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.
Foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman was once so close to Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu that the two political leaders joined forces to fight the 2013 elections on a joint ticket. When Lieberman stepped down as foreign minister in 2012 pending resolution of charges of fraud and breach of public trust, Netanyahu held the foreign affairs portfolio himself, with every intention of re-appointing Lieberman to the position when Lieberman was subsequently cleared of the corruption-related charges.
That makes it all the more spectacular that Lieberman announced Monday that he was resigning his office and that his party, the secular nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu (ישראל ביתנו, ‘Israel is Our Home’), would not be joining Netanyahu’s next governing coalition, throwing the prime minister’s plans for a third consecutive term into disarray.
With 48 hours to go before Netanyahu has to assemble a government, he now has to deal with the loss of six seats that have reduced his expected coalition to a bare majority of 61 of the Knesset’s 120 seats — not to mention a sudden fight to replace Lieberman as foreign minister. Netanyahu’s decision, rushed though it may be, will set the tone for Israel’s troubled relations with the United States and with Europe. Moreover, without Yisrael Beitenu, Netanyahu’s government could collapse on the whim of a single MK, including hard-line allies on the Israeli right.
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That’s renewed the growing speculation that Netanyahu might be forced, either now or in coming months, to seek a national unity government with the largest opposition party, 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. The Zionist Union’s leader Isaac Herzog reiterated his refusal, however, to join a Netanyahu coalition. Though Netanyahu won a two-week extension to form a government from Israeli president Reuven Rivlin in late April, Herzog will likely have his chance to form a government if Netanyahu fails to do so before the May 7 deadline.
Lieberman, for what it’s worth, blamed Netanyahu’s concessions to the haredi parties that seek the repeal of laws passed by secular lawmakers in the prior government to reduce military exemptions for ultraorthodox students and liberalize marriage laws, which made official Jewish weddings much easier for Russian immigrants who vote for Yisrael Beitenu. Lieberman also challenged Netanyahu’s toughness on Gaza, and he bemoaned the way that Netanyahu and allies abandoned a controversial bill to proclaim Israel a ‘Jewish state.’ Many commentators in Israel were quick to ascribe more cynical motives to Lieberman, who had once harbored dreams of succeeding Netanyahu as prime minister, and Likud officials vented their fury with Lieberman. Continue reading Lieberman resignation rocks Israeli coalition talks
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
With polls set to open within hours in the most competitive election in Israel since prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu returned to the premiership in 2009, both parties aiming to form Israel’s next government made their final cases to voters — and in doing so, provided election eve bombshells.
Netanyahu’s decision to denounce the two-state solution and former justice minister Tzipi Livni’s decision to renounce her claim to the premiership both, in their own ways, brought the Palestinian issue back to the forefront of voters’ minds. That follows a three-month election campaign during which Israeli-Palestinian relations, a matter of existential importance to both voting Israelis and non-voting Palestinians, figured less prominently than economic concerns, sniping between secular and ultraorthodox politicians, Iran’s nuclear energy program or bilateral relations with the United States. For all the controversy over Netanyahu’s speech to the US Congress two weeks ago, the most notable aspect of his address might be that he never once uttered the word ‘Palestine.’
Netanyahu denounces two-state solution
Netanyahu announced, obliquely by way of an interview with NRG, that no Palestinian state would come into existence so long as he remains prime minister, reversing his prior 2009 commitment to a two-state solution, a stand that many Netanyahu observers always believed was less than full-hearted:
“I think that anyone who moves to establish a Palestinian state and evacuate territory gives territory away to radical Islamist attacks against Israel,” Netanyahu said. “The left has buried its head in the sand time and after time and ignores this, but we are realistic and understand”…. During a visit to the East Jerusalem settlement of Har Homa earlier Monday, Netanyahu warned that if he were not elected, “Hamastan B.” would be established in Jerusalem. “If Tzipi [Livni] and Bougie [Isaac Herzog] form a government, Hamastan B will be established here.”
Netanyahu’s strategy is clear. By tying himself to a hard-line stand on Palestinian statehood, he hopes to appeal to a handful of voters on the right — settlers and other conservatives that might otherwise be inclined to support the secular nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu (
Livni clears way for Herzog to serve full term as PM
Meanwhile, Livni, Netanyahu’s former justice minister and, only a year ago, the Israeli government’s chief negotiator in the abandoned peace process with the Palestinians, delivered her own shocker today when she gave up her claim to the premiership. Continue reading Palestine comes to the fore on Israeli election eve
It’s still irresponsible chatter to suggest that Russian president Vladimir Putin’s nine-day absence from public view is anything more serious than the flu.
But as Julia Ioffe wrote Saturday in The Washington Post, even if Putin’s absence is, as very likely, caused by something as mundane as the influenza epidemic currently sweeping through Moscow, it is becoming a more serious event because of the highly personalized system of Russian government where everything has become so micromanaged by Putin and his close allies. The longer Putin’s absence, the greater the chances of an internal coup or putsch, perhaps by the internal security forces, the siloviki, upon whose support Putin rose to power in the 2000s:
You can see why some in Russia are panicking right now—or veiling their discomfort in humor. It certainly doesn’t help that Putin’s disappearance comes at a particularly nervous time for the country. It is at war in Ukraine, its economy is shuddering under sanctions and historically low oil prices, and the opposition leader, Boris Nemtsov, was recently gunned down steps from the Kremlin. There is a sense in Moscow that the wheels are coming off. To Moscow’s chattering class, Putin’s disappearance confirms that impression.
Meanwhile, on Tuesday, in national elections, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s center-right Likud (הַלִּכּוּד) is set to win fewer seats in Israel’s parliament, the Knesset (הכנסת) than the center-left Zionist Union (המחנה הציוני) of Labor Party leader Isaac Herzog and former justice minister Tzipi Livni. Though it’s too soon to write off a third consecutive mandate for Netanyahu, the March 17 vote is the toughest electoral fight for Netanyahu since he lost his first bid for reelection in 2001.
Even if Israeli president Reuven Rivlin, a former Likud speaker in the Knesset, convinces Likud and the Zionist Union to form a national unity coalition, polls show that Herzog, and not Netanyahu, would become prime minister. That would place deadening pressure on Netanyahu’s leadership of Likud, where capable replacements, such as former interior minister Gideon Sa’ar, are waiting in the wings.
Remarkably, that means that US president Barack Obama’s two most nettlesome rivals in international affairs could be sidelined in the course of the same week — or even the same day. Continue reading Obama’s top two foreign rivals could be vanquished in one week
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.
For a week, US House speaker John Boehner’s decision to invite Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu to address a joint session of the US Congress has stirred controversy in the capitals of both countries, but especially in Washington, where commentators of all political stripes are attacking the veteran Israeli leader for the breathtaking breach of protocol in bypassing the administration of US president Barack Obama and dealing exclusively with Obama’s political opponents in the legislative branch. The Atlantic‘s Jeffrey Goldberg, perhaps the leading US commentator on Israeli affairs and the bilateral relationship, slammed the move in a piece on Tuesday headlined, ‘The Netanyahu disaster.’
Yes, Netanyahu wants to stop Iran from becoming a nuclear power, and he’s made it clear that he will stop at nothing to thwart Tehran from enriching even the tiniest bit of uranium in its quest to develop its nuclear energy industry — to say nothing of a nuclear-armed Iran.
Yes, Netanyahu is a political foe of the Obama administration and, time after time, he’s gone out of his way to indicate his disapproval of its approach to Iran and other issues central to Israeli regional security. Netanyahu has increasingly developed common cause with the US right, and he has a fervent supporter in Sheldon Adelson, one of the wealthiest Republican donors in the United States (he almost single-handedly bankrolled former speaker Newt Gingrich’s 2012 presidential bid) and a top Netanyahu financier in his own right.
But neither of those are the real reason that Netanyahu is so eager to speak before the US Congress, now entirely controlled by the Republican Party. Nor will Netanyahu be dissuaded by arguments that it’s a fantastic breach of protocol that will make an already tense relationship with the Obama administration worse. After all, Netanyahu practically endorsed Mitt Romney, Obama’s Republican challenger for the presidency in 2012, and he easily won his own battle for a new term as Israeli prime minister two months after the American presidential election. The potential of alienating a sitting US president certainly didn’t harm Netanyahu’s own domestic political prospects two years ago. The fact that Netanyahu is one of the few US allies who so often publicly contradicts the US president might even boost his standing among Israeli voters.
The real impetus for Netanyahu?
His scheduled appearance comes just two weeks before he faces what will be his toughest election battle since 1999, when he lost an election to Ehud Barak, then the leader of the Labor Party (מפלגת העבודה הישראלית). Continue reading The real reason Netanyahu is coming to Washington
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
Two months ago, the West Bank-based leadership of Fatah (فتح) and the Gaza-based leadership of Hamas (حماس) really seemed like they were on the verge of forming a coherent unity government, bringing together the two competing factions of Palestinian politics for the first time after nearly a decade of division.
At the time, Israeli an US officials took an overly alarmist view of the new unity government, given the characterization of Hamas as a terrorist organization that continues to target civilians in Israel. Whereas Fatah essentially recognizes the existence of the state of Israel, Hamas still considers Israel as an illegitimate state.
Nevertheless, I argued then that a Fatah-Hamas reconciliation was a necessary step toward a long-term Israeli-Palestinian peace and that Israeli and US leaders should welcome any reunification that can bring Gaza’s leadership to the negotiation table. While Ramallah (if not so much of the rest of the West Bank) boomed economically, and Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas has generally increased Palestinian control over security throughout much of the West Bank, Gaza has been subject to an Israeli embargo for years, crippling the Gazan economy and strangling opportunity and employment for 1.4 million Palestinians. If Gazans are more radical than their West Bank counterparts, Israel’s embargo has given them ample reason.
But geopolitical events across the Middle East have isolated Hamas within the Muslim world, especially over the past year. Whereas the Islamic Republic of Iran once funded Hamas, Iranian support dried up for Hamas as they lined up on opposite sides of Syria’s civil war, with Iranian officials strongly supporting Shiite president Bashar al-Assad and with Hamas backing various Sunni-led rebel groups. Moreover, whereas former Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi looked sympathetically upon Hamas (technically, Hamas is the Palestinian branch of Morsi’s own Muslim Brotherhood), the Egyptian military that overthrew Morsi last July and Morsi’s newly ‘elected’ successor Abdel Fattah el-Sisi are much less tolerant of Hamas. They have cracked down on the Egyptian border with the Gaza Strip, in essence working with Israel to perpetuate the Gaza embargo.
Fatah came to that unity government from a position of strength and, had it succeeded, Fatah might have had a restraining effect on the far weaker Hamas. Nevertheless, Israeli president Benjamin Netanyahu opposed the unity government from the outset, using the occasion to accuse Abbas of being less than serious as a ‘partner for peace.’
Though there’s a strong argument that Netanyahu erred in dismissing the Fatah-Hamas unity government outright two months ago, Netanyahu’s strategy today fundamentally depends on the disunity between Hamas and Fatah. With Israel and Hamas now two weeks into a lethal conflict, and with an Israeli ground offensive extending into its fourth day, the unity government has all but collapsed in the face of the latest military engagement in Gaza. Continue reading Netanyahu now depends on Palestinian Fatah-Hamas disunity
Benjamin Netanyahu wasn’t running for Israel’s largely ceremonial presidency on Tuesday, but he’s emerged as the clearest loser after waging an unsuccessful campaign against the man who ultimately won, Reuven Rivlin, and he may have hastened his own political demise in the process.
In some ways, Rivlin has been the frontrunner for the presidency for the past seven years, in light of his finish as runner-up to Shimon Peres in the 2007 election. Israeli presidents are elected by the Knesset (הַכְּנֶסֶת), Israel’s 120-member unicameral parliament.
Rivlin defeated Meir Sheetrit, a former Likud MK who now belongs to Hatnuah (The Movement, הַתְּנוּעָה), the party founded in November 2012 by the centrist former foreign minister Tzipi Livni. On the final ballot, Rivlin won 63 votes against 53 for Sheetrit, who emerged from among four challengers as the chief ‘anti-Rivlin’ vote, attracting support from centrist and left-leaning MKs.
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Like Netanyahu, Rivlin is a member of the right-wing Likud (הַלִּיכּוּד), and he served as the Knesset’s speaker from 2003 to 2006 and again from 2009 to 2013. In that role, however, Rivlin often stood in the way of Netanyahu’s wishes in the name of defending parliamentary democracy:
The Netanyahu-Rivlin rift goes back to 2009, when the freshly victorious Netanyahu had Rivlin elected once again as Speaker of the Knesset. Rivlin, a tradionalist if there ever was one, soon proved to be much more loyal to parliament and to the letter of the law than to his own party. He stalled nearly every piece of anti-democratic legislation that came his way, deferring votes, sending bills to die in committees and even setting up committees especially to kill those bills he felt impinged on democratic rights. Along the way, he protected MK Hanin Zoabi when the Knesset tried to sanction her for taking part in the Gaza flotilla; elevated MK Ahmed Tibi, the Palestinian Israelis most love to hate, to deputy-speaker; acknowledged the “great suffering and real trauma” endured by Palestinians in 1948; and called for the establishment of one state in all of historical Israel-Palestine, where Palestinians would also have the vote.
The final straw came after RIvlin made a joke about Netanyahu’s wife and her behind-the-scenes influence (oddly enough, that’s one of the reasons that Netanyahu is said to have fallen out with his one-time chief of staff Naftali Bennett, who is now the leader of a rival right-wing party). After the most recent January 2013 national elections, Netanyahu unceremoniously dumped Rivlin as Knesset speaker and started casting about for an alternative to represent Likud in the presidential election. Continue reading How Netanyahu lost the Israeli presidential election
Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s third coalition government was sworn in yesterday hours before U.S. president Barack Obama arrives for his first trip as president to Israel.
The government that Netanyahu will lead following January’s elections to the Knesset (הכנסת), Israel’s unicameral parliament, is certainly the most tenuous one of Netanyahu’s career.
Despite the fact that Netanyahu’s center-right Likud (הַלִּכּוּד, ‘The Consolidation’), in electoral coalition with the more hawkish Yisrael Beiteinu (ישראל ביתנו, ‘Israel is Our Home’) won the greatest number of seats (31) in January’s election, the governing coalition is one that will be dominated less by Netanyahu and more by the two ‘winners’ of the election:
- Yair Lapid, a news reporter, anchor and the leader of Yesh Atid (יש עתיד, ‘There is a Future’), a new centrist party formed in 2012 that won 19 seats, and
- Naftali Bennett, Netanyahu’s former chief of staff from 2006 to 2008, a former spokesman for the settler movement, and the leader of the religious Zionist Bayit Yehudi (הבית היהודי, ‘The Jewish Home’) that won 12 seats.
In addition, the newly formed centrist party of former foreign minister Tzipi Livni, Hatnuah (התנועה, ‘The Movement’), with six seats, and the centrist party Livni once led, Kadima (קדימה, ‘Forward’), with two seats, will join the government.
Together, it will give Netanyahu a 70-seat coalition — a strong majority, despite the fact that his own party holds a minority of seats within the government he will now lead.
What does that mean for Israeli policy and for Israeli politics — at least for the foreseeable future?
Here are a dozen lessons that the new cabinet’s formation teaches us:
1. Netanyahu is weaker than ever.
For those of you counting at home, Netanyahu’s Likud holds just 20 of the seats in the Knesset, and even together with Yisrael Beitenu, their combined bloc holds a minority of the seats within the new government.
Following the election, despite their vast differences, Bennett (pictured above, right) and Lapid (pictured above, left) formed what’s become a surprisingly enduring strategic alliance. Together they forced Netanyahu to accept a coalition without the haredi parties that have been in each government since 2006 — the ultraorthodox parties Shas and United Torah Judaism.
Likud will hold just nine of the 22 ministries — Netanyahu was forced to agree to a slimmed-down cabinet, and he was forced to cede control over the education portfolio, formerly held by Likud heavyweight Gideon Sa’ar (who had at one point been tipped to become the next finance minister, but will now become interior minister instead).
It’s clear that Bennett and Lapid, so long as they remain strategically allied, will hold just as many seats as ‘Likud Beiteinu’ within the coalition (31), so they will have nearly as much power as Netanyahu in driving the agenda of the Israeli government, in the same way that they drove the haredim into opposition.
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