+972 Magazine » Noam Sheizaf http://972mag.com Independent commentary and news from Israel & Palestine Fri, 27 Feb 2015 18:56:07 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=3.8 For a few votes, Labor joins the attacks on Haneen Zoabi http://972mag.com/for-a-few-votes-labor-joins-the-attacks-on-haneen-zoabi/102368/ http://972mag.com/for-a-few-votes-labor-joins-the-attacks-on-haneen-zoabi/102368/#comments Sat, 07 Feb 2015 18:15:48 +0000 http://972mag.com/?p=102368 Two years ago Herzog adamantly stated that the Labor party principally opposes disqualifying any Knesset candidates. Now, in what appears to be the groundwork for joining a Netanyahu government, he and Tzipi Livni want to stop Haneen Zoabi from running for office.

Labor leader Isaac Herzog, December 10, 2014. (Photo by Activestills.org)

Labor leader Isaac Herzog, December 10, 2014. (Photo by Activestills.org)

The Labor Party and Tzipi Livni’s joint list, “The Zionist Camp,” announced this week that they will support a request to disqualify MK Haneen Zoabi and Kahanist settler Baruch Marzel from running in upcoming Knesset elections. The motion to disqualify the Balad MK is expected to pass by near consensus in the Central Elections Committee — with the support of everyone from Jewish Home to Labor. Meretz is the only non-Arab party expected to oppose Zoabi’s disqualification.

Disqualifying Zoabi has become an Israeli political ritual in recent years, but one in which Labor hasn’t always taken part. In the most recent elections Labor opposed Zoabi’s disqualification, on the grounds that “some things are more important than hot-bloodedness,” specifically, basic democratic values. There is a video of Labor leader Isaac Herzog at the time making an impassioned speech against Zoabi’s disqualification at the Central Elections Commission. Among other things, Herzog said:

Civil liberties, the freedom of conscience and expression, and the right to be elected, are all basic rights that can’t be violated even when it’s the most difficult … We in the Labor party, as a matter of principle … oppose disqualifying anybody.

So what changed? Firstly, Herzog now sees himself as a candidate for the premiership. Secondly, the Zionist Camp is down in the polls. Nothing has changed about Zoabi. The disqualification is an attempt to attract voters from the Right and to improve Labor’s position and interests in the Center-Left political block — to throw Meretz a life-line by making themselves seem less “lefty,” and to steal a seat or two from Lapid, Kahlon or even Likud.

But even in political theater there are basic principles that cannot be compromised. Relations between the Arab and Jewish citizens of Israel are one of them. It is the most volatile and sensitive issue, which was expressed in demonstrations and acts of violence this past summer — primarily against Palestinian citizens of Israel. One of the central sources of hope for a Herzog victory was the prospect that he might stop the steady stream of fuel the Right has been pouring onto that bonfire. Backing the attempt to disqualify Zoabi in these elections is far more than an election stunt meant to steal a few votes from Avigdor Liberman — it is the Labor party becoming Liberman.

Considering that in both Labor and even Meretz there are people who wouldn’t mind seeing Zoabi exiled from the Knesset, it’s important to say clearly: Zoabi is being persecuted for words, not acts. If there were concrete accusations against her, for taking part attempting to break the Gaza blockade onboard the Mavi Marmara, for instance, she would be brought to court, like former Balad chairman Azmi Bishara. (Bishara is living in exile since being accused of espionage.) Rehavam Ze’evi waved a sub-machine gun in the faces of Israeli soldiers and wasn’t disqualified from running for Knesset, MKs Ze’ev Elkin and Uri Ariel leaked information on IDF troop movements to settlers ahead of planned evictions and demolitions. All Zoabi has to do is insult an Arab police officer and the whole country is on its feet.

The real problem with Zoabi is that she says things that are outside the mainstream Israeli consensus. But the things she says are not outrageous among the Arab public (although there are a considerable number of people who disagree with her). The Knesset is the parliament for Palestinian citizens of Israel as much as it is for Jewish citizens, and it’s important that Zoabi is there; it’s important that significant segments of the public enjoy parliamentary representation. And that’s without even touching on the simple fact that far worse things are said about non-Jewish citizens inside the halls and plenum of Israel’s Knesset. If the Knesset equally applied to Jews and Arabs its restrictions on speech, half of its parliamentarians would be out looking for jobs.

MK Haneen Zoabi tries to enter the Aqsa Mosque via the Lions’ Gate, October 15, 2014. Police eventually let her and other members of Knesset enter. (Photo by Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

MK Haneen Zoabi tries to enter the Aqsa Mosque via the Lions’ Gate, October 15, 2014. Police eventually let her and other members of Knesset enter. (Photo by Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

It is nothing short of fraud for the Labor party to equate Zoabi and Marzel. There are no lack of outspoken Kahanist representatives in Israel, but Marzel has crossed far more lines. During my own military service I personally saw him going around Hebron attacking passersby: spitting, throwing stones at rooftop water heaters and windows on Palestinian homes in Tel Rumeida, pushing. If Haneen Zoabi had spit on a Jew on the street and then broken the windows of her Jewish neighbors — then maybe there would be room for comparison. By the way, I’m not convinced that Marzel should be disqualified either, but there is no connection to Zoabi.

Herzog is supposed to know that. Hell, Herzog does understand it, as is evident from his speech to the Elections Commission in 2012. The chairman of of the Labor Party is molding himself into a successful politician of sorts — but also as somebody who won’t stake out a single original or principled position if his life depended on it. Herzog is being pulled out by the tide of public opinion, and in the process, making clear where he is heading: sitting in a coalition government with Benjamin Netanyahu and Avigdor Liberman. If he thought for a moment that he had a chance of forming a government on his own and becoming prime minister, he would need the support of the Arab parties in the Joint List. But if he’s not heading the government and the Arab parliamentarians’ support role is no longer necessary, then he can start fighting for votes with Liberman.

It’s fairly likely that the Supreme Court will reverse the Central Elections Commission’s decision to disqualify Zoabi. When the Commission disqualifies an entire political party the decision can be appealed to the Supreme Court. Contrarily, the Commission cannot even disqualify an individual candidate without the Court’s approval. (In practice, election disqualifications always reach the court.) The reason for the procedural difference is that there is something especially dangerous about a majority of MKs deciding who is and isn’t a legitimate elected representative. What is being said about Zoabi today is the same as what they used to say about Ahmad Tibi — and if she is disqualified, somebody new for them to attack will be elected in her place.

As far as the Right is concerned the entire Arab representation in Israeli politics is illegitimate. If Labor and Yesh Atid keep sliding rightward then all of the Arab politicians will eventually be disqualified. If the mainstream consensus shifts in that direction, the courts inevitably follow. It also clear where that path leads: a complete boycott of elections by the Arab public. That’s how an electoral calculation turns into political stupidity — without Palestinian votes the Left cannot survive, morally or politically — and relations between Jews and Arabs will devolve into a terrifying new place.

It seems Livni and Herzog understand that as well, which demonstrates not only their lack of resolve but also their willingness to brush aside national interests when their personal political interests are at stake. Even worse is the gall to continue pointing to that as the difference between them and Netanyahu.

But this story is far larger than Haneen Zoabi. The radical right wouldn’t have been able to become such a politically and ideologically dominant force without the acquiescence of the Center. On its own, it doesn’t amount to a force to be reckoned with. The most significant change that took place in Israel over the past 20 years was the decision by the political Center to abandon the Left, instead choosing the radical Right, all in exchange for the crumbs it is able to scavenge from inside the government. Herzog could have continued to serve as a democrat from the back benches in the opposition. But one must climb over the Arabs in order to get into the seats of power in Israel — and Herzog understands that, too.

A version of this article was first published on +972′s Hebrew-language sister site, Local Call. Read it here.

Why does the Israeli left oppose MK Haneen Zoabi?
The Knesset v. Zoabi: Israeli Arab MK’s politics put on trial

Special Coverage: 2015 Elections

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Ahead of close elections, Congress gives Bibi a prime-time appearance http://972mag.com/ahead-of-close-elections-congress-gives-bibi-a-prime-time-appearance/101671/ http://972mag.com/ahead-of-close-elections-congress-gives-bibi-a-prime-time-appearance/101671/#comments Wed, 21 Jan 2015 19:36:56 +0000 http://972mag.com/?p=101671 The senator from Jerusalem will take all the help he can get these days.

Speaker Boehner holds a press conference with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Congressional leaders following his address to a joint meeting of Congress. May 24, 2011. (Speaker Boehner / CC-BY NY 2.0)

Speaker Boehner holds a press conference with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Congressional leaders following his address to a joint meeting of Congress. May 24, 2011. (Speaker Boehner / CC-BY NY 2.0)

House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) today invited Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to address a joint session of Congress on February 11. Coincidently, Netanyahu’s speech will take place a month and a half before the Israeli elections.

According to most polls, Netanyahu is extremely vulnerable, and is still far from an absolute majority that will win him another term as prime minister. If you think this is the real reason he was invited to Washington, you are in good company. Netanyahu’s campaign, which is having some trouble taking off, is all about his position as “the responsible adult” and “the internationally recognized leader.” Bibi, who doesn’t usually attend funerals of Israeli terror victims, rushed to Paris along with Naftali Bennett and Avigdor Liberman for a photo-up with world leaders after the recent terror attacks in the French capital. But the invitation to Congress is much better – in his previous speech, Netanyahu got 29 standing ovations. Nobody will stand in his way for a photo-op the way people did in Paris.

It is not surprising that the GOP is in the tank for Bibi. After all, Netanyahu all but endorsed Mitt Romney in the 2012 presidential elections. Israeli and American politics have almost merged in recent years and the debate over America’s Middle Eastern policy sounds to the Israeli ear like a battle between Labor and Likud. This is why the U.S. cannot play a positive role in the peace talks – the American positions duplicate the Israeli debate, and as a result, are completely disconnected from Palestinian point of view. Americans always end up being either surprised or angered by every move Fatah or Hamas make – just as Israelis are.

Going back to the elections, it’s clear that the GOP is much smarter in its Israel politics than the Democrats will ever be. Boehner and his party will not only help Netanyahu, but they could end up embarrassing the president on the eve of an agreement with Iran. The problem is that there will be a considerable number of Democrats who will rush to their help – such as those who joined Boehner in inviting Bibi without consulting the White House. (UPDATE: The response from the White House suggests potential complications here.) Sometimes you get the feeling that some Democrats actually like embarrassing the White House on Israel, since unlike Republican support for Bibi, which can now be taken for granted, Democrats who go against their president are gaining a lot more in return.

What effect will this “bipartisan” support have when the Israeli polls open? It’s difficult to guess. I think Bibi’s problems are of a very local nature. Israelis are simply tired of him, so I am not sure another high profile public appearance will change a lot, especially when a lot of the anger has to do with the feeling that Netanyahu is disconnected from the concerns of the average Israeli. The troubling aspect of this timely invitation is not so much  the prospect of tilting the elections, but what it says about Israeli politics, and more so, about America’s.

What the polls say about Netanyahu’s election chances
The hand that holds the status quo together

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Election analysis: A shared Netanyahu-Herzog government? http://972mag.com/election-analysis-a-shared-netanyahu-herzog-government/101396/ http://972mag.com/election-analysis-a-shared-netanyahu-herzog-government/101396/#comments Thu, 15 Jan 2015 19:45:09 +0000 http://972mag.com/?p=101396 Herzog and Bibi’s political interests and the fragmented Knesset that is likely to emerge after the elections might force Likud and Labor into a power-sharing deal. Avigdor Liberman and President Rivlin already support the idea.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. (photo: Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

Will Netanyahu have to share power in the next government? (photo: Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

The Israeli Labor Party, which will participate in the upcoming election under the banner of “The Zionist Camp,” held its primaries this week. Former party leader Shelly Yachimovich won second place (first place is reserved for party leader Isaac Herzog); Stav Shafir and Itizik Shmuli, two of the leaders of 2011’s social protest movement, were elected in top places. Altogether the list leans a bit to the left of what Herzog and Tzipi Livni, who will lead the party, would have liked to see. They run the risk of drawing support from the leftist Meretz rather than from the right, which they need in order to win a Knesset majority and form a coalition. The first few polls conducted after the primaries give Labor 25 seats – one ahead of Netanyahu’s Likud party.

Yet what matters most is not who wins more seats, but rather which Knesset member has the best chances of forming a government. The magic number is 61, and reaching it will prove more complicated than it has been in years.

Below is an average of recent polls (not including the last two, although the difference is insignificant), conducted by the independent Project 61. According to the polls, Herzog can count on roughly 41 MKs (from Labor, Meretz and the Arab parties, though the latter will likely not join the government), while Bibi begins with wither 39 (Likud and Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home party) or 43 seats, in the case that former Shas stalwart Eli Yishai’s new party makes it into the Knesset. [UPDATE: several new polls are out - see at the end of this post].

The rest depends on the ultra-Orthodox (Shas and United Torah Judaism) and centrist parties – Liberman’s Yisrael Beitenu, Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu and Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid. Three of those parties will help either Bibi or Herzog become the next prime minister.

But the puzzle is not that simple. Lapid and the ultra-Orthodox can’t really work together (Lapid’s entire campaign was based on drafting the ultra-Orthodox, who are generally exempt from military service, into the IDF); it is not clear whether Liberman’s party will survive the recent round of corruption allegations, and there are many rumors regarding their pre-election agreements or commitments. It is clear, however, that the cost of getting support from centrist parties for either side will be much higher than in previous elections, when there was a clear winner and very few bargaining chips.

poll average, Jan 12 2014 (https://www.facebook.com/Project.61.IL)

poll average, Jan 12 2014 (https://www.facebook.com/Project.61.IL)

But there is one scenario in which all this horse trading doesn’t really matter: the formation of a national unity government (a situation in which one party does not have the margin sufficient to form a government, and must unite with rival political parties to form a coalition). In this case, Labor and Likud will have 47 seats or more (49 according to today’s polls), which makes obtaining 61 seats far easier – and cheaper. All Herzog and Bibi would need is the support of the ultra-Orthodox parties and Liberman.

And there is very little doubt they will join. Liberman already declared national unity as his preferred option (probably after realizing that in his newer, weaker position he will not be the kingmaker), and the ultra-Orthodox’s default position is in the coalition. They won’t stay in the opposition if they can help it.

Bibi and Herzog could decide to split the role of prime minister, as Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir and Shimon Peres did in between 1984-1988, when each leader served two years as the head of the government. Ministerial portfolios will be allocated according to the relative power of each party.

Bibi knows that these elections are about him, and national unity would very much be in both his and Herzog’s interests. A national unity government would give Netanyahu another two years in power, after which he could either retire honorably or decide to run again, depending on the political circumstances.

As for Herzog, he has a single goal: to become prime minister. The rules are very simple: once you’ve become prime minister, you are always a potential prime minister. Just look at Barak, Peres or Olmert (until his conviction). But losing the election as the head of Labor means rarely getting a second chance.

Once Herzog becomes PM – even for a short while, in rotation with Bibi – he could always run again. For Bibi a national unity government is a good way out. For Herzog it is the prefect threshold for the next round, which could potential take place against former Likud minister Gideon Sa’ar.

Labor leader Isaac Herzog, December 10, 2014. (Photo by Activestills.org)

Labor leader Isaac Herzog, December 10, 2014. (Photo by Activestills.org)

Some pundits claimed this week that Labor’s primaries will make it difficult for Herzog to enter into an agreement with Netanyahu, mostly because Yachimovich, Shafir and some other MKs are supposedly ruling out this option. But Labor also vowed to stay out of the government back in 2009 (Barak even said it on election night!) only to change its mind not long after. Yachimovich, who opposed that coalition agreement, chose not to join the small group of “rebels” who opposed and didn’t request a ministerial position. But neither did she join the MKs who refused to support the coalition. And that was the case when Labor was not even offered a rotation as the head of the government. Can anyone imagine Yachimovich or Shafir refusing what will be described as “a historic opportunity” to regain power for the first time since 2001?

The idea of a national unity government is already being discussed in various political forums. Liberman was the first to support it publically, but others might follow after the elections. Channel 2 recently reported that a source within the president’s circles said that in the case where there is no clear winner, Rivlin will urge party leaders to discuss a national unity deal.

As coalition horse trading continues, the “public demand” for an agreement that would put an end to “political blackmailing” of medium-sized parties will emerge (it always does). And from there on it is only a matter of deciding on who gets what in the new government.

There are those who think that national unity is a good idea. That together the big parties can solve the existential challenges that face Israel: peace, security, inequality. But in reality, the opposite outcome is much more likely. National unity governments cannot bring about substantial reforms on any issue, since their common denominator – the glue that holds them together – is an agreement on the status quo.

The most unlikely reform such a government will undertake has to do with the occupation, because Likud will simply not provide the necessary Knesset majority for any kind of agreement. Nearly every member of the party has vowed to oppose any kind of compromise, let alone the formation of a Palestinian state. While such a government may appear more moderate, and thus has a better chance of delaying some of the international measures being taken against the occupation (which are incredibly slow to take off in any case), the reality on the ground will stay the same – at best.

UPDATE: Several polls have been published since I wrote this post; the updated numbers are slightly more in Labor’s favor, but they don’t change a lot regarding the National Unity scenario. Here is an updated average of the latest polls, published by Project 61.

Polls average Jan 15 2015 (by Project 61 / @project_61_IL)

Polls average Jan 15 2015 (by Project 61 / @project_61_IL)


What the polls say about Netanyahu’s election chances
Pundits’ consensus: Netanyahu is vulnerable

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Blame Peres, not Bennett, for the Qana massacre http://972mag.com/blame-peres-not-bennett-for-the-qana-massacre/101046/ http://972mag.com/blame-peres-not-bennett-for-the-qana-massacre/101046/#comments Wed, 07 Jan 2015 09:47:50 +0000 http://972mag.com/?p=101046 The twisted logic of Peres’ Grapes of Wrath operation was all about hitting civilian targets. That was the reason refugees sought shelter in Qana’s UN base in the first place.

IDF artillery in South Lebanon., 1996 (Oren 1973 CC-BY 4.0(

IDF artillery in South Lebanon, 1996. (Photo by “Oren 1973″ CC-BY 4.0)

Yigal Sarna, a journalist for Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth, published a dramatic and serious accusation over the weekend against Naftali Bennett, the head of the Jewish Home party. Bennett was the commander of a small IDF unit that operated inside the “Security Zone” that Israel occupied in South Lebanon during the 1996 military operation Grapes of Wrath. According to Sarna, Bennett decided on his own to diverge from his orders, got his soldiers into trouble, ordered supporting fire from the regional artillery unit — and those shells hit the UN refugee camp in Kafr Qana. One hundred and two civilians and UN workers were killed and Israel was forced to end its military operation. The incident was later known as the Kafr Qana massacre.

Bennett got some surprising support from the chairman of the board of B’Tselem, Israel’s preeminent human rights organization. David Zonsheine, who served in the same unit and took part in the mission, claimed on Facebook that there was nothing wrong with Bennett’s actions that night and that in any case, he couldn’t have been held responsible for the killing. Other members of Maglan came out in support of Bennett as well.

I tend to agree. The blame lies much higher in the chain of command: those who came up with the twisted logic behind Grapes of Wrath, and most notable then prime minister Shimon Peres, IDF chief of staff Amnon Lipkin Shahak and head of Northern Command Amiram Levin.

As was the case in a similar operation against Hezbollah in 1993, the idea in Grapes of Wrath was to “pressure” the civilian population in southern Lebanon, creating a flow of refugees heading north to Beirut, which would make the Lebanese government demand that Syria force Hezbollah to avoid attacks on Israelis and IDF forces. In other words, to deliberately attack civilian targets in order to deter a paramilitary organization that was operating in the region. This is how the official Israeli Air Force website describes Grapes of Wrath (the IAF’s English site has an entirely different text):

Operation Grapes of Wrath, which began on April 11 1996, took a similar path as “Operation Accountability” in July 1993: Massive bombing of the Shi’ite villages in South Lebanon in order to cause a flow of civilians north, toward Beirut, thus applying pressure on Syria and Lebanon to restrain Hezbollah.

Such twisted ideas were bound to lead to a disaster.

Grapes of Wrath began with dropping leaflets above Shi’ite villages calling on the population to leave. Unpopulated areas around the villages were also bombed. Sure enough, most civilians fled north or searched for shelter in refugee camps, like the UN base in Kafr Qana.

At some point the army began bombing the villages themselves. I remember this day vividly because I was leading a small force of several infantry soldiers and a tank inside the strip when I was ordered to shoot at several buildings in a village on a hill north of us. We were under the impression that they were military targets. Only after taking down a handful of them did I understand that my commanders were marking random targets – houses they believed were empty (but had no real way of knowing) – in an effort “to increase the pressure” on the civilian population (half a million Lebanese ended up being displaced during the operation).

We fired until the tank ran out of shells. Luckily, nobody was hurt. Yet it’s clear that the logic here – to deliberately hit civilian targets – was even worse than in the Qana incident, where at least formally there was some operational logic behind the shelling (an attempt to lay down cover fire for Bennett and his men). I must add that it took me several days to understand what it was exactly we were doing – at whom and why we were shooting – and another several years until I internalized the full meaning of this event, resulting in a change of my entire thinking about the army and the politics of war and peace.

Shimon Peres lost the 1996 elections to Netanyahu because of the Qana incident (the massacre made Peres lose the support of many Palestinian citizens of Israel. He came 30,000 votes short of winning). Still, much of the Israeli left never learned its lesson and is still supporting devastating military operations against civilians – ones that far surpass anything we ever did in South Lebanon. Before talking about Bennett, many in the so-called peace camp should look inward.

Translated from my Hebrew blog at Local Call.

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What the polls say about Netanyahu’s election chances http://972mag.com/what-the-polls-say-about-netanyahus-election-chances/100943/ http://972mag.com/what-the-polls-say-about-netanyahus-election-chances/100943/#comments Sun, 04 Jan 2015 16:09:36 +0000 http://972mag.com/?p=100943 Netanyahu has more paths to the Prime Minister’s Office than Herzog, but also more party leaders who oppose him personally.

Seventy-one days ahead of Israel’s general elections, two major stories are dominating the political news cycle: the showdown between Shas’s former leaders – Aryeh Deri and Eli Yishai – and the corruption affair involving senior politicians from Avigdor Liberman’s Israel Beitenu party. Both Shas and Liberman lost some ground in last week’s polls, while Yishai’s newly formed party is coming close to passing the Knesset threashold, currently at 4 seats (3.25 percent of the votes).

Netanyahu’s Likud party held its primaries last Wednesday. Likud members chose an uninspiring team that didn’t include new stars, but also didn’t damage the party’s brand and might have increased its appeal in the political center. Two of Likud’s most extreme politicians, Tzipi Hotovely and Moshe Feiglin – were considerably demoted, and will probably not make it to the next Knesset.

These elections are mostly about Netanyahu anyway, more than any other issue or person. With that in mind, Bibi came out slightly stronger from last week, following the failure of his opponents in the Likud primaries and his success in blocking the Palestinian move at the UN Netanyahu’s appeal to the public has to do with an ability to hold on to the status quo at a relatively low cost. A successful Palestinian bid would have angered Israelis but also demonstrated the dead-end Netanyahu’s strategy has reached, thus increasing the appeal of challengers from right and left alike. Given the Palestinian failure, Israelis can go on ignoring the the issue altogether. That is good news for Bibi.

At the same time, Netanyahu is entering this campaign in a relatively weak position, and no poll I’ve seen gives him the absolute majority that would secure his fourth term as prime minister. Instead, we are facing a more complex picture, in which a lot will depend on the political maneuvering taking place after the polls close. The bottom line is this: Netanyahu has more paths to a coalition of 61 MKs than Labor’s Isaac Herzog, but not a lot more. However, even if Herzog does manage to form a government, it won’t be a lefty one (like the Rabin government in 1992) but rather a centrist coalition, more closely resembling the one led by Ehud Olmert.

Netanyahu (Yotam Ronen / Activestills)

Netanyahu. Will depend on Liberman and the Orthodox parties (Yotam Ronen / Activestills)

After the election, President Rivlin will need to give the opportunity to form a government to the Knesset member with the best chances of succeeding (and not, as some people think, the head of the biggest party). In order to determine the identity of this person, Rivlin will consult with members of all parties, who will recommend a certain candidate (much of the horse-trading takes place during the recommendation process). Once Rivlin makes his choice, the MK he nominates will be given 45 days to form a government.

Averaged, the polls show the following numbers: Likud 23, Labor  23, Jewish Home 16, a united Arab party 11, Moshe Kahlon 9, Yair Lapid 9, Meretz 7, United Torah Judaism 7, Avigdor Liberman 6, Shas 5, and Eli Yishai 3. (The numbers don’t add up to 120 because this is an average of other polls).

[Note that Eli Yishai’s 3 seats won’t get him past the Knesset threshold, but I included him here because this number reflects some polls in which he scores 4-5 seats, and some in which he fails to enter the Knesset and gets none. A lot will depend on the fate of his party.]

When figuring out who is more likely to receive the first opportunity to form a coalition, it’s useful to think of blocs of parties. We have 41 Knesset members who will almost certainly recommend on Herzog (Labor, Meretz and the Palestinian parties); and 39 MKs who will certainly go for Netanyahu (Likud and Jewish Home).

We can also add Lapid to Herzog’s side – the former made clear that he won’t again sit in a Netanyahu government. United Torah Judaism and Eli Yishai are more likely to go to Bibi. Now the blocs split 50:49 in Herzog’s favor.

Three parties remain in the middle – Kahlon, Shas and Leiberman. They are the likely kingmakers. It’s enough for two of them to join one side, Bibi or Herzog, for this bloc to go over 61 and receive the first opportunity to form a government.

Netanyahu has a better chance of securing those votes. Kahlon and Leiberman, both of them former Likud members, have personal issues with Bibi, but their politics are closer to the Right. It’s not really clear with either of them whether they are trying to increase their bargaining chips with attacks on Bibi, or if they really made up their minds not to support him again. I guess the more the numbers end up in Bibi’s favor, the more solvable their problems with him will seem.

For Herzog, things might be very tricky: Shas will have a problem sitting in the same government with Lapid, though a solution might be found on this front. And Meretz might have a problem with Liberman (and vice verse). Another complication is that a coalition with Liberman might not receive the support of the Palestinian parties – not even from the outside. In other words, the center-left bloc is not really a bloc, and Herzog will need to negotiate a complex puzzle, while Bibi’s work will be much simpler.

Tzipi Livni and Isaac Herzog announce a joint slate for the upcoming elections, December 10, 2014. (Photo by Activestills.org)

Tzipi Livni and Isaac Herzog announce a joint slate for the upcoming elections, December 10, 2014. The center-left bloc is more fragmented and less ideologically consistent than the right (Photo by Activestills.org)

A slight shift in the map to the right or to the left might change everything. If for example, the Left plus Lapid and Kahlon get to 61 seats (they have 59 now), they take the veto power from Liberman and the ultra-Orthodox. In such a case, Herzog will almost certainly become prime minister, in rotation with either Livni or Kahlon. Bibi has reason to be concerned: there is a slight trend of voters moving from the Right to the center and from the center to the Left. Alternatively, a strong performance by Yishai and the collapse of Shas would bring Bibi his victory.

There are also wilder scenarios: The leader of a centrist party – Kahlon? – might demand to become prime minister himself, either alone or in rotation, if he is convinced that it’s impossible to form a government without him. This is probably what Liberman had in mind when he decided to support heading to new elections, but if the election results are similar to the current polls, Liberman won’t have much to negotiate with. Here is something else to look at: A swing of four seats from Likud to the Jewish Home can make Bennett the leader of the bigger party on the Right. If the Right forms the next government, he could demand to share the prime minister office with Bibi, or in case Netanyahu resigns after the elections, with the person replacing him.

Finally, the complexities I’ve outlined here will make it very difficult to form a stable government — especially if it’s not a right-wing one (because the center-left bloc is not as ideologically coherent as the Right). This means that the ability of the next prime minister to engage in major reforms will be very limited to begin with, regardless of his agenda.

Israel’s elections: A referendum on Netanyahu
Security Council’s election message to Israelis: Keep ignoring the occupation
Pundits’ consensus: Netanyahu is vulnerable

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Security Council’s election message to Israelis: Keep ignoring the occupation http://972mag.com/security-councils-election-message-to-israelis-keep-ignoring-the-occupation/100827/ http://972mag.com/security-councils-election-message-to-israelis-keep-ignoring-the-occupation/100827/#comments Wed, 31 Dec 2014 15:09:12 +0000 http://972mag.com/?p=100827 Israel and Washington together blocked a UN Security Council resolution calling for the implementation of a negotiated two-state solution within a year. Abbas’s diplomatic efforts have hit a brick wall.

The Security Council votes on a draft resolution submitted by Jordan on the establishment of “a sovereign, contiguous and viable State of Palestine” within 12 months, December 30, 2014. (UN Photo/Loey Felipe)

The Security Council votes on a draft resolution submitted by Jordan on the establishment of “a sovereign, contiguous and viable State of Palestine” within 12 months, December 30, 2014. (UN Photo/Loey Felipe)

The Israeli government came out with the upper hand yesterday at the United Nations Security Council: a joint effort by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry managed to gather enough votes to block a Palestinian resolution calling for a negotiated two-state solution and an end to the occupation within a year (full text here). Jordan submitted the proposed resolution on behalf of the Palestinian Liberation Organization. Out of 15 members of the Security Council, eight supported the motion, two opposed and five abstained. Even if the Palestinians would have gathered the necessary nine votes, the American “nay” would have counted as a veto and the motion would have been defeated.

The outcome is a serious blow to PA President Mahmoud Abbas’s efforts to advance the cause of a two-state solution through diplomatic measures, after both direct negotiations with Israel and moves in the UN effort failed to produce any meaningful achievements for the Palestinians this year.

There were some indications recently that the Obama administration feared a successful UN bid by the Palestinians would help Prime Minister Netanyahu in the coming general elections (due to take place on March 17). It’s clear, however, that the current outcome is even better for Bibi.

Netanyahu’s strategy is about maintaining the status quo in the occupied territories. Knowing that he will never win an international majority supporting the occupation, Netanyahu is focusing his policy on gathering the support of several key governments to block any measures against Israel, as they did last night. Netanyahu and his supporters see no urgency in solving the issue of the occupation – most of them deny its existence altogether – and they were proven right yesterday.

Despite the bad blood between Netanyahu and the Obama administration, the Washington continues to play a key role in allowing Israel to maintain the current trends on the ground. The Obama administration made clear, well in advance, that it wouldn’t allow the Security Council to pass a resolution placing any deadline on the Israeli occupation, now closing in on its 50th year.

As far as the internal Israeli conversation goes, the long-term consequences of the vote could be even worse than the short-term ones: last night’s vote not only helped Netanyahu internally and proved his strategy more sustainable than the opposition claims, even if an election upset leads to the forming of a centrist government, Israeli leaders won’t feel any urgency to advance a final-status solution, and the rightward drift of the Israeli mainstream will continue. As I’ve written in the past, the circumstances in which elected leaders operate are much more important than their personalities or ideologies (that’s true for any leader, not just Israelis), and right now the cost of change on the Palestinian front is enormous — incentives for it on the Israeli side are almost nonexistent. There is nothing more distant and abstract for the Israeli voter than the Palestinian issue. You hardly hear anything about it in these elections; the Security Council vote pretty much guaranteed that things will remain this way.

Related: The hand that holds the status quo together

As for Abbas, his strategy hit a brick wall. Hamas’s central claim – that diplomacy is a hollow hope, and only armed resistance can get the international community and the Israeli political system engaged – scored serious points last night. Abbas is under pressure to join the International Criminal Court and try to get Israeli officials prosecuted, and many Palestinians want him to stop security coordination with Israel. Abbas is caught between a rock and a hard place: the sole function of the PA, in Israeli eyes, is providing protection to Israelis. If the PA confronts Israel, it will be destroyed, just as it happened 10 years ago. If it doesn’t – then what’s the point in maintaining it?

Riyad H. Mansour (right), Permanent Observer of the State of Palestine to the UN, speaks to journalists following a meeting of Arab delegations to the UN on a draft resolution regarding Palestinian statehood to be submitted to the Security Council, December 30, 2014. (UN Photo/Devra Berkowitz)

Riyad H. Mansour (right), Permanent Observer of the State of Palestine to the UN, speaks to journalists following a meeting of Arab delegations to the UN on a draft resolution regarding Palestinian statehood to be submitted to the Security Council, December 30, 2014. (UN Photo/Devra Berkowitz)

Last night’s vote made it clear that when it comes to the Palestinian issue, the United States is part of the problem, not of the solution. Washington basically views the issue from the Israeli perspective, as if the Palestinians rights are dependent on the goodwill of the Israeli government. When that goodwill disappears (as is the case now), tough luck.

As long as the diplomatic process – or any form of engagement – must pass through Washington, nothing will change. Instead of calling for more American involvement, maybe what the peace camp should hope for is American disengagement. With that in mind, the only encouraging aspect of the UNSC vote and the negotiations that led to it, is the active role taken by France (which supported the Jordanian-Palestinian motion), suggesting again that the EU might be better qualified than Washington to deal with the Israeli-Palestinian issue.

2014 was the year the real price of the status quo was revealed – in the horrors of Gaza, in East Jerusalem, and with deteriorating relations between Jews and Palestinian citizens of Israel within the 67 borders. In the final days of the year, a UNSC resolution could have created a new sense of urgency among various actors, most notably, in the Israeli government. Its failure will have an opposite effect. The driving force on the ground will continue to be the occasional outburst of violence, and Israel’s de facto annexation process. The human rights abuses will continue, and a peaceful and just solution seems more elusive than ever.


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The hand that holds the status quo together http://972mag.com/the-hand-that-holds-the-status-quo-together/100270/ http://972mag.com/the-hand-that-holds-the-status-quo-together/100270/#comments Fri, 19 Dec 2014 14:10:10 +0000 http://972mag.com/?p=100270 The Palestinians put forward a Security Council resolution calling for the end of the occupation by 2017. The Obama administration, which has supported essentially every Israeli policy toward the Palestinians, has promised to use its veto power.

The Kingdom of Jordan on Wednesday submitted a resolution draft to the United Nation Security Council, which calls for the establishing of a Palestinian state as well as a deadline for the occupation: 2017, two years from now. The proposal, which could be voted on at any time, was drafted by the Palestinian Authority in the aim of breaking the diplomatic impasse in efforts to establish a Palestinian state.

According to reports, should the Obama administration vetoe the resolution, the Palestinians will join dozens of international agencies, including perhaps the International Criminal Court – a move that may allow the court to hear future charges against Israeli officials.

The United States opposes the Palestinian motion. The Israeli media reported yesterday that Secretary of State Kerry informed Prime Minister Netanyahu and the Palestinian Authority that the U.S. will veto the resolution should it come to a vote. It seems that the Americans also object to a more modest resolution proposed by the French government. The French proposal is said to put forward several parameters for a final-status agreement, setting a two-year deadline for negotiations.

The idea of a deadline on the occupation is required to solve an inherent problem with the diplomatic process: it depends entirely on the Israeli will to make concessions. There is simply no incentive for any Israeli leadership (not just Netanyahu’s) to move forward, certainly not at a time when Israel enjoys relative calm and prosperity, as it has over the past decade. The negotiations are not balanced: one side is holding all the cards while the other depends on its good will; one side is in a state of emergency, and the other can ignore the issue altogether; one side gains international credit by merely agreeing to talk, while the other side of the deal — a Palestinian state — is only promised in the very distance future, if at all.

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice. (UN Photo/JC McIlwaine)

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice. (UN Photo/JC McIlwaine)

Millions of Palestinians have been living under military rule in the West Bank and siege in Gaza for almost 50 years. The lack of any form of Palestinian sovereignty directly affects millions more who are stuck in refugee camps and cannot be helped by their own people, even during a crisis like the Syrian civil war. It has been half a century since the 1967 war, and the Israeli government still has not made up its mind whether to leave the territories it captured and allow Palestinians their independence, or grant them full civil rights. Or perhaps it seems like the government has made up its mind to keep the land but not give the rights, thus treating the Palestinians as prisoners. The expiration date on this state of affairs is long overdue. In this context, allowing another two years for completing an agreed-upon process to end the occupation actually seems like a generous offer.

The problem is that the U.S. agrees with Israel on an entirely different framing of the problem: not how or when Israel should end the occupation, but whether it should do so at all, and under which hypothetical circumstances. For the two countries, the talks are a process through which Israelis need to be convinced that the Palestinians have rights, too.

In recent years I have attended and sometimes even spoken on various panels and forums on American policy vis-a-vis the conflict, including its failure to facilitate a peace deal between Israelis and Palestinians. In such forums one always get a sense of helplessness coming from the American side. What more can America do, people ask, to end the occupation? How can peace be so elusive? What went wrong with “the process?”

But in order to keep raising those questions, one must ignore reality. In truth it is the United States that holds everything together right now. When people think about American support for Israel they imagine the military aid and Iron Dome. But in fact, American administrations – every one of them – have created the diplomatic and political environment in which Jerusalem can carry out its policies. And when the chips are down, it is the American administration that shields Israel from the inevitable consequences of its policies, allowing Israeli leaders to make decisions that are not only immoral, but also carry disastrous consequences for all parties involved.

This is true for almost every step of the way. The United States boycotted the Fourth Geneva Convention Conference taking place this week, mainly because Israel does not accept the interpretation of its settlement activities as a violation of Article 49 in the treaty; the United States is vetoing Security Council resolutions on the occupation – even resolutions that are deliberately drafted using the State Department’s texts on settlements. And when Israel ran out of artillery shells during its latest war in Gaza, the U.S. opened its emergency bunkers in Israel to resupply the IDF. In short, one cannot think of any part of Israeli policy toward the Palestinians – the so-called status quo – that does not depend on the active support and participation of the United States.

This cooperation is a bit inconvenient for the administration at times, especially when it is trying to get the support of other Arab countries for its Middle East wars – and this is precsiely where the personal rift between the governments serves both sides. Obama and Kerry are able to distance themselves from the active role they are taking in aiding Israeli policies, and Netanyahu can score some points with its base for “standing up” to the U.S. But when things matter – like they do now in the Security Council or last summer in Gaza (and the war was all about maintaining the status quo) – the U.S. and Bibi are almost exactly on the same page.

Unlike UN resolutions, which Israel has learned to ignore, Security Council measures are binding, and can have very serious implications on states (just take a look at Russia or Iran). That’s why the Palestinians are trying to get the international community involved in a way that would require Israel to think about how to end the occupation, rather than whether to do it in the first place. But without American approval, nothing can move forward at the UNSC. When you look for the thing that is holding the status quo together, the American ambassador’s voting record at the UN is a good place to start.

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Bennett is not the problem http://972mag.com/bennett-is-not-the-problem/99777/ http://972mag.com/bennett-is-not-the-problem/99777/#comments Tue, 09 Dec 2014 17:31:45 +0000 http://972mag.com/?p=99777 American administrations have a tendency to blame the ‘radical’ settlers for torpedoing peace missions. The real problem, however, is with the ‘moderates’ who are complicit in maintaining the status quo. 

There is a lot of talk in some circles about Naftali Bennett’s appearance at the Saban Forum last weekend (video below). Bennett, who heads the Jewish Home party and is the star of the Israeli Right, took to the stage with former special envoy to the peace process Martin Indyk. Bennett essentially declared that Israeli will never accept the two-state solution, that there will be no more “land for peace” and that he has the Israeli public behind him. “How many more missiles need to fall on Ashkelon until you wake up?” he asked Indyk, who remained mostly speechless. Bennett shared a clip of the event on his Facebook page.

Bennett, with his overtly confrontational attitude, is clearly the new boogeyman in the eyes of the Obama administration. According to mainstream thinking, if he ends up being appointed the next defense minister, the peace process will be as good as dead. This is a mistake: there is no hope for peace with Bennett, but this is not where the real problem lies.

American administrations have a tendency to divide societies into “good guys” and “bad guys,” or “moderates” and “radicals.” Moderates, they believe, are the ones you can do business with, and thus are the political forces worth cultivating.  The Israeli case is no different: there is a non-stop effort to decipher whether or not certain politicians – specifically rising stars and potential leaders – are “moderates.” The settlers are always the radicals, while Labor leaders are the moderates as long as they show some interest in the Palestinian issue. Liberman was a radical; now he is a potential moderate. Netanyahu was the exact opposite; there was a moment when he had the ability to become a moderate, but is now considered a hopeless case.

While amusing, this game misses the point entirely. Besides a lot of wishful thinking, it betrays a simple misunderstanding of Israeli politics. What political leaders think or say is not as important as the balance of interests and the environment that shape their behavior.

The heart of the matter is this: the common denominator that allows coalitions in Israel to exist is an agreement on the status quo with regards to the occupation, or at least an agreement with a certain version of the status quo (*).

By “common denominator” I mean that Netanyahu, Lapid, Livni, Liberman and Bennett have different, often conflicting ideas on the way Israel should approach the Palestinian issue. However, they can all live with the status quo. Although they may want something else, they can still agree to maintain the current trends on the ground.

This is what allows these politicians (and the forces they represent) to sit together in the same government. They conduct a tug of war over some nuances – the rate of settlement construction, the “illegal” outposts, whether or not to talk to Abbas – but they never stray too far from the status quo, since doing so will make it impossible to share power. In fact, the status quo is so important that the government is ready to go to war in order to maintain it. This is exactly what Israel has been doing since the Second Intifada.

Despite the rhetoric, Bennett can live with the status quo just as Livni can. This is precisely why they sat together in this last government, just as Ehud Barak sat with the settlers in the previous one. When international actors scratch their heads wondering why peace missions fail again and again they shouldn’t be looking at the settlers, who were never even close to constituting a majority in Israeli society. Instead, they should be looking at their “moderate” friends, whose common ground with the Right is the basis for the status quo.

And here’s the punch: even in the case of an election upset that would see the emergence of a center-left coalition, it will likely need to be based on an unspoken agreement on some version of the status quo. This is the only way that Liberman, Kahlon, Lapid, Livni and Herzog can sit in the same coalition.

Electing “the right politicians” will never be enough for an Israeli government – any Israeli government – to make to real change. For real change to occur, the circumstances under which all politicians operate need to shift as well. In other words, the only way this can happen is if major forces in Israeli society decide they cannot live with the status quo any longer (most likely because the price they would pay for doing so is simply too great).

It is not enough that these politicians would rather see the occupation end; ending the occupation needs to be the new common denominator for their political approach. As long as we are engaged in the “moderates” vs. “radicals” conversation, we are simply not going to get there.


(*) A note on terminology: the term “status quo” is misleading. I use it to describe the political arrangements and the most important procedures Israel implements on the ground. However there is nothing static in the reality they create, as the last year clearly demonstrated.

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Israel’s elections: A referendum on Netanyahu

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Pundits’ consensus: Netanyahu is vulnerable http://972mag.com/pundits-consensus-netanyahu-is-vulnerable/99709/ http://972mag.com/pundits-consensus-netanyahu-is-vulnerable/99709/#comments Sun, 07 Dec 2014 20:56:01 +0000 http://972mag.com/?p=99709 Are we nearing the end of King Bibi’s reign? Much of that depends on his allies, his rivals and the determination of international actors to address the disastrous trends on the ground.

In 2009 and 2013 it was easy to call who the next prime minister would be a month before the polls opened in Israel. Netanyahu underperformed in 2013, when his bloc of right-wing and ultra-Orthodox parties ended up winning 61 of the Knesset’s 120 seats, the minimum number that could prevent any other politician from forming a government. But he did win, as most people expected.

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu (photo: Yotam Ronen / Activestills.org)

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu (photo: Yotam Ronen / Activestills.org)

Things are far from being that clear this time. The right is still polling over 60, but there are indications that Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman may defect from the right, and together with Tzipi Livni, Labor’s Isaac Herzog, Yair Lapid and former Likud minister Moshe Kahlon (who will head a new party), form a centrist government that would send Bibi back home.

Nearly every political pundit in Israel was mulling these options over the weekend. Nahum Barnea in Yedioth Ahronoth, Ben Caspit in Ma’ariv, Channel 2 news. In Haaretz, columnist Uri Misgav already predicted that Isaac Herzog will be Israel’s next prime minister (way too early, I believe). Only among the pages of Sheldon Adelson Yisrael Hayom Netyanyahu is still the sun, the planets and everything around them. This is how Haaretz’s Anshel Pfeffer summed it up:


Rumors abounded that Netanyahu might try to have the ultra-Orthodox parties enter his government and prevent the elections, only to be torpedoed by Liberman. In a press release earlier today, the foreign minister made it clear that he will not be part of such a coalition, and that we are indeed heading for elections. This only added to the speculations that Liberman also senses the end of King Bibi’s reign, and is not ready to save him. Not this time.

How likely is such a scenario? In my view Netanyahu is still a favorite in these elections. But it is also clear that he is vulnerable, even without a strong alternative that can unite the opposition, the way Rabin was to Yitzhak Shamir in 92 or Barak was to Netanyahu in 99. The elections are about Netanyahu, not about the alternative.

In fact, even the primaries in the Likud are beginning to look like a serious hurdle for Netanyahu, rather than the formality everyone expected them to be. A poll in Ma’ariv found that former Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar (Likud), is polling better than Bibi among the general public. Sa’ar is yet to announce his candidacy, but if he does, there will be many Likud members who may be tempted to see him as the future of the party, while viewing Bibi as a man of the past. They might be right: I think that Sa’ar is a stronger candidate for the right than Netanyahu is.

My only note of reservation is not about the likelihood that Netanyahu surges in the polls – the best he can hope for is a narrow victory, like his three previous ones – but in the misplaced expectations regarding his departure. Netanyahu led an awful government – as bad as I can remember. But in many ways he and his coalition were both a product of an era and of the circumstances in which Israeli leaders operate: absolutely no accountability for the occupation and the human rights abuses that come with it; when even diplomatic consequences of Israeli actions are not quite felt.

If Bibi does fall, much will depend on the identity of the person who takes his place, as well as the coalition he or she assembles. Even more important, however, is the behavior of international actors and their determination to address the disastrous trends on the ground. Politicians avoid making difficult or revolutionary decisions when they can, and so will the next Israeli prime minister, whatever his or her name will be (Mairav Zonszein has more on this).

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‘Anyone but Bibi’ isn’t the point: Pre-election postulations
Moshe Kahlon for prime minister of Israel

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Israel’s elections: A referendum on Netanyahu http://972mag.com/israels-elections-another-referendum-on-netanyahu/99532/ http://972mag.com/israels-elections-another-referendum-on-netanyahu/99532/#comments Tue, 02 Dec 2014 17:44:15 +0000 http://972mag.com/?p=99532 The coalition is falling apart, and the Knesset is likely to agree on early elections soon. Current polls suggest we are heading toward a fourth Netanyahu government, which will be even more right wing than the current one.

Binyamin Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman thank their supporters at the Likud-Yisrael Beitenu headquarters, January 23 2013 (photo: Yotam Ronen / Activestills)

Binyamin Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman n election night 2013. Netanyahu would like to form a new government with his old political partners (photo: Yotam Ronen / Activestills)

Netanyahu’s third government has reached its end. New elections, which seemed likely when the Gaza war ended, are practically inevitable at this point. UPDATE: The Knesset’s parties agreed to hold the elections on March 17, 2015.

The two central pillars of the government – Netanyahu’s Likud party and Finance Minister Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid (comprising 18 and 19 seats, respectively, out of the Knesset’s 120) –  are not able to cooperate with each other any longer, with bad blood running especially high between the two politicians. Growing disputes led to Netanyahu firing both Yair Lapid and Tzipi Livni from his government on Tuesday evening.

Theoretically an alternative coalition can emerge without elections. In recent days both Lapid and Netanyahu have tried to gain the support of Shas and United Torah Judaism (UTJ), the two ultra-Orthodox parties. With that support, either one of them could have gathered the necessary 61 votes to become prime minister. But the ultra-Orthodox parties refused both Bibi and Lapid, believing that they will have better leverage after the elections, even if they end up winning fewer seats than in the current Knesset. Unless the ultra-Orthodox change their mind soon, the government will not have a majority in the Knesset and new elections will become inevitable.

Netanyahu will likely not resign, since the risk of seeing Lapid or Herzog assemble an alternative coalition is too great. Instead the Knesset will likely pass a quick bill on early elections – the way it does every time a government is about to fall. Netanyahu would like to have as short a campaign as possible – the common wisdom is that long election cycles hurt incumbent prime ministers running for reelection.

Netanyahu will run as the head of the Likud party. Avigdor Lieberman will run independently with his Yisrael Beitenu party (last election he combined his list with Bibi’s). Naftali Bennett will lead the Jewish Home party, though whether the extreme-right National Home faction splits from Jewish Home is yet to be seen. Tzipi Livni will seek to merge her Hatnua party – which is sinking in the polls – with either Labor or Lapid’s Yesh Atid party. There are even talks of a joint center-left bloc, though this is not likely to happen.

Former Likud minister Moshe Kahlon (who is polling well, between 8-12 seats) will lead a new centrist party. The Palestinian parties – United Arab List and Balad – will run on the same list, due to the raising of the Knesset threshold. The Arab-Jewish Hadash party may join them as well.

The unexpected element

If Operation Protective Edge was a war over maintaining the status quo, these will be the elections of the status quo. Put another way: these elections are akin to a referendum on Netanyahu and his signature policy, which is all about maintaining the current trends on the ground. Nobody can pretend any longer that Netanyahu is about to negotiate a peace deal or evacuate settlements. The prime minister attacked Mahmoud Abbas so vehemently in recent weeks that even if he were to suddenly cut a deal with Abbas, it would be impossible to sell it to the public.

There won’t be any new Bibi. Only the old Bibi, older. Netanyahu is closer than ever to Naftali Bennett and the settlers. As relations between Israel’s Palestinian citizens and Jews deteriorated over recent months, Netanyahu only fanned the flames, refrained from condemning attacks on Palestinians and threatened to expel protesters or revoke the citizenship of family members of terror suspects. This hardline approach reflects Netanyahu’s ideology as well as his political calculus.

Unlike other Likud leaders (Sharon being the prime example), Bibi is not looking for votes from the center. His strategy is more about rallying the base. Netanyahu won his 1996 upset against Shimon Peres by mobilizing a collation of forces: the settlers; lower-income, mostly Mizrahi Jews; much of the Russian vote; the ultra-Orthodox and the hawkish revisionists that dominated Likud in those days. The Israeli Right has seen a change of guard – the Likud’s revisionists were demoted and the national-religious (mostly settlers) are now in the driver’s seat – but the coalition around them remains mostly intact. Those same forces handed Bibi his recent victories in 2009 and 2013. All three victories were narrow: he won 50.5 percent of the vote in 1996; his coalition won 65 and 61 Knesset seats in 2009 and 2013, respectively. Never a landslide, but always enough. This is what Bibi will be aiming for this time as well.

The problem with the current government is that it didn’t comprise of Bibi’s regular coalition, since Bennett and Lapid forced him to leave the ultra-Orthodox out. This was the source of the instability: Bibi leading a government while drawing his political support elsewhere. Now he is running in order to return things back to normal: securing a majority of 61 votes or more for his coalition, while squeezing in a centrist party or two in order to balance the hard right and use them as a diplomatic buffer, the way Barak and Livni were used in Bibi’s two previous governments.

Polls suggest that Netanyahu will get what he wants. The center-left parties are not polling anywhere close to 60 votes, which is the minimum required to disrupt the prime minister’s plan. Furthermore there is a split between the centrist parties (Kadima, Livni, Yesh Atid, Labor and Kahlon) and the leftist parties (Meretz, Hadash and the Palestinian parties) which prevents them from operating as an effective political bloc.

Right now the most likely outcome is a shift of around 8-10 seats from Livni and Lapid to Kahlon, and another 2-4 seats to Meretz and Bennett. This will actually leave Netanyahu in a better position after the elections, as the right-wing bloc will slightly grow, and he will have easier time inviting Kahlon to the coalition than he did with Lapid or Livni. Kahlon was always rather hawkish in his views, though he is currently trying not to highlight this fact.

Having said that, there is always something unexpected in elections, especially in the fragmented Israeli system. Bibi’s next term is far from guaranteed, and there is always the option of a major upset, or of someone (Lieberman?) defecting from the right simply in order to get rid of Netanyahu. The likely scenario, however, is another term with Netanyahu. The Israeli public – or more accurately, the Jewish-Israeli public – is not likely to change course on its own, and the circumstances that would force such a change are not here yet.

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