Bibi’s Coalition Gamble

February 20, 2013 § 6 Comments

It has been almost a month since the Israeli election, and yesterday finally brought us the first move to form a coalition as Tzipi Livni’s Hatnua party agreed to join up with Bibi Netanyahu and Likud Beiteinu. I have been skeptical throughout the campaign and the election’s aftermath that Livni would come to an agreement with Netanyahu given her efforts to convince Ehud Olmert and even Shimon Peres to run; her failed maneuvering at uniting Hatnua, Labor, and Yesh Atid into an anti-Bibi bloc; her constant railing against Netanyahu as a danger and a failed prime minister; the fact that Hatnua includes former Labor leaders Amir Peretz and Amram Mitzna, neither of whom are exactly Netanyahu cheerleaders; and finally, her refusal to join with Bibi after the last election when her party – which was then Kadima – had the most seats in the Knesset and she would have been able to work out a deal in which she served as co-prime minister. Nevertheless, Livni has now reversed course and has accepted the positions of Justice Minister and chief negotiator with the Palestinians, and she will be reporting to Netanyahu rather than the eventual Foreign Minister in this latter gig.

Many people are now speculating on what this means for the peace process and whether Livni’s overseeing negotiations means that we can expect some real movement ahead. I don’t think this changes anything and I wouldn’t be taking any investment advice from people who think that Livni is going to pull Netanyahu along rather than the reverse, but the really interesting angle here is the political one. Bringing Livni into the coalition is not about Netanyahu signaling anything on the peace process, but about putting pressure on Naftali Bennett to join the government. The thinking on Netanyahu’s part goes as follows: he now has 37 seats lined up and getting Kadima and its 2 seats is a given, and he is on the verge of adding Shas (his real goal all along) and its 11 seats, which means that he can then turn to Bennett and Habayit Hayehudi and use their 12 seats to get past the magic number of 61. Netanyahu is gambling that once he adds Kadima and Shas, he will present Bennett with an ultimatum of joining the government or calling new elections, and that Bennett will not be able to withstand the pressure ensuing from calls for him to join a rightwing coalition and so he will crack. Essentially, Netanyahu is betting on Bennett’s alliance with Yair Lapid and Yesh Atid not being strong enough to buck the rightwing nationalist forces in HH who want to band together with Likud and the religious forces in HH who don’t see why serving in a government with Shas is the end of the world. Hence the immediate rumors that negotiations with Shas are proceeding and that it too will join the coalition imminently.

This plan of Bibi’s seems nicely formulated, but ultimately I don’t think it will work. More importantly, if Bennett is smart he will make sure that it doesn’t. The success of Bibi’s strategy turns on the idea that Bennett will do anything to avoid going to another round of elections, but much as I thought (correctly, as it turned out) that Netanyahu miscalculated in allying with Yisrael Beiteinu, I think he is miscalculating here as well. Netanyahu’s gamble is that new elections will cost Bennett seats and weaken his position, and that might have been true before yesterday, but bringing in Livni changes things in a big way. If I am a HH voter, I am not going to punish the party for not joining with its natural Likud partner by fleeing and and now voting for Likud since bringing Tzipi Livni on board to deal with peace process issues makes Likud untrustworthy. Looking at this map of election results and seeing where HH got votes makes this point abundantly clear; voters in Elon Moreh and Karnei Shomron are not now going to give up on Bennett and vote for Bibi given his most recent coalition choice.

In addition, many Likud voters are not going to be terribly happy now that Netanyahu has banded together with Livni, and I don’t see how doing so possibly increases his share of votes at all in a hypothetical new round of elections. If anything, it drives even more people away and into the arms of Bennett, and if you need some further proof, just look at Moshe Feiglin’s crack today that he hopes Likud will be in the coalition too. Furthermore, by trying to repeat history and bring Shas – his most pliable partners – into the coalition, Netanyahu is turning his back on the draft issue, which is one of the most popular issues in Israel today and which Lapid rode to his stunning success. Not only is Netanyahu potentially angering his base by bringing Livni in, he is angering many other voters who don’t understand why he insists on bringing Shas into the government despite the massive popular will for reforming the draft. Given what has transpired, if new elections were held today, I think that Likud would drop even further while Habayit Hayehudi and Yesh Atid would pick up some new mandates.

Netanyahu is behaving as if bringing first Livni and then Shas into the government gives him all the leverage he needs over Bennett to break up the YA-HH alliance, but I think he has things wrong. If he brings in Shas, he will then be unable to form a government without Lapid or Bennett (I am operating on the assumption that Labor is not joining at this point), and so in reality Bennett will be the one with the leverage over Netanyahu. Reports are that Bennett is feeling heat from within his party over his footdragging to run to Likud and his head-scratching unbreakable bond with Lapid, but by brining Livni into the government, Netanyahu actually did Bennett a favor. He now has a good excuse to sit tight, and once Netanyahu strikes a deal with Shas, he benefits further from sticking to his guns on the draft issue and staying out. If I were Bennett and Netanyahu presented me with the ultimatum to join the coalition with Shas or go to new elections, I would be printing up new campaign posters before even getting off the phone.

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Israeli Politics Should Be Serialized on HBO

December 7, 2012 § 2 Comments

On many Fridays I highlight some of the more ridiculous things that I have read over the past week, but today there is no need to link to or comment on specific articles and op-eds because the most entertaining spectacle of the week has been the maneuvering, pettiness, backstabbing, and theater of the absurd that is Israeli politics. At the heart of all the shifting back and forth are a number of personal relationships characterized by deep animosity that are manifesting themselves as shifts in political loyalties, and it is all making for the most mesmerizing election season that I can remember, in Israel or anywhere else.

First up is the curious case of Danny Ayalon, Israel’s deputy foreign minister and previously the number two person behind Avigdor Lieberman on Yisrael Beiteinu’s party list. On Tuesday, while he was on his way to the press conference announcing YB’s party list and just two hours before it was scheduled to begin, Ayalon received a call from Lieberman informing him that he was leaving Ayalon off YB’s Knesset slate for the January 22 election. Leaving aside the Night of the Long Knives quality to all of this in terms of its suddenness, the move to sideline Ayalon is puzzling in the extreme. Not only is Ayalon a top Foreign Ministry official and a former ambassador to the U.S., there was little hint that relations between him and Lieberman were so bad as to warrant this type of excommunication. In fact, Ayalon’s increasingly extreme rhetoric and behavior, such as his purposeful humiliation of the Turkish ambassador in January 2010 by making him sit on a low chair before television cameras and not displaying the Turkish flag and for which Ayalon was later forced to publicly apologize, seemed to be driven by the need to placate his boss. While Ayalon has reverted to his former more diplomatic self and has refused to make a scene, his father did not take the news terribly well and gave an interview in which he called Lieberman a “little Stalin.” Rumors abound as to why Ayalon was dumped, and the most likely explanation seems to be that Lieberman thought Ayalon had a history of leaking to the press and that he might not have been a fan of Ayalon’s high public profile. In any event, it is difficult to see how this makes Yisrael Beiteinu any stronger or inspires much confidence in Lieberman’s leadership.

Next is the fallout between Labor leader Shelley Yachimovich and former party head Amir Peretz, who was third on Labor’s list until yesterday, when he announced that he was leaving Labor and joining up with Tzipi Livni and her new Hatnua party. Is Peretz leaving because he feels that Labor is no longer a suitable ideological home for him, or because he has a close and longstanding relationship with Livni, or because he thinks that boosting Hatnua is in his country’s best interests? If you guessed any of these options, you’d be wrong. Peretz is bolting from Labor at the last minute, and literally only one week after Labor’s members deemed him to be such an important member of the party that he got the second most votes in the party’s primary, because he is jealous of Yachimovich and felt that she wasn’t giving him, a former defense minister and the man who is in some ways the godfather of the Iron Dome missile defense system, the requisite amount of respect. To put this into perspective, the former head of Israel’s largest trade union and Israel’s largest and most prominent leftwing party has just left his longtime political home despite its current laserlike focus on social and economic issues  - Peretz’s bread and butter – to join a party led by a former Likudnik and erstwhile Kadima head whose track record of commitment to liberal social causes is tenuous at best. The personal rivalry between Peretz and Yachimovich is so intense that he is actively hoping that Labor will go down in flames so that he can oust Yachimovich from the party leadership the next time around, and is willing to join up with a party and a politician with whom he shares no common cause other than a hatred of Bibi Netanyahu just so that he can punish Yachimovich. Isn’t it a shame that Shakespeare isn’t around to catalogue all of this?

Finally we have Tzipi Livni and her various hangups with her former allies and fellow travelers on the right. The relationship between her and Shaul Mofaz, who only months ago launched a palace coup and replaced her as head of Kadima, is obviously terrible, and so she undoubtedly took extra special joy in siphoning off seven members from Kadima on Monday. The reason this matters is that seven is the magic number that allows a faction to break off from a party and bring campaign funds with them, so now not only has Livni taken her revenge on Mofaz by guaranteeing Kadima’s electoral death, she is likely saddling him with debt as well by taking campaign money too. Then there is her longstanding refusal to join up with Netanyahu in a coalition following the elections no matter the outcome. While such declarations in Israeli politics obviously must be taken with a grain of salt – see Shaul Mofaz’s rhetoric right before banding together with Likud earlier this year as Exhibit A – Livni’s stance can probably be viewed as ironclad given the various opportunities she had to form a unity government following the 2009 elections that she turned down. She seems determined to spend the rest of her life trying to topple her former Likud buddy Bibi, and she doesn’t care how long or how many elections it takes. So we are left with the prospect of former Labor leaders Peretz and Amram Mitzna flocking to a party led by a right-winger claiming to be undergoing a conversion later in life, and the possible eventuality of the former Likud and Kadima official Livni refusing to join a coalition with Netanyahu after the elections while Labor under Yachimovich jumps at the chance. Is any of this logical? Nope, not really. But there’s Israeli politics for you, and if you’re not watching this drama as it unfolds, you’re missing the world’s greatest show.

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