Showing posts with label Prime Minister Netanyahu. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Prime Minister Netanyahu. 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.







Monday, October 26, 2015

Comments about Israel: Recent Events and Issues Oct 2015

Although Israel has no shortage of difficult days of commemoration on its calendar, today's anniversary is particularly difficult.  It is the anniversary of the assassination of the late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin Z"l.  He was murdered by a Jewish religious extremist who maintained that Rabin must be killed to prevent Israel from reaching a peace deal with the Palestinians.  Twenty years have passed since  Rabin's murder.  Unfortunately, Israel is no closer to peace with the Palestinians than it was while he was alive.  If anything, the notion that there might be peace any time soon is one that, regrettably, seems shared by fewer and fewer Israelis these days.  I would imagine most Palestinians feel the same way.

As we commemorate this horrific and murderous act in Israel, I wanted to write about some of the things that have been going on here over the past several weeks.  I have not had the opportunity to write as frequently over the past few months.  This is certainly not for lack of material.  In fact, there have been so many incidents recently, that some bloggers and twitter users are releasing tweets and articles several times a day.

There is not necessarily a theme to connect the various incidents that I have picked out - but it is mixed bag of events and other items that I wanted to highlight.

1.  Terrorist Knife Attacks:

On September 30, 2015, Mahmoud Abbas, leader of the Palestinian Authority spoke at the U.N..  He had said he was going to drop a  "bombshell" prior to his speech.  While it remains unclear which bombshell was actually dropped, it appears that his intention was to kick off a new "intifadah" by raising the specter of an Israeli takeover of the Dome of the Rock - the Al Aqsa Mosque.  Abbas claimed that the mosque was under siege and that the Israeli government was plotting to take over the mosque and change the status quo.  As Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu confirmed at his speech to the UN days later, this was all completely false and fabricated.  Israel has always protected and supported the rights of Muslims to control, visit and worship at the mosque, just as it has done the same thing for Christians with respect to Christian holy sites in Jerusalem.

Nevertheless, since Abbas' incendiary address, there has been a wave of terrorist incidents across Israel. According to Israel's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, there have been (as of October 25, 2015), 43 stabbings, 4 shootings and 5 car rammings.  These attacks have killed 10 Israelis and injured 112, 12 of whom were very seriously injured.  The vast majority of the victims have been Israeli civilians.  Most of the attackers have been young Palestinian-Israelis, residents of East Jerusalem, primarily.  They have claimed that their attacks are motivated by their determination to "protect the mosque."

Many of the attacks have been against Israelis civilians, including children and senior citizens, at bus stops, street corners or other public places.  Two of the stabbing attacks were very close to home, taking place in Ra'anana. 

It is hard to imagine how anyone can draw a connection between the perceived danger to the political status of the mosque in Jerusalem and the act of attacking civilians across Israel.  It is also hard to understand why Abbas seems to believe that this type of terrorism will further the Palestinian cause.  If anything, these actions seem destined to cause Israelis to harden their resolve and move to the political right.  Abbas has refused to condemn the attacks and in several cases has described the attackers as martyrs.  Moreover, he has distorted some of the events and lied about others to further incite the Palestinian people.  Perhaps, he has been buoyed by the notoriously outrageous coverage of these incidents by some of the world media, notably the BBC and NBC news to name a couple.  Both organizations have distorted reports of incidents to suggest that Israeli soldiers and/or police were at fault in cases in which they were defending against knife wielding attackers.

2.  Killing the Perpetrators and Collateral Damage

These types of stabbing attacks against civilians have caused a high level of vigilance, tension and stress among many Israelis, as well as outright anger.  Certainly these are all the intended consequences.

With respect to the attackers, there has been a vigorous public debate about whether the attackers should be killed if at all possible or whether they should only be "neutralized."  Of course the Palestinian Authority has claimed that Palestinian attackers are being "executed" even while Abbas refuses to condemn the stabbing attacks in the first place.  Some international media organizations have gone along with these accusations.

There is little doubt, in my view, that Israeli civilians, police and military forces, must take all appropriate steps to defend against these attacks.  In many cases, that will certainly result in the death of the attackers and that is probably the most appropriate result.  I have no moral difficulty with the argument that it is completely justifiable to kill someone who is trying to stab you to death.

Nevertheless, some prominent Israeli rabbis, like Rabbi Stav, have warned against excessive force and reprisals.  Rabbi Stav argued that Israelis should not murder "neutralized terrorists" who no longer pose a threat.  He also argued that Israelis should refrain from taking any "reprisal actions," especially against those who had nothing to do with the attacks in the first place.  In both cases, Rabbi Stav has urged Israelis not to abandon the moral high ground by acting like "our enemies."  Other prominent rabbis have disagreed with Rabbi Stav and have argued that it may even be a moral imperative to "finish the job" and ensure that the attacker will not be able to harm anyone else.

Certainly this wave of terror attacks has created a great deal of anger and frustration in Israel. There have been some vigilante attacks and some attacks against completely innocent Arabs.  Moreover, in one tragic incident in Beers Sheva, an Eritrean refugee was beaten to death just after a terrorist attack.  Those who beat him to death wrongly believed that he had been involved in the attack.

There is no justification for attacking innocent people, whether at the time of the attacks (i.e. those who are wrongly associated with the attacks) or attacking other Arabs who had nothing to do with the attacks as a form of reprisal.  However, with respect to events that occur in the midst of an attack, it is hard to judge the actions of those who are fighting for their lives or fighting to protect the lives of others. While there may be an argument that we should not "execute" completely neutralized terrorists (after all, Israel does not even have capital punishment), there is no reason to think that police, soldiers and attack victims should try, in any way, to avoid harming these terrorists, even fatally, in defending against these attacks.  Even so, we have had many bizarre situations where the terrorists remain alive after the attacks and are treated in the same hospital as their Israeli victims.

3. Rescuing Syrian Refugees

With everything going on in Israel, you might have missed a story of rescue.  An Israeli yacht crew was boating off the coast of Greece last Sunday (October 18, 2015).  They suddenly saw some people in the water and sprang into action.  They rescued 12 Syrian and Iraqi refugees and took all appropriate steps to treat them and then bring them to Greek authorities.  The crew members were certain that none of these refugees would have survived if they had not been pulled out of the water by the Israeli rescuers.  Hundreds of refugees have drowned in these waters this year.  When the crew members told the rescued refugees that they were Jews from Israel, they say that they received nothing but thanks, hugs and gratitude.  I don't think I have heard Mahmoud Abbas speak about this incident but this is the real face of Israel.  Just as Israeli hospitals have treated hundreds (if not thousands) of injured Syrians near the Israeli-Syrian border, these Israeli boaters did not think twice about rescuing refugees, even those who were fleeing from an enemy country.


4.  Prime Minister Netanyahu's Invocation of the Holocaust

In a speech last week, Prime Minister Netanyahu suggested that Haj Amin Al Husseini, in the early 1940s, was the one to suggest to Hitler that the Nazis should build mass crematoria.  Netanyahu's speech has attracted a great deal of criticism and condemnation.  It appears to be the type of hyperbole and historical distortion that he routinely accuses Israel's enemies of employing.

That being said, I enjoyed this article by a University of Maryland Professor about the actual historical record:

Netanyahu, Husseini and the Historians

However, even if there is more accuracy to Netanyahu's comments that most critics would concede, there was  little to be gained in making such statements other than as a means of incitement.  Moreover, some of the comments, according to many historians, were thoroughly wrong.  It is a disservice to Israel for the Prime Minister to distort the Holocaust in this fashion, even while he might be understandably frustrated by the recent events taking place in Israel (at the behest of Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, who has used lies to foment the current crisis).

5. Putin, Russia, Hezbollah and Assad

As if there weren't enough things to worry about in our neck of the woods, Russian President Putin stated that he was going "all in" on Syria.  That has meant that he is sending Russian soldiers, pilots, tanks, planes and other army support to his besieged ally in Syria.

I couldn't help but think of the famous scene from Fiddler on the Roof in a discussion with some friends in Israel recently:

Is there a Jewish blessing for the President of Russia?  (In the movie, the Czar...)

Of course there is.  May the Lord bless Putin and keep him far away from us....

Well, he is a lot closer now then he was recently.  He has suggested that he will protect Assad loyalists - which can often include Hezbollah and their supporters.  Will he try to prevent Israel from halting military shipments sent from Syria to Hezbollah?  If so, how far will he go?  Will he shoot down Israeli planes (or try to do so?).  Will he lose some planes himself in these efforts?

Unfortunately, all three of Israel's neighbours to the north and the east seem to part of a huge powder keg.  The inferno is already burning in Syria but Lebanon and Jordan may soon be drawn in.  Israel will have no choice but to protect its national interests, however that might best be done.

6. Visiting Entertainers  The Real Artists and the Pretenders...

On a lighter note, I must salute those artists who have stood up to the international pressure and insisted on going ahead with peformances in Israel.  Last year, it was the Rolling Stones, Cyndi Lauper and others who came to perform before appreciative crowds.

Recently, Israeli welcomed two well known acts.  In the first show, Kanye West delivered a performance that was universally panned.  It was a short concert and, apparently, pre-taped.  In other words, mostly lip syncing.  Sure it is true that thousands of fans were only too happy to lay out lots of shekels to attend the spectacle.  But it doesn't sound like the performance delivered quite what the fans were expecting.  I wasn't there, so I can't say for sure.  (After all, for those who know me, you could probably imagine how unlikely it is that you would ever find me at a Kanye West concert...)

On the other hand, Bon Jovi performed not too long after Kanye West.  This concert received some really great reviews.  The band was apparently quite enthusiastic, entertaining and very much live.  It probably would have been fun, though I couldn't justify the cost.

Israel gets its share of concerts though there are many artists who refuse to perform here.  Pink Floyd leader Roger Waters has been a one-man BDS campaign in the music industry sending out threatening letters and issuing public statements wherever he can to ostracize Israel and try to convince fellow performers to boycott the country in its entirety.

Fortunately there are many other artists who have been willing to ignore him - or even better, artists who have been willing to stand up in support of Israel and to publicly declare that they will not give in to boycotts.

7. The Canadian Election and Israel 

I suppose that this type of update article would not be complete without some mention of the Canadian election.  As you know, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper lost the recent Canadian election quite decisively to Prime Minister Elect Justin Trudeau.  A detailed analysis of the election is well beyond the scope of this blog article.

However, it is worth mentioning that the outgoing Prime Minister was one of the best friends that Israel ever had on the international stage.  Some of the outgoing government's senior ministers were also extremely supportive.  One such minister is Jason Kenney who held different ministerial portfolios over the course of this government's mandate.

The Honourable Minister Kenney has been an extremely active and vocal supporter of Israel, a supporter of the Jewish people and a staunch ally of Jewish people, across the world, on a range of issues of Jewish interest.  He has spoken at numerous Holocaust commemoration events. He has spoken at events across the world, about the dangers of anti-Semitism, even before very unwelcoming crowds.  Minister Kenney has truly demonstrated that he cares about the Jewish people and we will miss having such a tremendous friend.

At the same time, we will  have to hope that the Liberals have some strong allies for us in their ranks as well.  Certainly, there will be some Jewish voices in the the new government, like Michael Levitt, the newly elected York Centre MP and Anthony Housefather, who was elected in Mount Royal.  But how the Liberal government deals with its Israel issues portfolio is still something that remains up in the air for now.  After all, Canada's Prime Minister has many other priorities if he is to fulfill the huge number of promises that he made over the course of the lengthy election campaign.

Although much of this is not necessarily connected, I thought you might enjoy a bit of a wide ranging update type blog.  As usual, feel free to join the discussion and add in some comments. 












Friday, July 10, 2015

Current Government: Religious Issues and Some Predictions

Chief Rabbs Yitzhak Yosef and David Lau
Does it look like Iran?  It's not.  It's Israel and here are a couple of Israel's major power brokers (under the current government) - the two chief Rabbis of Israel.

The rabbis and their supporters have had a busy week, filled with lots of newsworthy items.

Last Sunday, they were successful in rolling back a conversion initiative that was intended to make it easier for people to convert to Judaism in Israel.  This was rolled back at the behest of the Shas and Degel HaTorah parties which are major partners in the current governing coalition.  The rollback has widely been viewed as an effort to consolidate power over religious affairs in Israel back to the Ultra-Religious and away from the Zionist religious (i.e. the "modern Orthodox").

On Tuesday, a woman from Colorado, Linda Siegel Richman, was ordered to leave the Kotel (the "Western Wall) in Jerusalem because she was wearing a kippah (a skullcap or yarmulke).  The Western Wall ushers told her that she did not belong and asked her to leave the area.  She had come from the U.S. to study at the Conservative Yeshiva in Israel and was at the Kotel to pray and to place notes in the wall. The notes had been given to her by her students at a Denver school.  The incident attracted enormous public attention.  The next day, Western Wall Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovitch issued a half-hearted apology in which he noted that it was not clear that the incident had actually even occurred.  Rabbi Rabinovitch has, of course, made concerted efforts over the past few years to prevent women from having access to Torah scrolls at the Kotel, from praying out loud and from wearing tallithot.  So it is really no surprise that a woman wearing a kippah encountered such difficulties under his watch.

On Wednesday, the Israeli Minister for Religious Affairs, David Azoulai, (of the Shas party), lashed out at Reform Jews and stated that he did not even consider them to be Jews.  He had other choice comments for Reform and Conservative Jews that were along the same lines.  Prime Minister Netanyahu swiftly issued a condemnation of these remarks and called them "hurtful." Education Minster Naftali Bennett also condemned the remarks in no uncertain terms and stated that all Jews are Jews.  Bennett went on to say the home for all Jews, including Reform and Conservative, is in Israel.

Is all of this related?  Well, the current government includes 7 Shas members and 6 Degel HaTorah members as part of its 61 seat bloc, which gives the government the slimmest possible majority in the Knesset, facing 59 opposition Knesset members.  Prime Minister Netanyahu paid an enormous price to enlist these Ultra-Religious parties into the governing coalition.  Both parties were granted a range of powerful political portfolios as as significant policy and financial concessions. 

This is in marked contrast to the previous government.  After the 2013 Israeli elections, Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid had won 19 seats.  His party insisted that it would not join a government that would make so many concessions to to the Ultra-Religious parties.  Lapid held out and an Israeli government was formed without the Ultra-Religious parties - for the first time in quite a while.  As a result, the previous government began to make certain changes.  These included mandatory military enlistment for the Ultra-Orthodox, reducing government grants for non-working Yeshiva students, ensuring that secular subjects like math and science are mandatory for everyone and numerous other changes.  Many of these changes as well as other proposed changes that were in the pipeline were quite popular among secular and other non-ultra-Orthodox Israelis.

But when it came time to negotiate a coalition agreement this time around after the 2015 election, Prime Minister Netanyahu simply gave away everything.  He agree to roll back all of the changes that had been made or proposed in the last government and to go beyond that by providing additional monetary incentives for the Ultra-Orthodox to join the government.  The disappointing aspect of all of that is that Moshe Kahlon and his allegedly centrist Kulanu party simply agreed to all of these terms and conditions.  This was in marked contrast to Yair Lapid in 2013 who had retained some principles during the previous round of coalition building negotiations.

As the Ultra-Religious establishment increases its power during the current mandate, many Israelis are becoming more and more disaffected with this turn of events.  This will cause many Israeli voters to turn away from Kahlon and Netanyahu in the next election.  Who will benefit?  Bennett will be the winner among religious and more conservative voters and will take away some seats from Netanyahu and/or Kahlon on the right.  But the big winner is likely to be Lapid.  If he stays the course and continues to fight as an opposition member, Israelis will view him as one of the few principled politicians who is willing to stand up to the Ultra-Orthodox.

It is a fairly common viewpoint that the Labour party, Zionist Camp or other name that it might run under would be as willing as the Likud party to court the support of Shas and/or Degel HaTorah by making similar concessions in order to form a government.  Only Yair Lapid and, perhaps, Tsipi Livni, have shown that they would be willing to hold out against these demands.  It will be clear to Israeli voters that Kahlon will simply agree to anything in order to get a cabinet seat.

While there are many Israelis who simply do not care about many of these secular-religious issues or other issues of religious pluralism, more and more Israelis are starting to pay attention.  Many Israelis are looking for alternatives to Orthodox weddings, which currently have a monopoly in Israel.  Opening the door to civil marriage ceremonies could lead to widespread change and could also open the door to same sex marriages in Israel.  Easing the conversion laws could benefit a large number of Israelis including thousands of immigrants whose religious status as Jews has been called into question. Still other Israelis would like to see public transportation on Shabbat, demonopolization of Kashrut authority, or more liberal laws in other areas affecting personal status.

The more that the current government acts in a fashion that is viewed as extremist, the greater the resentment will be among centrist Israelis.  This may all lead to a large shift of voters from Kahlon and Netanyahu to Lapid and others.

The Shas and Degel HaTorah voters will not change.  Those parties will continue to attract similar numbers in any given election.  Their elected officials are doing a good job in advocating for policies that they support.

But the Israeli political landscape has a large number of undecided centrist voters who are mobile.  These voters have swung around over the past number of years, from the Kadima party, to Tsipi Livni and Yair Lapid and now to Moshe Kahlon and Kulanu.  Lapid and the Yesh Atid party make a strong case that the centrist voters should shift back to him and his party and that they are the only party that will stick to some principled positions on certain issues.

The current coalition is very tenuous.  It is hanging on by a thread and Prime Minister Netanyahu's government even lost its first legislative vote this week, although that vote was not a "non-confidence" vote.  We will probably see another election in Israel sooner rather than later.  And if the current trend continues, Lapid and his Yesh Atid party are likely to be the big winners.
       

 

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Big Win for Netanyahu: Some Post Election Thoughts

"Reports of my demise have been greatly exaggerated."

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu led his Likud party to a massive and surprising victory on Tuesday.  While pre-election polls had put the Likud in second place with a forecast of 20-21 seats, the party emerged with 30 seats, the largest number of any party and some 25% of Knesset seats.  Netanyahu will still need to add 31 more Knesset members to get to the magic number of 61to form a government.  However, that looks like it will be relatively easy for him this time around as compared to what he faced just after the 2013 elections.  He will have the support of Habayit Hayehudi ("Jewish Home" - Naftali Bennett's party) which was reduced to 8 seats from 13.  He will also have the support of Yisrael Beitenu ("Israel Our Home" - Avigdor Lieberman's party) which won 6 seats.  That brings him to 44.  He will then turn to the ultra-religious and add in Shas (8) and Degel HaTorah (6). With 58 Knesset members and needing only 3 more, he will most likely count on the Kulanu party, led by Moshe Kahlon with its 10 seats to put Likud at 68.  There is a possibility that Yesh Atid (11 seats) will also consider joining but that seems less likely, especially if the government includes Shas and Degel HaTorah.  Even without one of these two parties, the government may be too far to the right for the tastes of the 11 Yesh Atid (Lapid's party) members.

The Zionist coalition finished with 24 seats, 6 behind Likud.  The United Arab List finished with 14 to become the 3rd largest party in the Knesset.  Meretz hung on with 4 and Eli Yishai's splinter party Yachad, which had left Shas did not make it into the Knesset.

This is all not very good news for Israelis on the left or even those in the centre.  Effectively, Netanyahu will have accomplished his goal.  He will have exchanged the "left" constituents of his previous government - Tsipi Livni and Yair Lapid - for two ultra-religious parties (Shas and Degel HaTorah) and Moshe Kahlon's party.  Kahlon was a former Likud MK himself.  Not that Livni or Lapid were really "leftists" but in the Netanyahu government, they certainly were.


As the election campaign was drawing to a close, Netanyahu sought to shore up his right wing support by renouncing his past statements of support for a Palestinian state. Based on the anticipated constituent members of the government that will most likely be formed, it is hard to see how any negotiations will take place with the Palestinians anytime soon.

If the ultra-religious parties are back in the government, as expected, we can anticipate a rollback of some of the changes that Lapid sought to bring in.  A restoration of funding for Yeshivot and other ultra-religious interests.  A pullback on the effort to put the ultra-religious in the army.  Increased power over religious affairs in the state handed back to the ultra-orthodox.  

It seems to me that we can also anticipate a further deterioration in current U.S.-Israeli relations and EU-Israeli relations.  I'm reluctant to go on with predictions of other developments that we are likely to anticipate but they are daunting.

In looking at these results, we can size up the Israeli electorate as follows.  57 out of the 120 Knesset seats are right wing or religious parties.  21 more are centrists or right-centrists.  14 seats are in the Arab bloc.  That leaves 28 seats for the left.  The results clearly show that the Israeli electorate leans, at this point in time, heavily to the right.

There had been a sense of optimism in central Israel that the left and the centre would fare better.  Even the exit polls that were released at 10 p.m. in Israel suggested that the Likud would be tied with the Zionist Union at 28 for the lead.  But when the votes were actually counted and the results announced, Israelis had shown a clear preference to continue on with Prime Minister Netanyahu ("Bibi") as the Prime Minister.

Winners and Losers

Prime Minister Netanyahu was the big winner of the evening with 30 seats, rallying from a polling deficit, a barrage of attacks from the press and a big push by the left to try and remove him from office.  He scored a convincing victory.  If he serves out a full term, he will become Israel's longest serving Prime Minister.

Looking down the list, it is also reasonable to put Moshe Kahlon in the winners group, with his 11 seats.  His party will most likely join the government and will have significant power.  Other winners include Shas, which is also likely to join the government.  The Joint Arab List won a convincing 14 seats.  However, they will sit in opposition and have little impact on the government. Avigdor Lieberman held on to 6 seats and will likely hold a cabinet post. So, on balance, he can also be put in the winners category.

Almost all of the other parties can be put into the "losers" camp.  For Yesh Atid under Lapid, this election meant a reduction in seats from 19 to 11.  Lapid's party is likely to be sitting in the opposition this time around after holding a number of important cabinet posts in the most recent government.  It is hard to paint this as any kind of victory for Lapid.

The Zionist Camp won 24 seats.  While that is a respectable number, the party's goal was to form the government.  That will not happen.  This can only be described as a defeat for that party as well, despite the sugar coating by some of its leaders.

Meretz held on to its status with 4 seats but its leader promptly resigned, early this morning, taking the blame for the party's decline in numbers.  Eli Yishai's splinter party Yachad failed to make the cut off and will not sit in the Knesset.  The election can even be viewed as a defeat for Bennett's (Habayit Hayehudi) party which only won 8 seats.  However, Bennett will play a key role in the new government so it is more of a mixed result for his party.

The 2013 election brought a sense of optimism in some Israeli circles as a government was formed that included Tsipi Livni and Yair Lapid and left out the ultra religious parties. That government made some moves on economic and social issues but approached Palestinian issues through the Naftali Bennett lens.  Now, it is anticipated that the party's "left" will be Moshe Kahlon's party and the party will continue to approach Palestinian issues through a Naftali Bennett lens.  As well, the government will approach many other issues through an Ultra-Orthodox lens.

In the losers category, I suppose I will also have to include my personal election predictions.  I accurately predicted that Yishai would be out and that Meretz would make it in (barely).  My predictions for Yisrael Beitenu, the Arab list, Shas and Degel HaTorah, were all within one.  I was wildly off with the Likud predicting 21- which is 9 less than the 30 that they won.  I overestimated the Zionist Camp (27-24), Yesh Atid (16-11) and Bayit Yehudi (13-8).  Conversely, I underestimated Kahlon (7-10).  On the whole, it looks like a chunk of centrist votes went to Kahlon instead of Lapid - and a chunk of right wing votes went to Likud instead of Bayit Yehudi. 

Conclusion 

What can be concluded? The left and the centre are far from close to forming a government in Israel at the present time.  The electorate prefers a right wing government and has voted heavily in favour of putting one in place.

Israel is surrounded by hostile, unstable regimes.  The threat of war with Hezbollah on Israel's northern border looms large as does the possibility that the Syrian civil war will spill into a conflict that engages Israel.  Egypt is a powder keg and Israel is constantly on high alert at its southern border.  All three of these realities would be unlikely to change irrespective of the type of leadership that Israel had in place.

With respect to the Palestinians, many Israelis fear that the danger of a Hamas takeover in the West Bank (Judea and Samaria) would make a two state solution suicidal for Israel at the present time.  Together with all of this, pre-election opinion polls showed that Netanyahu was perceived as the best leader for Israel.  Zionist Camp leader Herzog did not project strength or confidence.  On the other hand, Netanyahu was perceived as a strong, forceful, qualified political and military leader.  For many Israelis, that is the type of leader Israel needs to face the unique range of existential threats that it must constantly address.

One can only up that the day will come when Israelis feel less threatened existentially and confident enough to try a different approach.  These elections clearly demonstrate that this is not yet the case.

I guess for now we will have to go with this line from our daily prayers:

עושה שלום במרומיו, הוא יעשה שלום עלינו ועל כל ישראל, ואמרו אמן





Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Israel Elections 2015 - Latest Trends

Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu
What to make of the upcoming elections in Israel which are scheduled for March 17, 2015?  According to the most recent polls, Israel's 20th Knesset may well look quite a bit like the current Knesset.  It is likely however that the religious parties will join the government, replacing Yesh Atid, in what would be a more right wing government than the current one.

However, there is a fair bit of time until the election, about 40 days.  Much can change as it often does in the swirling Mideastern winds of an Israeli election campaign.

Over the past week or two, there have been numerous stories in the press about the excesses of the Netanyahu family in the Prime Ministerial home.  One story involved allegations that Prime Minister Netanyahu's wife was pocketing a huge amount of money from refunded deposits on the return of water bottles.  Another story focused on excessive wine consumption in the Netanyahu quarters and a third story questioned a patio furniture purchase that the Netanyahus had recently made.  Listening to the Israeli news broadcasts, one might have thought that the reaction to this accumulation of allegations would be overwhelmingly negative.  But surprisingly, in polls that have come after this media barrage, Netanyahu has emerged, according to the polls with an even higher number of predicted seats than he had before the scandals broke.  The latest polls have put him at anywhere between 24 and 27 seats in the 120 seat Israeli Knesset, which would likely give him enough to have a plurality and have first dibs at forming a government.

Where there was some apparent momentum in the media for Isaac Herzog, leader of the Labour Party and Tsipi Livni (who together have joined forces to campaign as the "Zionist Camp"), the poll numbers do not seem to be reflecting the media enthusiasm.  The latest polls put the Zionist Camp at a similar range - 23 to 26 but the additional questions that pollsters have been asking suggest that the confidence in Herzog as a potential Prime Minister is lacking in the Israel public and that the Zionist Camp numbers may not wind up as high as the numbers that are currently being reported.

At election time, Israel usually winds up with a few new parties.  In this case there is a new centrist party, led by Moshe Kahlon.  The party is a centrist party, focusing on economic issues.  Does this sound familiar?  A look at the pools suggests that they are currently at a predicted eight seats, most of which were probably taken from Yesh Atid, Yair Lapid's party.

Of course many of these numbers could change quite a bit between now and election time.

So far, however, there seem to be few scenarios under which Herzog could become the Prime Minister.  Assuming he obtained 26-28 seats, how could he get to 61?  He could add in 13 seats from Yesh Atid (on a good day), 6 from Meretz and 9 from Kahlon.  So that would get him to 56.  And those are some very flattering and highly optimistic assumptions all around.  He would then need to find 5 or 6 more seats.  One option would be Lieberman's "Yisrael Beitenu" which would bring this coalition somewhat to the right.  Hard to imagine making a successful shiduch out of that arrangement.  Another option would be to add in the religious parties - Shas, United Torah Judaism and "Yachad" - a new Shas splinter group.  That could amount to 10 or even 15 seats but the cost would be the reversal of most of the gains that Israel achieved in the two years of governing without these parties in the Knesset.  It would be very unpalatable for Lapid - unless the Haredi parties greatly toned down their historic demands.  Of course another option is that the "Zionist Camp" could be supported by the three Arab parties - that have now united under one banner.  But how ironic would it be for the "Zionist Camp" to form a government that is held together by 12 Arab Israeli legislators?

On the other hand, if Prime Minister Netanyahu emerges with 25 to 27 seats, his path to a majority seems somewhat less difficult (at least ideologically).  He could add in Yisrael Biteinu with 6, the "Jewish Home" under Bennett with 12. That would put him at 45.  He would now have the possible options of a mixture of Shas/Yachad/UTJ (10-15), Kahlon (8/9), Yesh Atid (9-12), which could get him close to 70.  Even if Lapid chose not to join this unholy coalition, there would likely still be enough for Netanyahu to exceed 62 and form a government.  However, it would be a significantly more right wing government than the one that is currently in place.

A third option would be some sort of Labour-Likud coalition - which Israel has seen in the past.  Hard to imagine as things sit right now.  However, Prime Minister Netanyahu has certainly had his differences with most of his current coalition partners - ranging from Bennett to Lapid.  Perhaps a government with fewer partners would be more manageable?  Not that this would be a "Zionist Camp" fantasy - but it might be preferable, even for Herzog, to the alternative of a few years of a hard right Israeli government or a government that is dependent on the demands of the ultra religious parties.

It is somewhat unclear what Netanyahu's inclinations really would be with these different alternatives.  The easier route for him might be a government with 13-17 ultra-religious seats bolstering his core group.  But the cost would be quite high for Israeli secular society.  I'm really not sure that it is a cost that even Netanyahu is willing to pay, after having been able to see what can be accomplished in a government without the ultra religious parties.  He may have already made some type of deal with Shas (and certainly there have been rumours to that effect).  But until the election results are in and the deal is consummated, nothing is certain.

In my view, a right wing coalition with the various ultra-religious parties and Bennett's "Bayit Yehudi" will create many challenges for Israel, both domestically and internationally.  It would be a coalition that would continue to increase the gap between the rich and the poor in Israel and one that would reverse many of the changes that had been made to secular-religious issues in Israel.  In particular, it is a coalition that would spend much more money funding Yeshivas and new settlements and would halt the very modest trend towards increased religious pluralism in Israel.  And it is a coalition that could lead to the further isolation of Israel in many international circles by taking an even harder line in matters involving the Palestinians.  I find it hard to imagine that a majority of Israelis would view this as the best type of government but I guess that is for Israelis to decide at the polls. 

It should be a very interesting period in Israel as we watch the changing poll results come in and wait to see if any of the parties are able to create some momentum in an unforeseen direction over the course of this campaign.  I'm not betting on it.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Je Suis Yoav

Je ne suis pas Charlie.  Je suis Yoav.

Who is Yoav?  Yoav Hattab is one of the four French Jews murdered by terrorists at at the Hyper Cache market in Paris on Friday January 9, 2015.  Mr. Hattab Z"L was not the first French Jewish victim of terrorism in France.  Unfortunately, there have been a number of incidents including a 2012 attack on a Jewish school in Toulouse in which 4 people were killed, including three children.  If the only terrorist incident on Friday had been the attack on the Kosher supermarket, the item would probably not have garnered anywhere near the press coverage that this series of attacks has attracted.

With the murderous attack on Charlie Hebdo, the condemnations of Jihadist terrorism were near universal.  I have heard very few suggestions that we should investigate "root causes" or "deal with the underlying problem."  Of course, there will be some who will say that the press should not publish images of the prophet Mohammad or that the press should always take care to ensure that nothing printed offends Muslim sensibilities in any way. There are those who were not too concerned about the fatwa against Salman Rushdie.  But, fortunately, these voices are in the small minority.  Far more commentators and political leaders have spoken in favour of free speech and freedom of expression.

But with respect to the murderous attack on Hyper Cache, some of the responses tell a very different story.  For example, as reported by YNet News, BBC Reporter Tim Wilcox compared the hostage taking at the supermarket to Israel's treatment of the Palestinians.  Really Tim?  Seriously?  He later issued a mild apology.  CNN minimized its initial reports of the fact that a Jewish establishment was targeted.  Even so, it became apparent that the terrorist had clearly stated that his intention was to kill Jews.

When terrorist attacks on Jewish civilians occur, many quickly try to take a "balanced" approach and "condemn all forms of terrorism" in their response or speak about root causes.  But what are the root causes of the murder of a group of Jews?  How is it any less outrageous than Charlie Hebdo to see an attack in which Jewish worshipers are murdered while at prayer in a synagogue, because they are Jews?  Just because it takes place in Israel?  Or an attack on Jewish shoppers in a Kosher supermarket?  Atlantic magazine correspondent sent out this spot-on tweet on Friday:  "Selling kosher food is a provocative and vulgar act, sure to arouse the hostility of aggrieved extremists."

There is no way to link Israel's issues with the Palestinians to the murder of Jewish civilians, other than for the sickest of minds.  And by the way, Turkish Recep Erdogan does qualify in this category.  He apparently attacked Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for attending the French protests on Saturday and tried to draw a parallel between the Paris attacks and the Israeli war with Hamas terrorists in Gaza.  Even Hamas apparently issued a mild condemnation of the attack on Charlie Hebdo but was eerily silent, if not supportive of the murder of some Jewish Parisians.

When news of the attack at Hyper Cache emerged, French leader Francois Hollande initially called the attack "an appalling anti-Semitic attack."  Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper called these French attacks "barbaric."  But when Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu indicated his attention to attend the French rally, Hollande told him not to show up.  Defiantly, Prime Minister Netanyahu eventually decided to come anyways, leading Hollande to invite Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas to provide some "balance."  God forbid Hollande should politicize this situation.  After all, even though he can bring himself to say that this was an appalling anti-Semitic attack, he would not want to be seen suggesting that there is any comparison between this attack and the murder of Jewish worshipers in a Jerusalem Synagogue.  Or the countless other terrorist attacks that Israel faces on its civilians.  Or attacks on Jews in other parts of the world.

It is about time that France and other countries, worldwide, show the same type of indignation and determination with respect to attacks on Jews that they have shown with respect to Charlie Hebdo.  Terrorism must be universally condemned, whether it is an attack on the Twin Towers, an attack on Charlie Hebdo or an attack on a group of Jews, wherever in the world they might be.  They should recognize what the leaders of Israel have, unfortunately, understood for far too long.  That terrorist attacks carried out by ISIS, ISIL, Al Qaeda, Hamas the PLO and other terrorist organizations  are all in the some category.  All of it should be condemned vociferously.

There is nothing wrong with a button that says "Je Suis Charlie."  But an equal number of people ought to be wearing buttons that say "Je suis Yoav."  An attack on Jews because they are Jews is as egregious as an attack on free speech.  Or as an attack on any other fundamental aspect of a civil society.








Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Memorable Events in Israel 2013

New Year's Day is not a national holiday in Israel.  Although there are certainly many Israelis who celebrate New Year's Eve (known in Israel as the "Sylvester" holiday - after Pope Sylvester - the origin of New Year's commemorations), it is a normal work day for most Israelis.

Nevertheless, with the calendar changeover from 2013 to 2014, I thought I would review some of the major Israeli events of 2013.  I wound up writing about most of these events in one way or another during the year, but not everyone has the chance to read all of my blog posts.  (Some intentionally disregard them...).  So I thought you might enjoy this collection of key events, in no particular order.

1.  Israeli National Elections:

This has to be considered the biggest event of 2013.  Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was re-elected, though he formed a very different coalition.  A new government was created without the ultra-Orthodox parties, and with a huge number of voters turning to the centrist party, Yesh Atid.  For a detailed discussion of the Israeli elections, you can have a look at my election summary post here or some of my other blogs about the Israeli elections which are listed in the contents by topic page.  The coalition is still a work in progress with some very different views being represented within the same government.  Nevertheless, the election was a sea change in some ways for Israeli politics.

2.  Visitors to Israel: 

President Obama visited Israel for the first time as President in March 2013.  It was a short visit and nothing particularly substantial was accomplished.  Nevertheless, any time the President of the United States visits Israel, it is a newsworthy event.  There was a great TV ad put together by McDonald's in honour of the occasion.  Other visitors to Israel in 2013 included performing artists Rihanna, Jose Feliciano, the Pet Shop Boys and Alicia Keys.  Pink Floyd member Roger Waters certainly did not visit.  Instead, he spent his time trying to vilify Israel and dissuade other artists from visiting or performing here.  Fortunately, many artists of goodwill and other celebrities ignored his wrong headed and quite possibly anti-Semitic attacks.

3.  Mishpacha:  Celebrations and Losses:

Israeli President Shimon Peres celebrated his 90th birthday in style.  Celebrants in attendance included former President Bill Clinton, Barbara Streisand, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and many others.

Israel lost one of its great musicians, Arik Einstein.  Two well known Rabbis passed away: former Sephardi Chief Rabbi Ovadia Yosef died as did Rabbi David Hartman, founder of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem.  The American founder of the modern day Kabbalah movement (followed by Madonna and many other celebrities) Philip (Shraga) Berg passed away and was buried in Israel.  In December 2013, noted philanthropist Edgar Bronfman died.  He was a great friend of Israel and a noted advocate of Jewish causes worldwide.

4.  Charged, Released and Convicted:

There were many stories relating to criminal activity or accusations of criminal activity that made the news in 2013.  Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman was acquitted of all charges after facing a state led investigation and prosecution that spanned many years.  Israeli singer Eyal Golan was released without any charges after stories circulated about a sex scandal involving minors.  Former Israeli Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger was arrested on a slew of charges relating to fraud and bribery.  That process could take years until the outcome is determined.  Danny Dankner, the former CEO of one of Israel's largest banks, Bank HaPoalim was convicted on fraud and breach of trust allegations as part of a plea bargain.

5.  Another Large Scale Hi-Tech Sale:

Israeli security company Trusteer was sold to IBM for almost a billion dollars.  Trusteer manufactures software that is used for, among other things, securing bank account information.  This was yet another in a series of transactions where international business interests have been willing to pay top dollar for leading Israeli technology companies.

6.  Israeli Municipal Elections:

Israeli municipal elections were held on October 22, 2013.  While it is true that it was mostly a story of incumbents returning to office, there were some other stories of interest.  The election results in Bet Shemesh have been mired in scandal, with an Israeli Court recently ordering a new election due to evidence of widespread voter fraud.  In Ra'anana, a former Mayor returned to power with a landslide victory over the incumbent.  For a more detailed look at Israel's municipal elections, you can have a look at my article of October 24, 2013.

7.  The Kotel and Egalitarianism:

A Jerusalem District Court released a landmark decision in April 2013 (State of Israel v. Lesley Sachs).  According to this decision, there is no prohibition on women being able to pray in the women's section of the Kotel, wearing Tallitoth and Tefillin if they wish to do so.  This marked a huge change over the way in which Israeli laws were being enforced up until that point.  Within months, Israeli Cabinet Minister Naftali Bennett expanded and opened up the Davidson Center (the Southern Wall) in an effort to diffuse the effect of this ruling.  Women are still prohibited from bringing a Torah Scroll to the women's side of the Kotel.  However, this Court decision was a huge victory for Israeli organization Women of the Wall.  For a discussion of the issue as it was in 2012, see this blog.  For a discussion of the changes in 2013, see this entry

8.  The Weather:

Israel faced a huge rain storm in January 2013 that flooded many areas.  In December 2013, Israel encountered one of its largest snow storms in many years.  More than 30 centimetres of snow fell on Jerusalem by some estimates.  The city was paralyzed for days, with the loss of electricity and roads that became completely blocked.   Just my luck that after being in Israel for this storm, I happened to be in Toronto during a snowstorm that caused 300,000 families to lose power, in some cases for more than four days during the bitterly cold winter.  So everything must be considered in proportion.  But this was a huge storm by Israeli standards. 

9.  Ice Hockey:  

How could a Canadian summarize Israeli events of 2013 without mentioning Ice Hockey?  The Israeli national ice hockey team won a gold medal in its division - Division II, Group B at the World Ice Hockey Championships in April 2013 in Izmit, Turkey.  The team will now move up to Division II, Group A for the 2014 tournament.  Israel will play teams ranked 29-34 in the world, with a chance to move up to Division I if the Israeli team can finish first in this difficult group.  The tournament will take place in Belgrade, Serbia from April 9 to 15, 2014.  Israel will face Australia, Belgium, Estonia, Iceland and Serbia, with Estonia and Serbia listed as the favourites to win the division.  It is also worth mentioning that Twin Peaks Ice Rink in Holon, Israel became fully operational in 2013, providing Israelis who live in central Israel with a much more convenient place to get some ice time.  Until recently, the only place to play was Metullah, which is more than 180 kilometres north of Ra'anana.

10.  Wine News:

In November 2013, Israeli archaeologists found a 3,700 year old wine cellar near Nahariyah, Israel, containing 40 ceramic jars, each large enough to hold 60 litres of wine.  It is believed that this cellar was part of a Canaanite palace.  Many historians have noted Israel's ancient history of high quality wine production, which was dormant for many years during periods of Muslim rule.  While Israeli wine making was reintroduced in the late 1800s, as early immigrants arrived as part of the first two waves of immigration, the industry only truly took off in the early 1980s.  Israel is now blessed with more than 280 wineries, including Kosher and non-Kosher, large and small, producers.   

 The 2nd Annual Kosher Wine Festival was held in Jerusalem in January 2013 (I managed to attend the 2012 event with a visiting friend) and the Golan Heights Winery celebrated its 30th Anniversary in June 2013 with a big festival at the Tel-Aviv Port. 

Conclusion:

This summary is by no means comprehensive, though, hopefully, it is reasonably accurate.  As usual, I welcome any comments, suggestions or additions.  I apologize in advance if I have overlooked some key events.  This is, after all, just a hobby for now.  Wishing everyone a happy, healthy and peaceful 2014.

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Israel: Coalition Talks Continue

Yair Lapid (left) and Naftali Bennett
The Israeli election was held on January 22, 2013.  My analysis of the expected coaltion talks, writing at the time, can be found here.  Meanwhile, more than a month has passed and it is still unclear what type of government Israel will have, other than the fact that it will almost certainly be led by the Likud party.  Prime Minister Netanyahu has failed to reach a coalition deal within the initial alotted time period.  He will now have until March 14, 2013.  If he still cannot conclude a deal by that time, there will either be new elections - or President Shimon Peres will ask another party to try to form the government.  In all probability, Netanyahu will reach a deal with some of the other parties by the deadline, even if the deal is reached just as time is expiring.

The only party to have joined the Likud so far is "The Movement" led by Tsipi Livni.  This was quite surprising to many Israelis since the centrist Livni joined a government without knowing which other parties would be involved.  She was granted a few cabinet posts and put in charge of overseeing Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.  As leader of the Kadima party after the previous election, Livni had opted to stay out of the government, despite having a large and powerful party.  This time around, she brings a much smaller number of seats.  To date, no other parties have been willing to join this coalition, which now numbers 37.  A majority of 61 is required to control the Knesset.

Prime Minister Netanyahu has been speaking to all of the possible suitors - Labour, Yesh Atid, Habayit Hayehudi and the ultra-Religious parties.  These talks are mainly held behind closed doors and it is really difficult to know exactly what is being demanded, promised or rejected and what genuine information or misinformation is being leaked.

However, it is fairly clear that two of the largest parties, Yesh Atid and Habayit Hayehudi have reached some sort of deal under which they will only enter the government together.  Apparently, the main piece of the deal centres around the idea that almost all ultra-religious Israelis will be required to serve in the army or the national service, by age 21, with only a small number exempted.  Both parties seem to be holding very firm to this demand, even as the ultra-religious Shas party has been attacking the parties for their lack of flexiblity and alleging that they are "anti-Haredi."  Tonight, Likud-Beitenu suggested that Yesh Atid was refusing to sit in a government with the ultra-religious parties.  However, it is not clear that Yesh Atid has actually taken this position.  It may be that they are holding merely steadfast to certain demands - the content of which are entirely unacceptable to the ultra-religious.  However, there is a big difference between insisting on some significant policy changes that will affect Haredim (as well as many other Israelis) - versus being "anti-Haredi."

Habayit Hayehudi leader Naftali Bennett and Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid seem to have been able to agree on policies in a number of areas, primarily related to domestic issues.  Their stated aims are to improve education in Israel, improve life for the middle class, change the relationship of the State and the Ultra-Religious and other issues.  Both Bennett and Lapid served in the Israeli Defence Forces and both believe that the burden of mandatory military service should be distributed universally across Israeli society including ultra-religious Jews and Arab Israelis.  Overall, in the realm of domestic policy, Bennett does not appear to have staked out any particularly extreme positions, though his party would certainly have a much more right leaning social and domestic agenda than the platform on which Lapid campaigned.

The big question mark is what this means for the future of Israeli-Arab and Israeli-Palestinian relations.  Bennett is adamantly opposed to any territorial concessions and has indicated that his party will not support a government that makes any such compromises.  Lapid is much more flexible and favours an immediate return to the bargaining table  with the Palestinians.  Even though both parties oppose any concessions with respect to Jerusalem, it is hard to see how any kind of peace deal could be reached with the Palestinians without significant territorial concessions in other areas.  So, ultimately, if both Bennett and Lapid join the Netanyahu-led government together, the government will likely be preoccupied with domestic issues and negotiations with the Palestinians will move down on the priority list, even below where they have been currently.

The big winner so far in the Israeli public forum has been Yair Lapid.  Israelis have apparently been very supportive of his determination and resolve in not making concessions to the ultra-orthodox on the issue of universal conscription.  Some polls have suggested that Lapid's party would win more than 30 seats if a new election were held now.  It may well be that Lapid plans to deal with domestic issues first and then use his momentum and popularity to force a change in the governing coaltion or to force the government to turn its attention to addressing the Palestinian-Israeli dispute in more flexible fashion.

In any event, it seems to me that there are still reasons for Israelis to be cautiously optimistic.  Although the Yesh Atid Party may not be able to fulfill all of its promises, the determination that Yair Lapid is showing with respect to domestic issues is a promising sign that some significant, positive changes are on the way.
 






Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Israeli Election 2013 - Official Results

Here are the final results of yesterday's Israeli election - according to the Israeli press.  These results could still change slightly - though they are apparently based on more than 99% of the actual polling station results.  If there are any changes from these numbers, they would be very minor.

Likud 31                     Right/Right-Centre            Same as exit polls
Yesh Atid 19             Left/Left-Centre                 Same
Labour 15                   Left                                     Down 2 seats from exit polls
Shas 11                       Ultra-Religious                  Down 1
Bayit Yehudi - 11      Religious/Right                  Down 1
Meretz 6                     Left                                      Down 1
Hatenuah 6                 Left-Centre                         Down 1
Yehadut HaTorah 7   Ultra-Religious                  Up 1
Hadash 4                    Arab/Left                             Up 1
Raam-Taal 5              Arab/Left                             Up 1  
Balad 3                       Arab/Left                             Up 1

Kadima (Mofaz) 2     Centre                                  Up 2

With these new numbers, the "right wing bloc" as it is referred to by the Israeli press - which includes Likud, Bayit Yehudi and the two religious parties, Shas and Yehadut HaTorah sits at a total of 60 seats, which would not provide them with a sufficient number of Knesset members to form a government (61 would be required).  To form a government, Prime Minister Netanyahu will have to make compromises with at least some of the centre or left-centre parties to get them into a coalition government.  In doing so, Netanyahu will have some very interesting challenges.  He may choose to start by negotiating a deal with the number two party, Yesh Atid.  Assuming he could come to a deal with this party, the deal would probably be attractive to Tsipi Livni and HaTenuah as well.  That would put the three parties at 56.  They would then either need to add religious parties (who have 18 seats - between Shas and Yehadut HaTorah) or they would have to add the right wing Bayit Hayehudi (with 11).  Much of Lapid's campaign has focused on reducing the influence of the ultra-religious parties in Israel - ensuring that the ultra-religious are conscripted to the army, reducing the amount of money paid to Yeshivas.  So it is hard to see how Netanyahu will be able to build a government with both Yesh Atid and the religious parties.

If Netanyahu chooses to add Bennett's party (Habayit Hayehudi), there will also be significant hurdles.  While Habayit Hayehudi might go along with some form of universal conscription (they are a religious party but a party of "modern Orthodox" who serve in the army), Bennett is strongly opposed to some of Lapid's ideas with respect to the peace process.  If this type of coalition is arranged, it might lead to significant domestic policy changes but it is hard to see how a government that includes Bennett would make any meaningful changes to the policies of the current Israeli government with repect to the Palestinians.

So in either case, it will be tricky for Netanyahu, who will likely be required to include Yesh Atid plus either the ultra-religious parties or the more nationalist party, both of which have interests that conflict with those of Yesh Atid.

Netanyahu could aim for a broader coaltion with Lapid, Labour and even Meretz.  However, this seems quite unlikely.  Labour's leader Sheli Yacomovitch has attacked Netanyahu at every opportunity and has railed against the possibility of another Likud led government.  She has stated very clearly she would not join.  While this might be a wonderful bargaining tactic, it is hard to see how Labour would wind up in a goverment with Likud this time around.  Meretz is even further to the left.

One other option is that the left and left-centre bloc could try to form a coalition with the religious parties and take over the government.  T|his is what Labour leader Yacomovitch was suggesting last night that she would try to do.  However, she is sitting at only 15 seats.  Even if she added 18 ultra-religious seats, that would get her to 33.  Add Meretz and she has 39.  She could add Tsipi Livni and get up to 45.  She could get the support of the Arab parties and that would get her to 57.  Would Lapid want to join this type of government, which would rely heavily on including 18 ultra-religious Knesset members and 12 Arab members of the Knesset?  This seems extremely unlikely.  I would have to conclude that Labour is going to be part of the opposition unless it dramatically changes its rhetoric very soon.

So overall, it looks like a government led by Prime Minister Netanyahu, and moderated, perhaps significantly, by Yair Lapid.  We should see some signficant changes in direction.  If the government includes Shas and Yehadut HaTorah but not Habayit Hayehudi, we may see movement towards reopening peace negotiations with the Palestinians but not nearly as much domestic change as Lapid might have liked.  If the government includes Habayit Hayehudi but not the ultra-religious parties, we could see signficant domestic change but not necessarily any movement on Israeli-Palestinian issues.  Of course, coalition negotiations in Israel never cease to amaze, so we could see some very interesting surprises.  Prime Minister Netanyahu is very experienced in handling these negotiations and has managed to put together some very stable Israeli governments.  As he said in his speech last night, it is time for him to get to work and start negotiating.

The next few weeks - or even months of coalition building and horse trading will be fascinating.  We will only understand that real results and meaning of this election once we see the make up of the new coalition government.  In either case, it is almost certain that there will be some movement to the left on either domestic issues, foreign policy issues or perhaps even both.  

Postscript:  See my subsequent posts - but the "final results" have Bayit Hayehudi at 12 and Ra'am-Tal down to 4.  I have discussed the implications of this in my Jan 24 post - Election is Over: Coalition Talks Begin.


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!!