Election Shocker, Prisoners Continue Hunger Strike
In a stunning turn of events, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu cancelled the elections slated for September and broadened his coalition by striking a deal with Shaul Mofaz, leader of the opposition party Kadima. Kadima is the largest single party Knesset and after the deal, 94 out of the 120 legislators are in Netanyahu’s coalition. This arguably makes Netanyahu the strongest prime minister since David Ben-Gurion in 1948. It is unclear at the moment what effect this turn of events could have on several important issues identified as essential by Netanyahu, including the peace process, a new election law marginalizing small political parties, military service for Orthodox yeshiva students, the evacuation of settlements ruled illegal by the Israeli Supreme Court, and the threat from Iran.
The two men struck a deal early Tuesday morning unbeknownst to several Knesset members preparing for an all night session to dissolve the legislative body in preparation for the elections. The gossip about a deal started around 1:00 AM when a security guard told someone he saw Netanyahu and Mofaz on the Knesset compound. The tired Knesset members in the cafeteria were abuzz as rumors swirled. At 2:00 AM, members of Likud, Kadima and Labor parties finally assembled in a room where Netanyahu informed them of the deal.
Former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon formed the center-left Kadima party after splitting from Likud over negotiations with the Palestinian Authority and the disengagement plan in 2005. In 2006, Sharon suffered a stroke leaving him permanently incapacitated and his nascent party with an improbable future. The party continued under Ehud Olmert until he left the party in 2008. Tzipi Livni won a subsequent leadership election and helped Kadima win the most seats in the 2009 elections. She was unable to turn the victory into a coalition strong enough to form a government and Netanyahu became prime minister. During her time as the Knesset opposition leader, Livni earned a reputation for not challenging Netanyahu effectively. In April, Kadima voters ousted Livni from the top spot and elected Shaul Mofaz to lead the opposition party.
Mofaz was born in Tehran exactly six months after Israel declared independence. Nine years later his family immigrated to the Jewish homeland. Mofaz stirs up mixed reactions from the left and right. He has several credentials that appeal to right-wing Israelis. He served in one of the Israeli military’s elite units during several wars…He was the military chief of staff and later defense minister during the Second Intifada. He received criticism for his tough tactics including the devastating Jenin offensive and the demolition of Palestinian homes as punishment. In 2005, he entered politics as a member of Likud but switched to Kadima a month later. Recognizing that the occupation presents a security threat to Israel, he supports negotiations with the Palestinian Authority. In 2009, he devised a plan for a peace agreement that initially gives Palestinians 60 percent of the West Bank and then negotiates the rest with equal land swaps. After his election to Kadima spot in April, Mofaz told The New York Times’ Ethan Bronner, “I intend to replace Netanyahu. I will not join his government.” He went even further on his Facebook page in March, writing, “Listen up: I won't join Bibi's government…This is a bad and failed government and Kadima under my leadership will replace it in the next elections. Is that clear enough?”
Last week, the CMEP bulletin explained that Netanyahu planned to call for elections in hopes of modifying his coalition and getting more leeway when dealing with settler and ultra-Orthodox factions in his government. The deal with Kadima can solve those same problems. Netanyahu summed it up best, telling reporters, “I realized that it was possible to restore stability without holding elections.”
The ultra-Orthodox haredim parties Shas and United Torah Judaism were constraining Netanyahu’s ability to reform the controversial Tal Law that currently exempts Orthodox yeshiva students from performing military service. In February, the Supreme Court ruled the law is illegal because it gives the haredim preferential treatment and the court gave the government until August to repeal or replace it. Kadima and another secular coalition party Yisrael Beiteinu want to make the service mandatory for everyone. Now Netanyahu can find a more equitable solution since Shas and United Torah Judaism cannot topple the government by withdrawing.
The Supreme Court set another deadline that put Netanyahu between a rock and a hard place. In September 2011, the court ordered the government to evict settlers from five permanent buildings in the Ulpana neighborhood and the government agreed to do so by May 1, 2012. The potential evictions divided the coalition. Right wing Likud members insist the Knesset pass legislation to circumvent the order after the court rejected the state’s request to reconsider the decision on Monday, a week after the deadline passed. During the hearing, the justices imposed a July 1 deadline for the buildings’ demolition. Netanyahu hopes to find a legal solution to keep the settlers in place but with the addition of Mofaz and Kadima, he would have the support to raze the buildings if he decides to go that route.
Benjamin Netanyahu: This proves Netanyahu is the king of Israeli politics. With 94 seats, he has room to maneuver on the Tal Law, settlement outposts, election reform and peace without the even more right-wing politicians holding his government hostage if he chooses. The way things stand now, Netanyahu will be prime minister until 2013 and if he wins again, he could still be in office in 2018.
Shaul Mofaz and Kadima Politicians: The deal gives Mofaz and Kadima more influence in the government in the short term. Under the deal, Mofaz will be vice prime minister in Netanyahu’s cabinet and more Kadima members may become ministers in the future. Polls indicated that Kadima would not fair well in the September 4 elections, probably only retaining 10 of their 28 seats. Now those Knesset members can relax knowing their job is likely safe until at least 2013. If the settler and ultra-Orthodox parties jump ship, Kadima members will likely gain the vacant ministry positions in the cabinet.
The Kadima Party: Since Sharon and other Likud members broke away and formed Kadima in 2005, Likud’s politics have shifted further to the right. Bringing Kadima politicians back into Likud could shift the balance of power back to the moderates. The deal has also damaged the party’s credibility. One Israeli analyst said the deal is a “complete capitulation” and “the beginning of the end for Kadima.” Already, a Kadima official has quit the party. Haim Ramon told Ynet that, “From an ideological standpoint, Kadima no longer exists for me…Kadima has reverted to being Likud. Many (members) have wanted this to happen the whole time. They voted out Tzipi Livni.”
Opposition: Before this deal, the opposition to Netanyahu’s government had 54 seats spread amongst seven parties. Now, there are only 26. This is not even enough to call a special session of the Knesset to force the prime minister to defend his policies. Chairwoman for the Labor party, Shelly Yachimovich, is now the official opposition leader and has her work cut out for her. She has already taken a firm stance against the new coalition, calling it an “alliance of cowards.” However the opposition’s loss could be temporary. Many are speculating that Tzipi Livni could make a dramatic return to politics by forming her own party with at least five possible Kadima defectors who disagree with the shift to the right. If the five find two more members, they can form a new faction and receive funding. It would only take a party of nine members to take the opposition from Yachimovich and Labor.
Ultra-Orthodox: The ultra-Orthodox haredim parties Shas and United Torah Judaism are typically the king makers in Israeli politics. Before the agreement, they stood in the way of Netanyahu’s ability to reform the Tal Law in order to protect the haradim’s narrow interests. Exempting them from sharing the burden of military service while the government subsidizes most of the 60 percent who are unemployed makes secular Israelis uneasy. Now that secular parties hold 70 of the 94 seats in the coalition, the ultra-Orthodox are no longer the lynchpin and their influence is waning.
The Peace Process: For those who intensely focus on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it can be hard to believe that the peace process is not always front and center in Israeli politics. Domestic squabbles provided the impetus for the agreement, but peace is not irrelevant. Since taking office in 2009, Netanyahu has not shown any real initiative to revive negotiations but the fresh mandate could give him opportunities to pursue that goal. If a peace deal came to fruition, the broad coalition could help him sell it to the public. He may be out of excuses to avoid negotiations now that he does not have to mollify the right wing and ultra-Orthodox elements in the coalition. President Obama and other international leaders also have a choice. Knowing Netanyahu has flexibility, it could be the perfect time to make a more concerted push for peace. Like many of the other issues facing Israel, it is now up to Netanyahu to decide what direction he wants to take the country.
While all eyes are on the political changes in Israel, Palestinian prisoner hunger strikes remain a problem for Israeli officials. The movement started 4 months ago when Khader Adnan, a member and alleged leader of the Islamic Jihad terrorist organization, started a 66 day hunger strike over the Israeli practice of administrative detention where Israel can hold Palestinians indefinitely without charges. Israelis say that the practice is the only way to protect sensitive intelligence but Palestinians see it as a violation of their human rights. There are currently 322 prisoners that Israel is holding without charges according to Addeemer, a Palestinian organization providing support to prisoners.
Inspired by Adnan, others are adopting the non-violent tactic to protest administrative detention and other issues including permitting family visits from Gaza, ending strip-searches for visitors, allowing prisoners to get an education, stopping disproportional punishments (physical abuse, solitary confinement) and giving detainees due process based on international law. On April 17, 1,500-2,000 Palestinian prisoners commemorated the annual day held in their honor by embarking on a mass hunger strike to improve their situation.
Many prisoners started hunger strikes before Prisoner’s Day. Thaer Halahlah and Bilal Diab are on their 72nd day and are both in the hospital. After visiting them on Thursday, their lawyer told Addeemer that doctors informed Halalhlah that he “could die at any moment.” He does not seemed deterred, telling another human rights group, “We did not go into the battle because we love to be hungry or in pain, but for our dignity and the dignity of our nation.”
On Monday, the Israeli Supreme Court denied an appeal for release by Halahlah and Diab. The justices ruled that the practice of administrative detention is valid in some circumstances and since they did not know the facts of the two Palestinian men’s case they gave authorities the benefit of the doubt. However, they did express reservations about the practice that could come up again in a future case. They wrote, “Administrative detention is an aberration in the judicial field, and thus, no one can deny, must be used as little as possible…”
Palestinian leaders are underscoring the legitimacy of the prisoners’ requests and expressing concern over the consequences that may arise if any hunger striker dies. Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad told Reuters that, “the most tragic thing is if you look at the list of demands they have presented Israel ... they are generally related to the basic rights of prisoners…There is a clear violation of the Geneva conventions.” Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas also spoke to Reuters warning Israel that, “If anybody dies today or tomorrow or after a week it would be a disaster and no one could control the situation.”
Other international leaders are encouraging the Israeli government to cooperate with Palestinian prisoner groups and leaders to find solution to the problem. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon voiced his concern for the hunger strikers and stressed “the importance of averting any further deterioration in their condition.”
Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev dismissed the sympathy, telling reporters, “This is about hard-core activists, from Hamas and Islamic Jihad, who through this protest are trying to instigate violence." However Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch held a meeting with other ministers last week and a source involved told Ha’aretz that Aharonovitch urged restraint when using administrative detention. He told them, “We have to make sure that we’re making suitable use [of administrative detention], according to need.” How Israel strikes this balance between security and responding to legitimate Palestinian concerns will be essential to what happens next.
David Makovsky, director of The Washington Institute’s Project on the Middle East Peace Process, writes that if Netanyahu and Mofaz can achieve positive results, the deal will seem brilliant. If it does not produce anything worthwhile, they will show the cynical opposition is right. Changes in Israeli Policy after the Netanyahu-Mofaz Deal.
American Taskforce for Palestine’s Senior Research Fellow Hussein Ibish talks frankly about the importance of dialogue between Palestinian and Israeli groups in America. The piece stems from a picture of ATFP’s President Ziad Asali taken at an Israeli embassy event for their independence day. We Need to Talk.
The International Crisis Group published a report examining the failures of Oslo and gives alternatives that could alleviate a now futile peace process. The Emperor Has No Clothes: Palestinians and the End of the Peace Process.
Ben Birnbaum of The New Republic writes an in-depth profile of Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. Fayyad is working hard to build institutions for a Palestinian state and is well liked by Israeli and American officials. However, the Palestinian political establishment does not always appreciate his efforts. The Visionary.
Formed in 1984, Churches for Middle East Peace is a coalition of 24 national Church denominations and organizations, including Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant traditions. It works to encourage U.S. government policies that actively promote a just, lasting and comprehensive resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, ensuring security, human rights and religious freedom for all people of the region.