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 Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu travels to the United States to deliver a controversial address to the US Congress on Tuesday morning, he’ll leave behind him in Israel (if only for a couple of days) one of the toughest election campaigns of his career.
The Washington speech has sucked up much of the attention from Israel’s election campaign, both in the United States and in Israel itself. But that doesn’t guarantee that Netanyahu will win what would be a fourth term as prime minister and his third consecutive term since returning to power in 2009.
Netanyahu’s center-right Likud (הַלִּכּוּד), consistently since December, has been tied in most polls with the Zionist Union (המחנה הציוני), a merger between the center-left Labor Party (מפלגת העבודה הישראלית) and a bloc of moderates led by former justice minister Tzipi Livni, herself the former leader of the late Ariel Sharon’s essentially defunct Kadima (קדימה, ‘Forward’).
Though Israeli politics has become a dizzying array of fragmented, personalized parties, where political leaders denounce opponents one day only to join forces with the same opponents the next, Herzog and Livni both support a more progression economic agenda as well as the ‘two-state’ solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The Zionist Union’s combined support means that Labor’s newest leader, Isaac Herzog, has emerged as the top alternative to Netanyahu to become Israel’s next prime minister. A soft-spoken attorney, Herzog isn’t known for his charisma or his bluster, and his chief quality might be that he’s regarded as the quintessential anti-Netanyahu, at least in style.
So how did Herzog (pictured above) get to this point? And what would a Herzog-led government look like?
Herzog wants to end Labor’s wilderness period
Though the Labor Party hasn’t won an Israeli election since 1999, it nevertheless has a storied legacy — it’s the party of Golda Meir, of Yitzhak Rabin, of Shimon Peres. Herzog himself is the son of Israel’s sixth president, Chaim Herzog, and he studied in New York in the 1970s when his father was serving as Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations. Herzog is Labor’s fourth permanent leader in a decade, and he hopes to lead Labor to its most successful election victory since the 1999 parliamentary elections under former prime minister Ehud Barak. Continue reading Who is Isaac Herzog? A look at Israel’s opposition leader
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
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
One of the more difficult security issues over the 2000s, which sprung out of the violence of the Second Intifada between 2000 and 2005 is the construction of a wall between Israel proper, on the one side, and the Palestinian West Bank, on the other.
There are many reasons for the controversy, which remains a delicate issue for Israeli-Palestinian peace talks these days, to the extent that a glimmer of hope earlier this year, due largely to the efforts of Israeli justice minister Tzipi Livni and US secretary of state John Kerry, still exists. That’s a doubtful proposition given that the US response to Syrian chemical weapons and its new deal with Iran over nuclear energy have both incensed Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. It’s especially doubtful, too, because hardline nationalist Israeli foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman has now returned following the reversal of his conviction earlier this month.
The first is among Israeli settlers themselves in the West Bank, who will find themselves especially isolated from the rest of Israel when the wall is completed. That means that many traditionally hard-line, pro-settler types on the right of Israeli politics opposed the security border from its inception.
The second is that the wall isn’t exactly accurate — it tracks the 1949/1967 Green Line between Israel and the Palestinian Territories only very loosely. Take a guess as to which side the Israel-built wall errs. Up to 10% of the West Bank will be within the ‘Israeli’ side of the wall when it’s completed, largely on the basis of land seized from Palestinians in areas that lie on the Palestinian side of the Green Line.
That complicates life inordinately for Palestinians.
Here’s the wall from the Israeli side en route to Bethlehem:
Here’s the same wall from the Palestinian side (also shown above):
The wall’s construction, especially around Jerusalem, means that routes that once took a few minutes now take a half-hour or an hour (i.e., the road to Bethlehem). There are also a litany of familiar complaints from the United Nations on down to other humanitarian groups, both Israeli and Palestinian, who believe that the security wall violates international law and that it impedes access to cultural and civic institutions that fall on the Israeli side of the wall. UN action against the security wall, however, has been consistently vetoed by the United States, a permanent member of the UN Security Council, though even former US president George W. Bush a decade ago called the wall a problem:
Speaking about the Israeli security fence, Mr Bush said: ‘It is very difficult to develop confidence between the Palestinians and Israelis with a wall snaking through the West Bank.’
Two of the strongest complaints revolve around access to health care and access to water. Currently, if you have a sudden illness in Ramallah, a Palestinian ambulance will rush you to the checkpoint, where you’ll wait for clearance and an Israeli ambulance to carry you the rest of the way to the best Palestinian hospitals in East Jerusalem. The wall also means that much of the water and fertility of the Jordan Valley is now (or will be) on the Israeli side of the wall, leaving Palestinians in the position of being forced to buy water from Israel. That’s hardly a satisfactory solution for Palestinians. Continue reading Israeli security wall adds 2000s-era difficulty to Israeli-Palestinian peace talks
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
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
Daniel Levy, director of the Middle East and North Africa program at the European Council on Foreign Relations, has written in Foreign Policy what’s perhaps the best piece I’ve read in the U.S. media — or the Israeli media, for that matter — on next Tuesday’s upcoming Israeli elections, where he makes the point that Israeli politics has become both incredibly fragmented and ossified:
Alongside [Naftali] Bennett’s rapid rise, Jan. 22 is best understood as a “Tribes of Israel” election — taking identity politics to a new level. Floating votes may exist within the tribes of Israel, but movement between tribes, or political blocs, is almost unheard of. Israelis seem to relate their political choices almost exclusively to embedded social codes rather than contesting policies.
By Levy’s estimation, although voters may swing from party to party within a larger bloc, most Israeli voters remain within one of four essential ‘tribes’:
[Prime minister Benjamin] Netanyahu’s Zionist right (including the far right and national religious right), [former foreign minister Tzipi] Livni’s Zionist center (only Meretz still defines itself as Zionist left), the ultra-Orthodox bloc, and the bloc overwhelmingly representing Palestinian Arab citizens.
Not so long ago, you could make the credible argument that Israeli politics was essentially a two-party democracy, with the center-right Likud (הַלִּכּוּד, ‘The Consolidation’) of figures like Yitzhak Shamir and Menachem Begin and the center-left Labor (מפלגת העבודה הישראלית) — and from the 1960s through the end of the 1980s, the ‘Alignment’ (המערך) — of figures like Golda Meir, Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres.
Sure, there were third parties and ultra-orthodox and Israeli Arab parties back then, too, but Likud and Labor/Alignment would often win two-thirds or more of the seats in the Knesset (הכנסת), Israel’s unicameral parliament. In the most recent 2009 Israeli elections, however, Likud and Labor won a cumulative 40 seats — exactly one-third of the Knesset, and given the proliferation of personality-based parties in Israeli politics, it’s clear that Israel has moved to a system with much less long-term party affiliation and discipline.
As Levy makes demonstratively clear in his piece, however, each of his four identified ‘tribes’ contain multiple parties:
- The ‘Zionist right’ includes not only Likud and its campaign partner, the secular nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu (ישראל ביתנו, ‘Israel is Our Home’) that appeals especially to Russian Jewish immigrants and is led by former foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman, who has resigned in light of ongoing legal troubles, but also Bennett’s upstart, conservative Bayit Yehudi (הבית היהודי, ‘The Jewish Home’).
- The ‘Zionist center-left’ is more or less hopelessly fragmented into five parties — Labor, under Shelly Yacimovich, which is pushing economic issues in this election; Livni’s new party, Hatnuah (התנועה, ‘The Movement’), which is pushing mainly Livni in this election; Livni’s old party, the now-hemorrhaging Kadima (קדימה, ‘Forward’); Yesh Atid (יש עתיד, ‘There is a Future’), another personality-based party formed in 2012 by former television news anchor Yair Lapid; and Meretz (מרצ, ‘Energy’), the only truly leftist party in Israel with any remaining strength.
- the ultra-Orthodox, or the haredim, the most conservative (in this case, religious conservatism, not necessarily political) followers of Judaism, including both the Middle Eastern sephardim that back the largest of the haredi parties, Shas (ש״ס) and Am Shalem (עם שלם, Whole Nation), a breakaway faction from Shas, as well as the Central and Eastern European ashkenazim that back the United Torah Judaism (יהדות התורה המאוחדת) coalition.
- the Israeli Arabs, which include three parties that are each expected to win a handful of seats in the Knesset — Balad, Hadash and the United Arab List-Ta’al.
A look at the recent polling bears out Levy’s thesis — there’s a shift away from the ‘Likud Beiteinu’ alliance and a shift toward the Jewish Home, and there’s a massive shift away from Kadima in favor of Livni’s party, Labor and Yesh Atid. By and large, however, the ‘right/religious’ seats would go from 65 to 67, and the ‘center/left/Arab’ seats would go from 55 to 53. That’s not a whole lot of change, and that’s why, since Netanyahu called early elections, it’s been almost certain that Netanyahu will remain prime minister (though it’s more unclear whether he’ll govern with a more rightist or centrist coalition).
Levy’s harsh conclusion is that Israel is coming to resemble apartheid-era South Africa.
But it looks to me even more like the highly choreographed confessional politics of its northern neighbor, Lebanon.
Israel’s demographic trends make it very likely that its population will become more polarized (like Lebanon’s) in the coming years — Israeli haredi and Israeli Arab populations are growing much faster than secular Jewish populations, such that the haredim and Arabs, taken together, will outnumber the rest of Israel’s population within the next 40 years. As such, the disintegration of two-party Israeli politics into de facto confessional politics in Israel is cause for worry. Continue reading The Lebanonization of Israeli politics and next week’s Knesset elections
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