Lessons To Be Learned From Netanyahu’s Victory

March 18, 2015 § 8 Comments

I’m going to pat myself on the back for predicting on Monday that Likud and Bibi Netanyahu would win the most seats, that Buji Herzog would have no viable path to becoming prime minister, and that the government formed would boil down to Moshe Kahlon deciding whether to go with Netanyahu or force a national unity government (for the record, I think Kahlon going with Netanyahu is now an inevitability given how things turned out.) But my specific seat predictions were way off, and it’s easy to see how. I expected two things to happen, which I closed out the post with: “First, I think that Likud will gain back some votes at Habayit Hayehudi’s expense as rightwing voters are freaked out by the late Zionist Camp surge in the polls, and decide to throw their support behind Netanyahu despite their general fatigue with him. Second, socioeconomic issues are dominating people’s concerns, and that will translate into unexpectedly strong showings for Yesh Atid and Kulanu at the expense of Zionist Camp and Shas.” I was more right than I knew about that first statement, and vastly underestimated just how much that shift from BY to Likud was going to occur. I was dead wrong about that second statement, which is what led me so far astray. Let’s dive into the numbers a bit to see what actually happened yesterday, and I have some thoughts on what the various consequences might be.

The most useful comparison is between this year’s results and the 2013 results. In 2013, the rightwing bloc of Likud, Yisrael Beiteinu, and Habayit Hayehudi won 43 seats; the leftwing bloc of Labor and Meretz won 21 seats; the two state solution bloc (which was only Hatnua) won 6 seats; the socioeconomic reform bloc (which was only Yesh Atid) won 19 seats; the Haredi bloc of Shas and UTJ won 18 seats; the Arab bloc won 11 seats. The last two seats went to Kadima, but frankly nobody at the time could explain what Kadima stood for and was running on, and I’m not going to try.

In yesterday’s election, the rightwing bloc of the same three parties won 44 seats; the leftwing bloc of the same two parties plus Hatnua (since it formed an electoral alliance with Labor) won 28 seats; the socioeconomic reform bloc of Yesh Atid and Kulanu won 21 seats; the Haredi bloc won 13 seats; the Arab bloc that is now the Joint List won 14 seats. Compared to the last election, the nationalist right picked up only one seat, the left picked up only one seat (since Zionist Camp plus Meretz in 2013 added up to 27, and it’s unfortunately impossible to tease out which Zionist Camp votes were for Labor and which were for Hatnua), the socioeconomic camp picked up two seats, the Arab bloc picked up three seats, and the Haredi parties lost five seats. Nothing about this is a surge for the right, or for any side for that matter; the various blocs remained more or less constant, with the exception of the Haredi bloc losing seats due to the Shas-Yachad split. But it is unquestionably a surge for Likud itself, which went from 19 seats in the current Knesset to 30 seats in the next one. Where did those seats come from? It’s pretty evident that they came from the two other rightwing nationalist parties, Habayit Hayehudi and Yisrael Beiteinu, which respectively won 12 and 11 seats in 2013 but fell off a cliff to 8 and 6 yesterday. When you add in the seat that Likud picked up once Eli Yishai’s Yachad party did not make the threshold, you account for pretty much all of Likud’s gain. There is simply no denying that Netanyahu’s eleventh hour tactics worked, which were to drum up turnout on the right and explicitly make the case that rightwing voters could only vote for Likud or they would be risking a leftist government. He successfully cannibalized his natural allies, and in so doing increased Likud’s share of the pie without making the pie any bigger.

The related questions of turnout versus polling are interesting as well. My initial instinct yesterday was that the polling – both pre-election and exit – must have been garbage, and I noted on Monday that there are many reasons not to trust Israeli polling, which proves to be inaccurate in some measure every cycle. After thinking about it a bit more though, now I’m not quite so sure. The legal moratorium on polls in the last few days before an election meant that no poll could be conducted after Thursday, and the exit polls were concluded two hours before the actual election itself (since they aren’t interview surveys, but require Israeli voters to cast their actual vote and then go and cast a dummy vote in a fake voting box for the exit pollsters, which then get collected and tallied). Netanyahu’s huge campaign push – in which he gave an unprecedented number of interviews and turned up the nationalist rhetoric –  occurred over the weekend and through election day itself, so the pre-voting polls would have had no way of capturing this effect. As far as the exit polls go, final voter turnout was up 4% from 2013, but if you were obsessively keeping track of the turnout numbers throughout the day yesterday as I was, you know that this turnout surge did not take place until very late in the day, so that the exit polls (which aren’t really polls) missed much of it. The exit polls may very well have been correct in reflecting a 27-27 deadlock between Likud and Zionist Camp at 8 PM Israel time, and the anecdotal evidence suggests that there was a flood of rightwing voters in the last couple of hours. The takeaway from this is not necessarily that Israeli pollsters are incompetent, although that can’t be ruled out, but that the accuracy of Israeli polling is not served by the legal blackout at the end of the campaign. On turnout, it should be noted that Netanyahu’s old-fashioned barn-burning turnout efforts destroyed the get out the vote campaign run by V-15 and Jeremy Bird. Likud increased its share of the rightwing vote, while Zionist Camp didn’t increase the percentage of leftwing voters or even get more of them to vote for Herzog. The money spent in this campaign to unseat Netanyahu was as big of a waste as what GOP groups spent in 2012 to get rid of Obama.

If there is one big thing that jumps out at me the day after, it is that ideology and identity distinctly trump economics in Israeli politics. Like in 2013, voters overwhelmingly listed socioeconomic concerns as their top issue in the run-up to the election, but ultimately that made little difference. There was no flock of new voters to Yesh Atid and Kulanu, which both ran on the economy and quality of life issues and had very little of substance to say on security. Likud, which barely bothered to campaign on specific policies, hugely increased its vote share by essentially saying, trust Netanyahu on security and send a message to the leftists and their foreign backers trying to take over your country. It was an emotional and identity-based appeal to nationalism that resonated with many voters, and it is a tactic that is sure to be replicated on both sides in the future.

There are many dangers in overt appeals to nationalism, one of which is that when you win, it makes it easier to demonize your opponents and claim that you have a mandate to do whatever you please. For Exhibit A through Z on how this works in practice, take a gander through the increasing ugliness of Turkish politics that has been wrought largely by Tayyip Erdoğan. Israel’s political system makes this even messier because of how it is structured. Netanyahu will act like he has been granted an enormous mandate following a landslide victory; after all, he beat the next largest party by a 25% margin in seats, obliterated the predictions for Likud based on the polls, and is going to control the winning coalition and be prime minister. Taking a step back though, Israel’s proportional representation political system means that in reality he won only 23% of the votes cast, which translates to 25% of the seats in the Knesset. He is simultaneously the clear winner and on the receiving end of 77% of Israeli voters preferring someone else. This does not in any way make his win illegitimate, and anyone who argues otherwise does not want to face reality, but the fact of the matter is that the system itself encourages post-election overreach. Netanyahu and his supporters are going to insist that his win validates his entire approach to politics, the Palestinians, the international community, etc. because voters were presented with a choice and they choose him. The true answer to that is in some ways yes and in some ways no, and as he will be leading the government fair and square, he can do as he pleases since that is how democracy works. But objectively, when the clear victor can only manage to get 1 out of every 4 votes cast, the system is probably not translating voters’ preferences into the appropriate policy outputs.

I don’t think much needs to be written on what Israeli policy will look like under a third consecutive Netanyahu government, since there aren’t very many surprises left. Netanyahu is who he is, and he is not going to undergo a late in life conversion that convinces him to shift course. I am more interested in what happens to Israel in the U.S., since Netanyahu’s reelection is going to keep on affecting one political trend that is already in full swing and may influence another, and perhaps more important, social one. The first is the partisanization of Israel in the U.S., which was very much laid bare by the machinations surrounding Netanyahu’s speech to Congress. The blame for this lies partially on both sides, although I certainly think one side is far more to blame than the other. Everyone with a dose of common sense knows that the White House badly wanted to see Netanyahu get tossed out by Israeli voters and that Netanyahu is now just biding his time until January 20, 2017 so that he never needs to think about Obama again, so it goes without saying that relations between Obama and Netanyahu for the next 22 months are going to be abysmal, and probably even non-existent. Will U.S.-Israel ties survive and come out the other side intact? Of course they will. But there will be more ugliness ahead and short-term relations are going to be very rocky, and if I worked in the prime minister’s office, starting today I would be spending all of my time coming up with a strategic plan for operating in the world without an automatic U.S. veto in the UN Security Council, because I think that era is now officially over. Netanyahu clearly and explicitly rejected a Palestinian state on Monday, and there is no walking it back or dissembling after the fact. That he did so wasn’t and shouldn’t be a surprise, but it destroys the legal fiction that he had constructed, and so when the Israeli government talks about the Palestinians not living up to their Oslo obligations or their promises to the Quartet (which in many ways they aren’t), that now officially goes both ways. You cannot insist that Palestinians must establish a state through the sole route of negotiations with Israel after you have declared unequivocally and without reservation that there will be no independent Palestinian state in the West Bank so long as you are prime minister. It was electioneering, but electioneering is not consequence-free.

Lastly, there is the pink elephant in the room that I have been ignoring so far in this blog post. Assess the following quote: “The right wing government is in danger. Black voters are coming out in droves to the polls. Left wing NGOs are bringing them on buses. We have no NAACP; we have the National Guard, we have only you. Go the polls, bring your friends and family. Vote Republican in order to close the gap between us and the Democrats. With your help and with God’s help, we will form a nationalist government that will protect the United States.” Nobody with any sense of decency would call that a legitimate effort to counter a get out the vote drive targeting minority voters. So when Netanyahu said it yesterday about Arabs – which everyone by now recognizes as the direct quote from him, with the specifics altered of course to make the analogy work – it wasn’t simply a legitimate attempt to just bring voters to the polls, as the usual suspects are reflexively arguing. Does this mean that Netanyahu is racist and has been harboring views all of these years that he just now allowed to come out, or that he made a racist appeal in a desperate attempt to boost his prospects? I don’t know, and frankly it doesn’t matter, since neither explanation is acceptable. The prime minister of any country should be nothing short of proud when more citizens vote, and exhorting only the right kind of citizen to get to the polls in order to counter the wrong sort of citizen is disgusting and unworthy of the leader of a democracy. That some people are falling all over themselves to pretend that there is nothing out of the ordinary or objectionable about this reflects just as poorly upon them as Netanyahu’s comments do upon himself. What all of this leads to for me is to wonder how this will affect American Jews. Just as the rejection of a Palestinian state under any circumstances will have political consequences, the blatantly racist appeal is going to have social consequences among American Jewry. American Jews as a group proudly support Israel, and one of the reasons is a conviction that Israel is in a tough spot but is genuinely trying to do the right thing. That argument, both internally and externally, becomes harder by some degree or another after yesterday. Are people going to look at the Jewish state bill in a new light? Is Netanyahu still going to get nearly universal support from establishment groups? Most crucially, what is the effective counter when the odious Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement takes this quote and argues incessantly that it proves official and institutional racism in Israel? I don’t know the definitive answer to these questions, but I suspect that it will ultimately prove to be a significant aspect of Netanyahu’s eventual legacy.

Who’s Going To Win Tomorrow’s Israeli Election?

March 16, 2015 § 5 Comments

Israeli politics is massively entertaining and raucous under normal circumstances, but tomorrow’s election is particularly special since for the first time in awhile, the outcome is entirely up in the air. Nobody knows with any real degree of certainty who will emerge victorious or how the coalition horse trading will conclude or even who is going to get the first shot at building that coalition. Americans – me very much included – spend lots of time watching shows like House of Cards, Scandal, Game of Thrones, and others that provide twists and turns that hinge on varying degrees of political surprises, but there is nothing like the real thing, and Israel’s election is certain to provide that. If you haven’t been paying attention, you’re missing the best reality show that exists.

Anybody who is confident that they know who the ultimate winner will be is demagoguing and I do not claim any clairvoyant powers, so take everything that follows with a grain of salt as it is nothing more than my best guess based on the last polls that were published on Friday and some intuition developed after years of closely paying attention to Israeli political trends. Israeli polls are notoriously unreliable; large classes of voters are disproportionately inaccessible to pollsters (Haredim, Arabs, immigrants, working poor), Israeli voters are fickle and in many cases do not decide until the last minute, and the proportional representation system presents a fundamental dilemma of voting strategically versus voting your conscience. For instance, pretend that you are a lifelong Meretz voter stepping up to the ballot box on Tuesday. You are almost certainly secular, liberal, Ashkenazi, living in Tel Aviv or its immediate environs, and you despise Netanyahu with a burning passion. In the last election, you knew that the left had no shot at forming the government and so there was no reason not to vote for Meretz. In this election, however, the last polls gave the Machane Tziyoni (Zionist Camp) alliance led by Herzog and Livni a four point lead over Likud, and you know that at least a four point margin is likely required if Zionist Camp is to be given the first shot at forming the government. So voting for Meretz and the leftist bloc overall is actually not cost-free even though your vote for Meretz is functionally a vote for a Herzog government, as Herzog needs as much as a lead as he can get over Netanyahu in order to get a chance at building a coalition. The Habayit Hayehudi voter at the opposite end of the spectrum is faced with the same choice; voting for the far-right party that is guaranteed to be part of a Netanyahu coalition risks empowering the leftist (and yes, that is a dirty word to your typical rightwing Israeli voter), defeatist, if not outright anti-Zionist Herzog and Livni, and so do you swallow your principles and vote for Likud directly, or do you vote for Habayit Hayehudi and Naftali Bennett as the only way of keeping Netanyahu honest and guaranteeing that a Likud government will never compromise on settlements and giving up land? This is all a roundabout way of saying that Nate Silver’s sorcery would never work on the Israeli election, because the polls are a guidepost but are not entirely trustworthy.

Assuming that the final polling results hold up – and I don’t think that they necessarily will – it is going to be very hard for Herzog and Livni to form a government. The last Channel 2 poll had Zionist Camp at 25, Likud at 21, Joint Arab List at 13, Yesh Atid at 11, Habayit Hayehudi at 11, Kulanu at 9, Shas at 9, UTJ at 6, Yisrael Beiteinu at 6, Meretz at 5, and Yachad at 4. We can safely assume that Zionist Camp, Yesh Atid, and Meretz are a united bloc, which is 41 seats. Likud, Habayit Hayehudi, and Yachad will not join with that group under any circumstances and they hold 36 seats, which leaves a leftwing government needing to pick up 20 seats from the 43 remaining. The 13 seats held by the Arab list can be used to block Netanyahu and Likud, but since the Arab list is not going to sit with Zionist parties barring a momentous and unprecedented policy change, Herzog actually needs to find 20 seats from the 30 represented by Kulanu, Shas, UTJ, and Yisrael Beiteinu. Shas and UTJ have sat with leftwing governments in the past, but even if they are willing to do so again, neither they or Lapid will sit with each other. Yisrael Beiteinu, which is led by Avigdor Lieberman, won’t sit with Meretz (and vice versa). Herzog could potentially pick up Kulanu, but he’d still need to somehow break the logjam between Lapid and the Haredi parties in order to get to the magic number of 61. In other words, Zionist Camp can beat Likud and the ideological leftwing bloc can beat the ideological rightwing bloc, and Herzog still has an almost impossible uphill climb to form a coalition. Not many people foresaw the bizarre Lapid-Bennett alliance two years ago and so I’m not willing to say that Herzog cannot somehow work some sort of combination of magic and legalized bribery in order to cobble something together, but it would be pretty much the most unworkable coalition in Israeli history and would be on death watch from day one. The one big wrinkle would be if the Arab list decides that actual political power is worth compromising on its principles and joins the coalition, but even then Herzog is not home free as Kahlon has publicly stated that he will not sit in a government that is dependent on the Joint Arab List for seats, which means convincing the Haredi parties to sit with Lapid, Meretz, and Arab parties. In other words, I wouldn’t be putting very much money on the next prime minister being Buji Herzog.

Netanyahu’s path is also difficult, but far less so. He starts with 36 and needs another 25 out of the remaining 30, but Shas, UTJ, and Yisrael Beiteinu sat in Netanyahu’s 2009 coalition and are all natural Likud partners. Those three parties get him to 57, meaning that Netanyahu’s fate hinges upon Kahlon. On the one hand, Kahlon is a former Likud minister whose list includes Netanyahu’s first term ambassador to the U.S. (Michael Oren) and whose support is drawn from Mizrahi traditional Likud supporters. On the other, Kahlon left Likud for a reason, starting with the fact that his stance on socioeconomic issues – which is his raison d’être in politics – is way out of whack with Likud and the right generally, and his base of voters has become disillusioned with Likud after feeling like it has been taken for granted and leans more left on economic issues. That Kahlon has stated as his goal to be appointed finance minister also cuts both ways. Netanyahu publicly promised over the weekend that Kahlon would be finance minister in his government irrespective of the number of seats Kulanu wins (an offer that Kahlon refused to accept before the election), and this is a promise that Herzog cannot match given his pledge to appoint Manuel Trajtenberg as finance minister should Zionist Camp form the next government. Despite this, it is hard to imagine Kahlon being more empowered to implement his agenda of lowering housing costs and regulating Israel’s banking system under a Likud government than he would be under a Labor government, and Kahlon know this full well. Again, I claim no clairvoyance to know what Kahlon is thinking or what his natural inclination is before both sides start wooing him in earnest, but I do know that he appears to control the only viable path to a third consecutive Netanyahu term, and you can bet that Netanyahu will move heaven and earth to gain Kahlon’s support. To paraphrase Mel Brooks, it’s good to be the king(maker).

Assuming that Kahlon does not want to enthrone Bibi, it means that Israel is headed for a national unity government. That could happen right away if Kahlon and Lieberman (natural allies in many ways given that they are both immigrants who came of age in Likud and now head parties that champion socially rightwing voters who have traditionally been poor and on the margins of Israeli society) decide that they will not recommend either Netanyahu or Herzog to President Rubi Rivlin and instead insist on a short-lived national unity government (and if they do this, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Yair Lapid, with his finger perpetually to the wind, do the same). It could also happen after three or six weeks of drawn out haggling with no resolution. If this happens, it would mean Netanyahu and Herzog agreeing to a prime ministerial rotation, and I have my doubts as to whether Bibi would actually accept such a scenario or would resign instead. In any event, for those who are still following along here, the sum total of this is that I am expecting either a third Netanyahu term or a national unity government, and which one occurs hinges entirely on Moshe Kahlon.

A few other small things to watch out for if you’re keeping score at home. First is whether Meretz, Yisrael Beiteinu, and Yachad clear the new higher electoral threshold of 3.25%, up from a previous 2%. While I suspect they will all squeak in – and frankly, you almost have to be rooting for YB and Lieberman not to make it for poetic justice purposes since he engineered the higher threshold in an effort to keep the Arab parties out in a move that backfired ever so spectacularly – the one I am keeping my eye on is Meretz, since it will not surprise me if Meretz is kept out of the Knesset. Meretz has basically been on a long and slow 15 year decline, but the pressure is really on now because I expect some Meretz voters to defect to Zionist Camp now that the left smells blood in the water and is riding the momentum of the final polls putting Herzog and Livni in first place. If Meretz does not make it in, this places Herzog’s path to becoming prime minister even further out of reach.

Second is the bad blood – and that’s putting it mildly – between Yachad leader Eli Yishai and Shas leader Aryeh Deri, the man whom Yishai replaced as head of Shas and who then had his revenge by replacing Yishai. In an effort to get back at Deri, Yishai split from Shas, initiating a nasty internecine fight and invoking insults directed at Deri from beyond the grave by deceased Shas spiritual leader and founder Ovadia Yosef. Yishai and Deri are mortal enemies, and having the two of them in the same coalition might present some problems as well.

And lastly, a final word about the polls. As I indicated, I don’t particularly trust in their accuracy, and I am guessing that they will be wrong in a few ways. First, I think that Likud will gain back some votes at Habayit Hayehudi’s expense as rightwing voters are freaked out by the late Zionist Camp surge in the polls, and decide to throw their support behind Netanyahu despite their general fatigue with him. Second, socioeconomic issues are dominating people’s concerns, and that will translate into unexpectedly strong showings for Yesh Atid and Kulanu at the expense of Zionist Camp and Shas. Since I want to give everyone the opportunity to mock how far off I am, my final spot predictions for the election are as follows:

Likud – 23
Zionist Union – 22
Yesh Atid -15
Joint Arab List – 12
Kulanu – 12

Habayit Hayehudi – 11
UTJ – 7
Shas – 6
Yisrael Beiteinu – 4
Meretz – 4
Yachad – 4

Netanyahu Is Going To Trade One Headache For Another

December 3, 2014 § 4 Comments

The big news from Israel this week is that early elections, long predicted by many, are now officially here. Following months of bickering between Bibi Netanyahu and his various ministers, internal upheaval within Likud, and fights over legislation involving the budget and the Jewish nation-state bill, Netanyahu yesterday fired Yair Lapid and Tzipi Livni from the cabinet, the Knesset voted to dissolve, and elections have been scheduled for March 17. This government did not even make it to the two year mark before dissolving (elections were in January 2013 and the coalition was formed in March of that year), but this shouldn’t have come as a surprise to anyone. This was in many ways the strangest and most unlikely coalition government to ever be compiled in Israeli history. You had ministers from other rightwing parties not even trying to hide their desire to at some point soon supplant Bibi by overthrowing Likud, ministers from Bibi’s own party quitting because of their distaste for him, an alliance between two parties – Yesh Atid and Habayit Hayehudi – that had little business allying on anything but did so in an effort to box Bibi in, and such polar opposite opinions between ministers on matters ranging from Jerusalem to the peace process to the budget to Israel’s identity that the government could not credibly claim to have a unified coherent opinion on anything. So this was never a matter of if the government would spectacularly implode, but a matter of when.

Yet despite the complete dysfunction and mayhem that has marked Israel’s 33rd government, Netanyahu’s move to fire his ministers now and to hold new elections is a misstep for him. Netanyahu’s thinking seems rather straightforward here, and theoretically makes sense; the polls indicate a bigger share of votes for rightwing parties in general, so he can go to new elections, construct a coalition that leaves out Lapid and Livni and thus eliminates his budgetary nemesis and his peace process nemesis, and bring in the Haredi parties instead – who will do whatever Bibi wants provided they get their usual buy-offs in the form of subsidies and benefits – and have a much easier time managing his government. It seems simple enough to trade in the current coalition for a more rightwing and pliable one, but Netanyahu may find in the end that he is going to get more than he bargained for, because while this plan makes sense on paper, the path to getting there is not quite so easy.

For starters, a more rightwing coalition doesn’t necessarily mean a more pliable one. The truth is that for varying reasons, Netanyahu has very few allies left on the right aside from Yuval Steinitz and Bogie Ya’alon. Not only is he without allies, but leading rightwing politicians actively and openly despise him. President Ruvi Rivlin, whose Likud credentials are unimpeachable, would love nothing more than to see Bibi toppled following the prime minister’s failed attempt to prevent Rivlin from replacing Shimon Peres as Israel’s president and views Bibi as unnecessarily inflaming relations between Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs. Gideon Sa’ar, who is enormously popular among the rank and file and who was the leading vote getter in the last Likud primary, resigned his ministerial and Knesset posts in September, but gave a “retirement” speech in which he made plain his disdain for Netanyahu and that he would be returning to politics in the near future. Moshe Kahlon, another popular Likud politician who was a main driver of Mizrahi votes for the party, suddenly quit the party right before the last election over reported differences with Bibi and has now formed his own party with the aim of siphoning more votes away from Netanyahu. The enmity between Netanyahu and the ascendant radical Likudniks such as Danny Danon and Moshe Feiglin is well-documented and this group smells blood in the water as an isolated Netanyahu now sits on an island occupying the left pole of the party. Then there is Avigdor Lieberman, who is zigging and zagging – including releasing his own peace plan last week – and trying to be all things to all people in hopes of fulfilling his long held dream of becoming prime minister one day himself. He is only going to cooperate with Netanyahu to the extent that it furthers his own career interests, and given that the best way of positioning himself is to differentiate himself from the current prime minister, I don’t anticipate much altruism from Lieberman being directed Bibi’s way.

Finally there is Naftali Bennett, who is slated to take over Yair Lapid’s role as Bibi’s bete noire in the next government. Despite appearing to have reached a detente in recent months, Bennett and Netanyahu are still at odds, still have personal issues with each other (thanks to Sara Netanyahu), and are natural political rivals. Unlike Lapid though, Bennett represents an actual threat to Bibi, because he has the ability to hit Bibi where it hurts by stealing the prime minister’s own base. I have been arguing for years that the real political threat to Netanyahu comes not from his left but from his right, and Bennett is the personification of that threat. He is more appealing to the settler right and to nationalists – and let there be no doubt that Netanyahu’s championing of the Jewish nation-state bill is primarily an effort to win back the mantle of Israel’s most vigilant nationalist – and more appealing to the economically conservative technology and entrepreneur class as he is one of them. The right trusts him in a way that they don’t trust Bibi, and this goes double for religious voters. Bennett has also made a naked play at broadening Habayit Hayehudi’s electoral appeal by amending the party’s constitution in September to allow him to directly appoint every fifth candidate to the party’s electoral list in order to get more secular and Russian candidates into Habayit Hayehudi’s Knesset bloc. The upshot of all this is that Bennet doesn’t want to help Netanyahu; he wants to replace Netanyahu. He knows that it is unlikely to happen outright in this election, but if Bennett emerges from elections with the second most mandates in the Knesset, he is going to spend his time either pulling Netanyahu rightward  – and loudly taking the credit for the results – or setting up showdowns designed to expose Netanyahu as a fraud to Israeli rightwing voters. Either way, Netanyahu may end up longing for the types of battles that he had with Lapid rather than those that will be orchestrated by Bennett.

Then there is Netanyahu’s assumption that the result of elections in March will be more overall Knesset seats for the rightwing bloc, and I’m not so sure about this one either. The current polls certainly reflect this to be the case, but the election is three months away and Israeli polls are notoriously unreliable. If Lapid and Livni band together, which by all indications is going to happen, it is going to pull the combined party to the left as Lapid will bring Livni along with the socially oriented economic program that he cares most about while Livni brings Lapid along with the peace process program that she cares most about, and such a party has a good shot of picking up more votes than the individual sum of its parts. In addition, Kahlon is polling well despite having literally no platform or real public positions yet, and that may dissipate very quickly once he is held to the fire. Even if it doesn’t, Kahlon’s party may end up being more leftwing than rightwing given his historical focus on socioeconomic issues for Israel’s more underprivileged sectors. The Israeli economy has suffered since the Gaza war, and if Netanyahu’s economic stewardship becomes a loud campaign issue, which Lapid and Labor are both trying to make happen, it does not bode well for any of the parties on the right given Netanyahu’s reputation as the godfather of unbridled Israeli capitalism.

Leaving aside the right more generally, Likud itself may not even match its current nineteen seats despite the early polls. Voters are wary about the state of the economy, and for the first time in a decade there is a real sense of unease over the domestic security situation given the spate of attacks in Jerusalem and the West Bank. Netanyahu’s choice of making such a big deal over the nation-state bill is also an odd one, as his traditional appeal is as the only experienced grownup in the room who can truly protect Israel in a time of growing threats. There is risk in pursuing this battle-tested strategy coming on the heels of a mixed performance in Gaza and new upheaval on the Palestinian front, but it is also true that many more Israelis are inclined to support Netanyahu’s no-nonsense rhetorical approach when they are feeling less safe. There is far less consensus on the nation-state Jewish identity issue than there is on being vigilant with Israel’s security, and by seizing upon the nation-state bill to benefit his own campaign, Bibi is taking a risk that he is actually using a wedge issue that will harm him. Likud is more likely to draw votes by primarily projecting itself as the ultimate guarantor of Israelis’ safety than by primarily projecting itself as the ultimate guarantor of Jewish identity. There is also the fact that a not insignificant chunk of voters seems to be annoyed that Netanyahu is going to early elections and don’t quite see the point beyond political expediency, which could hurt Likud. Finally, it is looking like with everyone gunning for Netanyahu personally, this campaign may end up being a referendum on the man himself, and while he has been popular enough to slide by with a plurality of votes in a very divided political system, he is not universally popular in any objective sense of the word.

A lot can happen in the three months between now and the election that will affect votes in unanticipated ways, be it rock throwers on the Temple Mount or Sara Netanyahu’s Haagen Dazs budget, but my educated guess this far out is that the right’s share is not going to be too much above 60-65 votes and that Likud is going to lose ground relative to Habayit Hayehudi so that the power imbalance between Netanyahu and Bennett narrows further. Netanyahu is living in a cocoon and has been at the top for so long that his instincts are off. If he ends up with a narrower margin above the leftwing parties than he is expecting along with a further empowered Bennett looking to stick a knife in his back at every opportunity, Netanyahu may just end up wishing that he had left well enough alone and stuck with his current low-grade headache rather than trading up for a migraine.

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.

Welcome to Israeli Election Day

January 22, 2013 § 2 Comments

Finally, the day we’ve all been waiting for – Israelis go to the polls today to elect a new Knesset and a new government for the first time since 2009. Despite the fact that we don’t have any results yet, I thought I’d set out a list of things we know and things we don’t.

Things We Know:

Bibi Netanyahu and Likud Beiteinu are going to win the most seats in the Knesset and Likud will be the largest party. This is an easy one given the polls, since even with the Likud Beiteinu list losing about a seat a week for months now, no other party is going to come close to the 32-36 seats LB is likely to take. The irony of course is that Netanyahu created the joint list in order to create an unbeatable force, yet Likud might have done better on its own as banding together with Avigdor Lieberman and Yisrael Beiteinu likely cost Netanyahu seats for a host of reasons (and from the Department of Shameless Self Promotion, remember who told you months ago that this was a very bad idea on Bibi’s part). Despite the blunder, Labor is probably going to come in second with 15-18 seats, and Habayit Hayehudi and Yesh Atid are going to be battling for 3rd and 4th place. It is possible that the LB list will have twice as many seats as the next largest party despite its free fall in the polls, although this is a bit misleading since the two parties agreed to merge until only 30 days past the election, at which point they are free to revisit their agreement and separate. The most interesting little nugget about Likud being the largest party in the Knesset is that despite having served two terms as prime minister, this will be the first time that Netanyahu leads his party to a Knesset victory. When Netanyahu was elected in 1996, Israel was in the midst of its decade-long experiment of directly electing the prime minister, and so while Netanyahu beat Shimon Peres by 1% in the prime ministerial vote, Likud won 32 seats to Labor’s 34. In 2009, Likud came in second to Kadima, but after Tzipi Livni was unable to form a government, Netanyahu swooped in and cobbled together a governing coalition despite controlling the second largest party in the Knesset rather than the largest. By the end of today, Netanyahu will finally be able to say that he led his party to an electoral victory.

Things We Don’t Know

Everything else. And I mean that. Aside from Likud Beiteinu winning the most mandates, I cannot say with 100% certainty what else will happen. I am 99% sure that Netanyahu is going to be the next prime minister, but there are enough weird things going on to give me that minuscule 1% pause. To begin with, there are an unusually high number of undecided voters, and while they might break Bibi’s way, I don’t think that Bibi’s base is one that is marked by indecision, unless that indecision comprises whether to continue to vote for Netanyahu or to go with the trendier rightwing choice of Naftali Bennett and Habayit Hayehudi.

Furthermore, Netanyahu’s margins are going to be very tight, and this means there is an outside chance that he pulls a Livni and can’t pull off putting together a viable government. I am as confident as I can possibly be that HH is going to be in the coalition, but then the coalition math becomes very tricky. It involves bringing in a centrist party such as Yesh Atid, which will clash with HH and the more extremist Likud voices over peace process issues, or going with Shas and UTJ, who are toxic to HH over the draft and toxic to Yisrael Beiteinu over both the draft and the religious-secular divide. Then there is the possibility that Aryeh Deri’s return to Shas means it is no longer so reliably rightwing and will give Netanyahu a harder time when it comes to coalition bargaining.

To throw another monkey wrench into this, there are the rumblings from all sorts of quarters that the electorate has shifted in the past few days and that the leftwing and centrist parties are going to do better than their polling indicates. If voter turnout is high, it means that left and center parties are going to do better than expected, in which case there is even a possibility that Netanyahu is denied the first chance to form a government. Last month I brought up the possibility of a unity government, which started to look ridiculous in the interim but now I am not so sure that I was off-base. Then there are the rumors that were flying around last night that Ehud Barak is going to be defense minister and Tzipi Livni foreign minister, which I find to be completely far-fetched given the rancor toward Barak exhibited by all sorts of newly influential Likud members and the fact that Netanyahu would never give Livni any real power as foreign minister while Livni would never accept the position to be a mere figurehead. All of this is to say that while Bibi is almost definitely going to remain as prime minister, the possibility of a black swan would not be entirely out of the blue. As for what type of coalition he will put together assuming he remains prime minister, your guess is as good as mine. If I have to predict something, it’s that we will see a nationalist bent due to the inclusion of Habayit Hayehudi, that the haredi parties are going to be left out, and that Yesh Atid will be brought in. This will allow Bibi to keep his rightwingers happy on peace process and settlements, let Yesh Atid have its pet issue of reforming the draft, and not have to worry about the secular-religious divide issue bringing down the government. I can also see Labor being brought into this mix if Netanyahu wants to have the coalition be as big as possible or if the numbers are such that he needs another party but wants to avoid bringing in Shas. Whatever happens, the next few weeks promise to be an entertaining ride.

Israel’s Next Unity Government

December 18, 2012 § 8 Comments

In the time leading up to an Israeli election, one always gets the impression that Israel’s political system is the most fractured on Earth. Outrageous charges are hurled back and forth, and this year Kadima took things to a new level by adopting an anti-Bibi slogan superimposed on a picture of a nuclear mushroom cloud as its campaign poster. Nevertheless, as Israeli parties and politicians all jockey and maneuver before the January 22 election, it seems to me that if the poll numbers remain relatively stable, there is a good chance that Israel is headed toward a unity government comprised of Likud and Labor. While nobody will come right out and admit that while campaigning, the inter-party dynamics, Bibi Netanyahu’s past preferences, and Labor leader Shelley Yachimovich’s interview over the weekend are all pointing in that direction.

The latest polling – and the first to be released after Avigdor Lieberman’s resignation as foreign minister – confirms the trend that has been taking place for weeks, which is that the Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu joint list is polling in the mid to upper 30s range for Knesset seats and is likely to garner fewer seats than the two currently have now (and don’t forget where you first heard that this arrangement was going to backfire). In addition, the Habayit Hayehudi list under Naftali Bennett is holding steady at 11 seats, and is Netanyahu’s natural coalition partner given its rightwing stance. While there are rumors that Netanyahu would rather not deal with Bennett, he cannot afford to have Bennett constantly sniping at him from his right flank, particularly given how rightwing voters appear to be leaving Likud and flocking to Habayit Hayehudi. Including Bennett gets Netanyahu to just under 50 coalition seats, leaving him 10-12 short depending on how things precisely shake out. In the past, Netanyahu has turned to Shas and UTJ to fill this gap, and indeed together they are currently at 16 seats, which would get Netanyahu past the magic number of 60 seats and allow him to continue as prime minister. The problem is that Yisrael Beiteinu has been adamant about not wanting Haredi parties in the coalition, and Bennett last week demanded that Netanyahu take away the Interior and Housing ministries from Shas as part of his general argument that Haredi parties should be kept out of the next coalition. Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party might not get enough seats to fill the gap, and even if it does, it will still leave Netanyahu with a very narrow margin and no wiggle room. Tzipi Livni’s Hatnua party is probably out too, as Livni and Netanyahu do not like each other and Livni has turned down multiple opportunities to join with Netanyahu in the past. As demonstrated by his move to form a unity government with Kadima last spring, Netanyahu clearly likes to keep as many options open to him as possible, and his current narrow one has been a disaster, with infighting over the Tal Law and Haredi military service being a particular problem. This means constructing a coalition with as many seats as possible and without a big issue that will prove enormously divisive and impossible to overcome.

Enter Labor, which is second in the polls behind Likud Beiteinu, and Yachimovich, who has repeatedly declined to rule out joining a Likud-led coalition and who has insisted that Labor is not a leftwing party but a centrist party. Yachimovich wants to  join the next coalition because she has never served as a minister and is relatively inexperienced and untested. Serving in the government will provide her with some more gravitas and do away with the impression that she isn’t quite ready for prime time, and lay the foundation for a future chance at expanding Labor’s seats and competing to be prime minister. In this vein, yesterday she gave an interview in which she said that the budget for settlements should remain untouched in the absence of a peace agreement with the Palestinians and stressed Labor’s history of building settlements when in government and that Labor has always had a hawkish element, including Yitzhak Rabin. This drew immediate responses from Lapid and Meretz chief Zahava Gal-On, but Yachimovich does not appear to be worried about Gal-On or other leftist parties damaging her credibility. Instead, she is clearly appealing to the fact that Israel’s electorate is far more hawkish on the Palestinians and the West Bank than in the past, and is laying the groundwork to be able to join a Likud-led coalition in which support for settlements is going to be a must. It is not accidental that Yachimovich broke her laser-like focus on economic and social issues to talk about settlements rather than Iran, the peace process, Gaza, etc. If there is one issue that will make it possible for Netanyahu to invite Labor into the coalition without risking a rightwing revolt it is support for the settlement budget, and Yachimovich’s interview was an attempt to forestall any criticism that might emerge on this front. While there will invariably be differences in opinion between her and Netanyahu on socioeconomic issues and on the peace process, there is now no daylight on the question of support for settlements. While I am loath to predict anything with certainly when it comes to coalition politics – particularly as I have been burned in the past – the signs as I read them point to a Likud-Labor unity government once the dust settles after the election.

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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