Tag Archives: Bieberman

An Introduction To The Forthcoming Israeli Elections (Part Two)

With the recent announcement from Benjamin Netanyahu that Israeli elections will be held approximately 8 months ahead of schedule (in early 2013), we thought an introduction to the domestic Israeli political landscape was in order. 

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The Streets of Jerusalem

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This is the second of a two part series. You can read the first half here.

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Yesh Atid: New Kids on the Block

Perhaps the most unpredictable ‘wild card’ in the 2013 Israeli elections is Yesh Atid, a new party chasing the oft-cherished chalice of Israel’s ‘secular middle-class’. Led by the charismatic journalist-turned-politician Yair Lapid, polls suggest the party will garner between 11 and 18 seats.

The party’s policy platform is deliberately vague, flitting from left to right with each of Lapid’s daily pronouncements. Yesh Atid is something of a populist ‘anti party’; Lapid frames his near-total lack of foreign policy, security or parliamentary experience as an asset, by labeling himself as ‘the outsider’.

Yesh Atid has successfully wooed pan-demographic, cross-party notables: Lapid made a national-religious rabbi his right hand man, whilst also co-opting popular mayors from as far afield as Meretz and Yisrael Beitenu.

Whilst ‘Yesh Atid’ translates from Hebrew to the optimistic assertion that ‘There is a Future’, questions persist as to the long-term survivability of the party, which is something of a one-man show. Does anyone remember Shinui, a secular, liberal middle-class party that disappeared from the electoral map just as quickly as it had risen? In case you were wondering (which you weren’t) it was headed by Yair’s father, Tommy Lapid. Thus, the barometer of Yesh Atid’s durability is not this election, but whether it still exists by the next one.

Wildcard #2: Shas

Shas are anything but newcomers: the party has maintained a near-constant presence in governments of both right and left since its appearance in 1984. Despite representing ‘traditional’ (orthodox, but not ultra-orthodox) Mizrahi voters, a cursory glance at Shas’ higher echelons betrays Charedi hegemony; its leaders are beholden to a ‘spiritual’ guide, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef.

The party is ‘flexible’ on the peace process, instead prioritising its domestic agenda: an unholy alliance of religious intolerance and welfare capitalism. Under leader Eli Yishai who recently claimed that ‘this country belongs to us, the white man’, the party has outshone even its own outstanding roll-call of bigotry.

Before the dawn of ‘Bieberman’, Shas’ continuation in government was almost a certainty, despite polls suggesting the party would continue to hover at around ten seats. However, Lieberman legitimised the merger through a call to limit the size of ‘small parties’, a thinly-veiled reference to the disproportionate power wielded by Shas, throwing the party’s future role into doubt.

Yishai’s authority now hangs in the balance due to the re-admittance of Aryeh Deri, a former party leader and convicted criminal. Deri is far more prone to working with the left and prioritising socio-economic concerns; expect an interesting and increasingly ugly power struggle to unfold.

The Zionist Fringe: The Far-Right and Meretz

Recent elections have not been kind to Meretz. The green/socialist/secular ingathering of the leftists has consistently staked its position as the most radical of all the Zionist parties and has languished in opposition since 2001, barely surviving the 2009 elections with just three seats.

However, thanks to Kadima’s downward spiral and Labor’s abandonment of the peace process, the party may double its representation to six seats. Whilst Meretz leader Zehava Gal-On is busy creating clear red water between the party and Labor, she has also ruled out sitting in government with Likud. Resultantly, Meretz is likely to remain in opposition, arguably its natural home as the party of the non-conformist left.

By contrast, the fate of the far-right is anyone’s guess. Exemplified by the fringe religious Habayit Hayehudi and the National Union parties, talk is afoot of a merger between the two groups.

Throwing a spanner in the works, the National Union’s Michael Ben-Ari has called for the formation of a new party– inspired by the deceased racist Rabbi Meir Kahane. Because Ben-Ari openly admires a leader who spawned a proscribed terrorist organisation, all signs point to a life sentence in opposition and a splintered radical right; the least explicitly racist elements of which may wrangle their way into government if Yesh Atid and Likud-Beitenu can’t cobble a coalition together that is spared the demands of fringe parties.

Left/right in the Cold? United Torah Judaism and the Arab Parties

Whilst Shas may stand to gain Likudnik Mizrahi voters who object to Yisrael Beitenu’s secularism, the same cannot be said for United Torah Judaism (UTJ). UTJ’s electorate is almost entirely Charedi; the party doesn’t try and ‘reach out’ to other demographics, instead relying on staking a place in multi-party coalition governments to retain its authority.

Followers of Israeli politics will remember party leader Yaakov Litzman attempted to make Swine Flu ‘Kosher’ (renaming it from to Mexican Flu, causing a diplomatic spat), and refused to shake the hand of the Belgian Health Minister, on account of her being a woman.

UTJ approach the election from their most disadvantageous position in years: if the newly-formed Likud-Beitenu alliance wins enough seats, narrow religious interest parties, traditional ‘king makers’ of coalition governments, may find themselves out in the cold.

Whilst the fate of the Jewish parties is anyone’s guess, the chances of the ‘Arab parties’ gaining a seat at the cabinet table are negligible. Of the four parties currently representing Israel’s Arab population in the Knesset, none have ever entered government. This is the result of a bizarre unspoken status-quo agreement: the Arab parties generally refuse to ‘prop up’ Zionist governments, whilst being perceived as reliant on the non-Zionist Arab parties would be the kiss of death for any Israeli administration.

Until the Arab parties learn to emulate Shas and UTJ and serve as kingmakers and powerful community representatives, voter turnout amongst Arab communities will remain low, whilst representatives’ influence will be negligible.

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Photo credit: dmitrysumin

An Introduction To The Forthcoming Israeli Elections (Part One)

With the recent announcement from Benjamin Netanyahu that Israeli elections will be held approximately 8 months ahead of schedule (in early 2013), we thought an introduction to the domestic Israeli political landscape was in order. 

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The Streets of Jerusalem

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The government of the 18th Knesset was one of the most stable in the topsy-turvy world of Israeli politics: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is now the second-longest serving premier in Israel’s history of squabbling, multi-party coalition governments. This represents a rare achievement in the fickle world of Israeli politics, where internal wrangling and ego-fuelled disputes are daily occurrences.

With the Israeli elections scheduled for 22nd January 2013, all of the Knesset’s 120 seats are up for grabs. Below, I attempt to navigate the obfuscated, irascible and often irrational nature of Israeli politics, by providing an outline of the ‘major’ parties vying for representation in the 19th Knesset.

Likud Squared

‘Likud’- Hebrew for ‘Consolidation’, constitutes a merger of a disparate band of right-wing parliamentary parties. The 2013 elections have wrought the ‘consolidation of the consolidation’ in the ‘nationalist camp’: the merging of Likud with Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu. Shocked political commentators compensated for being caught off-guard by coining the new slur towards this government-in-waiting: ‘Bieberman’.

The ideological incongruity between these parties contextualises cross-party shock at the news. Yisrael Beitenu is a ‘special interest’ party of Israel’s Russian-born population. Branded ‘The Russians’, Lieberman supporters are unique for their espousing of both secularism (Yisrael Beitenu are often called ‘The Pork Party’) and right-wing ‘ultranationalism’.

By contrast, Likud rose to power in 1977 on the backs of ‘Mizrahim’: orthodox Jews from Arab countries alienated by the Europeanised, socialist secularism of the Labor-led administration. Whilst Lieberman’s pronouncements during his current tenure as Foreign Minister were crass and peppered with nationalist bombast, the American-educated Netanyahu represents the Western-media savvy, ‘silver tongue’ of the Israeli right, taking the Likud to its current 27 seats.

At a glance, one can discern the underlying fundamental precipitants of the merger. Representing but one section of Israeli society and holding only 15 Knesset seats, Lieberman’s lofty Prime Ministerial ambitions would indubitably be rendered unlikely. By co-opting the rising star of the right, Netanyahu neutralised a potential Prime Ministerial contender, positioning Lieberman as an heir, not an opponent. Both leaders have, naturally, denied that a power-sharing deal was cemented.

Though polls had previously been kind to both parties, snap post-merger polling has painted a less rosy picture. Likud may lose both Mizrahi voters put off by Lieberman’s secularism and centre-right voters who eschew Yisrael Beitenu’s apathy towards the international community. The merger has also engendered discomfort from Likudniks who considered themselves Prime Ministers in waiting. Whilst the happy couple are enjoying the honeymoon, inter-party acrimony is already fermenting. 

Yalla (Bye?) Kadima

Kadima is a name rooted in Israeli slang: ‘Yalla Kadima’- ‘let’s go: forward’- is ubiquitous during rush-hour traffic jams. Thus, it is ironic that ‘Yalla Kadima’, a centrist party founded in 2005, is at risk of becoming ‘Yalla Bye’- a streetwise idiom denoting decampment.

Since Ariel Sharon, Kadima’s founder, suffered a stroke in 2006, the party was led by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and then by former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni. The loss of government to Likud in the 2009 elections led to Livni being displaced as leader by her rival, Shaul Mofaz. The latter’s bumbling has not endeared the party to skeptical Israeli voters: despite joining Netanyahu’s coalition in May 2012, Mofaz backtracked, returning Kadima to opposition in mid-July. Polling has consistently shown the party plummeting from its current position of 28 Knesset seats to single-digit figures.

Despite being mired in sleaze and corruption, rumours abound about Olmert’s return to politics as head of a centre-left ‘mega-party’.  Livni is also the subject of speculation; will she found a centrist partyjoin Labor or ally with Olmert? Rather than stand as a testament to their survivability, the resurgence of previous washed-up leaders is demonstrative of a vacuum of electable talent on the centre-left.

The Redemption of Labor

Despite having led every Israeli government from 1948-1977, many pundits predicted the demise of the Labor Party throughout the 18th Knesset. The party enters the 2013 elections with its  lowest-ever mandate of eight Knesset seats, having been decimated by former Labor leader Ehud Barak’s decision to split from the party in 2011.

Barak, the highest-decorated soldier in Israeli history, was replaced by Shelly Yachimovich, a political neophyte with no security experience, often a necessity for Israeli electoral success. Unlike its European namesakes, Labor has failed to connect with working-class Israelis, many of whom are Russian or Mizrahi, due to the predominance of hawkish positions in these demographic groups vis-à-vis the Palestinians.

Starting from a low point, Labor is oddly well-placed to spin a lacklustre result as a positive gain. Buoyed by widespread societal dissatisfaction at the high cost of living, Labor strategists hope to broaden the party’s appeal by focusing on socio-economic issues, rather than the flaccid peace process: Yachimovich has successfully recruited the leaders of the cross-party social protest movement.  With Kadima faltering, opinion polls suggest Labor will supplant them as the official opposition.

Netanyahu’s government finally fell due to the unwillingness of his coalition to agree to a wide-ranging budget of austerity measures. When the cuts bite, Labor is banking upon the vindication of their social-democratic platform: if they under-perform electorally, expect them to play ‘the long game’ and sit out the next government in opposition.

This is the first of a two part series. You can read the second part here.

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 Photo credit: dmitrysumin