More Israeli election Issues/ Iran’s satellite launch

Feb 6, 2009 | AIJAC staff

Update from AIJAC

February 6, 2009

Number 02/09 #03

With voting due next Tuesday, this Update features more analysis of the issues shaping Israel’s election campaign, as well as some comment on Iran’s reported satellite launch on Monday.

First up, Washington Institute expert on Israeli politics David Makovsky looks at the current polls, the main race between Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Opposition Leader Binyamin Netanyahu, and the reasons Netanyahu appears to be leading currently. He points out that it is both security and economic arguments pushing many Israeli voters to the right, but that the polls do leave room for a surprise Livni victory, especially given very large numbers of undecided voters. He also explores Livni’s strategy of presenting herself as both tough and uncorruptible. For this full analysis of all main trends in the election, CLICK HERE. Also of interest is a BICOM backgrounder dealing with the apparent decline of the Israeli left in recent elections, even while their key idea of a two-state resolution with the Palestinians has come to be broadly accepted in the Israeli mainstream.

Next up, the Jerusalem Post looks at the economic differences between the three main parties – Likud, Kadima and Labor, and also some of the smaller parties. The newspaper points out that there are real points of difference, with Likud’s more free market approach contrasting in particular with Labor’s belief in a greater state role in the economy and emphasis on “social justice”. But as the paper points out, none are strongly wedded to any rigid ideology on economic issues, and the only party making economics a key part of its campaign is Likud. For this important discussion of this facet of Israel’s electoral race, CLICK HERE.

Finally, Isaac Ben-Israel of the Israeli daily Yediot Ahronot analyses the announcement of a satellite launch by Iran earlier this week. He points out that the problem is not the satellite as such, which appears pretty useless and low tech, but the revelation about advances in ballistic missile technology which can be used for nuclear weapons in future. He says that just as Iran has used claims of a “civilian” nuclear power program to circumvent non-proliferation rules on building nuclear weapons, it appears to have done the same with its satellite program to circumvent conventions on ballistic missile technology. For Ben-Israel’s full discussion, CLICK HERE. Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak says the satellite launch is a reason for the international community to speed up sanctions against Teheran. Also commenting on the launch was the London Telegraph.

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Another Israeli Election Down to the Wire

By David Makovsky

February 3, 2009

On February 10, Israelis will go to the polls to choose a new government, and the election campaigning — curtailed by Israel’s military operation in the Gaza Strip — has resumed in earnest. The abbreviated campaign may explain why an estimated 30 percent of Israelis are undecided, a very high figure for a country that prides itself on political awareness. Although Likud leader Binyamin Netanyahu maintains a steady lead, he cannot be certain of victory, given the high undecided figure, and foreign minister and Kadima party head Tzipi Livni could still eke out a win.

Current Polls

According to various polls, a coalition of parties (including some religious) led by the center-right Likud Party is projected to win 65 seats in the 120-member Knesset (Israeli parliament), more than the 61 needed for a majority. The gap, however, between the two largest parties — Likud and Kadima — is narrow. The ruling centrist Kadima Party is running three seats behind Likud, twenty-eight to twenty-five. By Israeli custom, Israel’s president asks the party with the most seats to form a coalition. If Livni’s Kadima overtakes Likud, she hopes to persuade both a combination of large parties and right-leaning religious parties to cement her coalition. This would be Livni’s second attempt to form a government, having failed in fall 2008, following Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s resignation (Olmert then stayed on as a caretaker until the election).

Why is the Right Wing Ahead?

Given his front-runner status, Netanyahu has taken a risk-averse approach. He has largely avoided the media and has pointedly refused to debate his main opponents, Livni and Defense Minister and Labor leader Ehud Barak. As such, Netanyahu has been able to avoid questions about how, as prime minister in 1998, he authorized a backchannel with Syria that discussed yielding the entire Golan Heights and how that squares with his support for holding onto the Golan today. He has also not explained his sweeping declaration that Iran will not be allowed to go nuclear.

Likud is leading for several reasons. First, Hamas’s rocket fire on Israeli cities since Israel’s 2005 withdrawal from Gaza, which has sharply escalated since Hamas’s electoral victory in 2006, seems to be pushing Israelis to the right and making them less amenable to future territorial withdrawals. (Palestinians say Israeli retaliation has the same impact on the Palestinian body politic.) Livni and Barak advocate for further withdrawals, coupled with strict security arrangements. They argue that this will create a basis for a two-state solution, which will ultimately make Israel more secure. In contrast, the right points to Gaza as proof that withdrawals will make Israel more vulnerable. Moreover, Netanyahu has promised cooperation among Likud, Kadima, and Labor following the election. This exhortation for unity seems to comfort the public amid concerns that a purely right-leaning government like the one he headed in the late 1990s could mean confrontation with the United States.

Second, the Israeli public is receptive to the right wing’s argument that Israel did not go far enough in the recent military campaign in Gaza. Both Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman, head of the Yisrael Beitenu Party, have argued that the Israel Defense Forces should have toppled Hamas, particularly given the terrorist organization’s poor performance in the conflict. Since the Gaza offensive, Lieberman’s right-wing party has soared from ten to sixteen seats in the polls. (Lieberman, an immigrant from the former Soviet Union, has also benefited from an ill-timed, election-eve police investigation about campaign finance contributions. The timing of the move reinforced doubts among some of the one million Russian immigrants that the Israeli establishment is “persecuting” them.)

Third, the global recession is approaching Israel, a point made by Bank of Israel head Stanley Fischer in remarks last week. Netanyahu has sought to position himself as an experienced former finance minister (he served in the post from 2003 to 2005) who is best positioned to navigate the choppy waters. In retort, Livni is belatedly arguing that it was precisely Netanyahu’s unbridled free-market approach that led to many of the excesses on Wall Street, something Israel cannot afford.

Livni’s Approach

Livni has a three-part strategy. First, she casts her election in very fateful terms, stating that Israel cannot afford to abandon peace efforts. When asked about the impact of a Netanyahu victory, Livni declared in an extensive interview with Haaretz that “Israel will lose the chance to advance a process [with the Palestinians] that can preserve it as a Jewish and democratic state. The [Likud] will say: terrorism first. They will say: the economy first. And it will wobble this way and wobble that way and it won’t happen. The significance will be felt in the long term, but the missed opportunity will take place immediately. It’s dramatic. It’s the difference between hope and the loss of hope.”

Second, Livni portrays herself as an uncorrupt politician. When Prime Minister Olmert was forced to step down amid a swirl of corruption allegations, the Israeli electorate identified character as the overriding issue. In that context, Livni shined. She seeks to depict herself as Israel’s Barack Obama, who represents clean politics. Her posters proclaim her “a different” or alternative prime minister, using a Hebrew phrase that emphasizes that she is a woman. Unfortunately for Livni, the Israeli political landscape has changed with the recent conflict, and this argument carries less weight than it did just a few months ago.

Third, Livni presents herself as the toughest decisionmaker in the cabinet, since polls now show that security issues predominate. Believing that the Israeli electorate is not accustomed to seeing a woman in this role, Livni emphatically makes the point in interviews that she did not want to stop the fighting in Gaza. She is seeking to draw a contrast to Ehud Barak, who favored halting the fighting earlier in response to an appeal from France. In feisty interviews, Livni rejects the idea that Netanyahu and Barak have more experience because they each served as prime minister, noting that their respective tenures ended in failure.

In addition, in her bid to demonstrate toughness on Gaza, Livni has engaged in an ongoing, high-profile spat with Barak, accusing him of not responding aggressively enough to ongoing rocket fire by non-Hamas groups in Gaza. She has also charged that the ceasefire that Barak is trying to broker with Egypt will legitimize Hamas. For his part, Barak notes that Egypt is the key to improving efforts to interdict and halt the smuggling that could replenish Hamas’s arsenal of rockets. Barak has accused Livni of seeking to politicize decisionmaking over Gaza. Livni, not surprisingly, rejects this characterization, making the case that the other members of Israel’s security establishment feel a ceasefire could tie Israel’s hands in retaliating against Hamas violations.


Livni is seeking to demonstrate that a woman can be a tough leader in tough times. She may hope that this approach will draw votes from the right, while garnering approval from Labor supporters as well, as she seeks to demonstrate that Barak is too hesitant in taking strong action. Yet this tactic carries the risk that she will be seen as politicizing the Gaza issue for her own political benefit.

Livni’s arguments are more likely to win the day if they are made on security grounds and can withstand the inevitable political recriminations. But the very nature of this highly charged, truncated political season suggests that solutions for Gaza, including the U.S. role in such efforts, are likely to begin in earnest only after the Israeli election and the formation of the next government. With Hamas leaders in Tehran trying to win support for Gaza reconstruction, however, time is very limited.

David Makovsky is a senior fellow and director of The Washington Institute’s Project on the Middle East Peace Process .

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Editorial: Economics & the campaign


We are at the precipice of one of the worst and most inscrutable financial crises to have gripped the world in living memory. Israel cannot escape the consequences of the ongoing turmoil – and yet the global depression is hardly being discussed in the election campaign.

Perhaps economics got elbowed out by Operation Cast Lead, which interrupted the campaign, setting overt politicking aside. Security continues to dominate the public discourse and eclipse other issues.

Yet the failure to focus on the economy doesn’t make it any less crucial an issue. The world is in the throes of a severe and seemingly intractable credit crunch. If the economy is not transfused with cash, the slowdown could deepen into an absolute recession and cause widespread layoffs and hardship. What the contending Knesset lists say about economics needs to be better understood.

MOST party platforms include economic planks, but few have made the economy central to their campaign, certainly not from the start. The Likud is an exception. It boasts that during Binyamin Netanyahu’s stint as finance minister (2001-2005) he saved the economy from potential disaster and hence possesses a formidable resume to oversee the management of the economy.

The Likud’s approach can be described as a blend of free-market economics coupled with social sensitivity – compassionate capitalism. It calls for tax-cuts to funnel urgently needed funds into the parched economy and thereby generate growth. It would limit VAT charges, which are regarded as regressively and disproportionately punishing to society’s weakest strata, and overhaul the Israel Lands Authority to stimulate construction and infrastructure projects now rendered inordinately expensive and bound by red-tape.

Labor brought its economic proposals to the forefront only this week. In contrast to the Likud, the party favors considerable state intervention in the economy, describing itself as “social-democratic while advocating free-market private enterprise with effective regulation, particularly of the financial marketplace.”

Placing its accent on social justice, Labor supports a greater state role in education, health and welfare. It speaks of annual plans to reduce joblessness, of cooperation between the Histadrut Labor Federation and employers, and of spurring employment and shrinking socioeconomic gaps.

Kadima, the incumbent party, promises long-term strategies to extricate Israel from the global downturn by “concentrating on Israel’s relative advantages and investment in infrastructure.” It further pledges that the benefits of forecast growth will trickle down to “all social strata, and not only to some.”

Kadima also takes credit for the negative income tax and Wisconsin plans initiated during Netanyahu’s tenure. It claims to have successfully made Israel’s geographic periphery – the Negev and Galilee – its focal point and to have reduced the number of foreign workers.

Yisrael Beiteinu, which is rising in the polls, is Likud-compatible, but places greater stress on aiding small businesses. Meretz has positioned itself as more vocally pro-worker than Labor.

There has been minimal reaction to the parties’ economic pitches except in the case of the Likud, whose agenda has drawn whatever little economic sparks this campaign generated. This may mirror the polls, which forecast that Likud will be forming the next government.

Opponents of Netanyahu’s tax-cut plan argue that cutting taxes will bring no direct gain to those who pay no or little taxes. But that is not Netanyahu’s intention. Tax-cuts aren’t welfare grants but tools to put more resources back into circulation as a means of raising demand and encouraging growth.

Under Netanyahu’s plan, over the course of four years, income tax for individuals would be lowered while corporate taxes would be gradually reduced to 18 percent.

The issues aren’t black and white. Bank of Israel Governor Stanley Fischer, for instance, warns that additional tax cuts now, intended to boost the economy, might be unrealistic given the drop in tax revenues and a growing budget deficit. While praising Fischer, Netanyahu adamantly argues that “Cutting taxes is the crucial component in reversing the trend and the best engine of growth.”

AS VOTERS cast their ballots, they need to realize that neither Likud, Kadima nor Labor advocates doctrinaire economic philosophies. None genuinely supports either “piggish capitalism” or “a return to socialism.” All understand – or so we hope – that the key to prosperity for all Israelis is growing the economy.

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Step closer to bomb

Iranian satellite has little significance but ballistic capabilities cause for concern

Isaac Ben-Israel

  02.04.09, 18:33 / Israel Opinion

A year ago exactly, Iran announced that it launched the first satellite developed by its scientists. President Ahmadinejad himself was seen on television punching in the launching orders of the Omid (“hope” in Persian) satellite. A few days later it turned out to be a false announcement.
Now, precisely a year to the day of that failure, Iran again announced that the Omid satellite was launched into space. We would do well to wait several days before we know whether this is yet another declaration on the occasion of the Islamic revolution festivities meant for domestic purposes only.

Yet if the launching of the satellite was successful, what are the implications for Israel? In essence, we can say that the satellite should not be concerning us, yet the ballistic missile behind the launch should certainly worry us.

As far as we know, the Omid satellite is a small box weighing only dozens of kilograms. Moreover, it does not include any kind of photography equipment. We are therefore dealing with a primitive satellite that has little significance in military or technological terms. A much more complex satellite was built more than a decade ago by students at Israel’s Technion and it is alive and well in space to this day.
Warning sign to world

Yet the launcher is a different story. As we know, Iran is engaged in developing nuclear capabilities. To that end, it needs a bomb and a missile that could carry it to its target. International conventions limit activity in two areas: The Non-Proliferation Treaty limits involvement with uranium enrichment, and the Missile Technology Control Regime imposes similar limits on the development of ballistic missiles.
Iran found a way to circumvent these two conventions via cover stories: First, it claims that it deals with uranium enrichment for “peaceful means” – that is, in order to produce fuel for nuclear power stations they intend to build. Secondly, its involvement in launching satellites into space enables Iran to claim that its missile development was also undertaken for peaceful purposes, for the benefit of science and space research, and has nothing to do with ballistic missiles.        

Iran already possesses ballistic capabilities that enable it to fire missiles at Israel. If indeed its latest launching succeeded, we are dealing with an expansion of this capability to ranges that could threaten not only Israel, but also central European nations.
The combination of progress in uranium enrichment capabilities and the development of ballistic capabilities constitutes a warning sign to Israel and to the entire Free World.

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