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.
No matter who wins Israel’s election tomorrow, no party is expected to win more than a fragment of the seats necessary to win a majority in Israel’s unicameral 120-member parliament, the Knesset (הַכְּנֶסֶת).
That means that for days and, likely, weeks after the voting ends, Israel will be caught up in the battle to form a new governing coalition. That process will begin as soon as Tuesday, when Israel’s president Reuven Rivlin begins talking to party leaders to assess who should have the first shot at forming a coalition.
That individual, whether it is current prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu or Labor Party leader Isaac Herzog, will then have 42 days to build a government that can win at least a 61-vote majority in the Knesset.
The bottom line is that Israel and the world could be waiting a long time for a new government, though Rivlin is said to be anxious to speed the process along. That, in part, will depend on Israel’s many parties.
Rivlin, previously the speaker of the Knesset and, until his presidential election last year, a member of the center-right Likud, will have some discretion in naming a prime ministerial candidate, but it will almost certainly be the leader whose party wins the most votes in Tuesday’s election (unless a clear majority of other party leaders, over the course of presidential talks, support the second-place winner to lead the next government).
So how to keep track of the various coalition possibilities?
Suffragio‘s guide to the Israeli political parties and each party’s compatibility with every other party, as determined on a subjective scale of four degrees. Here’s what each of the colors mean: Continue reading The definitive chart to deciphering Israel’s coalition negotiations
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.
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
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
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
The news out of Israel throughout election day — now confirmed by preliminary exit polling — is that Yair Lapid (pictured above) and his new party Yesh Atid (יש עתיד, ‘There is a Future’) have performed significantly better than expected, making it the second-largest party in the Knesset (הכנסת), Israeli’s unicameral parliament.
As I wrote yesterday, prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu will have some difficult choices to make in determining how to cobble together a majority coalition of at least 61 members of the Knesset — Lapid is now certain to be a major factor in Netanyahu’s negotiations.
So it’s worth taking a little time to focus on what Lapid has apparently accomplished and what he’s focused on in the campaign.
Lapid entered politics in Israel only in January 2012, and amid rumors that Netanyahu would call snap elections in April 2012, hastily named his party ‘Yesh Atid.’ But he’s long been a well-known figure in Israeli public life, first as a well-regarded columnist in the 1990s and then as a television anchor and talk-show host.
He’s also pretty easy on the eyes.
On the campaign trail, he’s gone out of his way to describe Yesh Atid as a center-center party:
Ideally, Yair Lapid’s self-described “Center-Center” party should present the perfect balance between the Right and Left blocs that this country needs so desperately. The danger though, is that Yesh Atid is just another example of a neither-here-nor-there party that is doomed to fail like so many centrist platforms before it.
For now, Netanyahu must realize that it means that Lapid would be more likely than Labor (מפלגת העבודה הישראלית) or Meretz (מרצ, ‘Energy’) to support planned budget cuts, in light of a growing budget deficit (over 4% in 2012). That will be good news for Netanyahu regardless of whether Yesh Atid joins the next government.
In many ways, Yesh Atid has replaced Kadima (קדימה, ‘Forward’), the centrist party that Ariel Sharon founded and that is projected to have lost all 28 of the seats it held in the prior Knesset.
Notably, Lapid’s father, Tommy Lapid, who died in 2008, was also a journalist who also entered politics later in life — he became party chair of the secular, liberal Shinui (שינוי, ‘Change’) Party in 1999 and won a seat in the Knesset and six seats.
In the 2003 elections, however — a decade ago — Tommy Lapid’s Shinui broke through with 15 seats, making it the third-largest party in the Knesset and a victory, like today’s victory for Yesh Atid, for secular Israel over the ultraorthodox parties. After that election, Tommy Lapid joined the government of Ariel Sharon as deputy prime minister and minister of justice, although Tommy Lapid and Shinui ultimately left the government in 2004 over disputes with the more conservative ultraorthodox members of Sharon’s coalition. As the 2006 elections approached, infighting within the party led to Shinui’s loss of all 15 seats, however.
In 2012 and 2013, his son Yair Lapid has also brought a secular centrist sensibility to the campaign trail:
Lapid is perceived as the “least left” in the political bloc that extends from Netanyahu to Hanin Zuabi. He has no personal or ideological feuds with the prime minister, as do most of the other candidates. A two-digit number of seats could enable him to hook up with Netanyahu as a replacement for Shas, and reduce the price the Likud would have to pay the Haredim.
Lapid is touting himself as a candidate for education minister, and even now his background as a volunteer civics teacher stands out. He could even learn a thing or two from the outgoing minister about how to exploit the ministry for self-advancement: Gideon Sa’ar bought the silence of the teachers’ unions that had made life hell for his predecessors, and focused on politicizing the system and making headlines, which turned him into the right’s chief ideologue and the winner of the Likud primary.
Given his apparent success today, Lapid may want to hold out for a position bigger than just education minister. Continue reading Who is Yair Lapid?
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
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