Israel heads for new elections/ US raid into Syria

Oct 28, 2008 | AIJAC staff

Update from AIJAC

October 28, 2008
Number 10/08 #07

As readers will probably be aware, over the weekend Israeli Prime Minister-designate Tzipi Livni admitted she had failed to form a new coalition and requested President Shimon Peres call for new elections, which he has now done.

We therefore offer readers a comprehensive backgrounder from the British-Israel Communications and Research Centre, which provides pretty much everything any interested observer needs to know about the upcoming election. It details Livni’s coalition negotiations and why they appear to have failed, the constitutional process from here, the state of the major parties, including the latest opinion polls, and caretaker PM Olmert’s role until the election is held. For all these details and more, CLICK HERE. Olmert has explained to the Knesset what role he sees himself playing as caretaker, as reported here.

Next up, the Jerusalem Post in an editorial discusses its take on the failed coalition negotiations and what should happen in the lead up to the election. The paper particularly praises Livni for refusing to give into monetary demands from smaller parties, especially the religious Shas party, and hopes this will mark an end to what it calls “government by bazaar”, the routine negotiations over providing public monies to pet projects of small sectarian parties as part of coalition deals. The paper also comments on the proper role of Olmert as caretaker. For the complete editorial, CLICK HERE. By contrast, Post diplomatic correspondent Herb Keinon suggests Livni’s inability to reach a coalition agreement may be more due to poor political skills rather than sticking to principles. The opposite view comes from top Haaretz columnist Yoel Marcus. More detail on both sides of the debate about whether Livni is helped or hurt by the decision to abandon coalition negotiations and call elections comes from veteran journalist Leslie Susser.

Finally, this Update offers some analysis of the background and implications of the strike by US forces across the Iraqi border into Syria to attack what the US alleges was the home of the head of an al-Qaeda cell smuggling terrorists into Iraq. James Hider of the London Times explains that the raid was likely an effort to send a message to Syria over the country’s ongoing refusal to try to prevent foreign Jihadis using their country as a transit point to reach Iraq. It also describes the strategic situation of Syria in terms of its key alliance with Iran and Hezbollah to put the attack in context. For this complete analysis, CLICK HERE. Another comment on the motivations for this raid comes from American analyst Max Boot. More details on the claims and counter-claims related to this incident are here.

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BICOM ANALYSIS, October 27, 2008

Key Points

  • The Kadima leader Tzipi Livni informed President Shimon Peres on Sunday that she has been unable to form a new governing coalition. This announcement makes the holding of early general elections inevitable.
  • In theory the President can ask another Knesset member to try and form a coalition, but he is likely to decide that a government cannot be formed, which will lead to a general election being held in either January or February.
  • The polls currently indicate that Kadima and Likud are running almost neck and neck, with a slight advantage for Kadima. As is usually the case in Israeli elections, the key issue will be the conflict with the Palestinians and the broader question of how to move forward on peacemaking without compromising Israel’s security.


Kadima Leader and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni informed President Shimon Peres on Sunday that she has been unable to form a new governing coalition. This announcement makes the holding of early general elections inevitable. This latest development is the result of a series of events which took place last week and over the weekend.  This document will look into the events leading up to Livni’s announcement,  the procedure and time frame for general elections, and the state of affairs in the three major parties – Kadima, Likud and Labour – as the prospect of early elections looms.

What led to the failure of the coalition talks?

Following her victory in leadership elections in Kadima, it was expected that Foreign Minister Livni would seek to form a new governing coalition, rather than go straight to general elections.  This was seen as in Livni’s interest, because she would benefit from the stature attached to a sitting prime minister in a future election campaign.  Opinion polls since mid-2006 have for the most part indicated a likely Likud victory in general elections, so it was also seen as in Kadima’s interest to put off elections.

However, the attempt to build a new coalition has not succeeded.  The stumbling block proved to be the negotiations with Sephardi ultra-Orthodox party Shas.  Shas demanded a sum of NIS 1 billion (£165m) for child allowances.  Livni made a counter offer of NIS 650 million (£108m).  Shas’s Council of Torah Sages, a committee of senior Rabbis which is the ultimate authority in the ultra-Orthodox party, met to discuss this matter and on Friday party leader Eli Yishai announced that Shas had decided not to join the coalition.

Kadima officials accused the opposition Likud party of interfering with the negotiations by making a counter offer, which far exceeded Kadima’s offer, to join a Likud led government after elections, thus ensuring Shas’s refusal.  Likud spokespersons, for their part, blamed what they referred to as Tzipi Livni’s ‘inexperience’ for the failure of the negotiations.  However, it was certainly in Likud’s interest to prevent Livni forming a coalition, and it is thus likely that the Likud leader Binyamin Netanyahu made every effort to use his own political influence to scupper her chances.

Livni, for her part, said that she felt she had to ‘draw the line’ at ‘impossible demands raised by potential coalition partners.  The Kadima leader told reporters that ‘when it became clear that every person and every party was taking advantage of the situation to make illegitimate demands – both economic and diplomatic – I decided to put a stop to it and go to elections.’ [i] She has promised the Israeli electorate a ‘different kind of politics’ and her decision also reflects her desire not to sacrifice her reputation for strong principles and integrity, which has earned her respect with the public.

Following the Shas announcement, the Degel Hatorah party, which represents half of the Ashkenaz ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism faction, announced that it too would not be joining a coalition led by Livni.  This effectively foreclosed any possibility of Ultra-Orthodox parties helping Livni form a coalition that would prevent early elections.

The refusal of Shas and Degel Hatorah to join the coalition did not, however, signal the end of Tzipi Livni’s options for forming a government.  According to the current Knesset arithmetic, she could have tried to form a coalition based on Kadima (29 seats), Labour (19), the liberal left-wing Meretz (5), the Pensioners Party (6) and a single member list formed by a former Pensioners’ Party MK.  This would give Livni 60 seats. Her government would not have an overall majority in the 120 seat Knesset and would have been reliant on support from the Arab factions outside the government to allow it to function.  Meretz leader Yossi Beilin encouraged Livni to take this step.  However, Livni made clear that she had no intention of pursuing this approach, which would have placed her at the head of a weak and vulnerable government, leaning too far to the left of the political centre ground she wants to control. In any case, Pensioners Party leaders rejected a request by Kadima for a meeting on Saturday night.  Thus, after consultation with her advisers on Saturday, Livni made the decision to recommend to President Peres that general elections be held. [ii]

What happens now?

President Shimon Peres, according to Israeli law, had the option of giving another faction leader a period of 28 days to try and form a coalition. But at the opening of the Knesset on Monday, with no leader having a realistic prospect of forming a coalition, he confirmed that Israel was heading for elections.  In theory, a majority in the Knesset could still try, in any case, to form a coalition in the next three weeks, but this is not expected. Analysts in Israel are now talking of February 3 or 10 as the likely date of the elections. Whilst elections should be held 90 days from the formal announcement of the President that a government cannot be formed, this process can be interrupted if the heads of Knesset factions agree on a specific date for elections, and vote to pass a law to that effect. Tzipi Livni, in an interview on Sunday, expressed her preference for this possibility, and for concluding the elections process ‘within two months.’  Kadima coalition chairman Yoel Hasson is reported to be preparing legislation that would lead to the elections within 90 days, but each party will make their own calculation about whether this timing is in their interests.

Within the parties, meanwhile, the process will now begin of selecting the list of candidates for the Knesset, and determining in what order the candidates will be ranked.  Primaries are to be expected in the three major parties.  In Israel, a system also exists of allowing favoured individuals to be parachuted into a reserved place on the list, according to the wishes of the party leadership.

Situation in the parties on the eve of the campaign

If, as seems inevitable, elections take place in early 2009, who are the favourites to win, and what is the internal state of affairs in the major parties?

According to a poll conducted by the Teleseker agency for Maariv newspaper and published today, if elections were held tomorrow, Kadima would be victorious, with 31 seats.  Likud would be second, with 29, while Labour would be left far behind, with only 11 seats. [iii] An additional poll by the Dahaf Research Institute has Kadima on 29 seats, Likud with 26 and Labour with 11. [iv]

The encouraging polls notwithstanding, some Israeli analysts consider that Kadima Chair Tzipi Livni’s image will suffer as a result of the perception that she was unsuccessful in conducting the negotiations.  Ofer Shelah, writing in Maariv, considered that “Livni will not love the comparison but this is the second time she has allowed events to dictate a problematic decision for her: The first time, of course, was when she did not resign after the Winograd Committee preliminary report [into the government’s handling of the Second Lebanon War].”  Whilst Aluf Benn in Haaretz took a similar view, Dan Margalit in Yediot Ahronot took a different line, suggesting that Livni’s refusal to accede to Shas’s budgetary demands will lead to her being perceived by the electorate as a candidate of principle. [v]

The Kadima leader faces an additional task of ensuring unity in the top echelons of her party.  As a new leader now entering general elections without the status attached to a sitting prime minister, this is a considerable challenge.  Maariv even reported on Sunday that Transport Minister Shaul Mofaz, who was defeated in the Kadima party leadership election, is engaged in attempts to assemble his own coalition. Whether this story is true or not, it should be noted that Livni’s victory over Mofaz in the primaries was narrower than expected, and the loyalty of some of her party’s senior figures is less than assured. [vi]

The Likud party faces no such unity issues, with the ranks within the party generally unified behind Benjamin Netanyahu’s leadership.  Having led in polls consistently over the last year and a half, the coming elections had been considered Likud’s to lose. But as the more recent polling suggests, the Likud leader faces a serious challenge. In March, 2006, Likud suffered the most serious defeat of its history, reducing it to a mid-level Knesset list of only 12 seats.  This time around, Netanyahu will be seeking to claw back the support of centrist voters from Tzipi Livni and Kadima.  Netanyahu’s economic record may make him vulnerable also to challenges from Shas and the Russian immigrant Yisrael Beiteinu party for the support of Israelis in poorer peripheral areas. Netanyahu, as Finance Minister in Sharon’s government, implemented policies which involved cutting benefits for poorer Israelis.  Likud has traditionally drawn its support from these less well off sections of the population, and their resentment was a factor in Likud losing support in peripheral areas of the country in 2006, with Shas and Yisrael Beiteinu the beneficiaries among voters of Sephardi-Middle Eastern and Russian origin respectively. 

Nevertheless, initial indications are that Netanyahu intends to run a campaign based centrally on his achievements as Finance Minister.  This indicates that Netanyahu has set his sights on the large number of middle-class, centrist voters whose support brought Ariel Sharon and Likud their major victories in 2001 and 2003, and who then deserted to Kadima in droves in 2006.  Netanyahu is thought to consider that his record as Finance Minister will differentiate him from Livni in terms of achievements likely to appeal to these voters. [vii]

In the battle for the centre ground, Netanyahu is also understood to be negotiating to bring in former Chief of Staff Moshe Ya’alon, and former Justice Minister Dan Meridor to the Likud Knesset list. The presence of these two high-profile and respected public figures would significantly boost the centrist credentials of the Likud list. [viii]

Ehud Barak’s Labour is entering the race in by far the weakest position of the three main parties, with a situation of some internal discord.  Barak is generally seen to have had a fairly successful period of incumbency as Defence Minister.  However, all polls have shown Labour losing strength in the elections. Despite his competent ministerial performance, Barak has failed to appeal personally to the electorate, and his sceptical approach to the Annapolis negotiations championed by Kadima has left his party struggling for an identity. Furthermore, the party is carrying a deficit of NIS 70 million, and there have even been rumours of a leadership challenge to Ehud Barak prior to the elections. Such a challenge is unlikely to emerge, but it is indicative of the extent of the task facing Barak.

As is usually the case in Israeli elections, whilst the economy will be a factor, the key issue will be how to move forward on peacemaking without compromising Israel’s security. Likud is likely to focus on the dangers of the Iran-led regional bloc, and will seek to warn that territorial concessions to the Palestinians are likely to benefit this hostile bloc.  Kadima, meanwhile, is likely to focus more on the hopes offered by the Annapolis process and the negotiations with the PA. Since both parties will be competing for centrist votes, however, the likelihood is that the differences will be somewhat blurred, with each party in essence trying to depict itself as the voice of responsible pragmatism and its opponent as naïve or ideological. Labour, too, will be competing for the same ground, but will have to work hard to find a distinctive voice and appear relevant.


The next elections are shaping up to be a contest between Kadima and Likud, for the bloc of centrist voters which brought Kadima victory in 2006.  Labour, meanwhile, was characterized by Israel Channel 2 News last night as ‘fighting for its political life.’ [ix] With the polls indicating that the Kadima and Likud are running almost neck and neck. The right to lead the next Israeli government will be won by the party best able to position itself as the force of the credible centre.

[i] Shelly Paz, “Livni: Nation is headed for elections,” Jerusalem Post, October 26, 2008.  www.jpost.com
[ii] Ibid. 
[iii] Maariv, October 27, 2008. 
[iv] “Poll: Kadima to get 29 seats, Likud 26, Labour just 11,” Jerusalem Post, October 27, 2008.  http://www.jpost.com
[v] Editorials from the Hebrew press, issued by the Government Press Office, October 26, 2008. 
[vi] Maariv, October 26, 2008. 
[vii] Israeli Channel 2 News, October 26. 
[viii] Ibid. 
[ix]  Ibid.  

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Editorial: Bye-bye, bazaar?

Jerusalem Post, Oct 26, 2008

The Knesset’s winter session opens today, but there will be no keynote address by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who announced Sunday that, under “the current circumstances,” he would not press for a legislative agenda.

Following her election five weeks ago as Kadima’s new chair, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni struggled to pull together a Knesset majority so that she could replace Olmert without going to the polls. Yesterday, on live television, Livni told President Shimon Peres: I can’t do it.

She started out with Kadima’s 29 mandates. To this, Ehud Barak added Labor’s 20. But for a majority in the 120-seat Knesset, Livni still needed Shas’s 12 mandates. She also wanted the Gil Pensioners Party’s seven seats for a more comfortable, 68-seat majority. But the old-timers backtracked.

The Sephardi Shas Party demanded budget-busting allocations for child allowances; it fancies itself the champion of the working poor. More accurately, however, it mainly champions patronage to its own institutions.

Livni refused to play by the old rules. Nor would she pledge, as Shas demanded, not to negotiate with the Palestinian Arabs on what to do about Jerusalem in the context of Israel’s commitment to a “shelf agreement.”

Now what? Peres could, over the next several days, try to use the prestige of his office to bring Shas and Kadima together. He could even give opposition leader Binyamin Netanyahu three weeks to try his hand at building a governing coalition. Opinion surveys show the Likud – which has only 12 seats – as now being the most popular party.
But the most likely scenario is that Peres will call for new elections, which could take place as early as February 17.

Then the cycle of haggling to form a government begins anew.

OLMERT, who still faces possible indictment, remains in place as Israel’s caretaker premier.

There are those on the Right who worry that he will use the coming months to cut a bad deal with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas (himself under pressure to step down when his term expires in January). Critics worry that Olmert will do anything not to be remembered chiefly for the collection of scandals which led to his resignation, and for his inept handling of the Second Lebanon War. He wants to be remembered for his commitment to peace.

He’s lately gone on record as breaking with the Israeli consensus by essentially calling for a withdrawal to the 1949 Armistice Lines.

Post diplomatic reporter Herb Keinon has pointed out, however, that Olmert’s ability to reach a deal with the Palestinians or the Syrians is severely constrained. Any accord would need cabinet and Knesset approval – something he’s unlikely to get. Moreover, Olmert’s Arab partners are unlikely to publicly commit to what for them would be “concessions,” fearing that a new government might reject these as insufficient.

On the other hand, Israel cannot freeze its diplomatic and security agenda. Hizbullah, Hamas and Iran can be expected to exploit the perception of an Israeli leadership vacuum. The global economic crisis isn’t going away. Neither is the growing lawlessness among extremist elements in the settler movement.

We would like to think that Olmert will rise to the occasion and navigate the country with wisdom until his successor can finally take over. During this period, he needs to work as much as possible in concert with Livni, Netanyahu and Barak on any decision that would bind the next government.

It would be entirely appropriate for him to travel to Washington after America’s November 4 election to meet with the president-elect; and to maintain open channels with our Arab interlocutors.

LIVNI is being criticized for mishandling the negotiations by those who say that a more skilled bargainer could have cajoled Shas into joining a coalition.

This misses the point. Whatever the details of the 17th Knesset’s premature demise, the more substantive lesson to be learned is that our political system needs reforming. The stranglehold sectarian parties have over the allocation of resources must be broken. We applaud Livni for saying that she refuses “to pawn Israel’s future for the prime minister’s seat.”

The new Kadima leader might just have steered the country in the direction of representative democracy, and away from “government by bazaar.”

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Analysis:A warning Syria’s President Assad must heed

James Hider

Times, October 27, 2008

The US airborne raid into Syrian territory marks the culmination of years of frustration with Damascus’s reluctance to police its own border with Iraq, the main point of entry for foreign jihadists.

Since the 2003 invasion, Syria, fearing that it could be the next target for regime change, has allowed Islamic militants to cross its desert borders freely. Significantly, the village of al-Sukkari farm, which US forces raided, is just over the border from the Iraqi city of al-Qaim, which, since 2003, has been a key funnelling point for jihadists entering Iraq on the so-called rat run to the Sunni cities of Ramadi, Fallujah and, finally, Baghdad.

But a raid into sovereign territory would have needed high-level US clearance and may have been intended as a warning to Syria at a time when America and Israel are trying to turn the regime of President Assad away from Iran and into peace talks.

Syria is a linchpin in the region, providing a link between Tehran and the Lebanese militia organisation Hezbollah. While it is a secular regime, Syria has allowed extreme Islamist groups to operate from its territory, using them both as an internal political pressure valve and to tie down US forces inside Iraq.

It has also sought maximum strategic return for its allegiances, keeping its close economic ties with Iran while simultaneously conducting indirect negotiations with Israel, through Turkish mediators.

Besides economic and diplomatic incentives to return to the international mainstream, military pressure has also been used against the Syrian regime. In September last year, Israeli war planes carried out a daring raid deep into Syrian territory to destroy what some Western officials suspect may have been a fledgeling nuclear or chemical weapons facility.

Despite making threats, Syria did not retaliate against Israel. Instead it continued to negotiate in secret on a possible peace deal that would lead to the return of the Golan Heights.

The repressive but normally stable Syrian regime has also been rocked in recent months by a series of high-level assassinations and bombings, some blamed on Israel, others on the jihadists.

While US commanders may have calculated that a cross-border raid was tactically necessary to tackle Islamist extremists using Syrian territory, the attack also sent a tough strategic message to Syria that it is not inviolate and must choose carefully whom it supports.

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