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.

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.”

Members of the 19th Knesset sworn in at inaugural session


The first session of the newly elected 19th Knesset opened in Jerusalem.

The 120 members of the Knesset, including 48 new members, were sworn in on Tuesday as part of the celebratory opening.

The session was presided over by the Labor Party's Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, the legislative body's longest-serving lawmaker.

As part of the inaugural session, members heard a recording of Israel's first prime minister, David Ben Gurion, declaring the establishment of the Jewish State.

President Shimon Peres delivered the opening remarks. Peres addressed Israel's foreign and domestic challenges including the pressing need to pass a new budget, equality in sharing the national burden, social justice, the importance of peace and the threat from Iran.

“Members of Knesset, the smallness of our territory requires a greatness of minds. An Israel that will be built on values. That will be just for all citizens. A State that will be daunting to our enemies. A country that contributes. Our foundation is the Ten Commandments. Our vision is the edge of science. Members of Knesset, you are privileged to be representatives of the people. There is no greater right than to serve your nation,” Peres said..

As part of the ceremony, each Knesset member rose and swore his loyalty to the state and its laws.

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.

Likud leads, but rise of Yesh Atid, Jewish Home bode bumpy road ahead for Netanyahu


His party shrunk, his opponents grew and his challengers multiplied.

But with the results in, it seems Benjamin Netanyahu survived the Knesset elections on Jan. 22 to serve another term as prime minister.

Netanyahu faces a bumpy road ahead. His Likud party, together with the nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu, fell to 31 seats in the voting from its current representation of 42.

The biggest surprise of the election was the ascendance of former TV personality Yair Lapid’s centrist Yesh Atid party. Founded just a year ago, Yesh Atid won 18 seats on a platform of national service and pro-middle class economic reform. Likud’s traditional rival, the center-left Labor, grew to 17 from eight seats promoting progressive economic policy.

And another political newcomer, Naftali Bennett, is likely to push Netanyahu to the right on security issues. His Jewish Home party, a successor to the National Religious Party, quadrupled its representation from three to 12 seats.

Together with the Sephardic Orthodox Shas party and the haredi Orthodox United Torah Judaism, the right-wing Knesset bloc will hold 62 of the Knesset’s 120 seats — a slim majority.

That’s anything but a mandate for Netanyahu, who campaigned on the slogan “A strong prime minister, a strong Israel.” Instead of being able to lead a new coalition with a large party behind him, Netanyahu will have to negotiate with rivals and forge compromises with opposing camps.

Judging from the successes of Yesh Atid, Labor and Jewish Home, Israelis cast a resounding vote for progressive economic reform and new leaders in their parliament.

The biggest thorn in the prime minister’s side looks to be Lapid. Unlike the fiscally conservative Netanyahu, Lapid won support by calling for housing reform, opposing tax increases for the middle class and including haredi yeshiva students in Israel’s mandatory military conscription.

But Netanyahu’s biggest concern may be a rival in his own right-wing camp, Bennett, who appears to have picked up most of the seats lost by Likud-Beiteinu.

While Netanyahu remains ambiguous on the question of a Palestinian state — he formally endorsed the idea in a 2009 speech at Bar-Ilan University but has hardly mentioned it since or done much to promote it — Bennett passionately opposes the idea. Instead, Bennett, a former high-tech entrepreneur, calls for annexing much of the West Bank.

Even within Netanyahu’s party, nationalists on the Likud list who never before made it into the Knesset will now occupy seats. Among them is Moshe Feiglin, leader of the Jewish Leadership faction of Likud, who favors West Bank annexation and encouraging Arabs who hold Israeli citizenship to leave Israel.

The rise of Yesh Atid and Jewish Home do offer Netanyahu some new opportunities, too. Rather than rely on the haredi Orthodox parties such as Shas and United Torah Judaism for the coalition, Netanyahu could make common cause with Yesh Atid and Jewish Home, both of which want to draft haredi Israelis into the army or some form of national service — even though they may significantly disagree on security matters. Lapid talked during the campaign of his willingness to join a Netanyahu coalition, influencing the government from within rather than from the opposition.

So even though the haredi parties grew by three seats — Shas went to 13 from 11 and United Torah Judaism to six from five, according to exit polls — Lapid’s willingness to provide Netanyahu with an equally large chunk of seats to build his coalition means that the haredi parties may have lost their political leverage to keep yeshiva students out of Israel’s military draft.

For its part, Labor looks destined to lead the Knesset’s opposition; its chairwoman, Shelly Yachimovich, has vowed not to join a Netanyahu coalition. Tzipi Livni’s new Hatnua party, which won just six seats, is likely to stay in the opposition, too.

The election represented a major defeat for Livni, who in the last election led the Kadima party to 28 seats — more than any other party. This time, the eviscerated Kadima failed to win even a single seat.

Hatnua’s poor showing also suggested how little of the election was about negotiations with the Palestinians. Livni made much of the issue during the campaign, but it clearly failed to resonate with voters. Hatnua’s six seats equaled the showing of Meretz, the solidly left-wing party. By contrast, Labor, traditionally a promoter of peace talks, barely raised the issue in the campaign. Instead it focused on socioeconomic issues and made significant Knesset gains.

With Election Day over, the coalition building begins: To win another term as prime minister, Netanyahu now must cobble together an alliance of at least 61 Knesset members to form Israel’s next government. Who he chooses — and who agrees to join him — will determine a great deal about the course charted in the years to come by the Israeli government.

ELECTION RESULTS (according to exit polling):

Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu: 31
Yesh Atid: 18
Labor: 17
Shas: 13
Jewish Home: 12
Meretz: 6
United Torah Judaism: 6
Hatnua: 6
Hadash: 5
Raam: 4
Balad: 2

Analysis: The consequences of Israel’s vote


A few observations about the Israeli election results:

Right-left split changes, but not much: From an outsider’s perspective, Israel would seem to a very politically unstable place. The biggest party in the previous Knesset, Kadima, crashed from 28 seats to a grand total of zero. The No. 3 party, Yisrael Beiteinu, hitched its wagon to the ruling party, Likud, but their combined list lost about a quarter of its seats, down to 31 from 42. Meanwhile, a party that didn’t exist until a few months ago, Yesh Atid, emerged as the 120-seat Knesset’s second-biggest party, with 18 or 19 seats, according to exit polls.

Yet despite the swapping of party labels, not too much changed in the right-left split. The right wing appears to have lost a little ground — from 65 seats in the last Knesset to 62 seats in the new one. The center and left gained some adherents, but remains a minority with fewer than 50 seats (the balance goes to the Arab parties).

New priorities: With Israelis deeply pessimistic about the chances for imminent peace, a significant number of voters went for parties that made socioeconomic issues, not security, the centerpiece of their campaigns. Yesh Atid ran a campaign about social and economic issues, and Labor leader Shelly Yachimovich, who led the party to 17 seats, up from eight in the last Knesset, virtually ignored security issues in her campaign. This is a sea change from the old days, when campaigns were all about security. Tzipi Livni's Hatnua bucked that trend, emphasizing peace with the Palestinians. The result: 6 seats.

New faces: The 19th Knesset will see a plethora of new members, with more than a quarter of the Knesset occupied by first-timers, most of them from Jewish Home and Yesh Atid. Jewish Home is led by a son of American immigrants to Israel, businessman-turned-politician Naftali Bennett, and Yesh Atid is headed by former TV personality Yair Lapid (also son of the late politician Tommy Lapid).

Women: The new Knesset will see the number of women rise, with the biggest representation from Yesh Atid, eight of whose new representatives are women. The Likud-Beiteinu list has seven, Labor has four, and Jewish Home and Meretz each have three. Hatnua and Hadash each have one. Among the new women in the Knesset will be the body’s first Ethiopian-Israeli woman, Penina Tamnu-Shata of Yesh Atid, an attorney who immigrated to Israel at age 3 during Operation Moses.

The end of Kadima: Twice in its short history, the Kadima party leader occupied the prime minister’s office. But in just one election cycle, the party went from Israel’s largest faction all the way down to zero: Kadima failed to win a single seat in the 19th Knesset. The party was doomed by a variety of factors: The rise of Yesh Atid, whose socioeconomic-focused platform and charismatic leader peeled away centrist voters; Livni’s failure to gain adherents for Kadima and subsequent defection to her new party, Hatnua; and Shaul Mofaz’s decision to join, albeit briefly, the Likud-led ruling coalition. It’s not the end of centrist politics in Israel, but it is the end of the road for the party started by Ariel Sharon as a breakaway from Likud.

Bibi’s reign: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s supporters used to herald him as Bibi, King of Israel. So did Time magazine just a few months ago. But with the combined Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu list falling by a quarter after what was widely panned as a lackluster campaign, it’s difficult to make the case that Netanyahu’s star is burning brighter. He’s almost sure to capture the premiership again (now comes the horse trading that is Israeli coalition building), but it seems it will be more for lack of an alternative than enthusiasm for Netanyahu.

Hello, Naftali Bennett: If there was any enthusiasm on the right wing this time around, it appeared to be for Naftali Bennett, leader of the newly constituted Jewish Home party (itself a successor to the National Religious Party). The party captured 12 seats, up from just three (as the NRP) in the last Knesset. Bennett, who supports annexation of parts of the West Bank, is likely to apply pressure on Netanyahu to shift farther right on security issues.

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.

Livni: No Kadima party by next elections


Tzipi Livni, the former head of Kadima, said the centrist political party would not be in existence by the next Knesset elections.

Livni, who stepped down as head of Kadima and of the opposition after losing in March’s party primary, was asked if Kadima would be part of the next government, which is set to be elected in November 2013.

“There will be no Kadima by the next election,” she said Tuesday, according to Army Radio, at an Interdisciplinary Center conference in Herzliya. Livni did not elaborate on the comment, according to reports.

Kadima, which is headed by Shaul Mofaz, last month joined the government coalition of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Livni said when she resigned from the Israeli parliament that she was not going to absent herself from public life.

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


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

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

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

Read more at Haaretz.com.

Likud moves to dissolve Knesset, eyes Sept. 4 election


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

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

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

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

Yes, we cantankerous


ANALYSIS: Livni’s failure to build coalition could help or hurt in new elections


JERUSALEM (JTA)—With Israel now headed for new general elections probably some time early next year, supporters and opponents of Tzipi Livni are putting a very different gloss on her failure to form a governing coalition.

Opponents say Livni’s inability shows she is not yet seasoned enough to lead. Supporters counter that the reasons for her failure show precisely why she is the best candidate.

Livni says that had she been willing to give in to excessive political and budgetary demands by prospective coalition partners, she easily could have formed a government. Instead she took a stand.

The foreign minister, who won the Kadima primary in September to succeed party leader Ehud Olmert, portrays herself as a tough-minded patriot who sacrificed the premiership to stave off demands that would have hurt Israel’s national interest.

Her opponents suggest a less high-minded narrative: They say Livni bungled coalition negotiations because of a fundamental lack of experience.

Livni’s coalition effort was badly hurt by the adept political maneuvering of opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu, the head of the Likud Party. Netanyahu was able to convince three of Livni’s prospective coalition partners—the Sephardic Orthodox Shas Party, United Torah Judaism and the Pensioners’ Party—that he probably would win in a general election campaign and would be more amenable to their political and budgetary demands than Livni.

Netanyahu focused on Shas, the largest of the three with 12 Knesset seats. The former prime minister spoke of renewing the “historic alliance” between Likud and the right-wing Shas, declaring that if he won the election Shas would be the first party he would ask to join his coalition.

Shas probably would have been a difficult nut for Livni to crack in any situation. Insiders say party leader Eli Yishai made a strategic decision several months ago to force early elections and pre-empt a looming leadership challenge from his charismatic predecessor, Arye Deri.

Indeed, there were serious doubts as to whether he had negotiated with Livni in good faith. Yishai made two key demands: an allocation of 1 billion shekels—approximately $260 million—for child allowances, and a promise that Jerusalem would not be up for negotiation with the Palestinians. On Jerusalem, Yishai demanded that Livni actually sign a letter vowing to exclude the city from future peace talks.

Even if she had been ready to meet the budgetary demands, the written commitment on Jerusalem was out of the question.

“No American president would return a call from any Israeli prime minister who signed such a letter,” Kadima negotiator Yisrael Maimon, a former Cabinet secretary, declared.

Other challenges also made it difficult for Livni to cobble together a coalition.

Such negotiations typically take place after elections, with a full four-year term looming. But because of Olmert’s resignation, Livni came in mid-term with elections no more than two years away.

The notion of spending an abridged term in the opposition was less of a deterrent for prospective coalition partners, and they consequently raised their coalition demands. Even the Pensioners’ Party produced a document with some $786 million worth of new demands.

In the end, Livni said, she had no choice but to stop the horse trading and go for early elections.

Olmert likely will stay on as the caretaker prime minister until a new government is formed after the elections. Though he is a lame duck – and a disgraced one at that, having resigned under a cloud of corruption investigations—Olmert may press ahead with his peacemaking efforts to turn the next election into a referendum on peace.

Olmert also could step down and hand over the premiership to Livni, giving her the incumbency advantage going into the next election. Some Kadima leaders are talking openly about urging Olmert to make such a move, but Olmert has not offered any indication that he is willing to consider it.

Livni wants to hold new elections quickly. According to law, a majority in the Knesset could have coalesced around another candidate for prime minister and thereby averted the need for early elections, but President Shimon Peres announced Monday that after meeting with party leaders, no such possibility existed.

Elections must be held by mid-February, but the Knesset could speed or slow down the process by passing a law to dissolve itself and set a precise election date. Livni prefers this route and has instructed the Kadima caucus chairman to submit a bill with an election date as early as possible.

Livni likely will base her campaign on her squeaky-clean image in an era of political corruption and argue that of all the candidates, only she can restore the public’s confidence in its government and politics.

She will cite her failure to form a coalition as evidence of her high-principled approach, and her refusal to sign the “Jerusalem letter” with Shas as proof of her sincere commitment to peacemaking with the Palestinians.

Netanyahu will emphasize his experience, political smarts and special economic skills—he is a former finance minister—in light of the global financial crisis. He also will claim to be the only candidate who can be counted upon to preserve a united Jerusalem.

Labor Party leader Ehud Barak, who was pilloried in the media for demanding special powers in his coalition talks with Livni, will stress his experience as a former prime minister as well as Labor’s long leadership tradition.

Labor and Kadima are facing a serious tactical dilemma: They will be competing for the same center-left political space, but if they attack each other too viciously, Netanyahu will be the main beneficiary.

In the latest polls, Livni is slightly ahead of Netanyahu, with Barak a very distant third.

A Yediot Achronot poll gives Kadima 29 seats, Likud 26 and Labor 11; Ma’ariv has Kadima earning 31 seats, Likud 29 and Labor 11.

In the Yediot poll, the left-center and right-religious blocs are tied with 60 seats each in the 120-member Knesset; Ma’ariv has the left-center ahead, 61-59. The next prime minister needs a minimum of 61 seats in his or her coalition.

Both polls show that the three large secular parties—Kadima, Likud and Labor—could easily form a national unity government of 66 to 71 seats on their own.

That means Yishai, who sparked the election by refusing to join Livni’s coalition, could find himself out in the cold.

‘Top Gun’ Lawyer Aims to Aid Likud


The latest, and certainly most colorful, addition to the ranks of the local Likud leadership is Beverly Hills lawyer Myles L. Berman.

He is better known to citizens facing drunk driving charges — and to connoisseurs of advertising slogans — as The Top Gun DUI Defense Attorney, but these days, it’s the defense of Israel that is uppermost on his mind.

Last June, fed up with what he considers the failure of established organizations to involve the American Jewish and Israeli expatriate communities, he founded the Beverly Hills Chapter of the American Friends of Likud.

So far, he has recruited 11 upscale families, drawn primarily from the Iranian Jewish community, to which his wife, Mitra belongs. The members make up in financial clout what they lack in numbers, with a combined worth of over $1 billion, according to Berman.

Born into a strongly Democratic family but later a founder of the Republican Jewish Coalition, Berman, at 51, is a man of strong physique and opinions.

“I am fed up with intermarriage and with rabbis who reach out to gay and intermarried couples,” he said during an interview in his spacious Sunset Boulevard office.

A member of Sinai Temple, Berman fears that “to some extent, rabbis and lay leaders are unable to instill Jewish identity” into their constituents.

Currently, Berman is focusing his considerable energies on two primary issues:

One is to assure the election from America of a large pro-Likud slate for the upcoming quadrennial Congress of the World Zionist Organization (WZO), dubbed “The Parliament of the Jewish People,” and his own election to the No. 5 spot on the slate.

He is concerned, he said, that so few American Jews realize the importance of June elections for the WZO Congress, which plays a major role in determining relations between Israel and the Diaspora, the running of the Jewish Agency and the dispersal of hundreds of millions of dollars.

Berman’s second immediate goal is to persuade the Israeli government and Knesset to allow Israeli citizens living abroad to vote in Israeli elections.

“It matters to both Israel and American Jewry what the expatriates say and do,” he observed.

Berman has “grabbed [the two issues] in my teeth,” he said. With Berman that means putting his money and advertising savvy behind the effort. Indeed, his penchant for publicity elicits knowing smiles even from fellow Likudniks.

Berman is laying out $50,000 of his own money to place his messages on Israeli cable TV programs popular with Israeli expats, and in the Anglo-Jewish and Hebrew-language press in the United States.

“I hope the efforts will further my ultimate aim of bridging the gap between Israeli leaders and American Jews,” Berman said.

Any Jew over 18 is eligible to vote for delegates to the Congress of the World Zionist Organization online or via mail by Feb. 15. For details, go to www.azm.org or phone (888) 657-8850. The Congress will meet June 19-22 in Jerusalem.

 

Making Marriage Work


Like marijuana?

Believe in men’s rights?

Want a secular state?

If you happen to have an offbeat or nonmainstream platform
for Israel, now is the time to run in the Jan. 28 parliamentary elections. One
lesson to be learned from the list of the 30 parties vying for Knesset is that
Israelis are disenfranchised, and looking for alternatives to the major
National Security issue. 

And while Aleh Yarok (Green Leaf) — the party promoting
marijuana legalization — always seems to hit the headlines a week or two before
elections (despite publicity before the last elections in 1999, the party
mustered 34,029 votes, representing slightly more than 1 percent of the
electorate — 15,000 votes short of the 1.5 percent threshold for Knesset
membership), other parties with less headline-grabbing platforms are really set
to win big.

Take Tommy Lapid’s Shinui (change) Party. Their two-page
campaign booklet doesn’t get to their political leanings until the second page.
The self-described “democratic, secular, liberal, Zionist, peace-seeking party”
platform includes creating “a secular state, a free-market economy,
[obligatory] military service.”

Does 2 percent of the country really believe legalizing pot
is the most important issue? Are 12 percent really going to vote for Lapid, a
former in-your-face talk-show host whose primary goal is to secularize the
country? (Incidentally, Shinui is attempting to do for the secular what the
religious parties — and in particular, Shas — have done for years: exchange its
vote on security for social benefits such as money for schools.)

“I’ve covered a lot of Israeli elections, but I have never
seen one like this. I’ve never seen the Israeli public less interested in the
two major parties — indeed, in the whole event,” Thomas Friedman wrote in The
New York Times on Jan. 19.

What this means for Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is an even
bigger headache on Jan. 29 than he had on Nov. 5, 2002, when he called for new
elections (can anyone actually remember why?). But it also means that the major
parties had better start looking at secondary campaign positions if they want
to be relevant to the Israeli people.

Israelis, in answer to the question, “How is everything?”
might reply: “Hakol B’seder, chutz mimah she’lo b’seder” (Everything is all
right, except for what isn’t all right). The situation with the Palestinians is
so not all right, and the Israelis feel so powerless, that everything else just
seems so much more important.

 

Meanwhile, in Orange County and Los Angeles, the tide seems
to be turning the other way vis-à-vis involvement. Last month, the Israel Merchant
Faire at Tarbut V’Torah in Irvine attracted some 4,000 people and took in
$10,000 — enough to make a sizeable donation to the Israel Emergency Fund,
according to Charlene Zuckerman of Laguna Niguel, who chaired the event; one
vendor reportedly made $40,000 on the day.

And on Feb. 9, MERIT and the JCC will present a public
lecture, “An Update from the Front” with Mark Paredes, press attache of the
Consulate General of Israel in Los Angeles and Dr. Yaron Brook, executive
director of the Ayn Rand Institute.

In Los Angeles, this month saw the University of Judaism’s
lecture series featuring Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and former Secretary of
State Henry Kissinger, attended by almost 6,000 people. Peres also gave an
informal talk to some 100 of Hollywood’s glitterati (including Barbra
Streisand, Danny DeVito and Rhea Perlman, Annette Benning and Warren Beatty),
hosted by fellow countryman and producer Arnon Milchen (“L.A. Confidential”).

A similar group of impressive Hollywood stars turned up at
the home of DeVito and Perlman to hear out another set of visitors, Mohammed
Darawshe and Daniel Lubetsky, of One Voice: Silent No Longer, a grassroots
petition effort seeking more than 1 million Arab and Israeli signatures urging
an end to the violence and a commitment to peace.

And finally, on Sunday, Jan. 19, some 400 people from
throughout Southern California attended a full-day workshop at Temple Beth Am
in Los Angeles, “Learning How to Defend Israel: On Campus, In the Media, To the
White House, At your Office.” The StandWithUs Advocacy Conference actually had
to turn away more than 100 people from the intense and practical seminar.

Among those who turned out were students from UC Irvine and
other local universities. These students, said StandWithUs organizers, often
face virulent anti-Israel speakers and protests on their campuses.

What does all the activity on this side of the Atlantic mean? While the Israelis are deciding between indifference and apathy, the
American Jews are finally beginning to wake up from their 30-year slumber. When I lived in Israel I remember screaming at my friends in America how
important some issue was, and how can they not know about it, and why do they
want to talk about the latest Spielberg movie?

Now, I find it’s the reverse: from Los Angeles, I’m calling
them for their opinions on the upcoming elections, the latest diplomatic effort
and no, I don’t want to talk about the latest Spielberg movie.

It might take two to make a marriage work — but usually it’s
one party’s commitment that balances a lack of it on the disinterested one’s
part. American Jews’ increasing involvement in a process that Israelis are
ready to throw the towel at — well, that’s just what the marriage counselor
ordered. That, maybe, instead of a toke of the green stuff.

Making Marriage Work


Like marijuana?

Believe in men’s rights? Want a secular state?

If you happen to have an offbeat or nonmainstream platform
for Israel, now is the time to run in the Jan. 28 parliamentary elections. One
lesson to be learned from the list of the 30 parties vying for Knesset (see
page 18) is that Israelis are disenfranchised, and looking for alternatives to
the major National Security issue.

And while Aleh Yarok (Green Leaf) — the party promoting
marijuana legalization — always seems to hit the headlines a week or two before
elections (despite publicity before the last elections in 1999, the party
mustered 34,029 votes, representing slightly more than 1 percent of the
electorate — 15,000 votes short of the 1.5 percent threshold for Knesset
membership), other parties with less headline-grabbing platforms are really set
to win big.

Take Tommy Lapid’s Shinui (change) Party (see page 22).
Their two-page campaign booklet doesn’t get to their political leanings until
the second page. The self-described “democratic, secular, liberal, Zionist,
peace-seeking party” platform includes creating “a secular state, a free-market
economy, [obligatory] military service.”

Does 2 percent of the country really believe legalizing pot
is the most important issue? Are 12 percent really going to vote for Lapid, a
former in-your-face talk-show host whose primary goal is to secularize the
country? (Incidentally, Shinui is attempting to do for the secular what the
religious parties — and in particular, Shas — have done for years: exchange its
vote on security for social benefits such as money for schools.)

“I’ve covered a lot of Israeli elections, but I have never
seen one like this. I’ve never seen the Israeli public less interested in the
two major parties — indeed, in the whole event,” Thomas Friedman wrote in The
New York Times on Jan. 19.

What this means for Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is an even
bigger headache on Jan. 29 than he had on Nov. 5, 2002, when he called for new
elections (can anyone actually remember why?). But it also means that the major
parties had better start looking at secondary campaign positions if they want
to be relevant to the Israeli people.

Israelis, in answer to the question, “How is everything?”
might reply: “Hakol B’seder, chutz mimah she’lo b’seder” (Everything is all
right, except for what isn’t all right). The situation with the Palestinians is
so not all right, and the Israelis feel so powerless, that everything else just
seems so much more important.

 

Meanwhile, here in Los Angeles, the tide seems to be turning
the other way vis-à-vis involvement. These last 10 days in Los Angeles has seen
a flurry of Israel-related events and visitors almost as busy as the Oscar
buildup. The University of Judaism’s lecture series featuring Foreign Minister
Shimon Peres and former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, turned out nearly
6,000 people. Peres also gave an informal talk to some 100 of Hollywood’s
glitterati (including Barbra Streisand, Danny DeVito and Rhea Perlman, Annette
Benning and Warren Beatty), hosted by fellow countryman and producer Arnon
Milchen (“L.A. Confidential”).

A similar group of impressive Hollywood stars turned up at
the home of DeVito and Perlman to hear out another set of visitors, Mohammed
Darawshe and Daniel Lubetsky, of One Voice: Silent No Longer, a grassroots
petition effort seeking more than 1 million Arab and Israeli signatures urging
an end to the violence and a commitment to peace.

“My eight-year-old child came up to me and said he aspires
to become a soccer player, a doctor and a martyr,” Darawshe told some 70 people
last Wednesday at a more public event at Wilshire Boulevard Temple. Darawshe, a
Palestinian, is working with Lubetsky to enact change in Israel, and now “my
son doesn’t want to become a martyr, but a leader. I showed him that a leader
was the best.”

And finally, on Sunday, Jan. 19, some 400 people attended a
full-day workshop at Temple Beth Am, “Learn[ing] how to defend Israel: on
campus, in the media, to the White House, at your office.” The StandWithUs
Advocacy Conference actually had to turn away more than 100 people from the
intense and practical seminar, which included talks on European anti-Semitism,
by the Wiesenthal Center’s Rabbi Abraham Cooper; effective lobbying by Dianna
Stein, the American Israel Public Affair Committee’s deputy director for the
Southern Pacific Region, and Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Dist. 24); and writing
letters to the editor by this column’s most frequent contributor, Rob Eshman.

What does all the activity on this side of the Atlantic mean?
While the Israelis are deciding between indifference and apathy, the American
Jews are finally beginning to wake up from their 30-year slumber.  When I lived
in Israel I remember screaming at my friends in America how important some
issue was, and how can they not know about it, and why do they want to talk
about the lastest Spielberg movie?

Now, I find it’s the reverse: from Los Angeles, I’m calling
them for their opinions on the upcoming elections, the latest diplomatic effort
and no, I don’t want to talk about the latest Spielberg movie.

It might take two to make a marriage work — but usually it’s
one party’s commitment that balances a lack of it on the disinterested one’s
part. American Jews’ increasing involvement in a process that Israelis are ready
to throw the towel at — well, that’s just what the marriage counselor ordered.
That, maybe, instead of a toke of the green stuff.