Showing posts with label Israel politics. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Israel politics. Show all posts

Sunday, May 24, 2020

The Trial Begins: Netanyahu's Criminal Trial Officially Starts

It was a wild and crazy opening to a trial that will surely be one of the memorable events in the history of the State of Israel.  Prime Minister Netanyahu arrived today at the Jerusalem District Court for the official opening of his trial.  This was really only a date to read out the charges and set dates for the continuation of the trial.  But it was a polarizing and fascinating spectacle.

The Prime Minister arrived at the courtroom as part of a televised convoy of vehicles, all part of his security detail.  He then took to the steps of the courtroom and stood in front of a group of supporters including fellow cabinet ministers, members of his government and the other accused.  He gave a lengthy speech attacking the police, the prosecutor's office, the left and just about everyone else.  Given that his government has been in power for such a lengthy period of time, at least some of this vitriol had to have been directed at his own government.  After all, some of the people responsible for investigating him were his own appointees and designates.

Netanyahu argued that the three criminal cases that he is facing have been "sewn together" and add up to nothing.  He  spoke about pressure that the State used to obtain cooperation of State witnesses.  And he said "the people of Israel will judge him."  He went on about his electoral successes and the number of people who voted for him.  The TV stations  here broadcast the full speech - which went on for quite a while.  It was a call to the public to stand by him and provide unconditional support, no matter what might occur.

At the same time, there were busloads of Netanyahu supporters, from across the country, who had arrived to show their support for Netanyahu, "no matter what happens."  This may have been organized by Netanyahu's legal team but so far, there is no evidence of that.  The interviews with several of these witnesses were riveting and frightening.  "The "Kadosh Baruch Hu will protect him and ensure that justice is done," said several of those who were interviewed, using various other terms for the divine intervention that they are expecting.

Others attacked the court system, the prosecutor's office, the judges and the Israeli left.  Several of them played religious songs and danced in front of the courtroom as if they were at a wedding.  One 12 year-old girl was interviewed, standing next to her father, and said she had decided to come to the demonstration instead of her bat-mitzvah party.  She wanted to stand for "truth and justice," she said.  "They are harassing the Prime Minister," she continued, "they should just leave him alone...think about all of the great things he has done  for the country."  "I would rather be here standing for truth and justice than having a bat mitzvah party."  My only reaction to that was "wow."

There were also several protesters demonstrating against Bibi, but they didn't seem to get very much press coverage.

Ultimately, Netanyahu delayed taking a seat inside the courtroom until all of the press had left so that he could not be photographed sitting in the accused's dock.  And so it began.  As might be expected, Netanyahu's lawyers argued that he required an extensive time period to prepare and review the charges, well into 2021.  They had a new lawyer on the team and would need extra time to get up to speed. The prosecution argued that he has been aware of the charges and was provided with extensive evidence and materials quite some time ago.  They pushed for an early date for the continuation of the trial.  The three judges reserved and will announce a schedule later today or some time tomorrow.  

Earlier this week, several Israeli TV programs and news reporters conducted in-depth reviews of the three cases against Netanyahu.  They were able to do this based on the public release of transcripts of witness examinations, text messages, emails and evidence provided by Netanyahu himself.

The most serious set of charges involves the Bezek telephone company and its press subsidiary "Walla" which operates a Hebrew language on-line news service.  The prosecution alleges that Netanyahu provided extensive regulatory favours to Bezek which allowed them to earn millions of dollars over a period of two years.  In exchange, the prosecution alleges that the CEO of Bezek agreed to provide Netanyahu with favourable news coverage on Walla.  The prosecution has put forward a huge number of emails, text messages and other communications showing that Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, were sent articles in advance and given the opportunity to edit them and change them to make them more favourable to Bibi.  In some cases, Bibi and Sara were provided with advance copies of video interviews and allowed to splice them, delete sections and change the context of the interviews.  

Netanyahu's defence is that politicians always try to influence the media..  He argues that this is part of the game and can't be criminal.  His lawyers call this case an attack on the freedom of the press.  They claim that merely obtaining favourable press coverage cannot be the subject of a bribery case.  In fact, Netanyahu's legal team recruited world famous law professor Allan Dershowitz to come to Israel and make that argument at Netanyahu's preliminary argument last year.  Essentially, the argument was that even if Netanyahu provided something of value to Bezek (worth millions of dollars), he didn't get anything of value in exchange since "favourable press coverage" has no value.  Not surprisingly, the Israeli court dismissed this preliminary argument out of hand.  I imagine that Dershowitz's arguments in support of Trump would have also met the same fate if they were made before any panel of objective judges.  

Netanyahu did not speak about the other two criminal counts.  According to one count, he received hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of champagne and cigars from Israeli/American business people over a period of several years.  The gifts are well documented and not disputed.  In exchange, it is alleged that he provided them various favours, including, for example, assisting one to try and get President Obama involved in a business visa matter.  Here, Netanyahu's primary defence seems to be that "there is nothing wrong with getting some gifts from your friends..."  His lawyers have also said that if a good friend asks for a favour, of course you are going to help out.  They simply claim that there is no linkage between the two.

The third set of criminal charges also involve allegations of breach of public trust involving another news organization and an attempted deal to arrange favourable publicity.

Netanyahu has the right, as do all accused, to be considered innocent until and unless he is found guilty.  However, there is a great deal of damning evidence here and the legal defences that he is putting forward do not seem likely to assist him in getting out of this completely.

For that reason, Netanyahu has invested significant effort in trying to get legislation passed that would retroactively eliminate the charges and provide him with immunity.  However, under the current government coalition deal, has not been able to extract that concession.  If this current coalition falls apart and there is another election, before the trial is concluded, Netanyahu might still be able to use the political process to get himself out of legal trouble.  There is probably a reasonable bet on Netanyahu's part that this would be his best way of dealing with these issues.  After all, he came within 3 seats of being able to get those concessions after the most recent election and he has now eviscerated Gantz and his Blue and White Party.  It is quite possible that if a fourth election is called, Netanyahu may be able to cobble together a 61 seat majority "immunity coalition."

If that doesn't work, he may yet negotiate some sort of plea bargain deal, down the road.  His wife Sara negotiated a plea bargain deal last year which saw her agreeing to plead guilty and repay some of the money that she had fraudulently obtained from the state.  

If the case somehow makes its way all the way through a trial and through to a conclusion, it will be intense, highly contested, dramatic and unpredictable.  And throughout, Netanyahu is certain to continue using his out of court time to call on the Israeli public to accept only one conclusion to his legal problems, whatever the evidence might show and whatever the judges might otherwise decide.

Stay tuned, although  this trial is not likely to continue before the end of all of the Jewish holy days in late October, 2020 and it may not even start until months later.

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.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Israeli Election 2013: One Day to Go

Israeli Ballot Box
It is Monday morning here in Israel which means that there is only one day to go until Israel's national election.  The allegations and mud slinging have intensified as has the political activity.  However, after an expensive and hard fought campaign, it appears likely that the next Israeli government will be very similar to the incumbent leadership.

I have put together a few different thoughts about some aspects of the upcoming elections.

The Israeli Electoral System and the Calls for Reform
As I discussed in my blog on the Israeli elections Israeli Elections last week, Israel is a parliamentary democracy with a 120 seat legislative assembly (the "Knesset").  There are no ridings or electoral districts.  Instead, Israel uses a closed-list, proportional representation system.  Any party which obtains at least 2% of the popular vote wins seats in the Knesset.  The system is therefore very democratic since a wide range of voices are represented.  The downside, of course, is that small, extremist parties can make exorbitant demands as the cost of joining and supporting a coaltion government.  The largest Israeli parties, historically, Labour and Likud, have been wary of making changes to the system since they have themselves relied on the smaller parties to form majority governments.  Historically, this has meant tremendous power for religious parties, which have demanded key ministerial portfolios in exchange for joining coalition governments.  Even where there have been "unity" governments made of Knesset members from Labour and Likud, the unity governments have not been prepared to tamper with the system.  It seems to me that it would make eminent sense to raise the threshhold from 2% to 5%.  This would create a tilt towards the larger parties but it would also provide increased stability while still leaving Israel with a very vibrant democratic system.  Only Tsipi Livni's party, "The Movement" and Yair Lapid's party, "There is a Future", seem to be calling, seriously, for this type of change.  While Likud has also indicated that it would prefer a system that favours the larger parties (namely themselves), they have shown very little inclination over the course of their mandate to make any actual changes.  There is little reason to expect that this coming election will bring about any major change to the political system.

Some Election Quirks

There are some fascinating aspects to an Israeli election that I have grouped under the heading "election quirks." 

Surplus Vote Agreements
Israel has a system of "Surplus Vote Agreements."  This allows two parties to make an agreement whereby they can share any extra votes they have with one other party.  These agreements are declared and published in advance of the election.  After the election, the total number of electoral votes are collected and divided into 120.  This becomes the required number of votes that a party needs for each Knesset seat.  A party with a Surplus vote Agreement with another party can either give or take any extra votes to the party with whom it has made the advance deal.  These surplus votes therefore do not simply go back into the general pool of votes to be shared proportionately among the remaining other parties.  Almost all of the main parties that are expected to win seats have declared these agreements and announced which party they will pair up with -  Likud with Habayit Hayehudi (the Jewish Home), Labour with Yeish Atid (there is a Future), Hatenuah (the Movement) with Meretz - and so on.  This does not mean these parties have necessarily agreed to any kind of post-election coalition - only that they have agreed to share "surplus" votes with each other.

Restricted Advertising, Campaigning and Poll Result Circulation

Television advertising in Israeli is highly regulated for political parties during an election campaign.  A recent New York Times article looked at this issue in some detail.  Parties are limited to seven minutes air time each on each of the three different main national networks.  As well, they each get two minutes of airtime for each seat they hold in the Knesset.  As a result, the Israeli public finds itself with much less of a bombardment of negative ad campaigns than one might see in a U.S. or Canadian national election.  While there are certainly Facebook campaigns, text and email campaigns and slogan-touting billboards all over the country, there is a different feel to the type of campaigning than one might see elsewhere.

Israeli law also prohibits disseminating poll results in the final few days before an election campaign.  Further, political parties are barred from campaigning after 7 p.m. the day before the election.  Israeli also has in place various campaign financing rules.

While all of these rules represent restrictions on freedom of expression that might not pass constitutional muster in Canada or the U.S., these types of laws are seen as having the effect of levelling the playing field somewhat.  It is a welcome change to see a campaign that is not simply fought on the basis of repetitive 30-second negative campaign sound bites.

Election Day - A Statutory Holiday

Schools are all closed on Tuesday January 22, 2013, Election Day, in Israel.  As well, many businesses are closed and workers in many types of establishments are paid double time for working that day.  In Canada, election laws generally provide for a certain minimum number of consecutive hours that employees must off to vote.  While people should certainly be given enough time to vote, it is probably an exaggeration to make the whole day into a national holiday. 

However, voter turnout in Israeli elections has averaged between 70 and 75% of registered votes in the past 4 elections.  By way of contrast, in Canada, the voter turn out rates since 2000 have been between 60 and 65%, according to Elections Canada.  The rate has also been less than 60% in the United States over the past number of elections.  So perhaps an Israeli style Election Day holiday would help improve the voter turn-out rate in other countries even if it seems like expensive overkill?

Summary Comments

It does appear fairly clear that Prime Minister Netanyahu will be the Prime Minister and will form the next Israeli government.  However, this is not a sign, as some are claiming, that Israeli politics are shifting to the right.  Certainly the "Jewish Home" party - "Habayit Hayehudi" is anticipated to pick up a much larger number of seats than its predecessor party had in the previous election.  It could get as many as 14 to17 seats.  However, many of these seats may well come at the expense of the Likud-Yisrael Beitenu coaltion.  Likud and its current partner Yisrael Beitenu held 42 seats following the 2009 election.  Some polls are predicting that they will now only win 32-35 seats.  These seats might move over to Habayit Hayehudi but that will not necessarily have a significant impact on party policies.

After the last election, the Labour Party held 13 seats, Kadima 28 and Meretz 3 for a total of 44.  These left and left-centre seats are likely to be redistributed amoung Labour (15-17), HaTenuah (6-9), Yeish Atid (8-12), Meretz (3-6) and Kadimah (2-4).  The total could be 34-41 or it may even be as high as 44.  The left and left-centre block may win the same number of seats overall - even though it may be differently distributed.  The real issue will be whether some or most of this bloc has the ability to negotiate successfully with Prime Minister Netanyahu and enter a coalition government in exchange for some genuine concessions.  This will all depend on the relative strength of this bloc cumulatively as opposed to  the strength of the right wing and religious voting blocs.

The various party leaders have been jockeying for negotiating positions by staking out the concessions they will be seeking as terms of joining a coalition.  Some, like Labour leader Sheli Yacomovitch, have stated that they will not join a Netanyahu led coalition under any circumstances.  Others have expressed a willingness to join.  Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett has stated that he wants to be the third hand on the steering wheel while Prime Minister Netanyahu is driving...Understandably Prime Minister Netanyahu responded by noting that a car being driven by two drivers simultaneously could crash and flip over.  Yeish Atid leader Yair Lapid has suggested that he would join a Netanyahu-led coalition but only in exchange for meaningful policy concessions.

Suffice it to say that the weeks and even months following election day in Israel will be as interesting as the election itself as the various parties clamour to put together a stable and endurable coalition government that can lead Israel for the next four years, while maximizing the benefits that the members of the coalition governments will receive for themselves and their followers.