Wednesday, March 4, 2020
I think it is fair to say that Israel is in the midst of a constitutional crisis. The country is split down the middle between right and left and the two sides have not been able to compromise and form a government. Nothing from the most recent election (on Monday March 2, 2020) suggests that this is about to change.
Here are the current results (which are likely to be certified in the coming days):
Likud (Bibi's party): 36 seats (+4)
Blue and White (Led by Benny Gantz): 33 seats (No change)
Joint List (Arab party): 15 seats (+2)
Shas (Ultra-Orthodox Mizrahi Party) 9 seats (No change)
Yehadut HaTorah (Ultra-Orthodox Ashkenazi party: 7 seats (No change)
Yisrael Beitenu (Lieberman's party) (Right Secular): 7 seats (-1)
Avoda/Meretz/Gesher (The Left) 7 seats (-4)
Yamina (The Right) (Naftali Bennett) 6 seats (-1)
I have included in brackets the change for each party over the last election results from September 2019. Prime Minister Netanyahu ran with a "right bloc" which included Likud, Shas, Yehadut HaTorah and Yamina. His bloc wound up with 55 seats in September 2019 and has now increased to 58. However, a majority in the Israeli Knesset is 61 (out of 120). Without 61, a government cannot be formed since the "bloc" cannot control the Knesset.
Over the course of the past three elections, including the most recent one, Netanyahu has insisted that his "bloc" will stay together and not be broken up. In any coalition talks with other parties, he has maintained that any government will include all of these parties. The difficulty is that all of the remaining parties oppose significant parts of the agenda that these 4 parties are proffering. Blue and White, Yisrael Beitenu and, AMG are all looking to reduce the power of the ultra-religious, at least to some extent.
The bigger issue has been a key demand made by Netanyahu. As you may know, he is currently facing three separate, serious criminal indictments. His trial is due to start in about two weeks, though it may take a year or two until it is completed. His party has been insisting on two different laws (bills to be passed) as part of any coalition agreement. One law would grant him retroactive immunity from prosecution while holding office. Some forms of this law would allow him to be prosecuted after leaving office while others would immunize him outright. The other bill would ensure that the Supreme Court cannot strike down the first law - by allowing the Knesset to override any decision of the Supreme Court. Both of these bills are acceptable to Netanyahu's bloc partners. But neither bill is acceptable to any other party.
The main reason that a coalition agreement could not be reached after the past two elections was that no other parties were prepared to accede to Netanyahu's demands for retroactive immunity. He had to keep going with additional elections until he could get 61 supporters to pass these bills. It was literally life or death for him politically. Without immunity, he risks going to prison, if convicted.
On Monday night, after the election, as exit poll results were coming in, Netanyahu claimed that he had won an "enormous victory." His expectation was that he would be able to reach 61 seats, put together his right wing coalition and legislate away his criminal problems. For a while, that looked like it might happen. His supporters were seen dancing, singing songs of victory and celebrating wildly.
But as the real results dripped in slowly, the picture began to change. Netanyahu wound up with a bloc of only 58 seats, three short of a majority.
On Tuesday, he sent out all of his key advisors and former ministers to argue on TV and radio appearances that he had won the election, that the Israeli public had made a decision and that he should now be able to form the government. The problem is that this was premature and inaccurate. While he had won 3 more seats than the Blue and White party and that gave him a plurality, it was not enough to give him a majority. 58 Knesset members have been elected in support of Netanyahu and his bloc but 62 have been elected to oppose that bloc. Most people, though not everyone these days, agree that 62 is more than 58.
By Wednesday morning, the opposition parties - sometimes described as centre-left together with the Joint List, were proposing a law that would bar a leader under indictment from serving as Prime Minister. If they are able to pass this law, Netanyahu would be out of cards to play other than perhaps an appeal to the Israeli Supreme Court to override the law. (From a legal perspective, there is a reasonable argument that it is an improper law since it would be enacted after Bibi won the election). It is almost like fighting one retroactive proposal by enacting another one. Not the strategy I might have chosen, but the opposition seems to believe that this would be the best way to avoid a fourth election.
So Bibi, as he is affectionately called, took to the airwaves for a press conference. He held a press conference that was nationally televised. He went through the math as he sees it. He said that there were 58 votes for the "Israeli, Jewish, Zionist right." On the other hand, he argued that there were only 47 for the "Israeli, Jewish, Zionist left." (He included Lieberman). He noted that the Arab party had won 15 seats but he marked a big X through that number and said that they effectively did not count. (See photo above). Even though these seats represented 15 democratically, legally elected members of the Knesset.
He then said that "we won this election and we are not going to allow anyone to steal it from us."
Very strong words indeed. Especially coming from someone who has lost - 62-58.
With all of that having taken place, we are now left with trying to figure out what comes next. I have to say that I really have no idea.
Here are some options:
1. Netanyahu and the Likud could convince 3 or more Knesset members to "defect" from their parties and join him to allow him to form a 61+ seat majority. This seems quite unlikely right now. It would require some members of the Blue and White party or the AMG to join him. While there may be some Blue and White party members who are ideologically close to Bibi, I just don't see them moving over at this time.
2. Netanyahu could negotiate some kind of coalition with Blue and White. I can't imagine that they would give him the immunity he is seeking and this might involve a rotation of Prime Ministers. Seems unlikely right now but anything is possible.
3. A fourth election. Even though it makes no sense and seems unlikely to resolve anything, it may well be a possible outcome.
4. Netanyahu forced to resign as a result of a left-sponsored bill that bars him from being Prime Minister while under indictment. This would allow Likud and Blue and White to reach a coalition deal fairly quickly. It seems to me that this might happen after a fourth election but not necessarily now.
In the meantime, Israel has no real government, only a caretaker government with limited powers and a limited budget. Many government operations are underfunded and being neglected. The country needs a government but there is no obvious solution as to how that is about to occur. Especially given the political deadlock.
The next few weeks will be fascinating politics. We can only hope that sooner or later Israel will have a stable government. Unfortunately, it is hard to see how that will take place in the near future.
Friday, September 6, 2019
I figure that there are about 4 or 5 realistic possible outcomes and I will consider them and the implications of these outcomes.
1. A Likud (Netanyahu) Victory
At this point, with about 11 days to go until the election, I would have to think that this is the most likely outcome. The Likud party, led by Prime Minister Netanyahu, needs to assemble a coalition of 61 seats to have a majority in the Israeli Knesset and form the government. Following the previous election, Netanyahu was able to string together up to 60 but not quite enough to form a government. Once it became clear that he was unable to form the government, Israeli customary practice would have normally seen the President ask the next party in line (Blue and White) to try to form the government. But Netanyahu preempted this step and brought a bill to the Knesset to dissolve the Knesset and set another election date.
So there are now at least two different ways, perhaps even three that the Likud could form a government.
One possibility would be if the Likud and its coalition partners obtain 61 seats or more.
Current polling from a whole range of different Israeli polls estimates Likud at between 30 and 32 seats, a drop of 6-8 seats. The two ultra-religious parties, Shas and UTJ are estimated at 8 each, with no change. The Yamina party, which is a coalition of a number of right wing nationalist parties, replacing Bennett's previous party, and now led by Ayelet Shaked, is polling at between 8 and 10 seats. So add all of that up, at the high end and you come up with about 58 seats. If Likud were to pick up 3 more, by itself or if any of its coalition partners were to add seats, Likud could get to a 61 seat coalition without Lieberman.
A second possibility is a deal with Lieberman (Yisrael Beitenu). If the Likud is unable to put together a governing coalition of 61 seats without Lieberman's party, it will almost certainly try to negotiate a deal with Lieberman's party.
Following the last elections, Likud was unable to come up with a coalition deal that would have satisfied the ultra-religious parties and the secular nationalist Yisrael Beitenu party. Neither Lieberman nor the ultra-religious were willing to make sufficient compromises, particularly on the issue of drafting ultra-religious men to the army.
While it is true that Lieberman seems to have gained significant public support by demonstrating a willingness to stand up to the ultra-orthodox, his party otherwise shares many of Likud's political positions. His party is willing to support a retroactive immunity bill that would get Netanyahu out of his various legal troubles. This would also help other coalition partners who are under investigation. Lieberman is also willing to support the "attack on the Supreme Court" bill (my description) that would give the Knesset the power to override any decision of the Supreme Court by a simple majority. This is an important bill for Netanyahu since he knows that the retroactive immunity bill would probably be struck down otherwise as a violation of the principles of fundamental justice.
Lieberman's support for these bills would be life-saving for Netanyahu since it would end all of his legal problems. Lieberman is certainly not a pushover but Netanyahu desperately needs these pieces of legislation to avoid the possibility of winding up in jail. I think that there is strong likelihood that Netanyahu and Lieberman will negotiate some kind of deal if Likud cannot otherwise get to 61.
A third possibility for a Likud win is some other type of coalition without Lieberman. Suppose that Likud and his coalition partners wound up with 57-60 without Lieberman. They would need to find 1-4 additional supporters from elsewhere. One possibility is to convince a few right-leaning Blue and White party members to join a Likud coalition, perhaps in exchange for cabinet posts other other attractive offers. Or perhaps some Labor members or members of the Democratic Union might be willing to make a deal. I think that these are relatively unlikely scenarios. I find it hard to see that some Blue and White Knesset members or members of the other parties would agree to the retroactive immunity bill and the court bill to protect Netanyahu. And that seems to be the number one priority for Likud and Netanyahu. That being said, in Israel there are always surprises and there is a great deal of horse trading (to put it nicely). So I don't think that this possibility can be ruled out entirely.
2. Another Stalemate
This is probably the second most likely possibility after some type of Likud victory. If Lieberman holds steady and refuses to make a deal that will allow Netanyahu to continue to govern and if no other Knesset members from other parties are willing to defect and join Likud - Israel could see a third consecutive election. With the holidays and other timing issues, this would likely mean a January or February election. This could be a big problem for Netanyahu. If his criminal trial moves ahead and he has not been able to enact an immunity bill to make everything go away, he could be forced to step down at some point to defend against the charges. This could change the Israeli political landscape quite a bit. To me, it underscores the urgency of a deal for Netanyahu - with Lieberman or anyone else - at all costs (from Netanyahu's perspective).
3. A National Unity Government
Many people in Israel have discussed this option but I don't believe it is very likely at this point.
On the one hand, if Likud were to have the plurality of seats, Netanyahu would be looking to retain his role as Prime Minister and pass the two bills that his party has been pushing to protect himself. I find it hard to see how the Blue and White party could agree to a retroactive immunity bill or even the Supreme Court bill. Blue and White might be willing to agree to have Netanyahu continue to govern - without these pieces of legislation. In this case, he would face the possibility of having to resign at some point as the prosecution progressed. I don't think Netanyahu would agree to a deal without immunity.
If Blue and White were to win a plurality of seats, they could ask Likud to join a national unity government, with or without Netanyahu - with no immunity bill. Again, this seems quite unlikely to me since the Likud members have shown a willingness to continue to support Netanyahu irrespective of the challenges that he faces.
The landscape would only change if the Blue and White party came out ahead of Likud by 5-6 seats or more and Likud realized that it simply could not get to 61. In this scenario, Netanyahu would, at some point, be forced to resign and face charges while the rest of the Likud party made a deal with Blue and White. This seems highly unlikely to me for several reasons. For one, I don't think that Blue and and White is about to get such a big win at the polls. They don't really seem to have the momentum and don't seem likely to finish ahead of Likud by 5-8 seats. Anything is possible but I am not predicting that outcome.
I also think that it is unlikely that so many Likud members would suddenly turn on Netanyahu after so many years of benefiting from his leadership. And I believe that with so much at stake, Netanyahu will pull out all the stops to cut a deal with someone to get the immunity bill and stay in power if there is any possible way of doing so.
4. A Blue and White Win
While this is a theoretical possibility, I don't see how the numbers add up. With a coalition of Blue and White, Labor, the Democratic Union (formerly Meretz) and even Lieberman, the total would come to 50-55. I suppose that there is a chance that Blue and White could convince the ultra-religious parties to join a coalition - but that would put Blue and White into the same difficulty that Likud has faced - balancing Ultra-religious demands with those of Lieberman (and now the Democratic Union). This would really require some creative deal-making on the part of Ganz and the Blue and White party. It is possible that they could get the chance to try if none of the other possibilities reviewed above lead to a government. Overall, I see this as unlikely but not impossible.
These different possibilities are all based on a review of current projected polling numbers combined with my own gut sense of where things are headed. But election polling can be off quite dramatically and the numbers may be very different from those in the polls. Likud could wind up at 37-40 seats, supported by many Israelis who don't really want to tell pollsters that they are voting Likud. However, these seats would probably come from Yamina (or maybe Blue and White) so it is not clear that even with 38-40, Netanyahu would be able to get to a coalition of 61 without Lieberman.
Watching election results in Israel is very different from watching in Canada or the United States. The actual polling station reports don't seem to turn up on a regular ongoing basis in the same way. Instead, the media reports on "exit polling" numbers and uses those reports to predict the election outcome. But the real results are usually not determined until the next morning - or perhaps even a few days later. So whereas in Canada or the U.S., most elections are usually decided by 10 p.m. or 11 p.m., the latest, that is not the case in Israel. We will probably only have a decent sense of the actual numbers by 10 or 11 a.m. Israel time on September 18th, 2019 (3 a.m. on the east coast for those in North America who plan to stay up and wait for the news...).
Even once the actual numbers are known, that will only really mark the start of coalition talks which are almost guaranteed to take a month or two. So stay tuned for a wild and crazy ride. It is almost certain that Israelis and Jews around the world will find themselves fasting on Yom Kippur without knowing what kind of government Israel will have for the coming years. As for Netanyahu, he may find himself fasting while hoping that he can continue to blow his own Shofar and that any negative decrees (from above, from the Israeli public or from the Israeli courts) can be averted.
Wednesday, March 9, 2016
We have been enjoying some unseasonably warm weather in Israel while dealing with a spate of Palestinian terror attacks.
Yesterday, as U.S. Vice President Joe Biden was visiting Israel, Israelis fought back three different terrorist attacks in three different areas. One attack occurred in Petah Tikvah. The victim, Yonatan Azarihab, was stabbed several times in the shoulder and neck by a Palestinian attacker. Though seriously injured, Azarihab pulled the knife out of his shoulder and used the knife to fight off the attacker. The attacker, a 20 year old Palestinian, died of his wounds. Azarihab is being treated at an Israeli hospital.
In another attack in Jaffa, a 21 year old Palestinian man ran down a a beach promenade stabbing several people in his path. He injured twelve people and killed one. Six of the injured were hospitalized, at least one of whom is in critical condition. A local busker sprang to action by using his guitar to hit the attacker and slow him down before police arrived on the scene and shot the attacker. The attacker killed an American student, Taylor Force, a U.S. military veteran, who was visiting Israel. The Fatah website, which represents one of the strongest factions of the Palestinian authority, praised the attack as the work of a "martyr."
In a third attack, a Palestinian on a motorcycle opened fire on a police vehicle near the Damascus Gate in Jerusalem. One officer was killed in the attack and a second was seriously injured. Police eventually caught up to the terrorist and killed him.
The current wave of attacks has been ongoing since September 2015. Hundreds of Palestinians have attacked Israelis across Israel. Although many of the attacks have been knife attacks, there have also been shootings, car attacks (where the attacker purposely drives into a group of civilians) and other incidents. Many of the attackers have been killed by nearby bystanders, police forces or others arriving at the scene to fight off the attacks.
The attacks have generally not been condemned by the Palestinian leadership or even by Israeli Arab Knesset members. Many of the attacks have been celebrated and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas has praised several of the attackers as "Martyrs."
One has to wonder about the end game for the Palestinians. If they are of the view that the use of this type of violence will push Israel to make significant peace concessions, that would seem to be a mistaken assumption. If anything, the Israeli political landscape has been shifting to the right as a result of these attacks.
A Pew Research Center study released this week reported that close to 50% of Israelis would now support a policy of transferring Israeli Arabs out of Israel. To where? Well maybe that is a corollary of the Palestinian position that the Palestinian state as part of a "two-state solution" should be emptied of its Jews. If a "two-state solution" means that each people gets its own state, many interesting questions arise. If each state has a minority of the other state's people - and provides full rights for that minority (as Israel now does for the Palestinian population), then it seems doubtful that many Israelis would push too hard for the expulsion or transfer from Israel of the Palestinians to the nascent Palestinian state.
But if it is a negotiated condition of a two state solution that Israel uproot any Jewish communities in the territory earmarked for the new Palestinian state and provide the Palestinian state with territory completely free of any Jewish residents, it is understandable that many would view the corollary to be a logical extension of the same premise.
This is the position taken by Israeli Knesset Member Avigdor Lieberman of the "Yisrael Beitenu" party, which is currently not part of the governing coalition. Lieberman would argue that this is what President Obama has referred to as "land swaps" where Israel would trade areas within Israel that have primarily Arab populations for areas of the West Bank that have primarily Jewish populations.
Funny enough, the Palestinian Authority view is that Israel should empty the West Bank of Jews as part of a territorial compromise and agree to accept Palestinian refugees into Israel itself rather than their new proposed homeland. Obviously this makes no sense at all. The whole purpose of a "two-state solution" would be that the Palestinians could resolve, completely, the issue of refugees within the borders of their new state. Netanyahu and Lieberman have been criticized for taking this position as racist and intransigent. But it is neither to accept that a two state solution means two states for two peoples.
Some 50% of Israelis apparently reject the premise of a "transfer," according to the study. After all, Israeli Arabs comprise some 20% of Israel's population and are involved in all facets of Israeli life. It is probably also incorrect to interpret the poll result as suggesting that Israelis who claimed to support a transfer would want to deport Arab Israeli citizens, proactively, outside of some type of political deal that created two ethnic nation states with a negotiated population exchange mechanism.
But this latest round of violence has impacted Israeli opinion. As the number of terrorist incidents on civilians within Israel continues to increase, Israeli attitudes towards Palestinians, Israeli and non-Israeli, continue to change for the worse.
Perhaps Palestinian leader Abbas figures that this is the way to force Israel into a deal and to gain international support. But it seems to me that the current round of Palestinian violence has pushed things in the opposite direction.
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, May 4, 2015
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.
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.