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 après 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.
Thursday, May 19, 2016
Wednesday, May 6, 2015
Zionist Union Party leader Isaac Herzog called it "the weakest, most extortionist, most narrow government in Israeli history." Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid called the coalition agreement "a liquidation sale." Hard to argue with these characterizations.
By all accounts, the concessions given up by Prime Minister Netanyahu to the various coalition partners are excessive and wide-ranging. The coalition agreement rewards the ultra-religious parties with a veritable reversal of a full range of changes that had been instituted at Lapid's behest in the previous mandate. I have listed them already in previous blogs. But "highlights" include:
- Reversing the requirement that the ultra-religious be conscripted to the army, like other Israelis;
- Reversing the requirement that state funded religious schools teach math and science and other secular subjects;
- Reversing the cuts to yeshivas and restoring all funding to all ultra-religious programs to pre-2012 levels;
- Providing the ultra-religious with an effective "veto" over any religion-state issues;
- Installing UTJ Knesset members in some of the most important Knesset roles including Chair of the Knesset Finance Committee;
- Turning over all key Education ministry positions to the religious parties, including responsibility for secular education.
The "bright light" in the new government was supposed to be Moshe Kahlon, who had been elected to focus on economic issues and help make the country more liveable for the Israeli middle class. But his opening act in this capacity has been the delivery of a stamp of approval to a governmental arrangement that will take billions of sheqels and pour it into parochial religious programs. I would have to think that if another election were held today, Kahlon would lose at least half of his seats as a result of this display of a complete lack of judgment.
Perhaps surprisingly, Avigdor Lieberman has kept his rightist "Yisrael Beitenu" out of this unholy coalition. That may well herald an early dissolution of what is bound to be a very unpopular government.
One would have to think that many Kahlon and Likud supporters will be demanding answers to why their parties felt the need to deliver so many concessions to the ultra-religious to form this government. I have yet to hear any convincing answers, certainly not from Kahlon.
The big winners are bound to be Yair Lapid, Avigdor Lieberman and the Zionist Union party, all of whom will sit in opposition. Of the three, it is really only Lapid and Lieberman who Israelis could count on to stand up to ultra-religious demands. The Israeli Labour party, in the past, has made equally unpalatable concessions to the ultra-orthodox and had signaled a willingness to do so once again if that would have put them in power. Only Lapid truly stood up to these demands in the previous Knesset and Lieberman has taken a stand this time around.
The good news, if there is any at this time, is that this government is not likely to last. Netanyahu's coalition building decisions may well mean that his days as Israel's Prime Minister are limited. There is bound to be a backlash as the government begins to implement this Haredi agenda.
Certainly Conservative and Reform rabbis and their congregations, in Israel and abroad, are likely to begin reciting the appropriate prayer for the speedy demise of this governing coalition and its replacement with one that is more representative, more pluralistic, more transparent and more committed to the rule of law (secular law, that is). And that is not to mention anything about the prospect of peace negotiations, which are not even likely to make it to the back burner with this governmental configuration.
Looking forward to the next election already....
Monday, March 16, 2015
|Isaac Herzog and Tsipi Livni|
|Netanyahu and Bennett|
Under Israeli law, the last pre-election polls could only be published Friday March 13, 2015. But over the past few days, there has been a flurry of activity from all sides, jockeying for last minute position. Here are a few last-minute highlights of some of the really interesting things that are going on (in my view anyways).
1. Netanyahu is in Desperation Mode
Prime Minister Netanyahu is pulling out all the stops in a bid to retain his position. He attended a large rally on Saturday night in Tel-Aviv with Bayit Hayehudi leader Naftali Bennett. He has publicly appealed to his constituency by pledging that Bennett will be a key part of his government. He has attacked Herzog and Livni as "weak" and claimed that they will divide Jerusalem and create "Hamastan" in Jerusalem. In short, he has made every effort to appeal to his right wing base, seemingly ceding much of the centrist vote on issues involving the Palestinians. He has renounced any previous speeches in which he indicated that he would be willing to agree to a Palestinian State and he has wooed the right wing and the Israeli religious voters feverishly. At the same time, he has urged Moshe Kahlon (leader of the Kulanu party) to support him and he has pledged to provide economic assistance to the middle class despite the perception that he has a failed record in this regard. While Netanyahu's calculation is that the Likud voters will be frightened into bolstering his party at the last minute, there is some danger that this will backfire. There is a palpable sense of desperation. The momentum has been moving in the other direction and it is certainly unclear that these desperate speeches and statements will stem the tide.
2. The Zionist Camp is Feeling Confident
Indications are that the Zionist Camp will win a plurality of seats. However, it still may not be enough to enable the party to build a viable coalition and form a government. Nevertheless, the party is also making several last minute appeals, changes and pleas in an effort to shore up its support. Leader Isaac Herzog visited the Kotel and pledged his support for Jerusalem. He has attacked Lapid's Yesh Atid Party and urged centrist voters to support his party. Earlier today, he and co-leader Tsipi Livni announced that they would not go through with their plans to have a rotating Prime Minister's office and that Herzog would be the sole Prime Minister if the party wins. This was seemingly intended to enable the party more flexibility in coalition negotiations - perhaps even opening the door to a rotation with Likud (which may or may not involve Netanyahu).
3. Meretz is also Desperate
As I have written previously, the Meretz party, the party of left wing social justice, is flirting with elimination from the Knesset. Under new Israeli electoral law, a party must win 4 seats to be able to sit in the Knesset. That total has been increased to minimize the number of parties and limit the ability of extremist parties to win Knesset seats. Meretz is polling at 4 or 5 seats. Meretz has stepped up its campaigning with ads everywhere. It is appealing to voters by claiming that the Meretz party is needed for there to be any chance for Herzog to form a government. In fact, it has used a stylized "Merzog" graphic to bolster the connection, mixing its party name with Herzog. But many Meretz voters are moving to the Zionist Camp, hoping that this will finally be an opportunity for the left/centre to form a government. It could be a very close call for Meretz.
4. Shas and Yachad
As I discussed previously, the ultra-religious Shas party splintered over the course of this most recent Knesset sitting. Eli Yishai left the party and formed the Yachad party which is now polling at 4 or 5 seats. Shas is calling on its voters to "come home" to the legacy of the late Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, its former spiritual leader. Yishai is flailing around in an effort to reunite with Shas or find some other way to make it into the Knesset. It would be a huge boost for the Israeli centre if Yishai were to fall short since his 4 seats would be redistributed among the other parties, proportionately.
5. Centrist Struggle: Lapid or Kahlon?
In the last Knesset, Yair Lapid's party Yesh Atid had 19 seats. The party is now polling at 12. A new party, Kulanu, led by former Likud member Moshe Kahlon is polling at 8. A simplistic look at these numbers would suggest that these parties are fighting over the same group of voters - approximately 15-18% of the Israeli public who view themselves as true centrists. Lapid has edged slightly to the left, indicating that it is now highly unlikely that he would join a Netanyahu-led government (again). Kahlon has been wooed by Likud but has refused to commit to supporting Netanyahu. These two parties could be the real power brokers and could also wind up with surprising numbers. It is likely that the two parties combined will wind up in the range of 18-25 seats, which is certainly a force to be reckoned with.
It is extremely difficult to predict Israeli election results. Many Israelis continue to declare themselves to be "undecided" to pollsters - whether or not that is really true. Others are still deciding between one or two or even three parties. Some may not decide until they are in the polling booth. But what is a political column like this worth without making an effort? So here goes, based on recent polls, trends, discussions with others, gut instincts and perhaps, a complete lack of qualifications as an election predictor - here is what I am going with:
Zionist Camp: 27
Yesh Atid: 16
United Arab Parties: 13
Bayit Yehudi 13
Degel HaTorah 6
Yisrael Beitenu 5
If this were to occur, Herzog would have 30 days to try and form a government. He would be able to count on the support of Yesh Atid, Meretz and maybe Kahlon. That could get the party to 54. They would still need seats from the religious parties and/or Lieberman to be able to form a government. Alternatively, they would try to form a unity government agreement with Likud. I am having a hard time, based on these numbers, seeing how the Zionist Camp could actually form a government. I am almost forced to predict that we will see another election within a two year period.
On the other hand, if Netanyahu continued to fight over the initial 30 day period and Herzog could not form a government, Netanyahu would get a chance to try. He could count on Bayit Yehudi, Shas and Degel HaTorah. That would get him to 48 with these numbers. Add 5 for Lieberman. That is 53. He would still need Kahlon and Yesh Atid or at least Yesh Atid. At this point, it is highly unlikely that Yesh Atid will bolster a right-wing religious government, since that would involve unraveling all of the changes that Lapid has pushed for.
This all looks like quite a recipe for a political logjam.
Netanyahu is not about to go quietly. However, looking at all of these results and possibilities, the most likely of the unlikely scenarios is starting to look like a joint Zionist Camp-Likud government, supported by Lapid, Kahlon and Meretz. It would be quite a shock but there are Israeli precedents.
The alternative would be a Herzog-led government which includes two of the three - Shas, Degel HaTorah, and Lieberman - as well as Kahlon and Lapid. I'm not seeing it....
So that is the best I can do. Stay tuned. We should have a good sense by Wednesday morning as to how these numbers stack up with the official results.