Popular anchorman’s entry into politics likely to secure PM’s rule

Posted: January 11th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: elections, Polls, The Left, The Right | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off

Yair Lapid left his position in Channel 2 News and announced his intention to enter politics. He is likely to split the secular vote in a way that won’t allow anyone but the Likud to form the next government

One of the questions that has dominated the political landscape in Israel in the last couple of years received an (almost) definite answer this week, when the most popular journalist in Israel, Yair Lapid, resigned from his post as Channel 2′s Friday evening anchorman in order to enter politics.

If he had it his way, Lapid would have waited for new elections to be called – probably later this year – but the Knesset legislators forced him to reveal his cards. A bill subjecting every journalist to a full “cooling off” period of a year before entering politics was about to become a law, and Lapid, who probably made up his mind on his political future a while ago, had to leave his comfortable position in front of a prime-time audience. The official announcement came in the form of a resignation letter to his bosses at the station.

Lapid, 49, is the son of the late journalist-turned-politician Yosef (Tommy) Lapid and novelist Shulamit Lapid. He grew up in Tel Aviv and London, served as a reporter for the IDF’s magazine Bamahane, and later started working for his father’s paper, Maariv. His star rose in the 90′s, when he acted in an Israeli film and hosted popular TV talk shows on Channels 1 and 2. Lapid wrote books and a TV mini-series, led TV campaigns for Israel’s largest bank, and since 2008 hosted the prestigious weekly news magazine on Channel 2. Lapid also writes the leading full-page column in Yedioth Ahronoth’s Friday edition, the most widely read paper in Israel.

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For such a public figure, Lapid’s political views are extremely vague. His father, a Knesset member and then government minister, was known for his militant secularism, both in public and in his personal life. Lying on his deathbed, Yosef Lapid refused any treatment that would prolong his life and eventually starved to death. Like his father, Yair Lapid is hostile to the ultra-Orthodox establishment, although even on this trademark family issue, his tone is much more restrained. Yosef “Tommy Gun” Lapid was an Archie Bunker-like conservative; Yair Lapid is his business-oriented, politically-correct alter ego.

If figuring out Yair Lapid on social issues is a complicated task, making sense of his views on diplomatic and regional politics, on human rights and democracy, is close to impossible. From his columns, it seems that Lapid is at the center of the secular consensus (some say that he is the center) – i.e. he supports in theory of the two-state solution; he is somewhat critical of the settlements and clearly hostile towards the “extreme” religious settlers, but he has no special affection for human rights organizations and he hasn’t showed unique interest in the current wave of anti-democratic legislation.

Lapid wrote a couple of times that Israel should have supported, rather than opposed, the Palestinian UN bid, but I don’t remember hearing a real out-of-the-box idea from him, one like Shaul Mofaz’s (Kadima) support for negotiations with Hamas. Lapid is not a rightwing hawk nor a dove; one more thing he inherited from his dad is a hatred of “the lefty media,” which he confessed again recently.

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Lapid updates his Facebook followers on the progress of his Knesset bid. Unlike pages of other Knesset members, Lapid’s wall is lively and exited. According to one of his latest messages, he hasn’t formed his party yet. He will probably skip the option of leading his father’s party – Shinui – which wasn’t able to pass the Knesset threshold in the last elections. There is little sense in forcing oneself to deal with the party’s dysfunctional machine, plus I would imagine that Lapid aims higher than the narrow appeal of Shinui, which will always be constrained by its free market, secular Ashkenazi image.

It is somewhat ironic that Lapid, the privileged son of the Israeli elite, would be one of the first to benefit from the summer’s social protest. Yet there is no doubt that the growing discontent in Israel’s middle class played a major part in his decision to enter politics now. As I have written here in the past, the J14 demonstrations – also known as the tent protests – were, more than anything, a show of middle-class disappointment with elected Knesset members, and especially with Kadima.

While Israel’s right is filled with would-be leaders and Knesset backbenchers who compete for attention by introducing racist bills or conducting bizarre public stunts, and while the left has no voters or public appeal whatsoever, the amorphous promised land of the moderate center is up for grabs. Shelly Yachimovitch, the surprise winner of the Labor primaries, was the first to take a bite, and Lapid might be the one to deal Kadima its coup-de-grace.

The man who is likely to benefit the most from this process is one Benjamin Netanyahu. Lapid can draw votes from all of Netanyahu’s potential challengers – including Avigdor Lieberman – but he is not likely to hurt the Likud too much. The result will be a fragmented Knesset, in which the Likud is a single big party and four or five others – Lapid, Labor, Lieberman, Kadima and maybe Shas – are competing for a place in the coalition. Since Netanyahu will only need between two and three of those parties, and since they won’t be able to form an alternative coalition due to a lack of a central, agreed-upon, leading force, they won’t have any bargaining position. It will be Bibi or nothing.

Early polls suggest that this is the most likely scenario. There were three polls conducted right after Lapid’s announcement – by the dailies Maariv and Yedioth, and by Channel 10. The results varied, but the general picture was the same: Likud was the only party to pass the 20-seat threshold, polling between 27 and 30 of the 120 Knesset seats (Likud has 27 MKs now). Lapid had 11-16 seats, Kadima 13-15 (28 now), Labor 12-18, Israel Beitenu 14-15 and Shas 9-11. In such a picture, the old division into two competing blocs – left-center and right-religious – becomes meaningless.

On a deeper level, Lapid’s entry into politics could be seen as representing a new stage in the Israeli culture war, one in which the dominant social group – secular middle class – has left behind the hope to lead the political system and is settling for a sectarian representation of its interests, spread between several parties. Except in the case of an unexpected event such as war or a deep economical crisis, we are likely to be left with Netanyahu as prime minister; or with a fragmented system in which nobody can really govern. Yair Lapid therefore is not the answer to Israel’s existential crisis – more than anything, he is a representation of the problem.


Hanin Zoabi and Israel’s point of no return

Posted: January 2nd, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: elections, In the News, The Left, The Right | Tags: , , , , , , | Comments Off

Some more thoughts of the “death of democracy” scenario that might take place in the next elections

Susan Hattis Rolef has a piece in the Jerusalem Post dealing with the same issue I wrote about yesterday: the expected ban on MK Hanin Zoabi – and perhaps Balad and Raam-Taal parties as well – from participating in the next elections.

Hattis-Rolef seems to agree with me that this is a likely scenario, at least in the case of a personal disqualification of MK Zoabi.

There is no doubt that as elections for the 19th Knesset approach, right-wing parties will renew efforts to have Balad disqualified on the grounds that the party advocates turning Israel into “a state of all its citizens” – something they say essentially denies its existence as the state of the Jewish people. They also say Balad maintains contact with organizations that are defined in Israel as terrorist organizations.

In the past, the High Court of Justice has overturned Central Elections Committee decisions to disqualify Balad, but the last time the court ruled on this issue, it stated that Balad’s positions were problematic, implying that the party is walking on very thin legal ice. With the High Court’s more conservative makeup, and especially the approaching retirement of Supreme Court President Dorit Beinisch, it is quite likely that next time the court will uphold a committee decision to disqualify Balad.

To that we can add that the 2009 ruling on Balad was a split decision, with Justice Levi arguing that the party should not be allowed to participate in the elections. It should also be noted that the law regarding these issues is very vague and broad, so if the court choses to do so, it could easily ban all Arab parties (and not just them). This is also from Hattis-Rolef:

According to The Immunity of Knesset Members, their Rights and Duties Law, MKs enjoy full immunity for any act they perform within the framework of their parliamentary work. There are four exceptions to this rule: the act involves denying the existence of the State of Israel as the state of the Jewish People; it denies its nature as a democratic state; it incites to racism based on race or national-ethnic origin or supports the armed struggle of an enemy state or terrorist acts against the State of Israel, or for such acts against Jews or Arabs because they are Jews or Arabs, in Israel and abroad.

Incidentally these are also the four grounds for disqualifying parties from running for the Knesset.

Currently, three parties – Hadash, Balad and Raam-Taal – are calling for “a state for all its citizens” model in Israel, so essentially, they could be seen as violating the first article in the law (opposing the existence of the State of Israel as the state of the Jewish People). One could also claim that some religious and rightwing MKs incite to racism or deny the democratic nature of the state. Yet it all comes down to the fact that the decision won’t be a legal but a political one, and since the right enjoys an overwhelming majority in the Knesset and the Supreme Court is more conservative than ever, the effort to limit the political representation of Arab citizens is highly likely to succeed.

If I had to bet on it, I would say that in the current atmosphere Zoabi is likely to be disqualified; the ruling on her party Balad, can go each way; and Raam-Taal will be banned by the Central Elections Committee but later allowed to run by the Court. Such rulings will also increase the court’s tendency to search for “middle grounds” that would please the Jewish elites.

[Needless to say, I personally find all of Balad's known positions and actions, including Zoabi's, perfectly legitimate, even if I don't agree or support them all.]

In such an event, we will be faced with the following dilemmas:

-    Should Balad participate in the elections if MK Zoabi is expelled from the Knesset?

-    Should other Arab or left parties participate in the elections if MK Zoabi or Balad are disqualified?

-    Should Arab citizens of Israel vote in elections in which their representatives – or at least some of them – are not allowed to participate for political reasons?

Since a general boycott of the elections by the Arabs would have grave consequences on the national conversation – it would surly help promote Lieberman’s plan to transfer the Palestinians to the future Palestinian “state” – and since there is no hope of ever forming a center-left coalition in Israel without a strong showing by the Arab parties, I believe that the Zoabi-Balad case might turn out to be one of Israel’s most critical moments of truth.


2012: The year democracy ends

Posted: January 1st, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: elections, The Left, The Right | Tags: , , , , , | Comments Off

A not-so-crazy speculation for the new year: A date for new elections will be set; at least one major Arab party won’t be allowed to participate in them, resulting in a call for boycott in the Palestinian public and the Jewish left. With the Arabs out of the Knesset, the right will enjoy a much bigger majority, forever

If you leave out the West Bank, Israel is still a functioning democracy. New bills are threatening freedom of speech, minorities’ rights are not defended and specific laws targeting non-Jews effectively make them second class-citizens.

But still, the core elements of a functioning democracy – most notably political representation of all citizens – are still there.

Yet even this somewhat flawed system could disappear this year.

The common wisdom in the Israeli political system is that a new date for early elections – later this year or in the first half of 2013 – will be set in the coming months. Some claim that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would like to hold general elections in Israel before November 2012, because the prospect of Barack Obama winning another term might hurt the Israeli premier in the polls. Others cite the police investigation against Avigdor Lieberman as a reason.

According to the Israeli system, the Central Elections Committee has the right to forbid parties who support terrorism, racism or oppose democracy from participating in the elections. But the committee is a political body, composed of Members of Knesset, and is currently controlled by the right. In the past, it has tried to use this article in the law for political purposes, but has failed. This time it may succeed.

It is very likely that the Central Elections Committee may ban the two major Arab parties, Balad and Raam-Taal, from participating in the elections. Given the public hostility to Balad, and especially to its MK Hanin Zoabi, letting Balad participate would be a huge surprise.

The Central Elections Committee has already disqualified Balad and Raam-Taal from participating in the last elections, when the public sphere was much more tolerant. In Balad’s case, even representatives of Labor supported the decision.

As expected, the Supreme Court overruled the Central Election Committee’s decision and allowed the two Arab parties to take part in the 2009 elections that brought Netanyahu into power (same thing happened in 2003). Balad won three seats and Raam-Taal four. One could even argue that members of the Knesset knew in advance what the Court’s ruling would be.

The public atmosphere in Israel has changed, and so has the Supreme Court, which is more conservative than it has been in the last couple of decades. If faced with a similar scenario in the next elections, I believe that is very likely that the court will not overrule a Knesset decision to disqualify Balad and perhaps even Raam-Taal.

The result would almost certainly be a call for all Palestinian citizens to boycott the elections. And to be honest, I am not sure that any Jewish progressive should participate in an election in which the ruling coalition bans opposition parties. Arab parties that would be allowed to run – if there are such – would be faced with a major problem, as would Jewish democrats – the few that are left.

Historically, the dilemma whether to boycott elections or leave the parliament in protest of anti-democratic laws has always been a major crossroad on the way to authoritarian regimes.

Low Arab turnout, and perhaps even full non-participation, would hand the right a landslide victory in the elections (the left has not won a majority in the Jewish public since 1973, and currently it is far from it, even with the Arab vote). Such events would surely benefit Avigdor Lieberman, by framing the elections around the Palestinian citizens. Lieberman’s racist proposals surrounding the issue could attract many new voters to his party.

The 19th Knesset will be much more rightwing then the current one. More importantly, Israel won’t be able to go on claiming that it respects minority rights after forcing their representatives out of the Knesset. The left will be torn apart and the Palestinian minority will be forever alienated.

And from there it will all go downhill.


Tent protest in polls: One big unhappy middle class

Posted: August 3rd, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: elections, Polls, The Left, The Right | Tags: , , , , , | Comments Off

Recently published polls regarding the social protest reveal potential for major political changes in Israel, though not necessarily immediate ones

The Tent Protest has been dominating the news cycle in Israel for two weeks, and now there are also a couple of interesting polls regarding its possible political impact.

While it would be unwise to try and predict what sort of effect these unprecedented demonstrations will have on Israeli politics, the polls do confirm some of the hunches we had in the last three weeks, and most notably, a potential for far-reaching changes in the political system in the years to come.

-    The support for the protest crosses sectors and party lines. According to Channel 10′s poll conducted on Monday, 88 percent of Israelis support the protest. The middle class parties lead the way: 98 percent of Kadima voters (!), 95 percent of Labor’s and even 85 percent of Netanyahu’s Likud voters find the protest just. Even if these figures dropped in the last couple of days—which had some fractions and public disputes in the protest movement—they are still exceptionally high.

-    The attempts to discredit the protest have mostly failed. Government spokesperson and rightwing organizations tried to tie the protest to left wing movements, claiming that it is a politically-motivated move aimed personally against PM Netanyahu. Still, 74 percent of the public think that the protest is a genuine one, and only 22 percent find it to be politically motivated.

-    The hard right is the only group not identifying with the protest. Half of Shas’ voters and most of those voting for the settlers’ parties think the protest is politically motivated. Voters of those parties are more inclined to oppose the protest than any other group. I believe that these groups sense that the protest might challenge the dominant political arrangements in Israel – ones with benefit the settlers and the religious parties.

-   The protesters reject the major opposition and the coalition parties alike. I wouldn’t take the headline of the Globes-Jerusalem Post’s poll—about a possible social party winning 20 seats in the coming elections—too seriously. There is a long time until the elections and it’s impossible to know which issues will dominate the campaign. Still, it’s very interesting to see where these 20 seats (roughly 16 percent of the votes) come from: 4-5 seats from Kadima, 2-3 seats from Likud, 2-3 seats from Labor, and some more votes from Meretz and undecided voters. The Arab parties and the extreme right are not hurt by the protest.

Those figures match the Channel 10 poll – it’s the middle class the supports the protest more than any other group, and it’s the parties on the center and left of the political map which voters are unhappy with. This is good news for those (like me) who think that Kadima and Labor cannot promote progressive agenda. It seems that many of those parties’ voters are giving up hope on them as well.

-    The best option for the government is to negotiate with protesters and possibly try to co-opt them. According to the Jerusalem Post, 45 percent of the public thinks that the protesters should negotiate with the government to try to obtain their demands, 29 percent said the demonstrations should go on in their current format. If the government looks serious enough, it could cut the popular support for the demonstrations by two thirds.

To sum it up, all figures point to a unique phenomenon: the secular middle class – usually the backbone of society—is unsatisfied with the political and economical trends, and more important, with the entire political system (usually it’s the other way around – the more you move to the edges of the system, the less satisfied people there are). Under these circumstances, the potential for major political changes—though not necessarily immediate ones—is enormous.


Boycott bill rollcall: How did they vote?

Posted: July 13th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: elections, In the News, The Left, The Right, The Settlements | Tags: , , , , | 2 Comments »

The three most important ministers in the Israeli cabinet – Foreign Minister Lieberman, Defense Minister Barak and Prime Minister Netanyahu – didn’t bother to attend the deciding vote on the boycott bill

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The anti-boycott law, perhaps the most important piece of legislation to come out of the Israeli parliament in recent years, passed with a 47-38 majority. This is how the Knesset members voted, followed by a few notes:

COALITION

Likud
Ofir Akunis – Yes
Ze`ev Binyamin Begin – Yes
Danny Danon – Yes
Yuli-Yoel Edelstein – Yes
Michael Eitan – Not present (*)
Zeev Elkin – Yes
Gilad Erdan – Not present
Gila Gamliel – Not present
Tzipi Hotovely – Yes
Moshe Kahlon – Yes
Ayoob Kara – Yes
Haim Katz – Yes
Yisrael Katz – Yes
Yariv Levin – Yes
Limor Livnat – Yes
Dan Meridor – Not present
Lea Nass – Not present
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – Not present (**)
Yossi Peled – Yes
Zion Pinyan – Yes
Miri Regev – Yes
Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin – Didn’t vote
Education Minister Gideon Sa`ar – Not present
Silvan Shalom – Not present
Carmel Shama – Yes
Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz – Yes
Deputy PM Moshe Ya`alon – Yes

Yisrael Beitenu
Internal Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch – Not present
Hamad Amar – Yes
Daniel Ayalon – Yes
Robert Ilatov – Not present
Fania Kirshenbaum – Yes
Uzi Landau – Yes
Sofa Landver – Yes
Orly Levi-Abekasis – Yes
Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman – Not present
Moshe Mutz Matalon – Not present
Anastassia Michaeli – Yes
Alex Miller – Yes
Stas Misezhnikov – Yes
David Rotem – Not present
Lia Shemtov – Yes

Shas
Chaim Amsellem – Yes
Ariel Atias – Not present
David Azoulay – Yes
Amnon Cohen – Not present
Yitzhak Cohen – Yes
Yakov Margi – Yes
Avraham Michaeli – Yes
Meshulam Nahari – Yes
Yitzhak Vaknin – Yes
Interior Minister Eliyahu Yishai – Yes
Nissim Zeev – Not Present

Haatzma`ut (Labor faction) (***)
Defense Minister Ehud Barak – Not present
Orit Noked – Not present
Shalom Simhon – Not present
Matan Vilnai – Not present
Einat Wilf – Didn’t vote

United Torah Judaism
Israel Eichler – Not Present
Moshe Gafni – Yes
Yakov Litzman – Yes
Uri Maklev – Yes
Menachem Eliezer Moses – Yes

Habayit Hayehudi – New National Religious Party
Daniel Hershkowitz – Yes
Uri Orbach – Yes
Zevulun Orlev – Yes

OPPOSITION

Kadima
Nino Abesadze – No
Rachel Adatto – No
Eli Aflalo – No
Doron Avital – No
Ruhama Avraham Balila – No
Ronnie Bar-On – No
Arie Bibi – Not present
Zeev Bielski – No
Avi Dichter – No
Jacob Edery – Not present
Gideon Ezra – Not present
Israel Hasson – No
Yoel Hasson – Not present
Shai Hermesh – No
Dalia Itzik – No
Opposition Leader Tzipi Livni – No
Shaul Mofaz – No
Shlomo (Neguse) Molla – No
Yohanan Plesner – No
Otniel Schneller – Not present
Nachman Shai – Not present
Yulia Shamalov Berkovich – Not present
Meir Sheetrit – No
Marina Solodkin – No
Ronit Tirosh – No
Robert Tiviaev – No
Majallie Whbee – No
Orit Zuaretz – No

Ha`avoda (Labor)

Binyamin (Fouad) Ben-Eliezer – Not present
Daniel Ben Simon – No
Avishay Braverman – No
Eitan Cabel – No
Isaac Herzog – Not present
Raleb Majadele – No
Amir Peretz – No
Shelly Yacimovich – No

Hadash

Afou Agbaria – No
Mohammad Barakeh – No
Dov Khenin – No
Hanna Swaid – No

Ra`am-Ta`al
Talab El-Sana – Not present
Masud Ganaim – No
Ibrahim Sarsur – No
Ahmad Tibi – No

National Democratic Assembly (Balad)
Said Naffaa – Not present
Jamal Zahalka – No
Hanin Zoabi – No

New Movement – Meretz

Zahava Gal-On – No
Ilan Gilon – No
Nitzan Horowitz – No

Ichud Leumi    (****)

Uri Yehuda Ariel – Yes
Michael Ben Ari – Not present
Arieh Eldad – Yes
Yaakov (Katzeleh) Katz – Yes

(*) The custom in the Knesset is that opposition and coalition members who cannot attend a vote can agree to essentially cancel each other out. In major votes, parties tend to limit mutual cancellations as much as possible; therefore it is not always clear whether a Knesset member who didn’t come to the vote was cancelled out or chose to be absent for other reasons.

(**) Many of the votes were those of backbenchers, and it seems that the leading ministers preferred not to be present at the vote, once it was clear that the law was going to pass. The three most important ministers in the government–Prime Minister Netanyahu, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman—chose not to attend the vote. Some leadership Israel has.

(***) The entire Ha’atzmaut faction, until recently a part of the dovish Labor party, chose not to oppose the boycott law nor to support it.

(***) Officially, the extreme-right Ihud Leumi party is not part of the government, but it supports much of its policies and all rightwing legislation in the Knesset.

Update: in response to a reader’s question, an MK who appears as “not present” wasn’t at the assembly during the vote. “Didn’t vote” simply means abstained. As you can see, Knesset members prefer not to be seen on TV refraining from voting, so unless they really have to (like in the case of the Knesset’s speaker), they simply disappear when an unpleasant vote approaches.
Update II: In response to more comments – almost all pieces of legislation don’t require ”an absolute majority” of 61 members. Still, if the coalition needed it, there would have been no problem to get 61 hands for this vote.
Aryeh: I regret to say I that don’t share your (limited) optimism. I tend to think that this vote was seen as a very major one – with a long filibuster and 87 members present (normally only 30-40 come to vote), from all the house’s parties. Plus, two MKs were too ill to vote; one had buried his mom on Monday, and most important, I think that the members who failed to show up did it on purpose. We know of two Kadima members who supported the bill (Schneller and Shamalov-Berkovich) and will be “punished” by their party today; several Likud MK opposed the law: House Speaker Rivlin, Minister Meridor and probably Eithan. One surprise came from Benni Begin, the son of the legendary Likud leader, who used to be considered a defender of personal liberties, and voted Yes. And there is, of coarse, Ehud Barak’s party, who fled the battleground. We should remember that this was a government-backed bill, so any party that would have voted against the law was signaling its desire to leave the coalition – yet I believe that had Barak taken a stand, Neatnyahu would have thought twice before approving this particular piece of legislation. In that sense, Barak’s absence is somewhat of a support.

Triumphant over flotilla, Netanyahu is stronger than ever

Posted: July 2nd, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: elections, In the News, The Left, The Right | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

With no threat from his political rivals and no pressure from Washington, the Israeli PM is enjoying the best weeks of his career. Yet his rightwing politics are likely to bring a much bigger change than his supporters care to imagine

If Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu could have one wish, I guess it would be to conduct general elections tomorrow. Between the cheers of his obedient followers in Congress and his success in preventing the Gaza-bound flotilla from sailing to the Strip, the Israeli prime minister is enjoying the best weeks of his term, possibly of his entire career.

Unlike in the first two years of his term, Netanyahu finally seems in control. The Greek decision to prevent the flotilla from sailing has taken everyone by surprise, but as it turned out, the PM has been preparing the ground for some time.

Haaretz quoted yesterday  an Israeli diplomat saying that Netanyahu “Netanyahu has become Greece’s lobbyist to the European Union.”  Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou returned the favor yesterday: As the American boat “Audacity of Hope” was about to leave the port of Athens, the authorities issued an order prohibiting all flotilla vessels from sailing. It is very unlikely that the Greeks would have dared stopping a Canadian or American ship without permission from their respective governments, so one could speculate that other administrations–and most notably, Washington—stood by Netanyahu’s side. For a politician often portrayed as hated and despised by world leaders, this is no small thing.

The Israeli morning papers are likely to praise the Prime Minister tomorrow. Netanyahu’s numbers are will go up again, and his coalition will become safer than ever before. Unlike in his first term, Netanyahu is now able to communicate his messages both to the center and to his base on the Israeli right. Politicians around Netanyahu recognize that. On Friday, dovish Likud minister Dan Meridor backed the PM in an interview to Maariv – and he is just one of the former rivals who now praise Netanyahu.

Kadima, the Knesset’s biggest party, failed so far to produce its own agenda, and its leader, Tzipi Livni, was revealed as a shallow politician. Besides repeating talking points regarding government policies, Livni did not make one substantial move that would challenge the government. Furthermore, the fight over Labor leadership has taken the predictable ugly turn, ensuring that the winner will get a fragmented and bitter party that would make his life miserable and suffer another blow at the elections.

Defense Minister Barak polls zero Knesset seats, which means he depends on Netanyahu for his political survival, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman waits the Attorney General’s decision regarding his corruption charges, and Shas’ Eli Yishay is too busy with the return of former party leader Aryeh Deri to cause the PM any trouble. As far as Netanyahu can see, the horizon is clear.

Netanyahu might be the strongest Israeli PM in the last two decades—stronger than Sharon and Rabin—despite not having their IDF record, charisma or leadership skills. He is for sure the best survivor: General elections are due to take place on autumn 2013, and by then, Netanyahu will be the longest serving Israeli PM since David Ben-Gurion.

Yet the Middle East has a strange way of turning your victories against you. Netanyahu has no vision, and his politics resemble troubleshooting. It’s no wonder that his goals are the subject of an endless guessing game.

It seems that ultimately, Netanyahu wishes to secure Israeli control over as much as possible of the West Bank, understanding that he won’t be able to control it all forever. If that is the case, his policies are likely to backfire: It was Netanyahu’s rejectionism that got the world’s attention to nature of the occupation; it’s his backing of the settlements that will ensure Israel is unable to force a quasi-state on the Palestinians (since there will be no room left for even this kinda of a state); it’s Netanyahu’s successful manipulation of the US Congress that proved the limits of the administration’s and the State Department’s ability to serve as an honest broker between Palestinians and Israelis and left Jews in the States torn apart and bitter; and it’s his coalition’s anti-democratic legislation that shows the need to an overhaul reform regarding the Jewish character of the Israeli state.

In short, The Prime Minister is winning every battle on his way to lose the entire war. As long as his poll numbers are high and his republican backers are happy, I guess he would be the last to care.

One final note: While everyone’s eyes were on the Greek ports, the people of Bil’in celebrated the removal of the security barrier erected by Israeli on their land six years ago. Back then, the thought that a few hundred villagers will be able to defeat the Israeli military establishment seemed delusional; now everybody is talking about the challenge of a Palestinian unarmed revolt. There are undercurrents at play which are not always easy to detect, and this is a lesson Netanyahu and his shortsighted admirers would do well to remember.


Legendary Shas leader returning to politics, vows to promote peace

Posted: June 23rd, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: elections, In the News, The Left, The Right | Tags: , , | Comments Off

A game changer? Former Shas leader Aryeh Deri has announced his return to politics tonight.

Speaking at the Presidential Conference in Jerusalem, Deri said: “In the State of Israel, one can make no contribution without political power, and I therefore decided to establish a movement. I’m coming back and I wish to use political power for the sake of unity and public responsibility.”

Deri said he will form a new movement. He won’t be able to match Shas’ machine, but his personal appeal might win him many votes. The common wisdom is that Deri can get between 5 to 7-8 Knesset seats, depending on the political circumstances and on the identity of other candidates.

Deri was the all-powerful leader of Shas in the late eighties and early nineties. For many secular Jews, he personified the rise of a new Orthodox threat, so only few mourned his conviction on corruption charges. The imprisonment of Deri was used by Shas for its biggest ever electoral success – 17 Knesset seats – but ironically, while Deri sat in prison, it was his rival Eli Yishai which used this power to secure his place in Israeli politics.

Under Yishai, Shas turned from the centrist party which supported the Oslo accord to an extreme rightwing movement, hostile to the peace process and second only to Avigdor Lieberman’s Israel Beitenu in its undemocratic initiatives.

Deri, on the other hand, maintained his good ties with Kadima MKs and leftwing parties. The same camp who once rejoiced at his downfall now envisions Deri as the new messiah that could make Sephardic Jews support the peace process.

Is it possible? Could Deri be the game changer that will bring a center-left coalition into power? I find it hard to believe, but a person who met Deri recently told me “he is very serious on the peace process.”

Deri clearly aimed to this public when he told Ynet that:

“I’m not coming from a place of vengeance or ambition,” Deri said. “In every poll out there I get seven or eight Knesset seats, despite jail and all the other things that happened to me.”

Turning his attention to the peace process, the former Shas chairman said: “My great fear is wars. I never voted in favor of a war or military operation.” He added that his return is motivated first and foremost by a desire to bring the public together, “so that if we go into a peace process we’ll be united.”

2011 is not 1992, and there is no major force in Israel that could offer the minimum the Palestinians would settle with – certainly not Livni’s Kadima. Still, it is Deri, not Channel 2 anchorman Yair Lapid or any of the Labor’s candidates, which presents the real challenge to the Netanyahu-Lieberman-Yishy coalition (unnamed sources in Shas have already attacked Deri). And this on its own is something to congratulate.


Netanyahu’s government: from here it’s all downhill

Posted: October 21st, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: elections, In the News, The Left, The Right | Tags: , , , , | 10 Comments »

The current Israeli government has reached the end of the road. Soon, Netanyahu will have to chose between changing his coalition to new elections

Benjamin Netanyahu returned to the Prime Minister office determined not to repeat the mistakes of his previous term, those that led to his premature downfall in 1999. This time, he enjoyed a better starting point: unlike in his first term, Netanyahu has a strong rightwing majority in the Knesset, and he was able to cover his left flank by pulling Labor into the government.

But things didn’t work out as Netanyahu expected, and people familiar enough with Israeli politics already estimate that the current government has reached the end of its road. Knesset speaker and Likud member Rubi Rivlin even predicted that by the end of the current Knesset session, six months from now, the date of the next elections will have been set.

The cracks in Netanyahu’s coalition are easy to spot. Netanyahu’s most important coalition partner, defense minister Ehud Barak, was quoted today In Israel’ leading tabloid, Yedioth Ahronoth, criticizing the Prime Minister for his demand that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state now.

“We don’t need an aggressive Winston Churchill now, but a De Gaulle,” said Barak, according to Yedioth. Churchill is Netanyahu’s role model; De Gaulle is the President that ended French occupation in Algeria.

Barak is the weakest link in the coalition, and he is just about to break. He has been under pressure for supporting Netanyahu from the day he entered his government, and he can’t hold much longer. Haaretz editorial already called for the resignation of Labor ministers because of the Loyalty Oath bill, top labor officials have left Barak’s camp one after the other, and Maariv’s top story today was a declaration by MK Avishay Braverman that he will run for Labor’s leadership.

Barak feels the heat. He stopped defending Netanyahu in public a while ago, and it seems as if he is preparing the ground for his departure from government (the other option, that he would leave Labor and stick by Netanyahu, doesn’t seem very likely now).

Netanyahu’s senior partner on the Right, Avigdor Lieberman, smells the blood as well. When Lieberman was on Netanyahu’s side, he kept quiet and never doubted the peace process in public. Now he does it at the UN, much to the dismay of the Prime Minister. Lieberman might be forced to leave the government soon because of a police investigation on corruption charges, and he probably wants his exit to be noisy. Like Barak, he wants to show voters that he left power behind for ideological reasons.

There are other signs that the Prime Minister doesn’t enjoy the same respect within his coalition or even his party. Politicians have a great sense for weakness, and if Netanyahu wasn’t getting weaker, Knesset speaker Rivlin – who wants to succeed Peres as president and needs the Prime Minister’s support for that – would have never challenged him publicly. The game has changed: now Netanyahu needs Rivlin more than Rivlin needs Netanyahu.

What’s now?

One thing is clear: in the current Knesset, the only possible Prime Minister is Netanyahu. Tzipi Livni cannot have a majority without either Lieberman or Netanyahu himself as partners, and she probably won’t have any of them. Assuming there is no immediate breakthrough in the peace process (or a war…) and Labor does leave the government, we are left with the following scenarios:

A. New centrist government: Netanyahu declares he wants to move forward in the peace process, and invites Kadima to join him. Even if Livni agrees, such a deal won’t last for long, as Kadima might think that it’s in her interest to break the partnership sooner than later. Netanyahu knows that, so he hesitates on turning to Livni. UPDATE: as I’m writing this, Haaretz reports that Netanyahu is considering having Kadima join his government.

B. New extreme-right government: Labor leaves the coalition and Netanyahu relays on the right for staying in power. That would make him the most “lefty” element in his coalition – a very bad position for a PM. The settlers would make his life miserable, and the international pressure would become unbearable. Result: early elections.

C. Elections: according to the Israeli law, when the government falls, new elections must be held in three months. In reality, when the government is about to fall, it sets up a date for new elections much further away (usually in six to eight months), so the prime Minister can remain in power and engage in a long campaign which is not dominated by a crisis atmosphere. If Netanyahu is cornered, he might go for elections, especially if he feels that there is not a powerful challenger around. Right now, there isn’t any one, but if Tel Aviv’s mayor ron huldai chooses to run, he might be the strongest candidate the Left had in years.

I think Netanyahu haven’t made up his mind regarding the choices he faces. He views the current coalition as the best one for him, so he would probably wait to see how the midterm elections in the US affect him and hope that the fault for the failure of the peace process would fall on the Palestinians (Israeli representatives in Washington are already working to make sure it does).

Eventually, and without some sort of external development that would save him, I think Netanyahu would prefer to change his coalition than to have early elections. If Kadima enters his government, we might have another round of meaningless talks with the Palestinians before things break up again.

If, however, Netanyahu turns to the Right, events might turn real crazy.


What’s wrong with Meretz?

Posted: July 25th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: elections, The Left | Tags: , , , , , | 27 Comments »

meretzLast week, I was invited to a bloggers meeting with the heads of Meretz. The invitation stated that all three Meretz’s MK will be there, but only Haim “Jumas” Oron, the current head of the party, showed up, accompanied by former MK Moshe (Mossi) Raz (former chairman of Peace Now) and Yifat Solel of Meretz leadership.

The event itself turned out to be a sort of a roundtable. Haim Oron opened and said that Meretz is looking for ways to be more effective after the blow it suffered in the last elections. Meretz got an all-times low of three seats out of the Knesset’s 120. Now the party is looking for new members, and hopes to form new alliances with other political movements. More then getting their message through, said Oron, they wanted to listen.

I have been to several such leftist events in the past year, with political leaders and activists asking themselves what can be done now. The Meretz meeting was one of the more frustrating events I attended.

One blogger started by asking Meretz’s leaders whether the anti-left trends in Israel have to do with the economical and ideological trends in Europe. Then came the tired debate on the left and the poor, also know as “we work for them in the Knesset, and they vote for Bibi.” Some people complained that Meretz doesn’t have a woman in the Knesset, nor a Sephardic Jew or a religious one.

It’s almost twenty years that the Israeli Left is having this sort of discussions.

When my turn to talk came, I said that I feel that all these issues don’t matter now. Something has changed in Israel in the last year. An organized attack on civil liberties is taking place. It is aimed against the radical left and the Arabs, but this is only the beginning, and racism is on the rise. This is an explosive combination. It seems to me that Israel is on a very dangerous crossroad, perhaps even past it. And Meretz is acting as if it’s business as usual.

A few of the political bloggers present at the meeting joined me. Itamar Shaltiel and Yossi Gurvitz said that Meretz cannot limit its work to the Knesset. The real game today is in the public arena, and Meretz is not taking part in it. We argued that Meretz should lead the protests in Jerusalem Jaffa and other places. I said that it’s not enough to vote against the Nakba law, and that they should publicly challenge such bills. Extreme right activists march in Arab towns and neighborhoods. Meretz Knesset Members can use their immunity and lead the protesters in Sheikh Jarrah into the disputed part of the neighborhood, to which the police only allows the settlers.

Former Haaretz Editor David Landau recently wrote that if the “boycott law” is passed, we should boycott the Knesset. He invited the state to prosecute him for these words. This sort of tactic, of challenging anti-democratic legislation, is very common in civil rights campaigns. But for some reason, this thinking is alien to the Zionist Left in Israel. Meretz officials do come to the demonstration in Sheikh Jarrah, but they never lead it. They vote against the Nakba law or the boycott low, but they would not defy them.

The problem is that voting is not that important right now. There is an overwhelming majority for these kinds of bills in the current Knesset. If an anti-democratic bill is not passed, it’s only because the government doesn’t want it to pass, usually out of concern for its image. Even if Meretz had six or seven seats instead of just three, it would not have change much. Not with eighty members of Knesset on the other side.

Haim Oron was very honest with us in his reply. “You are asking me to be a radical, and I’m not one,” he said. “I haven’t given up hope on the Knesset and on the Jewish public. My goal is to reach the twenty-something seats that used to vote for center-left parties. I haven’t given up on them.”

The debate went on, but both sides just repeated what was said. I did feel that Mossi Raz and Yifat Solel were closer to my way of thinking, but Meretz MKs are simply unreachable – two didn’t show up to the meeting and the third, which happens to head the party, simply views things differently. More then anything, it seems that Meretz is like a relic from a different age, holding on to ideas and tactics of the mid 90′s, drawing lines between them and the non-Zionist left and looking for support in the Israeli center, which has long gone to the right (at least Meretz is not moving with it, like Labor and Kadima do).

I don’t know if a different approach would get Meretz more votes. They might do nothing and still win some leftwing voters back from Kadima, or they might be wiped out completely if Channel 2 anchorman Yair Lapid decides to run to the Knesset and takes Meretz’s strongholds at Tel Aviv’s northern suburbs (the latter seems more likely). But this is not that important. What really matters is that right now, Meretz has no affect on the political reality in Israel.

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Official blog of the Meretz campaign, with other accounts on last week’s bloggers meeting (Hebrew).


Injuries, tear gas in Nabi Saleh, record crowd in Sheikh Jarrah / Personal notes from Friday’s demonstrations

Posted: May 21st, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: elections, media, The Left, The Settlements, this is personal | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments »
soldiers at Nabi Saleh

soldiers at Nabi Saleh

“Each Friday, there are at least 10 demonstrations involving Israelis and internationals in the West Bank,” tells me Didi Remez, as we drive to Nabi Saleh, the tiny village that has been fighting for months to regain access to a small spring that was taken over by settlers from nearby Halamish. Dozens of Israelis come to these protests, not counting the hundreds who arrive each Friday to Sheikh Jarrah in East Jerusalem.

Not much is going on when we arrive at Nabi Saleh. As we wait for the protesters to gather, we are offered lunch and cold water in a local house. Around 1.00 pm we join a small march down the village’s main street. Suddenly, three army jeeps appear and block the street, and about a dozen soldiers come out. About 25 protesters, most of them children and young girls, go all the way down to the soldiers, singing and shouting, accompanied by the photographers and the internationals. This goes on for about half an hour.

Then someone throws a stone. The soldiers respond with tear gas, lots of it. Together with a few other Israelis, I find shelter behind a local house. The wind carried the gas into the house and the old woman who lived there is now seating outside, tears running down her face. She signals me not to try and wash my face and instead just wait for the effect of the gas to fade.

The soldiers are chasing protesters into the village. Some of them occupy one of the houses, while the others fire tear gas from the street. Some of the nearby houses fill with gas, as their windows are broken from previous demonstrations. The Palestinians move to the upper part of the village, while the Israelis and internationals – who don’t take part in the stone throwing – are looking for safe corners, trying to avoid both the gas and the (very few) flying stones. Every now and then, the wind carries another cloud of gas towards our way.

The soldiers are shooting the gas cans directly at the protesters, and not in an arch, like I remember we were taught to do it in the army (you can see this in a these videos from a previous demonstration). Later, a Palestinian is injured after suffering a direct hit in his face.

After a couple of hours, we decide to leave the village (though the protest will go on almost till dusk). On the way back to the car, I see several boys, around the age of ten, falling to the ground, gasping for air after inhaling too much gas. Their faces are red and one of them is hardly breathing, but in a few minutes he recovers and rejoins the protesters.

A woman whose house was hit by tear gas

A woman whose house was hit by tear gas (p: Didi Remez)

By the time we get to Jerusalem, the protest on Shikh Jarrah is already on its way. The turnout is the best I’ve seen here: between 300 to 400 people. Without PR or money for busing, and after no less 30 protesters were arrested last week – somehow, it seemed that the protest is just getting bigger and bigger.

As Lisa Goldman notes, after Nabi Saleh, Jerusalem seems like a peaceful afternoon get-together. But for me it’s just as important, and I feel more at home here. Supporting the protest in the West Bank villages is crucial, but I find it emotionally hard to bear. After the last time I took part in it, it took me a full month to mount the strength to come again. To have soldiers point guns at me and fire tear gas is not only scary, but extremely strange. There is something in this experience that shakes my world. After all, I’m still an Israeli, and a reserve captain in the IDF for that matter!

I don’t take part in the stone throwing, but I definitely understand it and support the villagers in their struggle. Yet today in Nabi Saleh I asked myself from time to time what happens if the demonstration becomes more violent. What would I do – or feel – if a Molotov Cocktail is thrown?

I don’t have a good answer.

The protests in Jerusalem don’t carry such ideological and emotional problems. Ironically, the political message here is much more radical, since many Israelis who think we have nothing to do in Bilin or Nabi Saleh won’t like the idea of handing Sheikh Jarrah to the Palestinians, but the difference between the two events is unmistakable. Shikh Jarrah is an Israeli demonstration (with some Palestinians present); in the West Bank’s villages it’s the Palestinians who lead the action, and we are just guests. I find it fitting. I don’t expect many Israelis to come to Nabi Saleh to protest, but I do hope many will continue to take part in the demonstrations in Jerusalem, and that many others would join them.

Driving back from Jerusalem, this time with my mother, I was a bit encouraged. Recently, I’ve come to realize that Fridays in Sheikh Jarrah don’t feel like any other leftist event I’ve been to – and I had my share of them. Over the years, we had much bigger demonstrations, on much bigger issues – but something feels more real here, something even feels better. As if for the first time in years we are really doing exactly the right thing, and for the right reasons.

Protesters in Sheikh Jarrah

Protesters in Sheikh Jarrah

I forgot my camera today, so excuse the crappy photos taken on my phone. When I get better ones from one of the photographers who were with us, I will post them.

UPDATE: read Amitai Sandy’s account of the day’s protest in village of Maasra on comment #2.