Israel goes to the polls

Feb 10, 2009 | AIJAC staff

Update from AIJAC

February 10, 2009
Number 02/09 #04

As readers will doubtless be aware, Israelis are beginning to go to the polls for a general election even as this Update is being posted. Results should start coming in early tomorrow Australian time, and are expected to be more or less final by around lunchtime. This Update is devoted to material which hopefully will help readers understand better the implications as results come in. (It assumes a basic knowledge of Israel’s proportional representation system and major parties – for information on these, see this page from the Israeli Foreign Ministry.)

First up, top Israeli academic Barry Rubin explains the consensus about foreign policy that has developed in Israel in recent years. He says that while there is a common perception that Israel has moved to the right, this is not correct as there has actually been a convergence toward the centre, including by right-wing parties, on foreign policy issues and relations with the Palestinians. He points out a whole series of lessons the Israeli majority has learned over recent years –  including a desire to conclude a two-state peace coupled with a recognition that it currently seems impossible – as well as the common characteristics Israelis expect that any government will adopt, regardless of who wins. For Rubin’s valuable and clear enunciation of the Israeli consensus, CLICK HERE. The Jerusalem Post recently discussed the role of domestic policy in this election.

Next up, Israeli journalist and blogger Shmuel Rosner points out that both Israeli voters and politicians view election day as only the beginning of a process – with a lengthy period of political coalition building almost always following. He further notes that in Israel, given the inevitability of coalition negotiations following elections, there is a lot of what is called “strategic voting” – that is voting not necessarily for the party one likes the best, but in a way designed to influence the shape of the governing coalition. And as Rosner points out, various political leaders have appealed to voter groups to vote “strategically” in ways that suit them, which makes the results particularly unpredictable. For the rest of Rosner’s discussion of this important aspect of Israeli politics, CLICK HERE. Rosner also had a later good comment debunking foreign media stories insisting a vote for Netanyahu is a vote for “war” or against “peace”.

Finally, there has been a lot of comment about the strong poll numbers of the controversial right-wing party Yisrael Beitenu (“Israel, our home”) and its leader, Avigdor Lieberman, so we include a BICOM backgrounder that sets out the facts about the party. The backgrounder makes it clear that the party is not a conventional right-wing party, but one with a series of clear and uncompromising positions on a number of specific issues, including some, like strong secularism, generally associated with the left. It explains that while Lieberman has made some very hardline and controversial statements, the party unequivocally supports an Israeli-Palestinian two-state solution, and has served in past centrist Israeli governments. Finally, BICOM also discusses the reasons for Yisrael Beitenu’s apparent recent rise in popularity. To read it all, CLICK HERE. Meanwhile, American Jewish Committee representative Kenneth Bandler expresses concern about how a success for Yisrael Beitenu might affect Israel’s Arab minority, while Israeli Arab school principal Ali Zahalka says Israeli Arab leaders contributed to the rise of the party through their extremism by aligning themselves with Hamas and other extremist elements in the Arab world. Finally, a report highlights that Hamed Amer, a Yisrael Beitenu candidate almost certain to be elected, is a Druze Arab.

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Many people don’t understand what’s happening now in Israeli politics, so here’s a brief, and non-partisan, appreciation.

Compared to the past, there’s far less difference between the three main parties. This is largely due to the objective situation, which is rather inflexible.

It is easy to characterize some as rabid right-wingers who throw away chances for peace and others as rabid left-wingers who are ready to make too many concessions. Neither argument is correct except for the fringes, which are not going to shape Israeli policy. I am tempted to add that abroad, the left thinks we’re evil, while the right thinks we’re stupid. All of this has little to do with reality.

The dominant theme in international media coverage is to say Israelis are moving toward the right. Yet this is both misleading and misinterpreted. On the first aspect, the real Israeli move has been toward the center, which is represented not only by Kadima and Likud but also by Labor. The great majority of Israelis are about to vote for parties close to centrist positions than at any time in history.

The left-wing mantra is peace, though how we can reach peace with Iran, Syria, Hamas, and Hizballah is rather hard to see. With the PA the situation is a more complex but, briefly, it doesn’t control Gaza, is still full of radical elements, and has weak leadership.

The PA is nowhere near being able to make peace on a realistic basis. Everyone in the PA and in Israel’s leadership knows this; few in the Western media and academia seems close to comprehending it. A lot of governments understand the situation privately but talk quite different in public.

The right-wing mantra is victory, though how Israel is going to replace the Iranian and Syrian governments, or destroy Hamas and Hizballah is equally hard to see. Israel has minimal to no international support for these goals and lacks great alternatives to what exists at present.

What have Israelis learned over the last decade that shapes their thinking?

We discovered that Palestinians and Syrians are unwilling and unable to make peace.

We saw that Fatah is still full of extremism and its leadership is too weak and too hardline itself to make a comprehensive peace agreement.

We viewed the rise of Hamas as a group dedicated to permanent war with Israel and its seizure of one-half of the Palestinian-ruled territories, using land from which Israel withdrew as a base for attacks.

We experienced the continuing hatred of the Arab world and Muslim world toward Israel, largely undiminished by Israeli concessions.

We observed Iran’s rise as a power, potentially nuclear armed, whose regime explicitly seeks Israel’s extinction.

We noted the world didn’t reward Israel for making concessions and taking risks. Indeed, the more Israel gave, the higher the degree of slander and hostility rose in many sectors.

As a result of this, there has arisen in Israel a national consensus around the following points:

  • Israel wants peace and will make real concessions for true lasting, stable peace and a two-state solution
  • Few think the Palestinian leadership–PA, Fatah–is willing or able to make such an agreement for decades. The same applies to Syria.
  • As a result, any real changes on Jerusalem, the Golan Heights or West Bank settlements are far off.
  • No deal can be made with Hamas. But Hamas isn’t going to disappear either. The same applies to Hizballah.
  • The key point is to defend Israel and its citizens so they pursue their normal lives.
  • Iran is a real danger and when it appears about to get nuclear weapons, a big decision will have to be made on attacking these facilities.
  • As a result of this national consensus–accepted by Labor, Likud, and Kadima, along with many others–the next government can be a national unity government. Whoever becomes prime minister would do well to bring in one or both of the other two main parties.

What is Israel’s consensus policy for the next government?

  • To stress that we want peace, are ready for a Palestinian state, aren’t responsible for the conflict and violence continuing.
  • To maintain deterrence and defend ourselves.
  • To preserve the best possible relations with the United States, Europe, and other countries as long as it does not involve risks to Israeli national interests and citizens.
  • Security cooperation with the PA to prevent terrorist attacks on Israel in exchange for helping them economically and against Hamas to ensure that it doesn‚t take over the West Bank. Without illusions regarding Fatah and the PA, this effort seems to be working.
  • To decide when to strike back at Hamas–and potentially Hizballah–based on any attacks on us. Precise response depends on timing, opportunity, and their behavior.
  • To work for the isolation of Iran, Hizballah and Hamas.

Where are the main differences among the leading parties?

They are more atmospherics than real: offering small concessions; making small demands. If much of the election revolves around personalities that is because strategy and policy are not hugely different among them. Bibi isn‚t going to embark on a settlement-building campaign; Tzipi isn‚t going to give away east Jerusalem.

And that’s a good thing for whatever faults they have, this trio is basically making appropriate responses to the situation.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), with Walter Laqueur (Viking-Penguin); the paperback edition of The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan); A Chronological History of Terrorism, with Judy Colp Rubin, (Sharpe); and The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley). To subscribe to Gloria Center publications for free, write profbarryrubin@yahoo.com.

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Israel’s Strategic Elections

Shmuel Rosner

Commentary “Contentions”, 02.09.2009 – 4:37 PM

It can be hard for political junkies to live without polls until Election Day, but that’s exactly what Israel has had to put up with since Friday. The publishing of new election poll-results during the last days of the campaign is forbidden by law. Therefore the country is left in the dark until exit polls are published tomorrow evening: for now rumor and spin dominate public opinion.

Rumor: The race is tighter than ever, and Kadima might even pull out a very tight win. Even in this case there would be a long way to go before Tzipi Livni can form a coalition, but plausible scenarios can already be anticipated in the Israeli street.

Israel lacks polls as well as the clarigying advantages of a two-party system. At least four parties — Kadima, Likud, Labor, and Israel Beiteinu — might end up winning more or less 20 mandates (out of 120). Through the last days of the campaign, confusion reigns supreme and Israelis are desperately trying to outsmart the system. They are known to vote “strategically” – that is, to favor electoral influence over ideological affinity.

This explains Ehud Barak’s warning today that if Labor doesn’t get “close to 20 mandates” he might not be able to remain defense minister. He is after those strategists wanting him as DM. They might not like Labor, but will vote to help Barak retain his position.

Such strategic decisions can lead to bizarre outcomes. One strategic voter is Yuval Rabin, the son of the late Yitzhak Rabin. Rabin was meeting Likud’s Netanyahu today — and on this occasion announced he will vote for Labor but urged both parties to form a unity government. Rabin, like many other voters, doesn’t see the election as zero-sum-game. In Israel’s parliamentary system, Election Day is the beginning of a process rather than the end of it. You can win the day and lose the election, or vice-versa. Thus — while they formally belong to opposite camps — Netanyahu and Barak (and, apparently, Rabin) have the same goal in mind: blocking Kadima’s victory. If this happens, they can join forces and live happily ever after – well, for a year or two.

The intricacies of “strategic voting” will lead Meretz voters, who aren’t fond of Livni, to vote for her anyway in order to block Netanyahu. This motivation will give people an excuse to vote for Likud — even if they like Avigdor Lieberman’s Israel Beiteinu better – suspecting that Lieberman might end up joining a Kadima coalition.

Strategic voting has it’s weaknesses. It makes people vote for someone they don’t agree with on policy issues — thus rendering politics in general “dirtier” and less ideological. No wonder Israelis are so quickly disillusioned with their politicians: First they vote for someone they don’t care for — then they feign disappointment.

Another important weakness of strategic voting is its tendency to simply not work: Imagine five million voters trying to outsmart one another by voting “strategically” and you’ll easily understand why. Of course, this approach to electoral decisions confuses pollsters, drives political consultants crazy, and debases any serious ideological debates along party lines. It makes Election Night more exciting and most unpredictable.

That’s tomorrow night. Stay tuned.


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February 8, 2009

Key Points

  • A notable aspect of the 2009 election campaign has been the rapid rise to prominence of the Yisrael Beitenu party led by Avigdor Lieberman. This party has been portrayed as a far-right list, with its leader sometimes presented as a bigot and anti-Arab racist. This is a misleading over-simplification, and the reality is far more complex.

  • Yisrael Beitenu is distinguished from many other parties in Israel in that it is associated with a series of clear positions. Most important among these are the so-called ‘loyalty test’ for Israeli citizens, the party’s proposal for adjusting the Green Line in the context of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the party’s support for secular legislation, such as a civil marriage law. His uncompromising stances have angered sections of Israel’s religious Jewish camp as much as its Arab minority.

  • Lieberman has courted notoriety with hard-line statements. At the same time, he has served as a minister of two centrist governments.  As such, it is considered possible that Yisrael Beitenu could support either Kadima or Likud in coalition negotiations.   


The most notable aspect of the 2009 election campaign has been the rapid rise to prominence of Avigdor Lieberman and his Yisrael Beitenu party. The party has been polling between 16 and 18 seats in the final days of the campaign.[i] If these predictions prove accurate, this party will emerge as the third largest list in the Knesset, pushing the Labour Party for the first time into fourth place. If the polls are to be trusted, Avigdor Lieberman will be the ‘kingmaker’ during the period of coalition formulation. His decision as to whether to back Likud or Kadima’s bid to form a government will be the decisive factor in whether Binyamin Netanyahu or Tzipi Livni will be the next prime minister of Israel.[ii]

Yisrael Beitenu has been described as a ‘far-right’ party, but an analysis of the party’s central ideas show the picture is more complicated. Yisrael Beitenu differs markedly in a number of ways from other parties on the right of the Israeli spectrum. These differences largely explain the party’s popularity. This analysis will look into the background and ideology of the Yisrael Beitenu party and its leader.

Lieberman: The man from Moldova

Avigdor Lieberman, 50, is a resident of the West Bank settlement of Nokdim, near Tekoa.  He hails from Kishinev, in Moldova, and immigrated to Israel in 1978.  His father was a dissident against the Soviet regime. Lieberman served in the artillery corps of the IDF, and studied international relations and political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. His political activity began at the university, where he was associated with a group of right wing activists led by Tsahi Hanegbi, now a Kadima MK. The group also included current Likud MK Yisrael Katz. Lieberman’s political activity in the Likud continued after his studies, and he rose to prominence in the Jerusalem branch of the party, and then in the Likud’s Central Committee.

A pivotal moment in Lieberman’s career came when he met Binyamin Netanyahu, shortly after the latter’s launching of his political career. As a prominent Likud activist, Lieberman played a key role in building up grassroots support for Netanyahu, and he was appointed Director-General of the Likud in 1993, following Netanyahu’s election as party chairman. Lieberman then became Director-General of the Prime Minister’s Office with Netanyahu’s election as prime minister in 1996.

In 1999, Lieberman resigned his position and left Likud in order to launch his new ‘Yisrael Beitenu’ (Israel – Our Home) party.  The party’s goal was to represent the political inclinations of right wing immigrants from the former Soviet Union. A list representing Russian immigrants already existed – the now defunct Yisrael B’aliyah party of former prominent dissident Natan Sharansky. Lieberman’s new party differed from this list, however, in that it offered a clear, rightist political direction, rather than seeking to merely act as a lobby for the immigrants.

Yisrael Beitenu first stood in the 1999 elections, winning four seats. In 2003, the party formed part of the National Union bloc which ran as, an alliance of parties to the right of Likud. Lieberman served as Minister of National Infrastructures (the Israeli energy ministry) in the National Unity government of Ariel Sharon which included both Likud and Labour. He subsequently served as Transport Minister. Lieberman opposed the disengagement plan and Yisrael Beitenu left the government in 2005. In sharp contrast to his public persona, Lieberman is generally considered to have been a responsible and effective senior executive during his incumbency at the Transport and National Infrastructures Ministries. [iii]

In the 2006 elections, Yisrael Beitenu stood again as an independent list. These were the breakthrough elections for the party. For a moment, as the results came in, it looked as though the party would beat Likud into fourth place. Since Kadima and Labour were expected to form the government, this would have made Yisrael Beitenu Israel’s main opposition party. In the end Likud scored 12 seats to Yisrael Beitenu’s 11. Lieberman temporarily joined the Ehud Olmert’s coalition in October 2006, helping to stabilize the Kadima-Labour dominated government in the wake of the Second Lebanon War. He assumed the novel position of Minister of Strategic Affairs, created for him. The party withdrew from the coalition in January, 2008, uncomfortable at the re-commencement of negotiations with the Palestinian Authority. However Lieberman retains strong personal links with the Kadima party, in particular with its former Likud members. Lieberman’s political rise has continued with his strong performance in the 2009 election campaign.[iv] If Yisrael Beitenu does as well as predicted, Avigdor Lieberman will be eligible for a senior ministerial portfolio in the next government.

Lieberman has been the subject of a number of police investigations, though he has never been charged. A long running fraud investigation burst into life in the course of the current election campaign, allowing him to claim that the investigation is politically motivated.  Lieberman has also courted notoriety with hard-line statements, once calling for the bombing of Palestinian commercial centres in response to Palestinian terror attacks. At the same time, Lieberman has served as a minister of two centrist governments including left of centre parties.  As such, it is conceivable that Lieberman could support either Kadima or Likud in coalition negotiations. 

Lieberman is a complex figure, far from the caricature bigot that he has sometimes been portrayed as. Those who have met him attest to his high intelligence, and his deep roots in the Yiddish-speaking culture of the Jewish community of Moldova. Lieberman regards himself as representing the secular nationalist traditions of the Zionist right. He believes that his party, rather than Likud, is the natural inheritor of this tradition on the Israeli political stage today. This election has demonstrated Lieberman’s ability to transcend his immigrant roots and to be seen by Israelis of varied backgrounds as a national, rather than sectoral politician.

Yisrael Beitenu’s agenda

Although Yisrael Beitenu began as a list seeking to represent immigrants from the former Soviet Union, its right-wing ideological inclination has always been present.  Lieberman regards himself as a Revisionist Zionist – an adherent of the liberal nationalist stream within Zionism established by Ze’ev Jabotinsky. Advocating secular-nationalist positions, Yisrael Beitenu has now transcended its core of support among Russian-speaking Israelis, making inroads into other sectors of the population.

Yisrael Beitenu is distinguished from many other parties in Israel in that it is associated with a series of distinct policy proposals. The most prominent element of the party’s election publicity has been the slogan ‘no loyalty – no citizenship’. The campaign has focused on attacking some Israeli-Arab MKs who promote Arab nationalism and Islamism. Yisrael Beitenu advocates that all Israeli citizens, Arabs and Jews, should perform national service of a military or civil nature. The party also wants a declaration of loyalty to Israel as a Jewish state to be a condition for the right of political participation.

This radical and probably impracticable proposal appears not to have been worked out in detail, and many analysts consider it to be no more than a means to garner attention during the election campaign, rather than as a serious item of policy. But using this tool to focus on the growth of radicalism among elements of Israel’s Arab population has helped the party to win support in sections of the electorate beyond its Soviet immigrant base. This issue has largely been ignored by other major parties.

Yisrael Beitenu’s proposals for the solution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are the aspect which most sharply differentiates the party from other right-wing lists in Israel. Despite Lieberman’s tough rhetoric, the party supports a two state solution to the conflict – favouring the establishment of a demilitarized Palestinian state alongside Israel, and is not opposed to the ceding of some Arab neighbourhoods of Jerusalem. Lieberman proposes re-drawing the Green Line border between the West Bank and Israel, so that areas of large Arab population – such as the town of Umm al-Fahm and the ‘Triangle’ area in Northern Israel would be included in the Palestinian state.[v] In return, large Israeli settlement blocs adjoining the Green Line would be included within Israel. This policy proposal has been condemned by some within Israel, who characterize it as an attempt to strip Israeli-Arabs of their citizenship. Among the fiercest opponents to this policy option are the Arab Israeli citizens living in the areas which would go over to the Palestinian state should the policy be enacted.  In spite of their Palestinian identity, these Israeli citizens have no desire to exchange life in democratic Israel for the uncertainty of life in a Palestinian state.

Alongside his policies on the diplomatic front, Yisrael Beitenu advocates various proposals for secular legislation aimed at the party’s core support base of non-religious, Russian speaking voters. Some members of this community have experienced difficulties in Israel in matters related to personal status because they are not regarded as Jewish by the religious authorities. Yisrael Beitenu proposes a form of civil marriage, currently unavailable in Israel, and measures to make the process of conversion to Judaism easier. At a local level, Yisrael Beitenu has supported secular initiatives including to allow public transport on Shabbat. Such initiatives have led to Yisrael Beitenu coming under particularly scathing criticism from Israel’s religious parties. Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef, founder of the Sephardi ultra-Orthodox Shas party, and a figure also known for colourful rhetoric, has gone so far as to say that whoever supports Lieberman ‘supports Satan’.[vi]

Explaining Yisrael Beitenu’s rise

Lieberman’s rise may partly be accounted for by political factors. The other major candidates are generally seen to have run uninspiring and lacklustre campaigns, avoiding clear policy positions.  Labour and Likud are led by former prime ministers, not generally held to have succeeded in their previous terms in office. Tzipi Livni of Kadima, meanwhile, whilst being better liked, has the problem of appearing unfamiliar to the electorate, with voters unsure about her credentials. Lieberman has been able to capitalize on the relatively weak messages of the other parties, and the voters’ uncertainties about their leaders.

But there are also more substantive reasons for Lieberman’s advance.  While all surveys indicate that a majority of Israelis still support a two state solution to the conflict with the Palestinians, there is widespread scepticism regarding the imminent likelihood of a solution to the conflict.  Since the collapse of the peace process in 2000, Israel has been involved in high intensity armed combat three times (in 2002, 2006 and 2008/9).  The rise of Hamas among the Palestinians, the nuclear ambitions and growing regional influence of Iran, the growing power of Hezbollah in Lebanon – have all contributed to the sense of crisis. This sense helps explain the expected strong showing of right-wing parties in the coming elections. Within this bloc, Yisrael Beitenu has emerged as a powerful force because of its leader’s ability to address Israelis’ fears by proposing clear (though not necessarily practicable) policy options in simple language. The recent conflict in Gaza only added to mood that Lieberman has taken advantage of. He advocated continuing the recent operation in Gaza in order to bring down the Hamas government in the Strip.

Lieberman’s rhetoric, however, is belied to a degree by his record as a minister who served in two centrist governments and by the actual content of his party’s policy proposals, which is cleverly targeted to appeal to secular Israelis with a range of political views. As such, his rise to prominence does not indicate a simple lurch to the far right in Israel, and Lieberman could yet prove a more responsible minister in government than his confrontational rhetoric would suggest.    

[i] Shmuel Rosner, “Election Poll Trend,” Jerusalem Post, 5/2/09. http://cgis.jpost.com

[ii] Rory McCarthy, “Hardliner Avigdor Lieberman could be surprise kingmaker in Israeli election,” Guardian, 5/2/09.  http://www.guardian.co.uk

[iii] Interview with former adviser on international affairs at Ministry of National Infrastructures, 8/2/09.

[iv] Rosner.

[v] Greg Myre, “A hard-line Israeli official, Avigdor Lieberman, stakes out extreme positions,” International Herald Tribune, 7/12/06. http://www.iht.com

[vi] “Rabbi Yosef: Lieberman voters support Satan,”  Ynetnews, 7/2/09.  http://www.ynetnews.com

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