At nearly the last hour, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu finalized the smallest possible coalition possible.
After Netanyahu’s foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman resigned on Monday and announced that his Russian-interest, secular nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu (ישראל ביתנו, ‘Israel is Our Home’) would head into opposition, it left the prime minister scrambling to build a government with a Wednesday night deadline looming.
Having secured agreements with Moshe Kahlon’s center-right Kulanu (כולנו, ‘All of Us’) and with two ultraorthodox parties, it left Netanyahu and his center-right Likud (הַלִּכּוּד) dependent on the final right-wing party, Bayit Yehudi (הבית היהודי, ‘The Jewish Home’) to form a working coalition. Kahlon, a former Likud communications minister, will serve as the government’s finance minister, is particularly concerned with policies to reduce inequality and rising domestic prices.
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With just eight seats (four fewer than in the previous Knesset) and hard feelings between Netanyahu and the Bayit Yehudi leader, Naftali Bennett, Lieberman’s decision suddenly gave Bennett much more negotiating power. Without Bennett, Netanyahu would not have a majority; Israel’s president Reuven Rivlin could thereupon turn to the leader of the opposition, Isaac Herzog, to seek an alternative government coalition.
The result was a poisonous 48 hours of negotiation between the Netanyahu and Bennett camps, with Bennett angling to win the all-important justice ministry for Ayelet Shaked and, perhaps, improving his own ministerial portfolio from education to the foreign ministry. With Likud’s ranks already grumbling about handing over the education ministry to Bennett, Netanyahu’s allies were downright furious — and embarrassed — to cave to Bennett on the justice ministry. It’s an important post because it will allow Bayit Yehudi to demand changes to the Israeli supreme court and it will give Bayit Yehudi the power to shape the appointment of Israel’s next attorney general.
Bennett, who served as Netanyahu’s chief of staff briefly in the 2000s, headed a pro-settler organization in the West Bank before assuming Bayit Yehudi’s leadership in 2013. The religious, right-wing Zionist party is in favor of greater settlements, and Netanyahu’s lurch rightward during the election campaign was designed to steal its voters to Likud’s ranks — a gambit that seemed to work.
In Netanyahu’s previous government, Bennett served as economy minister, though he enhanced his profile during the Israeli offensive in the Gaza strip in the summer of 2014, criticizing Netanyahu for not taking even stronger action to thwart Hamas.
The deal salvages Netanyahu’s third term as prime minister, but it comes at a huge cost. With just 61 MKs, Netanyahu can be held hostage in the future over any piece of legislation or government action by a single member of his own coalition. Just a couple of rebels could conceivably bring the government down, which could force a new government or fresh elections. After such contentious negotiations, moreover, trust between Netanyahu and Bennett, never strong, is at a nadir. Likud officials are already telling the Israeli media that they’ll seek ‘revenge’ for Bennett’s ‘extortions.’
To make matters worse, Bayit Yehudi is not entirely united behind Bennett’s leadership, and members of the even-harder-right ‘Tekuma’ faction were demanding that their leader, Uri Ariel, be given the justice portfolio instead of Shaked. For now, however, Ariel seems to be happy with the agricultural ministry.
Netanyahu still has another week to win a formal vote of confidence from the 120-member Knesset. But Netanyahu’s first task will start immediately — to build out his existing coalition on an ASAP basis so as to reduce the possibility of political blackmail or even to push Bayit Yehudi out of government altogether.
The most tantalizing option would be for Netanyahu to convince Herzog to form a ‘national unity’ government with the Zionist Union (המחנה הציוני), a coalition between the center-left Labor Party (מפלגת העבודה הישראלית) and a bloc of moderates led by former justice minister Tzipi Livni.
For now, Herzog has been adamant that he will not join any government headed by Netanyahu, and he was quick to criticize the instability of Netanyahu’s latest coalition:
Herzog criticized Netanyahu’s newly formed government shortly after it was announced Wednesday night, saying in a statement that the 61-seat coalition “lacks responsibility, stability and governance.” He called it a “national disaster of a government. A weak and narrow government, susceptible to blackmail, that will advance nothing and will quickly be replaced by a responsible and hopeful alternative.”
Netanyahu purposefully held open the foreign ministry position with an eye to convincing Herzog to join a national unity government.
But if Herzog cannot be convinced to do so within the months ahead, Netanyahu might try to split off a handful of Labor hawks or the faction loyal to Livni, who most recently served as Netanyahu’s justice minister between 2013 and 2015.
Netanyahu’s former finance minister, Yair Lapid, is adamant that he will not return to an alliance with Likud, especially after Netanyahu agreed to the ultraorthodox parties’ request to revisit the crackdown on exemptions from military service for religious students. But that doesn’t mean Netanyahu can’t try to poach several members of Lapid’s centrist Yesh Atid (יש עתיד, ‘There is a Future’).
His final option, and perhaps the easiest of all, is to find a way to soothe his onetime ally Lieberman’s concerns and bring Yisrael Beitenu back into government.
Foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman was once so close to Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu that the two political leaders joined forces to fight the 2013 elections on a joint ticket. When Lieberman stepped down as foreign minister in 2012 pending resolution of charges of fraud and breach of public trust, Netanyahu held the foreign affairs portfolio himself, with every intention of re-appointing Lieberman to the position when Lieberman was subsequently cleared of the corruption-related charges.
That makes it all the more spectacular that Lieberman announced Monday that he was resigning his office and that his party, the secular nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu (ישראל ביתנו, ‘Israel is Our Home’), would not be joining Netanyahu’s next governing coalition, throwing the prime minister’s plans for a third consecutive term into disarray.
With 48 hours to go before Netanyahu has to assemble a government, he now has to deal with the loss of six seats that have reduced his expected coalition to a bare majority of 61 of the Knesset’s 120 seats — not to mention a sudden fight to replace Lieberman as foreign minister. Netanyahu’s decision, rushed though it may be, will set the tone for Israel’s troubled relations with the United States and with Europe. Moreover, without Yisrael Beitenu, Netanyahu’s government could collapse on the whim of a single MK, including hard-line allies on the Israeli right.
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That’s renewed the growing speculation that Netanyahu might be forced, either now or in coming months, to seek a national unity government with the largest opposition party, the Zionist Union (המחנה הציוני), a coalition between the center-left Labor Party (מפלגת העבודה הישראלית) and a bloc of moderates led by former justice minister Tzipi Livni. The Zionist Union’s leader Isaac Herzog reiterated his refusal, however, to join a Netanyahu coalition. Though Netanyahu won a two-week extension to form a government from Israeli president Reuven Rivlin in late April, Herzog will likely have his chance to form a government if Netanyahu fails to do so before the May 7 deadline.
Lieberman, for what it’s worth, blamed Netanyahu’s concessions to the haredi parties that seek the repeal of laws passed by secular lawmakers in the prior government to reduce military exemptions for ultraorthodox students and liberalize marriage laws, which made official Jewish weddings much easier for Russian immigrants who vote for Yisrael Beitenu. Lieberman also challenged Netanyahu’s toughness on Gaza, and he bemoaned the way that Netanyahu and allies abandoned a controversial bill to proclaim Israel a ‘Jewish state.’ Many commentators in Israel were quick to ascribe more cynical motives to Lieberman, who had once harbored dreams of succeeding Netanyahu as prime minister, and Likud officials vented their fury with Lieberman. Continue reading Lieberman resignation rocks Israeli coalition talks
As the results started to trickle in early Wednesday morning (Jerusalem time), the world started to get a better sense of the verdict of Israeli voters in the country’s second general election in three years.
Exit polls that initially showed the two leading camps tied turned out to be wrong — the results showed that Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s center-right Likud (הַלִּכּוּד) won a bloc of 30 seats in the Knesset (הַכְּנֶסֶת), Israel’s unicameral parliament.
That’s in stark contrast to polls that showed that the Zionist Union (המחנה הציוני), a merger between Isaac Herzog‘s center-left Labor Party (מפלגת העבודה הישראלית) and a bloc of moderates led by former justice minister Tzipi Livni, would emerge as the largest party. It instead won just 24 seats.
So what do these election results tell us? Continue reading Israeli election results: eight things we know after Tuesday’s vote
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
With polls set to open within hours in the most competitive election in Israel since prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu returned to the premiership in 2009, both parties aiming to form Israel’s next government made their final cases to voters — and in doing so, provided election eve bombshells.
Netanyahu’s decision to denounce the two-state solution and former justice minister Tzipi Livni’s decision to renounce her claim to the premiership both, in their own ways, brought the Palestinian issue back to the forefront of voters’ minds. That follows a three-month election campaign during which Israeli-Palestinian relations, a matter of existential importance to both voting Israelis and non-voting Palestinians, figured less prominently than economic concerns, sniping between secular and ultraorthodox politicians, Iran’s nuclear energy program or bilateral relations with the United States. For all the controversy over Netanyahu’s speech to the US Congress two weeks ago, the most notable aspect of his address might be that he never once uttered the word ‘Palestine.’
Netanyahu denounces two-state solution
Netanyahu announced, obliquely by way of an interview with NRG, that no Palestinian state would come into existence so long as he remains prime minister, reversing his prior 2009 commitment to a two-state solution, a stand that many Netanyahu observers always believed was less than full-hearted:
“I think that anyone who moves to establish a Palestinian state and evacuate territory gives territory away to radical Islamist attacks against Israel,” Netanyahu said. “The left has buried its head in the sand time and after time and ignores this, but we are realistic and understand”…. During a visit to the East Jerusalem settlement of Har Homa earlier Monday, Netanyahu warned that if he were not elected, “Hamastan B.” would be established in Jerusalem. “If Tzipi [Livni] and Bougie [Isaac Herzog] form a government, Hamastan B will be established here.”
Netanyahu’s strategy is clear. By tying himself to a hard-line stand on Palestinian statehood, he hopes to appeal to a handful of voters on the right — settlers and other conservatives that might otherwise be inclined to support the secular nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu (
Livni clears way for Herzog to serve full term as PM
Meanwhile, Livni, Netanyahu’s former justice minister and, only a year ago, the Israeli government’s chief negotiator in the abandoned peace process with the Palestinians, delivered her own shocker today when she gave up her claim to the premiership. Continue reading Palestine comes to the fore on Israeli election eve
It’s still irresponsible chatter to suggest that Russian president Vladimir Putin’s nine-day absence from public view is anything more serious than the flu.
But as Julia Ioffe wrote Saturday in The Washington Post, even if Putin’s absence is, as very likely, caused by something as mundane as the influenza epidemic currently sweeping through Moscow, it is becoming a more serious event because of the highly personalized system of Russian government where everything has become so micromanaged by Putin and his close allies. The longer Putin’s absence, the greater the chances of an internal coup or putsch, perhaps by the internal security forces, the siloviki, upon whose support Putin rose to power in the 2000s:
You can see why some in Russia are panicking right now—or veiling their discomfort in humor. It certainly doesn’t help that Putin’s disappearance comes at a particularly nervous time for the country. It is at war in Ukraine, its economy is shuddering under sanctions and historically low oil prices, and the opposition leader, Boris Nemtsov, was recently gunned down steps from the Kremlin. There is a sense in Moscow that the wheels are coming off. To Moscow’s chattering class, Putin’s disappearance confirms that impression.
Meanwhile, on Tuesday, in national elections, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s center-right Likud (הַלִּכּוּד) is set to win fewer seats in Israel’s parliament, the Knesset (הכנסת) than the center-left Zionist Union (המחנה הציוני) of Labor Party leader Isaac Herzog and former justice minister Tzipi Livni. Though it’s too soon to write off a third consecutive mandate for Netanyahu, the March 17 vote is the toughest electoral fight for Netanyahu since he lost his first bid for reelection in 2001.
Even if Israeli president Reuven Rivlin, a former Likud speaker in the Knesset, convinces Likud and the Zionist Union to form a national unity coalition, polls show that Herzog, and not Netanyahu, would become prime minister. That would place deadening pressure on Netanyahu’s leadership of Likud, where capable replacements, such as former interior minister Gideon Sa’ar, are waiting in the wings.
Remarkably, that means that US president Barack Obama’s two most nettlesome rivals in international affairs could be sidelined in the course of the same week — or even the same day. Continue reading Obama’s top two foreign rivals could be vanquished in one week
In 31 years, Shas has joined the opposition just twice, including a stint between 2003 and 2006. It’s been out of government since 2013, not out of its unwillingness to work with Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who hopes to win a third consecutive mandate on March 17, but because of opposition from Yair Lapid, who joined Netanyahu’s government as finance minister.
In the current election, however, a recent split between the two men who have led Shas for the past quarter-century now holds massive consequences for whether Netanyahu will win a fresh mandate as prime minister. The split risks not only diluting the haredi vote in the upcoming elections, but could also complicate the already difficult arithmetic for any leader to achieve a governing majority in the Knesset (הכנסת), Israel’s 120-member unicameral parliament. Ironically, the split on the ultraorthodox right comes at the same time that Israel’s Arab parties have united into a single movement.
Aryeh Dery served as Shas’s leader in the 1990s and held several top positions, including minister of internal affairs. He was convicted of bribery in 2000, however, and ultimately served 22 months in prison. Eli Yishai replaced him as Shas leader and, for the next 13 years, followed Dery’s lead of bringing Shas, more often than not, into government. Yishai (pictured above, left, with Dery, right) served as deputy prime minister under each of Ariel Sharon, Ehud Olmert and Netanyahu.
Dery’s return to politics, however, caused a personal rift between the two leaders. Dery muscled his way back to the Shas leadership in 2013, which precipitated Yishai’s decision last December to form a new party to contest the 2015 elections, Yachad (יחד). The differences between Dery’s Shas and Yishai’s Yachad are subtle. Both parties appeal to the haredi right, and both continue to draw support primarily from Sephardic Jews.
Though Shas is widely and accurately described as a party of the haredi, the ultraorthodox Jews in Israel, it is also traditionally a party that appeals chiefly to Sephardic Jews, which hold just a slight majority among Israel’s Jewish population, though the Ashkenazi Jewish population, which has roots primarily in Eastern Europe, has grown, in large part to an influx of Russian Jews after the fall of the Soviet Union. Today, however, the Sephardic label applies not only to the Sephardic tradition that developed on the Iberian peninsula, but to the wider group that includes Maghrebi Jews from north Africa and Mizrahi Jews from the Middle East.
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In the current campaign, Dery has emphasized social and ethnic solidarity, with slogans as blatant as ‘Mizrahi votes Mizrahi.’ Nevertheless, Yachad still appeals to core Shas voters, and Yishai has capitalized on the impression that he is the more authentic standard-bearer of the late rabbi Ovadia Yosef, who served until his death in December 2013 as Shas’s spiritual guide. Videotapes emerged late last year of Yosef critizing Dery in 2008 in very harsh terms.
But Yachad is also targeting disappointed voters of Bayit Yehudi (הבית היהודי, ‘The Jewish Home’). In joining Netanyahu’s most recent government as economy minister, its leader Naftali Bennett (himself a former chief of staff to Netanyahu) was sure to disappoint some of his most conservative supporters. But Bennett often criticized Netanyahu in the last two years for not being aggressive enough in Israel’s offensive against Gaza, his Jewish Home party sits to the right of Netanyahu’s Likud (הַלִּכּוּד) on most issues, and Bennett has been a leading proponent for Jewish settlers in the West Bank. Polls predict that his party will maintain or even improve its 11-seat caucus in the Knesset.
Yachad is angling to the right of Bennett, however, and the second member on Yachad’s party list is Yoni Chetboun, a renegade MK who found himself too far right even for Bennett’s Jewish Home. Yishai hopes to become to Bennett what Bennett has become to Netanyahu — a more credible right-wing voice. This constant race rightward among the fragmented Israeli right is one of the chief reasons that Netanyahu is now struggling to hold the premiership, and it explains why his recent speech in Washington was aimed more toward right-wing voters in Israel than to moderates or even to US politicians.
While Yishai declared his support for Netanyahu’s premiership back in December, Dery has been more coy about his intentions. In a country where post-election coalition-building has become just as important as elections themselves, promises aren’t worth much after March 17. Both parties would clamor to join a broad-based unity government that includes both Likud and the center-left Zionist Union (המחנה הציוני). Perhaps the worst-case scenario for the religious parties is a split, whereby Dery ultimately backs Herzog and Yishai backs Netanyahu. That could dilute the once-formidable leverage that the Sephardic haredi once deployed through Shas. More importantly for international affairs, that could even make it impossible for either bloc to amass a majority.
It’s the newly merged force of Israel’s four Arab parties, the ‘Joint List’ (القائمة المشتركة, הרשימה המשותפת). In addition to residents of the Palestinian territories, which include 2.7 million in the West Bank and 1.8 million in the more beleaguered Gaza Strip, Israel is home to an additional 1.7 million Arab citizens, nearly 20% of Israel’s total population (and expected to rise to 25% shortly), who have full citizenship rights to participate in voting, though many Israeli Arabs have described the hardships of living in an officially Jewish state in the Middle East, surrounded by a handful of often hostile Arab neighbors.
Under the leadership of Ayman Odeh (pictured above), a 41-year-old attorney from Haifa, the Joint List is emerging with surprising momentum as the Israeli campaign ends. Odeh himself is the new leader of the leader of Hadash (الجبهة or חד”ש, ‘New’), a longstanding socialist Jewish-Arab unity party with roots in the Israeli Communist Party. Odeh fell short of representing Hadash in Israel’s 120-member, unilateral coalition, the Knesset (הכנסת), after running sixth on the party’s candidate list in 2013, but could lead the Joint List to 13 seats or more after the March 17 election.
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Odeh is attracting Arab voters in large numbers, and even a handful of Jewish voters, with his emphasis on leftist economic policies to address inequality and other social justice issues in Israel, stealing the thunder from political leaders like former communications minister Moshe Kahlon, who founded a new center-right party, Kulanu (כולנו, ‘All of Us’), and, until recently, finance minister Yair Lapid, who founded the centrist party Yesh Atid (יש עתיד, ‘There is a Future’).
With polls showing a tight race between prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s center-right Likud (הַלִּכּוּד) and the ‘Zionist Union’ between Isaac Herzog’s center-left Labor Party (מפלגת העבודה הישראלית) and former justice minister Tzipi Livni’s supporters, the Joint List is among the candidates vying for third place. That could make Odeh and the Israeli Arabs, for the first time in decades, a constituency with the power to make or break Israel’s next government.
If, as some commentators have argued, Israeli president Reuven Rivlin will call on Netanyahu and Herzog to form a unity government, that would also make Odeh’s coalition the official opposition in the world’s only Jewish state — an Arab coalition comprised of hardcore Islamists and longtime communists. That result might even legitimize Israeli democracy in the eyes of many who have become disillusioned with Israel’s decades-long occupation of the Palestinian territories. Continue reading Israeli Arabs unite with fresh voice for non-Jewish voters
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