thoughtful voice within Israel’s government. Although he has sounded the alarm louder than anyone in Israel’s government over the threat of an Iranian nuclear program, Barak is thought to be a moderating force with respect to any future attack on Iran.
Most immediately, Barak’s departure means that if Netanyahu wins the Jan. 22 elections, as expected, and Barak does not continue as defense minister, it will result in the amplification of relatively more hawkish voices of allies such as Avigdor Lieberman, Netanyahu’s foreign minister and leader of the Yisrael Beiteinu (ישראל ביתנו, ‘Israel is Our Home’) party that recently merged with Netanyahu’s Likud (הַלִּכּוּד) for purposes of the upcoming elections. It would also mean that yet another figure with the gravitas of a former Israeli prime minister — and a figure who carries Netanyahu’s trust and respect — will no longer be around to counterbalance Netanyahu: Continue reading What Barak’s apparent departure means for Israeli politics
First and foremost, it bears noting that civilians — including women and children — died today in Israel’s air strikes on Gaza and, whatever the merits, motivations or repercussions of that attack, our hearts — Jewish, Muslim, Christian, agnostic or otherwise — should cry for the loss of innocents in any military operation.
One of the motivating factors of my blog is to demonstrate that in so many places in the world, with so many viewpoints and cultural assumptions and worldviews, politics is a way of brokering policy decisions in a way that avoids violence — even in countries without democratic institutions or even much in the way of rule of law.
So from that perspective, even if you think the world is a better place without Hamas’s Ahmed Jabari, who was killed in Israel’s attack today, it’s incredibly sad to see the continued failure of politics vis-a-vis Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
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I have no interest in assigning blame in a conflict where both sides have used too much violence for far too long, despite strong and honestly held beliefs, and I have no idea how today’s Israeli attack on Gaza will play out (but I have a sad hunch), but it’s safe to say that with just over two months to go until Israel’s election campaign, it’s suspicious to see this kind of a wide attack on Gaza, the worst of its kind since Israel entered the Gaza Strip four years ago.
Even giving Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu the benefit of the doubt, today’s attack is bound to affect the election, scheduled for January 22.
Certainly, it helps Netanyahu’s reelection campaign, and it does so at a critical time when former Kadima leader Tzipi Livni and former prime minister Ehud Olmert were set to make a final decision about whether they would participate in the January 22 elections for the Knesset, Israeli’s unicameral parliament, and at a time when his Likud (הַלִּכּוּד) party’s formal 2013 election coalition with Yisrael Beitenu (ישראל ביתנו) has resulted in the jointly-merged coalition losing strength, not gaining. As individual parties a month ago, they polled 40% to 45% cumulatively; the most recent poll shows Likud-Yisrael Beitenu at 36%, with their main rivals gaining — the Labor Party (מפלגת העבודה הישראלית) under Shelly Yachimovich polling 21%, and a new political party, Yesh Atid (יש עתיד) under popular former broadcaster Yair Lapid polling 15%.
We don’t know what exactly it means for Mohammed Morsi, the newly elected president of Egypt, only consolidating the reins of power in the Arab world’s largest country. But Egypt has already recalled its ambassador from Tel Aviv, and Morsi’s aides are working to revise the 1979 peace treaty with Israel. Morsi was the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate during the presidential campaign.
The attack also puts the United States — and president Barack Obama, just eight days after his reelection — in a tougher spot than it would prefer. Can you imagine what a Camp David-like peace accord would look like today, with Netanyahu on one side, Morsi on the other, who knows who would represent Hamas, and Obama and U.S. secretary of state Hillary Clinton trying to sort it all?
As Jeffrey Goldberg notes in real time in his blog at The Atlantic: Continue reading Today’s attack in Gaza and its effect on Israeli (and Middle Eastern) politics
Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu yesterday announced that he would call early elections for Israel’s unicameral legislature, the Knesset:
In a televised statement, Netanyahu said that, as his coalition government would not be able to agree on a national budget for 2013, he had “decided, for the benefit of Israel, to hold elections now and as quickly as possible.”
The elections would take place within three months, the prime minister said.
“In a few months, the tenure of the most stable government in decades will come to an end,” Netanyahu said. “This stability has helped us achieve the two main objectives we promised the citizens of Israel – to strengthen security at a time when a dangerous upheaval is gripping the Middle East, and [to fortify] the economy during…a financial turmoil.”
In calling for elections “as soon as possible,” which can be held a minimum of three months after the dismissal of the Knesset, Netanyahu appeared to be targeting as soon as January 15 , but the election could be held in February as well. The Knesset is expected to be dismissed as soon as possible, ostensibly over the budget, but really as much because Netanyahu believes he’s in as good a position as he’ll be between now and October 2013, the last possible date elections could be held.
So where does the race stand today?
Nearly everyone expects today that Netanyahu’s conservative Likud (הַלִּכּוּד) party will win the greatest number of seats in the upcoming election and thereupon form a coalition (with any number of parties from the left, center or right and from both the secular and religious parties), extending Netanyahu’s grip on Israeli power at a time when the possibility of a nuclear-armed Iran in the future seems more likely than not.
Speaking of Iran, the race could well feature Iran and U.S.-Israeli relations as a top issue. In any event, the Israeli election will follow the U.S. presidential election. Netanyahu has recently been making an incredibly high-profile case for U.S. president Barack Obama to set ‘red lines’ over Iran’s nuclear program — ‘red lines’ that, if crossed, would trigger a military response from the United States and/or Israel. Although Obama’s challenger in the U.S. race, Republican Mitt Romney, has argued for an even more hawkish foreign policy on Iran, Netanyahu has been criticised by both U.S. and Israeli politicians for trying to influence the U.S. election. By the time the Israeli election will be held, however, we’ll have a much clearer idea as to the state of U.S. foreign policy through at least January 2017 — and if Obama is reelected, Netanyahu’s strategy of rare public disagreement with the U.S. president could become a major issue in the campaign.
Netanyahu, however, will likely make the case that he (along with his current defense minister, Ehud Barak, who himself served as prime minister from 1999 to 2001) is best placed to steer Israel through the small nation’s thorny foreign policy issues, including not only Iran and the nuclear issue, but a new president in Egypt, Mohammed Morsi, who comes from the Muslim Brotherhood, and the longstanding issue of the Palestinian territories. A strong Likud showing could conceivably provide Netanyahu with enough support to launch a preemptive attack on Iran, with or without U.S. support.
It will be the first election since February 2009, when Netanyahu’s Likud nearly tied then-governing Kadima (קדימה, Forward), the centrist party founded by Ariel Sharon and other Likud moderates in 2005, including former prime minister Ehud Olmert and former leader Tzipi Livni, a former foreign minister under Olmert. In that election, Kadima won 28 seats under Livni’s in the 120-seat Knesset and Likud won 27 seats (then an increase of 15 seats). Although Kadima won a marginally greater number of seats, Netanyahu was able to pull together a majority coalition and thereupon became prime minister, while Livni refused to join any coalition headed by Netanyahu, thereby becoming Israel’s main opposition leader — until March 2012.
In March, Shaul Mofaz, a former defense minister under Sharon, defeated Livni in an internal Kadima leadership contest, and Livni subsequently resigned from the Knesset in May. Soon thereafter, Mofaz caused Kadima to join Netanyahu’s existing coalition, although Kadima left the coalition in July over negotiations with respect to the so-called Tal Law and how to deal with the exemption of ultra-orthodox haredim Jews from mandatory service in the Israel Defense Force.
Kadima’s support was already expected to collapse from its 2009 levels, but Mofaz’s zig-zag from opposition to coalition and back to opposition has done nothing to boost the party’s image among Israeli voters. Although Olmert was recently acquitted of fraud charges that ultimately led to his resignation in 2009, and he is currently seen as more popular than either Mofaz or Livni, he has not yet decided whether to return to politics. Olmert’s return to politics, either from within Kadima or through a new party with Livni, could potentially upend the election.
A recent Haaretz poll shows Likud with a clear lead at 28%, while 35% of Israelis think Netanyahu is best suited to be prime minister. Kadima, meanwhile, lags far behind at just 8% support, with just 6% of Israelis supporting Mofaz as the best choice for prime minister:
Israel’s Labor party (מפלגת העבודה הישראלית), which has traditionally been the leftist counterweight to Likud, stands to return as the chief opposition party — it fell to just 13 seats in the last Knesset, but now is the strong second-place party with 20% support under leader Shelly Yachimovich, a former journalist who took over the leadership from Ehud Barak, who has served as minister of defense since 2007 under both Olmert and now Netanyahu. Barak, who himself served as prime minister from 1999 to 2001, left Labor in January 2011 to form his own party. As Labor leader, Yachimovich has emphasized bread-and-butter economic issues, such as employment, high cost of living and income inequality, as well as social justice within Israel. The poll shows that 38% of Israelis approve of Netanyahu’s government, while 53% oppose it, which leaves some amount of space for a spirited opponent to make headway between now and elections. Continue reading Netanyahu announces early elections in Israel
Well, that was short-lived.
After just 70 days in what was meant to be the broadest coalition in a generation of Israeli politics, Shaul Mofaz, the leader of the centrist Kadima party, announced that Kadima will leave Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition over the terms of a controversial law designed to address the exemption of ultra-orthodox haredim Jews — yeshiva students of traditional religious texts — from mandatory service in the Israel Defense Force.
Netanyahu will continue as prime minster, albeit with his original 66-member coalition in the Knesset, Israel’s 120-seat parliament, with an August 1 deadline for enacting a new law.
Under the latest proposal, half of haredim between age 18 and 23 would be drafted into the IDF and another half would be drafted into national service between age 23 and 26. It is only the latest attempt — the so-called “Tal Law” first emerged in 2002 and was extended in 2007, and has been controversial throughout its history. Israel’s High Court of Justice, however, ruled that the Tal Law is unconstitutional and ordered the government to enact a replacement to the current law by August 1.
Mofaz, who had argued for a compulsory draft of everyone up to age 23, complained that the latest proposal did not go far enough:
Mofaz said that the proposal violates the ruling of the High Court on the issue, the principle of equal sharing of the burden of military service, is not proportional and does not meet the ultimate test of effectively resolving the issue.
Mofaz also noted that the proposal also did not include all draftable persons, and therefore, in reality, would merely maintain the unmanageable status quo.
The decision reinforces the difficult in crafting an alternative to the Tal Law in a manner that satisfies everyone in Netanyahu’s coalition. In addition to his own Likud Party and a small breakaway faction of Labor Party MKs loyal to defense minister and former prime minister Ehud Barak, the coalition contains several ultra-orthodox parties, including Shas, who are the most pro-exemption parties in the Knesset. But it also contains the nationalist and secular Yisrael Beiteinu, which is introducing to the Knesset a bill that would require all 18-year-olds to serve (although Netanyahu has allowed Yisrael Beiteinu to introduce the bill, the remaining members of his coalition will defeat it).
Earlier this month, Netanyahu dissolved the Plesner Committee, which had been tasked with coming up with an alternative to the Tal Law, after committee members representing both Shas and Yisrael Beiteinu resigned from the committee in protest.
The question of whether to exempt haredimfrom IDF service — or whether to fashion some alternative form of civil service on the basis of equal burden-sharing — is an emotional issue in a country where security threats remain a top concern of all Israelis. Continue reading Kadima leaves Israeli grand coalition over national service ‘Tal Law’ proposal
It’s been more than a week since Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu formed a staggeringly unexpected coalition with his main opposition, Kadima.
Netanyahu’s prior coalition in the Knesset (Israeli’s 120-seat parliament) already included his own hawkish Likud Party (27 seats), the populist, nationalist and secular Yisrael Beiteinu (15 seats), whose leader Avigdor Lieberman has served as Israel’s deputy prime minister and its minister of foreign affairs, several haredim, ultra-orthodox parties, the largest of which is Shas (11 seats), and Independence (5 seats), a breakaway segment of former Labor Party members loyal to defense minister and former prime minister Ehud Barak.
In the 2009 election, Kadima — the party, which means ‘forward’ in Hebrew, was founded by then-prime minister Ariel Sharon in 2005 with members of the Labor Party to support Sharon’s disengagement plan and was the party of his successor, Ehud Olmert — actually won a greater number of seats (28 seats) under leader Tzipi Livni.
The deal leaves the Labor Party, with its eight seats, as the primary opposition in the Knesset.
Kadima’s March 2012 leadership election saw Livni defeated by Shaul Mofaz, a former defense minister under Sharon. It took Mofaz, who once called Netanyahu a “liar” and pledged not to join a Netanyahu government, only two months to join the Netanyahu government, as acting vice prime minister, thereby giving Netanyahu a 94-seat coalition, the widest such Israeli government in 28 years.
Why the coalition, just 24 hours after Netanyahu had called for early elections?
Jeffrey Goldberg, writing for The Atlantic, suggested seven must-read reasons last week, ranging from a potential strike on Iran to giving Netanyahu the centrist support to negotiate with the Palestinians to allowing Netanyahu and Lieberman to push forward with a reform of the Tal Law to provide an alternative form of national service for currently-exempt ultraorthodox Israelis from the two-year military service requirement.
For Kadima, the answer is simple: “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.”
- It’s a masterstroke for Netanyahu, who will now have another year and a half as prime minister with the widest government possible.
- It’s nearly a masterstroke for Mofaz and Kadima, which polls suggested would have lost many seats in a September election.
- It’s a good deal for Barak, whose Independence slate might not have even returned to the Knesset in early elections, and whose support Netanyahu has always coveted.
- It’s decent news for the haredim parties, which did not want elections and which can now, having been part of the government for three years, can protest any reforms to the Tal Law, leave the government, and have a pertinent campaign issue in 2013.
- It’s bad news for Labor under its new leader Shelly Yachimovich, as it would have been the main winner in early elections — taking many of the seats Kadima was set to lose.
- It’s also bad news for Yair Lapid, the new force in Israeli politics whose new political party / vehicle Yesh Atid (‘There is a Future’) will now be shut out of the Knesset for at least 18 more months, in which time his momentum may stall.
- It’s horrible news for Livni, who quit the Knesset in early May, days before the unity deal was announced. Continue reading Netanyahu’s new broad unity coalition a week later: winners and losers