Upcoming Israeli Elections Reveal Changing Political Landscape
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After Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced the January 22 elections, politicians in Israel began moving to solidify or challenge his power. Shortly after the announcement, Netanyahu joined with Avigdor Lieberman and unified their Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu parties to stave off a challenge from the center-left. This challenge has thus far not appeared and with those parties in disarray eleven days before the election, it does not appear that one will materialize. In fact, one new challenge to his power comes from the further right with politician Naftali Bennett’s increasing popularity. While polls predict that Netanyahu will easily remain prime minister, the shifting alliances that will keep him in power could further change the Israeli political landscape.
Here is a review of the process:
Coalition politics in Israel is all about jockeying for position. Even if a party does not have the most seats, having a sizable number makes it a more attractive ally for presumptive leader Netanyahu to select as part of his coalition. The cabinet positions are allotted proportionally with the make up of the coalition, so this election is important for many parties even if they have no hopes of unseating Netanyahu and Likud.
After combining with Lieberman to counteract a challenge from the political center-left, it seems that Netanyahu’s biggest headache may be from the right, including by members of his own Likud party. In Likud’s November primary, many of Netanyahu’s typical moderate right allies received few votes and put them low on the party’s list of candidates and making their reelections unlikely. In their places are “pro-settlement extremists” that will force Netanyahu to veer further right to keep their support. The centrist Kadima party head, Shaul Mofaz, argues that Likud “has now lost its way and been swayed to the extreme margins of the political map”
According to analysis by left-leaning 972 Magazine’s Noam Sheizaf:
“We can expect anywhere between 20 and 35 very extreme members…in the next Knesset, which will certainly be an all-time record. They will operate as a bloc, forcing Netanyahu to create a right-wing government, and to carry out major items on their agenda, such as nominating Moshe Ya’alon [far right Likud member] as Defense Minister, or other influential nominations to the Supreme Court.”
Another obstacle facing Netanyahu is Naftali Bennett from the far right Bayit HaYehudit (Jewish Home) party. Bennett is the son of American immigrants to Israel and a former chief of staff to Netanyahu. This week he said at an election debate, “I believe I’m the only one, and our party is the only party on this podium, that opposes founding a Palestinian state within the land of Israel, between the Jordan and the Mediterranean.” In an interview with the BBC on Tuesday, Bennett was asked if he does join the next coalition government, would he actively try to prevent the two state solution from becoming reality? He responded, “I’ll do everything in my ability to prevent Israel from committing suicide knowingly. It doesn’t make sense.”
Largely thanks to Bennett, instead of the 43 to 45 seats Netanyahu’s coalition once was expected to hold, polls show that number will be just 35. The Jewish Home party, which just a few years ago was struggling to make it into parliament with two or three seats, now looks poised to win 14 to 17, making it one of the top three factions. According to some pollsters, seven to 10 of those seats will come at Netanyahu’s expense.
The center-left parties in Israel that Netanyahu originally feared are seemingly unable to form a unified front and mount a challenge to Netanyahu.
The most well known is Tzipi Livini, former minister of foreign affairs under Ehud Olmert. In 2005, she and others political figures formed the Kadima party, which she eventually led from 2009 and until she resigned from the Knesset in May of 2012. Livni announced the formation of a new, pro-peace party in November 2012, Hatnuah party, described as “a mainstream liberal camp” for Israeli politics. Aside from Livni the biggest center-left personalities are the head of the current largest opposition party, Labor, Shelly Yachimovich and the founder of the Yesh Atid party, TV presenter Yair Lapid.
On January 4, Tzipi Livni called Yachimovich and Lapid to meet with her in order to workout a unified front. Livni stated what she claimed to be the goal of the center-left: "to replace the current government, and it's important that the public will know that it is voting for a group that is sticking together." Despite their subsequent meeting, the three showed unwillingness to compromise even though their union could have possibly changed the outcome of the election. It seems that Shimon Peres has also made an effort to unite the three parties but was also unsuccessful.
81 percent of respondents in a recent survey believe Netanyahu will remain prime minister. This could mean he actually loses support in the election. According to the New York Times, “in Israel’s multiparty, coalition system of government, that presumption has led many of Mr. Netanyahu’s traditional supporters to flirt with smaller parties that cater to special interests.”
Gadi Wolfsfeld, a professor of political communication at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya says, “That’s the danger of being a front-runner: When everyone assumes he’s going to win, they feel like they have the luxury of voting their real ideology… what he’s trying to do is prove that the left really could win. If he can somehow undermine that certainty that he’s going to win, then of course he has a realistic chance of bringing some votes back.”
The New Year brought a positive gesture from Hamas to Fatah in Gaza on Friday, January 4. In a rare occurrence, Hamas allowed Fatah supporters to celebrate the 48th anniversary of the founding of the Fatah party. This is the first time Fatah supporters have been allowed to assemble as a group since the bloody overthrow of the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority by Hamas in 2007. The festivities included a televised speech by PA President Abbas commending the unwavering loyalty of his supporters in Gaza.
Another indication of the thawing relationship between the two parties took place on January 9 as PA President Mahmud Abbas and Hamas leader Khaled Meshal met with Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi. Morsi is interested in pursuing reconciliation between the two parties which has been stalled as major points of the 2011 reconciliation deal between Hamas and Fatah have yet to be carried out.
Initially after Wednesday’s meeting, neither party was eager to discuss if any progress was made but by Thursday, Hamas politburo member Izzat al-Rishq revealed that, “The two parties agreed to call on all Palestinian factions to implement the reconciliation agreement.” It appears that both parties desire some sort of cooperation but it is still not clear how the agreement will be implemented.
This week President Obama nominated former Senator Chuck Hagel for the Secretary of Defense position. Some, including The Emergency Committee for Israel, insist that this will negatively reshape the U.S.’s relationship with Israel, though others, such as J-Street welcome the nomination. Despite Hagel’s stance against war with Iran, President Obama has made it clear that a militaristic confrontation is not off the table, should negotiations with Iran prove ineffective.
The United States Ambassador to Israel under George W. Bush, Daniel Kurtzer, thinks that the critical views of Hagel are inaccurate. He says, "I found him in all the three years I served, including as ambassador to Israel, to be a supporter of Israel and a man also ready to discuss very frankly with the Israelis the concerns we had about certain Israeli policies.”
Word from Bethlehem on December 24 paints a positive picture of the Christmas celebration that brought visitors from around the globe. Reports from the city indicated the Palestinian Authority worked hard to make the West Bank as visitor friendly as possible in the Christmas season. The Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs has said that they also did their best to encourage visitors and make their travel low-stress. An Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs press release says, “This year, as part of the ongoing efforts to support West Bank tourism, Israel bus drivers and tour guides were approved for unrestricted access to Bethlehem and Jericho.”
In his annual address, Latin Patriarch Fouad Twal, the top Roman Catholic cleric in the Holy Land, called for people to “Please continue to fight for a just cause to achieve peace and security for the people of the Holy Land.”
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas visited the holy city as well, saying that “peace will prevail from the birthplace of Jesus, and we wish everyone peace and happiness,” according to the official Palestinian Wafa news agency.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu issued a special Christmas greeting also, wishing Christians “a year of security, prosperity and peace.”
In a belated Christmas spirit, Israel has been seeing some snow!
Unfortunately, not all snow is fun and games; flooding has been a problem due to both the barrier and to heavy rains.
In protest over the proposed settlement building in the E1 area, about 200 Palestinians have begun building an outpost, named “Bab el Shams” (pictured on the left) in an attempt to make their own facts on the ground. A statement given by the activists, states: “We the people, without permits from the occupation, without permission from anyone, sit here today because this is our land and it is our right to inhabit it…” Police attempts to demolish the new tent village have been thwarted by an order issued by the High Court, forbidding the disassembling of Bab el Shams for six days.
Outspoken settlement leader Dani Dayan has decided to resign his position as the head of the Council of Jewish Communities of Judea, Samaria and the Gaza Strip. He has done this in order to fully support Netanyahu in the upcoming election.
An interview that the New York Times held with Shimon Peres came out in print. Peres believes “that if the people of Israel heard from the leadership that there is a chance for peace, they would take up the gauntlet and believe it.”
As Israel continues to withhold monthly customs revenues from the Palestinian Authority as a response for its changed status with the United Nations, workers are plunging below the poverty line. Teachers as well as other government employees have gone on strike.
A pair of companion reports from the International Crisis Group describes how East Jerusalem has been altered in recent years, physically, but also socially, politically and emotionally.
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.