Netanyahu, with team of rivals, puts together a government


He’s had to bite a few bullets to get there, but Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will lead Israel’s next government.

Barring a last-minute surprise, Israel’s new governing coalition will be sworn in this week: a center-right grouping of Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud-Beiteinu faction, the centrist Yesh Atid party, the religious nationalist Jewish Home party, the center-left Hatnua led by Tzipi Livni and the tiny, centrist Kadima.

In total, the coalition will include 70 of the Knesset’s 120 members.

The government’s priorities will be to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, enact budget reform, expand Israel’s mandatory military conscription and lower the cost of living, according to Netanyahu.

“Above all,” Netanyahu said at his weekly Cabinet meeting Sunday, the next government must address “the major security challenges that are piling up around us.”

The coalition deal is a bittersweet victory for the prime minister. He won a disappointing 31 seats at the ballot box in January. Now that divided vote has turned into a divided government that he’ll have to lead with ambitious rivals by his side.

Those divisions have grown more intense since the election, as Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid and Jewish Home chairman Naftali Bennett formed an alliance after the vote.

“He’s a much weaker prime minister,” said Hebrew University political science professor Shlomo Avineri. “We see the emergence of two popular leaders who are not constrained by internal party institutions and can dictate to their own parties whatever policies they wish.”

By forming the coalition days before his final deadline of March 16, Netanyahu gets another term as prime minister. And because his party will control the Foreign and Defense ministries — Likud’s Moshe Ya’alon slated to be the next defense minister – Netanyahu will be able to preserve the status quo regarding security issues and Iran.

And Israelis shouldn’t expect a renewed peace process with the Palestinians. Hatnua supports a two-state solution, while Jewish Home resolutely opposes a Palestinian state, as do many in Likud.

“I don’t think there is any chance of a final-status agreement with the Palestinians,” Avineri said, but “partial agreements” could be possible.

Netanyahu will serve as foreign minister while former Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman, Netanyahu’s No. 2, fights corruption charges. Should he be acquitted, he will return to the post. Lapid, who has said he wants to be prime minister, had fought hard in negotiations for the foreign minister post.

In managing his coalition, Netanyahu’s biggest challenge will be including haredi Orthodox men in Israel’s mandatory draft – one of Israel’s burning political issues. Yesh Atid campaigned on a platform of drafting almost all haredi men, who currently receive exemptions if they stay in yeshiva. Along with Bennett, a pro-settler Zionist who strongly favors haredi conscription, Lapid has been pushing for a strict draft law.

Not wanting to alienate the haredim – a traditional support base for Netanyahu – the prime minister has pushed for a more lenient version. The compromise, according to the latest Israeli reports, will be that haredim will be subject to the draft at age 22, not 18, like the rest of Israelis. And up to 2,000 haredim will continue to receive exemptions, far higher than the limit of 400 that Lapid had sought.

“The new political leaders are capable of reaching an agreement that will gradually change the rules of the game,” Bar-Ilan University political science professor Eytan Gilboa said.
Avineri says he’s skeptical the haredim will obey any draft law reached without the imprimatur of the haredi parties.

“The only way of seriously extending the haredi draft is to do it with negotiations with at least one of the haredi parties, and getting a wishy-washy compromise,” Avineri said. “You’re not going get it by drafting thousands of haredim against their will.”

Draft reform is one of Lapid’s signature issues, but his harder task may be succeeding as finance minister. For this a media personality who decided to enter politics a little more than a year ago with a campaign that promised commonsense policies and “new politics,” it will be a challenge to maintain his appeal while actually being a politician.

Lapid’s campaign slogan was “Where’s the money?” and he promised not to raise taxes on the middle class. Facing a budget deficit of $10 billion, Lapid may become the face of some unpopular spending cuts or tax hikes.

That could condemn the fate of Lapid’s Yesh Atid to that of other Israeli centrist parties that flared and then burned out. Kadima, for example, dominated Israeli politics after Ariel Sharon founded it in 2005, and it won 28 seats in the previous elections, in 2009. But this year it squeaked into the Knesset with just two.

“Lapid is in danger,” said Hebrew University professor Gideon Rahat. “What happened to the rest of the centrist parties is they disappeared in two or three years. But if he does things differently, he may be able to hold on.”

For his part, the ambitious Bennett, formerly Netanyahu’s chief of staff, reportedly does not get along with the prime minister. Personal rivalries could cause rifts in the government should Bennett, Lapid and Netanyahu disagree on sensitive issues.

“There are too many internal coalitions inside this coalition,” Gilboa said. “The prime minister is not good at resolving coalition disagreements.”

Netanyahu’s main threat, however, may come from outside of the coalition. Usually part of the government, the Knesset’s haredi parties – Shas and United Torah Judaism – have been excluded this term because they oppose drafting haredim. They have vowed to fight the coalition tooth and nail. The opposition leader will be Labor, with whom the haredi parties share support for progressive economic policies.

Gilboa said that Israeli public support of draft reform will drown out haredi protest.

“I think the haredim will fight the government on economic issues, but I think the Israeli public in general will support reforms,” he said. “But I would advise the new politicians to go slowly and cautiously.”

Final Israeli vote: Jewish Home gains a seat to give right wing a majority


The Jewish Home party gained one seat in the final results of Israeli voting, pushing the right-wing bloc to a majority in the 19th Knesset.

Israel's Central Elections Committee released the final tally on Thursday for the elections held two days earlier after counting 217,000 ballots collected at remote polling stations. Among others, the votes were cast by soldiers, hospital patients and government employees working overseas.

With the additional votes, Jewish Home finished with 12 seats, giving the right wing 61 seats in the 120-seat Knesset.

Also, the United Arab List-Ta'al party lost a seat and now has four, and Kadima crossed the required 2 percent threshold to gain two seats.

There were no other changes to the number of seats garnered by other parties. The Likud-Beiteinu list, led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, had 31 seats to finish first, as expected. The new center-left party Yesh Atid was a surprising second at 19.

Other parties entering the parliament are Labor with 15 seats; Shas with 11 seats; United Torah Judaism with seven seats; Hatnua and Meretz, each with 6 seats; Hadash with four seats; and Balad with three seats.

Two-thirds, or 3.77 million, of Israel's 5,656,705 eligible voters turned out, according to the elections committee. The number of voters was the highest since 1999, though turnout was down significantly among Arab voters.

The elections committee must submit the results to President Shimon Peres by Jan. 30. Peres then will ask party leaders who they would recommend to form the next government before choosing the one most likely to be able to form a successful coalition government — it is expected to be Netanyahu. The chosen party leader has up to 42 days to present his government for a vote of confidence.

On Election Day, Israel’s undecided voters face moment of truth


Israelis are almost never shy about offering their opinions, especially when it comes to politics.

The problem is that this year, many of them aren’t sure what their opinions are.

As Election Day approached, a large proportion of voters – 15 percent – remained undecided, according to polls. Some of them still were unsure even as they headed for the polls on Jan. 22.

But vote they did: By 4 p.m. Israel time, turnout at the polls stood at 46.6 percent – an increase of 5 percent over the last election, in February 2009.

Israel’s multiplicity of parties presented Israelis with a dizzying array of choices: 32 were in the running, and up to a dozen were expected to land seats in the Knesset. But with so many parties running on similar platforms, and after what many considered a lackluster campaign, many voters said they were disillusioned with their choices.

“No one seems good,” Stephanie Daniel, 28, told JTA. A women’s studies student in Tel Aviv, Daniel said she had vacillated between Hatnua, a party focused on negotiations with the Palestinians and led by former Kadima leader Tzipi Livni, and the left-wing Meretz party. In the end, Daniel said, she chose Hatnua because it advocates for environmental issues.

Her dilemma was not uncommon among young Tel Avivis. As they entered or exited their polling locations, many said they felt torn between the three center-left parties: Hatnua, Labor and Yesh Atid.

“I did a questionnaire on the internet” about who to vote for, said Elian, 27, a political science student at Tel Aviv University. She said that because she was a “social democrat from birth,” she chose the traditionally socialist Labor. But Elian said she saw the appeal of both Livni and Yesh Atid Chairman Yair Lapid, a political newcomer.

“Tzipi [Livni] can lead a state better than Shelly” Yachimovich, the Labor chairwoman, Elian said.  “Yair Lapid is new, and he talks a lot, but Shelly is more my ideology.”

Uri, 31, a Tel Aviv event planner, also found ideology guiding him as he deliberated between Labor, Hatnua, Yesh Atid and Meretz. “There was social pressure,” he said. “One friend feels this way, another that way. But everyone knows on the inside” whom they support.

He ended up voting for Meretz, he said.

Uncertainty lingered on the right, too. Gilad Konforty, 30, an MBA who recently became Orthodox and now studies in a yeshiva, was trying to decide between two Orthodox parties, the Sephardic Shas and the Ashkenazi United Torah Judaism. He went with UTJ.

“They better represent Jewish values and Jewish character,” he said. While Shas has, at times, cooperated with left-wing governments, UTJ “doesn’t move around, they don’t capitulate, they don’t compromise,” he said.

With the right-wing Likud-Beiteinu list widely expected to beat its center-left competitors, some right-leaning voters chose pragmatism over ideology and voted for the party they figured would best be able to influence a Likud-led coalition.

Guy, 33, a Jerusalemite who works in the technology industry, said he chose the pro-settler Jewish Home Party and its Modern Orthodox chairman, Naftali Bennett, over Likud because he wants “to put another kippah in the Knesset.”

“They’ll work together anyway” Guy said. Bennett will “push the government a little to the right. I think he has more concern for the religious sector.”

With so many new parties, voters faced the prospect of a large number of first-timers making it into the Knesset.

“There are a lot of new parties that have talked but have not done anything,” said Yaakov, 47, a banker from Tel Aviv also vacillating between Shas and UTJ. “The old parties didn’t prove themselves.”

Dor Midler, 21, a first-time voter, said she was voting for Yesh Atid’s Yair Lapid and his list of political neophytes.

“I just left the army, and he’s the best for young people,” she said. “He’s something new. I’m optimistic. At some point, it has to be OK.”

Uri, the Tel Aviv event planner, said the flood of information available to voters today rendered decisions more difficult.

“You open Facebook, you can see everything that happens,” he said. “Before, it would be that my father votes Likud, so I vote Likud. Now you can see the party platform, what they’ve done, what they haven’t done.”

This year Likud failed to produce a formal party platform.

Dina, 76, a Tel Aviv resident who lost a husband and son in Israel’s wars, said she’s disappointed with Israel’s entire political system.

“Wherever there are Jews, there are never just two parties,” she said. “There are too many parties.”

Dina said she was a faithful Labor voter for decades until 2006, when she felt that the party wasn’t effective and cast a protest vote for the Pensioners’ Party. She said she’s voting cautiously for Livni after flirting with a return to Labor.

Neither party excited her, though there would have been one politician she said would raise her spirits – Shimon Peres, the 89-year-old former Labor prime minister who is Israel’s current president.

“He loves the state,” Dalia said. “There’s not one job he did where he didn’t succeed. He’s the lighthouse of the state.”

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.