October 12, 2012
Number 10/12 #02
As readers will probably be aware, Israeli PM Binyamin Netanyahu announced earlier this week that he will seek early elections, and later announced that he is requesting a poll take place on January 22. His speech, calling for the election, and citing an inability “at this time to pass a responsible budget”, is here. This Update looks at the reasons for this move and previews the election campaign.
First up is David Makovsky of the Washington Institute, looking at the reasons Netanyahu likely had for calling a new election. These include the reduced possibility of a military strike on Iran in the short term, a belief that economic trends and the US election may mean time is not on his side, and the disarray of the opposition at the present time. He then cites a total of six factors to look at over the course of the three month Israeli election campaign, including the kind of coalition Netanyahu may hint he wants, the Likud electoral list, a possible split in the ultra-Orthodox party Shas, the US election results, and above all, which agenda items come to dominate the discourse of the campaign. For this look at the key factors behind this decision and those affecting the election’s eventual outcome, CLICK HERE. Polls following the election announcement show, as Makvosky suggests in his analysis, that Netanyahu looks like a heavy favourite to remain Prime Minister, but as Joshua Mitnik of Wall Street Journal notes, the nature of this post-election coalition will also be important if he does win.
Next up is a piece on the three “comeback kids” who Israeli pundits are speculating might shake up the electoral outcome if they decide to throw their hats in the ring; former PM Ehud Olmert, former Foreign Minister and Opposition leader Tzipi Livni, and former Shas powerbroker and Interior Minister Aryeh Deri. Olmert, of course resigned in 2008 over corruption allegations, some of which he has now been acquitted of in court; Deri was convicted of corruption but served his time and is now eligible again for office; while Livni lost the leadership of her own party earlier this year. All three are reportedly looking at the numbers and weighing options which might include the formation of new parties, efforts to re-assert control of the centrist Kadima party, or possibly an alliance with the new “Yesh Atid” party founded by television journalist Yair Lapid. For a look at these potential wild cards in the electoral outlook, CLICK HERE.
Finally, the Israeli daily Yediot Ahronot spoke to three leading Israeli academic political scientists about the policy issue-areas likely to dominate the electoral campaign. The paper found little agreement among them, with one predicting the main focus will be on the Iranian nuclear threat, another the Israeli social protests concerning housing affordability and income gaps, and a third emphasising that personality and emotional connection with the public will be dominant. One expert predicts “extreme uncertainty” over the next three months’ election campaign, and the experts’ diverse views of the campaign’s major issue suggests he has a point. For all that the three experts have to say about the agenda for this Israeli campaign, CLICK HERE. Some additional factors affecting this “uncertainty” over the coming three months are discussed by noted journalist and blogger Shmuel Rosner.
Readers may also be interested in:
- Israeli columnist Dan Margalit argues an early election now is a good idea, while fellow columnist Hagai Segal takes the view that an election now is unnecessary.
- American analyst Jonathan Tobin says Netanyahu is favourite because he is seen in Israel as a voice of common-sense on security and the Palestinians, contrary to his reputation abroad. In a somewhat related comment, Ari Shavit of Haaretz argues Netanyahu’s tenure has been characterised by a “ make-no-progress stability” on these issues – excepting on the Iranian nuclear threat.
- A surprising and refreshing comment on the costs to the Arab world of the relentless Arab war with Israel from Saudi columnist Abdulateef Al-Mulhim.
- Former AIJAC staffer Arsen Ostrovsky brilliantly skewers the hypocrisy of Turkey in taking drastic action after one rocket from Syria struck Turkish territory, yet violently denouncing Israel’s similar response in 2008-2009 to over 8,000 rockets hitting Israel from Gaza.
- Reports from Israel (scroll to the end of the linked Haaretz story) say the Foreign Ministry there has decided the next Israeli Ambassador to Australia. According to the story, Shmuel Ben-Shmuel – currently head of Diaspora Affairs in the Ministry, and a former Deputy Consul General in New York – will succeed current Ambassador Yuval Rotem, who is scheduled to finish up in August 2013. A short, and not completely up to date, bio of Mr. Ben-Shmuel is available here.
- Some examples from the many stories and comments now appearing at AIJAC’s daily “Fresh AIR” blog:
- Sharyn Mittelman on the tenth anniversary of the Bali bombings.
- Daniel Meyerowitz-Katz on new evidence that it was once UN policy to re-settle Palestinian refugees, not to create a “right of return” to Israel, as widely claimed.
- A list, including links, of the many excellent media appearances in Australia by AIJAC guest and noted Israeli analyst and peace negotiator Tal Becker.
By DAVID MAKOVSKY
October 11, 2012
The lack of a clear challenger is just one of the many reasons why a confident Netanyahu is calling for early elections.
Citing his inability to pass what he called a “responsible budget” in the Knesset, Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu announced Tuesday that he is calling for early elections. The country was not slated to go to the polls until next October, but Netanyahu urged that elections be held as soon as possible. It was announced today by the prime minister’s office that the elections will be held on January 22.
RATIONALE FOR EARLY ELECTIONS
In the most immediate sense, Netanyahu’s announcement was driven by his inability to ensure that his ultra-orthodox coalition partners, the Shas Party and United Torah Judaism, would support a budget that included approximately $4 billion in cuts. Members of these parties have the highest birthrate in Israel and therefore reject the centerpiece of the proposed cuts — major decreases in child allowances.
In a broader sense, Israeli governments often fall over fiscal issues. Failure to pass a budget traditionally enables smaller parties to position themselves advantageously among voters in the lead-up to an election year. And according to Israeli law, a government must step down if it cannot pass a budget three months into a new calendar year; if the stalemate continued, it was only a matter of time before early elections were called.
Nevertheless, it behooves Netanyahu to say that the decision was imposed on him, as Israelis view snap elections with suspicion. In particular, when an incumbent with high poll ratings makes such a move, voters tend to regard it as too calculating and may even seek to stymie it.
Netanyahu does in fact see early elections as politically beneficial. If the budget were the only issue at hand, he may well have compromised, just as he did in raising taxes over the past year. The current coalition has been one of the least fractious in Israeli history, as the opposition had no chance to bring down the government on its own. And if the ease of enacting budgets is a reliable indicator of coalition compliance, Netanyahu was the first Israeli leader to ever pass a two-year budget.
Fiscal issues aside, then, Netanyahu seeks early elections for a variety of reasons. First, the concern that Israel would unilaterally attack Iran before November has very much abated. Netanyahu’s main ally, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, apparently had second thoughts, believing a strike could be politically costly to Israel if done in defiance of Washington on the eve of U.S. elections. Netanyahu’s recent UN speech suggests that the issue has been deferred for another six to nine months. If the prospect of a pre-November strike was what kept early elections at bay, he can now seek to define the agenda for the upcoming campaign season, highlighting the centrality of the Iran issue while some other parties focus on socioeconomic issues.
Second, Netanyahu seems to believe that time may not be on his side, and that it is better to lock in his strong electoral position early rather than take risks down the road. Considering the likelihood that Israel’s largest trading partner, Europe, will slide into recession in the coming year, the Israeli economy will begin to feel some measure of pain as well. Therefore, late-2013 elections would not be to Netanyahu’s advantage. Moreover, the potential ramifications of the U.S. elections remain uncertain. Netanyahu’s advisors are concerned that a second-term Obama could be more confrontational with him — a political risk given that Israelis expect their leaders to find the right balance in dealing with Washington, avoiding the extremes of utter compliance and utter defiance and managing relations in a productive manner. Early elections maximize Netanyahu’s chances to gain ground in the polls while minimizing the prospect of policy bruises with the United States.
Third, Netanyahu clearly likes the idea that early elections make it more difficult for his challengers to organize. The political map looks different today than it did when he ran in early 2009. At the time, the rival Kadima Party was the incumbent and had edged out his Likud Party by a 28-27 margin in the 120-seat Knesset; only after intensive coalition-building efforts was he able to garner the 61 seats required to govern. Today, however, Kadima has split, and Netanyahu is viewed as the overwhelming favorite. According to a poll by Haaretz, if elections were held today, Netanyahu’s current coalition would maintain its wide parliamentary lead by a 68-52 margin.
Kadima’s decline can be attributed to the difficulty of maintaining party unity: the opposition has no cabinet portfolios to allocate in order to ensure party support; it lacks charismatic leadership; and its signature issue, the Palestinian peace process, is increasingly marginalized. Kadima now polls in the single digits, and its key figures and supporters are fragmented. Its current leader — former chief of staff Shaul Mofaz — has called for extending the military draft to ultraorthodox Jews, an issue that broke a very short-lived 94-member coalition with Netanyahu this summer. And its previous leader, former foreign minister Tzipi Livni, may start her own party dedicated to reviving the peace process. Another key figure, columnist Yair Lapid, has announced a new party focusing on education and the middle class.
Meanwhile, some of Kadima’s voters seem to have moved to the Labor Party, whose leader — talk-show host Shelly Yechimovich — focuses on income equality and the high costs besetting Israeli singles and young families. Support for the party began to grow following the summer 2011 social protest movement, which brought hundreds of thousands of Israelis to the streets.
According to pundits, the only figure in Israel who could galvanize strong, unified opposition to Netanyahu is his predecessor, Ehud Olmert, who is considering a political comeback. Netanyahu seems to believe that early elections sharply reduce the prospects of such a comeback. Although Olmert was acquitted on two accusations of corruption this summer, he was convicted on the lesser charge of “breach of trust,” and one remaining allegation is expected to be decided in the coming months. Whatever the outcome, Yechimovich has already announced that Labor would not merge under Olmert.
DEVELOPMENTS TO FOLLOW
As the new Israeli political season opens, a number of developments bear watching. First, to what extent will Netanyahu signal that he wants a government with a wider base than the ultraorthodox and Russian immigrant parties? Such a coalition would have to include a significant number of his opponents in order to deal with the many challenges Israel faces in a convulsive Middle East. Will he tell his Likud constituents that he wants a mandate for this broad-based government?
Second, what sort of parliamentary slate will emerge from the Likud primary? Netanyahu often cites his 2009 speech calling for a two-state solution with the Palestinians, but it is uncertain how many Likud candidates who favor that vision will prevail — some reports indicate that political moderates could be pushed aside during primary voting.
Third, will Barak’s Independence Party gain momentum, or will it be politically vaporized as some predict? Barak is the chief architect behind the concept of attacking Iran, and although he no longer leads the Labor Party, he believes that even a diminished political base will give him some claim on the coveted defense portfolio after early elections. Failing that, Netanyahu would have more difficulty reappointing him to his current post.
Fourth, will the ultraorthodox Shas — the key to Netanyahu’s base since the mid-1990s — split? Such a development would be predicated on the idea that it is wrong for the ultraorthodox movement to put all its eggs in the same configuration of the current Netanyahu government.
Fifth, how will the agenda for the next election be defined? If Iran becomes the main issue, Netanyahu will have a better chance of claiming a major victory, but if socioeconomic issues come to the fore, they will work to his detriment. It is unclear whether the often-overlooked issue of regional upheaval will affect the race. Netanyahu likely views the recent rise of Islamists in various countries as a sign that his deep-seated suspicion of Arab commitment to peace is warranted, and that Israel must remain cautious. In addition, he will probably cite these regional developments in a bid to personalize the election, saying there is no substitute for experience in navigating the tricky shoals of the Middle East. Yet his opponents will charge that Israel has lost the initiative on the Palestinian issue under his watch, and that the country’s regional standing will deteriorate further if he is reelected.
Finally, how will the outcome of the U.S. elections affect Israeli balloting? Netanyahu would likely view a Mitt Romney victory as a boon in wooing back Likud voters who now support Kadima — such a development could take the sting out of the charge that he is responsible for worsening relations with Washington, making it easier for such voters to return. In contrast, an Obama victory could cut both ways, spurring some voters to avoid Netanyahu to forestall friction and others to bank on the possibility that Netanyahu would respond likewise if Washington chooses a more confrontational course.
David Makovsky is the Ziegler distinguished fellow and director of the Project on the Middle East Peace Process at The Washington Institute.
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The former PM and his Kadima leadership successor are said to be waiting for new surveys before deciding whether to run; the former Shas leader is mending fences
A day after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that he would be calling general elections “as soon as possible,” Israeli politicians and analysts were Wednesday speculating frantically about a series of former top figures who just might be planning comebacks.
At the head of the will they/won’t they? list was former prime minister Ehud Olmert, who relinquished the prime ministership and the leadership of his Kadima party four years ago to battle a series of corruption allegations — prompting the elections that brought Netanyahu to power in February 2009. Olmert was convicted of breach of trust in July, and given a suspended jail term last month, but that punishment was not so severe as to bar him from a return to the Knesset. And although he is still on trial in a real-estate corruption case, and could face an appeal from the state attorney in two major fraud cases for which he was acquitted, aides to Olmert did not rule out a comeback Wednesday.
Several members of Kadima, seeing poll after poll predicting that their party will crash in the elections under new leader Shaul Mofaz, are urging Olmert to make a return. MKs Dahlia Itzik and Yoel Hasson publicly encouraged him to do so Wednesday, with Itzik indicating that Mofaz could be persuaded to step aside if Olmert wanted to retake the Kadima reins — which may have been news to Mofaz. According to Channel 2, the former prime minister is waiting to see some more survey results before making a decision; if the polls do not predict that he could oust Netanyahu, Channel 2 said, then Olmert is unlikely to attempt a return.
Olmert’s successor as Kadima leader, Tzipi Livni, was also said to be awaiting further statistics to gauge whether she should return to the political fray. Livni chose not to close a deal with Shas after Olmert resigned in 2008, and thereby gave up the opportunity to succeed him as prime minister, because she thought the financial terms of an alliance with the ultra-Orthodox party were too damaging for the wider national interest. However, her declared commitment to integrity in politics was no great vote winner even within Kadima, which ousted her as its leader in favor of Mofaz in March.
As with Olmert, analysts on Wednesday speculated that Livni would not want to return only to be a second-level minister. However, recent surveys would indicate that she is most unlikely to see findings that predict she has a shot at the prime ministership.
The third potential comeback kid, Aryeh Deri, has been reported in recent days to have patched up relations with the Shas party’s spiritual leader, former chief rabbi Ovadia Yosef. Some speculate that the party’s Yosef-led Council of Torah Sages is looking for a formula whereby the charismatic Deri — whose meteoric political career was halted when he was convicted and jailed for taking bribes in 2000 — can return to the top leadership of the party, without the current chairman, Deputy Prime Minister Eli Yishai, being humiliated.
Yishai said Wednesday that Shas politicians would always “heed the decisions of the Council of Torah Sages.” Privately, he was reported to be seeking a public confirmation from Yosef in the rabbi’s weekly Saturday night sermon that he will continue as party chairman, while offering to work with Deri if a satisfactory position in the Shas hierarchy can be found for him.
In recent months, there have been suggestions that Deri might form a party of his own, and that this might shift some votes from the center-right to the center-left, but the former interior minister is now said to prefer to come back to the Shas fold.
In other news on the unofficial first day of the election campaign — with the polling date as yet unconfirmed — Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein was reported to be set to make a decision before the elections on whether to prosecute Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman in a long-running corruption case.
Several members of the various social action movements that mobilized hundreds of thousands of Israelis to come to the streets in the summer of 2011 to protest economic inequalities, meanwhile, were reported to be considering joining Labor or Yair Lapid’s new Yesh Atid party. Stav Shafir, one of the leaders of the protests, was cited as a likely Labor recruit.
Within Netanyahu’s Likud, preparations were taking shape for party primaries to choose the Knesset slate in the coming weeks. Netanyahu, Channel 2 reported, is anxious to keep most of the party’s serving MKs high on the slate, and to ensure that the hawkish Moshe Feiglin and his supporters are excluded from the list of candidates. The report said Feiglin has little chance of gaining a position that would see him enter the Knesset, but he has surprised the pundits with strong showings in the past.
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Political experts say 2013 campaign likely to focus on Iranian threat, social protest; Palestinian conflict likely to take back seat. Candidate’s personality to play big part in voters’ choice, they say
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision to move up the elections has set off confusion over the nature of the issues that will dominate the campaign. Unlike previous election campaigns, which focused mainly on the Palestinian issue, the upcoming 2013 elections will focus primarily on the Iranian threat and the social protest, political experts say. Tamir Shefer, professor of political communication at Hebrew University in Jerusalem said Wednesday that, “It is important for the public to assume that Iran will be the most important issue.”
“The public’s agenda and the media’s agenda coincide. The media has stopped reporting about the social protest or the haredi draft issue, therefore, I assume the Iranian issue will take the lead in the coming election season.”
Dr. Asher Cohen, of the department of Policical Science in Bar Ilan University, claimed that after Netanyahu himself postponed the Iranian issue to next spring, he cannot see why it would come up during this election campaign: “I can’t see anyone telling Netanyahu not to strike Iran, so the social issue will be in the center of the upcoming elections,” he said.
There are some who claim that it all depends on the voters’ character or the candidate’s strategists. “Every political strategist attempts to set the most convenient agenda for his client. It is likely that Netanyahu will be interested in focusing on the Iranian issue, and that Labor Chairwoman Shelly Yachimovich will promote a social agenda,” said Dr. Yariv Ben-Eliezer, a communications expert from the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) in Herzliya.
Ben-Eliezer further said that “in the end, the public will chose the candidate they most connects with emotionally, although the Israeli public does tend to chose candidates according to their defense agenda rather than the social policies.”
However, there is one issue all three experts do agree on: The candidate’s personality plays a big part in the voters’ choice. “You can see this phenomenon mainly in the media’s coverage of the elections. The public elects a party but the headline will always be about the candidate,” said Shefer.
Dr. Cohen calls it “personality party.” “We all know that the party is based on the candidate. If the personality goes, so does the party.”
Cohen further said that what is certain is that the upcoming elections are going to be characterized by extreme uncertainty.