Son of George Soros launches Bend the Arc Jewish Action PAC…and it’s not about Israel


A Jewish political action committee  (PAC) devoted solely to promoting progressive stances on domestic issues in the United States was launched April 21 by the nonprofit Bend the Arc. The new PAC is the first of its kind among this country’s more than 30 Jewish PACs, most of which focus on Israel and the Middle East. Serving as the chair of the PAC’s board is Alexander Soros, son of billionaire financier and Democratic mega-donor George Soros.

The Bend the Arc Jewish Action PAC launched with $200,000 in commitments, its director, Hadar Susskind, told the Journal; it has already thrown its support behind four Democratic congressional candidates in the November 2016 election — Yvette Clarke of New York, Keith Ellison of Minnesota, Rep. Xavier Becerra of California and Jan Schakowsky of Illinois. 

Susskind said that the four congressional members were interviewed by Bend the Arc PAC before the group decided to support them. He added that Bend the Arc PAC plans to add more House candidates to its slate, as well as a few Senate candidates — but for now will stay out of the presidential race. “[That’s] not a reflection on [Hillary] Clinton or any other candidates,” Susskind said.

On the day of the launch, an opinion piece by Alexander Soros was published in Politico saying Bend the Arc PAC represents the political views of most American Jews, who, according to polling, are not concerned primarily with Israel and are among the most liberal groups in the United States.

“There are people, including lots of Jews, who are politically involved, who work through Emily’s List or Sierra Club or Move On, but none of them bring the Jewish community’s voice to the political table,” Susskind said, amplifying Soros’ piece on Politico. “People who are involved in the Jewish voice have, until now, only had the opportunity to do that on Israel and in Middle East policy.” Another Jewish PAC, the Joint Action Committee for Political Affairs (known as JACPAC), is based in Chicago and focuses on Israel as well as on domestic abortion rights and separation of church and state.

Even while polls show an increase in the number of Jews who have moved toward Republican Party identification since 2008, 61 percent of American Jews currently identify with the Democrats, while 29 percent identify with Republicans, and Susskind said he is confident the overwhelming support for Democratic politicians and policies will continue.

“You can go back every four years and, frankly, off-cycle years too, and see the same quotes from the same people who say, ‘Oh yeah, Jews are abandoning the Democrats, Jews are abandoning the Democrats.' It’s never proven to be true, and I don’t expect it to be any different this time,” Susskind said. “I don’t think it’s appropriate when anybody says, ‘Oh, I speak for the Jewish community.’ What we are representing, though, as demonstrated by poll after poll after poll, are the political views of the majority of the community.”

PACs have existed since the early 1940s, when supporters of Franklin D. Roosevelt created the Congress of Industrial Organizations. PACs are allowed to collect up to $5,000 from any single donor and may donate up to $5,000 to any single candidate, or $15,000 to any single party. Thousands of PACs exist today, and they’ve long drawn ire from many Democrats who say they play a corrosive role in American politics by flooding elections with money. 

Andrew Weinstein, a prominent Florida trial lawyer and Democratic fundraiser,

L.A.’s financial support of Israel’s election


The Los Angeles dollars—or shekels—spent may not have approached the amount Hollywood throws around for U.S. elections, but Jews in Los Angeles nevertheless managed to funnel about $175,000 into Israel’s party primaries this election cycle.

Israel’s primaries ended in January with Likud’s Benjamin Netanyahu blowing out his rival Danny Danon, and Labor’s Isaac Herzog soundly defeating Shelly Yachimovich under the Zionist Union coalition, in which Labor is paired with Tzipi Livni’s Hatnuah. Israeli campaign finance law forbids foreign donations during the general parliamentary election—scheduled for March 17—but allows for very limited contributions during the primary season.

In this election’s primaries, Israeli candidates raised about $1.4 million in the United States, with New York donors contributing more than in any other state. In Los Angeles, candidates raised about $162,000, or 11 percent of the national total. And of that, Likud candidates—primarily Netanyahu and Danon—dominated the fundraising field, taking in nearly $124,000, or 70 percent of the total.

Netanyahu led the pack among the candidates, raising about $42,000 in Los Angeles; Danon brought in about $34,000, and other Likud candidates including Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, Speaker of the Knesset Yuli Edelstein and Gilad Arden raised between about $11,000 and $15,000.

The only politician outside Likud to top $10,000 was Nahman Shai, a member of the Labor party and the Knesset’s Deputy Speaker, who raised more than $15,000. Abraham Dichter of Kadima raised about $8,000.

The campaign finance data, which is publically available on the Israeli comptroller’s website, shows that nearly 40 people in the Greater Los Angeles area sent funds to Israeli candidates this round, with most donations ranging in the thousands of dollars, and only a handful topping $10,000. Although the donations logged by the comptroller online date back to January 2013 at the earliest, the vast majority of the contributions came in late 2014 and early 2015, and were applied to candidates who ran in this election cycle’s party primaries.

Lawrence Feigen, an executive at Windsor Healthcare Rehabilitation, gave about $14,500 to three different candidates, all Likud—Netanyahu, Ya’alon and Edelstein. According to Federal Election Commission data, Feigen’s U.S. political donations over the years have been to both Democratic and Republican politicians and groups, including Eliot Engel (D-NY) and Karen Bass (D-Calif.), and current House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and Senator Tom Cotton (R-AK).

Feigen wrote to the Journal in an email that he’s been donating his money and time for decades to causes he believes in, including American and Israeli politics. “I generally (although certainly not always) agree with Prime Minister Netanyahu’s views,” Feigen wrote. Asked whether he knows if his political donations have made a difference, he responded: “I honestly have no idea what kind of impact my donations possibly can make. I hope they help.”

Shlomo Rechnitz, the local mega-philanthropist who for a brief time owned Doheny Meats in 2013, which he purchased as an attempt to rectify the kosher meat company after it was wracked with scandal, confirmed to the Journal that he gave about $11,500 to Netanyahu. Rechnitz too has given to a number of both Democratic and Republican politicians and groups, including former Congressman Henry Waxman, Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), Ed Royce (R-Calif.) and a joint fundraiser for Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH).

Other notable local donors include Adam Milstein, a co-founder of the Israeli American Council; Richard Sandler, executive vice president of the Milken Family Foundation; real estate businessman and philanthropist Stanley Black; and Steve Goldberg, who ran an unsuccessful campaign last year to replace Mort Klein as the president of the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA), and donated $4,000 to Danon’s campaign in January.

Goldberg was on the ZOA’s national board from 2008 to 2014 and became the board’s vice chair in 2010. He was also the head of ZOA’s Los Angeles chapter until its closure in 2014. On Monday, Goldberg was in Israel for the election. He recently became a dual citizen, and because Israel’s voting laws prohibit absentee ballots, Goldberg was among the Israeli citizens who flew there from the United States just to vote—in Goldberg’s case for Netanyahu, whom he initially opposed in favor of Danon in Likud’s party primaries.

“I found Danon to be courageous,” Goldberg said, referring to Danon’s outspoken opposition to Netanyahu’s handling of the Gaza war last summer. “He spoke up, put himself in political peril and risked his career.”

Peter Medding, a professor at Hebrew University in Jerusalem with expertise in Israeli politics, said that the amount candidates raised for the primaries in Los Angeles were “just symbolic” and said that, as in an American election, $175,000 has very little impact.

“It’s peanuts here too,” Medding said. Asked whether the $42,000 that went to Netanyahu could have any discernible impact, he said it would not. He added, though, that in party primaries, name recognition is a key factor for lesser-known candidates who need to pay for television ads across the country. Danny Danon, for example, who remains a vocal Netanyahu opponent yet has failed thus far to gain enough traction within Likud to become one of its leaders, nearly matched Netanyahu’s fundraising in Los Angeles. It didn’t help, though, in his bid to represent Likud in the general election.

For Netanyahu, on the other hand, visibility is not a problem.

“The amount of money that [Sheldon] Adelson spends on newspapers that promote Bibi every morning exceeds that by a function of 50 or 100,” Medding said, referring to Israel Hayom, the free daily funded by Adelson that is pro-Netanyahu.

Although the money Israeli candidates raised from Los Angeles for this year’s election cycle may ultimately prove inconsequential, Angelenos are sure to continue to be a source of funds for aspiring and established Israeli politicos.

“Los Angeles has been a good collection area for Israeli candidates,” Medding said. “There are generous donors there. People are used to giving money to political campaigns; they give to Israel as well as to Waxman.”

And for local Jews like Goldberg who are passionate about Israel, although a few thousand dollars here or there may not prove to change much, and represents only a “modest commitment”, it’s a commitment nonetheless.

“If there are people I believe in, I’ll do whatever I can to help,” Goldberg said. “One of those ways is money.”

Five things you need to know about tomorrow’s Israeli election


1. It’s too close to call

With Israelis headed to the polls tomorrow, the race remains tight. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party is trailing Isaac Herzog’s center-left Zionist Union by a few percentage points and is expected to come in second. Five of six polls released Friday gave Zionist Union a four seat lead, commanding 24 to 26 seats in the next Knesset compared to Likud’s 20 to 22 seats. A sixth poll, from the Israeli news site Walla, showed Zionist Union with a two-seat margin over Likud, 25 to 23.

Netanyahu, who sailed to a comfortable victory in the last election, in 2013, has been hit hard on Israel’s high cost of living, a festering housing crisis and his handling of relations with the United States and the Iranian nuclear threat. Herzog has built his campaign on those attacks, but a perceived dearth of charisma has kept him from widening his lead in the polls.

More importantly, neither Likud nor Zionist Union are slated to get more than a quarter of the Knesset’s 120 seats. To become prime minister, someone will have to cobble together a majority coalition. Which is why …

2. Tuesday’s winner might not be the party with the most votes

This isn’t a two-way race. It’s an 11-way race. And the winner isn’t the party with the most votes, but the one that can unite several smaller parties together into a governing coalition. In 2009, Netanyahu became prime minister even though Likud came in second on Election Day.

Eleven parties are expected to get the minimum 3.25 percent of votes needed to enter the Knesset. They range from the Arab-Israeli Joint List to the staunchly leftist Meretz to the Sephardic haredi Shas to the pro-settler Jewish Home. About half are right-wing or religious, and have historically caucused with Likud. The other half are left-wing, centrist or Arab-Israeli.

3. There’s usually a surprise on election night

Polls have been pretty stable for the past couple of months, but that doesn’t mean we know how the vote will come out tomorrow. Up to one quarter of voters, according to some surveys, are undecided. And in the past few elections, many of those voters have swung to a party that ends up doing much better than predicted.

In 2013, that party was Yesh Atid, which polled at 12 or 13 seats ahead of the election and won 19. In 2009, it was the centrist Kadima, which won 28 after polling at 23, coming in first place (but then sitting in the opposition). In 2006, it was the little-known Pensioners’ Party, which ran away with seven seats that mostly came from protest votes. If voters do deliver a surprise, it could catapult an unexpected party to newfound prominence and complicate the coalition math for both Herzog and Netanyahu.

4. Expect the Arab-Israeli party, the Joint List, to make a splash

A law raising the vote threshold last year forced the four Arab parties — from the Islamist Ta’al to the Arab-Jewish communist Hadash — to unite into the Joint List. Unification turned the Joint List into a major political force that appears poised to galvanize Arab-Israelis — who usually have comparatively lower voter turnout than Israeli Jews — to go to the polls. The Joint List is polling in third place and might receive as many as 15 seats tomorrow.

The Joint List has vowed to sit in the opposition no matter what, but it could still influence who forms the next government by preventing the right-wing from garnering a 61-seat majority. That scenario could lead Zionist Union and Likud to create a unity government, which would make the Joint List the biggest opposition party.

5. We’ll know who won the election only a few weeks from now

Unlike U.S. elections, in which a clear candidate (usually) emerges victorious, Tuesday is just one phase of a drawn-out process in Israel. After the votes come in, parties will unite behind their preferred prime minister no matter who came in first. Israel’s president will then select the party leader with the largest supporting bloc to form a government.

The chosen leader gets up to two months to form a majority coalition, an often unpredictable process in which deals are cut and ministries and other influential posts doled out. In 2013, elections in late Januaryyielded a coalition only in mid-March, even though Netanyahu won by a wide margin. Pundits are predicting a Netanyahu reelection because the right-wing bloc may again win a majority — even if Likud itself comes in second. But with a couple parties staying mum on which candidate they support, it’s impossible to know how the race is going to play out.

Netanyahu vows to stop ‘Palestinian continuity’ toward Jerusalem


This story originally appeared at The Media Line.

Har Homa, Jerusalem – Standing on an apartment balcony beneath an olive tree overlooking the green hills between Jerusalem and Bethlehem, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu told a hastily convened news conference in this neighborhood that it prevents “territorial contiguity” for a Palestinian state. The corner apartment was draped with banners saying “Only Netanyahu Can” and “It’s Either Them or Us,” two of the Likud’s latest slogans.

“There was a Palestinian attempt to connect Bethlehem and to burst into the city from the south,” Netanyahu wearing a dark suit and a blue tie, and squinting into the sun, told a group of reporters, along with a few neighborhood residents. “The pressure on me not to build here was intense, but I insisted and it was worth it,” Netanyahu said. “Today there are tens of thousands of residents here. I and my friends in Likud will preserve Jerusalem and continue to build it.”

Har Homa, which Palestinians call Jebel Abu Ghneim, is built on land that Israel annexed to Jerusalem after 1967. To build the neighborhood, which today has 22,000 residents, according to mayor Nir Barkat, who introduced the Prime Minister, Israel annexed private land from both Israelis and Palestinians. The neighborhood was inaugurated in 1997, in one of Netanyahu’s first acts as Prime Minister, and sparked international condemnation, as well as Palestinian riots.

With polls showing Netanyahu’s Likud party trailing the center-left Zionist Camp by between three and five seats, Netanyahu is going all-out to attack the challengers, focusing his ire on his former Justice Minister Tzippi Livni. He also consistently referred to challenger Isaac Herzog as “Bougie”, a nickname Herzog has sought to rid himself of.

“The choice is the Likud headed by me, or a left-wing government that will give in to every demand,” Netanyahu warned. “If Tzippi (Livni) and Bougie (Herzog) are here, on these hills will rise Hamastan,” he said, using a phrase that usually refers to the Gaza Strip that has been controlled by the Islamist Hamas since 2007.

Netanyahu also called it a “fateful” election and warned that every vote counts.

“Come to the polls and bring your friends and your relatives,” he told Yaron and Sigal Chakshorian, who told The Media Line they were asked to host the news conference only early this morning.

“I’m a Likudnik,” Yaron Chakshorian told The Media Line. “I like his charisma and his presence.”

Their neighbors, Rely and Yossi Asaraf, stood holding their seven-month-old daughter, Efrat. Like the Chakshorians, they have moved here because apartments are substantially cheaper here than closer to the center of the city. Their three sons attend local schools and they say they love the neighborhood.

“We’re here because of him,” Yossi told The Media Line, explaining his support for Netanyahu.

“People talk about the need for jobs and housing, but the most important thing is security,” Rely told The Media Line. “We are surrounded by enemies and Bibi can handle them better than anyone else,” she said using the Prime Minister’s nickname.

Outside the Chakshorian’s home, however, there was not as much support for the Prime Minister. Most of the banners hanging from windows supported Yachad, a new party well to the right of Likud.

At a nearby grocery store, owner Asaf Tapiro said that just one day before the election, he had still not decided who to vote for.

“I voted Netanyahu last time but I’m still not sure this time,” he told The Media Line. “I might vote for Moshe Kahlon, because I think he is the best for the economy and that’s the most important issue for me.”

Kahlon, a former Likud government minister, is popular for opening up the mobile phone market to competition, saving Israelis hundreds of dollars a year on mobile phone bills. Polls say his new party, Kulanu, could win ten or eleven seats and be an important coalition partner to either Netanyahu or Herzog.

In an effort to respond to these voters, Netanyahu was joined at the news conference by supermarket mogul Rami Levy, whose chain of discount supermarkets are popular with Israelis. Yet Netanyahu focused his message, as he has for the past three months, on his security credentials.

“Tzippi and Bougie will not be able to preserve your security,” Netanyahu warned. “If they win, you will have rockets fired on you from these hills.”

The Knesset dissolves, but the battle for religious reform continues


When the 19th Knesset was sworn in on March 18, 2013, it marked only the second time in 29 years that a new coalition was formed without any of the Haredi parties. A record 48 new members of the Knesset were sworn in that day, vowing to revolutionize the system including the volatile issue of religion and state. Endless possibilities were manifest: not only a feeling that an opportunity for change was promising, but that there had never been a better chance than now. The process was begun.

On Monday, 21 months later, the Knesset voted to dissolve itself. Whatever had been accomplished in the 19th Knesset was now history, with further efforts for religious reform legislation left on the table. But despite the temporary setback, that fight continues both here and in the U.S., a concerted effort to break the Haredi monopoly on personal-status issues such as marriage, divorce and conversion.

One of the accomplishments of the outgoing Knesset was the passage a year ago of the so-called “Tzohar Law.” The contentious bill reformed the marriage registration process, allowing for a free-market approach in choosing the regional branch office of the rabbinate at which a couple may register. (The Orthodox Chief Rabbinate is the only official Israeli body authorized to sanction and register Jewish marriages.)

The new law meant not only better service, but immigrants with difficulty proving their Jewish lineage would be able to find less stringent Orthodox rabbis to perform their wedding.

To that bill was added a last-minute clause inserted by Deputy Religious Services Minister Rabbi Eli Ben Dahan, adding criminal penalties – a two-year prison sentence – for couples who illegally marry outside the Chief Rabbinate, as well as for the rabbis who marry them.

MK Aliza Lavie of the centrist Yesh Atid party proposed an amendment to remove the criminal penalties inserted by Ben-Dahan, in “an attempt to restore sanity” to a law that had become “crazy and surreal.” Lavie’s amendment would have limited the law only to marriage registrars who performed weddings without registering them.

Lavie’s initiative was co-written by Rabbi Seth Farber, founder and director of the ITIM Advocacy Center, which helps secular Israelis and converts navigate Israel’s byzantine state rabbinate for life-cycle events.

Calling the Tzohar Law “an outrage,” he wrote in an op-ed for The Times of Israel saying: “I wonder how we got to a situation where we need to punish people for getting married with a chuppah. I’m not sure if there is another country in the world besides Israel that would put me in jail for performing a marriage ceremony without getting it approved first.”

Last week – after it was clear that the government would soon fall and new elections would be held – the coalition’s Ministerial Committee on Legislative Affairs voted down Lavie’s amendment. Three days later, as the Knesset was closing for the day, Lavie submitted it again before an empty chamber. The Haredim heard about it and sent out a call to come vote. Five answered. Yesh Atid and other liberal parties also sent out a red alert, and seven MKs came running. The preliminary bill thus passed 7-5.

 “It was a symbolic victory, but a victory nonetheless – we were going to go down fighting,” said Farber, who acknowledged that the process will have to start again in the next Knesset. “It’s an outrage that this law is on the books. It’s true, no one’s been punished, no one’s been thrown in jail. But it’s something that a Jewish democratic state shouldn’t have as one of its laws. It’s not being implemented now, but who’s to say what kind of right-wing government we’ll get down the road that will start implementing it. Once something’s a law, it has a life of its own.”

MK Rabbi Dov Lipman, who was on his way to the Knesset weight room when he received a text to quickly come vote, said he was outraged that someone should be punished for doing a marriage according to halacha in a Jewish state.

“I can go to jail for it – I’ve done weddings!” he exclaimed. “I think we need to start moving towards some level of normalcy, where the same way when you have a question in America about who did a wedding, you resolve it that way here.”

Ben-Dahan’s argument was that the clause was inserted to prevent recalcitrant husbands who refuse to grant their wives a Jewish religious divorce, known as a get, from marrying again, which according to Jewish law he could do. The one more likely to suffer, he said, would be the woman, who cannot remarry or have a sexual relationship with another man until she receives her get.

Farber argues that the Orthodox monopoly over personal status was doing more harm than good, and that Ben-Dahan’s intentions will have the exact opposite effect. He said those couples who choose to marry privately have no incentive to seek a divorce in rabbinical courts, as they could be arrested while trying to receive a get. In other words, the law would undermine the very cause it was meant to uphold.

“If we want to get people to marry through the rabbinate, we shouldn't be doing it by holding a gun to their head, and threatening to put them in jail,” Farber said.

Various estimates put the number of alternative Israeli weddings taking place every year at 7,000, and there is widespread support for them: a poll earlier this year found that 66 percent of Israeli Jews and 74% of non-Haredi Israeli Jews support recognition of civil marriage and non-Orthodox marriages. Additionally, more than 67% of Israeli Jews support joint efforts between Israel and world Jewry for freedom of marriage in Israel.

Farber explained that for his group and others fighting for a wider acceptance of Jewish options in religious life – like Hiddush, Tzohar and Mavoi Satum – the Tzohar law was not the biggest achievement of the 19th Knesset.

“We had a lot of accomplishments in the past Knesset, the first being the Conversion bill,” he said, referring to a cabinet decision to allow municipal chief rabbis to perform conversions. That decision widens access to the conversion system for non-Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union, and allows the implementation of more liberal attitudes toward their conversion within the Orthodox world, including the conversion of minors.

Although that law passed only as a government order and not full-fledged legislation, it was an important first step.

“The Tzohar law didn’t fundamentally change any power structure,” Farber said. “The Conversion law was the first legislation since 1971 that fundamentally changed the power structure in Israel, that took power away from the rabbinate. That made a very very big difference. It was a great accomplishment.”

Farber is buoyed up over the active support being given by North American Jewry. Two weeks ago, a new organization called J-Rec (Jewish Religious Equality Coalition) met for 3½ hours to formulate a working strategy to impact Israeli law.

Formed by the American Jewish Committee, it is made up of leaders of the Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist movements, several liberal Orthodox groups, and the National Council of Jewish Women, New Israel Fund, and National Policy Forum.

Their aim is to persuade Israeli leaders that Jerusalem is on the verge of losing support from the next generation of American Jews – 90 percent of whom are non-Orthodox – if the Orthodox monopoly continues; and that the very future of Israel’s relationship with world Jewry is in danger if the Chief Rabbinate continues to maintain sole monopoly over matters of personal status like marriage, divorce and conversion.

The Jewish Federations of North America has begun its own effort, called iRep (Israel Religious Expression Platform) to promote freedom of choice in Israel, and may join forces with the coalition in the future.

“I am encouraged by the fact that American Jewish organizations are investing time and resources in the future of Jewish Israel,” said Farber, “because it helps the fight for personal-status issues not only for citizens in Israel, but it affects the Jewish people as a whole.”

He is worried about what happens next, what kind of coalition will be formed after the next elections, and what efforts will be made to roll back legislation.

“Everything is possible,” said Farber. “It really depends on how people vote, how the government is constructed. Right now everyone in playing roulette. Should the next government shape up in a way that is positive, then we have a lot of momentum going in our direction. Should it go the other direction, then we will have less.”

Elections for the 20th Knesset are set for March 17.

In Israel’s local (re)elections, implications for the national scene


The international press may have paid less attention this time around, but Israel held its second set of elections within one year yesterday – this time voting for mayors and city councils.

Israelis, for their part, seemed to share the rest of the world’s apathy for this ballot. While two-thirds of the country turned out to vote in January’s Knesset election, only 42 percent made it to their polling places yesterday.

In Tel Aviv, more people showed up at Rihanna’s concert last night (50,000) than voted for the mayoral runner-up, Meretz MK Nitzan Horowitz (48,000).

But even with Rihanna’s numbers, Horowitz still would have lost. The story of Tuesday’s election was reelection. The mayors of the country’s four biggest cities (Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Haifa and Rishon Letzion) won another five-year term. For Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai, it will be the fourth; by the end of this term, he will have governed the White City for two decades.

Incumbency even trumped concerns about corruption, as three mayors facing criminal charges won at the ballot box.

The Huldai-Horowitz race, along with a couple of others, held national implications.

Jerusalem: More than any other race, the capital city’s mayoral campaign captured Israel’s attention. Jerusalem has, during the past several years, had a growing Charedi Orthodox population and a shrinking secular and modern Orthodox sector – a trend combatted by first-term secular Mayor Nir Barkat. Barkat has increased the city’s job opportunities and cultural offerings, and oversaw the launch of the Jerusalem light rail system.

Barkat defeated a Charedi opponent in 2008, and faced a modern Orthodox challenger in this round, Moshe Leon – who actually lives in the Tel Aviv suburb of Givatayim. Leon had the backing of a couple of powerful national politicians – former Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman and Sephardic Orthodox Shas Party Chair Aryeh Deri – and he campaigned for the allegiance of Jerusalem’s Charedi voters.

Barkat’s reelection, 51 percent to 45, was a rejection of Charedi influence by the city’s voters. It was also one more setback for Liberman – whose corruption trial comes to a verdict soon – and Deri – whose spiritual leader, Ovadia Yosef, died earlier this month.

Beit Shemesh: But the Charedi community showed its strength in Beit Shemesh, a central Israeli city also featuring a tense divide between a growing Charedi sector and a shrinking secular/modern Orthodox community. The secular/modern Orthodox sector united in a fierce campaign behind candidate Eli Cohen to unseat the city’s Charedi mayor, Moshe Abutbul, but Abutbul won reelection with 52 percent of the vote.

Tel Aviv: Rather than revolving around Charedi influence, the race in Israel’s secular mecca focused in part on ongoing discontent in the city’s (and country’s) middle class – a tension that consumed Israel’s attention in 2011 with the social justice protests in Tel Aviv. Horowitz, a member of the left-wing Meretz Party, tried to reignite that energy with a campaign that chided Huldai for focusing on improving the lives of the rich, at the expense of Tel Aviv’s poor and middle-class citizens. Had he won, Horowitz also would have been Israel’s first openly gay mayor.

But the voters chose Huldai, 58 percent to 41, who touted a record of making Tel Aviv a global destination and a vibrant, youthful city – with active boulevards, café culture, a busy beach and a range of cultural events. Huldai also rode to victory (pun intended) on the city’s popular bike-sharing program and expanded bike lanes, which his administration initiated. Huldai’s street ads simply featured an illustration of the mayor riding a bicycle above the slogan “A good leader.”

The politician who can save Israel’s Labor Party


It's still too early to celebrate, but – at the moment – it seems that Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett are changing the rules of the game, and that their parties are about to plant their stakes deep into the heart of Israeli politics. It seems that Lapid's Yesh Atid and Bennett's Bayit Yehudi are far from being political fads which will disappear after a single term, and may even – in the not so distant future – replace the two historical parties – Likud and Ha'avoda (Labor).
 
But whereas I wouldn't rush to eulogize Benjamin Netanyahu, to my understanding, Shelly Yachimovich is a lost case. When it comes to politics, Yachimovich is the most obvious proof that it's all personal. You can argue about economic policy, you can discuss the question of Jerusalem, but – in the end – it always boils down to a leader's personality.
 
There are leaders who are loved, leaders who are hated, and leaders who are despised. At times, hate turns into love (in the case of Ariel Sharon, for example), but a despised leader is doomed (Ehud Barak, for one). Yachimovich is simply despised by a good portion of the voters. Whether or not she has earned it is not the issue here.
 
Shelly Yachimovich. The public doesn't like her. Photo by Israel Mark Salem
 
The Labor Party is caught in an embarrassing situation, and most of its senior members are aware of the immense danger of Yachimovich ongoing leadership. The leader of the opposition is aware of her situation as well, and it is therefore no surprise that she is doing everything in her power to hold swift internal primary elections and catch her competitors off guard.
 
Yachimovich is smart. She knows who she's dealing with. Bougie Herzog, Eitan Cabel and Erel Margalit are not likely to give up the fight to head the Labor Party. She is also counting on the fact that the three are not likely to unite in support of the candidacy of any one of them. So splitting the votes will serve her and may provide her with a definite recipe for victory. In other words, in the current situation Yachimovich has a good shot at winning, and the Labor Party – to reach its end.
 
But there's another option: under the pressure of clear eyed party members, who understand this may be the last chance for the Labor Party to become a real player in the political arena once again, and in certain circumstances – to lead the country – all three will unite to support a single candidate. It's hard to believe, but the Labor Party has such a candidate, who is readily available. 
 
He is very remindful of Lapid: smart, successful, not a wheeler-dealer, even good looking. I don't know Margalit personally, but it seems that a rich man who leaves everything behind only to tour the entire country in order to change the face of his party is made of the right stuff. I don't want to get carried away with tall superlatives, but there is no doubt that this is exactly the fresh start this tired party needs.
 
Erel Margalit reminds me of Yair Lapid. Photo by Israel Mark Salem
 
I have a feeling it won't be difficult to convince Cabel that he should step aside. I believe he is one of those candidates who is satisfied with simply being a candidate. The problem is with Bougie Herzog – he is a wheeler-dealer in the most positive sense of the word. His political activity is imbued with self sacrifices and he truly loves his work. But, in the end, that is all he is – a wheeler-dealer – and politicians of the new kind cannot be elected for national leadership on the basis on wheeling and dealing.
 
Simply said: it's all up to Bougie. If he insists on running, there is a good chance that Yachimovich will win once again. If he steps aside, there is a good chance that Margalit will pull a surprise and even win. And if he does win, it will be an interesting fight. Because Margalit and Lapid will have to present their world views regarding all the critical issues in Israeli politics. One worldview vs. another – as opposed to one image vs. another. 
 
David Fogel is Chairman of Fogel-Ogilvy

Can Bibi’s wife Sara spoil Israel’s coalition?


Forging a coalition is, without a doubt, the most difficult part of the election process in Israel.

After a long, hard fought and often ugly election battle, it falls to the future prime minister to make deals with those who were, until recently, his nemesis all in order to obtain the required 60 Knesset seats necessary for his party to govern the country. Election planks and platforms are first weighed and then cast away in favor of the issues of power, control and of course, prestige.

Well before the final results were in, Benjamin Netanyahu placed calls to potential coalition partners. Immediate calls went out to the ultra orthodox Sephardi party Shas which then won 11 seats, the ultra orthodox Ashkenazi party United Torah which then won 7 seats and the anti ultra orthodox Yesh Atid (There is a Future) party which in the end won 19 seats.

The call Netanyahu did not immediately make was to the party that, to all appearances, is the natural partner to his own Likud/Yisrael Beitenu party. Netanyahu did not place a call to Ha Bayit Hayehudi (The Jewish Home) party, a modern Zionist orthodox party which garnered 12 seats, until late Thursday. And there is a simple reason for that.

Netanyahu's wife Sara did not want him to make the call. There is bad blood between Naftali Bennett, the leader of The Jewish Home, and Mrs. Netanyahu. The feud goes back to the time before Bennett headed and then sold a multi-million dollar start-up it goes back to the time when Bennett was chief of staff in the office of the prime minister.

Imagine the pressure in the Netanyahu household. Netanyahu needed to weigh the sides to weigh the wrath of his wife against his need for a successful coalition that would insure his position as prime minister. Not an easy decision to make. Sara has a strong hold on her man, but the pull of the prime ministry may be even stronger. Despite the protestations and clash of personalities, Bennett can only help Netanyahu and the phone call was made.

Sara Netanyahu is known to have a long memory and to hold a grudge. Many an adviser who crossed paths with this first lady ended with crossed swords and was tossed out with the trash. She is probably no different than Barbara Bush or Nancy Reagan or, for that matter, Hillary Clinton. But she is definitely less subtle. In the end Sara will probably lose this battle, but she will come back later with a vengeance.

Israel is thought to be so easily understood by Western commentators and analysts. Pollsters think that it is an easy nut to crack. But unless you understand the nuance of the country, unless you can read the people, commentators, analysts and pollsters will get it wrong every time.

They think that because English is so readily and often eloquently spoken and because so many Israelis have been educated in the United States or other Western countries that Israel is a Western culture. But it is not. Israel is almost Western, but it is also very much a Middle Eastern country — albeit a modern Middle Eastern country, and that makes all the difference.

Many western commentators don't really take the time to analyze Israel. That is why for months now commentators and analysts have been talking about the radicalization of Israeli politics and bemoaning the fact that mainstream Israel was leaning more and more to the right.

If this election teaches us anything it teaches us that they were wrong. Why were they so wrong? They failed to do their own analysis and instead, these observers of Israeli politics swallowed hook, line and sinker the Palestinian line. That line is simply anti-Israel. And so anything that is not decisively pro-Palestinian is seen by commentators as rabidly right wing and as an extremist point of view.

By now the picture of true Israeli society should be perfectly clear. The centrist Atid party with nineteen seats is now the 2nd largest party in the Knesset only after Netanyahu's Likud. And it will almost certainly insist on playing a major role in the ruling coalition. The most important platform put forth by Atid is the universal draft – a requirement that every Israeli serve in the army. This general platform resonated with masses of Israelis and was also referred to as 'an equal burden' to be shared by all Israelis, including Arab Israelis. This issue catapulted Atid into a major position in the 19th Knesset.

Interestingly, the other new and newly huge party in the Knesset, Habayit HaYehudi or The Jewish Home, now the fourth largest party in the country, believes in the same principle. And both parties believe in the breakdown of the power of the ultra orthodox rabbinate.

These two new parties, both led by young new political leaders, obtained a combined thirty Knesset seats. That is exactly 25% of the Israeli parliament. They are not extremist. They are a real reflection of the new Israel.

With Netanyahu and his 31 seats, Yair Lapid and his Atid party with 19 seats and Naftali Bennett and his The Jewish Home party with 12 seats these three parties combined have 62 seats, a perfect number to form a ruling coalition. They make up just over half of the 120 seats needed to form a government.

Sara Netanyahu had better start getting used to it. I think that her husband will be spending a lot more time with Naftali and Yair than he will with her in the very near future. The rest of Israel made the decision for him.

Israelis voted for reality


Regardless of what kind of coalition a bruised and humbled Prime Minister Netanyahu shapes in the new government, the prospects for peace will depend less on his government’s actions and more on the sentiments of Israel’s neighborhood.

To get a sense of those sentiments, consider the words of newly elected President Mohamed Morsi of Egypt, a country that is technically “at peace” with Israel and is critical to its security.

As reported in The New York Times, three years ago Morsi was caught on video at a rally urging his followers to “nurse our children and our grandchildren on hatred for them: for Zionists, for Jews,” whom later that year he described as “bloodsuckers,” “warmongers” and “descendants of apes and pigs.”

Morsi is far from the exception in his Jew-hatred. As Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a fellow at the Belfer Center’s Future of Diplomacy Project at the Harvard Kennedy School, wrote in The Times:

“All over the Middle East, hatred for Jews and Zionists can be found in textbooks for children as young as three, complete with illustrations of Jews with monster-like qualities. Mainstream educational television programs are consistently anti-Semitic. In songs, books, newspaper articles and blogs, Jews are variously compared to pigs, donkeys, rats and cockroaches, and also to vampires and a host of other imaginary creatures.”

The vile depiction of Jews and Zionists is especially prevalent in Palestinian society, something that has been exposed in detail by the group Palestinian Media Watch.

It is this vicious Jew-hatred, above all, that has killed every hope for peace.

As Ali writes: “So many explanations have been offered for the failure of successive U.S. administrations to achieve that peace, but the answer is in Morsi’s words. Why would one make peace with bloodsuckers and descendants of apes and monkeys?”

Israelis are not stupid. They read all this stuff. They haven’t given up on peace, but they’ve given up on peace illusions. 

The conventional wisdom before Election Day was that Israel is “moving right.” As I see it, it is reality that has moved right, and Israel has had no choice but to adapt.

Ever since the heady days of Oslo 20 years ago, Israelis have gotten burned whenever they stuck their collective necks out for peace.

They saw how all the years and hopes they invested in Yasser Arafat were wasted on a duplicitous conniver who launched a terror war that murdered a thousand Israelis; they saw how terror rockets were launched on Israeli civilians after they evacuated Lebanon and Gaza; and now they see their so-called “peace partner” Mahmoud Abbas trying to make peace with Hamas, a terror entity sworn to Israel’s destruction.

Israelis see an Arab Spring that has generated even more Jew-hatred and even worse conditions for peace.

When they look east, they see an Iranian madman building a nuclear arsenal to wipe Israel off the map. And when they look north, they count their blessings that they never gave up the Golan Heights to a murderous despot now fighting a horrendous civil war.

Simply put, Israelis have come to understand that no amount of concessions or settlement freezes or red-carpet summits will thaw the icy Jew-hatred that lies at the core of the conflict.

They’ve come to understand the perverted and ruthless logic of the Middle East: The more you want peace and show weakness, the more you get war.

The more desperate you appear for a solution, the further you get from it.

Many American Jews are perplexed and exasperated that Israel has not been more “practical” or done “whatever it takes” to get their enemies to come to the peace table. 

They assume that the more you push for something, the better your chances of getting it. They can’t see how “dig in and tough it out” can even be an option.

What they’ve missed is that, in recent years, Israel has taken on a very Middle Eastern attribute: patience. 

Essentially, Israel has been telling the Arab and Muslim world: We’ve waited 2,000 years to come home, and we’re ready to wait another 2,000 years to make peace. Whenever you’re ready to accept us, we’ll be here, ready to talk peace.

In the Middle East, patience is leverage.

Patience itself is a very centrist idea. It avoids the extremes of both sides.

Bibi is fortunate that a centrist party, Yesh Atid, has done remarkably well. This will help him shape a more reality-based coalition.

This reality cuts both ways. On the one hand, it means recognizing that Israel must eventually make peace with its neighbors, and never lose hope.

On the other, it means recognizing that if the conditions are not ripe for peace, pushing too hard actually can backfire.

Let’s hope that Bibi’s new coalition will be able to pull off that balancing act: to show the world that Israel is absolutely ready to make peace, while exercising the hard-nosed realism that the neighborhood demands.

Israelis have learned the hard way that pushing for peace with those who hate you can bring you further from peace, and that showing weakness with those who compare you to pigs and apes can be an invitation to another war.


David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com.

Quick take on the election results in Israel


Here are a few thoughts (scroll down for my personal commitment) in the immediate aftermath of tonight’s election results per the exit polls (results may change over coming 24 hours. As you can see every MK can tilt the balance:

–          Likud-Beitenu (Netanyahu) – 33
–          Yesh Atid (Lapid) – 18
–          Labor (Yechimovitz) – 16
–          HaBait HaYehudi (Bennet) – 12
–          Shass – 12
–          Meretz – 7
–          HaTnuah (Livni) – 6
–          Haredim – 6
–          Arab parties – ~10
–          Kadima (Mofaz) – 0

1. While Lapid’s Yesh Atid emerges as the biggest surprising success, there is no clear winner to the elections. Netanyahu may have a blocking-majority with the ultra-orthodox and the far-right, but this is not a governing coalition. He seems to be the 'tragic' winner-loser tonight (beyond the decimation of Kadima, which was expected): he will be the PM, but the Likud party was downsized within its union with Lieberman’s Israel Beitenufrom 27 to 20 MKs.

2. There is no  emerging coalition that can deal with the three burning issues of budget cuts (huge deficit in 2012), the Palestinian issue and equality in military service. Lapid’s key issue is equality in service, which the orthodox cannot agree to. Labor’s economic policies are unacceptable to Netanyahu. And most Likud MKs and HaBait HaYehudi reject the notion of Palestinian statehood and therefore cannot subscribe to the basic requisites of a political process with the Palestinians that is credibly based on the principle of two-states-for-two-peoples. Furthermore, Netanyahu’s no. 1 issue is Iran, which requires huge budgets and good relations with Obama.

3. USA is likely to play hard ball with Netanyahu. Beyond the apparent personal dislike between both chief executives, Washington perceives the stagnation on the Palestinian issue to compromise American interests in the region, particularly the coalition-building against Iran and its radical allies. USA is likely to demand credible commitment by Netanyahu to advancing the two-state reality with the Palestinians in the West Bank sooner rather than later.

4. Therefore, Israel’s coming government is likely to be highly unstable and possibly short lived. Any coalition will have multiple conflicting agendas, who understand this instability and will electioneer from the very beginning of the tenure. The counter-force that may keep the Knesset in place for a while the dramatic attrition rate among politicians: more than half of the MKs of the 18th Knesset will not serve in the 19th Knesset. In other words, the appetite of the incumbents and newly elected politicians for another election may be non-existent. But even that can hold only for so long.

5. There is of course the possibility that the coming Knesset and government will do great things for Israel on some of these critical challenges.However, it will require political skills and leadership that are exceptional, particularly when 3 of the 5 large parties – Yechmovitz, Lapid and Bennet – are highly inexperienced, and the latter two never served in office or Parliament. 

6. My hope is that the lasting legacy of the coming Knesset will be a reform of the electoral system, which is the chief reason for this highly unstable political outcome. My opinion on the nature of the required change – direct appointment of the head of the largest party to PM – is detailed in the attached email, which I sent out two weeks ago.

7. Reut has been in the process of restructuring itself to increase its reach and impact in response to the emerging challenges facing Israel by mobilizing Israel’s serving elite to tackle our society’s toughest challenges. The results of the elections highlight how, relevant, vital and urgent Reut’s new approach is.  More on this issue to come shortly. Please follow Reut on Facebook (The Reut Institute) and on Twitter (reutinstitute) to stay updated.

8. My personal commitment is to reestablish Yesodot (Foundations), which is a group that I launched in 2002 to reform the electoral system. At the time, in 2004, I reached the conclusion that the time was not right for such a reform. Now, I believe there is ripeness. You can follow me on this issue, as well as on other matters relating to Reut, on Facebook (Gidi Grinstein) and twitter (gidigrinstein).

With all of the above said, let’s cross our fingers and pray that, when the dust settles, Israel will be on a new path of growth and security.

Who is Yair Lapid? [VIDEO]


Shmuel Rosner, Senior Political Editor of the Jewish Journal, speaks with Jewish Journal Publisher and Editor-in-Chief Rob Eshman about the results of the Jan. 23 Israeli election.

Israeli left seeks to regain appeal with focus on economy


In decline since the peace it sought with the Palestinians unraveled into violence, Israel's Labor Party looks set to regain some lost ground in next week's election after waging an economy-focused campaign.

Opinion polls forecast an easy victory for conservative Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Tuesday's vote, which may push Israel further to the right, if as widely expected, he then enlists pro-settler and religious allies to his coalition.

But center-left Labor, bolstered by public discontent with high living costs and the flagging political fortunes of the once-governing centrist Kadima party, seems poised for its strongest parliamentary showing in years.

Netanyahu has made Israel's security the main campaign issue of his right-wing Likud party, fielding a joint list of candidates with the ultranationalist Yisrael Beitenu party.

He has cited Iran's nuclear ambitions, civil war in Syria and a new Islamist government in Egypt as reasons why, as Likud's campaign posters say, Israel needs a “strong” leader.

While Netanyahu plays his security card, a revamped Labor Party is using economic and social issues to try to claw its way back, focusing on Israeli concerns about rising living costs.

Opinion polls forecast a respectable second-place finish for the center-left party, now focused on pocketbook rather than peace issues, with talks on Palestinian statehood frozen since 2010 in a dispute over Israel's settlement-building policies.

Abraham Diskin, a political scientist at Jerusalem's Hebrew University, said Labor was also benefiting from a steep decline in support for Kadima, which won the most assembly seats at the last election in 2009, but failed to retain power.

Kadima was outmaneuvered by Netanyahu, who became prime minister after drawing a clutch of right-wing and religious parties into a coalition with a big parliamentary majority.

Diskin attributed much of Kadima's election success in 2009 to former Labor voters. “They are now returning to the Labor Party,” he said.

Some opinion polls predict that Kadima, now led by Shaul Mofaz, a dour ex-defense minister, will win no seats next week.

The party, a relative newcomer to politics and lacking a historical power base, was founded in 2005 by then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who quit the Likud after a rebellion in its ranks over Israel's unilateral pullout from Gaza that year.

DOMINATION

Labor, now led by a former journalist, Shelly Yachimovich, dominated the first three decades of Israel's statehood and forged interim peace deals with the Palestinians in the 1990s.

But an ultranationalist assassin killed its leader, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, in 1995, Netanyahu won an election the following year after Palestinian suicide bombings, and a Labor return to power in 1999 was cut short when Ehud Barak failed to clinch a final peace accord and a Palestinian uprising erupted.

“Over years, the left was challenged by realities, not only by right-wing Israeli forces but by Middle East realities, and it never rose to the challenge,” said political commentator Ari Shavit, who writes for the left-wing Haaretz daily.

“It is perceived by most Israelis as being totally irrelevant,” he told Reuters.

However, unprecedented social protests in Israel in mid-2011 when hundreds of thousands took to the streets angered by high housing costs and soaring prices, gave Labor an opportunity.

Its election campaign has homed in on a struggling middle class. Under a photo of Yachimovich and the slogan “It can be better here”, the party's website features a link to an economic plan it promises will narrow the gap between rich and poor.

It proposes higher taxes for the rich and for corporations and faster construction of affordable public housing.

Opinion polls show Labor taking up to 20 of parliament's 120 seats compared with about 34 for Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu. Labor won just 13 in 2009, a tally reduced to eight when Barak, now defense minister, and four others left the party in 2011.

DEFICIT

Labor latched onto some bad financial news on Monday to contest Netanyahu's claim to be a skilful economic manager.

“Tell me how much longer he can keep calling himself Mr Economy,” Yachimovich said after figures showed Israel's budget deficit had risen to 4.2 percent of gross domestic product last year, double the original estimate.

Labor candidate Erel Margalit, referring to Israel's high-tech prowess, also hammered home the economic message, saying: “Netanyahu turned the start-up nation into a stagnant nation.”

Unlike other center-left leaders, Yachimovich has pledged not to join a Netanyahu-led coalition.

Factions to Netanyahu's left also include two new centrist parties – Hatnua, led by Tzipi Livni, a former foreign minister and ex-Kadima chief, and Yesh Atid, headed by TV talk show host Yair Lapid.

Opinion polls predict eight seats for Hatnua and 11 for Yesh Atid. Livni's attempts to entice Yachimovich and Yesh Atid into a center-left alliance failed, perhaps due to clashing egos.

Taking his own swipe at Netanyahu's economic policies, Lapid provided a bright moment in a generally lackluster campaign when he publicly drew a red line through a cartoon depiction of a bomb listing price rises that have hit the middle class.

The stunt mimicked Netanyahu's own sketching of a red line through a cartoon bomb at the United Nations in September, when he said Iran was moving closer to a nuclear weapons capability.

While Labor, Yesh Atid and Hatnua compete for the political center, the small Meretz party carries a torch for the left.

“We're not ashamed, we are a left-wing social democratic party, we are proud to be called left-wing,” Nitzan Horowitz, a Meretz legislator, told Reuters.

The party, led by Zahava Gal-On, has three parliamentary seats and opinion polls show it may double that total next week.

Horowitz outlined the “three pillars” of Meretz's platform as separating religion and state, ensuring social justice and promoting peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors.

Meretz opposes settlement activity and says Israel should immediately recognize a Palestinian state along the lines that existed before the Jewish state captured the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem in the 1967 Middle East war.

Additional reporting by Rinat Harash, Lianne Gross and Rami Amichai; Writing by Jeffrey Heller and Ori Lewis; Editing by Alistair Lyon

Knesset elections: A reader’s guide


Remember the second U.S. presidential debate in October, when the incumbent Barack Obama and challenger Mitt Romney stood about six inches from each other, with one interrupting the other at every turn?

Add about a dozen candidates, take away the formal rules of debate, switch to Hebrew and you’ve got a fairly good approximation of the tenor of Israel's current election campaign.

Israel's parliamentary system, in which voters choose a party instead of a candidate, makes for some narrowly focused parties and strange bedfellows, though factions do tend to fall in with their natural political allies. Parties submit lists of candidates and their top choices are seated in proportion to the party's total share of the vote.

This year, 34 parties are officially vying for the Knesset in the Jan. 22 elections, though only about a dozen are likely to actually cross the threshold necessary to win seats. They fall broadly into the following major blocs.

RIGHT WING

Major parties: Israel’s biggest political bloc, the right wing has led the polls throughout the campaign and almost definitely will lead the next coalition. Its flagship party is a merger of two factions: the right-wing Likud and the hard-line Yisrael Beiteinu. Likud favors a tough foreign policy and has presided over an expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank. On economic policy, the party tacks conservative, promoting free markets, privatization of state industries and reduced regulation.

Yisrael Beiteinu, originally founded as a party for Russian immigrants, has attracted a broader base with hard-line nationalist rhetoric, a secularist agenda and calls for universal army or volunteer service.

An upstart challenger to Likud-Beiteinu is Jewish Home, a hawkish pro-settler party that also favors some progressive economic policies. Historically a religious Zionist party, Jewish Home has successfully broadened its base this cycle and has an excellent shot at a third-place finish.

People to watch: Benjamin Netanyahu, the Likud chairman and current prime minister, almost certainly will win another term. Netanyahu, 63, has relentlessly sounded the alarm on Iran’s nuclear program and shaped Israel’s supply-side economic policies. He was first elected prime minister in 1996, lost the 1999 election and made a comeback in 2009, winning his second term.

Avigdor Liberman, Yisrael Beiteinu’s chairman, was Israel’s foreign minister until he resigned following his indictment in December for fraud and breach of trust. An immigrant from Moldova, Liberman, 54, advocates hard-line foreign and domestic policies.

Naftali Bennett, a high-tech entrepreneur and past leader of the settlement movement, is the charismatic new chairman of Jewish Home. Bennett, 40, has changed the image of the party from a sectarian religious Zionist faction to one that courts Jewish Israelis of all stripes.

Moshe Feiglin, 50, has led a revolution within Likud, driving a sharp turn to the right that has led to the rise of other hawkish politicians and nudging out of moderates. He is 14th on the Likud list and almost certain to gain a Knesset seat.

CENTER

Major parties: Israel’s most fragmented political bloc, likely headed for the opposition, the center has three major — and largely similar — parties. Labor, Israel’s founding party, has pushed progressive, socialist policies. Yesh Atid, a party of political neophytes, emphasizes middle-class tax cuts and mandatory army or volunteer service for all Israelis. Hatnua, also founded last year, supports Israeli-Palestinian negotiations and a two-state solution.

Kadima, the largest party in the Knesset and the ruling party from 2006 to 2009, has been largely discredited and may not cross the 2 percent vote threshold necessary to a win a seat in the Knesset.

People to watch: Shelly Yachimovich, 52, a former television journalist, is the Labor chair and has shifted the party's focus from a two-state solution back to the progressive socioeconomic policies that once defined it. She has been criticized for barely addressing diplomatic policy, though she recently vowed not to join a Likud-Beiteinu coalition.

Yair Lapid, 49, another former TV journalist and the head of Yesh Atid, announced his entrance into politics early last year amid hype that his party could rival Likud. Lapid is the son of former journalist and politician Tommy Lapid.

Tzipi Livni, 54, chairwoman of Hatnua, has shifted from right to center-left during a lengthy political career. Originally a senior politician in Likud, Livni followed former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to Kadima in 2005 and served as foreign minister from 2006 to 2009. She resigned from Kadima last year after losing the chairmanship in the party primaries.

LEFT WING 

Major parties: As Labor has tacked to the center, the standard-bearer of the Zionist left has become Meretz, a party that advocates Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, equal rights for all Israeli citizens, far greater separation of religion and state, and progressive economic policies. To Meretz’s left is the non-Zionist, communist, Arab-Jewish Hadash, which also advocates equal rights and progressive economics but does not prioritize Israel remaining a Jewish state.

People to watch: Zahava Gal-on, Meretz’s chairwoman, immigrated to Israel from Russia as a child and has been an outspoken supporter of civil liberties since she first entered the Knesset in 1999. Hadash’s chairman, Mohammed Barakeh, has been indicted for alleged violence at protests, but also has earned praise for visiting Auschwitz in 2010. Hadash’s third in line, Dov Khenin, is a well-known leftist activist who ran for mayor of Tel Aviv.

CHAREDI ORTHODOX

Major parties: The two main haredi parties are the Sephardic Shas and United Torah Judaism, a merger of a few Ashkenazi haredi parties. UTJ’s main issues are government support for yeshivot (including stipends for full-time students), continued Charedi control of the chief rabbinate, social services for their often low-income haredi constituents and continued exemption of full-time yeshiva students from military service. Shas advocates a more moderate versions of those policies as well as social services for Israel’s poor families, many of whom are Sephardic and vote for Shas even though they are not Charedi.

Am Shalem, a new breakaway party from Shas, was founded last year and opposes much of the Charedi agenda, advocating military or volunteer service and the elimination of subsidies for most full-time yeshiva students. It is considered a long shot to win any Knesset seats.

People to watch: Aryeh Deri, one of the three leaders of Shas, won 17 seats for the party in 1999’s Knesset elections only to wind up in prison on charges of bribery a year later. Now, the charismatic Deri is free to run again and has retaken the helm at Shas along with Eli Yishai, the current interior minister, whose policies are decidedly right wing.

Haim Amsalem, a former member of Shas, is now a thorn in that party’s side with his new faction, Am Shalem. Amsalem hasn’t pulled his punches, relentlessly criticizing Shas and claiming in his ads that Maimonides would vote for him.

ISRAELI ARABS

Major parties: Arab parties have never served in a coalition government and historically have underrepresented the Israeli Arab population, which is about a quarter of the country. The two Arab slates in this election are the secular Balad, which is explicitly anti-Zionist and believes that Israel should be a state of all its citizens, and Ra’am-Ta’al, an alliance of the religious Ra’am and the secular Ta’al that is not as explicitly anti-Zionist.

All of the parties favor better treatment of Israel’s Arab minority, a two-state solution and peace with neighboring Arab countries.

People to watch: As no Israeli government has included Arab parties, their main purpose is to speak up for Arab-Israeli rights and against what they see as Jewish discrimination. Two of the most outspoken Israeli Arab members of Knesset have been Ta’al leader Ahmad Tibi, a former adviser to Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, and Hanin Zouabi of Balad. Both at times have been disqualified from running for Knesset due to anti-Zionist statements, but the bans have been overturned by Israel’s Supreme Court.

Netanyahu, right-wing coalition seen likely to prevail in Israeli elections


Uncertainty is an inherent condition of democratic politics, but one outcome is all but certain in next week’s Israeli elections: the right wing will win and the left wing will lose.

Almost every party acknowledges that the merged Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu factions will take the most seats and be the standard-bearer of the next coalition government. For the fifth straight election, the center-left Labor will likely lose as Likud or an offshoot runs the state.

Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s Likud prime minister, almost definitely will win another term. Likud-Beiteinu is expected to amass 33 to 38 seats in the 120-seat Knesset, nearly twice as many as the likely runner-up, Labor, which should receive 17 to 20.

The virtual certainty of this outcome, and the right-wing's bold self-assurance in the face of it, has reduced a fragmented center-left to shambles. Labor and two new parties, Yesh Atid and Hatnua, have similar agendas focused largely on socioeconomic issues, yet every unification effort has ended in recriminations. And only Hatnua among the three parties has anything to say about the diplomatic future of the state, and it's led by a former rising star of the right.

Netanyahu’s biggest challenge leading up to the Jan. 22 election has come not from his traditional sparring partners on the left but from the right, where the hawkish Jewish Home Party has enjoyed a meteoric rise in the polls.

The ascent of Jewish Home has been the biggest story of the campaign. When elections were called in October, pundits expected the religious Zionist party to win seven or eight seats. Now most polls have the number at 14 or 15 — on track to be the Knesset’s third-largest party.

Jewish Home Chairman Naftali Bennett, a newcomer to politics following a high-tech career and leadership positions in the settler movement, has engineered the gain by courting secular right-wing voters and adopting some progressive economic policies.

But Bennett is no moderate. He opposes the creation of a Palestinian state under any conditions and has said he would disobey a military command to dismantle settlements, though he later walked back from that position.

The party’s fortunes will depend on whether voters trust Bennett’s promises of tighter security and cheaper housing, or remain wary of a party that skews far right on certain national security and religious questions.

As the fortunes of Jewish Home have risen, those of Yesh Atid have declined. Expected to be a major story of the campaign when it launched in April, Yesh Atid was founded by Yair Lapid, a former television journalist and son of the late secularist politician Tommy Lapid. But its poll numbers have fallen due to infighting in the centrist camp and Lapid's unwillingness to discuss diplomatic and security issues.

Polls now show the party taking about 10 seats, but if Yesh Atid gains 12 or 13, it will mean that Lapid’s economic message has struck a chord as Israel confronts a budget deficit of more than $10 billion.

If voters perceive Lapid as unprincipled or inexperienced, especially on matters of diplomacy and security, they may turn to the one centrist party focused on Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations: Hatnua, which was founded and is led by Tzipi Livni, a former Kadima head and ex-Likud minister.

Livni has spent the entire campaign bashing Netanyahu for his alarmist and isolating rhetoric on national security. But she has not vowed to oppose his coalition and could give him cover to move forward on negotiating a peace agreement with the Palestinians if he chooses.

Hatnua has polled similar numbers to Yesh Atid. If it reaches the teens, it could indicate that a constituency still exists that supports peace negotiations. A mediocre Hatnua showing would confirm the perception of many Israelis that the conflict will not be resolved in the coming years.

What Livni really wants is a coalition without Netanyahu led by her or Labor chair Shelly Yachimovich. Seeking to harness the energy of 2011’s social protests here, Labor has presented itself as the alternative to Likud-Beiteinu. Yachimovich said recently that she would not join a Netanyahu-led coalition in a move that would seem to consign Labor to the opposition.

Labor has avoided discussing Israel’s diplomatic future, which seems to have disaffected some voters, and almost certainly will take fewer than 25 seats. That would be an improvement on last election’s 13 but still a decline for a party that once dominated Israeli politics.

As Livni, Lapid, Yachimovich and Bennett jockey for potential spots in a Likud-led Cabinet, one political bloc's numbers will likely remain fairly stable: Haredi Orthodox parties have 15 seats now, a number that is expected to slightly increase. The haredi platform, however, has become increasingly unpopular, as more and more Israelis oppose full-time yeshiva students receiving government stipends while avoiding the nation's mandatory military conscription — concerns that have animated Yesh Atid’s campaign, among others.

A sliver of hope does exist for a centrist victory, with Livni and Yachimovich still campaigning as if they have a shot at the premiership. According to two polls, approximately 20 percent of voters remain undecided. If they all go to centrist parties, the centrists may be able to cobble together a governing coalition.

At this point, though, it looks like a fantasy for Labor, which leaves it in the same place it’s been since 2001: figuring out how to fit into a Knesset where the right runs the show.

Women head three major parties in Israel’s elections


For the first time in Israel’s history, three of the major parties are headed by women. The Labor party headed by Shelly Yacimovich is expected to become Israel’s second-largest party, Hatnuah headed by former Foreign Minister Tzippi Livni is set to win seven seats, and the dovish Meretz and Zahava Gal-On is projected at five seats in the 120-seat parliament.

Because the front-runner, the joint slate of the Likud and Yisrael Beytenu ((Israel is Our Home), is only expected to get about 35 seats, Prime Minister Netanyahu will be turning to all of these parties as potential coalition partners.

“It’s an amazing advancement,” Dr. Galit Desheh, the executive director of the Israel Women’s Network told The Media Line. “Two of these women have an amazing record promoting women’s rights and issues.”

The two she was referring to are Yacimovich and Gal-On. Livni is not seen as focusing on women’s issues, although she has begun to do so more of late.

Yacimovich, 52, was a popular journalist before entering politics in 2005. She has reinvigorated the Labor party by focusing on social and economic issues, and gotten tens of thousands of young people to join. Of the first 22 candidates on Labor’s list, seven are women.

Gal-On, 56, of the dovish Meretz party, has been especially active on women’s rights issues. A Knesset member since 1999, she has led the committee that fights the trafficking of women. Desheh ays she is the single most active Knesset member on women’s issues.

In contrast,  Livni, 54, is not seen as a major advocate of women’s rights. She has started a new party called Hatnuah, the Movement, after she lost the leadership of Kadima, a centrist party, in recent primaries. Livni, a former intelligence official, has focused on foreign policy.

In addition to these women, Asma Agbarieh – Zahalka, 39, heads the Da’am Workers Party, a socialist party that focuses on employment issues in the Arab sector of Israel. It is doubtful that it will receive enough votes to enter the Parliament.

There are currently 24 women in the current Knesset and that number is expected to rise substantially. Even parties headed by men have placed women in prominent slots. Netanyahu’s Likud which is running on a joint slate with Yisrael Beytenu, has put seven women in the top 30 slots. Yesh Atid, a centrist secular party headed by popular journalist Yair Lapid, has three women in the top 10.

In the past, the quickest route to politics in Israel was the army. Generals were revered and most of Israel’s prime ministers (with the notable exception of the sole woman, Golda Meir) had illustrious military careers. Now that is changing.

“We are seeing that some generals are not even getting elected, and yet journalists are having great success,” Dr. Gideon Rahat of the Israel Democracy Institute told The Media Line. “This opens the door for women because there are more women journalists.”

Women are active in Israel’s labor force. While only 28 percent of Arab women in Israel work outside the home, (due to cultural factors which encourage women to stay at home with their children), about 80 percent of Jewish women have paying jobs. Israel has good day care and laws that encourage women to work. That said, women still earn between 17 and 30 percent less than men.

The Israel Women’s Network's Desheh says the three priorities for women are personal security, improving conditions for female workers and women’s health. As more women serve in the Knesset, it is likely that women’s issues will come to the fore.

“Research shows that men and women in the Knesset have different legislative behavior,” Rahat said. “This is a new stage in Israeli politics.”

Netanyahu maintains comfortable lead in pre-election polls


Three Israeli election polls predicted victory by a comfortable margin for Israel’s HaLikud Beiteinu party in the country’s general elections on Jan. 22.

A Ma’agar Mohot survey published in Ma’ariv has the list led by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu clinching 38 seats, followed by Shelly Yacimovich's Labor with 16 seats and Naftali Bennett's nationalist Jewish Home party with 13.

Last month, Netanyahu joined his Likud Party to Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman's Yisrael Beitenu Party to unite in a right-wing list for this election.

The Sephardic fervently Orthodox Shas party received 12 seats in the poll; the secularist Yesh Atid party, led by Yair Lapid, garnered eight seats and Tzippi Livni’s Hatnua party got seven. The poll was based on replies delivered on Tuesday by 1,000 voters.

In the poll, the center-right bloc had 52 seats, not including Shas, which many view as a rightist movement though it has joined both left-wing and right-wing coalitions. The center-left bloc had 39 seats including the party of  Lapid, who, unlike Yachimovich and Livni, has not excluded the possibility of joining a Likud-led coalition.

The three Arab parties got a combined electoral strength of 10 seats in the poll.  Arab parties, while not seen as part of the center-left bloc, have supported center-left governments from outside the government.

A poll published in Yedioth Ahronoth based on the replies of 1,000 respondents and conducted by the Dahaf polling company predicted 33 seats for HaLikud Beiteinu; 18 seats for Labor; 14 seats for Jewish Home; 11 seats for Yesh Atid and 10 seats for Shas. In the Dahaf poll, the center-right bloc has 49 seats compared to the center-left’s 45 seats.

A Smith Research poll published by The Jerusaleצ Post has Halikud Beiteinu leading with 34 seats; Labor with 18 seats; Jewish home with 14; Yesh Atid and Shas with 10 seats each and Livni’s party with eight.

The poll surveyed 870 people representing a statistical sample of the adult population and had an error margin of 3.3 percentage points, compared to 4.5 points in the two other polls.

Kadima clinched two seats in all three polls. It received 28 seats in the 2009 elections.

Social protest leaders hope to shake up Israel ballot


They are young and they are driven. They got half a million Israelis out on the streets demanding social justice. Now they want their votes.

The leaders of a grassroots social protest movement that swept Israel in 2011 have shot to the top of a rejuvenated Labor party that polls say will at least double its power in a January 22 general election that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's right-wing Likud is forecast to win.

“The next stage is to continue what started in the streets, to bring that to the ballot … so that we can translate it into achievements in budgets, laws and a change of policy,” said 32-year-old Itzik Shmuli, who as head of the student union was one of the most prominent leaders of the protest movement.

It began with a handful of youngsters who pitched tents along Tel Aviv's luxurious Rothschild Avenue to protest against high housing costs. Eventually, hundreds of thousands of Israelis demonstrated weekly across the country.

Inspired also by the Arab Spring that swept the region, the protesters, chanting “the people demand social justice”, dominated headlines in Israel in the summer of 2011, and posed a new challenge to the government.

Political parties soon saw potential vote magnets in the movement's leaders, who were often portrayed in the media as idealists with just the right mix of innocence and savvy to promote a message of hope and change.

Shmuli quit the student union this year to win the number 11 spot on Labor's list of parliamentary candidates, running a distant second to Likud in the upcoming election.

“The answer the government gave was a thin, cosmetic and cynical one. They did not want to truly deal with the problems raised by the protest,” Shmuli said.

Israel has a relatively low unemployment rate of 6.7 percent and a growing economy, but business cartels and wage disparities have kept many from feeling the benefit.

In parliament, Shmuli and his allies hope to push affordable housing, reform the education, welfare and health systems and to narrow the gap between rich and poor in Israel, which the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has said is among the highest in developed countries.

In response to the protest, Netanyahu, a free market champion and fiscal conservative, vowed to revamp the economy and lower living costs. Some of the government's steps have eased the pain for the middle and lower classes.

But other measures are moving slowly or have had no major effect. With rising food and fuel prices, few feel significant change in the cost of living since the protest.

“It means that we were mistaken when, as a young generation, we thought we could avoid sitting in the places where we make the most important decisions,” said Stav Shaffir, 27, another of the movement's leaders.

Shaffir is now eighth on Labor's list. Polls show that like Shmuli, she will be a member of Israel's next parliament, with her party winning about 16 to 20 of the 120 Knesset seats.

“There is something pure and beautiful about a popular protest,” Shaffir told a group of students in December. “But the change it brings comes only after generations … and we don't have that time if we want to change policy.”

UNDER THE TANKS

Shaffir lives with four roommates in a Jaffa apartment. Shmuli moved to the run-down town of Lod last year to set up a student community outreach program. Both say they have no intention of changing their dwellings after becoming lawmakers.

At the protest's peak, Shmuli addressed about half a million people at one of the biggest rallies ever held in Israel. He spoke to the cheering crowd about “The New Israelis”, who will fight for a better future and social equality.

But that was in September 2011. The question now is whether the “New Israelis” who cheered for Shmuli will turn up to vote for him.

The summer of 2011 marked one of the only times that social-economic issues consistently topped the agenda in a country whose population of 7.8 million is usually preoccupied with matters of war and peace.

Yariv Ben-Eliezer, a media expert at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya, a college near Tel Aviv, says those issues have once more taken a back seat.

In November, Israel carried out an eight-day offensive in Gaza with the declared aim of ending Palestinian rocket fire into its territory. The same month the Palestinians relaunched their statehood bid at the United Nations and won great support.

“Before the (Gaza) operation, Labor was rising in the polls and Likud was sliding. There was a feeling that the social protest should be moved into politics. But the main issue has gone back to being defense,” Ben-Eliezer said.

Shmuli disagrees. Called up to the Gaza border for reserve duty during the offensive, he took shelter with fellow soldiers under their tank when rockets from Gaza hailed down.

“While all these missiles were flying over us, we had to find a way to pass those 10 minutes under the tank – and what did we talk about? About housing and about the high living costs.”

Many of the protesters came from the middle class, which bears a heavy tax burden and sustains the conscript military.

“We will always be there for our country – whenever it needs us, but the big question is, when we are out of our uniforms, will the state be there for us?” Shmuli said.

Tamar Hermann at The Israel Democracy Institute, a Jerusalem think tank, said a Netanyahu election win would not spell defeat for the social protest movement.

“Now we see the social-economic issues taking a much more significant role in the discussion over the future of the country,” Hermann said. “All the parties feel obliged to relate to the issues that were raised by the protest movement.”

MAKING POLITICS SEXY

Israel's election had been set for late 2013 but the government failed to agree on a state budget, which it said would require harsh austerity steps.

Netanyahu called an early vote in what commentators said was an attempt by the prime minister and partners in his governing coalition to avoid the risk of going to the polls after imposing unpopular cuts.

Labor has focused its campaign almost entirely on social and economic issues, and its projected gains in parliament are largely attributed to the protest movement.

If Netanyahu, against the odds, chooses to include Labor in his next government, some of the movement's demands will undoubtedly be part of that deal, said Yossi Yonah, a Labor candidate who has advised social protest leaders.

Labor chief Shelly Yachimovich, an advocate of a welfare state, has not ruled out serving in a Netanyahu administration. But the option seems remote given their opposing economic views.

Looking ahead to likely budget cuts after the election, Yonah predicted such steps could revive and bolster the protest movement, if it combines civil action on the streets with a combative parliamentary opposition to Netanyahu.

“The protest's impact cannot be judged after only one year,” Yonah said. “Eventually something must give.”

Both Shaffir and Shmuli hope to draw young people who are disillusioned with politics to come vote.

“Our parents brought us up to believe that if we work hard, study and try then everything will be okay, we will succeed. But when we grew up, when we were released from the army, we looked around and this society we were told about was gone,” Shaffir said.

Instead, she said, they found corrupt politicians who were not looking out for young people's interests.

The tents that Shaffir helped pitch are long gone and life has returned to normal on Rothschild Avenue, which is lined with banks, shops and cafes.

“We need to make politics sexy again,” Shaffir said, sitting on a bench on the trendy avenue filled with people walking their dogs and riding bicycles.

Writing by Maayan Lubell; Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Janet McBride

Palestinians see little hope in Israeli elections


Palestinians say they do not expect significant improvement in their lives or a re-starting of the peace process after Israel’s national election next month.

“The current election is a competition within the right-wing itself,” Nashat Aqtash, a professor of media at Bir Zeit University told The Media Line “All of them are using the same slogans – that Israel goes from the (Jordan) river to the (Mediterranean) sea and that there will never be a Palestinian state. We are losing hope that there are any Israeli leaders who are willing to conduct negotiations toward a peace agreement.”

Aqtash said that past Israeli leaders such as assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, current President Shimon Peres and former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert conducted serious negotiations with the Palestinians. However, in the past four years since Benjamin Netanyahu took office, there have been no substantive talks and the number of Israelis living on land Israel acquired in the 1967 war and claimed by the Palestinians has increased substantially.

“There are half a million “settlers” now,” Mahdi Abdul Hadi, the chairman of PASSIA, a Palestinian think tank in east Jerusalem told The Media Line. “Their tone is so provocative and so inhumane. We are very worried because we see Israel moving to the right.”

Abdul Hadi was referring to the 300,000 Israelis who live in the West Bank on post-1967 land, as well as some 200,000 who live in east Jerusalem. Palestinians say Israel must withdraw completely to the pre-1967 borders, and east Jerusalem must become the capital of a future Palestinian state.

He also asserted that attitudes in Israel have become more hardline, a view many argue is supported by Netanyahu’s decision to run on a joint slate with the hardline Israel is our Home party. That party’s leader, Avigdor Lieberman, stepped down as foreign minister after being indicted on charges of fraud. If he is convicted he will have to resign as a parliament member as well.

“The joint slate is the end of the two-state solution which we worked for, for so many years,” Abdul-Hadi said. “We were working hard to recognize each other.”

While polls show Netanyahu and Lieberman losing ground during the past few weeks, the lost votes are going to further right-wing candidates, not to the center. Palestinian media have been covering the elections. Despite all of the frustration Abdul Hadi says Palestinians have no choice but to follow events in Israel closely.

“Every Israeli election is an internal Palestinian issue and vice versa,” he said. “The conflict is deep rooted there and it is affecting people’s behavior. The Israeli election concerns everyone because they want to know where Israel is heading.”

Israel is a parliamentary democracy, meaning that voters choose a party instead of a candidate. The party with the most votes then tries to form a coalition. Given the current constellation of Israeli politics, it is impossible for the center or the center-left to form a coalition. That means the only question of the elections is if the coalition will be a rightist coalition of Likud and right-wing and religious parties, or whether some of the centrist parties will participate.

Polls: Netanyahu set to win Israel election but rightists gain


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud party is set to win a parliamentary election on January 22 although the popularity of a far-right party opposed to Palestinian statehood is growing, polls showed on Friday.

Two out of three surveys showed the right-wing Likud losing voters to political newcomer Naftali Bennett's religious party Bayit Yehudi (Jewish Home)and to a fractured center-left bloc.

All still predicted a strong right-wing coalition emerging in the 120-seat parliament, which would assure Netanyahu another term.

The daily Yedioth Ahronoth published a poll with Likud winning 33 seats, four less than a month ago. A poll in the Jerusalem Post showed Likud fell to 34, down from 39 just two weeks ago. A survey by Maariv said Likud held ground at 37.

Without a majority in parliament, Likud would have to join forces with other parties to form a government. Netanyahu could choose Bennett and ultra-Orthodox religious parties or team up with members of the center-left bloc.

The left-leaning Labor party remained in second place in all the polls, winning 17 or 18 seats.

Bennett's party platform rejects a two-state solution with the Palestinians and is staunchly in favor of settlement building in the occupied West Bank – an issue which has stalled peace talks.

All the polls show him on an upward trend, winning between 12 and 14 seats.

Reporting by Ari Rabinovitch; Editing by Angus MacSwan

Support for Hamas soars


A new poll shows growing support for the Islamist Hamas movement in both the West Bank and Gaza. If the elections were held today, Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh would beat Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas.

The poll, by veteran pollster Khalil Shikaki of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, found that 48 percent of the electorate in both the West Bank and Gaza would vote for Haniyeh, and 45 percent for Abbas. Just three months ago, a similar poll predicted a victory for Abbas, with 51 percent support over Haniyeh’s 40 percent. The poll showed Haniyeh as the most popular he has been since 2008.

“It’s a moment of happiness and popularity for Hamas, and a moment of challenge for Abbas,” Bassem Ezbidi, a professor of political science at Birzeit University told The Media Line. “Hamas is using its 'victory' in its recent war with Israel to enhance its status.”

Last month, Israel and Hamas fought for eight days during which Hamas launched hundreds of rockets at Israel and Israel responded with punishing airstrikes. The fighting ended with a cease-fire that has so far been observed by both sides. Hamas has said it proved itself as equal to Israel despite the Jewish state’s vastly larger military.

Abbas has focused his efforts on the diplomatic track. Last month, the United Nations General Assembly recognized “Palestine” as a non-member observer state, which allows membership in various UN committees. Ezbidi says this achievement pales in the face of what many see as Hamas’s military achievements.

Israel is also punishing the Palestinians for the decision to go to the UN. Israel is withholding $100 million in taxes and customs revenues it collects on behalf of the Palestinians, and is using it to pay Palestinian debts to Israeli companies such as the Israel Electric Company. That money is usually used to help pay the salaries of more than 150,000 Palestinian civil servants.

“More than two-thirds of these civil servants have bank loans for their houses and cars so the banks are also getting nervous,” Ezbidi says. “We are really in a mess here in Ramallah. Hamas is being perceived as strong, and Abbas as very weak.”

For the first time in many years, Hamas held demonstrations in the West Bank to mark the anniversary of its founding. Thousands of Palestinians waving green flags came out, in yet another show of strength for Hamas.

Israeli officials are watching the internal developments among the Palestinians with growing nervousness.

“The support for Hamas is over-rated, and Hamas has not gained anything for the Palestinians,” Israeli foreign ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor told The Media Line. “But the confrontational approach is gaining ground, and nobody is interested in negotiations with Israel.”

The results of the poll also raise the question of Palestinian “reconciliation”, bringing an end to the bitter division between Abbas’s Fatah and Hamas. In 2007, after a mini-civil war, Hamas violently took over Gaza. Since then, there has been almost no contact between Hamas and Fatah and the Palestinian parliament has been unable to meet.

Polls consistently show that Palestinians want the rivalry to end, and for national elections to be held. But most analysts say they doubt that either side is ready now for reconciliation.

“Each side is playing up its victory – Hamas on the military side and Abbas on the diplomatic side – and neither wants to compromise,” Ezbidi said. “I think support for Hamas will continue to grow.”

Tzipi Livni to run in upcoming Israeli elections at head of new party


Tzipi Livni has reentered Israeli politics at the head of a new left-of-center political party.

Livni, former head of the Kadima Party, announced Monday that she would lead a new party called Hatnua, or The Movement.

“I'm here to fight for Israel, not against anything. I'm here to fight for peace, for security, for a Jewish Israel, for a democratic Israel, for a country whose citizens all have equal rights,” Livni said at a news conference Monday morning in Tel Aviv.

In forming her own party, Livni turned down offers to join the leadership of two existing political parties. Yair Lapid, head of the new Yesh Atid Party, announced Sunday that he had offered Livni to be his number two, and to be a “full partner in all major decisions.” Lapid had called on Livni not to further split the centrist bloc .

Labor Chairman Shelly Yachimovich had also called on Livni to join the Labor Party.

Livni has one week to present her Knesset candidate's list. It is believed that several Livni supporters from the Kadima Party will follow her to the new party. She is also talking to several high-profile public figures about joining her, Haaretz reported, including former top IDF officers Shlomo Yanai, Yitzhak Ben-Israel, and Amram Mitzna.

Livni's former political home issued a statement following her announcement: “Kadima wishes Tzipi Livni success in her new endeavor, but wonders what she will manage to achieve with only a few Knesset seats that she didn't manage to achieve with the 28 seats Kadima had over four years. This is not a politically wise move. Instead of uniting the center-left bloc, Livni decided to split it.”

By merging with Liberman, Netanyahu knocks out the left and casts his lot with the right


Political pundits long have debated who is the real Benjamin Netanyahu.

Is he a pragmatist handcuffed by his right-wing support base and, until his father’s recent death, fealty to his father’s nationalist vision?

Or is he a true right-wing ideologue whose apparent concessions, like a 2009 speech at Bar-Ilan University in which he accepted the principle of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, are but feints?

Or is he merely a political survivor willing to do whatever it takes to stay in office, ideology be damned?

This week’s surprise announcement that Netanyahu’s Likud Party and Avigdor Liberman’s nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu party would merge their candidate slates in the upcoming election — under the name HaLikud Beiteinu — offers some signs that the smart money is on the right-wingers.

The move dealt a potential knockout blow to Netanyahu’s left-wing rivals and makes it more likely than ever that the prime minister will win a third term.

It also make it more likely that Liberman’s nationalist agenda will gain further traction in the next government, not less. The agenda has included legislation requiring loyalty oaths for new non-Jewish Israeli citizens and a ban on settlement boycotts — moves that many Israeli and American Jewish critics have slammed as undemocratic.

“The real government reform starts now,” Liberman said at a news conference Thursday night. “We advance to finish the work.”

Critics worry that with the merger, Netanyahu has unambiguously embraced Liberman’s hard-line domestic agenda.

“The prime minister is essentially signaling that he has chosen the extremist, pro-settlement right, that he has chosen to walk in place, not to make progress in the diplomatic process,” Zehava Gal-On, head of the liberal Meretz party, told Israel's Army Radio, according to Reuters.

Not that the Orthodox parties will be happy with the deal.

Liberman, a secular immigrant from the former Soviet republic of Moldova, is one of Israel’s most prominent anti-haredi politicians. He wants Israel to allow civil marriage in addition to religious marriage, and he has railed against government privileges granted to the haredi Orthodox. The current coalition’s tensest moments came this summer when Liberman and the haredi Orthodox parties battled over whether to require army service for haredi Orthodox youths, who previously had received exemptions to study Torah.

In that battle, Netanyahu sided with the haredim, breaking up the committee assigned to draft a new military service law.

The HaLikud Beiteinu merger represents a real triumph for Liberman. He founded Yisrael Beiteinu in 1999 as a right-wing party for Russian constituents, then quickly broadened its appeal. In 2009, when Israel last held elections, Yisrael Beiteinu won 15 of the Knesset’s 120 seats, becoming the nation’s third-largest party. Liberman was awarded the coveted post of foreign minister.

In the elections scheduled for Jan. 22, Netanyahu’s party was expected to win a plurality of votes, but there has been talk among Israel’s left and center-left parties of creating an alliance to challenge Likud. Since the elections were announced, rumors have swirled about former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert or former opposition leader Tzipi Livni, both of the Kadima Party, returning to politics and uniting the Knesset’s centrist and left-wing factions. A recent poll by Haaretz showed such a party potentially edging Likud.

HaLikud Beiteinu, however, is expected to win more votes than any center-left alliance. Polls before the merger showed Likud winning 29 seats and Yisrael Beiteinu winning close to its current 15 seats. If those numbers hold, the united party could win more Knesset seats than any since Labor won 44 seats in 1992 under Yitzhak Rabin.

“The time has come to unite for the State of Israel,” Netanyahu said in Thursday’s news conference announcing the merger. “We ask for a mandate to lead Israel with strength.”

He said the beefed-up party would allow him to more effectively combat Iran’s suspected nuclear weapons program, fight terrorism, and make domestic social and economic changes. Netanyahu said reducing the cost of living in Israel is one of his top priorities.

Obama and Israel: The record, the facts


President Obama has been criticized for being wrong for Israel. Even in the third debate of the Presidential campaign, a lovefest toward Israel, which was mentioned 31 times by the candidates, Governor Romney managed to get in a couple jibes against Obama's Israel policy. “I think the tension that existed between Israel and the United States was very unfortunate.” He went on to complain that Obama had not visited Israel, inferred that Obama had a poor relationship with the Jewish State, and accused Obama of wanting “to create daylight between ourselves and Israel.” Others opposed to the president have even been known to claim that Obama is the worst president for Israel in American history.

But history emphatically tells us otherwise. Many presidents saw Israel as a burden and acted accordingly. Truman recognized Israel's existence six minutes after its birth, but also embargoed arms before and during Israel's War of Liberation. Eisenhower, who doubted whether Israel should have even been created, forced Israel to return its gains in the Sinai and Gaza in 1956 by making a variety of threats, including ending tax-deductible gifts to Israel.

Ford set up a reassessment of America's Middle East policy in 1975 because he was angry at the Israelis for refusing a proposed disengagement agreement with Egypt. Carter brokered the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, but otherwise endlessly clashed with Israel. George H.W. Bush's secretary of state told Israeli Prime Minister Shamir publicly to phone the White House when he was ready to talk peace, and later denied Israel critical loan guarantees when refugees from the Soviet Union were arriving.

There are no similar episodes in Obama's record. Instead, he established the closest working military and intelligence relationship with Israel in the country's history: joint exercises and training, increased security assistance every year, unprecedented advanced technology transfers, doubling of funding for Israel's missile defense system, and assistance in funding for the Iron Dome system that today intercepts rockets headed for Israel. Indeed, in the debate he was emphatic that Israel “is a true friend and our greatest ally in the region,” and went on to say later, “I will stand with Israel if they are attacked. And this is the reason why, working with Israel, we have created the strongest military and intelligence cooperation between our two countries in history.”

More facts. The Obama administration has opposed efforts to boycott or divest from Israel. It backed Israel on the infamous Goldstone Report, the anti-Israel Durban Conference, the Gaza flotilla incident, Palestinian effort to gain recognition as a state, and others. And the U.S. voted with Israel at the UN 100 percent of the time under this administration, a first in modern history.

So what's the problem? Certainly, the poor personal relationship between the Israeli and American leaders does not help. But this is not the first time that an American president found an Israeli leader frustrating, yet managed to enhance U.S.-Israeli relations. Ronald Reagan had a number of diplomatic conflicts with Israel — the peace process, the U.S. sale of AWACS jets to Saudi Arabia, Israel's attacks against Iraq's nuclear reactor and the Lebanon War — yet strengthened security ties with Israel. Like Reagan, Obama has exponentially enhanced U.S.-Israel security cooperation. But unlike Reagan, Obama did not suspend arms transfers to Israel because of a disagreement with its leaders.

Recently, the Israeli-American discord has centered on Iran. The president and prime minister disagreed over setting a red line delineating when military action would be taken. But few noticed when the U.S. and Israel quietly resolved the issue, with Netanyahu agreeing to delay action until next year at the earliest and praising the president at the UN for his efforts.

In fact, Obama has supported the toughest sanctions on Iran in history, in pursuit of the goal of preventing Teheran for gaining nuclear weapons. In the foreign policy debate, he stated categorically that “…as long as I'm president of the United States Iran will not get a nuclear weapon. I made that clear when I came into office.”

His statements and actions are far tougher than anything provided by President George W. Bush. Standing with Prime Minister Olmert in Jerusalem in January 2008, Bush could only offer, “I believe it's incumbent upon the American Presidents to solve problems diplomatically. And that's exactly what we're in the process of doing. I believe that pressure — economic pressure, financial sanctions — will cause the people inside of Iran to have to make a considered judgment about whether or not it makes sense for them to continue to enrich.''

For Obama, opposing Iran's nuclear weapons is part of his longstanding opposition to nuclear proliferation. In 2004, even as he opposed the war in Iraq, Obama told The Chicago Tribune editorial board: “The big question is going to be, if Iran is resistant to these pressures, including economic sanctions, which I hope will be imposed if they do not cooperate, at what point are we going to, if any, are we going to take military action?” Admitting that attacking Iran might hurt America's image in the Arab world, he concluded, “On the other hand, having a radical Muslim theocracy in possession of nuclear weapons is worse.”

Obama's Iran policies have been working, with intensifying sanctions helping to cause accelerating economic chaos, and protests, in Iran, which is today weaker than four years ago. Tehran may have made advances toward a nuclear force, but the costs of that movement are clearer than ever, and the worldwide opposition more determined and tougher. Iran is paying a heavy price for its pursuit of nuclear weapons, and that price will grow higher. There is no argument between Israel and the U.S. on that score.

The critics are simply wrong. Obama has been an exceptional supporter of Israel where it counts — on the hard-core security and diplomatic issues that provide assistance and protection in a very dangerous region.

A similar version of this article appeared in the Times of Israel on October 19, 2012.


Steven L. Spiegel is Professor of Political Science at UCLA.

Netanyahu, Lieberman to merge party lists for election


The Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu parties will run in the upcoming Israeli elections on one list, ensuring that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu forms the next government.

Netanyahu, of Likud, and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman of Yisrael Beiteinu reportedly will announce the plan at a news conference Thursday. With the combination creating the largest list in the January elections, Netanyahu would be assured of forming the government.

The plan, reported by Israeli media outlets on Thursday, came after secret negotiations between Netanyahu and Lieberman, according to Ynet.   

Talk of a unified centrist and left coalition to combat Netanyahu has been floated in recent days.

Likud's Central Committee is scheduled to ratify the plan on Tuesday, though it is expected that some senior party officials will oppose it.

If Romney wins: Five things every Jew should know about Mormonism


1. Devout Mormons can be found all across the political spectrum.

The Mormon Church doesn’t endorse candidates or political parties, and although most American Mormons are Republicans, a Mormon Democrat has served as the Senate Majority Leader for the last five years. Owing to our history of persecution and emphasis on self-reliance, there is also a noteworthy group of Mormons with libertarian sympathies who do not easily identify with either party.

Mormons can be found on all sides of most issues. On immigration, for example, many Mormons tend to be more liberal than other Republicans (or Democrats, for that matter). Many of us have served missions abroad, and tend not to be too judgmental of people who come here seeking a better life. Although Mormons generally agree on many important moral issues (see below), there is no consensus on economics and the proper role of government. We all agree, for example, that we have an obligation to help the poor. However, the extent to which government should help meet their needs by taxing others is a point of contention among followers of most faiths, including ours.

2. Mormonism is part of the Judeo-Christian tradition.

Our church (the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) bears the name of the Christian Savior, we believe in the God of Israel, we accept the Hebrew Bible and New Testament as Scripture, we worship in chapels and temples, and we consider ourselves to be covenant Israelites. Mormons follow the Ten Commandments and are Noahides. In addition, the Abrahamic Covenant is central to our faith. Like Jews, the family is central to our faith, and our idea of heaven is to live with our spouses and families for eternity.

3. A Mormon president would not take orders from Salt Lake City.

If Mitt Romney wins, he’ll undoubtedly have the same arrangement with top church leaders that other Mormons have with local leaders: They don’t tell us how to do our jobs, and we don’t tell them how to run the church. Even Romney’s most intractable foes haven’t accused LDS church headquarters of drafting Romneycare in Massachusetts, and it’s safe to assume that church leaders aren’t behind Harry Reid’s shameful promotion of Las Vegas gambling interests in Washington. Mormons are used to looking to their leaders for spiritual advice, not professional guidance. While I would certainly expect Romney to consult with Mormon leaders as part of his general outreach efforts to faith communities (including Jewish leaders), I am confident that he will be his own man when it comes to formulating policies for the nation. I am also confident that Mormons will not be overrepresented in his administration, as Romney has a history of hiring capable people from all backgrounds to work for him.

4. On moral issues, Mormons are not extreme right-wingers.

A closer look shows the views of most Mormons on these issues to be much more nuanced. Let’s take abortion, for example. The LDS church is very much against it but does allow for possible exceptions in the case of rape, incest, a threat to the mother’s life or when the baby is not expected to survive childbirth. That’s pretty much Romney’s campaign’s abortion platform.

On gay issues, it is accurate to say that Mormons oppose state-sanctioned, same-sex marriage. However, it is both inaccurate and insulting to say that we are anti-gay. We can and do support many other issues that are important to gays. For example, former LDS Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.) introduced a Senate bill that would have added sexual orientation to the list of protected categories for hate crimes. Every Mormon I know is opposed to discrimination against gays in education, employment and housing. We also support rights for same-sex couples regarding hospitalization and medical care, probate rights, etc., so long as the integrity of the traditional family is not affected. As for theology, the LDS church teaches that homosexuality is not sinful in and of itself, as long as one remains chaste.

Although Mormons tend to have more children than the national average, our church doesn’t take a position on birth control. In addition, the church takes no position on capital punishment, stem-cell research, evolution or global warming. As a result, faithful Mormons are advocates for positions on all sides of these issues. 

5. Mormons are philo-Semites and pro-Israel. 

One of our basic Articles of Faith affirms: “We believe in the literal gathering of Israel and in the restoration of the Ten Tribes.” In 1841, LDS Apostle Orson Hyde offered a prayer on the Mount of Olives dedicating the Land of Israel for the gathering of the Jews. Israel went on to receive at least 11 apostolic blessings before the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948. For more than five decades (1870s-1920s), the church seriously considered establishing a Mormon colony in Palestine. Today, Brigham Young University has a beautiful center on Mount Scopus with the best view of the Old City in Jerusalem.

In the United States, Mormon pioneers arrived in the Utah territory in 1847. The first Jews arrived two years later, in 1849. The first Jewish worship service was held in 1864 in Salt Lake City. Rosh Hashanah was celebrated in Temple Square (the city center) in 1865. Brigham Young donated his personal land for a Jewish cemetery in 1866. In 1903, church President Joseph F. Smith spoke at the ceremony for the laying of the cornerstone for the state’s first Orthodox synagogue, which was largely paid for by the church. The second and third Jewish governors in the country were elected in Idaho (1914) and Utah (1916), the two states with the highest percentage of Mormons. Salt Lake City had a Jewish mayor by 1932, more than four decades before New York City.

Most Mormons in this country are very pro-Israel, and Romney is no exception. He has a close, decades-long personal relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who looks likely to be elected to another term. If Romney is elected, Jews and Israelis can be assured that they will have a true friend in the White House.


Mark Paredes writes the Jews and Mormons blog for the Jewish Journal and is a member of the LDS church's Jewish Relations Committee for Southern California. Read the Jews and Mormons blog at