Showing posts with label Avigdor Lieberman. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Avigdor Lieberman. Show all posts

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Lieberman is new Minister of Defence: Major Political Development in Israel

Wading into the waters of Israeli political analysis can be hazardous.  The unexpected sometimes becomes reality.  Other times, one can be lulled into believing that there is a period of relative tranquility, only to face a sudden political earthquake.

I provided a few different comments on the last Israeli election in this blog in April and May 2015.  They are listed in the Contents By Topic.  One of my columns dealt with the decision of Avigdor Lieberman and his "Yisrael Beitenu" Party ("Israel, Our Home"), at the time, to remain outside of the government coalition.  It appeared, at the time, that Lieberman was not prepared to concede on all issues relating to the tension between religion and state in Israel.  In particular, he was not willing to participate in a government that had just turned over an enormous amount of power to several ultra-religious parties.

After a year of playing a vocal, active role in the opposition, Lieberman has suddenly and dramatically agreed to join the current government will become the country's new Minister of Defence.

The events leading up to this announcement were political theatre at is best - riveting, Machiavellian, and, for some political players, tragic.

As you may have read, the leader of the Zionist Union, Yitzhak Herzog ("Bougie") was named in a corruption investigation in late March 2016.  Perhaps coincidentally and perhaps concurrently, he became involved in talks with Prime Minister Netanyahu to bring his Zionist Union group into the current governing coalition and form a "national unity" government.  These reports seemed very strange.

On the one hand, it is hard to fathom that Bougie would be able to extract any palatable concessions from Netanyahu, given the current governing coalition.  Either Bougie would have had to convince Netanyahu to abandon several of his current coalition partners to form an entirely new government - or Bougie would have had to agree to join the coalition with little in the way of political gains to show for it.

Over the past several weeks, news reports in Israel were bubbling with stories that Bougie and the Zionist Union were about to join the government.  In fact, a press conference was scheduled for yesterday morning, presumably to provide some type of announcement as to where things stood.

However, at the last minute (or, according to plan, depending on what one might believe...), Prime Minister Netanyahu met with opposition MK Avigdor Lieberman and offered him the post of Defence Minister.  Lieberman accepted and the talks between Netanyahu and Bougie promptly came to a conclusion.  Lieberman will now take over the post of Minister of Defence, displacing the highly qualified Moshe "Bogie" Ya'alon, who had formerly between the Chief of Staff of the IDF.

This was a complete and total humiliation for Bougie Herzog.  He put his party's credibility on the line, as well as his own, by investing a significant time negotiating with Netanyahu.  According to Herzog, he and Netanyahu had come to an agreement on just about every issue and were all set to proceed with a deal when the rug was suddenly pulled out from underneath and Netanyahu decided to take a different partner to the ball.  The clock hadn't even struck 12 O'clock and Bougie turned into a pumpkin.

Herzog held a press conference last night.  He spelled out what he maintained were a whole range of political gains that he had achieved in his negotiations with Netanyahu.  According to Herzog, Netanyahu had agreed to work towards a two-state solution, to hold a regional peace conference immediately, to freeze certain settlement construction, and to take several other steps on peace initiatives.  However, Herzog noted that Netanyahu would not put any of this in writing.  Moreover, Herzog devoted a significant part of his apr├Ęs press conference to attacking Labour's number two in command and former leader, Shelly Yacomovitch, accusing her of sabotaging his efforts.  He vowed to stay on as leader and "rip apart the government from the opposition."

For Netanyahu, this was shrewd, Machiavellian machination.  He left Herzog and the Zionist Union utterly defeated and stabilized his governing coalition by adding several more Knesset members.  Netanyahu paid a moderately high price.  He exchanged a stable, predictable, well qualified, former IDF Chief as Defence Minister for the highly unpredictable Lieberman, who can be a loose cannon.  However, after more than a year since the last election, he has now managed to complete the exchange of Yair Lapid's "Yesh Atid" party for a a group of ultra-religious parties and can proceed unfettered with a right wing political agenda.  Herzog has been outed as hopelessly naive, impotent, incompetent or all three. 

It is hard to imagine that Netanyahu actually agreed to all of the concessions that Herzog claims.  Netanyahu would have had to pull apart his coalition completely and would have had to agree to many items that are diametrically opposed to his party's platforms.  It seems much more likely that he signaled some level of flexibility without any specific commitments.  It also seems more likely that this was all a series of political steps taken by Netanyahu to weaken the opposition, strengthen his governing coalition and secure three more years of mandate for his government.  Whether or not this is all in Israel's "best interests" may really depend on one's political perspective and philosophy.

 I will admit that I am surprised that the current governing coalition lasted this long.  Hanging on by a thread with 61 seats (in a 120 seat Knesset), the government seemed destined to break apart at any time since the last election.  However, it held together and this coalition, or a close version of it, is now likely to hold power until 2019.

Leading up to yesterday's announcement, Yair Lapid and the Yesh Atid party were the big beneficiaries of these coalition talks.  Polls suggested that Lapid's party had nearly doubled in support since the last election and the Zionist Union was bleeding support at an astounding rate.  If an election were held today, according to some of these polls, Lapid may have had a shot at winning the election.

However, mid-mandate polls may not mean that much when an actual election is distant.  A government that was barely hanging on by a thread has now been bolstered and that is a big blow indeed for the opposition parties and for Israel's centre-left.

The international fall-out will also be interesting.  Egypt has already expressed grave disappointment at this latest turn of events and other countries have provided less than flattering assessments of this development.

Unfortunately, I am quite concerned that some very rocky times lie ahead for Israel and the region.  Hopefully, Lieberman will demonstrated an unexpectedly high level of competence, diplomacy, tact and forethought in the coming days, weeks and months ahead.








Monday, May 4, 2015

Lieberman: Hero or Opportunist? Latest Rumblings from Israel.

Avigdor Lieberman heads the "Yisrael Beitenu" ("Israel, Our Home") party in Israel.  He is a bit more of a complex politician than one might have thought.  On the one hand, he is viewed by some as a far right wing nationalist.  Certainly he has made some comments in the past about Israel's Arab population that can only be described as "racist."  He is unpredictable and will often say some things that many politicians would probably later regret.

At the same time, he can sometimes be far more practical than his right wing Israeli counterparts.  Lieberman, for example, has indicated that he is prepared to support a true "two-state solution" whereby one state would be a Palestinian state for Palestinians and the other state would be a Jewish state.  While some of his opponents call this a form of "ethnic cleansing," it is actually a far more logical solution than such epithets might suggest.  As part of any solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he argues, the Palestinians should be prepared to resolve any issue of Palestinian refugees by taking in as many Palestinians as would like to come - to their nascent state.  In this context, he also argues that it is logical to draw the borders of the two states in such a way that the large Jewish populations in Gush Etzion and other West Bank areas remain in Israel; whereas areas with overwhelmingly Palestinian populations, even if those areas are currently part of Israel, are to be ceded to the Palestinian state.  These proposals, he holds, would be most likely to ensure that there is a truly workable two state solution to the Palestinian conflict.  For many, this makes much more sense for Israel's long term security than Bennett's plan to annex the West Bank ("Judea and Samaria").  Then what?  Bennett and others on the right have no answer.  For the long run, Lieberman has suggested that Israel's Arabs who choose to continue to live in Israel, rather than the Palestinian state, should be prepared to serve in Israel's military or national service and should be entitled to full equality of opportunity. 

But getting back to Lieberman's current situation, he is a secular nationalist politician rather than a religious nationalist.  His constituency is in favour of easing the restrictions on conversions to Judaism, lessening the power of the religious authorities over the state (especially the ultra-religious) and reducing state funding of the ultra-Orthodox institutions.  Much of this would explain why Lieberman and his party were able to sit in a government with Lapid's Yesh Atid in the previous coalition, even though Lapid is viewed as much more of centrist.

But now, Prime Minister Netanyahu has reversed directions completely from the previous government that he led.  The first party that he signed up to join his coalition was United Torah Judaism.  I wrote about the concessions that Netanyahu made in my lost blog.  Certainly these concessions would be very hard to stomach for anyone with Lieberman's views about religion and state.  The concessions make it virtually impossible that Lapid's Yesh Atid party would even negotiate with this government, let alone join it.  But Lieberman was still negotiating.

Then today, Prime Minister Netanyahu announced another coalition agreement.  He had signed up the other ultra-religious party, led by convicted fraudster Aryeh Deri and was willing to provide that party with a fat range of concessions and ministerial portfolios.  Things get uglier and uglier by the day for those who endorse some level of shul-state separation or religious pluralism in Israel.

After the Shas announcement, Lieberman announced that his party would not join this government. This will leave Netanyahu with a razor-thin 61 seat government (out of 120 in the Knesset), once Netanyahu finalizes an arrangement with Bennett's "Bayit Yehudi" (Jewish Home) party.   

It is too early, in my view, to determine whether Lieberman is using this pressure as a negotiating tactic to wrangle some further concessions out of Netanyahu or whether he is taking a principled approach.  It is fair to say that over the years, Lieberman has not always been characterized as a man of principle.  We will probably have a better idea over the next few days.

If Lieberman stays out of the government, the big winners are bound to be Yair Lapid and Lieberman himself.  Many Israelis who voted for Likud or Moshe Kahlon's Kulanu party will be sorely disappointed to see that the biggest priority of their new government will be to restore a vast range of funding to various ultra-religious programs and to retract on the requirement that ultra-orthodox share the military burden of defending the state.  Many Israelis will find it hard to fathom that the solution for Israel's current financial situation is to take huge sums of money and pour it into ultra-religious programs, at the expense of universal health, education, infrastructure and other priorities.  This could mean a relatively short-lived government and a big boost for Lapid and Lieberman in the next election (at the expense of Likud and Kulanu seats).

On the other hand, if Lieberman simply uses this opportunity to extract further concessions for his party and himself and then joins a government which goes ahead with this ultra-religious program, he will undoubtedly alienate even more of his constituency (he had already fallen from 13 to 6 seats in the most recent election).

It should be interesting to follow.  I am inclined to suggest that many Israelis watching these events unfold will be much more likely to vote for Lapid in the next election.  This could create quite the pendulum swing in the religion-state relationship.  For Netanyahu to go ahead with such far reaching changes, while only holding a one seat majority, will be perilous for him and his party - as well as for Kahlon who will be seen as an accomplice to this shift towards the ultra-religious.   

Then again, all of that is an "optimistic" view of Israeli voters from a democratic, pluralistic view point.  If Israelis really do prefer to have the ultra-religious hold the balance of power....well...it becomes hard to imagine where we are headed.

Prime Minister Netanyahu is supposed to present the final governing coalition by May 7, 2015.  It will be fascinating to see what takes place in the late night, closed door meetings between now and then. 


  
   

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!!