Israel’s Post-Election Tangle

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin

The second Israeli national election of 2019 has led to a lot of confusion. It has not resolved the question of who will fill the prime minister’s office on a permanent basis, nor has it cleared up the political logjam the country has been dealing with all year. Contrary to what many believe, the decision by Israeli President Reuven Rivlin to give incumbent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu the first try at forming a governing majority coalition is not at all the same thing as Netanyahu having successfully held on to the job.

Here are a few key points to help untangle this mess. Read more at LobeLog

Livni Joining With Labor: Not A Game-Changer

The media in Israel is abuzz with the news that Tzipi Livni will bring her Ha’Tnuah party into a joint ticket with the 675px-Kalpi_israel_18much larger Labor party. Now there is a tandem that can outpoll Likud, they are saying. The Israeli center just might be able to assert itself in this election.

Permit me to throw some cold water on this excitement. Livni, who has been the lone voice in the current government who has actively supported talks with the Palestinians, is doing this because if she doesn’t, there is a very strong possibility that her party will not get enough votes to remain in the Knesset. Labor leader Isaac Herzog, who has very little international experience, ran for the party leadership based on his commitment to resolving the long-standing conflict with the Palestinians. As the prospective Number Two, Livni gives Herzog some credibility in this regard.

But not only is there a long way to go before the March 17 election; there is also no guarantee that the party that wins the most seats will lead the next Israeli government. Of all people, Livni knows this only too well. In the 2009 election, she led the Kadima party which won the most seats in the Knesset. Then-President Shimon Peres tasked her with forming a governing coalition, but she couldn’t get enough parties to agree to join her to accumulate the requisite 61 seats. So Peres turned to Netanyahu who has occupied the Prime Minister’s office ever since.

Something very similar could happen in 2015. Although the current Israeli President, Reuven Rivlin, is not at all fond of Netanyahu, he is also from the Likud party and, while his domestic policies are relatively liberal, he is no friend of the two-state solution. He might not necessarily want to give Netanyahu the first crack at forming a government, but, if he believes Bibi has the better chance of forming a governing coalition, he will bow to precedent.

And Rivlin may well be forced to that conclusion, whether he likes it or not. Even if Labor wins a seat or two more than Likud, it would likely win no more than 24 seats. Assuming Herzog and Livni could convince all of their potential allies to join a coalition (that would mean Yesh Atid, the new Kulanu party, Shas, United Torah Judaism and Meretz), they would get 40 more seats at most, but that, frankly, is a pretty optimistic projection. They very likely would need at least one other party to join them, but there is only one other realistic possibility: Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party. Lieberman would surely demand a plum cabinet position (probably Defense), and he would be in a position  to bring down the government any time he strongly disapproved of its policies.

Such a government would be exceedingly difficult to cobble together in any case. Lieberman’s party has always been sharply critical of the religious parties who would necessarily have to make up part of the Herzog-Livni coalition. The orthodox parties are themselves unpredictable and share mutual hostility not only with Yisrael Beiteinu but also with other secular parties like Yesh Atid. Meretz, the only left-wing Zionist party remaining these days, would also take some convincing, given the rightward tilt of the remaining members of the coalition.

Despite Livni and Herzog’s own positions, the government outlined above would also be somewhat less than passionate about a two-state solution. Kulanu, led by former Likud minister Moshe Kahlon, is open to some evacuation of land but is unlikely to support a resolution based on the 1967 borders; Yisrael Beiteinu and Shas both theoretically support some kind of two-state solution but both also have a generally hawkish outlook. Together, they constitute nearly half the purported government. Less than a mandate for peace, especially considering that Likud and HaBayit HaYehudi in opposition would fiercely oppose any concessions — perhaps even discussions — with a Palestinian leadership they have repeatedly labelled “terrorist.”

So, an extremely unstable coalition government whose interest in reviving a peace process, let alone striking a deal, would be lukewarm at most is the best-case scenario, even with the news that Labor-plus-Livni might win a plurality in the Knesset.

That analysis presumes that the current polls reflect what will happen in March. Of course, they don’t. The campaign hasn’t even begun yet, and a Herzog-Livni ticket isn’t the most marketable for Israeli television. Israeli supporters of a two-state solution cling to Livni as a last, albeit highly flawed hope. They understand that, as a former prominent Likud member and from a family that was part of the aristocracy of Likud and its predecessors, she is not a peacemaker at heart. Herzog might be one but he is bland and thoroughly Ashkenazi (the most influential and wealthy of the Jewish ethnicities in Israel but no longer the majority). That image will work against him in the popular vote.

Israeli political campaigns are often a contest between preachers of hope and preachers of fear. In unsettled times like these, when Israelis are concerned about a growing number of unpredictable, even random, Palestinian attacks, as well as their growing sense of isolation from Europe, fear tends to do well. Historically, fear has served the Likud and other right-wing parties, especially HaBayit Hayehudi, very well.

There is a chance, albeit a very small one, that the preachers of hope can win. They’re not preaching a very high hope, merely one that is more hopeful than the demagoguery of Netanyahu and Naftali Bennett. And they have found an unexpected ally in Moshe Kahlon.

Kahlon, head of the new Kulanu (“All of Us”) party, appears to be drawing votes away from Likud, as well as from Yesh Atid. Like Livni, he is another of the former Likud pragmatists who do not identify with the extreme nationalist camp in Likud that has come to dominate that party after living for years on its far-right fringes.

It was Ariel Sharon who provoked the Likud split in order to thwart the party’s opposition to his plan to remove settlements from Gaza and a few from the West Bank as part of a larger strategic plan to pre-empt growing international pressure for a comprehensive solution. Others, like Ehud Olmert and Tzipi Livni, went with him. Now Kahlon  is following a similar path. While he says he could support some sort of land-for-peace arrangement, Kahlon, who is more focused on economic issues in any event, has never endorsed a two-state solution. Indeed, in the past he has rejected it as impractical.

The fact that Kahlon is now deemed a suitable partner for the dreamed-of Herzog-Livni government tells you a good deal of what you need to know about how such a government might behave. Nonetheless, Kulanu will appeal strongly to the Likud old guard. For those who supported former Likud ministers like Benny Begin and Dan Meridor — indeed, those who saw Benny’s father Menachem as the exemplar of Likud leadership and reject the fanatic ideologues who dominate the party today — Kahlon offers an alternative, as well as to other centrist voters who are disappointed in parties like Yesh Atid and Kadima before it.

With Kulanu taking some votes from Likud’s centrist flank and HaBayit HaYehudi continuing to gain right-wing votes at Likud’s expense, it is unsurprising that polls give Labor-with-Livni a chance to win the most seats. But does this mean Israel’s steady rightward drift has stopped?

Not necessarily. The overall view that the conflict with the Palestinians is unresolvable remains strong. At the same time, the growing split among Israeli Jews in reaction to the rise in ethnic and religious violence since last spring may prove an important factor in the election. While more Israeli Jews appear to embrace anti-Arab racism of the kind that benefits the far right represented by Bennett, more and more Jews are expressing alarm over that trend, although they, too, are loath to really examine the roots of that tension: the institutional racism and marginalization of Arabs in Israeli society.

Still,  a considerable portion of Israeli society, including some religious and conservative sectors, want to see a reduction in tensions between Jews and Arabs. They are also concerned about the relationships between Israel and the U.S. and between Israel and Europe. While Bennett and his ilk think Israel should act even more defiantly toward the rest of the world, these actors are genuinely worried about the consequences of such an attitude. Many are also concerned about the country’s growing economic stratification.

Those forces of relative reason are confronting a growing wave of nationalist extremism in Israel. As a result, the most hopeful result of the election, at least at this point, is the creation of a center-right government. Of course, if the Herzog-Livni ticket would be willing to bring the non-Zionist, communist party, Hadash, and the Arab Ra’am Ta’al party into the government, along with Meretz, that would indeed change the political trajectory. But that is even less likely  than a sudden and egalitarian Israeli decision to actually end the occupation. So, outside observers must for now cling to faint hope that things will go from incredibly bad to slightly less incredibly bad. Such is the state of Israeli politics.

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New Israeli Elections Offer Little Hope For Change

The Israeli government is headed for yet another round of elections. Although the official election date for the next

Moshe Kahlon

Moshe Kahlon

Knesset is November 7, 2017, no one ever expected this government to last that long. The voting will likely take place in March of 2015.

What do the new elections mean outside of Israel? Nothing very good, I’m afraid. For the most part, any elections held in the foreseeable future are going to cement the status quo even further, and where they don’t do so, elections will mean a shift even further rightward.

In the short term, Europe will likely agree with the United States to keep doing what they’re doing now with regard to an Israeli-Palestinian agreement, which is nothing. But in the long term, they are both likely to be saddled with an Israeli government that will be even more blatant about its refusal of any accommodation with the Palestinians, and even more insistent on building more and more settlements, especially in Jerusalem.

There is, however, a good deal of flux in Israeli politics right now. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has seen his popularity plummet. His Gaza operation over the summer is not being viewed positively in Israel, as many see no difference in the situation with Gaza today from earlier in the year. Israelis may agree with many of his stances, but they’re not as keen on the way he executes his policies—they see Netanyahu as having eroded the relationship with the United States and having failed to stem the increasing hostility toward Israel in the rest of the world.

But more than anything else, Bibi’s economic policies have driven down his ratings. Although the Israeli economy writ large is relatively healthy, economic disparity within Israel, even among Israeli Jews, has never been worse, as the distribution of wealth in Israel rivals the extremely skewed scale we have grown accustomed to in the United States. And just like Americans in the United States, most Israelis are primarily concerned with the economy, jobs, and supporting their families—not foreign policy.

Another similarity between the United States and Israel is the lack of leadership options. Only some 33% of Israelis believe Netanyahu is the best man for the prime minister’s job, and his approval rating is around that same figure. But that puts him far ahead of any other major player on the Israeli scene. The next most popular choice for prime minister, according to the polls, is Isaac Herzog of the Labor Party at around 17%. Netanyahu’s Likud Party also polls significantly higher than any other party, so the overwhelming likelihood is that Netanyahu will win another election.

But the real question is what his coalition would look like. As we’ve seen in the last several Israeli elections, cobbling together a governing coalition is no easy feat. It requires serious compromises that could result in the same prime minister being forced to take on rather different policies depending on the coalition. The right-wing coalition that came to power in 2013 pushed Netanyahu into even more hawkish positions than he already held, both internationally and domestically. What would the next one do?

The current government, led by Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud Coalition, consists of the Russian/right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel, Our Home) party headed by Avigdor Lieberman; HaBayit HaYehudi (Jewish Home) headed by Naftali Bennett; Yesh Atid, a centrist party led by former television anchor Yair Lapid; and Ha’Tnuah, headed by Tzipi Livni. While all of these parties have clashed with Netanyahu at one time or another, Lapid and Livni are the most at odds with Bibi right now.

Netanyahu would certainly try to form a new coalition without Lapid or Livni. Between Likud and the other two far-right parties currently in the coalition, Netanyahu could reasonably count on around 50 seats in the next Knesset. Sixty-one seats are needed to form a governing coalition. But while Bennett has warmed up to Netanyahu, Lieberman, whose party formed a joint ticket with Netanyahu in the last election, has become a political enemy. So how will Netanyahu cobble together a coalition?

Netanyahu’s Likud and Bennett’s HaBayit Hayehudi are currently polling at about 40 seats between them, perhaps a few more. Another twenty or so would then be needed to form the next government. One candidate is the ultra-Orthodox Shas party. They will want to address their core demands, which are generally based on the economic concerns of their constituency: lower-income Jews of Iberian and Middle Eastern descent. They used to support a theoretical two-state solution, but have recently shifted farther to the right on the issue of the occupation and have always been firm about not dividing Jerusalem. Shas is polling between six and ten seats.

United Torah Judaism is an Ashkenazi coalition party (Jews of European descent, excluding Iberia) that is similar to Shas, but more devoted to maintaining the place of religion in Israel and less interested in foreign policy matters, including the occupation. UTJ will bring 7 or 8 seats.

If, as Netanyahu has suggested, he forms a coalition with the religious parties, it seems very possible that between Likud, and the three religious parties, he could get very close or possibly even exceed the 61-seat threshold. But he’s likely to need one more party, and while Labor, Livni, and Lapid all refuse to rule out being in a Netanyahu-led coalition, they will all face tremendous internal pressure not to do so, and, in any event, Bibi almost certainly doesn’t want them, lest he perpetuate the same unstable coalition he is trying to get out of now.

In all of this, there is a wild card, in the form of a new player in the election game. Popular ex-Likud figure, Moshe Kahlon has formed a party of his own, as yet unnamed, and it figures to be a key player in the next election. Kahlon, who is very well-liked among the Israeli public for having reformed the cellular communications industry, left Likud because he felt it had “lost its way.” He is a classic Likud hawk more in the mold of Menachem Begin than Netanyahu. But his real appeal exists in the fact that like Begin and very much unlike Netanyahu, he tends to emphasize economic equality and social welfare. He would not promote the blatant racism Netanyahu does, and that might help a bit with the current internal strife. He would also want to try to maintain a peace process, even while he holds positions on the occupation and security that are not far away from Bibi’s. Current polls have his new party winning between 9 and 12 seats.

So, what kind of government comes out of all this? Kahlon may, in many ways, hold the key to that question. The most likely coalition would consist of Likud, HaBayit HaYehudi, Shas and Kahlon’s party, with UTJ possibly tagging along or replacing Shas. The price of the latter parties’ agreements would be some change in economic and social policies in Israel. This could amount to a government that does more to assuage popular domestic anger than the current one, but is even more hawkish on the occupation. Kahlon could also turn into a somewhat more powerful version of Livni in the next government. His party would likely hold considerably more seats and he is much more popular with Israelis than Livni ever was.

If Kahlon does better in the election than currently projected, he could also possibly be the one to form the next government. Kahlon would not necessarily have to out-poll Likud to do this. He would merely need to have enough seats and support from other parties to convince Israeli President Reuven Rivlin (who despises Netanyahu and whose appointment to the presidency Bibi tried to block) that he stands a better chance of forming a coalition than Netanyahu does. That’s an unlikely move for him, but not out of the question since Kahlon could, if he wished, form a broad based government that could include Yisrael Beiteinu, Yesh Atid, and Labor, as well as Shas and UTJ. Such a government would be far more likely to renew the peace process, but, especially given the increasing apathy or even militancy with which most Israelis view the occupation, no more likely to actually move it forward.

Considered in that light, there might be reason to hope that an even more extreme right-wing government takes power. Perhaps that would fan the small sparks we are seeing from Europe toward real pressure on Israel. But when it comes right down to it, neither scenario is promising.