January 15, 2019

Israel’s Election Handbook: No Mergers, No Doubts

Israeli Prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during an event by his Likud Party in Tel Aviv, Israel August 9, 2017. Photo by Amir Cohen/REUTERS.

We call this format a Timesaver Guide to Israel’s Coming Elections. This will be a usual feature on Rosner’s Domain until April 9. We hope to make it short, factual, devoid of election hype, and of he-said-she-said no news, unimportant inside baseball gossip.

Bottom Line

Splits continue – mergers await.

Main News

The Arab Party is also on its way to a split.

Netanyahu made his case against pre-election decision on hearing.

Internal security warns from outside interfering in election, Russia rebuffs allegations.


Feb. 11 is the day of Labor Primaries.

Developments to Watch

Political: Arab split could mean two Arab parties in the Knesset, or one party that does not cross the finish line (leading to a reduction of the record number of Arab MK’s in the current Knesset).

Personal: According to polls taken since she split with the Labor Party, Tzipi Livni does not make it into the next Knesset. She must find a new political home, or she might disappear.

Material: It’s not clear if and how Russian intervention can impact Israeli voters. This is not America: Voters are generally speaking more informed, engaged and involved.

What’s the Race About

Still nothing. But to get some more input listen to the Rosner’s Domain podcast with veteran political commentator Yaron Deckel.

Possible Wild Cards:

A decision to indict/not indict Netanyahu.

Resignation of Labor’s Avi Gabbay.

Violence in Gaza.

The Blocs and Their Meaning

We offer two options of political blocs. In the graphs bellow you can see what happened to these blocs since Dec. 25, the day new elections were announced. Since then, parties fractured, but blocs remain relatively stable.

What you can see next (again, for the two options) is how little changed on average since the beginning of 2018. We compare the average of polls since January 2018, to the average of the last 5 polls. The result: two to three more seats to the center, one to two less seats to the right and the left. Over all, the political situation remains the same. A coalition can be formed by the right plus some of the center, or by the center plus some of the right.


Focus on One Party

While other parties go up and down, the Likud Party is relatively stable. It also has a projected number of seats that’s more than double than the next party in line. If there are no mergers that can push other parties above the 25-seat line, there is little doubt that the Likud will form the next coalition. The President cannot let a party with 13 or 17 seats to form a government, when Likud has 28 or 30 seats.








Israel’s Election Handbook: Silent Treatment

Ehud Barak.

We call this format a Timesaver Guide to Israel’s Coming Elections. This will be a usual feature on Rosner’s Domain until April 9. We hope to make it short, factual, devoid of election hype, and of he-said-she-said no news, unimportant inside baseball gossip.



Bottom Line

Netanyahu utilizes his legal troubles to rally the base.

Main News

Netanyahu released a video demanding that any decision by the Attorney General concerning his indictment will be postponed until after Election Day.

The AG will reportedly announce his decision a few weeks before Election Day.


First public appearance of General Benny Gantz – the head of the most fashionable party to the left of Netanyahu – is expected sometime. For now, Gantz’ silence draws ridicule but does not hurt him, politically speaking.

Developments to Watch

Political: There are too many parties. Talks about possible mergers will continue until the last minute. Can the center unify? Can the religious-right? Can Haredis?

Personal: A few players did not yet throw their hats into the ring. The two most important: Former PM Ehud Barak. Former Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi. It is not clear if any of them can tip the scale in a certain direction.

Legal: Netanyahu intensifies his attacks on the legal system. This strategy has two reasons. 1. His base is highly suspicious of the system. 2. His attacks are likely to draw angry responses, and some of them, by people much less experienced than him in public speaking, could help his campaign.

What’s the Race About

Is the legal system trying to topple an elected PM?

Possible Wild Cards:

A last-minute merger of all centrist parties (Gantz, Lapid, Livni, and maybe more).
A highly convincing indictment that leaves Netanyahu little choice but to seek a deal.

The Blocs and Their Meaning

We offer two options of political blocs. In the graphs bellow you can see what happened to these blocs since Dec. 30. Parties fractured, but blocs remain pretty much the same. The averages of polls since January 2018 (column 11) and of the last 10 polls (column 12) show relative stability. If things do not change, the right will win the election, but the Likud Party is going to need to convince at least one centrist party to join the coalition. This could become complicated for an indicted PM.

Focus on One Party

When Israel decided to go to election, The Jewish Home seemed like a midsize party. Then its two leaders, Naftali Bennet and Ayelet Shaked, suddenly left it. Not it is a party whose future is unclear. It can be small – or disappear. That is, if the party does not meet the electoral threshold (four seats). In such case, the right-wing bloc could lose the equivalent of two to three seats.

The average number of seats currently projected by polls is 3.2. Namely – no seats.





Israel’s Election Handbook: Split on the Right

We call this format a Timesaver Guide to Israel’s Coming Elections. This will be a usual feature on Rosner’s Domain from now until April 9. We hope to make it short, factual, devoid of election hype, he-said-she-said no news, unimportant inside baseball gossip. See an Update with the newer polls from Sunday here

Bottom Line

Israel’s political system fragments on both right and center.

Main News

Ministers Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked left The Jewish Home to form the New Right party. Generals Benny Gantz and Moshe Yaalon to join forces.


February 21: Last date to present the lists of candidates for all parties.

Developments to Watch

Political: How many voters leave The Jewish Home for the New Right. How many voters the New Right is able to get from other parties (Likud, Yesh Atid, Gantz, Shas).

Personal: Will MK Bezalel Smotrich become the new face of The Jewish Home? Who will he recruit to attract more voters? Will Tzipi Livni find a new political home (she does not seem to want to stay in the Zionist Camp – nor does Gabbai seem to want her to stay)?

Material: The growing tension around Gaza can put Bibi Netanyahu is an awkward position, and is likely to strengthen Lieberman (who left the coalition arguing that Israel’s deterrence no longer work in Gaza).

What’s the Race About

Who better represents the ideologies and interests of the center-right and right?

Possible Wild Cards:

Eruption of violence in Gaza.

A decision to indict Netanyahu.

The Polls and Their Meaning

Below are the parties gaining and losing seats according to the polls since December 25, compared to the number of seats they won in 2015 (The New Right is not yet here). Note that Likud seems very stable and that the two parties who gain most seats are new parties – the old parties either lose (Zionist Camp) or stay about the same.


The Blocs and Their Meaning

We offer two options of political blocs. As you can see, in both cases, the right-religious bloc does not have more than 60 seats and thus cannot form a coalition by itself. It will have to be joined by at least one of the centrist parties. Columns 13 and 14 are averages – 13 of all polls since January 2018, and 14 of all polls since December 25, when new election were announced. For now, what we see is stability. Parties fluctuate, but blocs remain the same. With such outcome, it is clear that Likud will form the new coalition.

See an Update with the newer polls from Sunday here


Focus on One Party

This is what the Yesh Atid Party looks like in polls since the beginning of the year. It looked in a much better position when Gantz was not yet a part of the picture. It currently looks as just one of many second tier parties. The average for Yesh Atid in polls since December 25 is 13 seats, two more than it currently has in the Knesset.

Israel’s Election Handbook: A Day After Update

Israeli Prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during an event by his Likud Party in Tel Aviv, Israel August 9, 2017. Photo by Amir Cohen/REUTERS.


This is a short update of Israel’s Election Handbook from yesterday. We recommend that you read both to get the fuller picture.

Many media outlets conducted polls the day after new elections were announced. So, we use the opportunity to show how these polls change the picture of Israel’s political blocs’ map.

The bottom line is still similar to what we said yesterday: “the right-religious bloc does not have more than 60 seats and thus cannot form a coalition by itself. It will have to be joined by at least one of the centrist parties. The center and the left can theoretically form a majority – but only if they can agree to rely on the United Arab Party, an unlikely scenario. If things stay the way they are, the likely coalition will be one similar to the current coalition. The right, plus a party or two from the center – Netanyahu will have room for negotiations”.

We offer two options for potential political blocs. You can see the list of parties in each bloc for each option on the right.



If you are interested in averages, here is how the polls of the last 48 hours split the three blocs (the numbers refer to average number of projected seats in the Knesset):


Israel’s Election Handbook: A Timesaver Guide to Israel’s Coming Elections

A general view shows the plenum as Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at the opening of the winter session of the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, in Jerusalem October 31, 2016. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun/File Photo

This format of reporting on Israel’s elections will be a usual feature on Rosner’s Domain from now until April 9. We hope to make it short, factual, devoid of election hype, he-said-she-said no news, unimportant inside baseball gossip. Click here for updates.

Bottom Line

It is going to be short and fierce. Three months plus small change. Netanyahu has the edge, but legal troubles can complicate his situation.


Election Day is April 9.


The votes necessary to call new elections are expected this week.

Four parties must hold primaries within a few weeks: Likud, Labor, Jewish Home, Meretz.

Several candidates who are still sitting of the fence must decide if and how they intend to enter the fray. The most notable of these candidates is former IDF chief of staff, Benni Gantz.

Developments to Watch

Political: The attempts of Israel’s center-left to form a new bloc of parties that can effectively challenge Netanyahu. Without such a bloc, it’s not clear if there’s a viable path for anyone to compete with the Likud Party.

Personal: Where is Gantz is going? He is the wild card for now, according to the polls.

Legal: Attorney General schedule. In short, will he or will he not make a decision to indict Netanyahu as the police and the State Attorney recommend.

Material: The crash of markets. This can lead to economic anxiety, even though Israel’s economy seems to be in a solid position.

What’s the Race About?

For now, one issue: should Netanyahu get a fifth term?

Possible Wild Cards:

A decision by President Trump to put his peace plan on the table.


The Polls and Their Meaning

These are the averages for each party both since January and in the last 3 polls. Expect many changes as new parties form and old parties split or collapse. This will be a rapid process.

(for even newer numbers see our Day After Update)


The Blocs and Their Meaning

We offer two options for potential political blocs. As you can see, in both cases the right-religious bloc does not have more than 60 seats and thus cannot form a coalition by itself. It will have to be joined by at least one of the centrist parties. The center and the left can theoretically form a majority – but only if they can agree to rely on the United Arab Party, an unlikely scenario. If things stay the way they are, the likely coalition will be one similar to the current coalition. The right, plus a party or two from the center – Netanyahu will have room for negotiations.


Focus on One Party

This is what the Zionist camp looks like in polls since the beginning of the year. The two orange dots are scenario polls in which Benni Gantz joins the Zionist Camp. Clearly, the party can benefit from a leadership shakeup.


Counting to Election Day: The Cruelest Battle

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and Education Minister Naftali Bennett attending the annual Bible Quiz in Jerusalem, on May 12, 2016. Photo by Shlomi Cohen/Flash90

Is Israel going to New Elections?

Yesterday two events made early elections – possibly in May – much more likely. Event one: the police recommended to indict PM Netanyahu on bribery charges. Event two: The Supreme Court gave the government until mid-January to pass a military draft law (for which there is not majority support among current coalition members).

To make this possibility easier to asses we’re republishing the table of recent polls –with the most recent updates – and explaining the chances for success and failure of the parties. Follow the comments, look at the table.




It’s early. We don’t yet know who is running and how. The most important decision will be made by former IDF Chief of Staff Benni Gantz. This table shows that he can get from 15 to 20 seats as a head of a standalone party, or close to 25 as the head of the Zionist Camp. With more seats he can dream about becoming the PM – with an independent party he can join all coalitions and get a significant portfolio (most likely, Defense). Looking at the current table, going alone makes more sense, as Netanyahu seems likely to have a majority for a coalition similar to the one he had until a few weeks ago.


If Gantz runs alone, the Zionist Camp is in huge trouble. It will become insignificant even as an opposition party.


Netanyahu can have a small yet coherent coalition without Gantz or Lapid. Or he can take one of them and have a very large coalition. Or he can take both and have a gigantic coalition (our table’s “centrist coalition” option includes Lapid but not Gantz). Such a coalition could get more than 80 seats in the Knesset. The question of course is whether it can also be functional.

Remember that Netanyahu did well this term with a small and coherent coalition.


It’s important to remember that parties with 4-5 projected seats might not pass the electoral threshold. If, for example, Shas fails to get 4 seats (as some polls might predict, despite their average being close to 6 seats), coalition calculations become more complicated.


Note that about 20 seats are going to new, unknown, barely established, never tried before parties (Levy Abekasis and Gantz). Clearly, Israelis are looking for something that doesn’t currently exist in their political universe (maybe: a way to beat Netanyahu).


These polls were all taken before the police recommendation. Don’t be so sure that the recommendation will hurt Netanyahu. In fact, it could strengthen him. Especially so if rightwing voters feel that he needs their votes to win.


Going to new elections over the draft bill can also be tricky. All in all, Haredis are not well liked by most Israelis, nor is IDF draft deferment. If the opposition gets a chance to convince the public that this is the most important issue on the agenda, the public might give it more votes. Surely, Netanyahu is going to argue that security is the important item, and that no one else has the needed experience to keep Israel safe.


This isn’t necessarily a race for PM. Unless something dramatic changes, Netanyahu will be the next Prime Minister. I’d think about it as the race to be Defense Minister. Lieberman wants the position back – and will get it back only if he has enough seats. Bennet wants it badly, and with enough seats for the Jewish Home he can make it a condition. But there is also Gantz. If he gets many votes, Netanyahu can use him either to tame Lieberman’s/Bennet’s ambitions – or as Defense Minister in a coalition that begins with 45-50 seats (Likud + Gantz).

In other words: there is good chance that the race for Defense Minister will be much fiercer, crueler, bloodier and more interesting than the race for PM.

Israel: The State of the Political Race

A general view shows the plenum as Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at the opening of the winter session of the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, in Jerusalem October 31, 2016. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun/File Photo

The numbers below are taken from polls conducted in Israel after the abrupt resignation of Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman earlier this week. Only one of these polls tested the option of a new party headed by former IDF Chief of Staff Benni Gantz. In all but one of the polls, the current coalition has a majority without a need to add more parties to the mix (ironically, the one newspaper whose poll does not predict such majority was done by Makor Rishon, an ideologically right-tilting newspaper). Netanyahu lost popularity this week – as many polls show – but when it comes to forming the next government he is still on solid ground.


A Few notes:


  1. This is early, and we ought to expect many changes until election day (time unknown).
  2. Still, presuming a repeat of the current coalition would be reasonable, and viable (as you can see in the table below).
  3. Gantz can run alone, or join a party, or a conglomerate of center-left parties, in an attempt to reshuffle the political cards.
  4. The two Ashkenazi Haredi factions that compose United Torah Judaism are, well, not as united as they used to be. A split is possible (meaning, one Hasidic and one Yeshivish party).
  5. Our “centrist coalition” option is based on the contours of Netanyahu’s third government: a coalition without the Haredi parties. Since parties disappeared (Hatnuah) or were established (Kulanu) since that time, we tried to assess how such coalition is likely to look like. Likud + Yesh Atid + Jewish Home + Kulanu + Israel Beiteinu + Abekasis.



News Notes: West Bank Annexation, BDS battle, asylum seekers


In the news: Likud party calls for de-facto annexation of Israeli settlements.

More than three years ago I made the following argument: “It’s not easy to mark the exact moment when a peripheral idea suddenly becomes mainstream. But it’s safe to say that in today’s Israel the worrisome idea of annexing land in the West Bank is no longer marginal or considered as extreme as it once was”. Still, the recent Likud vote in support of annexation does not worry me – at least no more than I was worried three years ago.


  1. Because it was a political move with no actual consequences.
  2. Because it does not have the support of the more serious leaders of Israel.
  3. Because the word “annexation” means nothing until all other aspects of annexation are clarified.

In other words: saying “annexation” is no more than a simple statement: Israel ought not leave Judea and Samaria. As a statement, it does not startle me. As a plan – it is no plan. Can Israel stay? What will be the price of it? What happens with the Palestinians who live there? Until these question have a clear and reasonable answer, annexation is a childish provocation, not a real threat.


In the news: Organizations that promote a boycott of Israel are no longer welcome there.

There is no reason for BDS activist to come to Israel other than make trouble. There is no reason for Israel not to block the entrance into the country of people whose main motivation is to make trouble. The rest is noise, the rest is political propaganda: “anti-Democratic measure” (it is not, Israeli citizens can still oppose Israeli policies), “the policy of autocracies” (not true – a Democratic has the right to decide not to let certain people in, and most democracies do), “will drive young Jews away from Israel” (tough luck, not everything Israel does is aimed at gaining the approval of young liberal Jews).

The bottom line is simple: you want to harm Israel – don’t expect Israel to accept you with open arms. You want to harm Israel – don’t expect Israel to be sensitive to your hurt feelings.


In the news: Israel offers to pay African migrants to leave, threatens jail.

The debate over how to deal with people who seek asylum in Israel has two main components:

  1. Does Israel have the right to block the entrance, or deport, people it does not want as citizens.
  2. What measures can Israel take to achieve such goal.

That we have trouble having this debate is any sensible way is due to the fact that the two camps having this debate do not believe that the motivation of the other side. There are those believing that the other side – while saying he is for a fair treatment of asylum seekers – truly seeks to rob Israel of its right to keep its entry gate. There are those believing that the other side – while saying he merely wants to keep Israel’s cohesive character – are willing to treat asylum seekers cruelty and inhumanly.

In truth, most Israelis – not activists, politicians, headline grabbers, populists – believe is quite simple: keep Israel cohesive, and don’t open the gates to people disrupting its cohesiveness. But also refrain from being cruel, or racist, or inhuman. To achieve such goal, the main challenge is not one of policy, but rather of mutual trust.

We, the Pickles

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the United Nations on Sept. 19. Photo by Lucas Jackson/Reuters

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s most memorable phrase of the past week — the phrase for which his speech at the opening of the winter session of the Knesset will be remembered — is untranslatable.

Yes, you can call it the “pickles speech,” but this makes no sense. In Hebrew, “pickles” is “chamutzim.” In Hebrew, “chamutzim” is also “sourpuss.” So, the “pickles speech” (in Hebrew, “Ne’um HaChamutzim”) is truly the “sourness speech.”

Netanyahu mocked his rivals by calling them “pickles,” as he blamed them for being irreparably sour and dissatisfied. “You are constantly grousing,” Netanyahu said about them, “attacking and nitpicking. … You deal with nonsense, but you know deep down that in democratic elections, we will win.”

Yet the chief pickle of the day was not the usual opposition leader or some party hack. It was Israel’s president, a Likud Party veteran, Reuven Rivlin. Without mentioning Netanyahu or his party by name, Rivlin harshly criticized the attitude of the ruling majority and its tendency to treat all criticism as politically motivated and hence illegitimate. “The media is political, the democratic institutions — everything from the [civil service] professionals to the state comptroller — political,” Rivlin said. “The Supreme Court is political, the security forces are political. And is even the IDF, our Israel Defense Forces, political? The entire country and its institutions are filled with politics.”

The debate between these two leaders was as profound as it was personal.

The debate between these two leaders was as profound as it was personal. They clearly dislike each other, but that’s beside the point. What they say is what’s important, and what they say it what’s disturbing.

Rivlin, rightly, feels that his party and former friends lost their way, and lost their sense of stately responsibility. He did not say this in such words, but what he meant was: You all have become party hacks, no longer caring for the country and its people, only caring for maintaining your government.

Netanyahu, rightly, feels that no matter what he does, his critics grumble. If the economy is doing well, he does not get credit. If Israel is strong, he does not get credit. If terrorism is contained, war is avoided, relations with the United States are solid and Israel’s position in the world improves, he does not get credit.

Both of these leaders lost their trust in the good faith of important institutions — a disease of our time (see this week’s number on the right side of the page). Rivlin, for example, does not believe that the government is acting in good faith to better Israel when it attempts to rein in the Supreme Court’s activists. Netanyahu does not believe that police are acting in good faith to better Israel when they investigate his deeds and misdeeds.

This is a disturbing sentiment, because trust is all a government has in a democratic society. Without the general trust of the public, it cannot properly function. If citizens do not trust the police, they will not complain, nor tell it the truth. If citizens do not trust the courts, they will not accept their verdicts. If citizens do not trust the government, they will search for ways to circumvent the government — to change the rules or ignore them.

Lack of trust is a dangerous disease because it is very hard to heal. Netanyahu is unlikely to heal it, because of his belief that every attempt to mend the differences will be a sign of weakness and used against him. Rivlin is unlikely to heal it because the minute he steps into this minefield, he becomes a suspect in the eyes of those who see conspiracies and enemies around them. The opposition is unlikely to heal it, because it has political motivations that it rarely resists — namely, when opportunity to politicize an issue presents itself, the opposition usually jumps on it and thus reveals its un-stately motivations.

Maybe the next leader, after Netanyahu, can do something to mend this sense of mistrust. Maybe, but Netanyahu is not going away without a fight. Why would he, when all he sees around him are blunt attempts to dethrone him by means other than winning an election — investigations, insinuations, allegations, exaggerations and the pickiness of pickles? n

Shmuel Rosner is senior political editor. For more analysis of Israeli and international politics, visit Rosner’s Domain at jewishjournal.com/rosnersdomain.

Likud lawmaker Yehuda Glick sets up office outside Temple Mount to protest ban on visits

Likud lawmaker Yehuda Glick sitting outside the Temple Mount in the Old City of Jerusalem in protest on the ban on Knesset members visiting the site, Aug. 14, 2017. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.

Yehuda Glick, a lawmaker from the Likud party, held office hours outside an entrance to the Temple Mount to protest an ongoing ban against Knesset members visiting the holy site.

Glick, a longtime activist for Jewish prayer rights at the Temple Mount, told reporters that the action Monday would only last one day.

“I’m here to protest the fact that the prime minister won’t enable police to allow us to enter the Temple Mount,” he said. “I suffer every day I can’t enter the Temple Mount.” “There’s no reason in the world to think that my entering the Temple Mount will stir trouble.”

In 2014, a Palestinian terrorist shot and nearly killed Glick for his Temple Mount activism.

Since capturing the Temple Mount from Jordan in 1967, Israel has controlled access but allowed Jerusalem’s Islamic authority to manage the site, which is holy to Jews and Muslims alike.

In November 2015, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordered lawmakers to stay off the Temple Mount amid a wave of Palestinian terrorism linked to claims that Israel was trying to change the status quo. Israel denied the claims. After Glick filed a petition against the ban, Netanyahu in early July decided to allow lawmakers to visit the site on a trial basis.

However, on July 14, before the decision went into effect, three Arab Israelis shot dead two policemen on the Temple Mount. Israel responded by suspending the plan and installing walk-through metal detectors at the Muslim entrances to the site. Amid prayer sessions, riots and regional pressure, Israel eventually removed the metal detectors. But the ban on visits by lawmakers remains in place.

Still, in July, some 3,200 Jewish Israelis visited the Temple Mount — more than in any month since the state took control of the site.

Natan Sharansky, Naftali Bennett condemn anti-Semitic and racist hate at Charlottesville rally

A demonstrator holds signs during a rally in response to the Charlottesville, Virginia car attack on counter-protesters after the "Unite the Right" rally organized by white nationalists, in Oakland, California, U.S., August 12, 2017. Picture taken August 12, 2017. Photo by Stephen Lam/REUTERS.

Natan Sharansky, the chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, and Diaspora Affairs Minister Naftali Bennett condemned a white supremacists’ rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, and the deadly attack on a counterprotester.

Sharansky, whom many Jews in Israel and beyond consider a champion of human rights and liberties, in a statement Monday wrote that he was “horrified by the death of a protester at the hands of one of the marchers.”

“There is no place for such hate speech or violence in any democratic society,” he wrote, “and I am confident that American authorities will do everything in their power to bring the perpetrators to justice.”

Ahead of a rally Saturday by far-right activists in Charlottesville, a supporter of neo-Nazis drove a car into a crowd of counterprotesters, killing one and injuring at least 20.

Sharansky, a famed political prisoner of the Soviet Union for his Zionist activities, also said he was “deeply concerned” by the expressions of anti-Semitic hatred in Charlottesville, including against its Jewish mayor, Michael Signer, as well as “other forms of racism and hatred.”

Bennett, a right-wing politician from the Jewish Home party, which is a coalition partner of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud, published a statement on Sunday that criticized the expressions of hatred at the far-right gathering. His statement also appeared to reference the absence of a condemnation by President Donald Trump targeting the far right specifically after the attack.

“The unhindered waving of Nazi flags and symbols in the U.S. is not only offensive towards the Jewish Community and other minorities, it also disrespects the millions of American soldiers who sacrificed their lives in order to protect the U.S. and the entire world from the Nazis,” Bennett wrote in the statement, adding “The leaders of the U.S. must condemn and denounce the displays of anti-Semitism seen over the past few days.”

The Trumpification of Bibi

Israeli Prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara react to his supporters during an event by his Likud Party in Tel Aviv, Israel August 9. Photo by Amir Cohen/REUTERS.

It appears that Netanyahu is more emboldened in the Trump era. He seems to be asking himself, ‘If Trump can get away with these things, why can’t I?’ Last night’s rally of thousands of Likudniks in support of Netanyahu, who is facing multiple corruption probes, was peak Trumpification. The Kafe Knesset team hasn’t been to any Trump rallies, but from our observation from afar, this seemed a lot like one.

This originally appeared as part of Kafe Knesset on JewishInsider.com

Enemy number one for Netanyahu and his supporters, was, of course, none other than the fake news media. “The Left and the media — which are one and the same — are on an obsessive, unprecedented witch hunt against me and my family,” Netanyahu said, calling the media the “thought police.” Sound familiar, American readers? “And the ‘fake news media’ doesn’t talk about all the charity work Sarah does all the time for Holocaust survivors and kids with cancer,” Bibi lamented.

The crowd booed whenever Netanyahu mentioned the media, and a name-check of Ha’aretz warranted the loudest jeers. Someone held a large sign saying “It’s not fake news, it’s f***ing news” (which probably doesn’t mean what he thinks it means) and a Netanyahu supporter was spotted in a “CNN is fake news” t-shirt. Likudniks shouted in the faces of some of the more famous reporters present. Of course Netanyahu has long blamed the media for his problems. He didn’t need POTUS to get that idea. But the style seems to be imported from Trump Tower.

The putsch: There was also a lot of emphasis in the speeches of Bibi and coalition chairman, and rally organizer, David Bitan, as well as the signs held up by attendees, of the Left attempting a “putsch.” They accused the Left of portraying Netanyahu as being “guilty until proven innocent,” rather than the other way around, and trying to unfairly influence law enforcement authorities. They said that the Left couldn’t win an election, so now they’re trying to take over the country in other, less-than-democratic ways.

Old man, new beard: Bibi also used his speech at the rally to burnish his right-wing bona fides, making sure to call out a trifecta of targets of right-wing ire: Oslo, the Palestinians and former Prime Minister Ehud Barak.

Netanyahu cited reports that the Palestinians don’t want to negotiate in hopes that he will be ousted over the investigations, saying that of course they don’t want him out because he will not retreat to pre-1967 lines like the Palestinians want. He said that the last time the press ousted a Likud prime minister – Yitzhak Shamir – by claiming he was corrupt, Israel ended up with “Oslo and exploding buses.” And he mocked Barak as “an old man with a new beard” who speaks “nonsense.” (Barak, by the way, responded with another Facebook video slamming Bibi).

King Bibi: The Bibi cult of personality was in full force as well. “Bibi King of Israel” was a song chanted over and over by demonstrators, and many held signs of his face with the words “My prime minister.” These are actually pretty typical for Likud rallies, but take on a somewhat different meaning considering the context of this one.

“We got 30 seats in the last election – in the next one we’ll get 40,” was Netanyahu’s rallying cry.

There’s no denying that Likud knows how to party. There’s always good dance music playing at Likud events – some Sarit Hadad and some Static and Ben-El, “Whoever believes is not afraid” by Eyal Golan is a perennial Likud event favorite. The Likud members tend to be very chatty, and there are plenty of colorful personalities around, making it a fun night for reporters who are willing to mingle and get creative – as long as they stay clear of some of the angrier types.

Spotted at the Likud rally: It’s August, so people like Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein and Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan were out of the country but Tourism Minister Yariv Levin went straight from the airport to Tel Aviv’s Fairgrounds in order to make it to the rally; firebrand MK Oren Hazan taking selfie after selfie after selfie, swarmed by Likudniks; Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, who recently joined the party and is trying to curry favor with the grassroots; Bayit Yehudi MK Motti Yogev, who said that he thinks Netanyahu is being treated unfairly. Bayit Yehudi sources told Kafe Knesset that the party is not happy with Yogev’s stunt; former MK Shmuel Flatto-Sharon, builder of Dizengoff Center, who ran for Knesset even though he barely spoke any Hebrew, in order to get parliamentary immunity so he wouldn’t be extradited to France.

Kim Jong-Bibi? Meanwhile, the opposition expressed outrage at the show of support for Netanyahu. Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid accused the Likud of rallying in support of corruption. Meretz leader Zehava Gal-On said it reminded her of North Korea, where people are forced to express support for the dear leader. Zionist Union chairman Avi Gabbay said it showed Bibi is insecure, and accused him of trying to distract from the fact that Israeli citizens are paying the price of his corruption. “Netanyahu keeps saying the nation is with him. I call on him to check that in a national election as soon as possible,” Gabbay said.

Netanyahu slams ‘fake news,’ calls investigations a ‘witch hunt’

Israeli Prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during an event by his Likud Party in Tel Aviv, Israel August 9, 2017. Photo by Amir Cohen/REUTERS.

Embattled Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, currently the subject of multiple corruption investigations, lashed out at the “fake news” media at a rally attended by thousands of Likud Party supporters.

Held Wednesday at the Tel Aviv Fairgrounds, the rally was organized by coalition chairman and Likud lawmaker David Bitan, who told Israeli media he organized the rally because Netanyahu is being “persecuted” by the media and the opposition. Supporters were bussed in from around the country for the rally.

In his speech, Netanyahu slammed the “fake news” media, echoing a sign at the rally that said “Fake news is f***ing news.” Some journalists said they were verbally abused by rally participants.

Netanyahu called the corruption investigations “an obsessive witch-hunt against me and my family.”

“They don’t want to just take me down, they want to take us all down. They know that they can’t beat us at the ballots, so they are trying to circumvent democracy and topple us in other ways,” Netanyahu said.

“We know that the left and the media — and we know that it’s the same thing — is on an unprecedented hunt against me and my family to bring down the government. They are putting unrelenting pressure on the legal system in order for them to present an indictment without any proof,” he said.

Netanyahu is currently the subject of two corruption investigations. In the first, called Case 1000, Netanyahu is accused of receiving expensive gifts from billionaires and then taking action on their behalf. In the second, called Case 2000, he is accused of striking a deal with a newspaper publisher in order to receive favorable coverage at the expense of a competitor, Israel Hayom, owned by the casino magnate Sheldon Adelson.

Two other corruption scandals target close associates of Netanyahu and both his wife and older son also are targets of investigations.

Netanyahu, a dead man walking (aren’t we all?)

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrives to the weekly cabinet meeting at his office in Jerusalem July 23, 2017. REUTERS/Abir Sultan/Pool

When there is no news, there is speculation. And in recent days there has been very little news about the criminal investigations into allegations against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Investigations are slow and, besides, there is a gag order that’s preventing the news media from reporting about any developments. So there is a vacuum, and the vacuum is filled by speculation, and by ever-chatting politicians and pundits. Some of them try to convince us that the prime minister is a dead man walking. Some are trying to convince us that “there will be nothing, because there is nothing,” which is Netanyahu’s usual response to questions about the investigations.

He is not dead yet. But the potential of a sudden political death no longer can be denied. Netanyahu suffered a blow last week when his close aid, Ari Harow, signed a state-witness agreement. One assumes that such an agreement only is signed with a witness who has something incriminating to say. One assumes that Harow was in a position that provided him unique access to Netanyahu. What did he tell the investigators? We don’t know. What does he tell his acquaintances? “I did not rat out Netanyahu” is what he says.

Is that possible? Is it possible that the police signed an agreement with a state witness when the witness believes that he said nothing incriminating about his former boss? In fact, it is. It’s possible if what Harow has to tell is open to interpretation. Harow told the investigators stories that he considers legal and they might consider illegal. Harow told them stories that he believes are not incriminating enough to put Netanyahu on trial and they might believe are incriminating indeed and strong enough to indict Netanyahu.

He is not dead yet. But the potential of a sudden political death no longer can be denied.

Harow might be naïve. He might not understand the severity of his actions. The investigators might be overeager. They might not see that in their zeal to search for an elusive truth, they criminalize trivial actions. As I remarked four years ago, prosecutors have sniffed around every prime minister for nearly two decades, with mixed results. Netanyahu, first term: investigated, not charged. Ehud Barak: investigated, not charged. Ariel Sharon: investigated, not charged. Ehud Olmert: investigated, charged, found guilty (mostly for his actions as the mayor of Jerusalem). Netanyahu, second term: under investigation again.

Olmert was forced out as prime minister because of the investigation and indictment. Netanyahu has vowed not to repeat Olmert’s actions, that he will not leave his position even if an indictment is put before the court. There is no clear indication in the law that a prime minister must resign if he is indicted.

For now, his coalition partners support his position. But political grounds can shift. Today’s support is essential but hardly guarantees tomorrow’s support. The legal situation might be navigable. But Olmert was pushed out by the political system: The Labor party’s Barak forced the Kadima party to get rid of Olmert or else (the coalition would crumble). And, of course, Barak said at the time that his motivation was pure and that his ambition was for Israel not to be corrupt.

Still, more cynical observers and members of the political cast believed at the time, and still believe, that Barak wanted Olmert ousted because of personal ambitions and his belief that a vacuum created an opportunity for him to become more powerful.

So, Netanyahu’s political fate is hanging in the air and a decision to cut short his time in office could only begin with the political system. And that comes with a lot of ifs: if the prime minister is indicted, if the public (not just his rivals but also voters of coalition parties) wants him out, if his fellow politicians master the courage to stand up to him, if coalition partners believe they can benefit from a new election or get more from another prime minister.

Last week, it appeared that some of Netanyahu’s colleagues were beginning to entertain such thoughts. This week, the tide turned, and Netanyahu proved, once again, that he is quite good at disciplining his party members. Likud ministers who were somewhat reluctant to defend him are back on the airwaves, declaring his innocence. They do it not because they like Netanyahu, not because they want him to stay as their leader, not because they are truly convinced that he is innocent; they do it because that’s the smart thing for them to do politically. It is the smart thing to do as long as Likud voters want Netanyahu to stay.

There are four scenarios under which Netanyahu could be forced out. One: If the politicians decide it is time. Two: If Netanyahu believes he needs to step aside and take care of his legal troubles. Three: If he is indicted and found guilty. Four: If the court interprets the law in a way that forces out the prime minister as soon as he is indicted.

What is the timetable for these scenarios to materialize? With politicians, one never knows, but for now, there is not one important member of the ruling coalition who wants Netanyahu to step aside. There also is no sign that Netanyahu is considering leaving. In fact, he has vowed time and again to fight and remain in office. Indictments take time. A lot of time. In any of these scenarios, Netanyahu is not leaving anytime soon.

Of course, there still is the option of a court decision that forces him out. This will not be an easy decision, because unlike throwing out a minister in Israel — a decision that is problematic personally for the minister but hardly impacts the public — throwing out a prime minister would be perceived as a political revolution by the court.

The bottom line is simple: Either we see a change of political hearts or we are destined to slog through a very long process. That Netanyahu might have to leave at some point is true. But that was true even before the investigations began (it is true with every prime minister). That the end is much closer today than it was before also is true.

But that was true even before the investigations began — it is true for all of us with every passing day.

Former Israeli prime minister: Netanyahu enabling ‘budding fascism’

Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak said Benjamin Netanyahu’s government is encouraging “budding fascism.”

Speaking at the Herzliya Conference Thursday, Barak, who served as defense minister under Netanyahu until 2013, said, “A fanatic nucleus of extremist ideology has taken over Likud by using loopholes in the primaries constitution, purging Likud’s leadership of all those who cherished democracy over populism or some fleeting achievement.”

Netanyahu was responsible for this perceived development, Barak said, whether he it allowed to happen out of weakness or as a “late manifestation” of his own core beliefs.

“If it looks like budding fascism, walks like budding fascism, barks like budding fascism, then it’s budding fascism,” he said. Barak called on Israelis to bring about regime change through democratic means.

Likud in a statement dismissed Barak’s criticism as less than credible given that he was happy to serve as defense minister under Netanyahu.

“This is about clout and jobs [for Barak], not ideology,” the statement read.

Likud and Netanyahu used similar arguments to pooh–pooh critique at the Herzliya Conference by Moshe Yaalon, a Likud member and former chief-of-staff of the Israel Defense Forces, who last month resigned from his post as defense minister.

Yaalon quit after Netanyahu asked him to become foreign minister so Avigdor Liberman could take over the Defense Ministry. Netanyahu brought in Liberman’s right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu to increase the coalition’s majority in the Knesset.

On Thursday, calling himself an “alternative” to the current leadership, Yaalon accused Netanyahu of fear mongering by attempting to scare Israeli citizens about security threats to distract them from Israel’s serious problems. Yaalon said Iran is not an imminent existential threat so long as the nuclear agreement it signed with six world powers is en force, and that “we have to prepare for future events.”

Separately, in an ostensibly non-political move into which Israelis immediately read political motives, two former Israel Defense Forces chiefs of staff, Gabi Ashkenazi and Benny Gantz, set up a new cultural movement with the stated aim of promoting “hope and not of fear, when fear is sown in all directions”.

Israeli Cabinet OKs appointment of Avigdor Lieberman as defense minister

The Israeli Cabinet unanimously approved the appointment of Avigdor Lieberman as defense minister on Monday, formalizing a coalition deal between his Yisrael Beiteinu party and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud.

The vote came after weeks of talks initiated by Netanyahu to add the five Yisrael Beiteinu seats to his ruling government, bringing the total to 66 lawmakers out of the 120 in the parliament, or Knesset, Israel Radio reported.

In the framework of the deal, Lieberman’s right-wing party will also receive the immigrant absorption portfolio, with Sofa Lanver as minister. In another ministerial appointment, Tzachi Hanegbi of Likud was named a minister without portfolio in the Prime Minister’s Office.

The vote followed a compromise reached between Netanyahu and Naftali Bennett of the Jewish Home party, who conditioned his joining the coalition on greater involvement by Cabinet ministers in security decisions. Bennett said the prime minister and defense minister did not inform other ministers of important military considerations, such as Hamas’ possession of terror tunnels ahead of the 2014 Gaza war.

Bennett insisted on the appointment of a military secretary to the Cabinet and greater access by ministers to classified information. Netanyahu offered to set up a committee to examine ways to implement these goals but Bennett rejected the offer, leading to a compromise under which the head of the National Security Council will act temporarily as the Cabinet’s military secretary, pending a permanent solution.

The coalition talks followed the May 20 resignation of Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon of Likud amid an open disagreement between him and Netanyahu over Israeli army officers expressing themselves publicly on military and non-military issues.

The disagreement surfaced after Netanyahu condemned statements by Deputy Chief of Staff Yair Golan, who on May 5 said Israeli society was witnessing trends reminiscent of those visible in Nazi Germany. Netanyahu condemned the remarks, but Yaalon encouraged officers to continue to speak their minds.

Yaalon said his resignation was over “growing extremism” within Likud under Netanyahu. But Netanyahu said Yaalon had resigned because Netanyahu dismissed him as defense minister, offering instead to make him foreign minister.

On Friday, Avi Gabai of the center-right Kulanu party resigned, citing disagreements with Netanyahu over policy.

The Israeli coalition is now made up of Likud, Kulanu, Jewish Home, Yisrael Beitenu and the haredi Orthodox parties Shas and United Torah Judaism.

Temple Mount activist Yehuda Glick moves to Knesset

A year and a half ago, Yehuda Glick was a fringe Temple Mount activist expected to die, the victim of a point-blank assassination attempt.

This week, he was sworn into the Knesset as the ruling Likud Party’s replacement legislator for outgoing Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon.

Glick’s journey — from the United States to Israel, from government bureaucrat to outspoken demonstrator at Jerusalem’s most contested site, and from a hospital bed to elected office — is an unlikely one. And Glick’s arrival in the halls of the Knesset reflects the growing reception of his push for Jews’ right to visit and worship on the Temple Mount. From 2009 and 2014, Jewish visits to the site nearly doubled.

Glick has been barred from the mount — revered by Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary — and was even charged with assault there (the charges were dropped). Glick and his fellow religious activists see his accession to the Knesset as a victory for a just cause after his brush with death. Critics, however, say the power he wields could exacerbate tensions at a regional flashpoint.

“I’m sure that I will be involved in the Temple Mount,” Glick said in an interview on May 22. “Just like I use the justice system and the courts, I think the political world has strong institutions to promote issues in a democratic society.”

Glick, 50, is the director of Haliba, an organization that brings Jewish groups to visit the Temple Mount and fights for Jews’ right to pray there. Previously, Glick was the head of the Temple Institute, a group that builds vessels for animal sacrifice and commissions architectural plans for a future Third Temple on the Mount.

The Temple Mount is under Israeli sovereignty but, under a deal following Israel’s 1967 takeover of the site, is run by the Islamic Waqf, a Jordanian body. Muslims generally have full access to the site and the exclusive right to pray there. Jews can ascend the mount only during limited visiting hours and are forbidden from doing anything resembling worship, such as kneeling, singing, dancing or rending their clothes.

“The discrimination on the Temple Mount is obvious,” Glick said. “The Temple Mount became a center of incitement and hate instead of a center of peace.”

Glick’s critics and supporters alike praise him as a gentle and benign man who seems sincerely interested in enabling members of all religions to coexist on the mount. A 2014 video shows him happily reciting a prayer in Arabic with Muslim worshippers. The men then repeat a verse in Hebrew from Psalms 24.

Analysts say Glick’s activism, however well-intentioned, could empower extremists and heighten an already explosive mood on the Mount. Palestinian leaders have accused Israel’s government of planning to change the site’s fragile status quo, which Israeli leaders fervently deny. The recent wave of Palestinian stabbing attacks in Israel began after riots and clashes on the mount.

“He’s part of a movement that deals in pyromania,” said Daniel Seidmann, an attorney and expert in Jerusalem’s geopolitics. “There are few threats that create a clear and present danger to the most vital interests of Israel more than a radical change on the Temple Mount.”

But David Haivri, a spokesman for Israeli settlements in the northern West Bank and a friend of Glick’s, called him “very lovable.” Haivri said that while Glick focuses on a combative issue, he comes at it in a warm and accessible way.

“A lot of people consider him an extremist because he’s so concerned with the right of Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount,” Haivri said. “They’ll discover that he’s bringing that to the table with a different type of platform. Extremism is absent in Yehuda Glick’s platform.”

Some of Glick’s fellow travelers are more provocative. When then-Housing Minister Uri Ariel, a member of the pro-settler Jewish Home Party, visited the Mount ahead of Rosh Hashanah in 2014, he called for Jews in the future to “ascend the Mount and be seen for festivals, to bring sacrifices.”

Glick has also run into his share of trouble at the Mount. He has repeatedly been barred from the site and was charged with assaulting a female Muslim activist in 2014. The charges were dropped in February.

Michael Melchior, a former government minister who was active with Glick’s father, Shimon, in the liberal-religious Meimad Party, also questioned whether Glick should be celebrated as a voice of tolerance. While Melchior admires Glick’s use of universalist language in his Temple Mount work, he said Glick is inconsistent for not advocating for Palestinian rights.

“The human rights motive is used to say, ‘Well, why shouldn’t Jews have the right to pray everywhere?’ ” Melchior said. “But the human rights motive is a universal motive. If you believe in human rights, will you apply that to everything else that has to do with human rights?”

Glick was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., moved to Israel at 9 and now lives in the West Bank settlement of Otniel. He attributes his use of the language of civil rights and equality to his American upbringing. Before his Temple Mount activism, he worked for nearly a decade in the Ministry of Immigrant Absorption, quitting in protest of Israel’s 2005 withdrawal from Gaza.

He became a symbol of the Jewish Temple Mount movement after a Palestinian gunman shot him three times at point-blank range outside a Jerusalem convention center in October 2014. He was discharged from the hospital that November and a month later competed in Likud’s primaries. He won the 33rd spot on the slate — reserved for an Israeli settler.

“I felt that in a democratic country, we cannot allow a situation in which someone who is active democratically, someone who is active to promote a legitimate issue, is attacked physically because of the fact that he tried to work legally,” Glick said.

Last week, Glick tweeted critically of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision to oust Yaalon — the decision that gave Glick his Knesset seat. He disapproved of replacing Yaalon — who is viewed as a pragmatist — with the hawkish and unpredictable Avigdor Lieberman, whom he criticized on May 18 for his “way of speaking, changing his political opinions depending on the mood, and [his] lack of trust in the prime minister.”

Sharren Haskel: Likud’s Millenial MK

Sitting down at a leadership dinner last week at UCLA across from John Pérez, the former speaker of the California State Assembly, Sharren Haskel looked barely older than the college students who hosted the event.

At 32, and appearing much younger, the youngest Knesset member from the center-right Likud party doesn’t exactly look the part. 

But for her, that’s exactly the point. In a recent interview at the Jewish Journal offices, Haskel lamented that Israel’s younger generation isn’t well represented in parliament.

She’s building her own political agenda around issues that disproportionately impact young people, such as the high cost of living and rent in Israel. 

Before being elected to the Knesset last year, Haskel, a veterinary technician by trade, spent six years in Australia before returning to Israel five years ago. She also spent a year in Los Angeles, studying at Santa Monica College and learning to surf in Malibu, by her account. 

Haskel is on a speaking tour in the United States timed to a Knesset recess. When she returns to Israel next month, it will be, at least in part, to wed her fiancé.

Jewish Journal: Israelis can be tough, to say the least. How does the bravado-driven culture impact your career as a woman in politics?

Sharren Haskel: You don’t think of a woman as the one who can lead the front lines, or be this general who makes the decision of where to take the troops and what to do with them. But I think that’s what’s so amazing about women in Israeli society, because we all join the army. Many of us serve not just in intelligence or with computers, we actually serve in the field as pilots; [and] we’re on the ground. I served in the Second Intifada. We got [attacked with] rocks, Molotov [cocktails], demonstrations, had to go and do house arrests — really intense physical work. And, obviously, normally any kind of man or woman in any kind of modern society would say this is not a job for women. But it’s not like that in the Israeli society, and I think this is what makes us also a little bit different. 

JJ: It sounds as if you’re saying Israeli society is more accepting of women in leadership roles than most others. Is that the case?

SH: I definitely think the army has made a major impact on my life as a woman. …

I did a commander course, and in navigations [training], usually the guys didn’t want to be with women because, “Women cannot navigate — you know, look how they get lost in their cars or anything.” And in the commander course, every time for three weeks when we did the training — you walk with heavy equipment on you — I would always get to the last point [as one of] the first five [to arrive]. … Suddenly the guys wanted to come and be my partner in navigation, because they saw I’m actually really good at it. And this gave me as a woman an opportunity to actually believe in myself, that I’m equal to anyone else, that I’m capable. My body is physically as capable of doing anything that a male can do, and sometimes even better. 

JJ: How does that experience translate as a Knesset member?

SH: I sit on the [Knesset] committee for [foreign affairs] and defense. This is the most important committee in Israel. I mean, the existence of Israel depends a lot on this committee. And I remember the first time I walked into the committee chamber. … I walk in and I can see all the looks, like everybody just stared at me, and I can see a big question mark on all their faces. “Who is this young woman? Is she an assistant of someone? Is she classified to come in here?” And then they see me sit at the table, and I could see the surprise on their faces. It gave me so much joy — to be able to come and make those important decisions. … It’s a young woman who comes and asks this old general who’s been in the army for years all these questions, and it’s an interesting dynamic.

JJ: Do you think Likud lacks young leadership? Is the party failing to appeal to young people?

SH: There are a lot of issues that are extremely important for [young people] that nobody spoke about before. For example, there’s the problem of cost of living, and how do we solve that. … I took it upon myself to come in and work within the problems of the food industry. … Every kind of food — you’ve got a council, and they’re the ones in charge of who’s going to grow what, how much they’re going to grow, how much they’re going to sell it for, who they’re going to sell it to. You can’t run a business like that. … 

The opposition in the left wing came up with all these ridiculous ideas of how socialism and more involvement is going to solve these problems, and we, the younger generation in the right wing, keep on telling them it is not a solution. We have to liberate the market. And no one was voicing that in the Knesset, no one was speaking about it. And so that’s the voice that was missing in the Likud. This is something that no one speaks about and that I’m bringing in.

JJ: You’ve introduced a bill into the Knesset to decriminalize marijuana. On top of that, you’re the chair of the Lobby for Medical Cannabis. Why did you choose to work on this issue?

SH: Between 2009 and 2011, there were 500 people who sat in prison for up to a year because of self-use of marijuana. This is crazy! To put a person in jail, for a year, destroying his life for something like that — is this something that we need to do? And so this is a core issue of the Likud. We have to fight for justice for these people. Even if you look at alcohol abuse, drug abuse, all these issues: Does it help that we go put them in jail behind bars? Does it help that we open for them a criminal record? If someone is in such a bad place, such a bad state in his life that he’s actually addicted to these things, putting him in jail and opening a record will just push him further and further into the ground. And so what we need to do is invest all these millions of shekels that we invest in courts and in policing and prisons into education, into awareness about drugs and alcohol abuse, into rehabilitation facilities.

JJ: How’s is the fight for decriminalization of marijuana coming?

SH: It’s going to take a long time. There is a lot of opposition. A lot of people are really worried about it. There’s a big stigma about marijuana, that it can cause violence and you can die from it and all of these ideas that we know are untrue. As I said, even if someone’s got a problem — doesn’t matter if it’s marijuana or alcohol — we need to treat it in a certain way. Prison is not the answer.

JJ: What can Likud offer young people who feel there’s no future in Israel?

SH: People who are following me see I’m bringing a lot of new politics into my party and into the Knesset in general. I speak about issues that I’m really trying to drive forward and that are really important to [young people]. I’m their voice. Everything I do, every day I wake up, I enter the Knesset — I come and I deal with issues not for them, for us. … That’s what I bring. I deal with security and defense issues, but also most of my time is on civil issues, environmental issues, social issues, economic issues, things that actually affect their day-to-day to life. This is what I’m bringing for them.

Trump was on Netanyahu’s list of potential donors

Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump claims to be a big fan of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In an attempt to talk up his pro-Israel credentials, Trump suggests that he was one of the celebrities Netanyahu reached out to for an endorsement in 2013.

“According to what he said, I’m the only celebrity — he’s used the word celebrity — this was a while ago, that did commercials, that he asked to do commercials,” he said during an interview on the Hugh Hewitt radio show in September.

According to a document we came across this week, the history between Netanyahu and Trump goes back to 2007 when the Likud leader plotted his return to the Prime Minister’s office. In October 2010, Israel’s Yedioth Ahronoth published a list of potential major donors prepared by the Netanyahu campaign during the Likud Party’s leadership contest in 2007. The list includes names of foreign and local donors and a reordered list in Netanyahu’s own handwriting, in which he divided donors into four categories according to whether contacting them was “worth the effort.” The first group, according to Yediot, included the foreigners worthwhile of contacting. Numbers 3 and 4 were marked next to the names of millionaires with a small chance of donating.

Donald Trump was one of the donors Netanyahu was seeking to reach out to although he was placed in the fourth category with only a small chance of donating.

Ivanka Trump’s father-in-law Charles Kushner was also on the list in the first category.

Yitzhak Rabin: Timeline of a great leader

1922: Born March 1 in Jerusalem to Russian-born parents.

1941: While still in high school, joins the Palmach, an underground commando unit, to fight British rule in Palestine.

1948: Commands the Harel Brigades that defend Jerusalem during Israel’s War of Independence. 

1964: Rises to chief of staff.

1967: Plans war that erupts June 5 and ends six days later, after Israel seizes West Bank and East Jerusalem from Jordan, Gaza Strip from Egypt, Golan Heights from Syria.

1968: Appointed ambassador to the United States.

1974: Ruling Labor Party names Rabin to succeed Prime Minister Golda Meir.

1976: Authorizes June 27 raid in Entebbe, Uganda, where Israeli commandos rescue more than 100 Israelis from plane hijacked by Palestinians.

1977: Resigns over wife Leah’s illegal U.S. bank account. 

1984: Returns to government, serving for six years as defense minister in Labor-Likud coalition governments.

1992: Labor Party recaptures government in June election, and Rabin becomes prime minister.

1993: Shakes hands Sept. 13 at the White House with PLO leader Yasser Arafat after the first Oslo Accord is signed, offering a framework for autonomy in the West Bank and Gaza. The two shared 1994’s Nobel Peace Prize with Shimon Peres.

1994: Joins Jordan’s King Hussein in Washington, D.C., to sign declaration ending 46-year state of war.

1995: Signs second Oslo agreement with Arafat expanding Palestinian autonomy. 

1995: On Nov. 4, Rabin, 73, is assassinated after a peace rally in Tel Aviv. Israeli religious extremist Yigal Amir is serving a life sentence for the murder.


Lawmaker makes controversial remark about Israeli flag at Temple Mount

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu restated his government’s commitment to the status quo on the Temple Mount after a government minister said it was her dream to see an Israeli flag fly on the site.

“I think it’s the center of Israeli sovereignty, the capital of Israel, the holiest place for the Jewish people,” Likud party lawmaker Tzipi Hotovely, also the deputy foreign minister, said in an interview aired Monday on the Knesset channel. “It’s my dream to see the Israeli flag flying on the Temple Mount.”

In response, the Prime Minister’s Office released a statement on Monday night.

“The policy of the Government of Israel regarding the Temple Mount was expressed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in his statement Saturday night, and nothing has changed,” the statement said. “Prime Minister Netanyahu made ​​it clear that he expects all members of the Government to act accordingly.”

Netanyahu in his statement on Saturday night said that “Israel will continue to enforce its longstanding policy: Muslims pray on the Temple Mount; non-Muslims visit the Temple Mount. As we have said many times, Israel has no intention to divide the Temple Mount, and we completely reject any attempt to suggest otherwise.”

Hotovely issued a statement as well, saying: “My personal opinions are not the government’s policy, and I am certainly bound by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s policy as stated on Saturday evening in which he declared that there would be no change in the status quo at the Temple Mount.”

Opposition lawmakers called for her dismissal.

Hotovely has made public visits to the Temple Mount, including the day before her wedding, and opposes the creation of a Palestinian state.

Deadly Palestinian attacks on Jewish-Israelis have sharply increased in recent weeks amid tensions over the Temple Mount, which is holy to Jews and Muslims. Driving the tensions in part have been reports among the Palestinians that Israel is planning to alter the site, which houses the Al-Aqsa mosque compound. Palestinian Authority President Abbas himself has made the charge, which Netanyahu has continued to vehemently deny.

Embattled from the outset, new Netanyahu government sworn in

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's new rightist coalition government, hobbled by a razor-thin parliamentary majority, was sworn in late on Thursday amid wrangling within his Likud party over cabinet posts.

The evening ceremony in the Knesset was postponed by two hours so Netanyahu could divvy up for Likud the remaining ministries, after others were assigned to its four partners. Some Israeli commentators called the manoeuvring “farcical”.

The coalition with conservative, far-right, and ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties controls 61 of parliament's 120 seats, auguring difficulty for the fourth-term Netanyahu in passing controversial policies or even surviving no-confidence votes.

Blowback abroad is also expected. Prospects for resolving deadlocked U.S.-sponsored peace talks with the Palestinians are dim, Netanyahu is at loggerheads with Washington over its nuclear negotiations with Iran, and Western diplomats recoil at nationalist legislation championed by some in the coalition.

Seconds into his speech unveiling the government, as he pledged that it would “safeguard security, work toward peace,” Netanyahu was interrupted by opposition heckling and guffaws.

But coalition lawmakers managed to get the new government approved by a 61-59 vote, to allow its inauguration by midnight.

Netanyahu has retained four cabinet portfolios for himself, at the cost of leaving key Likud loyalists feeling bereft. That has stirred speculation he is holding the ministries in reserve for Isaac Herzog, head of the centre-left opposition, should they eventually join forces in a “national unity” government.

“I am leaving the door open for broadening the government,” Netanyahu said in his speech. “The country needs this.”

Herzog was combative when he took the lectern, however: “No decent leader would join the 'Netanyahu circus' that you put together at the last minute, on the strength of one seat, only to extend your rule,” he said.

Shortly after winning a March 17 election, Netanyahu appeared to be coasting toward a comfortable 67-seat majority. But in a surprise move last week, he was abandoned by long-time ultra-nationalist coalition ally Avigdor Lieberman.

The guidelines of the new government make no mention of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, after talks collapsed in April last year. Instead, they pledge in general terms to “advance the diplomatic process and strive for a peace agreement with the Palestinians and all our neighbours”.

U.S. President Barack Obama said on Tuesday he had not given up hope for peacemaking.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said on Thursday he was willing to revive peace talks but the onus was on Netanyahu to change course and end Israel's settlements in the West Bank  by 2017.

Israel’s vulnerable governing coalition passes first test

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's emerging government scraped by its first parliamentary test on Wednesday, paving the way for the new cabinet to be sworn in after two months of difficult coalition building.

By a narrow 61-59 vote, parliament ratified a legislative amendment allowing Netanyahu to increase the number of ministers he can appoint to his cabinet, enabling him to meet demands from his own Likud party and other coalition partners.

His conservative Likud will head a coalition comprising the far-right Jewish Home party, the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism and Shas factions, and Kulanu, a centrist movement led by a former Likud legislator.

Netanyahu's razor-thin, one-seat majority in the Knesset may make his government – expected to be sworn in on Thursday – shaky and leave him vulnerable to policy demands from even his most junior partners, extending a long tradition of instability in Israeli politics.

The guidelines of the right-leaning government, released on Wednesday, made no mention of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – the foundation of U.S.-led peace efforts, which collapsed in April last year.

In its policy paper, the new coalition pledges in general terms to “advance the diplomatic process and strive for a peace agreement with the Palestinians and all our neighbors”.

The policy parameters of Netanyahu's previous administration also contained no pledge of support for a future Palestine. However, in 2009 he spelled out his vision for a demilitarized Palestinian nation that recognizes Israel as a Jewish state.

On the eve of the March 17 election, Netanyahu raised international concern by saying he would not permit a Palestinian state to be established under his watch.

He later backtracked, saying he had never retracted the comments he made in his address six years ago, an explanation that left Washington unmoved.

U.S. President Barack Obama said on Tuesday he has not given up hope for a two-state solution but tensions in the region and “serious questions about overall commitment” have made progress difficult.

“We look to the new Israeli government and the Palestinians to demonstrate – through policies and actions – a genuine commitment to a two-state solution,” Obama told Asharq al-Awsat, a London-based Arabic international newspaper.

Shortly after winning the March ballot, Netanyahu appeared to be coasting toward a comfortable governing majority comprising 67 seats in the 120-member parliament, and he voiced confidence he would be able to form one quickly.

But in a surprise move last week, political ally Avigdor Lieberman announced that his ultranationalist Yisrael Beitenu party would not join the government, leaving Netanyahu scrambling to meet Jewish Home's demands for key cabinet seats.

Obama administration ‘deeply concerned’ about Netanyahu Arab comments

The Obama administration is “deeply concerned” about Likud Party rhetoric marginalizing Arab Israelis during the recent elections.

“There has been a lot of coverage in the media about some of the rhetoric that emerged yesterday that was propagated by the Likud Party to encourage turnout of their supporters that sought to, frankly, marginalize Arab-Israeli citizens,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters Wednesday in his daily briefing.

Earnest did not name Benjamin Netanyahu, but the Israeli prime minister posted a video on Tuesday, election day, urging followers to vote, saying “Arab voters are coming out in droves to the ballot box. The Likud Party also texted voters warning them that voting in the Arab sector was high.

“The United States and this administration is deeply concerned by divisive rhetoric that seeks to marginalize Arab-Israeli citizens,” Earnest said.

Earnest, notably, volunteered the criticism; reporters did not raise the issue with him. He also cast the criticism against the “shared values” that U.S. and Israeli leaders have for decades said the two countries have in common.

“It undermines the values and democratic ideals that have been important to our democracy and an important part of what binds the United States and Israel together,” he said.

“We’ve talked a lot about how our shared values are an important part of what binds our two countries together, and rhetoric that seeks to marginalize one segment of their population is deeply concerning and it is divisive,” Earnest said. “And I can tell you that these are views that the administration intends to communicate directly to the Israelis.”

Earnest also noted Netanyahu’s rejection in the election’s final days of a two-state solution for the foreseeable future.

“Based on those comments, the United States will evaluate our approach to the situation moving forward,” he said. He prefaced his comment by saying that the U.S.-Israel relationship remained close. “The unprecedented security cooperation between the United States and Israel, including our strong military and intelligence relationships, will continue,” he said.

Earnest also said that President Barack Obama would congratulate Netanyahu once he was charged with forming a government.

Netanyahu comeback propelled by hardline rhetoric, calls for unity on right

This city’s Rabin Square was full of young men wearing large knit kippahs and women in long skirts and long sleeves cheering as right-wing politicians declared their opposition to Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank.

On Sunday night, when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ascended the stage to address the crowd, he needed their votes. On Tuesday he got them.

“As long as I am prime minister, and as long as Likud is in government, the nationalist camp is in government,” he said in his speech at the rally. “And as long as the nationalist camp is in government, we won’t divide Jerusalem, there won’t be concessions and there won’t be retreats.”

The final polls ahead of the election showed the Likud with as few as 20 seats, lagging well behind the center-left Zionist Union. But when the votes were tallied on Wednesday morning, the picture had changed dramatically: Likud won 30 seats — a quarter of the Knesset — six more than Zionist Union’s 24. It was the Likud’s best showing since the 2003 election.

“I’m proud of the nation of Israel, that at the moment of truth knew to separate between the essential and the trivial, and stand for the essential,” Netanyahu told a crowd of cheering supporters chanting his name on Tuesday night. “To stand for the things important for all of us: real security, responsible economics and social welfare, which we’re dedicated to.”

Now Netanyahu has what he said he wanted when he called in December for new elections: a relatively easy path to forming a coalition with his so-called “natural partners.” The Knesset’s bloc of right-wing and religious parties holds close to a majority of seats and will be able to govern along with the new center-right Kulanu party, which indicated during the campaign that it would join either a left- or right-wing coalition.

Netanyahu made his comeback through a mix of panic and resolve. Beginning Friday, the famously media-shy prime minister stated his case in several interviews to Israeli television and print journalists. In the interviews, Netanyahu called on right-wing voters to unite around him and vote Likud instead of the religious Zionist, pro-settler Jewish Home, the hardline Yisrael Beiteinu or Kulanu.

“People don’t have a privilege of splitting their vote, to vote for Jewish Home, because Likud’s seats are falling,” he told the Israeli news website Walla.

In parallel, Netanyahu moved his positions nearer to his more staunchly right-wing rivals, reassuring his base that a vote for him meant a vote for what he called “the nationalist camp.” The days leading up to the campaign saw him oppose a Palestinian state — reversing his 2009 declaration of support and returning to the position he held beforehand. He also promised senior positions in government to Kulanu chair Moshe Kachlon, an ex-Likudnik, and Jewish Home chair Naftali Bennett.

“He turned to two camps that are close to him, but that had gone to Jewish Home or Kachlon,” said Bar-Ilan University political science professor Shmuel Sandler, referring to religious Zionist and center-right voters. “He said he would make Kachlon finance minister and give Jewish Home a part in the coalition. That caused those voters to come to him.”

On Election Day, Netanyahu also played on his base’s wariness of the left wing and Arab opposition. In a controversial video released Tuesday morning, Netanyahu warned of increased Arab-Israeli turnout and asked right-wing voters to come to the polls in response.

“Right-wing rule is in danger,” the prime minister said in the video. “Arab voters are coming out in droves to the ballot box. Left-wing NGOs are bringing them on buses. … We have only you. Come to the ballot box, bring your friends, your relatives, vote [Likud]. We’ll close the gap between us and Labor.”

The results show that his constituents heeded his calls. Likud won 10 more seats than last time, while the right-wing nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu and Jewish Home parties, and the haredi Orthodox parties all lost seats. In Jerusalem, Likud alone won 10 more seats Tuesday than its alliance with Yisrael Beiteinu did in 2013. Likud also increased its vote totals in the large settlement of Maale Adumim and in southern cities like Beersheba and Ashkelon.

On the left, similar calls by Zionist Union chairman Isaac Herzog to close ranks around his party also partially worked. His Labor Party had 15 seats in the outgoing Knesset. Now he will lead 24 center-left lawmakers. But the soft-spoken politician ran a largely negative campaign that Sandler said backfired, inspiring Netanyahu’s supporters to consolidate around him.

“What happened here was a personal attack on [the prime minister], which speaks to Netanyahu’s supporters,” Sandler said. “They feel attacked, and when there’s a virulent personal attack on him, it brings his supporters out.”

Diplomatically, Netanyahu’s rightward shift may make his life more difficult. The Obama administration said it would work with whomever leads the next Israeli government. But Netanyahu’s revived opposition to Palestinian statehood will clash with Obama’s staunch support of the two-state solution and do little to heal the leaders’ acrimonious relationship.

Netanyahu may now have an easier time managing a coalition with parties to his right. But his warning about Arab-Israeli voters enraged his opposition and could harm Arab-Jewish relations, which deteriorated during last summer’s war in Gaza. Ayman Odeh, chairman of the Joint List, Israel’s Arab-Israeli party, criticized in a Facebook post on Tuesday “the ugly efforts to exclude us from the political game.”

Challenges foreign and domestic, however, are nothing new for Netanyahu. His goal in this campaign was to receive a stronger mandate to lead Israel, and to do so with like-minded partners. And at the potential cost of embittering enemies and distancing his policies from the international consensus, that’s exactly what he accomplished.

“Now it’s on us to create a strong and stable government that will care for the security and welfare of all of Israel’s citizens,” Netanyahu said in his victory speech. “Very large challenges face us.”

How Israel’s cities voted: Likud in Jerusalem, Zionist Union in Tel Aviv

The Likud and haredi Orthodox parties dominated in Jerusalem, while the Zionist Union took the most votes in Tel Aviv in Israel’s national elections.

Nationally, the right-wing Likud Party garnered 23.3 percent of the vote and the center-left Zionist Union coalition garnered 18.7 percent of the vote, followed by the United Arab List with nearly 11 percent of the vote, according to Israel’s Central Elections Committee.

In Jerusalem, Likud finished with 24 percent of the vote and United Torah Judaism won 21 percent. The Sephardic Orthodox Shas party was next with 11 percent, followed by the Zionist Union at 10 percent and Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home party at 8 percent. The Yachad party, led by former Shas lawmaker Eli Yishai, garnered 7 percent of the vote in the city but failed to meet the minimum number of votes nationally required to enter the Knesset. The Joint Arab List picked up 1.2 percent of the vote in Jerusalem.

In Tel Aviv, the Zionist Union won 34 percent of the vote and Likud had 18 percent. Next were the left-wing Meretz with 13 percent and the centrist Yesh Atid with 11 percent. Both Jewish Home and the Joint Arab List had 3 percent of the city’s vote.

In Sderot, the southern Israeli city that has borne the brunt of rocket attacks from Gaza, 42 percent of ballots went to Likud, 11 percent to Jewish Home, 8 percent to Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party and 7.5 percent to the Zionist Union.

Polls get it wrong as Netanyahu wins big

This story originally appeared at The Media Line.

Israelis went to sleep believing that the two largest parties – the Likud of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Zionist Union headed by Isaac Herzog – had each received 27 seats in the Israeli Knesset, and Israel’s President could ask either party to try to form a governing coalition. When they woke up, Likud had surged to 30 seats, and Herzog had plummeted to 24. The result defied both the exit polls, and almost all of the polls taken in the weeks and even days leading up to the elections.

“I can’t tell you what the other guys did, but all along I had Likud ahead of the Zionist Union,” Avi Degani, the president of Geocartography Knowledge Group, GKG, told The Media Line. “Ten days before the election I had Likud at 26 seats, and Zionist Union at 21.”

Most other pollsters in the week preceding the election had Zionist Union ahead of Likud by three or four seats. Degani says GKG does only telephone polls, and make sure to include all of the sectors of Israel’s population – Jews, Arabs, immigrants from the former Soviet Union, Ethiopians, ultra-Orthodox – while some of his colleagues use the internet to conduct their polls.

“In internet polls, you get too many tech-savvy people from Tel Aviv and not enough poor people who live on the periphery,” he said.

At the same time, Israel’s election rules do not allow new polls to be published in the final days of the campaign, meaning they did not reflect changes that occurred in the last few days. Netanyahu launched a full-court press to get voters from the smaller parties on the right, especially the Jewish Home of Naftali Bennett, and a new far-right party called Yachad, to vote for him instead. He also used social media, including Facebook, Twitter, and personalized email messages and phone calls on the day of the vote to warn that Arab citizens of Israel were turning out in droves to vote for the new joint Arab party, which won 14 seats, and became the third-largest party in the government.

Those comments by Netanyahu sparked anger among both Arab citizens of Israel and dovish Israelis.

“Netanyahu's comments have clearly crossed a red line, Amnon Be'eri Sulitzeanu, the co-Director of The Abraham Fund, an organization devoted to coexistence said in a statement. “Imagine a Presidential candidate in the United States, for instance, warning the public of voting trends among Afro-Americans or Jews. These statements join a long history of similar provocations made by Netanyahu and other party leaders against Arab society – which cause long-term damage to Jewish-Arab relations in Israel.”

But the messages were also effective and many who had been planning to vote for smaller parties on Israel’s right changed their mind at the last minute. Just a few days before the election, about 20 percent of Israelis said they still did not know who they were voting for.

“Netanyahu gambled that even though economics were at the forefront of the campaign, people would not want to vote for the Zionist Union,”  Mitchell Plitnick, program director at the Foundation for Middle East Peace, told The Media Line. “He is still not popular among the right but he is still seen by most Israelis as the best of a bunch of bad choices.”

Plitnick says that most of the extra seats Netanyahu received came from right-wing parties and that the right, left, and center blocs did reflect the pre-election polls.

“The blocs haven’t changed at all, and the center hasn’t changed much,” Guy Ben Porat, a professor of public policy at Ben Gurion University told The Media Line. “Before Yair Lapid of the Yesh Atid party had 19 seats, now he and Kahlon (the head of a new centrist party called Kulanu) are sharing them.”

Many Israeli analysts said that Netanyahu could expect a chilly reception from the White House, just weeks after he addressed Congress despite objections from President Obama. There was no congratulatory call from the White House almost 24 hours after the polls closed.

Deep divisions apparent as Israelis head to polls

Relaxing on a bench on Rothschild Boulevard here, first-time voters Ellie Ashkenazi and Ziv Oran, both 18, talked about wanting to oust Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But they couldn’t agree on which party to support to meet that end.

Voters needed to close ranks around Netanyahu’s main challenger, Isaac Herzog, Ashkenazi said, adding that the the policies of the staunchly leftist Meretz — not least the idea of dividing Jerusalem — were too “brutal” for her.

“I’m left wing, I believe in Bougie and I want to replace Bibi,” she said, using the nicknames for Herzog and Netanyahu. “I’m worried about Bibi winning again. Anything is better than Bibi.”

Much to her chagrin, Oran had cast his ballot for Meretz — “to annoy me,” Ashkenazi joked, nudging him. But Oran worried that with left-wing votes consolidating around Herzog’s center-left Zionist Union, Meretz would not acquire enough votes to even enter Knesset and its voice would be absent.

“I believe in their social policies,” Oran said. “I’m center-left and I want them in Knesset. Meretz will recommend Herzog [to be prime minister], so you’re not losing votes.”

In Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, voters took advantage of the Election Day national holiday to stroll the streets with their kids, picnic on urban patches of grass and go shopping. They walked among political banners and dodged volunteers angling to stop them with a last-minute appeal.

But behind the carefree attitude, voters were divided — not just between left and right, but between whether to support the flagship party of their political camp or one of the smaller, more ideologically driven factions.

“There shouldn’t be extremes this way or that,” said Yakir Yaakovi, 23, a dried-fruit merchant in Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda market and a Netanyahu voter.

“He’s the only real one, he doesn’t mess around,” Yaakovi said of the incumbent. “If the left governs, God help us. There will be a civil war.”

Netanyahu campaign advertising dominated Jerusalem’s streets, with groups of young Likud volunteers clustering in public spaces and banners lining central squares. A man with a white beard sat outside the Central Bus Station singing Sephardi hymns and drumming a tambourine bearing a Likud sticker.

The late Likud push reflected fear that it could lose the election as right-wing voters defect to other parties. Netanyahu gave several interviews over the weekend and spoke at a large rally in Tel Aviv to warn against right-wing division. On Election Day, Likud sent out a controversial message urging voters to come out, warning that “droves” of Arab-Israelis were heading to the polls.

Such efforts didn’t faze Gershon Swimmer, who moved to Israel in 2008 from Atlanta and was voting for Jewish Home, the religious Zionist, pro-settler party headed by Economy Minister Naftali Bennett. Swimmer felt confident that Netanyahu would win reelection and wanted to push him further to the right.

“I feel Naftali Bennett and the party represent me,” he said, sitting at a restaurant on Jerusalem’s Ben Yehuda Street. “He doesn’t want to give back land, he’s strong on the economy and he’s religious.

“I think Bibi will probably be prime minister. I’m more worried the left will get in the government and give away the country. I want to vote to help push Bibi to do the right thing.”

Some voters hadn’t chosen a side in the Netanyahu-Herzog debate. Florist Roi Mothada, 27, voted for the centrist Kulanu, which has emphasized its economic platform and plans to join the coalition whether it’s left wing or right wing.

“I don’t support one or the other,” Mothada said, referring to Netanyahu and Herzog. “One will be elected, but I want Kulanu to be as strong as possible. It’s a decision between bad and worse.”

Some voters went even further in their protest against both left and right. Haya Dahan, a 47-year-old mother of two, cast a blank ballot, writing in her young daughter’s name instead of choosing any of the 25 possible parties. In Israel, such ballots aren’t counted as valid votes.

“I don’t know who to vote for,” she said. “I don’t trust anyone. I hope in four years someone will prove themselves.”

Bibi’s fate hangs in the balance as Israel votes

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu faced a fight for his political survival on Tuesday as Israelis voted in an election that opinion polls predict the center-left opposition could win.

After a bitterly contested campaign, the election has turned into a referendum on “Bibi” Netanyahu, 65, who has been in power for a total of nine years spread over three terms.

If he narrowly loses the vote, Netanyahu is probably still better placed than the opposition Zionist Union to cobble together a coalition, setting him on track to become Israel's longest-serving prime minister.

However, a fourth term would probably also prolong his prickly relationship with Israel's main ally, the United States, at least as long as Barack Obama is in the White House.

Netanyahu has focused on the threat from Iran's nuclear program and militant Islam. But many Israelis say they are tiring of the message, and the center-left's campaign on social and economic issues, especially the high cost of housing and everyday living in Israel, appears to have won support.

In a possible sign of edginess, Netanyahu took to Facebook to denounce what he said was an effort by left-wing non-profit groups to get Arab-Israelis out to sway the election against him. “The right-wing government is in danger,” he wrote. “Arab voters are going to vote in droves. Left-wing NGOs are bringing them in buses.”

He also took the unusual step of calling the media to his official residence for a statement while voting was underway, only to repeat his concerns about the opposition winning and to urge people to vote for him.

When the last opinion polls were published on March 13, the Zionist Union led by Isaac Herzog held a four-seat lead over Netanyahu's right-wing Likud, a margin that had the opposition set for a surprise victory.

But in the last days of campaigning, Netanyahu fought to shore up his Likud base and lure voters from other right-wing, nationalist parties, promising more building of Jewish settlements and saying the Palestinians would not get their own state if he were re-elected.

Those sweeping promises, if carried out, would further isolate Israel from the United States and the European Union, which believe a peace deal must accommodate Palestinian demands for a state in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza.

But they may go some way towards persuading voters to stick with what they know, rather than another candidate on the right.

Surveys show around 15 percent of voters are undecided, meaning the result could swing widely – opinion polls have rarely been good predictors of Israeli elections in the past.

When Netanyahu called the election in December, two years early, he looked set for an easy victory. But Herzog has mounted a resilient campaign and there is a sense that change could be in the air. Some voters have talked of Netanyahu fatigue.

By 6 pm (1600 GMT), turnout was running at 55 percent, slightly lower than the last election. Voting ends at 10 pm, with the first exit polls published immediately afterwards.

If Netanyahu can draw votes from other right-wing parties, he may be in a position to be asked first by Israel's president to try to form a coalition.

No party has ever won an outright majority in Israel's 67-year history. Coalition-building is an unpredictable game, with any number of allegiances possible among the 10 or 11 parties expected to win a place in the 120-seat Knesset.

It also takes time: the party invited to try to form a government has up to 42 days to negotiate a coalition. It may be mid-May at the earliest before Israel has a new government.


Since there are more parties on the right and far-right, Netanyahu would have the advantage in coalition building if the Zionist Union wins by only a small margin. But if the center-left wins by four or more seats, it should get the nod first to try to form a government.

Under sunny skies, Netanyahu went to vote early with his wife at a school near their home in Jerusalem. He acknowledged that it was a tight race and urged voters to back the right.

Herzog, who has overcome criticism of his slight stature and reedy voice to lead a strong campaign, voted in Tel Aviv, where he emphasized that the election was about a new direction.

“Whoever wants to continue the way of Bibi – despair and disappointment – can vote for him,” he said. “But whoever wants change, hope, and really a better future for Israel, vote for the Zionist Union under my leadership.”

The son of a former president and the grandson of an eminent rabbi, Herzog, 54, is as close as it gets to having Kennedy-style heritage in Israel. While his leadership has been criticized in the past, he has shown wit and intellect on the campaign trail, bolstering his image among voters.

“For the first time in my life, I'm going to be voting for Labour, that is the Zionist Union,” said Dedi Cohen, 39, a lawyer in Tel Aviv. “The risk of Netanyahu building the next government is too big. How long has he been in power? Nine years? It's too much. Enough.”

Three or four parties are likely to decide how the balance of power tips in the coalition building.

Moshe Kahlon, the leader of Kulanu, a centrist party that broke away from Likud, is seen as perhaps the most important “kingmaker”. A former communications minister credited with bringing down mobile phone prices, Kahlon could ally with either Netanyahu or Herzog, bringing up to 10 seats with him.

One of the party's candidates, Michael Oren, a former Israeli ambassador to the United States, has said that whoever wins must try to repair relations with Washington, which have been under particular strain since Netanyahu addressed Congress on March 3, attacking a possible nuclear deal with Iran sought by Obama.

Yair Lapid, the leader of the centrist Yesh Atid party, could also ally with either side, bringing 12-14 seats. But he does not sit comfortably with religious parties, making him less flexible in coalition talks.

If the center-left is to assemble a coalition, it will also need the support of ultra-Orthodox parties, which are expected to win around 13 seats.

Another factor is the parties from Israel's 20 percent Arab minority, which for the first time have united under one list and are expected to win around 13 seats as well. While they are unlikely to join a center-left coalition, they could give it tacit support and create a block against Netanyahu.

After divisive campaign, Israelis render a split verdict

After weeks in which polls consistently showed Zionist Union holding a slight lead over the Likud Party of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Israelis delivered a split decision in elections, leaving the two parties virtually tied atop exit polls.

The polls on Tuesday from two Israeli broadcasters, Channels 1 and 10, gave the parties 27 seats each. A third poll, from Channel 2, gave Likud 28 seats and had Zionist Union with 27.

Against all odds: a great victory for the Likud. A major victory for the people of Israel!” Netanyahu posted on Twitter.

Early analyses gave Netanyahu the easier path to building a governing coalition and thus retaining the premiership for a third consecutive term, but the vote did not render a conclusive verdict on the current government.

Nor did it bring a clear call for change, as Netanyahu’s principal challenger, Zionist Union’s Isaac Herzog, had called on the electorate to deliver. Neither the right- nor left-wing bloc won an outright majority of the Knesset.

The result provides an inconclusive finish to a fierce and largely negative campaign in which both Netanyahu and Herzog campaigned with variations on the slogan It’s Us or Them.

“After the quarrels and disagreements, I am convinced that only a unity government can prevent the quick breakup of Israeli democracy and new elections soon,” said President Reuven Rivlin, according to sources quoted by Haaretz. Rivlin later this month will choose the candidate he sees as best suited to form a coalition.

The official results will be presented on Thursday, according to the Times of Israel.

Exit polling placed the Arab-Israeli Joint List in third place and made the party, a combined slate of several smaller Arab factions, one of the election’s biggest winners. Driven by elevated turnout among Arab-Israelis, the Joint List won 12 to 13 seats, gaining one or two from its current Knesset representation.

Ayman Odeh, the party’s charismatic leader, has committed himself to working on improving the lives of Arab-Israelis but has vowed not to join a coalition led by either Likud or Zionist Union.

Throughout the campaign, voters said their top issue was Israel’s high cost of living. They reiterated that demand on Tuesday, giving the new centrist Kulanu party a strong showing with nine or 10 seats, according to the polls. Party founder Moshe Kachlon, a former Likud minister, had focused almost exclusively on socioeconomic issues during the campaign.

The other party with a strong economic focus, the centrist Yesh Atid, fell from 19 to 11 or 12 seats, according to the polls. But the combined strength of Kulanu and Yesh Atid makes for a large bloc committed to economic reform.

Kulanu may well emerge as the election’s kingmaker. As the largest party not committed to either Zionist Union or Likud, its support could be critical to forming the next government.

If Netanyahu can convince Kulanu to back him, he would be able to form a coalition with other right-wing parties and the religious parties. For Herzog to emerge as the prime minister, he would have to convince religious, secular and leftist parties to unite under him in order to form a majority.

“I plan to make every effort to form a good government for Israel,” Herzog said at his campaign headquarters here. “A good government for Israel, a government that will return Israel to being a Jewish and democratic state, social and aspiring toward peace with our neighbors.”

As Election Day drew near, leaders on both sides urged voters to close ranks around their respective flagship party. Voters moved away from smaller parties, enabling both Likud and Zionist Union to outperform their recent poll standings, with Likud succeeding in closing a deficit of several points in the campaign’s final days.

The religious Zionist, pro-settler Jewish Home party, which grew from three to 12 seats in the 2013 vote, fell back to eight or nine in the election.

On the left, the staunchly leftist Meretz fell from six seats to five, while the right-wing Yachad party, founded by the former Shas chairman Eli Yishai, did not pass the electoral threshold and will not enter the next Knesset, according to most exit polls.

Among the biggest losers was Israel Beiteinu, the hardline faction led by Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman. The party, which had 13 seats in the previous Knesset, was hit with a corruption scandal early in the campaign and wound up with just five seats.