Some Political Spats That Bear Watching

November 2, 2012 § Leave a comment

Today’s post is not a straight Friday gallimaufry, but does deal with disparate topics that all have a connecting theme. There are a couple of political relationships under serious stress that were in the news this week, and you should be keeping an eye on them in the months ahead because how the tensions are resolved will majorly impact politics in both Turkey and Israel.

The first pair is Prime Minister Erdoğan and President Gül. I’ve been predicting a clash between these two for awhile, and this week brought new tensions over their conflicting approaches to the Kemalist Republic Day rallies. After the governor of Ankara, presumably on Erdoğan’s orders, had banned a separate CHP-led rally outside the old Grand National Assembly building that was to coincide with the official government military parade, Gül told the governor to ignore the ban and remove police barriers from the site. This information prompted Erdoğan to strongly criticize Gül indirectly by denouncing “double-headed rule” and saying that if people want a strong presidential system, he is happy to oblige. Gül then fired back, stating that the president should make sure that government officials and police are allowing people to celebrate Republic Day in whatever manner they see fit and that there is no double-headed rule in Turkey. This fight is about more than just who ordered what with regard to Republic Day, and rather is the latest proxy battle over who is going to be Turkey’s next president. Once the new constitution creating an empowered president is in place, Erdoğan fully intends to be the first directly elected president in a presidential system and wants to push Gül out early. Naturally, Gül has no intention of leaving without a fight, and so this is the latest salvo in the fight that will determine both men’s political futures. As I’ve written before, expect to see lots more of this type of stuff going forward, and should the skirmishes get nastier, this has the potential to grind Turkey’s politics to a halt and rip the AKP apart.

The second pair in the news this week is Likud minister Moshe Kahlon and his long-time political home. Kahlon, who is Minister of Communications and Minister of Social Welfare and the most prominent Sephardi member of Likud, announced a few weeks that he would be stepping down from his post and not running in the Knesset elections in January. Kahlon is wildly popular for  reducing fees on all sorts of things from cell phones to bank transactions to electricity bills, not to mention he is the face of Likud’s Sephardi base, and so his announcement was bad news for Likud. Now it turns out that Kahlon might not be leaving politics after all, but is flirting with the idea of creating a new party, which is even worse news for the new Likud Beiteinu list. In many ways this makes sense, since Kahlon’s socioeconomic views clash with much of the official Likud party line, and his views on security issues and the Palestinians don’t exactly make him a Laborite. Bibi Netanyahu, realizing the threat that Kahlon poses, is now racing to keep him in Likud while a poll commissioned by Labor that shows it winning the most Knesset seats should Kahlon join the party means that Shelley Yachimovich is after him too. I don’t see Kahlon going to Labor, and my hunch is that he is not going to form his own party but is rather using the polls showing him damaging Likud Beiteinu should he run alone as leverage to return to Likud in a more powerful position. In any event, the Kahlon-Likud dance also has the possibility to alter the trajectory of Israeli politics depending on the outcome, so keep a close eye on how it is resolved.

Finally, there is the domestic dispute between San Francisco Chronicle columnist Bruce Jenkins and his brain, which apparently decided to leave Jenkins’ body and take with it any cognitive capacity for logic and reasoning that Jenkins had. That is the obvious conclusion to be drawn after reading this brilliant paean to ignorance in which Jenkins claims that the world champion San Francisco Giants won the World Series because the members of the Giants front office “look at the face, the demeanor, the background, the ability to play one’s best under suffocating pressure” rather than even take a glance at players’ statistics – otherwise known as the way one actually measures whether a player is good or not – and that “if you throw a binder full of numbers on their desk, they don’t quite get the point.” I know I have made this plea before, but Michael Schur (aka Ken Tremendous) and crew really need to come out of retirement and start up Fire Joe Morgan again. Where does one even begin with this mind-blowing example of  imbecilic dreck that would have been more believable had it appeared in the Onion? Yes Bruce Jenkins, I am sure that the team that drafted and developed such classic physical specimens as Buster Posey and Tim Lincecum relies only on scouting reports and never looks at stats. The way to win two World Series in three seasons is to completely ignore a huge resource of evidence and to just rely on your gut. Yup, that must be how it was done, since there is no way that Brian Sabean even knows how to do long division, let alone figure out what VORP stands for. There are two possibilities here. The first is that Jenkins is seriously delusional to the point that he is becoming a danger to the people around him. The second is that he is perpetrating an elaborate Joaquin Phoenix piece of performance art. Irrespective of which of these two options is the correct answer, Bruce Jenkins’ family might want to get him to a mental health professional as soon as possible.


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Did Bibi Make A Mistake?

October 31, 2012 § Leave a comment

Like I said yesterday, I’ve been thinking a lot about the Likud Beiteinu deal and whether it is actually going to accomplish what Netanyahu and Lieberman are hoping. I expanded on my thoughts from yesterday for Foreign Policy, and looked at whether Likud Beiteinu is going to add to the vote share that the two parties have separately and what the whole thing means for the U.S. You can read the original article on FP’s website here, and I have reproduced it below for convenience sake.

In an announcement last Thursday that shocked the Israeli political establishment, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman stated their intention to merge Netanyahu’s Likud Party with Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu. Despite the contention made by some — notably Haaretz editor Aluf Benn — that this move creates a war cabinet that will make it easier for Israel to strike Iranian nuclear facilities, it’s more likely the two men had domestic politics at the forefront of their minds. In birthing the new Likud Beiteinu, Netanyahu and Lieberman are hoping to create a monolith that will dominate Israeli politics for years to come.

Creating a workable majority in the 120-seat Knesset has proven to be difficult, and always requires a coalition of larger and smaller parties. In the current Knesset, Kadima has the most seats with 28, and Likud comes in second with 27, but these numbers are historically low for the top vote-getters. Two decades ago, Labor won the 1992 Knesset elections after garnering 44 seats and Likud came in second with 32 seats, while the previous election in 1988 had yielded 40 seats for Likud and 39 for Labor’s leftwing bloc. Netanyahu and Lieberman are gambling that their new Likud Beiteinu party will be an electorally dominant rightwing giant by combining the strength of their two parties while also picking up former Likud voters who have voted for Kadima in the past two elections. The hope is that a bigger party will have the strength to withstand hostage-taking demands from smaller parties and be able to push its agenda through the Knesset with a minimum of haggling and horse trading. That agenda is likely to include a renewed push for Haredi military service, more building in the West Bank, and a neoliberal economic policy — and Netanyahu wants to be able to carry his policies out with a minimum of resistance.

While this is nice in theory, it is unlikely to play out in the way that Netanyahu and Lieberman hope. To begin with, the current polls are not looking too promising and show Likud Beiteinu either slipping from its current combination of 42 seats or maintaining the exact same share of the Knesset that it holds now. Controlling 42 seats as a single party would give Netanyahu a lot of power and flexibility, and there is certainly plenty of time between now and the election for Likud Beiteinu to surge in the polls. There are, however, good reasons to believe that the new party is not going to surge, but is actually going to slip.

To begin with, Likud Beiteinu might have a real problem with the Russian voters who make up Yisrael Beiteinu’s base. A poll commissioned for Channel 99 showed only 59 percent of 2009 Yisrael Beiteinu voters casting their ballot for the new mega-party in 2013, with 22 percent undecided. It is very possible that Russian voters who voted for Yisrael Beiteinu because it served as a patronage party bringing benefits to Russian immigrants are rightfully wary that Likud Beiteinu will have the same focus, and are casting around for another party to fill that void.

Within Likud, there is a mirror-image problem of the party’s base of Mizrahi (Jews primarily from Iraq, Syria, and Yemen) voters being turned off by the elevation of the Russian Lieberman to the second-most powerful person in Likud. The party has long struggled with the problem of having a Sephardi grassroots and an Ashkenazi leadership, and the inclusion of Lieberman along with the concurrent exit of Communications Minister Moshe Kahlon, who is of Libyan descent, might very well drive some Likud voters into the arms of Shas, which represents ultra-Orthodox Sephardi voters.

Another reason to suspect that this new arrangement is not going to yield as strong a party as Netanyahu hopes is that it rests on an odd and somewhat counterintuitive theory of party strengthening. As a general rule, the best ways to create a newly large and powerful party are to co-opt the opposition and to create a big tent that welcomes many different factions. The Likud-Kadima coalition agreement in May — despite its quick demise — was actually a successful attempt at such a maneuver since it eliminated Likud’s largest opponent and built bridges between a rightwing party and a more centrist party. The merger deal with Yisrael Beiteinu, however, will not be successful at co-opting smaller centrist parties and it will not create a big tent, as both Likud and YB reside on the right side of the political spectrum.

What this means in practice is that we are likely to see Likud Beiteinu get the largest share of seats in the Knesset but with nothing approaching a mandate for action. Rather than smooth sailing for the ruling party, there will be the usual political gridlock and unstable coalition as the smaller parties extort Likud Beiteinu to fund their pet projects as a condition of joining the government. Lieberman is also an unusually polarizing figure, and his presence at the top will make it harder for a party like Labor to even contemplate joining up in a unity government.

There are also some real implications here for the new U.S. administration, whomever the next president might be. The fact that Netanyahu is not going to be in as strong a position as he anticipates means that he will not be able to afford alienating his settler base or risk an insurrection from Moshe Feiglin, Danny Danon, and the more revanchist wing of Likud. Lieberman, himself a settler, takes an extremely hard-line positions on settlements as well, and thus the new Likud Beiteinu is likely to frustrate any desires on the part of the United States for the Israeli government to either freeze settlement building or to make concessions to the Palestinians, who have been immovably intransigent. The formation of Likud Beiteinu might even deal the final fatal blow to the Palestinian Authority, as Lieberman has been waging a months-long campaign to discredit Mahmoud Abbas by calling him a diplomatic terrorist and is unlikely in his newly powerful position to agree to keep on bolstering the PA. This will create all sorts of headaches for the United States and means that any remaining optimism surrounding the peace process is misplaced.

Netanyahu and Lieberman are banking that their new party will be greater than the sum of its parts, but there is an excellent chance that it will actually be the opposite. Should that turn out to be the case, expect to see a continuation of the congestion that has marked Israeli politics and frustrated its diplomacy over the last decade.

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