Israel’s vulnerable governing coalition passes first test


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's emerging government scraped by its first parliamentary test on Wednesday, paving the way for the new cabinet to be sworn in after two months of difficult coalition building.

By a narrow 61-59 vote, parliament ratified a legislative amendment allowing Netanyahu to increase the number of ministers he can appoint to his cabinet, enabling him to meet demands from his own Likud party and other coalition partners.

His conservative Likud will head a coalition comprising the far-right Jewish Home party, the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism and Shas factions, and Kulanu, a centrist movement led by a former Likud legislator.

Netanyahu's razor-thin, one-seat majority in the Knesset may make his government – expected to be sworn in on Thursday – shaky and leave him vulnerable to policy demands from even his most junior partners, extending a long tradition of instability in Israeli politics.

The guidelines of the right-leaning government, released on Wednesday, made no mention of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – the foundation of U.S.-led peace efforts, which collapsed in April last year.

In its policy paper, the new coalition pledges in general terms to “advance the diplomatic process and strive for a peace agreement with the Palestinians and all our neighbors”.

The policy parameters of Netanyahu's previous administration also contained no pledge of support for a future Palestine. However, in 2009 he spelled out his vision for a demilitarized Palestinian nation that recognizes Israel as a Jewish state.

On the eve of the March 17 election, Netanyahu raised international concern by saying he would not permit a Palestinian state to be established under his watch.

He later backtracked, saying he had never retracted the comments he made in his address six years ago, an explanation that left Washington unmoved.

U.S. President Barack Obama said on Tuesday he has not given up hope for a two-state solution but tensions in the region and “serious questions about overall commitment” have made progress difficult.

“We look to the new Israeli government and the Palestinians to demonstrate – through policies and actions – a genuine commitment to a two-state solution,” Obama told Asharq al-Awsat, a London-based Arabic international newspaper.

Shortly after winning the March ballot, Netanyahu appeared to be coasting toward a comfortable governing majority comprising 67 seats in the 120-member parliament, and he voiced confidence he would be able to form one quickly.

But in a surprise move last week, political ally Avigdor Lieberman announced that his ultranationalist Yisrael Beitenu party would not join the government, leaving Netanyahu scrambling to meet Jewish Home's demands for key cabinet seats.

Netanyahu’s concession to key party could push coalition over the top


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reportedly agreed to concessions that would bring in a key party and allow him to form a new government.

The Israeli media reported Wednesday morning that Netanyahu had agreed to make Naftali Bennett, who heads Jewish Home, either the justice minister or foreign minister as an inducement to join the government with his party’s eight seats.

Bennett reportedly has been holding out on joining the government and has made himself unreachable by phone in the last two days of negotiations.

The addition of Jewish Home would create a government with 61 seats, one more than required to form a coalition.

Netanyahu must inform President Reuven Rivlin by 11:59 p.m. Wednesday that he has formed a government. The Knesset then has one week to schedule a vote to approve the new government. If Netanyahu is unable to form a majority coalition government, Rivlin could chose another party head, likely Isaac Herzog of the Zionist Union, to try to form a government.

The prime minister now has 53 Knesset seats, consisting of his Likud party with 30 seats; the centrist Kulanu Party, 10 seats; the Sephardic Orthodox Shas party,  seven seats; and the haredi Orthodox United Torah Judaism Party, six seats.

On Monday, Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman, head of the Yisrael Beiteinu party, pulled out of coalition talks and joined the opposition. Yisrael Beiteinu ran with Likud on a joint slate in the 2013 national elections.

Netanyahu clinches deal to form new Israeli government


Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu clinched a deal to form a new government on Wednesday, just before a deadline was to expire, but the coalition will rule by only the slimmest of majorities in Israel's turbulent parliament.

“Israel now has a government,” Naftali Bennett, the head of the far-right Jewish Home party announced at parliament after hours of haggling with Netanyahu's Likud deputies over cabinet positions, which were not immediately announced.

Nearly two months after a convincing election victory, Netanyahu has struggled to put together a coalition after a former ally abandoned him this week.

With barely two hours to spare as a midnight (2100 GMT) deadline mandated by law approached, the source said Netanyahu's right-wing Likud sealed an agreement with the ultranationalist Jewish Home, which advocates annexation of parts of occupied territory Palestinians seek for a state.

The sides were expected to announce their deal later on Wednesday evening, the sources said. Netanyahu's Likud party announced plans to issue formal statements at Israel's parliament.

With Jewish Home, the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism and Shas parties and Kulanu, a centrist faction, the Likud-led government will control 61 of parliament's 120 seats.

Such a narrow majority will make Netanyahu vulnerable to policy demands from even his most junior coalition partners, continuing a long tradition of unstable politics.

Jewish Home seems certain to push for the expansion of Jewish settlement in occupied territory, a policy that could deepen Israel's rift over the issue with its main ally, the United States, and the European Union.

Netanyahu struggling to form coalition before deadline


This story originally appeared on The Media Line.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is scrambling to form a majority coalition before a Thursday deadline after his Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman announced he is resigning his post immediately and his party will not be joining the coalition.

If all of the other potential coalition partners join, that will leave Netanyahu with a coalition of 61 seats: formed from an alliance of right-wing factions and parties representing Israel’s ultra-Orthodox communities. That means a razor-thin majority in a parliament made up of 120 seats, the very minimum required for a majority to pass legislation.

A single member of the coalition can now exert enough influence over the government to block legislation. In particular it is believed that the state budget, so critical to the financial reforms desired by incoming Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, will fall victim to pressure. A government unable to pass legislation is likely to become mired in bickering and negotiations over each bill it attempts to ratify. However, minority governments are not unheard of in Israeli politics, and indeed Netanyahu ended his 1996-1999 term as the head of a minority government.

There has been some speculation that Netanyahu might attempt to form a broader unity government with the inclusion of Isaac Herzog and his Zionist Union Party with 24 seats, but the Labor politician’s language in recent days appeared to show that this will not happen, Gabriel Sheffer, professor at the Hebrew University’s Department of Political Science, told The Media Line.

“Netanyahu is a determined politician, he wants to remain the Prime Minister for many years,” said Sheffer, explaining that he thought it likely that Netanyahu would find a way to run the government with just 61 seats.

“Another election is unlikely in the immediate future. The government might last as much as a year,” Sheffer said, suggesting that Kahlon or Naftali Bennett, two large personalities expected to join the government who are reported to have frayed relationships with the Prime Minister, might at a later date threaten the government with collapse.

“The chances of the present government lasting out its lifetime until late 2019 are not 0%,” says Abraham Diskin, also of the Department of Political Science at Hebrew University, who said he believed people exaggerate the fragility of Israeli governments.

Within two days Netanyahu is likely to form a government of 61 seats, something that could have been expected from the start of the coalition negotiations, said Diskin. He also added that Lieberman’s recent action, based on his history of confrontations with Prime Minister, was no real surprise.

As to the question of how a government will function with such a small majority, Diskin said that it is a fallacy to believe that a small coalition is inherently unstable.

“A member can collapse the government by committing collective suicide, but if you were into suicide then why would you be in the game?” The fewer the number of parties making up the government, the smaller the number of ideologies and agendas that have to be amalgamated within, Diskin explained.

Added to this is the fact that Likud, with 30 seats, has a stronger percentage within the government than last term. Even if the previous government’s majority – 68 seats – was larger, Netanyahu could find it easier to exert his influence over his coalition partners during his fourth term as Prime Minister.

Back in power, Haredi parties aim to roll back religious reforms


Israel’s last governing coalition — divided on war, peace and economics — did agree on one thing: Israel’s religious policies needed to change.

Now it appears that the incoming coalition will be organized around the opposite principle: Those changes must end.

A coalition agreement signed last week between the Likud party led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the haredi Orthodox United Torah Judaism faction promises to dismantle a raft of legislation enacted in the last two years that chipped away at several longstanding entitlements enjoyed by the haredi community. Shas, the Sephardic haredi party, signed its own coalition agreement with Likud this week that will cement the power of religious parties in the next government.

Led by the upstart Yesh Atid party, the last government passed laws to include haredim in Israel’s mandatory military draft and encourage the teaching of math and English in government-funded haredi schools. The government, which did not include the haredi parties, also allowed dozens of municipal Orthodox rabbis to perform conversions, vastly increasing the number of conversion courts from the four controlled by the haredim. Other laws cut subsidies to haredi yeshivas and large families, many of whom are haredi.

The Likud-UTJ agreement promises to repeal the conversion decision, increase subsidies to yeshivas and large families, and relieve haredi schools of the obligation to teach secular subjects. The agreement also gives the incoming defense minister sole authority to decide whether to implement the draft law — effectively allowing him to choose not to enforce it. A UTJ lawmaker will head the powerful Knesset Finance Committee, while Shas will control the Religious Services Ministry, which handles most religion-state policies.

“In the last Knesset, people tried to blur Judaism and to strengthen democracy at Judaism’s expense,” said Yair Eiserman, a spokesman for UTJ lawmaker Uri Maklev. “We have an opportunity in the present government to strengthen Israel’s definition as a Jewish state.”

Haredi Israelis are celebrating the agreements as a return to a comfortable status quo, but advocates for religious pluralism are struggling to figure out how to advance their cause, which has significant public backing. A September poll by the religious pluralism advocacy NGO Hiddush found that two-thirds of Jewish-Israelis back legalizing civil marriage and 64 percent support recognizing Conservative and Reform conversions. A 2011 Hiddush poll found that 87 percent of Jewish-Israelis supported the drafting of haredim into the Israel Defense Forces.

“The public needs to tell its leaders what it wants,” Knesset member Ofer Shelach of Yesh Atid told JTA. “The public’s role doesn’t end with voting in the election. The public needs to make clear that if a majority of the public thinks there needs to be partnership in [IDF] service and work, they need to express it.”

The draft law, which passed in March 2014 despite mass haredi street protests, aimed to right a historic imbalance in Israeli society. Mandatory military service is a rite of passage for most Israelis, one from which haredi Israelis had been exempt since the state’s founding in 1948. Yesh Atid’s chairman, Yair Lapid, touted the law as a realistic compromise that would “equalize the burden” in Israeli society.

But the three-year delay in its implementation — its toughest provisions were not due to go into effect until 2017 — made many Israelis skeptical that the law would ever have a real effect. Haredim argued that the law threatened to antagonize moderates who might have joined the IDF voluntarily. The year the law was passed, haredi enlistment increased only 11 percent — a substantial decline from the 28 percent increase from the previous year.

“United Torah Judaism says, ‘We’re ready to take part in equalizing the burden, but in a fair way and not in a populist way,'” said Shmuel Drilman, CEO of WeBetter, a new media company focused on haredi advocacy. “It’s a process, and United Torah Judaism is committed to it, as opposed to Lapid, who just wants to fight.”

When he called elections last year, Netanyahu said he wanted to partner with the haredi parties, which have long protested Yesh Atid’s reforms. Now religious pluralism activists who welcomed the reforms hope to forestall their repeals through grassroots mobilization, lobbying and legal action. Hiddush CEO Uri Regev hopes that Israel’s Supreme Court will rule a renewed haredi draft exemption illegal, as it did in 2012.

“There will be multifaceted litigation launched on a variety of issues,” Regev said. “The coalition agreements are violating core principles of Israeli constitutional law and any notion of equality.”

But Yizhar Hess, CEO of Israel’s Conservative movement, said the reforms hardly affected non-Orthodox Jews, so neither will their repeal. The conversion reform only expanded Orthodox conversion, keeping Conservative and Reform ceremonies unrecognized. Yesh Atid, Hess said, should have focused on civil unions rather than the draft.

“They should have been insisting on a reform in marriage,” Hess said. “If there were civil unions, it would have touched the lives of so many Israelis that no government would have been able to change it. Instead they dealt with things that were marginal.”

Shelach said that Yesh Atid hopes to mobilize the Israeli public to oppose the coalition agreements, but secular Israelis have yet to fill the streets in protest. To pressure the Israeli government, Regev and Hess are instead looking across the ocean. They hope the coalition agreements will convince American Jewish leaders, who began to organize a campaign in 2013 for Israeli marriage reform, to increase their activism.

Hiddush plans to “partner with Jewish Diaspora leadership and American leadership in pointing to the fact that these issues are not just an Israeli concern,” Regev said. “They are a matter of global concern because they will determine the face of Israel in the next chapter.”

Cartoon: Netanyahu’s winning coalition


Netanyahu set for go-ahead to form Israel’s next government


Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, grappling with fierce White House disapproval, was poised to win the nod from Israel's president on Wednesday to try to form a new coalition government.

The surprise victor of a March 17 election, Netanyahu looks well set to assemble a heavily right-leaning cabinet that will control 67 of parliament's 120 seats — a large majority in a country where no one party has ever been able to rule by itself.

Netanyahu will have up to six weeks to put together his new coalition once President Reuven Rivlin formally assigns him the task later in the day.

Two far-right parties — Jewish Home, which won eight seats, and Yisrael Beitenu, with six — have already pledged their support for Netanyahu in consultations with Rivlin.

In addition, centrist Kulanu, with 10 seats, ultra-Orthodox Shas, with seven, and United Torah Judaism, with six, have also backed Netanyahu, whose Likud has 30 legislators of its own.

Although the horse trading for cabinet positions has yet to start, Likud announced that Netanyahu will name Kulanu's leader, Moshe Kahlon, as the next finance minister, replacing the centrist Yair Lapid, who has refused to join the new government.

Kahlon, a former Likud member, focused his newly founded party's campaign on Israel's high cost of living, promising to reform the housing and banking sectors and bring down real estate prices, which have doubled since 2007.

A Likud team is due to begin bargaining sessions with its prospective coalition partners on Thursday, but the government-building process will compete for headlines in Israel with the worst crisis in U.S.-Israeli relations in decades.

OBAMA ANGER

Netanyahu's pre-election promise that there would be no Palestinian state on his watch and comments about Arab voters that critics saw as racist, further aggravated his testy relationship with U.S. President Barack Obama, who has dismissed his subsequent attempts to backtrack.

Obama was already furious after Netanyahu accepted an invitation from the Republicans to address Congress earlier this month, where the Israeli leader attacked a potential nuclear deal between world powers and his arch foe Iran.

The Democrat president has since said that Washington would “reassess” its relations with Israel, which receives some $3 billion a year in military aid from the United States.

One of Kahlon's first tasks will be to pass a budget for 2015 and 2016 as the country has been operating since the start of the year without a new financial program.

Shas and United Torah Judaism are expected to pursue a narrow agenda to benefit their own largely poor religious sector, leaving Likud and the ultra-nationalists as the main players on hot-button matters such as Iran's nuclear program and peace with the Palestinians.

Tzachi Hanegbi of Likud, deputy foreign minister in the outgoing government, predicted a slow path to a coalition, with far-right partners likely to lobby for top cabinet posts, such as defense and foreign affairs.

“It will take time. It will demand nerves of steel from all sides, particularly from the prime minister,” he told Israel Radio.

Netanyahu poised for governing coalition after final vote tally


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is poised to lead a heavily right-leaning coalition government with control of 67 of parliament's 120 seats, according to final election results released on Thursday.

Netanyahu's right-wing Likud party won 30 seats, compared with 24 for his main rival, the center-left Zionist Union. It was a huge gain from the last election in 2013, when Likud won 18. Zionist Union's leader, Isaac Herzog, conceded defeat.

“The reality is clear, the reality dictates that we will be in opposition and will be an alternative on each issue,” he told Army Radio, dismissing any idea of a unity government.

President Reuven Rivlin has said that on Sunday he will begin to ask leaders of parties that won election to parliament to recommend a candidate to form a government. The nominee, almost certainly to be Netanyahu, will have 42 days to do so.

Since no one faction captured an outright parliamentary majority in Netanyahu's come-from-behind victory, Israel will again be governed by a coalition of parties — as it has been throughout its 67-year history.

Netanyahu, who has publicly ruled out a broad government with Zionist Union, is expected to ask far-right parties Jewish Home (8 seats) and Yisrael Beitenu (6), and religious factions Shas (7) and United Torah Judaism (6) to join him.

That would put him in command of 57 seats — still short of a majority — making a new centrist party, Kulanu, which won 10 seats, the kingmaker.

Kulanu's leader, Moshe Kahlon, a former Likud cabinet minister, has been offered the post of finance minister in Netanyahu's government, and has said he would weigh the offer.

Political commentators expect Kahlon, who pledged during the campaign to work to lower the high cost of living, to sign on as a member.

The right-leaning government is likely to pursue tough policies towards the Palestinians, including further settlement building in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem.

On the eve of the election, Netanyahu drew Palestinian and international outrage by declared there would be no Palestinian state on his watch, backtracking from a 2009 pledge to pursue a two-state solution to the decades-old conflict.

The final voting results, issued after ballots cast by soldiers in military bases and patients in hospitals were counted, raised Likud's seat total from 29 to 30 and gave the left-wing Meretz party 5 seats instead of 4.

Netanyahu claims victory in Israel election after hard right shift


Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu claimed victory in Israel's election on Tuesday after exit polls showed he had erased his centre-left rivals' lead with a hard rightward shift that saw him disavow a commitment to negotiate a Palestinian state.

Difficult coalition talks still lie ahead. Isaac Herzog, Netanyahu's chief opponent and head of the centre-left Zionist Union, said “everything is still open” and that he had already spoken to party leaders about forming a government.

But after days in which Zionist Union appeared poised to defeat Netanyahu's Likud, the exit polls put the two parties in a dead heat. Netanyahu could have the easier path to forming a cabinet, which would put him on course to become Israel's longest serving leader.

He pulled off the feat with a pitch for ultranationalist votes in the final days of the hard-fought campaign, using tactics that could deepen a feud with the White House, at least as long as President Barack Obama remains in office.

Netanyahu has focused on the threat from Iran's nuclear programme and militant Islam. But many Israelis had said they were tiring of the message, and the centre-left had campaigned on social and economic issues, surging in polls as election day neared.

Two television exit polls, for Channel 10 and Channel 1, said Likud and Zionist Union had each secured 27 seats in the 120-member Knesset. Channel 2 gave Netanyahu a narrow edge, with 28 to 27 for his challenger after polling stations closed.

“Against all odds: a great victory for Likud, a great victory for the national camp led by Likud, a great victory for the people of Israel,” Netanyahu wrote on his official Twitter account.

Opinion polls in the run-up to the ballot had shown Zionist Union with a three to four-seat advantage over Likud, suggesting the public had warmed to Herzog, who won over voters with flashes of wit after enduring being lampooned for his short stature and reedy voice.

Final results are not expected until early on Wednesday morning.

COALITION BLOCS

A new centrist party led by former communications minister Moshe Kahlon could be the kingmaker in coalition talks. After the balloting ended, he said did not rule out a partnership with either Likud or Zionist Union.

The exit polls gave right-wing and religious parties – Netanyahu's traditional partners – about 54 seats, and left-leaning factions, 43 – both figures still short of a governing majority in the 120 seat parliament.

Turnout was around 72 percent, higher than the last election in 2013.

No party has ever won an outright majority in Israel's 67-year history, and it may be weeks before the country has a new government. Netanyahu will remain prime minister until a new administration is sworn in.

Naftali Bennett, leader of the ultranationalist Jewish Home party, said he had spoken with Netanyahu within minutes of the exit polls and agreed to open “accelerated” coalition talks with him.

“The nationalist camp won,” Bennett, who advocates annexing parts of the West Bank, told supporters.

But Zionist Union could find a lifeline from Kulanu and from Arab parties that united for the first time in a joint list of parliamentary candidates and came in third in the exit polls.

While they are unlikely to join a government, the Arab parties could give a centre-left coalition tacit support and create a block against Netanyahu.

If the centre-left is to assemble a government, it will also need the support of ultra-Orthodox parties, which the polls said would win 13-14 seats.

After the final results are in, and following consultations with political parties, it will be up to President Reuven Rivlin to name the candidate he deems best placed to try to form a coalition. The nominee will have up to 42 days to do so.

Ramping up his bid for right-wing votes, Netanyahu on election day accused left-wing groups of trying to remove him from power by busing Arab Israeli voters to polling stations, a statement that drew a sharp rebuke from Washington.

“We're always concerned, broadly speaking, about any statements that may be aimed at marginalising certain communities,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.

Some political rivals even accused Netanyahu of racism over the remarks.

The Obama administration has been angry at Netanyahu since he addressed the U.S. Congress two weeks ago at the invitation of Republican lawmakers, to oppose ongoing U.S. nuclear negotiations with Iran.

In the last days of campaigning as he sought to persuade supporters of smaller right-wing parties to “come home” to Likud, Netanyahu promised more building of Jewish settlements and said the Palestinians would not get their own state if he were re-elected.

Those sweeping promises, if carried out, would further isolate Israel from the United States and the European Union, which believe a peace deal must accommodate Palestinian demands for a state in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza.

When Netanyahu called the election in December, two years early, he looked set for an easy victory. But in the final weeks there has been a sense that change could be in the air. Some voters have talked of Netanyahu fatigue. 

Netanyahu, coalition partner Bennett at odds over peace talks


Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel was ready to enter serious peace negotiations with the Palestinians, while his coalition partner Naftali Bennett said a pact would lead to more violence.

“Our fervent hope is for peace, a genuine peace that can be achieved only through direct negotiations without preconditions,” Netanyahu said at the start of a meeting Tuesday morning with Georgian Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili. “We’re ready to enter such negotiations. I hope the Palestinians are, too.”

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is scheduled to arrive in Israel later this week in a bid to bring the two sides back to the peace table.

Bennett, head of the Jewish Home party, told Israel Radio Tuesday morning that a peace agreement with the Palestinians would lead to more rocket attacks and rock throwing.

“If you look at when there’s violence, it follows peace agreements,” Bennett said. “The public sometimes forgets, but an overwhelming majority of the Palestinian public voted for Hamas.”

He added that he “won’t oppose negotiations” as long as there are no preconditions.

The Palestinians have called for a freeze on construction in the settlements and the release of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails before they will return to the negotiating table.

On Tuesday morning, chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said the Palestinians were ready to start talking and had never demanded preconditions in order to return to negotiations.

Erekat told Army Radio that he was asking the Israelis for an agenda for the negotiations, not preconditions.

“If you say no to the ’67 border, no to Jerusalem, no to refugees, no to the military, what is there to negotiate with you about?” he said.

The Palestinian Authority denied a report Monday on Israel’s Channel 2 that P.A. President Mahmoud Abbas was prepared to resume talks.

Bennett also told Israel Radio that the Israeli public wants the government to concern itself with economic issues, not peace negotiations.

“The public elected us to invest in economic and social issues, to lower the cost of living, and not in cocktails in Oslo,” he said.

Bennett said he opposed more withdrawals and instead called for joint economic development with the Palestinians.

Reports: Netanyahu to present new government on Sunday


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and potential coalition partners Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett successfully crossed the last hurdle in talks on forming a new government, which may be presented on Sunday, Israeli media reported. 

The breakthrough in the talks, which have been underway since January 23, was reached on Thursday when Lapid and Bennett – leaders of the Yesh Atid and Jewish Home parties, respectively – agreed to back down on their demand for the largely ceremonious title of deputy premier, Army Radio reported.

This was the last of the issues that needed to be resolved before the coalition agreement could be signed, according to The Jerusalem Post.

Bennett and Lapid agreed to surrender the titles “out of respect for the prime minister,” the Post reported, adding that the new government under Netanyahu was expected to be sworn in on Sunday, the deadline for a new government.

Failure to arrive at an agreement could lead president Shimon Peres to select another politician to form a government, or could lead to new elections.

Likud Beytenu negotiator Moshe Leon told Channel 2 News on Thursday night that he was confident that an agreement would be signed on Friday.

“We’ve been talking about the issues for six weeks, and this topic [deputy premiers] only came up once. When it’s time to sign, they can’t just complain about this,” he said.

Earlier on Thursday at a Likud Beytenu faction meeting, Netanyahu said the job of building a coalition was nearly complete, and that the party got the “most important portfolios” — foreign and defense.

Netanyahu threatens to turn to Charedi Orthodox parties for coalition


The Likud party, citing what it called “excessive demands” from Yesh Atid, threatened to launch government coalition negotiations with the Charedi Orthodox parties.

The impasse with the Yesh Atid party prevented Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from introducing his new government on Wednesday, as he had planned.

With Netanyahu having four days left to form a government, Yesh Atid head Yair Lapid reportedly has backtracked on agreements that he reached with the Likud leader throughout more than a month of coalition talks.

Jewish Home party Chairman Naftali Bennett, who has pledged to enter the government with Lapid or remain in the opposition, reportedly spent Tuesday night and early Wednesday trying to smooth things over between Bennett and Lapid.

The standoff reportedly centers on Lapid's demand that his party get the Education Ministry in addition to the Interior Ministry.

Among the coalition agreements already reached are significantly reducing the size of the Cabinet, raising the electoral threshold from 2 percent to 4 percent, drastic budget cuts and a haredi draft law.

If Netanyahu fails to form a government by Saturday night, Israeli President Shimon Peres can assign another politician to the task or the country could hold new elections.

With time running out to form a government, Netanyahu facing tough choices


When he emerged bruised but unbeaten following the Jan. 22 elections, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu faced some tough choices.

Should he aim for a narrow, right-wing governing coalition comprised of haredi Orthodox, nationalist and religious Zionist parties that would give him a narrow majority of 61 seats in Israel’s 120-seat Knesset?

Or should he tack to the center, building a broader coalition comprised of some parties to the left of his Likud-Beiteinu faction and some to his right? Throw in a couple of small parties and Netanyahu could have a solid majority of 70 seats.

But things quickly got messy.

Beset by a mix of personal feuds and policy differences, the prime minister has had trouble forming a government, and on Saturday evening he had to ask Israeli President Shimon Peres for an extension on the deadline to assemble his coalition.

If Netanyahu can’t figure out the puzzle soon, someone else may get a shot at coalition building — or Israel quickly could return to the polls.

For now, chances remain slim that Netanyahu, a political survivor, will blow his chance at another term as prime minister.

The 70-seat option – a coalition with the centrist Yesh Atid party led by Yair Lapid (19 seats), the religious Zionist Jewish Home party led by Naftali Bennett (12 seats), the center-left Hatnua party led by Tzipi Livni (six seats) and the tiny Kadima party (two seats) – might still happen.

The price, however, is a government committed to including haredi Jews in Israel’s mandatory draft, a burning political issue in Israel and the condition of entry into the coalition set by Yesh Atid and Jewish Home.

For Netanyahu, the problem is that would leave his traditional coalition partners, the haredi parties, in the cold. For the last four years, the haredi parties have kept his government stable and yielded to him on security issues.

Since the January elections, coalition negotiations have played out like a soap opera. Israeli newspapers reported that Netanyahu didn’t much like Jewish Home’s Bennett, who used to be his chief of staff until the two parted on bad terms.

Then, days after the vote, Lapid, a political neophyte whose new Yesh Atid party emerged to become the second-largest party in parliament in its first election contest, told Channel 2 TV, “I assume I'll be prime minister after the next election.”

Netanyahu shot back by aiming for a broader coalition with the haredi parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism, that would shut out Bennett and dilute the influence of Lapid, who had made clear before the election that he expected to join Netanyahu’s coalition. But newly emboldened, Lapid and Bennett entered into an alliance, forging an agreement on drafting haredim and declaring that they would either both join the coalition or both stay out. Together, their 31 seats equal those of Netanyahu’s Likud-Beiteinu faction.

When Netanyahu countered with a more lenient haredi draft proposal of his own, they stood their ground. On Feb. 20, Bennett said, “It would be no tragedy if we sit in the opposition.” Lapid echoed the sentiment last weekend in a Facebook post.

“That’s how it is in democracy,” Lapid wrote. “Nobody likes to lose, but everyone accepts the basic principle that sometimes you’re in the coalition and sometimes in the opposition.”

So Netanyahu turned back to the haredim. But even with Shas (11 seats) and United Torah Judaism (seven seats), Netanyahu still needs more partners to pass the 60-seat threshold. So far, Netanyahu has signed only one coalition partner — Livni's Hatnua – and she’s a pretty strange bedfellow. Livni based her campaign on vehement criticism, from the left, of Netanyahu’s peace negotiation policies. Now she’s in charge of the Netanyahu government’s peace negotiations with the Palestinians.

Even with Livni and the haredi parties, Netanyahu still has just 55 seats — six short of the majority he needs to govern.

With the exception of the Arab parties and the staunchly left-wing Meretz party, Netanyahu has been open to all comers. He even has tried to woo Likud’s traditional rival, Labor. But the center-left Labor (15 seats) led by Shelly Yachimovich, who is committed to liberal economic policies, appears determined to lead the opposition. Yachimovich has refused all of Netanyahu’s offers.

On Saturday night, the prime minister blamed “those who have ganged up on me” for the failed negotiations. And at his Cabinet meeting on Sunday, he said that as Israel’s enemies “are coming together and uniting their efforts, we must come together and unite our forces in order to repel these dangers. I regret that this is not happening.”

Time is running out. Racing against a final deadline of March 16, Netanyahu may have to accede to a government without haredi parties and the leeway they have given him. So long as Netanyahu has not threatened haredi priorities — social welfare, funding for yeshivas and draft exemptions – they have given Netanyahu a free hand to deal with the Iranian nuclear threat, the Palestinians and the world as he saw fit.

Yesh Atid and Jewish Home, by contrast, have positions on everything from peace negotiations to housing policy and the haredi draft that differ from Netanyahu’s. If he goes with them, it looks to be a rough ride.

The hawkish Bennett already has expressed strong opposition to the Hatnua coalition deal, and the parties still must haggle over who gets what ministerial position. Lapid reportedly is holding out for foreign minister, a post formerly held by Netanyahu’s No. 2, Avigdor Liberman, until Liberman was indicted on corruption charges and resigned last year. Now Liberman is asking Netanyahu to reserve the post for him should he be acquitted.

“I intend to form a strong and stable government in the days ahead,” Netanyahu said this week in a speech delivered via video to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee policy conference.

How he’ll get there remains far from clear.

Following extension to form government, Netanyahu calls for parties to unite


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called for Israeli political parties to “come together and unite our forces,” hours after being granted an extension to form a new government.

He used the threat of Iranian nuclear weapons to illustrate why the country's politicians must remain united.

Israeli President Shimon Peres on Saturday night gave Netanyahu a two-week extension, as permitted by law, to continue his efforts to form a coalition government.

Netanyahu reported to Peres that in discussions with potential coalition partners he has made “significant progress” on foreign affairs, economic issues and universal military or national service, but that he has been unable to form a government due to a “boycott” of the haredi Orthodox parties.

“There is a boycott of a sector of society in the State of Israel and that doesn't fit my view. I am doing everything within my power to unite the nation; I believe that we as Jews have suffered from boycotts. We know that Israel is boycotted in international forums; we are rightly outraged when goods from the settlers in Judea and Samaria are boycotted. More than anyone it is the settler population in Judea and Samaria who should understand this as they suffer from daily boycotts,” Netanyahu said Saturday night.

The Yesh Atid Party has said that it will refuse to sit in a government with the haredi Orthodox parties and the Jewish Home Party, widely supported by voters living in the settlements, has said it will only join the government if Yesh Atid does.

At the opening of Sunday's regular Cabinet meeting, Netanyahu said he was briefed on major powers' talks with Iran on the nuclear issue, which he regards as an effort by Iran to stall for time as it continues to process uranium to make nuclear weapons.

“I must say that at this time our enemies are uniting in order to bring about not only atomic weapons that could be used against us, but other deadly weapons that are piling up around us. At a time when they are coming together and uniting their efforts, we must come together and unite our forces in order to repel these dangers,” Netanyahu said. “I regret that this is not happening. I will continue my efforts in the coming days to try and unite our forces and bring them together ahead of the major national and international tasks that we face. I hope that I will succeed, I will continue to try.”

Yesh Atid Party head Yair Lapid wrote on his Facebook page over the weekend that it would “not be a tragedy” if the haredi Orthodox parties did not sit in the new government. Also over the weekend, senior advisors to the prime minister told Israeli news outlets that the new government will have to freeze construction in Jewish settlements outside the large West Bank settlement blocs in order to appease the international community.

Netanyahu reaches first deal on new Israel government, political source says


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took his first step in forming a new government on Tuesday by reaching a coalition deal with former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, a political source said.

A draft copy of a five-page coalition deal, obtained by Reuters, said the centrist Livni would be named Justice Minister and would also resume a role similar to one she held in a previous government as a peace negotiator with the Palestinians.

Peace talks have been frozen since 2010, and the coalition deal said Netanyahu and Livni together would “work, upon the establishment of the new government, toward resuming the diplomatic process”.

The deal would be the first for Netanyahu after weeks of negotiating with party heads since his right-wing Likud won a January 22 election, but came up short of a parliamentary majority.

Likud said in a statement the two party leaders would make a joint announcement in parliament later on Tuesday. A Likud source, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Reuters Livni had agreed to join Netanyahu's new government.

Netanyahu has another month to secure enough coalition partners to control at least half of the 120 seats in parliament. Likud, running on a joint ticket with another right-wing party, won 31 seats in the vote. Livni heads a small centrist party that won six.

Reporting by Allyn Fisher-Ilan and Ari Rabinovitch; Editing by Tom Pfeiffer

Netanyahu tackles tricky coalition-building


Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met on Thursday with Yair Lapid, the surprise runner-up in an election last month, to try to draw him into a broad government that could bridge Israel's religious divide.

In the January 22 ballot, centrist candidate Lapid's rallying cry, “equal sharing of the burden”, touched a nerve among voters angered by military exemptions granted to ultra-Orthodox students and state stipends for large, religious families.

Lapid, a former TV anchorman who leads the new middle-of-the-road Yesh Atid, has been publicly sparring with Netanyahu, even suggesting that he could become Israel's next leader within 18 months should Netanyahu fail to form a stable government.

Netanyahu, looking to clear the air just days after the president asked him to form the next government, held a two-hour session with Lapid to lay out his vision for a coalition of center, rightist and religious parties.

“The meeting … was conducted in a very good atmosphere. It was a agreed that another meeting between the two would be held soon,” Yisrael-Beitenu and Yesh Atid said in a brief joint statement.

In a major political surprise, Yesh Atid captured 19 of parliament's 120 seats, compared with 31 for Yisrael Beitenu, which had 42 legislators in the previous Knesset.

Netanyahu needs at least 61 seats for a parliamentary majority and has 42 days to do it. He has several options, ranging from a narrow coalition with traditional right-wing and religious partners to broader alliances with centrist parties.

A government with centrist partners could help Netanyahu project a more moderate image as he prepares for a visit to Israel this spring by U.S. President Barack Obama, with whom he has had a testy relationship.

Two major international issues – frozen peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians and possible Israeli military action against Iran's nuclear program – were eclipsed during much of the election campaign by domestic social and economic concerns.

For Netanyahu, adding ultra-Orthodox parties – traditionally focused on their religious constituencies rather than on foreign policy – to a governing coalition could make it easier to leave out far-right factions and move forward in peacemaking.

“The voter wanted Netanyahu to be prime minister and Lapid to be the senior partner,” Vice Premier Silvan Shalom of Likud-Beitenu told Army Radio before the two convened at the prime minister's Jerusalem residence.

“And the voter also wanted there to be a national unity government … so we would like to see everyone inside,” Shalom said. “We are making every effort vis-a-vis the ultra-Orthodox, too. They also understand that times have changed, that something must be done.”

Most Israeli men and women are called up for military service for up to three years when they turn 18. However, exceptions are made for most Arab citizens of Israel, as well as ultra-Orthodox men and women.

About 60 percent of ultra-Orthodox men engage in full-time Jewish religious studies, keeping them out of the labor market and burdening the economy and state resources.

Editing by Mark Heinrich

Obama’s planned visit to Israel


As you’ve probably heard, President Obama will visit Israel next month, his first time as president. And for those people still upset with him for not visiting during his first term, here’s the good news: Obama’s visit is still much earlier in his second term than when George W. Bush visited. So there’s no reason to be upset — not about the timing of the visit. As for the reasons and the implications of this impending visit — this is no big surprise — here’s one list of things to be considered:


Political Editor Shmuel Rosner, in Tel Aviv, discusses President Obama's Israel visit timing with Publisher and Editor-in-Chief Rob Eshman, in Los Angeles. Story continues after the video.


Iran

Remember Benjamin Netanyahu’s U.N. speech last September? Remember his “red line”? Summer is coming fast, and a presidential visit in early spring is one good way of attempting to give the United States and its allies more legroom to  maneuver. Obama wants to do more talking with Iran and needs Israel not to be too fidgety with its timetables. His presence is a way of reassuring Israelis that the United States is on their side and that they should not rush to action. Since the public isn’t eager to see action — Obama has a chance of succeeding with it. As for the prime minister, that’s another story. Netanyahu truly believes that he was planted in his office to do this one, big thing of saving Israel from the peril of a nuclear Iran. If there’s one issue on which Netanyahu might decide to spite public opinion — Iran would be it.

Peace

One hopes that Obama got some assurances from both Israelis and Palestinians that his visit will not go to waste. The time for renewal of the peace process — that is, negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority — is long overdue. If Obama can’t make it happen, his visit could be in danger of being labeled a failure. (On the other hand, expecting him to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or to get the two sides much closer to resolving it would also be a huge mistake — he can’t do it).

Coalition Talks

Don’t underestimate the timing of the announcement. Potential coalition members now have a clearer choice: If they want to see Obama, they’d better hurry. If they want to keep claiming that Netanyahu is ruining Israel’s relations with the United States — their case just became less convincing.

Israeli Compromises

Obama’s visit would make Netanyahu seem stronger, at least for a while (until the visit, and possibly after it if the visit is successful). Obama is experienced enough to understand this and surely made Netanyahu pay some price for it. Where can Israel compromise? Iran is tough, but with his new coalition Netanyahu has more flexibility on the Palestinian front (he doesn’t yet have a coalition — but his potential coalitions give him this flexibility).

Syrian Tensions

As I argued last week, the situation in Syria is bringing the Israeli and the U.S. governments closer together. It will give Obama and Netanyahu one safer issue on which to agree.

Scheduling Complications

If Obama is going to Israel in late March, this means that the hope for him to come here for Shimon Peres’ Presidential Conference is pretty much dead. It also makes the annual AIPAC conference in early March a little less consequential. Netanyahu will not travel to Washington if Obama is coming to Jerusalem (or so I’d assume); Obama might not want to go to AIPAC and upstage his own visit just two weeks before it happens. For the past week I’ve been thinking that the smartest move for the administration would be to send Chuck Hagel to the AIPAC conference — if he is confirmed as secretary of defense. This would make an interesting speech, and would present AIPAC attendees with an interesting test of restraint.

Israeli Opinion

Can Obama move the needle of suspicion downward with this visit? The American president is perceived by many Israelis as pro-Palestinian or neutral. I’m not sure whether Obama cares much about being popular among Israelis, but I’m sure that some advisers have told him that being more popular would also make him more effective as he battles with Netanyahu over policy. The question for me is this: Can Obama still charm Israelis — or maybe it’s too late for him to change an already firm Israeli suspicion of him? (My answer: He can probably change Israeli minds, but not by making speeches — they’d have to see action to be convinced).

Agenda

One would hope Obama is well aware that Israelis are too busy with conscripting the ultra-Orthodox at the moment to be concerned with issues such as regional peace and the occupation. Seriously: Much like the United States, Israel is preoccupied with domestic concerns. Assuming coalition talks are completed by the time Obama comes, the new government will be busy with drafting a budget and planning for cuts in government spending and raising taxes. Obama’s visit will be a distraction — not an event that’s going to top the agenda for very long.

It’s Time

Four years ago, I wrote an article for The New Republic in which, somewhat nastily, I advised Obama not to come to Israel:

“[W]ords alone will not make Israelis trust Obama. Israelis do not suffer from lack of understanding of the issues; they suffer from peace-fatigue. They look at “peace processes” with suspicion, based on experience and events. They are scarred enough to know what has [worked] and what has not, and they are tired of the good intentions of enthusiastic novices, believing that with their youth and their smarts they’ll be able to come up with some magic trick that can somehow round a square. What Obama needs is a convincing plan that makes sense. It does not look like he has one.”

Now I think it’s good time for him to come. Why?

• Because it is clearly not about domestic politics — elections are over in both countries.

• Because expectations have been lowered enough for all parties involved to understand that peace isn’t coming “within a year or two.” No one expects a “magic trick” anymore.

• Because Obama is no longer an “enthusiastic novice” — he is a second-term president.

• Because Netanyahu needs an opportunity to be a gracious host to Obama. And it will save Obama at least one Netanyahu visit to Washington, where he keeps getting on the president’s nerves.

• Because the Middle East is in turmoil and this really isn’t the right time for these two leaders to keep bickering about one another.

• Because Obama has to be here at least once, so why not get it over with.

One question though: Does he stay for the Seder?

Israeli voters force Netanyahu to seek centrist partner


Israel's next government must heed voters and devote itself to bread-and-butter issues, not thorny foreign policy problems such as Iran's nuclear plans and the Palestinian conflict, senior politicians said on Thursday.

Israelis worried about housing, prices and taxes have reshaped parliament, forcing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to woo their centrist champion as his main coalition partner.

Final results from the Jan. 22 national election were due later on Thursday, but were not expected to differ significantly from published projections.

Defence Minister Ehud Barak said voters had imposed new constraints on the next government.

“It will be much more balanced, probably limited, cannot do whatever it wants and will have to take into account the growing pressure from within to focus on many internal issues,” he told CNN.

Yair Lapid, the surprise success of Tuesday's ballot, stormed to second place with 19 seats in the 120-member assembly against 31 for Netanyahu's alliance of his Likud party ultra-nationalists led by former Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman.

Formal coalition talks have yet to begin, but Netanyahu and Lapid held a long meeting on Thursday, a Likud statement said.

“The meeting, which lasted two and a half hours, was conducted in a very good atmosphere. Netanyahu and Lapid discussed the challenges facing the country and ways to grapple with them. They agreed to meet again soon,” the statement said.

Netanyahu has swiftly adopted chunks of Lapid's election platform as his own, keen to seal a deal that would create a solid base of 50 seats before drawing in other partners from the right or centre needed for a stable ruling majority.

Lapid said “colour had returned to the cheeks” of Israelis following the vote, adding that he was happy Netanyahu had now embraced his party's themes of “equal sharing of the burden” and helping the middle class, especially with housing and education.

“Equal sharing” is political code for meeting the complaints of secular tax-payers about the concessions given to the ultra-Orthodox, whose menfolk study in Jewish seminaries, often on state stipends, and who are not drafted into the army.

“EQUAL BURDEN”

Lulled by pre-election opinion polls, Netanyahu may have assumed he could coast back to power at the head of a right-wing coalition enthused by his mission to halt Iran's nuclear drive and eager to settle more Jews in the occupied West Bank.

But his Likud party and Lieberman's Yisrael Beitenu lost 11 of the seats they had won at the last election in 2009, punished by voters more preoccupied with problems of daily life.

Lieberman said he and Netanyahu shared with Lapid and Naftali Bennett, leader of a new far-right party, the goals of “equal burden, living costs and affordable housing”.

But Lieberman told Army Radio reaching a similar consensus on foreign policy might prove elusive. “We can start with diplomacy, but that will impair the government's functioning,” he said. “This government must focus on domestic issues.”

In its first reaction to the election, the United States, Israel's chief ally, renewed a call for resuming stalled peace talks with the Palestinians, but huge obstacles remain, even if the next Israeli government gains a more moderate flavour.

Yasser Abed Rabbo, a member of the PLO executive committee, said Palestinian leaders were watching for change after a vote that had given Israel a “new and different opportunity”.

He told reporters any renewed talks must be based on creating a Palestinian state on the pre-1967 war lines.

“We are not ready to be part of the process of more political theatre or to give cover for government policy which represents the same policies as the last one, while settlements continue and we experience daily killing and repression.”

U.S.-brokered peace talks broke down in 2010 amid mutual acrimony. Since then Israel has accelerated construction in the West Bank and east Jerusalem – land the Palestinians want for their future state – much to the anger of Western partners.

RAZOR-THIN

Complicating Netanyahu's quest for a workable coalition is the difficulty of reconciling the demands of a dozen factions in parliament, where those on the right hold a razor-thin edge.

Lapid, a former TV anchorman who only founded his Yesh Atid (There is a Future) party a year ago, seeks to end exemptions from military service for Israel's 10 percent minority of ultra-Orthodox Jews who also receive generous state benefits.

Those privileges were extracted from successive governments by religious parties such as Shas and the United Torah Party in exchange for their backing. The two parties have a combined total of 18 seats in parliament, and Netanyahu is likely to want to include at least one of them for a broad-based coalition.

He may also turn to the hardline Jewish Home group led by his former protege Bennett, a millionaire software entrepreneur, which won a projected 12 seats. A Likud spokeswoman said Netanyahu called Bennett to congratulate him but did not reveal details of their conversation.

“Jewish Home can certainly be one of the desired partners in the new coalition,” Likud lawmaker Zeev Elkin told Israel Radio.

However, Bennett has denounced the idea of Palestinian statehood and advocates annexing swathes of the West Bank, putting him at odds with Lapid, who wants “divorce” talks with the Palestinians to end the decades-old Middle East conflict.

The Labour party, which came third with 15 seats after putting economic and social issues at the forefront of its campaign, not the Middle East peacemaking it once championed, has vowed not to join any Netanyahu-led coalition.

Once official results are announced on Jan. 30, President Shimon Peres will ask someone, almost certainly Netanyahu, to try to form a government, a process that may take several weeks.

Reporting by Jerusalem bureau; Editing by Peter Graff and Giles Elgood

Netanyahu announces early Israeli election


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced early national elections.

In a news conference on Oct. 9, Netanyahu announced that elections for the 19th Knesset will be held a year early. Although a date has not yet been announced, it is expected the vote will be held in early 2013, most likely in February.

A February election will be four years since the last Knesset election. The Knesset will return on Oct. 15, after which the government likely will pass a resolution to dissolve.

Netanyahu held meetings last week and on Oct. 9 with the heads of the other parties in his government coalition to decide whether to work to pass the 2013 budget or go to early elections. If the government cannot agree on a budget, it is grounds to go to elections.

Going to elections without an approved budget means that the ministries will operate on the 2012 budget allocations. A new budget would have seen deep cuts in many ministries.

“The country has actually been in election mode for over six months, which is unhealthy and should be stopped as soon as possible,” opposition Labor Party head Shelly Yachimovich said.

“The public must remember that Netanyahu is going to elections in order to immediately afterward pass a brutal and difficult budget that will harm the life of almost every citizen in the country, except for the very wealthy,” she told reporters.

Netanyahu may dissolve parliament in mid-October, official says


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will decide before parliament reconvenes on October 15 on whether to seek a snap election, a government official said on Friday.

Citing growing friction among Netanyahu's allies, including disputes with Defence Minister Ehud Barak, Israeli media has said elections might be held in February, eight months ahead of schedule.

The official, who spoke to Reuters on condition of anonymity, said Netanyahu would make a decision before the middle of the month on whether to dissolve the reconvened parliament or get ministers to agree to austerity measures for next year's budget.

“If it's possible to agree to another responsible budget he (Netanyahu) prefers that. But if due to the political situation this proves not to be feasible, then he will choose an early election,” the official said.

Netanyahu heads the right-wing Likud party and presides over a five-party coalition government, which controls 66 seats in the 120-seat parliament.

Slower-than-expected economic growth means the government will have to tighten its belt in the 2013 budget and many coalition allies appear reluctant to sign up to austerity measures just months before elections are due.

Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz said last month that next year's budget would need 14 billion shekels ($3.6 billion) worth of cuts in order to reach a deficit target equal to three percent of gross domestic produce.

If no budget is approved for next year, spending controls immediately kick in to keep state finances steady until a new government is ready to act.

Netanyahu's ultra-Orthodox religious parties have been hesitant to agree to proposed cuts and Barak has also balked at demands to rein in defence spending.

Opinion polls have suggested Likud will come out on top of a national ballot, giving Netanyahu a renewed mandate to tackle what he has described as the most important challenge facing Israel – the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran.

However, the same polls have indicated that Barak's own small group, the Independence Party, might struggle to regain any seats in the next Knesset.

Relations between Netanyahu and Barak, long-time allies since serving together in the Israeli military, have frayed over the prime minister's efforts to push Washington to set a limit for Iranian nuclear development.

Writing by Allyn Fisher-Ilan

Romney names ‘Jewish Americans’ campaign group


Mitt Romney launched the “Jewish Americans for Romney” coalition and continued to defend his citation of culture to explain the economic disparity between Israelis and Palestinians.

“The Jewish community has made contributions to American society that stand in amazing disproportion to its numbers, and I am genuinely honored to have so many of its leading thinkers, diplomats and political leaders support my campaign,” Romney said in an announcement released Tuesday through his presidential campaign.

The announcement listed as co-chairmen of the campaign: Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), the majority leader in the U.S. House of Representatives; former Sens. Rudy Boschwitz and Norm Coleman of Minnesota; former Hawaii Gov. Linda Lingle, currently running for U.S. Senate in that state; and Adam Hasner, who is running for a U.S. House seat in Florida.

The group’s 39-member advisory board includes top advisers to his campaign who have served in previous Republican administrations, among them Tevi Troy, Dov Zakheim and Dan Senor.

Romney in his statement implied criticism of President Obama, whose campaign has emphasized its strategic support for Israel, but who in the first two years of his terms clashed repeatedly with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over peace process issues.

“Having just visited Israel at a critical juncture in the history of the Middle East, I am persuaded that now, more than ever, America needs to stand with Israel,” Romney said. “I will extend the hand of friendship because our partnership is not merely a strategic alliance but a force for good in the world.”

In a separate release, Romney continued to defend his comment during his Jerusalem trip that culture is a reason why Israel is more prosperous than the Palestinian areas. Palestinians slammed Romney’s remarks as racist and as willfully ignoring the limitations imposed upon them by Israel’s occupation.

“Like the United States, the state of Israel has a culture that is based upon individual freedom and the rule of law,” Romney said in the release. “It is a democracy that has embraced liberty, both political and economic. This embrace has created conditions that have enabled innovators and entrepreneurs to make the desert bloom. In the face of improbable odds, Israel today is a world leader in fields ranging from medicine to information technology.”

No change in White House approach to Israel following new coalition


The Obama administration will not change its policy approach toward Israel in light of the new government coalition, a White House spokesman said.

“[A] new coalition government in Israel certainly will not affect our policy approach, and we continue to have very good relations with leaders in Israel and we have significant support for—we provide significant support for and coordination with Israel’s military on security interests, and share a lot of information when it comes to intelligence,” White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters Tuesday morning on Air Force One. The reporters were accompanying President Obama to Albany, N.Y., where he was delivering a speech.

On Monday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that he had forged a 94-seat unity government with the entrance of the left-of-center Kadima party into the coalition.

In answer to a reporter’s question, Carney also said that the White House is working “very closely with the Israelis on the Iran issue.”

“On Iran, our position is as it was, which is we absolutely share Israel’s concern about the threat posed by Iran’s nuclear ambitions,” he said. “We have pursued a policy approach that has effectively isolated Iran and united the world in identifying Iran’s behavior as the problem. And we have, through sanctions and other means, made clear to the Iranians that there is a high price to pay for their refusal to abide by their international obligations.”

Carney also said the White House believes that the Israelis and the Palestinians “need to take steps towards peace. They need to refrain from actions that make it harder to reach the kind of—well, to reach the negotiating table, where they can work on a solution that still needs to be found.”

For new Israeli coalition, haredi army exemptions issue is front and center


Israel’s new unity government may not alter Jerusalem’s strategy for curbing Iran’s nuclear weapons program or do much to revive the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

But it could dramatically change something at home about which a huge number of Israelis care deeply: haredi Orthodox exemptions from military service.

For years, haredi issues have been something of a third rail in Israeli politics. Nearly every government in recent years has needed the haredi parties to cobble together a governing coalition, rendering haredi entitlement programs like the military exemption politically untouchable.

This long has irritated Israelis who serve in the army and resent that the haredim, by and large, do not serve yet draw all sorts of entitlement payments from the state.

But with Shaul Mofaz’s decision to bring Kadima and its 28 seats into the ruling coalition, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu no longer needs the haredi parties to keep his government in power. They could pull out, and it would make no real difference—at least, until the next elections, scheduled for October 2013.

The question now is how far Netanyahu will go in taking advantage of a historic opportunity to end this special treatment afforded to haredi Israelis.

The question is likely to hinge on political considerations.

There already is movement on putting together an alternative to the Tal Law, which granted haredi Israeli men military exemptions but was struck down several months ago by Israel’s Supreme Court. The court ordered that an alternative to the law be put into place by Aug. 1.

Crafting an alternative to the Tal Law is one of the top four priorities set forth by the new government coalition. The other three are passing a comprehensive budget, reforming the structure of government and making progress toward peace. The budget issue is expected to be resolved one way or the other, as budgets generally are, but there is something pie-in-the-sky about the other two priorities.

That leaves the Tal Law alternative as the potential historical legacy of this 18-month alliance between Netanyahu and Mofaz.

On Tuesday, that alternative began to take shape.

The Jerusalem Post reported that, under the Mofaz-Netanyahu deal, haredi exemptions from the army would be replaced by a Basic Law—the Israeli equivalent to a constitutional amendment—requiring all citizens to perform military or civilian service.

Last month, Kadima proposed instituting a universal military draft within five years. Under the Kadima plan, all Israelis either would serve in the military or do national service in one of a variety of fields, among them education, health and domestic security. Those who fail to comply would be barred from receiving any state funding.

The question is whether such a plan—which would radically alter the relationship between the state and its rapidly growing haredi Orthodox population—could survive opposition from Israel’s haredi Orthodox parties.

On the one hand, Netanyahu doesn’t need them to survive in office until the next elections. Indeed, if he were to push through such legislation, it could earn his Likud party much broader support, including from secular and more centrist voters, the next time Israel goes to the polls.

On the other hand, it could cost Netanyahu in October 2013 if his Likud party wins the election, Kadima fares poorly and Netanyahu needs the haredi parties to form a coalition.

Those considerations, say political analysts, will mitigate whatever changes are made to haredi exemptions.

There are some other factors at play.

For one thing, while in principle most Israelis would like haredim to be subject to the same requirements of service demanded of all other Israelis, in practice the army does not want a sudden flood of tens of thousands of new haredi recruits. The Israel Defense Forces lacks the infrastructure to absorb them, both in numbers and operationally. What would the army do with 10,000 new recruits who are religiously opposed to significant interaction with female instructors?

For another thing, a sudden, dramatic transformation of the relationship between haredim and the state would run up against opposition not only from haredi parties in the Knesset, but from haredi citizens. They would see the sudden change as a broadside against their way of life, and mass demonstrations and even riots likely would ensue. It would make the haredi riots against parking lots opening on the Sabbath and a Modern Orthodox girls’ school in Beit Shemesh seem like child’s play.

The reality is that Israel doesn’t want all these haredim in the army; what Israel wants is more haredi men working, paying taxes and integrated into Israeli society.

Under the current system, haredi men must stay in yeshiva until their 30s to keep their military exemption (religious women are currently granted exemptions from army service upon request). That has helped bankrupt the haredi community and nurture a black market economy in which many haredi men work surreptitiously and do not pay taxes.

Changing the rule would help drive haredim into the workforce and into better-paying jobs. That would help Israel’s tax rolls, reduce haredi dependency on welfare and help integrate haredim into Israeli society.

There is great debate within the haredi community about whether or not to welcome these changes. Some haredim see it as key to the economic and social survival of their community. But other haredi leaders see it as opening up a slipperly slope away from the yeshiva and Jewish observance and toward the dangerous temptations of modern, secular Israel.

Ultimately, whatever change comes to the haredi community is likely to come gradually.

Kadima has proposed exempting 1,000 haredi yeshiva students from the military draft and allowing others to defer military service on a year-by-year basis while they are studying in yeshiva. According to a report in The Jerusalem Post, Likud is likely to propose an alternative that instead would establish a minimum number of haredi participants in national service programs that would increase every year, without a cap on those claiming yeshiva-related exemptions from service.

For now, the haredi parties appear to be taking a wait-and-see approach.

“There can’t be a situation in Israel in 2012 where someone who wants to study Torah will not be able to do so,” Yakov Litzman of the United Torah Judaism party told the Post. “But as long as the principle of ‘torato Omunato’ [Torah is one’s work] is preserved, UTJ will remain in the coalition.”

Team of Rivals


Stability and order, those are the pillars that enable a democratically elected politician to successfully pursue their agenda. And stability and order are exactly what Benjamin Netanyahu, prime minister of Israel, has guaranteed for himself and for his party by creating a new national unity government with his rivals.

This new national unity government should have come as no surprise.

The new coalition now controls 94 of 120 Knesset seats. Never before in the history of Israeli politics has the governing coalition been so broad, so strong and so stable. Kadima, Netanyahu’s rival party, under its recently ousted leader Tzippi Livni would not have entered into a coalition with Likud. Shaul Mofaz, the newly elected leader of Kadima, has done what Livni could not. He has, in his own words, ‘corrected a historic wrong.’

Mofaz knows that Kadima belonged in the coalition from the very beginning. In 2009, Israel’s last election, Kadima garnered twenty eight seats, the largest number of seats of any party – but they could not form a government. Likud, with twenty seven seats and Netanyahu at the helm, formed a government along with the Labor party which is ostensibly to the left of Kadima, the central party.

The newly elected head of Kadima is a perfect partner for the Likud leader. Shaul Mofaz is a hawk on issues of security. He served as defense minister under Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and was a successful chief of staff of the IDF, Israel’s army. He is Iranian by birth, born in Teheran, to parents who came, originally, from Isfahan. His given name was Shahram Mofazzez Zadeh, a very ethnic sounding name Shaul Mofaz has the ring of a true Israeli name. Mofaz deeply understands Iranians, not just their language but also their mind set. He has a more liberal point of view than does Netanyahu on economics and social welfare. They are the perfect counter balance to each other.

Kadima is really a center- center/left party. And Likud is center center/right. The coalition they have formed is now strongly center based. It is so strongly center that even if a party or two on either side of the spectrum should decide to leave the coalition it will have no impact on the stability of the government.

This is not an insider baseball issue. The ramifications of this newly formed coalition in Israel will not affect only Israeli society. This broad unity government under the leadership of Benjamin Netanyahu and Shaul Mofaz has carte blanch on issues connected to security, Iran, and the Palestinians peace process issues of vital import to the greater region and to the West.

How and why? I’ll explain.

One of the most important messages this newly created coalition sends out is a message to Iran. Israel’s electorate and their ruling parties are now totally aligned on the issue of the dangers of Iran. Despite the recent and very public debate and critique about if, when or how to deal with Iran the only issue to be dealt with now is timing. The Israeli message to Iran is clear: your nuclear technology and capability threatens us, we will deal with it, we just have to decide when.

The Israeli government is now almost totally united on issues of security. That means that when the government decides to strike there will be no need to break ranks. Iran has to realize that now, more than ever before, Israel is poised to strike. And that is a frightening reality for the United States and by extension the greater Western world on the eve of a US presidential election.

Will this throw a wrench into the Obama presidential campaign and destroy his plan to use Iran as a lever to help win the election? People might ask what is the Obama plan on Iran and do they have one worked out and the answer is that they are still planning the plan. Now the Obama plan, whatever it may turn out to be, will have little impact. The Israelis have the plan, the means and the unity to proceed on their own.

The newly formed coalition government of Israel is also united on the peace process. That ball is now in the Palestinians’ court. It is the Palestinians who must decide to pursue peace or not to pursue peace.

Unlike the Americans, the Israelis have concluded that the Palestinians are not ready to move ahead. They have concluded that the Palestinians want far too much and do not want to compromise. So Israel is simply waiting. Of course, Israel realizes that the next generation of Palestinian leadership may be even less accommodating neighbors, but the Israelis have had enough of giving with no Palestinian follow through. Now, with no pressure from rival parties and with no need to capitulate to external pressure, Israel can comfortably adopt a wait and see policy vis a vis the Palestinians.

Internal domestic issues will still be confronted, debated and fought over in Israel—that will not change. And some parties may bolt from the Netanyahu/Mofaz coalition. But the coalition will remain strong. One thing is certain: Israel’s coalition and governing party is more stable now than it has been in years.

Hundreds of Israelis take to the streets to protest unity deal between Netanyahu and Mofaz


Over 1,000 people demonstrated on Tuesday night near the Habima Theater in Tel Aviv against the deal struck between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Kadima leader Shaul Mofaz.

The protest, which took place near where the 2011 summer protest began on Rothschild Boulevard, included waved flags, and chanted slogans such as “Bibi, go home.”

Several politicians spoke to the crowd, among them former Kadima head Tzipi Livni, Isaac Herzog (Labor) Nitzan Horowitz (Meretz), and Dov Khenin (Hadash).
Livni, who spoke briefly, said that she was asked to speak by “young people who want to fight for the country.”

Read more at Haaretz.com.

Israel’s Knesset dissolved, new elections called for Sept. 4


Israel’s Cabinet agreed to hold early elections for the 19th Knesset on Sept. 4.

The Cabinet on Sunday authorized the Ministerial Committee on Legislation to submit a law for Knesset approval to hold the vote on that day.

New elections did not need to occur before October 2013, the official end of the current Knesset’s term.

“I would have been very happy if we could have completed the term, which was also my goal, but it is no secret that with the start of the government’s fourth year, the coalition is fraying somewhat,” Netanyahu said at the start of the Cabinet meeting. “It therefore seems to me that the right thing to do is to go for a brief election campaign.”

“We are proposing Sept. 4, after which, God and voters willing, we will receive a mandate, create stability and successfully lead the State of Israel in dealing with the great challenges we still face.”

Netanyahu said he intends to form “as broad a government as possible” following the upcoming elections. Current polling data shows that his Likud Party could garner up to 30 seats, up from its current 27, in the next election.

Netanyahu was embarrassed Sunday night at his party’s convention, where he had hoped to be elected president of the Likud Central Committee in order to determine who will be chosen to fill the new Knesset seats.

Hundreds of Central Committee members signed a petition calling for a secret ballot for the vote; an open vote reportedly would have increased the chances of Netanyahu being elected. Lawmaker Danny Danon will challenge Netanyahu for the position.

The vote for president of the Likud Central Committee was delayed. Likud primaries are expected to be held in early June.

Netanyahu to seek early election in 4 months


Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday said he supported an early general election in four months’ time, a ballot polls say could strengthen his hand as Israel confronts Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

“It is preferable to have a short election campaign of four months that will swiftly return stability to the political ranks,” Netanyahu said in a speech to a convention of his rightist Likud party.

The next national vote was not due until October 2013, but new legislation that might force ultra-Orthodox Jews to serve in the military and an upcoming budget debate have threatened to unravel a governing coalition of religious and nationalist parties once seen as one of the most stable in Israel’s history.

Netanyahu said he wanted to avoid pressure from coalition partners who were beginning to destabilize the government. He did not specify a date, but a party official earlier said September 4 was the probable date for the ballot.

“With the start of the government’s fourth year we have seen many signs that the stability has begun to waver and political instability always brings extortion (and) populism which harm security, the economy and society. I will not allow a campaign of a year and a half that will harm the country,” Netanyahu said.

A Netanyahu victory two months before the U.S. election would give him leverage over Barack Obama on the Iranian and Palestinian issues while the U.S. president is still engaged in his own campaign and wary of alienating pro-Israeli voters.

Netanyahu and Obama have had a thorny relationship and the right-wing Israeli leader has come under pressure from Washington not to take unilateral military action against Iranian nuclear facilities suspected of being part of a project to produce nuclear weapons.

Iran says its nuclear program is purely civilian. Israel is believed to be the Middle East’s only nuclear-armed power.

Opinion polls show Likud will easily come out on top of the national ballot, giving Netanyahu a renewed mandate to tackle what he has described as the most important challenge facing his country – the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran.

Parliament was due to convene on Monday and vote on a coalition-backed resolution of dissolution. Netanyahu and his government would remain in office until a new administration is sworn in after the election in four months’ time.

Israeli leaders have insisted the election campaign would have no impact on their decision-making on Iran.

“Netanyahu does not hide his intention to strike Tehran’s nuclear sites before they become immune to attack,” commentator Ron Ben-Yishai, referring to Iranian efforts to put its atomic facilities deep underground, wrote in Israel’s popular Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper.

“Hence, his decision to call early elections when his position on this issue is so clear and consistent shows confidence that Israel’s public is behind him, thereby granting more credibility to the Israeli threat,” he wrote.

Netanyahu has been urged by Washington and other world powers to allow beefed-up international sanctions on Iran to bite. He has voiced pessimism about the outcome of international nuclear talks with Iran due to resume in Baghdad on May 23.

While opinion polls have shown strong support for Netanyahu’s leadership, they have also indicated a wide majority of Israelis either oppose an Israeli strike on Iran or would favor an attack only if it were carried out with U.S. agreement.

Some former Israeli security chiefs have criticized Netanyahu’s hawkish stance. His former internal security chief, Yuval Diskin, accused both him and Defence Minister Ehud Barak of having a “messianic” policy toward Iran.

On Friday, Barak said Iran’s nuclear strategy could eventually allow it to build an atomic bomb with just 60 days’ notice. The remarks elaborated on long-held Israeli concerns that Tehran is playing for time as it engages in negotiations aimed at curbing its uranium enrichment.

Writing by Jeffrey Heller and Ori Lewis; editing by Andrew Roche

Likud moves to dissolve Knesset, eyes Sept. 4 election


The Likud Party, which leads the ruling coalition, has submitted a bill to dissolve the current Knesset and is pushing for new elections on Sept. 4.

The bill joins motions by the opposition Meretz and Labor parties. Kadima said in a statement that it will support any bill to move up the elections. The bills reportedly will be put to a vote on Monday.

Meanwhile, the Knesset’s legal adviser said Wednesday in a legal opinion that the expected dissolution of the Knesset next week would automatically extend the Tal Law, which exempts full-time yeshiva students from mandatory army service. In February, Israel’s Supreme Court declared the law unconstitutional. It is set to expire in August.

The Knesset’s dissolution would automatically extend the Tal Law to at least three months into the new Knesset.

New round of coalition strikes in Tripoli, Libya state TV says


Libya state TV said a new round of strikes had begun in the capital, Tripoli, marking the third night of bombardment by the Western coalition.

Libya’s rebels scrambled to try to exploit international strikes on Muammar Gadhafi’s forces and go on the offensive, as some of the opposition’s ragtag citizen-fighters charged ahead to fight troops besieging a rebel city Monday. But the rebellion’s more organized military units were still not ready, and the opposition disarray underscored U.S. warnings that a long stalemate could emerge.

The air campaign by U.S. and European militaries has unquestionably rearranged the map in Libya and rescued rebels from the immediate threat they faced only days ago of being crushed under a powerful advance by Gadhafi’s forces. The first round of airstrikes smashed a column of regime tanks that had been moving on the rebel capital of Benghazi in the east.

Read more at Haaretz.com.

Netanyahu Made an Offer Barak Couldn’t Refuse


From Haaretz.com

There is no debate over two of the achievements of the Labor-Likud coalition agreement that was initialed on Tuesday morning: It was reached after negotiations unprecedented in their brevity – taking less than 24 hours – and it grants Labor a scandalous package of positions for its mere 13 Knesset seats, almost out of generosity. The deal gives the party five cabinet posts, including two of the most senior – Defense Minister and Trade and Industry Minister – and another two deputy ministerial positions.

Prime Minister-designate Benjamin Netanyahu’s package of temptation for Labor was so bountiful that it is not clear whether the party will have enough people to man all the positions. Labor chairman Ehud Barak’s camp, as of Tuesday morning, consisted of Ministers Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, Shalom Simhon, Isaac Herzog and deputy ministers Matan Vilnai and Orit Noked. Vilnai will be upgraded to minister without portfolio and Noked will serve as a deputy minister.  Click here to read the rest of the article on Haaretz.com.