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.

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.”

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, 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.

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 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.”

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.

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.”

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.

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.

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.

Israel’s Labor Party Votes to Join Government Coalition


JERUSALEM (JTA)—The Labor Party voted to join the Likud-led coalition government, virtually guaranteeing that Benjamin Netanyahu will be Israel’s next prime minister.

Labor chief Ehud Barak’s bid to join Netanyahu’s coalition came down to a contentious vote Tuesday night by the party’s central committee, with 680 in favor of joining and 570 against.

With Labor behind him, Netanyahu now has the 60-plus Knesset majority necessary to form a government and become prime minister. His other coalition partners include the Yisrael Beiteinu and Shas parties.

Barak argued that Labor joining the Likud-led coalition was best for the country and would not provide cover for a right-wing agenda.

“I am not afraid of Benjamin Netanyahu. We won’t be anyone’s fig leaf or anyone’s third wheel,” Barak told the central committee. “We will act as an opposing force that will ensure there will not be a narrow right-wing government, but a real government that looks after the State of Israel.”

Audience members who disagreed booed Barak.

“We would be entering this government as a third wheel, as a wagging tail, not more than that,”  Knesset member Shelly Yachimovich said before the vote. “There is no shame in sitting in the opposition. On the contrary, it’s an honor.”

Earlier in the day, Barak and Netanyahu came together on a draft agreement stipulating that in exchange for Labor’s joining the coalition, the Israeli government would commit toward working for achieve regional peace, affirm its commitment to all agreements signed by previous Israeli governments, allow Barak to continue on as defense minister and be a full partner in the diplomatic process, and enforce the law on illegal outposts, according to media reports.

Tzipi Livni to seek new elections as coalition effort fails


JERUSALEM (JTA)—Tzipi Livni has called for new general elections in Israel, saying she failed to form a coalition government.

Livni, the foreign minister and prime minister-designate, won the Kadima Party primary in September following Ehud Olmert’s resignation. But she was unable to assemble a governing majority and on Sunday said she would not ask Israel’s president, Shimon Peres, for more time to bring coalition partners on board.

Livni had managed to bring the Labor Party, led by Defense Minister Ehud Barak, on board, but she failed to reach an agreement with the Orthodox Shas party or other potential coalition partners to pass the 61-seat threshhold necessary to become prime minister.

Livni made her decision late Saturday night during a party meeting that included her main Kadima rival, Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz. The meeting was called after the Shas and Degel Hatorah, another Orthodox party, said they would not join Livni’s government. The Pensioners’ Party also announced Saturday night that it would was backing out of negotiations with Livni.

“After the primaries, I said that I believed in stability and was committed to seeing through the process of forming a government,” Livni told Israel’s Cabinet meeting on Sunday. ” Recent days have seen coalition demands become impossible, and there was a need to draw the line, to say ‘no more.’

“I was prepared to pass budgets I believe in for needy families and social causes, but when it became clear that every person and every party was taking advantage of the situation to make illegitimate demands—both economic and diplomatic—I decided to put a stop to it and go to elections.”

Although Peres is likely to recommend going to new elections, the president has three days to appoint another lawmaker to form a new government within 28 days. If the country goes to new elections, they likely will be held in February or March. Until then, Olmert will stay on as caretaker prime minister.

Can Livni form a coalition or are elections next?


With her primary victory in hand, prime minister-designate Tzipi Livni now has six weeks to form a government and stave off new elections. Theoretically, if she cannot form a government, President Shimon Peres could give someone else a chance before calling an election.

But there is no other viable candidate.

The Likud Party’s Benjamin Netanyahu wouldn’t consider such an offer because he prefers new elections. Polls show elections would deliver Netanyahu more than twice the number of seats Likud commands in the present Knesset.

Labor’s Ehud Barak is not eligible because he is not a member of the Knesset.

Whether the country is headed for an early election should become clear fairly soon.

Livni says she does not intend to be dragged into a long coalition-building process. If in about 10 days she believes the chances of forming a government are not high, she says she will lead a move for new elections herself.

Despite all the obstacles and the recalcitrance of some of her prospective coalition partners, however, Livni is far more likely to succeed in forming a government than to fail.

Much will depend on the enigmatic Barak.

On the day Livni replaced Prime Minister Ehud Olmert as Kadima Party leader, Barak shocked the political establishment by meeting with Netanyahu and declaring that he would only join a national emergency government if it included the Likud leader.

It was a double-edged ploy by Barak: Put the onus of blame for not joining a national unity effort on Netanyahu, whom Barak knew would refuse, and create the impression in Livni’s mind that he has an option of continuing to serve as defense minister in a Netanyahu government after elections and thereby upping the price for joining her coalition.

Barak’s maneuvering stems from the dilemma he faces: If he joins a coalition, he helps the untried Livni establish herself as a credible national leader; if he stays out, he risks taking a hammering in early elections.

His biggest fear is that Livni will use him to form a government and in three months or so, on a wave of popular acclaim, precipitate a national election.

Barak’s solution seems to be a readiness to join the coalition on two conditions: One, redefining the balance of power between him and Livni to create what he calls a “true partnership.” Two, a guarantee from Livni that as far as she is concerned, the government will hold together for the full two years until the next scheduled election in 2010.

Barak hopes to create the perception of a two-headed Livni-Barak government from which he, too, will emerge two years down the road as a serious candidate for prime minister. Indeed, all of Barak’s current coalition jockeying is about the 2010 elections.

Livni was quick to address Barak’s concerns. In her speech accepting her nomination as prime minister-designate, she appealed to Netanyahu to join a national unity government, spoke of a “true partnership” with Labor and promised that her government would be for the long term.

Barak phoned Livni to congratulate her on her speech, and senior Labor politicians now estimate the chances of a Kadima-Labor agreement are high.

On paper, Livni has three broad coalition options:

Olmert submits resignation, promises to help Livni


JERUSALEM (JTA)—Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has submitted his letter of resignation to President Shimon Peres

Olmert visited the president’s official residence in Jerusalem Sunday evening to deliver the letter.

“This is not an easy decision, and I am convinced that this is a difficult evening for him,” Peres said following the meeting. “I wish to take this opportunity to thank the prime minister for his service to the people and the state over the course of many years of public activities: as the mayor of Jerusalem, as a minister in the government and as the prime minister of Israel.”

Peres will meet with the heads of the party factions and give one of them, most likely Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, up to 42 days to form a new coalition government. He was scheduled to meet Sunday night with the Kadima Party, which is led by Livni after her narrow primary victory last week.

At the weekly Cabinet meeting Sunday morning, Olmert told his Cabinet that he would resign.

“I must say that this was not an easy or simple decision,” he told the Cabinet. “I think that I have acted properly and responsibly, as I promised the Israeli public from the beginning.”

Olmert congratulated Livni and said he would help her to form a coalition government. Livni has said she plans to form a new government by the start of the winter session on Oct. 27.

Olmert will remain the head of a caretaker government until a new coalition is formed or until after new general elections if agreement on a coalition government cannot be reached.

ALTTEXT

Livni and Olmert at Cabinet meeting Sunday (screen grab from Israel Channel 2 News)

AUDIO: Iranian American Jews — Knesset Member Ophir Pines-Paz


Exclusive interviews with Israeli Knesset Member Ophir Pines-Paz and Iranian Jewish philanthropist Parviz Nazarian. Topic: changing Israel’s form of government

” title=”Iranian American Jews”>Iranian American Jews blog.

End the Preoccupation


Israel advocacy on campus has become a front-burner enterprise for the American Jewish community. Attacks by anti-Israel campus activists, including a fair number of Jewish students and faculty, demoralize and often intimidate most Jewish students who are ill-equipped to counter these efforts to delegitimize Israel. It is a mark of the Jewish community’s growing concern that more than 25 national organizations are now involved in training campus activists to defend and promote Israel and thereby inspire Jewish students to feel a sense of pride in themselves and the Jewish State.

But as well-intentioned as the efforts of the growing coalition of Israeli advocacy organizations are, I believe that if we win this battle we will have lost the real war, which is not for Israel’s security but for the hearts and minds of this generation of young American Jews.

Let me explain. In the post-Six-Day War euphoria, most of us could not see what growing numbers of Jewish college students have come to believe and even Israelis on the political right are now admitting: We have been blind to the corrosive effects — as well as the demographic threat to Israel’s democratic and Jewish identity — of the decades of what even Ariel Sharon has called "the occupation," however unwanted it may have been and however intransigent most of the Arab world has been about coming to terms with the reality of Israel and ending the suffering of the Palestinian people.

Arguing, as so many Israel advocates do, that Israel’s behavior is less immoral or problematic than that of her neighbors, or even other democracies at war, is factually correct, but is not likely to restore a sense of boundless Jewish pride in the almost 90 percent of college-age Jews who attend universities in North America.

Most of them are, indeed, as Natan Sharansky characterizes them, the Jews of silence — not simply because they are not up to winning the campus debates with Israel’s enemies but because they have largely tuned out. Most of these students, from my experience with thousands of them, would like to have a sense of pride in Israel but feel a profound sense of sadness and frustration at the continued suffering of the Palestinian people and the less-than-equal treatment of Arab citizens in the Jewish State — however much better their lot may be than those in neighboring Muslim countries — and a sense of acute shame when their Israeli brothers and sisters sometimes behave with less-than-the-highest moral rectitude, even if better than most others under similar circumstances.

It is indisputable that Israel is held to an unfair double standard on campus and throughout the world. Jewish students more than any others expect more of Israel than of any other country — surely a measure of positive Jewish identification — and are concomitantly more troubled when Israel does not live up to these often unrealistic expectations.

The campus debates between Israel’s advocates and detractors will have no impact on what actually happens in the Middle East — only Israel and the Palestinians can determine that — but how these debates are conducted will have a profound impact on the future of Jewish life in America because the war is not really for Israel but for the hearts and minds of the overwhelming majority of this generation’s college-age Jews. Of course the base and egregiously false charges against Israel must be answered, but most of these young Jewish adults will not feel a sense of pride in being Jews by being armed with the best debating points, or even when they fully understand the extraordinary events of recent Jewish history. They will want to understand their remarkable history and know how to respond to these attacks only if they have a sense of deep pride in being Jews.

Rather than simply teaching Jewish students how to win the debates with Israel’s detractors or even to promote the many positive features of Israeli culture, it’s time for our community to help them reframe the war of words and to directly confront our Arab and Palestinian cousins on campus and tell them clearly what both we and they need to hear.

A Proposed Conversation

Here are five arguments we should be making to pro-Palestinian advocates:

1. Israelis Want a Palestinian State. There are many countries that want to see a resolution of the brutal and tragic conflict between Israel and the Palestinian people for geopolitical reasons, but the two communities in the world that most want it for existential reasons are the Palestinian people and the Israeli people. Very few Arab countries seem to be very eager to actually have a Palestinian state — if they were they might have established one when Jordan and Egypt occupied the West Bank and Gaza — and outside of Israel there is arguably little interest in the Middle East for a democratic state of Palestine. Such a state would constitute a threat, simply by its existence, to many of its neighboring regimes if it were to join Israel as one of the precious few democracies in the region. If you want to make the best possible case for Palestine, we have some suggestions for you.

2. Drop the Anti-Semitism. Clean up your act. Do you really hope to win support for the Palestinian cause by proclaiming, as you now do, that the only people in the world not entitled to national self-determination are the Jewish people? Spain and Italy and Argentina can legitimately be states with a predominantly Christian character, Egypt and Saudi Arabia and Indonesia can legitimately be states with a predominantly Muslim character, but the Jewish people alone are not entitled to a state in their homeland with a predominantly Jewish character? The behavior of every nation should be the subject of discussion, but why should any nation’s existence be the subject of discussion? Why is it that Israel, the homeland of the Jewish people, is the only country in the world about which anyone could conceivably begin his or her criticism with the words, "I believe Israel has a right to exist, but…."? Do you really think that presenting yourselves as racists and anti-Semites will build sympathy for the creation of a Palestinian state? Enough is enough.

3. Don’t Insist on a Judenrein State. End your argument — even if only for tactical reasons — that all of the Jewish settlements must be dismantled as a precondition for a peace agreement. With hindsight (except for the clear vision of a few, like Hebrew University professor Yeshayahu Leibowitz, who understood it immediately after the 1967 war), growing numbers of Israeli Jews now acknowledge that the settlements were probably a mistake and maintain that they would be prepared to dismantle most of them in exchange for a real end to the hostilities. While evacuating these settlements, which will come at a terrible price for Israeli society, may prove to be necessary for a resolution of the conflict, do you really want to maintain that the only way that a state of Palestine can come to an accommodation with Israel is if it is Judenrein like Saudi Arabia, or that an independent Palestine can’t be counted on to protect its Jewish citizens — or even non-citizens — living there? Why not take the high moral ground?

4. Don’t Be Afraid of Self-Criticism. Think about engaging in a little self-criticism, not only because it is called for but because it is a sign of strength, not weakness. One can open the pages of Ha’aretz and find more trenchant criticism of Israeli policy, including its treatment of the Palestinians as well as its own Arab citizens, than some of the outrageous attacks and tactics that too often characterize your end of the shouting match between us. The real problems in Israel may well be even more serious than you imagine and we all need to discuss them, though the Israelis seem to be doing a better job of that right now than anything you — or we — are doing here. There are reasons why we hear so little criticism of the Palestinian leadership from the Palestinian people, but there is nothing stopping us on campus from setting a better example.

5. Recognize That Palestine Needs Israel. If you are serious about having an independent Palestinian state you will have to make a critical decision and a public commitment, namely to acknowledge, as we do, that just as it will be next to impossible for there to be a safe and secure State of Israel without a safe and secure State of Palestine, there will never be a safe and secure State of Palestine without a safe and secure State of Israel.

Israel is not planning to disappear and no nation would — or should — acquiesce to the creation of another state on its border bent on its destruction or that cannot or will not prevent its own citizens from attacking that nation. Israel, then, will defend itself militarily, and the results of a response to an existential threat would be devastating for all in the region.

All of us who support a safe and secure Israel and the creation of a safe and secure Palestine must support the security of both if we are serious about the security of either. Most of us are prepared to advocate for an independent state of Palestine in order to end the suffering and trauma of Israelis — Jewish and Arab — and to end the suffering and trauma, as well as to restore the political dignity, at long last, of the Palestinian people. Those of you who, like us, support the establishment of an independent State of Palestine have to declare, do you want Palestine, or do you want blood and vengeance and no Jewish State of Israel? If the latter, you have lost any moral claim for your cause and there is really nothing more for us to discuss. If the former, you will have a powerful claim to our support.

Only if we proudly and forthrightly represent ourselves, as we should, as a community that will — out of both our own vital self-interest and our Jewish moral imperative — help to build support for a Palestinian state that is seriously prepared to live in peace with Israel and thereby help to end the suffering of the Palestinian people, will we win over this generation of young Jews, not to mention the political leadership of America that is also coming of age on college campuses. In the end, the moral high ground is the only secure ground on which to stand.

This essay originally appeared in The New York Jewish Week.

Michael Brooks is executive director of the University of Michigan Hillel.

Hamas and the Triple Standard


When it comes to Israel’s fight against Hamas, a triple standard seems at work.

Israel is now completely at war with Palestinian terror groups, no less than America is at war with Al Qaeda worldwide and Saddam loyalists in Iraq. Hence, Israel must escalate its rules of engagement, mimicking those recently established by American forces in our own war against terror waged in Iraq and Afghanistan. As such, Israel should preemptively and unrelentingly eliminate Hamas and company where they stand as soon as they are identified or self-identify.

By "eliminate," I mean kill. By "as soon as they self-identify," I mean as soon as parading militants don the green-masked and explosive-bedecked uniform of a suicide bomber, or publicly proclaim themselves as waiting for orders to do so, whether the militant is beating his chest in a rally or cradling a megaphone in a press conference. By "where they stand," I mean wherever they are located — in a car, in a training camp or in a public protest procession. Israel must hit Hamas members while they marched in uniform in the West Bank and Gaza before they change clothes into Chasidic garb and Israeli pop attire and then board buses in Jerusalem.

For precedent, we need only look to recent tactics employed by our own military and coalition forces in Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen and elsewhere.

On June 9, American forces in Iraq launched Operation Peninsula Strike, which chased down and killed a group of Saddam loyalist ambushers, first reported as 27 but then adjusted downward to just seven. The day before, Americans located and utterly destroyed a loyalist training camp, killing 70, and detaining about 400 other suspects. Even as I type, these successes are being repeated in a new sweep across the width of Iraq, locking down towns as U.S. troops go door-to-door hunting for Saddam loyalists and arm caches. And of course everyone remembers the first shot of the Iraq War — a precision "decapitation strike" in the heart of a residential neighborhood. "Decapitation" is military lingo for pre-emptive assassination of top leadership.

Speaking of aerial assassination and assault, last November, a joint CIA Predator tracked an Al Qaeda cell in a private car speeding across the Yemeni desert. A Hellfire missile incinerated the car and its six occupants. In Afghanistan, American bombers, Predators and gunships incessantly bombed suspected Taliban and Al Qaeda wherever they were discovered, in a cave, in a hut, on a mountaintop, at a wedding. America has done all this on the other side of the world.

Israel is fighting a similar war for survival but right down the street.

Yet there seems to be a triple standard at play. America can assassinate and decapitate, send in gunships and missiles, surround and lock down whole towns, and round up and detain suspects by the hundreds in its war on terror creating one standard. Hamas, in the minds of some, is engaged in mere "rogue resistance," and its bus bombs and murder squads should be overlooked as incidental to polite roadmap discourse — thus creating a second standard. At the same time, Israel is expected to exhibit restraint and not fight back as vigorously and preemptively as America does — creating a third standard. Such restraint is as absurd as it is self-destructive.

Naturally, the issue of collateral damage and innocent civilians arises. Therefore, Israel should do as America did before launching its war against Iraq. Remember? America issued instructions and leaflets to Iraqi civilians not to stand near any member of Saddam’s military or its infrastructure. Israel should do the same: issue warnings that the Palestinian populace avoiding standing near anyone self-identifying or identified as Hamas or a terrorist. That said, Israel should deploy long-range snipers, helicopter gunships, assassination and decapitation and all the other tactics regretfully needed in a war against terror that has been embedded within a civilian setting.

And then, Israel should continue to eliminate Hamas terrorists where they stand until the forces of peace within the Palestinian community can rise to the occasion.


Edwin Black is the author of “IBM and the Holocaust” (Crown 2001). His next book, “War Against the Weak” (Four Walls Eight Windows) will be published in September.

Sharon’s Election Brings Full Agenda


In the wake of the tragic death of Israeli astronaut Ilan
Ramon on the Space Shuttle Columbia, there was Ariel Sharon, the prime minister and prime healer, providing solace on national television.
Just five days earlier, Sharon had won a stunning election victory, and it is
clear that here is a man who had forged a unique bond with the Israeli people
in their time of unrelenting sorrow.

But comfort will not be enough. Sharon must begin to address
his growing problems — and soon — or his spectacular victory may be
short-lived.

The Coalition. One place where the election made Sharon’s
task easier is the need to build a coalition. Beforehand, the pundits all
predicted that he would have three choices: a right-wing government, a secular
national unity coalition with Labor and Shinui or a national unity government
with Labor and the religious parties as existed before November.

These three options still exist, but Sharon did better than
expected; the far right and the left did worse, freeing Sharon from an
unpalatable choice made worse by his own refusal to accept the dictates of the
far right and Labor’s refusal to join, except perhaps under the dire pressures
of a war with Iraq.

Fortunately for Sharon, the results permit him another two
critical options: he can begin with a nucleus of his own Likud, the National
Religious Party (NRP) and Yisrael B’Aliyah — 46 in all — and he may be able to
add the One Nation worker’s party — three more to 49.

To get above 61, he can go with the ultrasecular and
spectacularly successful Shinui (15), which has refused generally to align with
religious parties, but would accept NRP for a total of 64 seats. Or Sharon
could go with the two other religious parties: Shas (11) and UTJ (five) for a
total of 65.

Either a basically secular or the religious parties-included
coalition produces a moderate conservative government with which Sharon can
live. Both have problems: the first might alienate Likud’s traditional
religious party alliance; the second might turn off the growing number of
Israelis disgusted with the largesse distributed to religious institutions and
individuals in tough times.

However, both may be workable and stable, because Sharon
could always threaten to turn to an alternate alliance if the parties’ demands
became too great.

The Political System. The good news begins to dissipate when
one considers that Sharon emerged from the campaign — one should perhaps better
say escaped — with a cloud surrounding him over a series of scandals engulfing
both his party and his family. In this sense, his reelection was more Nixon in
1972 than Reagan in 1984.

If the attorney general’s office issues indictments, and absent
the blunders by liberal leakers, columnists and judges that helped save Sharon
during the campaign, the prime minister could be in big trouble.

Moreover, the fractured Knesset continues as a devastating
obstacle to political stability. A country with its third election in less than
four years confronted the worst turnout in its history (68.5 percent) and a
continued multitude of political parties eroding any prime minister’s capacity
to pursue genuine achievements on most issues.

On the one hand, the abandonment of the direct election of
the prime minister, designed to save the two major parties from further decline
(because voters tended to select a Likud or Labor prime minister and a smaller
party for the Knesset) did achieve some limited results. Between them, Likud
and Labor received 57 seats this time compared to 45 in 1999. And the
just-elected Knesset has 13 parties, which began with 15 parties but after
splits and dissolutions ended with 19.

But the differences between the parties, their competing
demands and the difficulty of forming a coalition and keeping it — with all
Sharon’s current assets — suggests what many Israelis think: it won’t be long
before they’ll be going to the polls again.

Democracy is grand, but like ice cream, too much isn’t right
either, and no country can function efficiently if government has to stop for
months every year or two to campaign, elect and form governments.

The Economy. Sharon’s first term was disastrous for the
economy, which continues its free- fall. The gross domestic product is actually
down. The tourism industry has collapsed. Unemployment (now more than 10
percent), defense spending, inflation and emigration are up. Immigration and
foreign investment are down.

No Israeli has been unaffected by the downturn, and Sharon
does not seem to have a clue how to stem the tide, other than to gain new loan
guarantees from the United States that are absolutely critical. Israel needs a
new economic plan, but whatever coalition is formed is unlikely to produce one.

The Labor Party has the most able candidates — at least on
paper — for dealing with this issue, but is reluctant to have Sharon get the
credit, and, in any case, failed to produce viable ideas or a concerted
argument on the question in the campaign. If Sharon does not address this issue
effectively soon, it could easily overcome his other concerns. Some will say it
should.

Security. Saving the worst for last and overshadowing all
issues today is the question of what to do to stem the violence. During Sharon’s
first term, more Israelis died as a result of terrorism than during the years
of any other previous prime minister, and he was only in office less than two
years.

One conclusion that more and more Israelis came to assume
was that true security could not be achieved by military force alone. And
Sharon seemed to have no idea how to solve the issue diplomatically, or if he
did, it was to await the next election.

However, the election is now over. He may get a temporary
reprieve from the need to confront the next crisis, the war in Iraq, which may
have long-term security benefits for Israel, but in the short term, could
involve a direct attack on Israeli territory. Though Saddam on paper is weaker
than in the last war, no one can be certain what he is actually capable of
doing and whether he will do it.

But the war will end, and with it will come the probable
confrontation with worldwide pressure for doing something about the continuing
Israeli-Palestinian hostilities. During Sharon’s first term, relations with the
Arab states and the Europeans deteriorated. Sharon begins his term with better
relations with the United States than ever, but he is also more dependent on
American preferences than any of his predecessors.

There are straws in the wind that hint at possible new
opportunities. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak made a dramatic call to Sharon
after the victory (his first) and suggested a meeting soon (another first).

Egypt is also newly vigorous in trying to gain agreement
among the Palestinians for a cease-fire. Even Arafat offered to meet with
Sharon in an act either of farcical duplicity or as a sign of growing
Palestinian desperation. This was followed by a Palestinian offer for the first
time since the intifada began for cease-fire talks — without preconditions, no
less.

Sharon himself has hinted at new ideas that would be
consistent with the roadmap endorsed by the Quartet (the United States,
European Union, United Nations and Russia). Sharon, after all, has refused to
ally with the far right over issues of a possible renewal of the peace process
and the objective of a Palestinian state. And there must be some reason he is
ready to be so generous to the Labor Party as a lure for its joining him. 

Yet, Sharon’s actions can all be explained by his desire to
maintain a strong relationship with the United States, and even moderate
concessions would require a major turnaround. The Likud primaries produced
scandals, but also a right turn within the party, further limiting Sharon’s
flexibility, which will be constrained further if the scandals become more
serious. And the last two years have proved that there is always an excuse for
doing nothing.

So there remain two things the election has not changed: The
other Arab states need to become more active in constraining and guiding the
Palestinians and in taking confidence-building measures toward Israel, and the
United States must become more active in pushing the Israelis and Palestinians
from confrontation toward limited conciliation.

There are signs of very tentative movement by the Arabs. But
there are no signs under the current pressures of even tentative diplomatic
activity by the Bush administration.

Likud governments are often underestimated: They have
brought a peace treaty with Egypt under Menachem Begin, the critical Madrid
Conference under Yitzhak Shamir and the successful Wye Conference under
Benjamin Netanyahu. The latter two led Labor governments to try to move further
under Yitzhak Rabin in Oslo and the Jordan-Israel peace treaty and under Ehud
Barak at Camp David.

Sharon is the only Likud prime minister who does not have a
diplomatic accomplishment on his record. Perhaps the key question of his second
term is whether he can end the intifada and begin a process of resuscitating
the Israeli people’s tattered well-being.  


Steven L. Spiegel is associate director of the Burkle Center for International Relations and professor of political science at UCLA. He is also a national scholar at the Israel Policy Forum and advises the Center for Israel Studies at the University of Judaism.

Jewish Republicans in Orange County


Hoping to capitalize on President Bush’s support of Israel, the Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC) revived its local chapter. The group held its first organizational meeting last month at Temple Bat Yahm in Newport Beach — the county’s most Republican-registered city and home of the Lincoln Club for locally prominent GOP insiders.

More than 100 Jewish Republicans heard from Matt Brooks, national director of RJC, which in 1998 sponsored then-candidate George W. Bush on a trip to Israel. The interest group’s aim is to raise the awareness in elected officials about hot-button issues with American Jewry, says Scott E. Gluck, RJC’s California organizer and former campaign deputy to defeated gubernatorial candidate Richard Riordan.

An earlier local chapter atrophied without committed leaders, says one political activist. The local GOP lists 24 other politically aligned groups, including Republican Arab Americans and Korean Americans.

‘Affair’ With Christian Right Misguided


Six years ago, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) issued a scathing report titled, "The Religious Right: The Assault on Pluralism and Tolerance in America." But in a stunning reversal in May, it ran full-page ads in The New York Times and other publications, reprinting a strongly pro-Israel opinion piece by former Christian Coalition chief Ralph Reed.

And last month, Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, joined forces with Reed in "Stand for Israel," designed to mobilize 100,000 evangelical churches to raise money and support for Israel, leading Reed to proclaim that the burgeoning Jewish-Christian coalition for Israel is today as potent as the Jewish-black coalition for civil rights was in the 1960s.

It’s not the first time that support for Israel has led to political realignments among American Jews. In 1980, my father, a Holocaust survivor and lifelong Democrat, cast his lot for Ronald Reagan, convinced — along with more than a third of the Jewish electorate — that Reagan’s pro-Israel stance was "good for the Jews." But never before have moderate American Jewish leaders embraced the Christian right so enthusiastically.

Defending their budding love affair with conservative Christians, some Jewish leaders, like the ADL’s Abraham Foxman, say the religious right has changed, and the declining influence of groups like the Christian Coalition means that it is "less adversarial." If this is true, though, it’s the product of a shift in style rather than ideology.

Christian conservatives are softening their pitch, reaching out to conservative Jews, Mormons and Catholics, but their political project — to win new converts, gain power and influence in the public arena, erode the barrier between church and state, shrink the public sector and increase their presence on the world stage — is more ambitious than ever.

In the 1980s and 1990s, energized by their crusade against moral decline, politicized Christians built bases in local communities: running candidates for school boards, sponsoring local ballot measures against gay rights, abortion and comprehensive sex education and successfully taking over the Republican Party in many states.

In the process, they polarized scores of communities, pitted neighbor against neighbor around "culture war" issues and made as many enemies as friends.

Stung by criticism of their divisive tactics, and inspired by Reed’s call to "cast a wider net," during the late 1990s, Christian activists throughout the nation toned down their rhetoric and looked for other places to strut their stuff. Some ran for local office, or joined anti-tax and anti-immigration campaigns. Others entered the arena of foreign policy, organizing to save "persecuted Christians" around the globe.

Today, many are captivated by the Middle East crisis.

Rabbi Daniel Lapin, president of Toward Tradition, a national alliance of Jews and Christians dedicated to "family values and the free market," who recently proclaimed that "conservative Christians are the natural allies of the Jewish community."

"It may be attractive," Lapin suggests, "to think of Christians, Jews and Muslims as forming one great ‘Abrahamic’ civilization … but the truth is, today we are witnessing two distinct religious civilizations in conflict: that of the Koran, allied with the believers in no God, violently challenging the civilization of the Bible, of Christianity and Judaism."

Gary Bauer, a leading voice of the Christian right, agrees. "Western civilization is being challenged again, and Israel and the United States share a civilization based on Western and Judeo-Christian values."

If this sounds curiously like the "clash of civilizations" rhetoric post-Sept. 11, it should. Armed by the belief that the "civilized world" is engaged in a battle for the preservation of humanity against Islam, conservatives suggest that the new fault line isn’t between communism and capitalism, it’s between Judeo-Christian culture and the godless other — namely, the followers of Mohammed.

So why have some American Jews joined this bandwagon? For ultraconservatives like Lapin and Eckstein, the answer is pretty clear. Like their Christian brethren, they believe that "secular humanism" can only be kept in check through traditional morality and the free market."

A more vexing question is why moderate Jews — who have long opposed the Christian right on such fundamental issues as church-state separation and civil rights — have joined up with book banners, opponents of abortion, activists whose support for Israel is based on inflexible theological and sometimes prophetic explanations for Israel’s right to exist — and people who are more than willing to express their unabated hatred of the Muslim religion.

Jewish leaders from groups like the ADL say the alliance is a strategic one, that since Republicans are in power and conservative Christians comprise the base of the Republican Party, it makes strategic sense.

But like many hastily conceived romances, the Jewish alliance with Christian conservatives is bound to spawn some unanticipated — and unwanted — offspring. It could potentially alienate large sectors of the Jewish community, driving them away from the fold — particularly socially liberal baby boomers, who are likely to be turned off by the right’s anti-abortion, anti-gay and anti-democratic agenda.

Advocating that religious doctrine rather than democratic debate should guide policymaking, the Christian right lobby — and the Jews who love them — are also likely to push Ariel Sharon’s government and their American allies further to the right.

Are these "natural allies" really doing what’s best for Israel or for American Jews? The answer is yes if one imagines Israel as a repressive, theocratic state, and if one sees the American Jewish community as essentially conservative.

But in fact, there are many who believe that a more democratic vision is still possible, and that Jews should be building coalitions with liberal Protestants, Catholics and especially moderate Muslims who support Israel — not those who view a complicated world in theologically black-and-white terms.