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
That Israel’s hard-line foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman will resign following indictments Thursday for breach of trust doesn’t mean he’s leaving politics.
To the contrary, Lieberman’s move seems calculated to allow him to return to the forefront of Israel’s coalition government, headed by Benjamin Netanyahu, upon the strong likelihood that Netanyahu emerges from upcoming elections as prime minister. Given that Israel’s essentially in campaign season, Lieberman (pictured above) is moving aggressively — and wisely, probably — to lift his parliamentary immunity in order to bring investigations to resolution as fast as possible about the charges that remain.
Those charges, by the way, are only derivative of the main charges against Lieberman that stem from a 12-year investigation with respect to money laundering and fraud — Lieberman stood accused of receiving millions from international businessmen while he was serving in office. Israel’s attorney general Yehuda Weinstein determined not to pursue charges against him on those accusations. The remaining charge is that Lieberman breached public trust by appointing Ze’ev Ben Aryeh as ambassador to Belarus without disclosing that Ben Aryeh had alerted Lieberman that he was being investigated by Belorussian authorities. So all things considered, Thursday was somewhat of a victory for Lieberman in that it lifted a decade-long shadow from his public life.
Netanyahu is holding Lieberman’s portfolio ‘in trust’ and will serve simultaneously as prime minister and foreign minister until the January 22 elections for the Knesset (הכנסת), Israel’s 120-seat unicameral parliament.
In advance of the election, Netanyahu had teamed up with Lieberman to merge Israel’s longstanding center-right party Likud (הַלִּכּוּד, ‘The Consolidation’) with Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu (ישראל ביתנו, ‘Israel is Our Home’). At the last election, Yisrael Beiteinu, with a strongly nationalist secular profile that appeals to many of Israel’s ethnic Russian Jewish population, won 15 seats to 27 for Likud, and 28 for the more centrist — and now-imploding — Kadima (קדימה, Forward). The coalition between Netanyahu and Lieberman has remained the core of Israel’s government since 2009, and their combined ‘Likud Beiteinu’ ticket ensures that Lieberman and his allies will take at least 15 seats if the coalition retains its combined 42 Knesset seats.
The news threatens to sidetrack Lieberman less than a month after Netanyahu’s defense minister and former prime minister Ehud Barak said he wouldn’t stand for election in the Knesset, just two years after leaving Israel’s longstanding center-left party, Labor (מפלגת העבודה הישראלית) to found his own breakaway party, ‘Independence’ (סיעת העצמאות). Netanyahu could still, however, re-appoint Barak as a non-MK defense minister after the election.
But despite the conventional wisdom that Netanyahu will easily glide to reelection, things are looking decidedly less secure for him in the wake of a number of disappointments for his government — Netanyahu was widely seen to have publicly challenged U.S. president Barack Obama over Iran and also to have favored Republican candidate Mitt Romney in the U.S. presidential election, so Obama’s reelection was widely seen as a setback for Netanyahu.
Furthermore, the eight-day bombing campaign in Gaza in November, the United Nations vote on Nov. 30 to recognize Palestine as a non-member observer state and the Israeli announcement of further settlements in the West Bank have called into question Netanyahu’s sincerity on achieving Israeli-Palestinian peace, but his diplomatic abilities as well, given Israel’s increasingly negative image in the world. Those defeats came after Netanyahu’s cartoonish Cassandra siren demanding ‘red lines’ with regard to Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons program.
Those troubles are borne out in a poll released today — conducted before Lieberman’s resignation — that finds ‘Likud Beiteinu’ would win just 37 seats in the election, a bit of a retreat from their current 42 seats. In the poll, 54% of Israeli voters say that Israel’s diplomatic position has gotten worse in the past four years, at a time when Israeli diplomacy will remain vital throughout the Middle East in 2013 and beyond — on Egypt, on Palestine, on Syria and Lebanon and on Iran.
But Likud Beiteinu’s loss — so far — has not meant a gain for the forces of Israel’s horribly fractured center-left. Instead, the even more stridently Zionist, conservative Bayit Yehudi (הבית היהודי, ‘The Jewish Home’) would win 16 seats, up from just three in the current Knesset.
That party — or rather coalition of parties — is led by Naftali Bennett, who served as Netanyahu’s chief of staff in opposition from 2006 to 2008, and it has been a component, albeit a small component, of Netanyahu’s coalition, and could be expected to join future Netanyahu-led coalitions as well. Bennett is rapidly becoming a rising star in Israel, and he’ll be headed for a major cabinet post if he places third — or higher — in January’s elections. Bennett, born to American parents and a former New York City resident, founded and sold a company in his 20s to become independently wealthy before returning to Israel, serving in the Israeli Defense Force during the short-lived 2006 war in Lebanon and then in politics as Netanyahu’s chief of staff.
For now, then, while Lieberman’s troubles could result in harming Lieberman’s reputation, it shouldn’t affect Netanyahu’s position to remain prime minister — though a stronger Jewish Home bloc in the Knesset would arguably make a future Netanyahu government more Zionist in nature and less secular.
The poll showed that the center-left, currently fragmented among three major groups, would win just 36 seats total, meaning that, even if a world where the three parties could unite somehow, they still don’t command enough support to form a government: Continue reading Lieberman resignation complicates Netanyahu coalition’s election chances
Israeli defense minister — and prime minister from 1999 to 2001 — Ehud Barak announced earlier this week that he would not be contesting Israel’s Knesset elections on January 22.
Although he’ll stay on as defense minister until a new government is formed, Barak’s departure, at age 70, appears to end what has been a long and twisty career in Israeli politics — there remains a chance, however, that prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu could re-appoint Barak (pictured above with U.S. secretary of state Hillary Clinton) as defense minister from outside the Knesset if Netanyahu forms the next government. That outcome, by the way, seems more than plausible, given Barak’s longtime impatience with parliamentarian politics.
A longtime veteran of the Israeli Defense Force and its most decorated veteran (his most famous exploit in Israel’s elite special forces was a commando raid against Palestinians dressed incognito in high heels and a wig), Barak entered politics in 1995 as foreign minister in Shimon Peres’s government and after Peres lost the 1996 Israeli election to Netanyahu, Barak became the leader of Israel’s Labor Party (מפלגת העבודה הישראלית).
His political career has been a bit schizophrenic — he won, overwhelming, a race to become prime minister, but he’s more often than not been relatively unsuccessful and unloved in Israeli politics.
In the 1999 direct prime ministerial election, Barak defeated Netanyahu by 56% to 44%. As prime minister, he oversaw Israel’s withdrawal from southern Lebanon (after more than two decades of occupation) and engaged in the most serious negotiations since 1993 with the Palestinian Liberation Organization (نظمة التحرير الفلسطينية), then still under the leadership of Yasser Arafat, culminating in the Camp David summit in 2000 that nearly succeeded in bringing about a peace accord between Israel and the PLO — last week’s Israeli attack on Gaza, masterminded by Barak himself, was a depressingly clear sign that Israeli-Palestinian relations, at least with respect to Gaza, have worsened in the past 12 years.
Barak lost the 2001 election to Likud’s then-leader Ariel Sharon in the wake of the failure of the PLO talks. He aborted an early attempt to return to the Labor leadership in 2005 (Barak ultimately backed Peres in that year’s leadership race, who lost to Amir Peretz), but won the Labor leadership in 2007 and became defense minister in 2007 under then-prime minister Ehud Olmert. Although Labor won just 13 seats in the 2009 election — the lowest-ever total for Labor or its predecessor — Barak has continued as defense minister under Netanyahu. Barak’s continued presence in the Netanyahu government wasn’t without controversy within Labor and in 2011, he left Labor altogether to form his own pro-Netanyahu faction, Independence (סיעת העצמאות), comprised of Barak and four other former Labor MKs.
Shelly Yachimovich was elected Labor’s leader in March 2011 and has led the party very much in opposition to Netanyahu, and Yachimovich is generally seen as the chief opposition leader to Netanyahu going into the elections (although she has some competition from political newcomer Yair Lapid and former Kadima leader Tzipi Livni).
Even as relations between the U.S. government under president Barack Obama and Netanyahu remain strained over Iran — and now over Gaza — Barak has long been widely respected by U.S. policymakers as a thoughtful voice within Israel’s government. Although he has sounded the alarm louder than anyone in Israel’s government over the threat of an Iranian nuclear program, Barak is thought to be a moderating force with respect to any future attack on Iran.
Most immediately, Barak’s departure means that if Netanyahu wins the Jan. 22 elections, as expected, and Barak does not continue as defense minister, it will result in the amplification of relatively more hawkish voices of allies such as Avigdor Lieberman, Netanyahu’s foreign minister and leader of the Yisrael Beiteinu (ישראל ביתנו, ‘Israel is Our Home’) party that recently merged with Netanyahu’s Likud (הַלִּכּוּד) for purposes of the upcoming elections. It would also mean that yet another figure with the gravitas of a former Israeli prime minister — and a figure who carries Netanyahu’s trust and respect — will no longer be around to counterbalance Netanyahu: Continue reading What Barak’s apparent departure means for Israeli politics
First and foremost, it bears noting that civilians — including women and children — died today in Israel’s air strikes on Gaza and, whatever the merits, motivations or repercussions of that attack, our hearts — Jewish, Muslim, Christian, agnostic or otherwise — should cry for the loss of innocents in any military operation.
One of the motivating factors of my blog is to demonstrate that in so many places in the world, with so many viewpoints and cultural assumptions and worldviews, politics is a way of brokering policy decisions in a way that avoids violence — even in countries without democratic institutions or even much in the way of rule of law.
So from that perspective, even if you think the world is a better place without Hamas’s Ahmed Jabari, who was killed in Israel’s attack today, it’s incredibly sad to see the continued failure of politics vis-a-vis Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
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I have no interest in assigning blame in a conflict where both sides have used too much violence for far too long, despite strong and honestly held beliefs, and I have no idea how today’s Israeli attack on Gaza will play out (but I have a sad hunch), but it’s safe to say that with just over two months to go until Israel’s election campaign, it’s suspicious to see this kind of a wide attack on Gaza, the worst of its kind since Israel entered the Gaza Strip four years ago.
Even giving Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu the benefit of the doubt, today’s attack is bound to affect the election, scheduled for January 22.
Certainly, it helps Netanyahu’s reelection campaign, and it does so at a critical time when former Kadima leader Tzipi Livni and former prime minister Ehud Olmert were set to make a final decision about whether they would participate in the January 22 elections for the Knesset, Israeli’s unicameral parliament, and at a time when his Likud (הַלִּכּוּד) party’s formal 2013 election coalition with Yisrael Beitenu (ישראל ביתנו) has resulted in the jointly-merged coalition losing strength, not gaining. As individual parties a month ago, they polled 40% to 45% cumulatively; the most recent poll shows Likud-Yisrael Beitenu at 36%, with their main rivals gaining — the Labor Party (מפלגת העבודה הישראלית) under Shelly Yachimovich polling 21%, and a new political party, Yesh Atid (יש עתיד) under popular former broadcaster Yair Lapid polling 15%.
We don’t know what exactly it means for Mohammed Morsi, the newly elected president of Egypt, only consolidating the reins of power in the Arab world’s largest country. But Egypt has already recalled its ambassador from Tel Aviv, and Morsi’s aides are working to revise the 1979 peace treaty with Israel. Morsi was the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate during the presidential campaign.
The attack also puts the United States — and president Barack Obama, just eight days after his reelection — in a tougher spot than it would prefer. Can you imagine what a Camp David-like peace accord would look like today, with Netanyahu on one side, Morsi on the other, who knows who would represent Hamas, and Obama and U.S. secretary of state Hillary Clinton trying to sort it all?
As Jeffrey Goldberg notes in real time in his blog at The Atlantic: Continue reading Today’s attack in Gaza and its effect on Israeli (and Middle Eastern) politics
Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu yesterday announced that he would call early elections for Israel’s unicameral legislature, the Knesset:
In a televised statement, Netanyahu said that, as his coalition government would not be able to agree on a national budget for 2013, he had “decided, for the benefit of Israel, to hold elections now and as quickly as possible.”
The elections would take place within three months, the prime minister said.
“In a few months, the tenure of the most stable government in decades will come to an end,” Netanyahu said. “This stability has helped us achieve the two main objectives we promised the citizens of Israel – to strengthen security at a time when a dangerous upheaval is gripping the Middle East, and [to fortify] the economy during…a financial turmoil.”
In calling for elections “as soon as possible,” which can be held a minimum of three months after the dismissal of the Knesset, Netanyahu appeared to be targeting as soon as January 15 , but the election could be held in February as well. The Knesset is expected to be dismissed as soon as possible, ostensibly over the budget, but really as much because Netanyahu believes he’s in as good a position as he’ll be between now and October 2013, the last possible date elections could be held.
So where does the race stand today?
Nearly everyone expects today that Netanyahu’s conservative Likud (הַלִּכּוּד) party will win the greatest number of seats in the upcoming election and thereupon form a coalition (with any number of parties from the left, center or right and from both the secular and religious parties), extending Netanyahu’s grip on Israeli power at a time when the possibility of a nuclear-armed Iran in the future seems more likely than not.
Speaking of Iran, the race could well feature Iran and U.S.-Israeli relations as a top issue. In any event, the Israeli election will follow the U.S. presidential election. Netanyahu has recently been making an incredibly high-profile case for U.S. president Barack Obama to set ‘red lines’ over Iran’s nuclear program — ‘red lines’ that, if crossed, would trigger a military response from the United States and/or Israel. Although Obama’s challenger in the U.S. race, Republican Mitt Romney, has argued for an even more hawkish foreign policy on Iran, Netanyahu has been criticised by both U.S. and Israeli politicians for trying to influence the U.S. election. By the time the Israeli election will be held, however, we’ll have a much clearer idea as to the state of U.S. foreign policy through at least January 2017 — and if Obama is reelected, Netanyahu’s strategy of rare public disagreement with the U.S. president could become a major issue in the campaign.
Netanyahu, however, will likely make the case that he (along with his current defense minister, Ehud Barak, who himself served as prime minister from 1999 to 2001) is best placed to steer Israel through the small nation’s thorny foreign policy issues, including not only Iran and the nuclear issue, but a new president in Egypt, Mohammed Morsi, who comes from the Muslim Brotherhood, and the longstanding issue of the Palestinian territories. A strong Likud showing could conceivably provide Netanyahu with enough support to launch a preemptive attack on Iran, with or without U.S. support.
It will be the first election since February 2009, when Netanyahu’s Likud nearly tied then-governing Kadima (קדימה, Forward), the centrist party founded by Ariel Sharon and other Likud moderates in 2005, including former prime minister Ehud Olmert and former leader Tzipi Livni, a former foreign minister under Olmert. In that election, Kadima won 28 seats under Livni’s in the 120-seat Knesset and Likud won 27 seats (then an increase of 15 seats). Although Kadima won a marginally greater number of seats, Netanyahu was able to pull together a majority coalition and thereupon became prime minister, while Livni refused to join any coalition headed by Netanyahu, thereby becoming Israel’s main opposition leader — until March 2012.
In March, Shaul Mofaz, a former defense minister under Sharon, defeated Livni in an internal Kadima leadership contest, and Livni subsequently resigned from the Knesset in May. Soon thereafter, Mofaz caused Kadima to join Netanyahu’s existing coalition, although Kadima left the coalition in July over negotiations with respect to the so-called Tal Law and how to deal with the exemption of ultra-orthodox haredim Jews from mandatory service in the Israel Defense Force.
Kadima’s support was already expected to collapse from its 2009 levels, but Mofaz’s zig-zag from opposition to coalition and back to opposition has done nothing to boost the party’s image among Israeli voters. Although Olmert was recently acquitted of fraud charges that ultimately led to his resignation in 2009, and he is currently seen as more popular than either Mofaz or Livni, he has not yet decided whether to return to politics. Olmert’s return to politics, either from within Kadima or through a new party with Livni, could potentially upend the election.
A recent Haaretz poll shows Likud with a clear lead at 28%, while 35% of Israelis think Netanyahu is best suited to be prime minister. Kadima, meanwhile, lags far behind at just 8% support, with just 6% of Israelis supporting Mofaz as the best choice for prime minister:
Israel’s Labor party (מפלגת העבודה הישראלית), which has traditionally been the leftist counterweight to Likud, stands to return as the chief opposition party — it fell to just 13 seats in the last Knesset, but now is the strong second-place party with 20% support under leader Shelly Yachimovich, a former journalist who took over the leadership from Ehud Barak, who has served as minister of defense since 2007 under both Olmert and now Netanyahu. Barak, who himself served as prime minister from 1999 to 2001, left Labor in January 2011 to form his own party. As Labor leader, Yachimovich has emphasized bread-and-butter economic issues, such as employment, high cost of living and income inequality, as well as social justice within Israel. The poll shows that 38% of Israelis approve of Netanyahu’s government, while 53% oppose it, which leaves some amount of space for a spirited opponent to make headway between now and elections. Continue reading Netanyahu announces early elections in Israel