Netanyahu clinches coalition deals


Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu clinched deals for a coalition government on Thursday reflecting a shift to the center in Israel and a domestic agenda that has shunted peacemaking with Palestinians to the sidelines.

In control of 68 of parliament's 120 seats, the right-wing leader's new administration is expected to take office next week, just days before a visit by U.S. President Barack Obama, his first to Israel since entering the White House.

“There is a government,” said Noga Katz, a spokeswoman for Netanyahu's Likud party, citing agreements with the centrist Yesh Atid and far-right Jewish Home parties as well as with a smaller faction led by former foreign minister Tzipi Livni.

Netanyahu's long-time partners, ultra-Orthodox parties effectively blackballed by Yesh Atid and Jewish Home over social benefits and military draft exemptions for religious Jews, will not be in the new coalition born of a January 22 parliamentary election.

The exclusion of the religious parties represents a dramatic political change for an increasingly inward-looking Israel after the surprisingly strong ballot box showings by Yesh Atid, led by former TV news anchor Yair Lapid, and Jewish Home, headed by high-tech millionaire Naftali Bennett.

Although Lapid, has advocated a resumption of peace talks with the Palestinians stalled since 2010, his party's second-place finish was a reflection of a renewed public focus on bread-and-butter issues such as the high cost of living.

“We came into politics specifically to influence health and welfare policies…the time has come to start working,” Yesh Atid lawmaker Adi Kol said on Israel's Channel 10 television.

Public expectations are high that the new government could affect real change in what many Israelis see as state coddling of the ultra-Orthodox, whose welfare benefits and exemption from the military provide little incentive or opportunity to learn skills and contribute to the economy.

Netanyahu will turn his attention again to the Palestinian issue and Iran's nuclear drive in his talks with Obama, with whom he has had a testy relationship. But U.S. officials have said Obama is not coming with any peace plan and expectations of any swift movement on the Israeli-Palestinian track are low.

“We hope that this Israeli government will choose peace and negotiations and not settlements and dictation,” Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat said.

DEADLINE

Lapid and Bennett each said they expected to sign coalition deals with Netanyahu later in the day. Livni made her pact with the prime minister several weeks ago.

The agreements on Thursday were sealed before a March 16 deadline for Netanyahu to announce a new government. Yesh Atid said Lapid would become finance minister. Israeli media reported Bennett would get the trade and industry cabinet post.

Lapid, 49, gained wide backing among young, secular voters who helped fuel massive street protests in 2011 against high food and housing prices.

He and Bennett, 40, took kingmakers' roles in the coalition bargaining by forming a negotiating alliance that frustrated Netanyahu's efforts to retain his largely loyal ultra-Orthodox partners for his third term in office.

Bennett, who Israeli media said would get the industry and trade portfolio, rejects any future Palestinian state and has strong support among Israeli settlers in the West Bank.

But he has pledged not to be an obstacle to peace talks, saying that in any case, he does not believe they will achieve anything. Neither Bennett nor Lapid have spoken out in detail on how they would deal with the Iranian issue.

Palestinians have demanded Israel suspend construction in settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, areas captured in the 1967 Middle East war and which they seek, along with the Gaza Strip, for a future state.

Netanyahu has called on the Palestinians to return to the talks without preconditions. 

Additional reporting by Dan Williams; Editing by Angus MacSwan

Meet some of Israel’s new Knesset members


Last week’s Israeli election saw a major shakeup in the country's government, with 53 new members elected to its parliament, the Knesset.

Some already have received wide attention, including Yair Lapid, the middle class-focused chairman of Yesh Atid; Naftali Bennett, the high-tech entrepreneur who chairs the new Jewish Home party; technocrat Yair Shamir, Yisrael Beiteinu’s No. 2; and Moshe Feiglin, the nationalist settler who finally landed a Knesset seat with the ruling Likud Party.

Though lesser known, many of the other new faces in the Knesset are no less interesting. Meet five of them: a woman with a doctorate in Talmud, an Ethiopian immigrant, a mother of 11 from Hebron, a socially conscious venture capitalist and an American-born rabbi.

Rabbi Dov Lipman (Yesh Atid)

He’s a haredi Orthodox rabbi in a party calling for haredi army service. He’s been an advocate for coexistence in a city fraught with interreligious conflict. Soon he’ll be the first American-born member of Israel’s Knesset since Meir Kahane.

Dov Lipman, 41, originally from Silver Spring, Md., was a Jewish educator in Cincinnati and Maryland before moving to Israel with his family in 2004. They ended up in Beit Shemesh, a Jerusalem suburb with a large haredi and Anglophone population that also has been a flashpoint for conflict between haredi and Modern Orthodox Israelis. As the city’s conflicts escalated in recent years, Lipman tried to serve as a bridge between the two sides.

He says he believes that there’s no contradiction between working, serving the country and being haredi, and he wants to bring that ethic to Israel. It’s a challenge: Many of Israel’s haredim are unemployed, few serve in the Israeli military and many are avowedly non-Zionist.

“In America, haredim have education, there are opportunities and they work,” Lipman told JTA. “That issue bothers us more because we know there’s no contradiction.”

Lipman hopes his presence in Yesh Atid — the party campaigned for universal national service, including haredim — will allow him to help integrate haredi Israelis into the rest of Israeli society.

Leading up to Election Day, few expected Lipman, No. 17 on the Yesh Atid ticket, to land a seat in Knesset. But Yesh Atid campaigned hard. Every night, it seemed, Lipman hosted a parlor meeting for English-speaking Israelis, participating in English-language debates or blogging on the English news site the Times of Israel.

When Yesh Atid won 19 seats, Lipman was in.

Ruth Calderon (Yesh Atid)

Ruth Calderon, 51, is a Jewish scholar who, like Lipman, advocates interreligious understanding. But unlike Lipman and most Jewish scholars in Israel, Calderon earned her degree at a university, not a yeshiva.

But that didn’t stop her from starting one. Calderon, who holds a doctorate in Talmud from Jerusalem’s Hebrew University, founded the Elul Beit Midrash in Jerusalem in 1989, one of the city’s first Jewish study houses where secular and religious Israelis can study and discuss Judaism together. More recently, Calderon founded Alma, a center for Hebrew culture in Tel Aviv with a mission to combine Jewish, Israeli and universal culture.

Calderon calls herself a “non-halachic person,” but that doesn’t stop her from posting daily passages from the Mishnah on her Facebook page. She also hosted “Hacheder,” a television program in which she discussed Hebrew culture with guests.

Erel Margalit (Labor)

The Labor Party’s campaign this year, driven by party Chairwoman Shelly Yachimovich, was to strengthen middle-class and poor Israelis. One of the campaign’s central slogans declared that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “is good for rich people. Shelly is good for you,” and one of the party’s most public new faces was 2011 social protest leader Stav Shaffir.

Now one of the party’s freshmen is one of Israel’s wealthiest and most successful venture capitalists.

Erel Margalit, 51, founder of Jerusalem Venture Partners, has been declared “king of the exits” by The Marker, Haaretz’s business magazine. From 2000 to 2010, he presided over seven $100 million exits, or sales of stakes in companies — the most in Israel.

But Labor’s social-democratic values speak to Margalit. He grew up on a kibbutz and in 2002 founded JVP Community, a fund to address social issues in Jerusalem. One of its flagship programs is Bakehila (Hebrew for “in the community”), which organizes educational programs for disadvantaged Jewish and Arab children.

After Labor split and fell to a historic nadir of eight seats in 2011, Margalit founded the Labor Now organization to recruit new members to the party and reinvigorate its values. He ran for the party chairmanship that year but dropped out of the race.

Margalit may still harbor leadership ambitions. After Labor won 15 seats last week, he criticized Yachimovich’s campaign focus for the party's failure to do better.

“We should have expressed ourselves more clearly over our foreign policy agenda,” he said, according to the daily Israel Hayom.

As a child, Margalit lived for two years in Detroit. He later earned a doctorate in philosophy from Columbia University.

Orit Struk (Jewish Home)

Orit Struk, who comes from one of the most ideological communities in the West Bank, will have to pass through a checkpoint or two on her commute to her new job in the Knesset. She lives in Hebron, where she runs the Jewish community's legal and diplomatic division and has made her home for 30 years.

A mother of 11 and grandmother of 12, Struk also is the founder and chairwoman of Human Rights in Yesha, an organization that advocates for settlers’ rights. In that capacity, Struk has fought against alleged abuse of settlers by soldiers and policemen, and advocated for the rights of those who protested Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza in 2005.

Struk, 52, also runs the Land of Israel lobby in the Knesset that fought for settlement expansion and legalizing settlement outposts.

Days before the election, in the wake of the release of a video of Jeremy Gimpel, another Jewish Home candidate, speaking enthusiastically about the Dome of the Rock exploding, Struk said, “We pray that the Temple will rise again in Jerusalem.”

Struk at times was described as a liability in Bennett’s campaign to present Jewish Home as an inclusive right-wing party, not a settlers’ party. But in an interview shortly before the election with Israel's Channel 2, Bennett denied she was a liability.

“I’m not hiding Orit Struk,” he said. “In every party, people vote with their conscience and it’s OK that among 15 people, we’ll have a representative of the right.”

Shimon Solomon (Yesh Atid)

Shimon Solomon, 44, has come a long way to the Knesset. When he was 12, Solomon set out on foot with his family from Ethiopia, traveling via Sudan to Israel.

Later, after becoming a social worker, he returned to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital, from 2005 to 2007 to help others follow in his footsteps. He also works with Physicians for Human Rights as an advocate for refugees and is a former director of the Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village in Rwanda, a center for orphans of the Rwandan genocide.

The future of refugees and migrants in Israel has been a topic of heated debate over the last year or two.

“He reminds me of my father,” said Lapid, the Yesh Atid chairman and son of late Israeli politician Tommy Lapid, as he introduced Solomon as a candidate in November. “My father was an immigrant. He came here in a ship from another country without knowing a word of Hebrew. And like Shimon, when he set foot in Israel, it became his.”

Solomon responded by promoting an ethic of service. “Everyone needs to give of what he has, even if he doesn’t have much,” he said.

Solomon served in the Israeli Defense Forces’ paratroopers unit and is a reserve officer. He is one of two Ethiopians on Yesh Atid’s list along with Pnina Tamnu-Shata, the first Ethiopian woman to be elected to the Knesset.

Israeli lawmaker says McCarthy was right


The Israeli lawmaker who sponsored a bill to limit funding to left-leaning NGOs said Joseph McCarthy “was right in every word he said.”

Likud lawmaker Ofir Akunis told a political television show on Dec. 4 that McCarthy, the Wisconsin senator who presided over a U.S. Senate committee in the 1950s that investigated Americans suspected of sympathy with the communists, “was right in every word. The fact is, there were Soviet agents.”

Akunis’ bill would ban political organizations in Israel from receiving donations of more than approximately $5,500 from foreign governments and international organizations. Its progress has been frozen in the Knesset at the request of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Akunis later told the Israeli daily Haaretz that he does not support McCarthyism and said he meant that McCarthy was right about Soviet agents infiltrating the United States.

Over the weekend, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton criticized the state of Israeli democracy, referring in particular to Akunis’ bill.

Netanyahu moves up party primary


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu confirmed that he is moving up the date of Likud Party primaries.

With his announcement Monday, Netanyahu apparently is showing that he believes he is in a strong position in the party and would more easily be able to win re-election as party leader.

The date for the Likud poll is set for Jan. 31, which is the same day as the party’s vote for a new Central Committee. Combining the elections will save the party more than $1 million, according to reports.

Netanyahu’s main rival for the position, Vice Prime Minister Silvan Shalom, said he would take legal action against the initiative, Ynet reported.

The party’s internal elections must be held at least six months ahead of national Knesset elections, which are scheduled for 2013.