Critical Israel elections only hours away. Issues and process explained. / Wed. post-election Update!!!
This special edition is being published earlier than our regular weekly posts because we are in the final day leading up to Israel’s very important election. Updates through the week will appear at the end of the post. By necessity, this is longer than our usual blog post. This election is one that will go a long way toward determining policy options for Israel, as well as for the United States and the entire Middle-East. To say nothing for the other big powers interested in seeing a secure Israel and a Palestinian State.
The final pre-election polls are in, as Israeli law allows no more polling within four days of the election. They show a very slight, but inching upward, edge for Tzipi Livni and Yitzhak Herzog’s new Zionist Union merged party. The two final polls show Zionist Union winning 25-26 seats to Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party’s 21 or 22 seats. But with the usual margin of error disclaimers, as well as political scientists’ concern about allocations of the relatively large number of “undecideds.” I’m also concerned with their model of “likely voters” with Netanyahu’s late t.v. blitz of fear mongering.
As one who has concluded that Netanyahu’s Prime Ministership has hurt Israel, the Israel-United-States relationship, as well as whatever hopes there are for a peace agreement that gives the best chance for a secure Israel and Palestinian self-rule, these latest polls should be very good news. But not so fast. 22-26 seats is nowhere near enough to form a government.
For those not familiar with the mechanics of Israel’s parliamentary system, it takes 61 seats to form a government. And, never in Israel’s 67 year history has any one party won that many seats in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament.
When no party wins a majority of sixty-one seats, the President usually calls for the party that won the most seats to try and form a government. Then comes the wheeling and dealing that goes into coalition-building from the smaller parties. This cabinet position, or that key religious practices concession, are bartered away. On several occasions, “unity” governments involving both of the two largest parties are formed. Though the most viable of those occur during times of national danger. If no government can be formed within six weeks, the President asks another party to try and form a government. There is a new threshold of three and one-quarter percent of the vote that a party must win to qualify for seats in the Knesset.
Two other facts of Israeli political life worth remembering: how important personalities are, and how much party shifting goes on. One key example should demonstrate this. Tzipi Livni comes from a family of well known hard-line nationalists (her parents belonged to Irgun). In her twenties, she was a Lieutenant in the Israel Defense Forces and later a member of Mosad, the Israeli intelligence agency. In the latter position she was part of the elite “Wrath of God” unit that sought and exacted revenge on the Palestinian terrorists who murdered eleven Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics. One tough lady, she was once one of the bright young stars of Likud. As a Netanyahu appointee, she was responsible for the privatization of natural resources. Running on Sharon’s Likud list she won a seat in the Knesset and later was appointed to his cabinet. At this time, she became convinced that a two-state solution was the only way forward, and the only way to preserve the Jewish character of Israel. Soon identified as a leading “dove” in Likud, she joined Sharon in breaking from the hard-liners in Likud and forming the more centrist Kadima Party. The following year she became Foreign Minister. Later, she added the title of Deputy Prime Minister. Lipni even considered allowing a new Palestinian state to incorporate some of the Israeli Arab towns. Finally, and with Sharon incapacitated, she broke from Kadima and helped form a new party Hatnuah with seven other defectors from Kadima. While in Hatnuah, she disavowed her earlier nationalization actions. Although regularly demonized by Hamas, she has been praised by Palestinian Authority leaders for her efforts to mediate a two-state solution. Livni has championed gay rights, and, perhaps at the cost of her leadership position in Kadima, she refused to have her government held hostage to the religious parties. Now she has joined forces with the once-powerful Labor Party, headed by Yitzhak Herzog, the son of a former, and respected, Israeli president, to form the Zionist Union Party.
Speaking of religious parties, and there are several, they traditionally stayed out of the political fracas and would join whichever party won the most seats in the Knesset to enable them to form a government. Of course this came at a price. And that price was control over a variety of controversial religious issues. The vast majority of Israelis disdain this practice, and in the last election, the unity coalition allowed Likud to eschew what many have considered blackmail by the ultra religious. Now that the unity coalition has dissolved, Netanyahu is shamelessly pandering to the religious parties he so recently excluded.
There are well more than twenty parties running for seats in the Knesset. Kulanu is one. Led by another Likud defector, their list is headed by Moshe Kahlon. Netanyahu promised an important cabinet post to him in exchange for his support in the last election. When Netanyahu reneged, Kahlon broke even further away from Likud. Now that Netanyahu needs Kulanu’s support even more desperately, he has been heard over the weekend placing the blame for keeping Kahlon from his cabinet position on Naftali Bennett. Bennett, a high tech mega-millionaire, will be contending with Netanyahu for the vote of West Bank settlers. His party is the ultra-nationalist Jewish Home Party. Another possible government-decider is former TV talk host personality, Yair Lapid. His Yesh Atid Party was the surprise of the last election, and in exchange for his support, Netanyahu gave him a cabinet appointment. Lapid’s support this time, when he can no longer campaign as an “outside” is supposedly dwindling, though by how much, and with whom he would throw Yesh Atid’s support to (he has denounced both Netanyahu and Herzog) are key questions this election. One final joker in the deck is the new Joint List of Arab parties. In Israel voter turnout is a high sixty-six or so percent. Israeli Arabs traditionally have low voter turnout. But this year the Joint List promises to change that. Their support, though a double-edged sword in coalition-building, could possibly be critical for The Zionist Union Party—if the Arab list decided to throw in with them.
So you see, Israeli politics is complex and often convoluted. Past allegiances are not necessarily going to hold. Netanyahu is running on an undivided Jerusalem and a hard line on negotiations with the Palestinians. This weekend, and likely right-up-to election day, he has been flooding the media with charges of foreign money coming in to support his opposition (read “foreign” as Obama), and sell out Israel’s security to the Iranian threat. He is pressing the fear button for all that it is worth and he has explicitly said that security and safety will go down the drain if the Zionist-Union Party wins the election. Herzog and Lipni are running to repair relations with the United States and move forward on negotiations with the Palestinians. Both pay lip service to economic concerns, especially dealing with the housing crisis (Netanyahu’s problem is that the crisis grew much worse under his leadership).
I can sympathize with the fears and doubt about a two-state solution on the part of many Israelis. An Arab Palestinian state was offered and rejected twice, both following the United Nations creation of Israel as a Jewish State and by Moshe Dayan, immediately following the Six-day War, which created the occupation of the West Bank (but also liberated the old city of Jerusalem and allowed Jews to once again pray at the Western Wall, and rebuild the ancient Jewish Quarter). All in exchange for just recognizing Israel and agreeing to live in peace with them. And pulling out of Gaza resulted in countless missiles being shot nightly into southern Israel. But this time we have some Arab League support for the two-state solution, and at least Arafat’s Fatah threat has evolved into a more willing partner in the Palestinian Authority. Furthermore, there is no real choice in the matter if a Jewish state is to survive. The demographics dictate that. Without U.S. wholehearted support, it is difficult to imagine a thriving and secure Israel. And Netanyahu (as well as Rep. Boehner) have jeopardized that.
Another point that these latest polls revealed is that twenty percent of the Israeli population had yet to make up their mind. The Zionist-Union Party has some recent momentum going for it, and that often is a predictor of how the undecided vote will break. At the same time, Israelis have traditionally moved cautiously when it comes to changing leadership, when their security is threatened. Netanyahu has based most of his final push on stirring up the fear factor. Has he overplayed his hand on the Iran threat? Will Israelis’ see mending their fences with their closest ally as central to security? The answer to these questions will determine the election. Results should start coming in right after the polls close, with exit polls at about 2pm Pacific time. Fingers crossed.
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P.S. Monday Noon (Pacific) UPDATE
In what appears to be a frantic last minute attempt to insure that late deciding extremist votes go for him, The Wall Street Journal just reported that Netanyahu has proclaimed that if he’s elected “There will be no Palestinian State.” Meanwhile, Tzipi Livni has said that if the Zionist Union wins the election, she will let Yitzhak Herzog serve out the whole term as Prime Minister. It had previously been reported that they would rotate the Prime Ministership.
UPDATE: 2:30 After Polls Close
Early exit polls show tie. This led Netanyahu to claim victory as the most likely to be able to form a coalition. Herz0g says not so soon. Arab list leading in 13 seats. Where Netanyahu’s votes came from could be important, e.g. did his last minute extreme nationalistic plea draw voters who otherwise wouldn’t have voted, or did they come from other right wing coalition partners, such as Bennett’s Israel Home. Early reports unclear on the smaller parties. Both Netanyahu and Herzog have asked to speak with Shas-the religious party. Shas agreed to meet with both. If Netanyahu wins, given his proclamation of no Palestinian state if he won, expect U.S. to restate their commitment to the security of Israel, but go slow behind the scenes in delivering promised armaments. An extreme, but possible, move would be to abstain in U.N. votes condemning Israel. Chilly relations, at best! It is important to watch the final vote tally and bartering among parties, but if the votes are as the exit polls suggest, Netanyahu would seem to be in the slightly better position.
Here’s a neat site that’s up as of this writing. Build your own coalition. Can it work? Simple to use. From Haaretz, the Israeli newspaper:
As actual results pile up, and hour by hour turnout figures are analyzed, it appears clear that the exit polls underestimated the surge of late voters. They also missed the number of voters who switched at the last minute from other right wing parties to Likud (which would have the effect of giving Likud more seats, but leaving the coalition totals the same). The latest figures indicate 30 seats for Netanyahu to 24 for Herzog-Livni. Smaller parties often join whomever is the leading vote getter, in exchange for favors. The Arab Joint List will not be a part of a Netanyahu coalition. But they received one more seat than predicted at 14. Now comes the bartering. Pre-election assertions now mean little. Kahlon’s Kulanu party during the campaign said they would never join a Netanyahu government again, but that may well go by the wayside as Kahlon seeks to remain relevant, and a post in a Netanyahu government may be more appetizing than to be a smaller part of the opposition. Several parties said they wouldn’t join a government if the religious parties were a part of it. Yet Netanyahu has reversed course and said he was formerly wrong about not including the religious. Shas now says they can only see a Netanyahu coalition working and that they want their seats in the coalition-“and they know what we want.” Some of Netanyahu’s coalition partners absolutely refuse to join a government that includes the religious parties like Shas.
Now comes the bartering and face-saving statements. Palestinians are aghast, due to Netanyahu’s late election comments to the effect of junking the peace talks. Israeli Arabs were denigrated by Netanyahu’s late demagoguery. On the other hand they should be proud of their turnout which, if it can be maintained in subsequent elections, should make them more of a political force in Israel. Their natural partners would seem to be the National Zionist Party.
We’ll see if Netanyahu, once again changes positions under U.S. pressure. If so, his credibility on that matter will be highly suspect. If not expect Israel to be even more isolated from the international community.
What will Obama do, both publicly and behind-the-scenes? I guess that’s the new big question. How long a relationship of estranged bedfellows can remain viable is another. But first, Netanyahu has to successfully put together a coalition of 61 seats, or more. Here’s a clue of how the Administration views the results, David Axelrod reacted:
“Tightness of exits in Israel suggests Bibi’s shameful 11th hour demagoguery may have swayed enough votes to save him…But at what cost?”
“They hate him, they should, and they’re praying that he is out of power,” said a former senior Obama administration official as early returns came in Tuesday night. With those prayers unanswered, Netanyahu’s relations with Obama are likely to resume at their lowest point yet.”
The international trend to the right seems also to have been at work in this election. In part that is explained by terrorist threats and security fears, in Israel and elsewhere. Ironically, Netyanahu’s final campaigning remarks about no Palestinian State and no Palestinian capitol in East Jerusalem, might increase terrorist actions in Israel.