Showing posts with label Aryeh Deri. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Aryeh Deri. Show all posts

Wednesday, January 18, 2023

Supreme Bombshell: Minister Aryeh Deri Removed from Office by Israeli Supreme Court

On this day, January 18, 2023, the Supreme Court of Israel has issued one of its most consequential decisions in the history of the State.  Released at 4 p.m. Israel time (9:00 a.m. EST), the Court decided by a vote of 10-1 that Rabbi Aryeh Deri, head of the Shas party, should be removed from his position as a Minister in the current government.  While my intro sounds excessively dramatic, I may have even understated the situation.  Israel is on the edge of a constitutional-judicial precipice and it is very difficult to predict what we may see next.

A Bit of Background

Before I get to the actual decision, I just want to cover a few points, as quickly as I can, some of which I may have addressed in my previous blog.  But they are important context.  

1.  As you know, Israel has held several consecutive elections, which have mostly resulted in "stalemates" without a clear victory by the right or the centre-left.

2.  In the most recent election, the Israeli right and far right - managed to win a total of 64 seats, including 11 seats for the ultra-orthodox Sephardi party, led by Rabbi Aryeh Machluf Deri.

3.  Deri was convicted in 1999 of several offences including bribery, corruption, and breach of trust. These are referred to as his "personal offences."  He was also convicted of "public offences" (essentially diverting public funds illegally to a charitable organization that he supported).  Deri was sentenced to 4 years in prison and served a sizeable chunk of that time.

4.  After being statutorily barred from office for 7 years under Israeli law, Deri returned to public life - and was eventually crowned, once again, as the head of the Shas party.  Under a previous Netanyahu government, Deri again became Minister of the Interior almost 14 years after his original conviction (the position he had held in the 1990s when he committed the earlier offences).

5. While Minister of Interior this time around, Deri was again investigated and charged with a whole series of offences including bribery, corruption, breach of trust and other offences.  

6.  In 2021, Deri agreed to a plea bargain where he would plead guilty to tax offences and the other charges would be dropped.  He appeared in Court and told the Court that he would be leaving public life.  In exchange, the Court issued a suspended 12-month sentence and ordered Deri to pay a significant fine.

7. In Israel, convicted offenders are barred from serving from the Knesset if the conviction carries the designation of "moral turpitude."  The Court did not officially designate Deri's latest offence one way or the other.  According to Israeli law, he should have then gone to the National Elections Committee for a determination as to whether this offence involved Moral Turpitude.  If it was categorized in that way, Deri would have been barred from serving as a Minister for 7 more years.

8.  Despite Deri's conviction, he ran in the most recent election as leader of the Shas party and his party won 11 seats (in a Knesset of 120).  He and his party were critical to Netanyahu's ability to form a majority coalition.  As part of the coalition negotiations and eventual agreement Netanyahu agreed to give Deri two Ministerial positions and also make him deputy Prime Minister.

9. Knowing that Deri faced a serious risk of being ruled unfit for office by the courts, Netanyahu's new coalition government introduced legislation, even before they were sworn in as a government, to change Israel's "Basic Law" and state that convicted offenders can be Ministers as long as they do not serve jail time.

10. The appointment of Deri to Ministerial positions was challenged in the Supreme Court of Israel (you can bring this type of question directly to the Supreme Court).  The new legislation was also challenged.  There were a whole range of applicants - including members of the opposition.

11.  The night before the hearing was held, the new Minister of Justice, Yariv Levin, announced a four point plan to reduce the power of the Supreme Court dramatically (which I discussed in my earlier blog).  Commentators viewed this as "pointing a loaded gun at the Supreme Court on the eve of the hearing."

12.  The Supreme Court hearing was broadcast live on TV and went on for about 6 hours.  The decision was reserved.

13. Last week, the President of the Supreme Court, Esther Chayut, took the unprecedented step of giving a prime time, detailed speech opposing the proposed reforms by the current government.  She warned that this was a major attack on the judiciary and would weaken Israeli democracy and judicial independence significantly.  While her speech suggested hinted at what the Supreme Court would ultimately decide in its pending decision, she did not directly address the case that she had just heard.

The Decision Itself

This is not an academic blog, even though I try, at times to edge into academic discussions.  It is also not a legal blog - even though, as you know, I have a Canadian law degree and some familiarity with Israeli law.  As a result, I cannot promise (or deliver) a complete legal analysis of the decision.  But I can make a few relevant comments.  I apologize again for the length of this blog but I realized that it would take longer to cover this than originally expected.

First of all, the decision is about 124 pages long and was released in Hebrew only initially.  I slogged my way through a chunk of it in Hebrew and then gave google translate a try - with a fair degree of success.  Although my Hebrew is quite good, I have to say  that it was much easier to go through the decision in English. 

As I have mentioned, the main take-away is that the Court disqualified Aryeh Deri as being fit to serve as a Minister.

There were 11 judges hearing the case (out of a total of 15 sitting judges).  As an aside, I wonder why they didn't simply have all 15 hear the case - but I'm not going to address that.

The Court heard three challenges to Deri's appointment that it was asked to adjudicate.  I have edited or paraphrased the essence of these three challenges:

1.  The first challenge was the new legal amendment to the Basic Law enacted by the incoming government.  As I have discussed previously, up until December 2022, the law in Israel was that a convicted criminal could not not serve as a Minister in the government if the conviction carried as designation of "moral turpitude." Generally, criminal sentences that involve prison time have been considered to be in that category.  Moreover, there was no distinction between suspended and non-suspended sentences.  

Normally, if a person is convicted of a crime, they can appeal to the National Elections Committee for a designation of whether or not the offence carries this designation.  If so, they could be barred from serving as a Minister in the Knesset for seven years.  As outlined above, Deri received a suspended sentence (one year plus fines) for Tax offences and all of the other charges against him were dropped.  He stated in court that he was leaving public office and it was on this basis that the plea bargain was accepted.  Shortly afterwards, he announced that he was back in business and re-entering public life.  He did not go to the elections committee to determine if his offence would be designated as a "moral turpitude" offence, since he did not want to be barred for seven years (which was a likely outcome). Instead he held a press conference to announce his self-proclaimed victory over a "rigged" justice system.

The law that the new government promulgated (as described above) to allow a convicted criminal to serve as a Minister as long as  the person did not serve jail time was challenged in the Court by a variety of groups.  From my review of the opinions of the 11 judges, it appears that only one or two of the judges were prepared to hold that the new law was void (ultra vires).  However, most of the judges held that they did not need to decide the issue.  

I think they felt that they would be overstepping if they were to overturn this law - and they did not need to do so anyways.

2.  The second challenge was based on an Israeli doctrine of, essentially, "patent (or extreme) unreasonableness."  Here the argument was, that in exercising his jurisdiction to appoint ministers, Prime Minister Netanyahu had to take into account appropriate legal considerations and failed to do so in the extreme.  The Court reviewed Deri's record of multiple convictions - noting that he has been convicted of three different sets of offences, in each case while serving in the government as a Minister.  It also noted that he mispresented himself to the Court to secure his plea bargain deal, that he repeatedly showed (by words and actions) disdain for the legal system and that this was an extreme case in which the failure to consider these issues violated principles of Israeli law.  Of the 11 judges writing opinions (and each judge wrote at least a few paragraphs - if not multiple pages), I counted 7 judges, including Chief Justice Chayut, who were prepared to disqualify Deri on this basis.  Some commentators have suggested that only five judges in total upheld this ground - so perhaps I will have to go back and read some of these opinions again.  Justice Chayut, the president of the Supreme Court, held that since she was making her ruling on this ground, she did not need to decide the other two grounds.  Several of the justices agreed with her.  

3.  The third challenge was a bit more difficult to understand.  Essentially, the argument was that Deri misled the Court when he entered into his plea bargain arrangement.  In a nutshell, the basis for the plea bargain was a mispresentation, wrongful manipulation of the Court and an exhibited disdain for the Israeli legal system, making him unfit for service as a Minister.  At least three of the judges ruled against Deri on this basis and some others were prepared to agree to this ground along with the ground of reasonableness.  This is an interesting ruling because, apparently, this type of decision would not be affected by a governmental decision to change the law of "patent unreasonableness."  In other words, one of the changes proposed by Justice Minister Levin is to strip the Israeli Supreme Court of the power to invoke "patent unreasonableness" as a ground for overturning governmental action.  This finding of "misrepresentation" is not reliant on a need to invoke "patent unreasonableness."  In fact, some of the judges using this ground to overturn Deri's appointment expressly stated that they would not agree to call the decision to appoint Deri patently unreasonable, even though they would overrule his appointment on other legal grounds.

Ultimately, no matter how you slice it, 10 of the 11 judges held that Deri should be ruled unfit for office and removed from his position as Minister.  It is unclear that the Knesset can easily overturn this decision, though it sounds like the current government will certainly try.

One judge, Justice Elron, dissented.  According to Justice Elron, the decision is premature and Deri should be forced to go the National Elections Committee and get a determination as to whether his offences are such that they would attract the "Moral Turpitude" designation.  Despite the spin from commentators on the Israeli right - Justice Elron did not rule that Deri was fit for office or dismiss the appeal outright.  This was primarily a procedural decision - even though Justice Elron did note that Prime Minister Netanyahu should be given much more latitude than the other judges of the Court are prepared to grant.

Commentators have also noted that Justice Elron was the one non-Ashkenazi judge in this group of 11 - and that Deri is of Moroccan origin. The Shas party has attempted to portray this as a racist ruling by 10 non-Sephardi judges - even though five of them are considered "conservative" or "very conservative" judges.  Many are trying to use this lone judge's dissent as a call to attack the court as racist, elite, prejudiced and unrepresentative of Israeli society.  Although it would certainly make sense to have greater Sephardi representation on the Israeli Supreme Court, I really don't buy the argument that these judges were all ruling against a serial criminal because of his ethnic origin.

Now What?

We are hearing about all kinds of possible steps that the current government might now take in response.

Here are a few possibilities.

1. The government may simply press ahead with its dramatic attempt to weaken the Supreme Court.  Levin's multi-part proposal is only the first step in his unrevealed plan. (As he has stated).  He has indicated that the government will start by passing a law allowing it to overturn any decision of the Supreme Court by a mere majority in the Knesset.  The government also plans to take away the  Supreme Court's ability to use "patent unreasonableness" as a grounds for overturning governmental decisions.  The government intends to change the way justices are appointed so that it can appoint more judges favourable to the political party that is in power.  After pressing ahead with these changes, the government may then overrule the Supreme Court's Deri decision and reinstate him.  This could then be appealed to the Supreme Court.  Good luck predicting what will then happen.  It would be a major jurisdictional war between the legislative and judicial branches of the state.

In the meantime, this type of legislative attack on the courts will almost certainly cause a significant increase in the number of Israelis taking to the streets to demonstrate against the government.  Estimates from last Saturday night's rallies were in the range of 80,000.  If the current government proceeds with plans to attack the Supreme Court, we may see demonstrations of hundreds of thousands of Israelis - and we may also soon see road blockages, general strikes and other types of civil disobedience.

2. Netanyahu might find some other creative compromise - such has appointing Deri's son (don't laugh - that is being proposed) to these Ministerial positions while keeping Deri around in a position that he is still legally able to hold.

3. Netanyahu could re-open the coalition talks and give the Shas party a range of new concessions to appease the party and Deri, though it is unclear what would be acceptable to Deri short of being cleared to serve.

I think it is very difficult, if not impossible, to predict, as of right now, which path Netanyahu will choose and what he will come up with.  His coalition partners seem determined to emasculate the Supreme Court.  Historically, Netanyahu has been supportive of a strong independent judiciary.  But since a weakened judiciary could also benefit Netanyahu (as he struggles to get out of his own criminal proceedings), Netanyahu may well agree to use the "nuclear option" and declare all out war on the Supreme Court by enacting all of Levin's proposed changes.

Unless there is a mediated solution of some sort, this "war" between the current government and the Supreme Court could go on for quite some time and may not be readily resolvable.  If the Supreme Court rejects some of the government's proposed amendments, as violating Israel's "Basic Law," we would be at an impasse.  

We are in for some very interesting times indeed. In my view, much of this situation stems from the fact that Netanyahu is currently entangled in his own criminal proceedings and willing to entertain any type of coalition arrangement if it might help him extricate himself from the possibility of conviction.  

Stay tuned - as there will undoubtedly be some wild developments in the coming days and weeks, if not months - or even years.  As I said at the outset, the impact of this decision on the Israeli judicial and legislative system is enormous, even immeasurable.  I hope that all of this will be resolved reasonably at some point, though I am very concerned about whether that is possible.


Saturday, January 7, 2023

Supreme Chaos in Israel?

Esther  Hayat, President  of Supreme Court 
Shavua Tov and happy 2023.  I am  writing this week about the legal situation in Israel.  We just finished one of  the most challenging weeks in Israeli legal history - and this promises to mark only the beginning.  I wanted to review some of the key events of the week - and add a bit of colour to the debate over these issues.  According to some commentators, we are seeing the start of a legal "revolution", a coup or a dictatorial take-over of the courts by the Israeli Knesset.  Others view the proposed changes as a shift of power from an unelected Supreme  Court to the Knesset - the elected body.  I intend to address this.

First, a bit of background.  As you may know from reading the news (or maybe from reading one of my blogs), the current government coalition includes the appointment of Aryeh Deri as a Minister.  Deri has been installed as the Minister of Health and the Minister of the Interior - as well as the Vice Prime Minister as part of the coalition agreements that fomed the current government.  He is the head of the Shas party, which won 11 seats in the recent elections.

Deri, as you may also recall, was convicted of bribery, corruption and breach of public trust in 1999.  According to Israeli law, he was then barred from serving as a Minister for 7 years.  After spending some  time in jail - and then doing whatever else he was doing for several years - he returned to politics as the leader of the Shas party and eventually became, once again, the Minister of the Interior as part of a Netanyahu government.  Deri was previously the Minister of the Interior at the time his original offences were committed.  He had now been "rehabilitated" and was able to return to the scene of the crime (in the very same position).

While serving as Minister of the Interior the second time, Deri came under investigation for a new series of offences.  This led to several criminal charges.  Ultimately, in 2021, Deri reached a plea bargain agreement at which he was convicted of tax fraud and given a suspended sentence along with a fine.  At his plea bargain hearing in court, Deri stated that he was leaving public life and willing to "accept his punishment."  The Court accepted the plea bargain arrangement and it was formalized.  All of the other criminal charges were dismissed.

The Court did not decide whether this conviction would bar Deri from serving as a Minister for 7 years - that  decision was left to a  future court. However, just days after his conviction, and his promise to stay  out of public  life, Deri announced that he was  returning to politics and would lead the Shas party in the next election.  He referred to his pledge in court to leave public life as a "misunderstanding."  Following Shas' successful campaign, Deri and his Shas party negotiated terms of the coalition agreement that included the appointment of Deri to two Ministerial positions and the position of Deputy Prime Minister.

Knowing that the appointment would likely be overturned by the Supreme Court, the new government also passed a new law (now known as the "Deri Law") stating that a criminal conviction without actual jail time does not bar a person from becoming a Minister.  That law passed three readings and became law in lightning fast time. Shortly afterwards, a petition was brought to the Supreme Court, challenging both the law and the appointment of Deri as a Minister.  The law was challenged on a number of grounds  including the "reasonableness" of the appointment itself, the  violation of Israel's basic laws (Israel's closest  thing to a constitution) and some other grounds.  The hearing was scheduled for, and took place on Thursday January 5, 2023.

The night before the hearing, the newly appointed Justice Minister, Yariv Levin, held a press conference at 8 p.m. to announce his intended legislative reforms to the Supreme Court and its power.   Levin set out a four point plan, which he referred to as "the first step" of his proposed changes.  His plan included the following:

1. Enacting an "override" clause that would allow the Knesset, with a simple majority, to override any decision of the Supreme Court that had nullified a law that had been passed.  Some supporters of the law pointed to the  Canadian Charter as an example of a  constitutional system that includes the power of the legislative body to override a judicial decision.  

2. Changing the appointment system to allow the ruling party to have a greater say in the appointment of judges.  Currently, judges are appointed by a judicial selection committee that includes representatives  from the Knesset, the Israeli  bar association and the judiciary.  Levin has proposed changing the numbers so that the politicians have the greatest say over who gets appointed to the country's highest bench.

3.  Cancelling the concept of "reasonableness" as a grounds for judicial review of a particular governmental decision. This has been a part of Israeli jurisprudence since the 1950s, though there is a reasonable argument that the use of "reasonableness" as a grounds for judicial review of governmental decisions was greatly expanded much later in Israel's history, without a legislative initiative to create a foundation for this jurisprudential expansion. Unlike Canada or the U.S. - or many other countries- Israel does not have a written constitution.  Judges do rely on the common law, including principles from other countries - and sometimes principles of Jewish law - to ground their decisions. 

4.   Ensuring that "legal advisors" appointed to advise the government are essentially government agents,  appointed by the particular government in power - rather than independent legal advisors.  Essentially, the idea here is that any decisions made about ongoing judicial issues - will be made in a way that is consistent with the government of the day's particular aims.

The timing of this press conference was particular troubling.  It has been described by some commentators as placing a "loaded gun" on the table, next to the Supreme Court, just before the hearing starts.  The Court was about to commence its hearing - that involved questions of reasonableness and judicial review - and here was Levin telling the Court that he was about to take away the Court's power to review decisions on either of these grounds.  When combined with Levin's tone, which I would describe as generally threatening, the overall picture was a major threat to the independence of the judiciary in Israel.  Quite frankly, the scene reminded me of a scene in one of the Batman movies, where the villain is announcing  his plan to take over the world.  

Of course that is an exaggeration (I hope).  I am not saying that none of these  proposed reforms have any legitimacy.  In some of the cases, there is definitely room for discussion and change.  For example, there is a reasonable argument that judges should not be appointing other judges.  After all, the judges might be inclined to appoint judges who agree with their viewpoints exclusively.

There is also quite a  bit of room for a discussion about the limits of "reasonableness" as a ground for challenging a government decision.  If the proposed  judicial review of an enacted law or a governmental action is grounded in the  violation of another law - or a the violation of a general principle of the common law, it may well be appropriate.  But if the Court has the power to determine that a governmental action is simply "not reasonable," that can  be highly problematic.

But even though there is plenty of room for discussion about judicial change, this government is  not proposing a dialogue.  Instead, it is quite clearly threatening to reduce the power of the Court drastically.  It is announcing a plan to limit the power of the Court to reign  in governmental action (legislative and  executive).  On the eve of a key Supreme Court hearing involving these very questions, the government is threatening to install its own judges, take away the power of the judges to judicially review decisions, give the government the  power to override  the decisions in any event - and appoint legal advisors who will simply help the  government to do whatever it wants.

When viewed as an overall package - in the context of  the appointment of a recently convicted criminal as a Minister in the government - and while the Prime Minister is struggling to extricate himself from his own criminal proceedings, this package of "reforms" and the timing of the announcement can only be viewed as a noxious proposal to disembowel the  Supreme Court  of Israel and enable the present government  with its 64-56 majority to pass just about any law it  chooses to promulgate.   

The hearing proceeded on Thursday before a panel of 11 Supreme Court judges.  As a Canadian lawyer (and someone who has passed all  of the Israeli bar exams but not been called to the bar in Israel), I find these types of proceedings incredibly interesting.  We heard all kinds of arguments, biting questions from the judges to counsel from all sides and blistering arguments.  Ultimately, the case was reserved and we await the decision of the  judges.  It is unclear when the decision will be released.  It could be  sometime this week, it could take many more weeks - it could even  be months, though I am sure the judges appreciate the urgency and importance  of the decision.

If the judges decide to rule  that Deri cannot serve as a Minister,  the current government  will almost certainly exercise the "nuclear  option."  They will pass the "override  law" and then pass a law to override the Court's decision.   The "override law" itself and possibly the subsequent piece  of legislation, would then make their way to the Supreme Court for a hearing.  This is the definition of a constitutional -legal crisis - as it would involve a tug of  war between the  legislative and judicial branches of government without any clear document that spells out how these disputes are to be resolved.  

On the  other hand, if the  Court  rules that  Deri can serve as  a Minister and it decides not to intervene, it will be, in my view, a sign that the Court has been browbeaten  into submission by Levin's hearing-  eve threats. The  Court may decide that if it refuses to get  involved, it will forestall, temporarily or  permanently, the further attacks on the Court's authority.  It is far from clear that this tactic will work.

In the Israel version of "Meet the Press," which was broadcast Saturday night after Shabbat, several panelists appeared to discuss  these matters.  Some of the strongest opponents of  Levin's proposals included former Chief Justice Aharon  Barak  and former Minister of  Finance Avigdor Lieberman.  Barak stated that these proposals were an  unquestionable attempt to weaken democracy in Israel and  called  for Israelis  to protest in every legal way possible.  He warned that if these changes were implemented, Israel's legal system would start to look  like the systems in Hungary, Turkey and, eventually, Russia.  Lieberman stated that  Netanyahu was behind all of  these changes, which were all intended to lay the groundwork for Netanyahu to end his own legal proceedings.

To his credit,  Levin himself showed up on TV  and  gave a spirited defence of his proposals, which he stated that he has been planning for more than 20 years.   He was happy to take on any questions.  The only questions he  dodged were about the "next steps" in his plan - which was especially troubling since he had stated earlier that these four initiatives were only his first step.

As I mentioned above, there are some reasonable arguments over some of the proposed changes and  Levin did a good  job in presenting those defences.  But, ultimately, the take-away, even  from Levin's well-rehearsed appearance, was that since the voters elected this government, it  should be able to do whatever it wants and not worry about  judicial scrutiny.   While Levin calls this  a "strengthening of democracy," it is really a recipe  for "tyranny  of the  majority"  and a demonstration of why democratic, rule of law countries require a constitution  and  a robust judicial system.  It is the courts that act as a backstop to uphold the rule of  law and to protect the rights of each individual in a society, including those who are most powerless.  Without any kind of judicial safeguards, it is frightening  to imagine  what  laws might be enacted, especially by a government that is beholden to several extremist parties with high ranking  ministerial positions.  Unfortunately, we may soon find out.

The new Netanyahu government is not only planning to set its sights on the judicial system.  Another proposal that has been floated, though not yet formally proposed, is to close  some of Israel's public broadcasters.  Many commentators  have argued that this is an effort to minimize governmental criticism and is a blatant attack on freedom of the  press.  As one of the Meet the Press  commentators pointed  out this evening, the government is starting with attacks on the press and the judiciary - which are generally the two major sources of criticism  and  accountability for any particular government.

For some, alarm bells are sounding everywhere  and  the fire has already started.  For others, there is still a "wait and see" component, with a hopefulness that  cooler heads will prevail.   The organization "Free Israel" held a major demonstration  in Tel-Aviv tonight (which several of my friends attended) and there is every reason  to believe that the number  and size of  demonstrations will  continue to increase as this government begins  to enact increasingly questionable laws.

I do believe that the Supreme Court's decision on the Deri law and the reaction to it will be a  major milestone.  If the Court overrides the Deri appointment, which many expect,  we are likely to see this relatively localized fire turn into a five-alarm blaze.   I am not sure what will happen next, though some Israelis are hoping that there are some more moderate Likud members who might start to think about putting the interests of the country above the  interest of keeping Netanyahu in power  at all  possible costs.







Tuesday, January 3, 2023

Israeli Government Update January 2023

The new Israeli government has been sworn in, just in time to mark the end of 2022 and the start of 2023.  As  widely reported and  discussed, this is the furthest right wing government that Israeli has ever had.  The government  includes 32 members of the right wing Likud party along with 14 members of the far right Religionist Zionist party, 11 Ultra Orthodox Shas party  members and 7 Ultra Orthodox United Torah Judaism representatives.  

The proposed agenda of this coalition, as set out  in the various coalition agreements between the Likud party and these coalition members, if enacted, will threaten the rule of law  in Israel, the independence of the judiciary, the rights of  minorities, gender equality, the religion-state status quo and it will also have a lasting  and potentially exposive impact on the Israeli-Arab conflict.

Rule of Law and Judicial Independence

Perhaps it is no surprise that a  religion-based governing coalition would take inspiration from Jewish prayer.  One part of the Amidah prayer (recited three times daily by observant  Jews)  is  the  attribute of God as one who "straightens the crooked."  ("zokef k'fufim").  So the first order of business for this government, even before it was officially installed, was to pass a Knesset law that would allow convicted criminals to serve as cabinet ministers.  This law was passed in the Knesset last week so that Aryeh Deri, the leader of the Shas party, can serve as  Minister of the Interior and Health Minister and then subsequently, Minister of Finance.  He will also be the Deputy Prime Minister.  

Deri was convicted of bribery, fraud and breach of trust in 1999 for offences committed while he was previously the Minister of the Interior.  He served his prison sentence and then rejoined Israeli politics years later, to eventually  take back his previous position as head of the Shas party.  Under Netanyahu's previous government, Deri again became Minister of the Interior.  In 2021, Deri pled guilty to tax fraud and was given a suspended sentence.  At his sentencing hearing, he stated that he would be leaving political life.  Nevertheless, he promptly reneged and ran, once again, as leader of the Shas party.  Under current Israeli law, he would be barred from serving as a Minister.  So as a term of the coalition agreement, the first order  of business for this government was to pass a law overriding the current  law and allowing convicted criminals to serve as ministers.  That law passed three readings last week and became law.  The crooked Deri has been legally "straightened," even though I would venture to say that is probably not the type of straightening envisioned in the prayer.

The law has been challenged  in the Supreme Court of Israel as violating the "Basic Law" of the State of Israel - which is the closest thing Israel  has to a constitution.  The hearing is scheduled to be held on Thursday January 5, 2023.  However, the Supreme Court will be making its decision under an ominous storm cloud.  The current  government has stated that if the Supreme Court invalidates the law, the government will enact a new law overriding the Supreme Court's power.  In short, Netanyahu's government has vowed to ensure that the convicted Deri can serve as a Minister, no matter what kind of legislative gymnastics are required.

This fight is not inconsequential.  Several other members of this government are either facing charges, being investigated or already have criminal records.  Included  among them, of course, is Netanyahu himself, who is eagerly awaiting a favourable disposition of his criminal hearing, presumably as an unpublicized term of the coalition agreements that he has signed.  Netanyahu is currently fighting charges of breach of trust, corruption and bribery.  A favourable outcome for Aryah Deri is likely to assist Netanyahu in several different  ways including setting the groundwork for a plea bargain deal that will not have a deleterious effect on Netanyahu's continued political life.

The newly appointed  Minister of Justice, Yariv  Levin, a staunch Netanyahu loyalist, has vowed to completely overhaul the justice system, though he has not set out everything he  intends to do.  However, he has made it clear that he  aims to weaken the power of the Israeli Supreme Court significantly and revamp  the appointment  process for  Supreme  Court justices to ensure that politically compatible judges are  appointed.  Levin  is charged with passing the  "override" bill that will allow the Knesset by a simple majority to override any decision of the Israeli Supreme Court.  A weakened and less independent judiciary will  unquestionably impact the rule of law in Israel - significantly and negatively.

Minority Rights and Religion-State Issues

The new government has  proposed several wide-ranging legislative changes to assist the Ultra-Orthodox and Orthodox communities.   Yeshivas that do not teach secular subjects will be guaranteed funding.  Yeshiva students will receive a  large increase in monthly stipends that they are paid by the state  while studying.  The exemption from military service for the ultra-Orthodox will be  strengthened.  The law will be changed to allow businesses in Israel to refuse to serve certain groups for religious reasons (something like what the U.S. Supreme Court has been doing with respect to the LGBTQ+ community).  

The first order of business for this group here yesterday was to roll back certain tax changes that the previous government had implemented including taxes on sugary sweet beverages like Coca Cola (to try to fight growing rates of diabetes in Israel) and on disposable paper and plastic products (to try and help the environment).  The ultra-Orthodox argued that both of these taxes affected their communities disproportionately and demanded that these taxes be rolled back.  Yesterday, the new Minister of Finance, Betzalel Smotrich announced that both of these taxes were ending immediately.

I should mention that the Speaker of the House is Israel's first openly gay speaker, Amir O'Hana.  This was no issue for most Likud Knesset members or members from the rest of the Knesset, other than the Likud's other coalition partners.  Members of the Shas, UTJ and RZ parties covered their faces or looked away while O'Hana was giving his first speech as speaker of the house.  He vowed to ensure that all Israelis are treated equally and fairly including those who are members of minority groups even in the face of this proposed discrimination law.  Some of his Ultra-Orthodox and nationalist Orthodox coalition members this week attacked O'Hana as unfit for the job and called him "sick" and "in need of help" because of his sexual orientation.  With friends like these, who needs enemies?  These are after all his coalition partners who got him elected to the speaker position.

O'Hana was hand-picked by Netanyahu to serve as speaker of the house.  Some Shas and UTJ members this week said that this was a poke in the eye by Netanyahu since these parties have called for several anti-LGBTQ+ steps to be taken by the government.  For example, they want to ban Pride parades, limit accesss to same-sex adoption and fertility treatments and allow discrimination in housing and other services agains the LGBTQ+ community.  It is unclear whether Netanyahu is serving notice that he will protect the LGBTQ+ community by appointing O'Hana and that his government will refuse to enact agreed upon coalition promises - or whether he intends to try and use O'Hana as a fig leave to cover up for other discriminatory steps that his government plans to take as agreed upon with the other parties.  We will have to wait and see.

The Ultra-Orthodox and Religious  Zionist parties  have also called for increasing power in the hands of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, undoing the changes of the previous government that partially demonopolized Kashrut rules across Israel, making it harder to convert to Judaism, limiting immigration, giving the Chief  Rabbi of the army much greater power over soldiers, barring non-Orthodox prayer services at the Kotel (Western Wall) or anywhere  near it - including  closing the "Israel area" where egalitarian prayer takes place and many, many other initiaves.  It is unclear how much of this agenda will actually get enacted - but the coalition has a majority and has some very motivated Knesset members.  It will be difficult for the opposition to stop them.  The only realistic reign on  some of this agenda will come from centrist and centre-right Likud party members themselves who may not be prepared to back some of the more extremist measures.

Arab-Israeli Issues

On the one hand, Netanyahu has vowed to make peace  with Saudi Arabia and to continue to expand the Abraham Accords, which would be beneficial for the entire region if it were to occur.  On the other hand, the coalition agreements that Netanyahu as entered into have led to the appointment of extremists such as Itamar  Ben-Gvir and  Betzalel Smotrich in positions that will now give them control over the police and parts of the military in the disputed territories and other parts of Israel.  Ben-Gvir is someone who was deemed unfit for national military service due to his extreme views.  He is now in a position to implement police and military policy.

Early today, Ben-Gvir visited the Temple Mount - the area above the Kotel - at the Al-Aqsa Mosque.  Ostensibly, he was visiting to mark the 10th of Tevet, a  Jewish fast day.  But Ben-Gvir and many of his supporters have stated that they intend to change the status quo, allow Jews to pray near the mosque regularly and, ultimately, rebuild the Temple on  that  site.

The Religious Zionist party also plans  to expropriate more Arab land, ease the regulations for when soldiers can  open fire on suspected threats, grant blanket  immunity to Israeli soldiers for actions while on duty and take several other steps that are sure to inflame the Arab -Israeli conflict.  These steps if taken would upend many of Israel's long standing policies that were implemented to ensure that Israeli soldiers always act within  carefully measured rules.  Once  again, it remains to be seen whether Netanyahu will be prepared to reign in these extremists - especially while Netanyahu's trial is still proceeding.

Overall, the early signs are that  this coalition will try to move quickly and implement as much of its agenda as it can, as hastily as  possible.  If the  coalition retains support from  all of its members, it can pass just about anything by a 64-56 margin.  I expect that we will see very large demonstrations in Israel very shortly within Israel - as well as more violent confrontations between Arabs and Jews across Israel and the  disputed territories.

One possible difficulty for the coalition may be internal.  There is a sense that Netanyahu held a "fire sale" and gave up too much to the coalition partners while retaining  less power than his party should have kept for itself. There are several disaffected, high ranking  Likud members who did not receive plum  cabinet posts and who have started to openly criticize Netanyahu for the first time in five years.  These include David Biton, David "Dudu" Amselem, and others.  Former Likud party member Dan  Meridor appeared on TV  on Saturday night and called this government that "greatest threat to democracy that Israel has ever  seen."

If four or five of these Likud members decide not to pass some  of this legislation, that could lead to a governmental crisis.  Ben-Gvir seems to believe that he can  increase his support and become  the Prime Minister one day - by outflanking the Likud on the far right.  He  will want  to head into the next election portraying  the Likud as a bunch  of  "leftists" who refused to enact his agenda.  

While that is a scary prospect that can't be ruled out, the Israeli public is not there, in my view.  Ben-Gvir's plan  could backfire.  If this  government collapses,  the extremists could  lose significant support.

That being said, I expect that they all realize this.  As big as their egos are, I think the right wing parties recognize this as being a golden opportunity and intend to maximize the opportunity.  Despite the anticipated  demonstrations, increased levels of violence, internal and external threats and worldwide  condemnation for some of the anticipated  moves, I would expect that this government is not about to collapse any time soon, though it may not make it all the way through  a full four-year term.

I have not gone through a comprehensive list  of all of the proposed legislative changes, all of the ministers or each of the coalition agreements.  Much of this information is readily available  on various sites if you wish to delve deeper into this.  But  I have picked  out some of the key proposals that  have received  widespread press coverage in Israel and other parts of the world and I have shared some of my concerns.

There are many people in Israel - and other parts of the world - who support much of this agenda.  According to some recent polls in Israel, somewhere close to 42%  of the Israeli public are happy with this government.  There is also support from ouside of Israel from some sectors.  Just  two days ago, someone emailed me an article by Alex Traiman of the Canadian Institute for Jewish Research, arguing that  this new government reflects the "will of the people," is not "anti-Democratic" and called this new government a "tremendous achievement."  I won't say which friend or family member forwarded the article to me.  But I guess we will have to wait and  see what happens and which pieces of legislation  the government actually implements.  That being said, in my view, the partial list set out above includes quite a number of dangerous, anti-democratic, steps  that are unlikely to be viewed by many as anything  "tremendous."  

As I mentioned at the outset, I think we will see significant challenges to the rule of law in Israel, initiatives that threaten minority rights, gender equality, Arab-Israeli relations and  a host of other initiatives that will have a very negative impact on Israel.  Hopefully many of these changes will be reversible.

Former Prime Minster Yair Lapid gave some closing remarks on his last day of his office.  He reviewed the achievements of his government in what was essentially a "State of  the Union" type address.  He closed by saying, "we are leaving you with a State that  it is in very good shape - please don't destroy it.  We  will be back soon."

Other Notes

New Year's Eve and New Year's Day came and went in Israel with little fanfare in most quarters.  Like  Christmas, New Year's Day is  not a holiday in Israel.  It was a normal workday with everything open and business as usual.  There were certainly New Year's parties across the country though there was no special TV  programming, national concerts or other official celebrations.  

As we enter 2023, I am still hoping that some of the sports teams I cheer for will come up big in 2023.  

Last night, as you might know, the Canadian junior ice hockey team won an incredible overtime game against Slovakia.  The overtime goal by Connor Bedard (projected to be the next ice hockey superstar) was an stunning piece of art.  Canada will play the United States on Wednesday night in what is sure to be another hard fought game - with the winner ending up in the finals on Thursday against Sweden or Czechia.  The games start at 1:30 a.m. here in Israel but I am happy that I stayed up to watch last night's contest.

I was also planning to watch the Buffalo Bills play last night (after the hockey game, of course) but as you may have heard, this game was stopped early in the first quarter due to the massive injury suffered by Bills cornerback Damar Hamlin, who went into cardiac arrest.  Hamlin was taken to the hospital and is said to be in critical condition.  Hopefully, he will recover from this though the nature of his injuries at this point is unclear.

Not sure what the NFL will do after taking the rare step of postponing a game due to a serious injury.  Perhaps the league is waiting and hoping for good news to be able to resume on some kind of positive note.  At some point, I would assume that the league will resume play though I think any decision will be affected by Hamlin's condition.

As I have written in other blogs,  Buffalo has one of the best football teams it has ever had and I have been super excited about watching them play.  Hopefully Hamlin, the league and the Bills themselves will overcome this injury and the Bills will wind up winning the Superbowl.  I am willing to give up some sleep when I am here to watch some of these games.  These games tend to start at 3:30 a.m. Israel time (if they are the evening games) and end early in the morning.  So I guess I am on a bit of a crazy schedule.

I think I will wrap things up for  now here - and wish everyone all the best in 2023 - best of health, success, peace, stability and wise decision making for everyone.  








Tuesday, April 27, 2021

Another Election Update: Complete Craziness Here - and Other News

With less than one week to go for Prime Minister Netanyahu to form a  government, things are getting completely crazy here politically.  Netanyahu's chances of forming a government seem to be slipping away.  But not without a major struggle.  Netanyahu is pulling out all the stops to try to retain power.

It seems like he has a string of increasingly radical moves lined up - right up until the last minute next week when he will either succeed in forming a government with his final moves (whatever they might be) or one of the other two alternatives will win out - either a new replacement government or a fifth consecutive election.

Last week, Netanyahu started to see that his chances of forming a 61 seat coalition were looking grim.  He is trying to pull together two far right wing parties - Yamina and the Religious Zionist party and mix those parties with two ultra-Orthodox parties - and then have that whole package supported by the 5 seats of an Islamic Fundamentalist Arab party.  The Religious Zionist party has balked at the idea and has held a number of press conferences at which they have spewed anti-Arab rhetoric  and stated that they will not enter a government that is supported in any way, shape or form by any of the  Arab  parties.  Meanwhile, the Arab party, Ra'am, has naturally called on Bibi to reign in the rhetoric of his racist cohorts if he is really hoping to get  Ra'am support.

So Bibi came up with a new plan.  He decided he would call for a two track election system with a separate election for the position of Prime Minister  Obviously, this is an attempt to create a U.S. style President with separate executive powers and to  circumvent  Israel's current system.  As any constitutional student would realize, it doesn't mesh at all with a Parliamentary democracy.  It is a different governing system.  So, essentially, Bibi's position is - "if I can't win - we have to change the system so that I can."  One would have thought that this would be dismissed out  of hand, especially since it was tried and failed in Israel in the past.  But since Bibi only needs 61 votes to  get a proposal like this passed, he is pushing it as hard as he can.

Some of the actual changes that have been proposed are even more ridiculous.  The "Prime Minister" could be elected with only 40% of the vote.  He would then instantly have all of the powers of a sitting Prime Minister rather than an interim one - even if he could not cobble together 61 seats.  Further, under Bibi's plan (as presented by Aryeh Deri, the former fraud convict and current leader of the Ultra-Religious Shas party), the winning Prime Minister would instantly get 12 additional seats in the Knesset as a bonus for winning the 40%.  Taking everything into account, this is essentially a plan that one might see presented by Putin or Erdogan.  The problem is that Bibi only needs a bare majority to pass the plan and the issue is whether he can pay off or horse trade with enough members to get this proposal through.  So far, the leader of Yamina, Naftali Bennett, has said he would not support it but the possibility of Bennett changing his mind cannot be ruled out.

Seeing that his "direct election" plan did  not seem to be working out, Bibi upped the stakes.  Earlier today, he proposed that a Bibi loyalist, Ofir Akunis, be named to be the Justice Minister, a position that has been sitting vacant since the government collapsed (leading to the election).  Contrary to Parliamentary and cabinet procedure, he did not provide advance notice of intention to put forward a candidate.  Contrary to the current coalition deal with the Blue and White party, which is in place until a government is formed, he presented a Likud candidate instead of a Blue and White candidate (as required by the coalition deal).  And contrary to the Supreme Court's stated guidelines, he did not recuse himself from being involved in the appointment of a Justice Minister while he is in the midst of an ongoing trial.  

The Attorney General noted that this was an illegal nomination, an illegal vote and an illegal procedure.  Bibi effectively stated that he didn't care and demanded that a vote be held.  The vote was a tie which meant  that he could not proceed.  In lightning speed, the matter arrived at the Supreme Court  of Israel by the evening and will be heard  in greater detail tomorrow and perhaps even shown on live TV.  The Supreme Court does not want to wade into political decisions but Bibi's actions, by all counts, are a clear attack on the rule of law.  Not that he or his party are strangers to this type of attack.  After the last election, one of Bibi's henchmen, Yuli Edelstein, locked up the Knesset to avoid a vote which would have replaced the speaker of the house.  Even then, the Supreme Court was reluctant to interfere.  Some commentators have suggested that this is all part of a plan by Bibi to get the Supreme Court to rule against him so that he can run a populist campaign against the Supreme Court in the next election.  Does that sound familiar to anyone across the ocean? *Late Addendum - added at 1 p.m.  Israel time on April 28, 2021 - Netanyahu has now agreed to back off and allow Blue and White to continue to hold the Justice Minister position - his announcement came just three hours before the Supreme Court was scheduled to being the hearing.

Given the manner in which Bibi has been escalating his tactics, it is hard to predict what he  might try between now and May  4, 2021.  This week, he offered  to allow either Gideon Saar (leader of the New Hope Party and one of the most virulent anti-Bibi Knesset members) or Naftali Bennett (leader of Yamina) to go first in a two-year coalition deal.  His condition is that he would stay in the  Prime Minister's house and be called the "alternate Prime Minister" while some else  "officially" fills the role.  We don't know what else he has requested as part of these offers but his demands are bound to be significant.  Neither Bennett nor Saar have rejected the proposals outright but even if Bennett were to agree, Netanyahu could still be short of the 61 that he needs.

So all in all, it is fair to say that things are extremely volatile, unpredictable and, definitely, new and unique, even for Israeli politics.  That being said, it seems likely that things will go in one of three directions by May 4th.  If Bibi can come up with the right mix of promises, threats, payoffs, carrots and sticks, he might still form a government by the deadline.  I don't think we can rule it out yet.  It seems that he will need to convince Gideon  Saar or some of his New Hope party members to bend and join Netanyahu.  That would cause Bennett to join as well and would create a government.  But Saar has sworn up and down, over and  over, that  he wouldn't join Bibi.  So it will take quite a lot.  I think this is still in the 40% range, perhaps now a bit less.

On the other hand, Bennett, Saar and Lapid are actively negotiating to try and form an alternate "unity government" made  up of parties across the political spectrum.   They have many challenges, which is inevitable when one tries to combine such a disparate range of political philosophies.  From the far left, egalitarian, anti-nationalist Meretz party to the far right, extremely nationalist, religious Yamina party, held together by centrist Lapid of the Yesh Atid party.  And  this coalition might only have 57 seats unless they can recruit an Arab party or an ultra religious party.  It looks like a tall order to get to 61.  I'm still not convinced that the chance of this group forming a government is higher than 30 to 35%.  

And if you do the math, that leaves us with a 25-30% chance of another election, at least according to this prognosticator.  But we should know by May 4th or  shortly thereafter.  If it is to be a fifth election, it may be in August or September.  Perhaps by then, a greater number of Israelis living abroad will be  able to travel to Israel to participate in the vote.  For the last election, ballot stations were actually set up in the  Ben Gurion airport so that Israelis could arrive at the airport and vote before heading  off to a  quarantine.

Covid Update

As you probably know, things have been opening up everywhere here based on the use of a vaccination certificate system.  Concert venues, inside and  outside, restaurants, malls, sports events - everything is almost back to normal, for those with Green Certificates, at least.  But is it just a lull?  We are hearing of significant challenges now coming from the "Indian Variant" which may be impervious to the Pfizer  vaccine.  If a variant arrives in Israel that can  beat the vaccine, we may wind up heading back to square one - after a period of ostensible normalcy.  So far, Israel is still pushing ahead with plans to allow for international tourism (for vaccinated tourists only of  course), a resumption of the Birthright  Program and an expansion of flights, outbound and incoming.  But we really can't  say how long this "golden period" will actually last.  Hopefully, in Israel and the rest of the world, the vaccine will help turn things around in a lasting way.

Heat Wave and Upcoming  Holidays

As you might have seen - we reached temperatures of more than 40C last  week - more than 100F and it was only April.  Fortunately, things have cooled off somewhat and the weather is actually quite  nice now.  People are arranging their Lag B'Omer bonfires for Thursday night and planning their all night study sessions for the holiday of Shavuot which is 17 days after Lag Ba'Omer.  We are picking out our best Blintz and Cheesecake recipes and figuring out how we will best observe the Chag.  We may have to visit a winery or two between now and then to find some nice White or Rose wines that could best accompany our  anticipated dairy bonanza.

Board  Games

I don't mention it that  often  in this  blog - but as many of you might know, I have a hobby of collecting, teaching and playing a wide range of board games.  One of my future projects (hopefully sooner rather than later) is to design one myself.  These are complex strategy games - "Euro games" as they are often  called that include game categories such as worker  placement, territory control, engine building, and economic decision making.  They are rarely winner  take  all games but are won by the player who has amassed the highest point total.   Given that I have been here for such a long stint, I have found a few reliable partners - who are quickly becoming equally addicted.  Recently we have managed to play three fantastic games - Viticulture (which is all about developing and  running your  own winery), Brass Birmingham (an economic  game  set  in 19th century England) and Barrage (a  worker placement/economic game in which players build dams and try to control water  flow and develop energy).  These are all terrific games - so if anyone is looking for something fun to do when spending extra time at home - these games will all give your brain quite a workout.  Israel has a Facebook group called "Unbored  with Board Games" which has more than 10,000 members - who trade tips about different games, buy and  sell used games and arrange meet ups with each other.  So if you thought  board game playing was now a dead or non-existent past time - I think these numbers strongly suggest otherwise.  Board game playing is especially common among Shabbat observant families since most of these games can be played on a Saturday afternoon without violating any of the rules of Shabbat.  

That's about it for  now - waiting for the political fireworks here in Israel over the next  week or  so and wishing everyone the best of health!

 









Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Israeli Elections 2013: Preview

With Israeli national elections approaching on January 22, 2013, I thought it was about time that I provided a bit of information and perspective on the coming elections.  It will be my first opportunity to vote in Israel, though I'm not writing this article as a partisan piece.  I thought I would look at trends and anticipated outcomes.

As many of you know, Israel is a parliamentary democracy with a 120 seat legislative assembly, the "Knesset."  Like in other similar systems (Canada, Britain, to name a couple), a party is required to cobble together a majority in order to govern.  A governing coalition requires more than 61 seats to hold the confidence of the Knesset.

The Knesset


The challenge in Israel, of course, is that each Israeli believes that he or she can and should run the country.  New political parties are constantly being formed, old ones disbanded and new coalitions arranged.  Things are very volatile, to put it mildly.

Following the last election in 2009, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu put together a very stable coalition (by Israeli historical standards).  The numbers ranged from 66 to 74 over the course of this term in office but the coalition was never really threatened.  The government was made up of a multi-party coalition which included the Likud party, led by Prime Minister Netanyahu, the Yisrael Beitenu party lead by Avigdor Lieberman (who has now been indicted), some religious and ultra-religious parties and the leftist Labour Party.  It is interesting to note that some of the most vociferous condemnation of the current government has come from the leader of the Labor Party, even though Labor was an integral part of the governing coaliton.


Prime Minister Netanyahu
For the current election, there have been some very interesting changes for some of the parties. While at this point, there seems to be little doubt that Prime Minister Netanyahu will be reelected, the big issue is what type of coalition he will put together and what policies that government will embrace.

The "Right Wing" Parties

The two major right wing or right centre parties are Likud and Yisrael Beitenu ("Israel, Our Home")Founded by former Prime Minister Menachem Begin in 1973, Likud has been one of the two dominant Israeli political parties for more than 30 years.  Its membership includes members with a range of view points from those who support a negotiated two-state peace solution with the Palestinians to those who favour annexation of much, if not all, of the disputed territories (Judea and Semaria or the West Bank).  On its own in the last election, Likud won 27 seats.

Avigdor Lieberman
Yisrael Beitenu is a party led by Avigdor Lieberman, who was serving as Israel's Foreign Minister and Deputy Prime Minister until December 2012 at which time he was charged with fraud and breach of trust.  Yisrael Beitenu won 15 seats in the last election.  While characterized as a right wing nationalist party, Yisrael Beitenu favours a two-state solution including territory swaps with the Palestinians.  Lieberman has called for the Israeli government to demand "loyalty" from its Arab citizens and has also called for a reduction in the power of Israel's religious authorities.

Likud and Yisrael Beitenu have now merged and are running as one party for the current elections.  Most recent polls estimate that they will win anywhere from 32 to 37 seats.  The combined total will almost certainly be lower than the 42 that these two parties won in the 2009 election.

One of the big surprises of the campaign to date has been the newly named party Habayit Hayehudi (the Jewish Home).  Its leader Naftali Bennett, a youthful and successful entrepreneur oversaw a merger of the Jewish Home and National Union parties and won more than 60% of the combined leadership race.  The party has an avowedly right wing platform, favouring annexation of the disputed territories, even though Bennett himself lives in the wonderful city of...Ra'anana.  Bennett has used a mixture of facebook advertising, carefully produced videos and his own energetic appeal to build growing support.  While many might characterize Bennett's views as extremist, current polls have estimated that Bennett may win between 13 and 18 seats in the Knesset.

Naftali Bennett
 One other "right wing" party, Otzma L'Yisrael ("Strength for Israel) could also win anywhere from 0 to 4 seats.  This was a group that splintered off from the newly merged Bennett party.

Overall, the "right wing" parties, which are not characterized as "religious" are projected to win anywhere from 45 to 59 seats.  This is quite a variance and will have a tremendous impact on the type of government that is formed.  If the combined numbers are closer to 45, the group will almost certainly be forced to combine with some of the centrist parties to form a fairly broad coalition.  If the group is close to, or even over 60, it could combine with some of the religious parties and produce a very stable, very right wing government, politically and even economically.

The Religious Parties

Shas is an ultra-religious party dedicated to furthering the interests of observant Sephardic and Mizrachi Jews.  It has formed governments with the right and the left over the past 20 years - and has been willing to bend on some of its principles, as long as there is lots of money available for its constituents.  Several Shas Knesset Members have been convicted of offences including fraud, forgery and bribery.   One of those convicted, well known member, Aryeh Deri is now the number two candidate on the Shas list and will almost certainly be elected in the coming elections.  Polling numbers for Shas have been quite consistent.  Estimates range from 9 to 12 seats, with most polls at 10 or 11.

Aryeh Deri

United Torah Judaism, another ultra-religious party, is estimated to win between 5 and 6 seats.

So the ultra-religious block is expected to have somewhere between 14 and 18 seats, which would position it well to join a government in exchange for all kinds of concessions.

Throughout Israel's history, left wing and right wing governments have been prepared to make major concessions to this religious block to bolster their governments.  Some of the resulting policies have included exemptions from the army for Yeshiva students, exclusive legal jurisdiction for the religious over personal status matters including weddings and funerals and control of many other aspects of Israeli life, ranging from limitations on public transportation on Shabbat to laws prohibiting the sale of Hametz (leavened bread) on Pesach.   Of course the flip side is that at least some of these laws enjoy fairly widespread public support, even among non-Orthodox Jews.


The Centrist Parties

There are currently three centrist parties that are expected to win seats in the coming election - Kadima, Yesh Atid and Hatnuah.

Formed in 2005 by moderate Likud members, Kadima reached a high point of 29 seats in the 2006 elections, with a policy platform emphasizing efforts to reach a peace deal with the Palestinians.   In the 2009 election, the party won 28 seats under the leadership of Tsipi Livni.  Rather than join a coalition with Prime Minister Netanyahu, Livni opted to remain in opposition.  In 2012, Livni lost a leadership race to Shaul Mofaz.  Following Israel's history of politicians founding new parties, Livni left Kadima and set up her own party, arrogantly named "Hatnuah" - "the Movement."  The party's campaign has featured some fairly bizarre advertising slogans.  Tsipi Livni herself has been viewed as ineffective as an opposition leader.  Nevertheless, it looks like many of the Kadima supporters have deserted Mofaz and flocked to Livni.  The party's platform has emphasized peace, social justice, environmental protection and religious pluralism.  Current estimates suggest that Livni's party may win between 7 and 10 seats.

Tzipi Livni
The other centrist party expected to do well is the party led by well known Israeli media personality Yair Lapid named Yesh Atid ("There is a future").  Lapid's party's platform has included an emphasis on education, religious pluralism, an end to exemptions from military service for the ultra-religious, and efforts to change the Israeli political system.  Lapid's party seems to be running at 9 to 11 seats.

If these two parties, which should be natural allies, combine for between 16 and 21 seats, they could be part of a government and have substantial power.  Lapid has already suggested that he would like to be part of a Likud led government if Likud wins the election while Livni has been more circumspect.
Yair Lapid
The number of seats won by the centre may be the most significant factor in determining what type of government Israel has.  If the centre attracts some Likud supporters and helps limit the cumulative right wing block to less than 50 seats, it will be very important for Likud to include the centre in the government.  If the centrist parties are less successful, Likud may be able to form a government without them, relying only on the religious parties.




The Left

Though the Labor Party was one of Israel's two strongest parties and has been the governing party throughout much of Israel's history, it seems fairly clear that this has been a party on the decline over the past several years.  Perhaps Israel's new economic realities, with a shift over time to more of a capitalist economy have been instrumental in creating this result.  Or perhaps there has been disenchantment over Labor's role in participating in a staunchly right wing Likud coalition.  In any event, under its current leader, Shelly Yacimovich, the party has emphasized social justice issues rather than national security and has tried to position itself as the party most willing to tackle issues of widespread Israeli middle class decline and increasingly high levels of poverty.  Predictions have varied for the Labor Party, but most seem to estimate 16 to 21 seats.     


Over to the left of the Labor Party is Meretz, a party that touts itself as "Israel's Left."  Emphasizing human rights (especially in the area of sexual orientation), social justice, separation of religion and state, dismantling of most Israeli settlements, and humanism, the party is expected to win 3 to 5 seats.

If Labor and Meretz do well in the coming elections, they could have as many as 25 or 26 seats.  This would either be a considerable opposition block - or it could elect to try to form a national unity government though that seems unlikely.    Even if the political left and centre were to combine, the ceiling would probably be in the range of 40 to 45 seats.  Given current Israeli political realities, it seems quite unlikely that the left wing parties will play a significant role in the next government.

The Arab Parties

Israel currently has three Arab or Arab-Socialist parties in the Knesset.  UAL-Ta'al, Balad and Hadash.  They currently have 10 seats between the three of them.  The expectation is that they will be in a similar range following the coming election.  It is unlikely that they will form part of the next government, though it is theoretically possible that these parties could bolster a left-centre coalition.  Given the expected number of seats, it appears that even if the left and the centre combined with the Arab parties, they would still have less than 61 seats.

Israeli MK Ahmed Tibi

Finally, this type of survey article would not be complete without mentioning at least some of the "novelty parties" that are not expected to win seats.

There is the "Green Leaf Party" - I will leave it to you to figure out what they stand for...

How could I not mention the "Kulanu Haverim" ("We are all friends") party, whose members include follows of Rabbi Nachman of Breslev?



And finally - the "Pirate Party" whose members advocate the "freedom to copy" and promote the lifestyle of the piracy sector.

This list is not complete - there are many other parties running, including, for the first time, an Arab Zionist party (El Amal Lat'gir), led by Bedouin politician Aatef Karinaoui.  But time limitations keep me from making this blog article more comprehensive.
Green Leaf...

I will see if I have time to add some additional information between now and the election date.  I will want to be sure to research all of the issues thoroughly to make an informed decision.

For now, a couple of things seem fairly clear to me.  Prime Minister Netanyahu will almost certainly be the next Prime Minister.  Labor and Meretz will almost certainly be in the opposition along with the Arab parties.  The real issue is whether Netanyahu will lead a broad right-centre or right-centre-religious coalition or whether it will be a much narrower right-religious government.  Stay tuned and if you are in Israel and you are eligible - make sure to vote!!