Since Israel’s last general election a year and a half ago, the country’s two most powerful party leaders have exhibited surprisingly good relations.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman united their parties, Likud and Yisrael Beytenu, before the election and have surprised observers by keeping them together and getting along relatively well. Netanyahu loyally kept the Foreign Minister post open for him until his legal troubles ended in November.
But all is no longer rosy in paradise. Netanyahu has angered Liberman by backing Likud’s Reuven Rivlin for president. Netanyahu made the move reluctantly, after failing to recruit a candidate he deemed more suitable. His coolness towards Rivlin even prompted him to take the highly unusual step of trying to bring a president from New York, namely Elie Wiesel.
While Rivlin is a staunch rightist, both Netanyahu and Liberman dislike him for various reasons, including his refusal to back certain measures aimed against Israel’s Arab minority. But Netanyahu gave in to pressures from within is party, while Liberman remains opposed — and is left angry at Netanyahu for breaking what he said was an agreement not to back Rivlin.
Under the surface of the Netanyahu-Liberman relationship, they are two men jostling for prominence and fighting for the title of king of the Israeli right. And if Liberman can get ahead by generating a crisis based on Netanyahu’s presidential choices, capitalizing on an accusation that he acted in bad faith, Israel may be in for some political turbulence.
American and Israeli press outlets (Washington Post/AP, Detroit Free Press, Times of Israel, Arutz Sheva/Israel National News) are carrying unsourced reports that Secretary of State Kerry, currently visiting Turkey, Israel and the Palestinian Authority, is hoping to revive Israeli-Palestinian peace talks on the basis of the “dormant” Arab Peace Initiative, which is “suddenly” springing back to life.
That would be the Saudi-initiated plan adopted unanimously by the League of Arab States in 2002, and reaffirmed in 2007. It offered Israel full recognition, normalized diplomatic relations and a formal end to the Arab-Israeli conflict in return for a return to the pre-1967 borders and an “just” and “agreed” resolution of the Palestinian refugee problem. Kerry reportedly wants to dust off the supposedly long-forgotten plan and introduce certain “sweeteners,” such as better security guarantees and border modifications, to make it more palatable to Israel, which has never formally responded to the offer.
The funny thing is, from the Arab point of view the plan isn’t dormant at all. It turns out the Arab League considers it very much alive and actually has a standing Peace Initiative Follow-up Committee that’s been meeting regularly (2010, 2011, 2012 to discuss the plan and figure out how to get it moving. The committee is meeting today in Doha, Qatar, with the Palestinian Authority’s president Mahmoud Abbas, foreign minister Riyad Malki and chief negotiator Saeb Erekat in attendance, to finalize plans for a delegation of foreign ministers that will go to Washington on April 29 to meet with Kerry.
With Prime Minister Netanyahu just days away from his final deadline to install a new government or lose the option, observers on all sides have their own ways of explaining what’s holding things up. Most of them are correct, but there’s a larger truth that overshadow them all: The Likud hasn’t internalized the fact that it lost the last election, and can’t retain all the goodies in the next coalition that it enjoyed in the last one.
The other explanations are worth reviewing, as they provide the background for Bibi’s current dilemma. One theory is that Bibi stalled until the last minute—that is, until Friday, March 8—before beginning earnest negotiations, in hopes of breaking up the Yair Lapid-Naftali Bennett alliance, bypassing Lapid and bringing in his old ultra-Orthodox Shas allies into a coalition alongside Bennett and Tzipi Livni. Another theory is that Lapid and his chief negotiator, businessman and onetime Ariel Sharon aide Uri Shani, are dragging the current, bare-knuckled negotiations until a minute before midnight—that would be Thursday, March 14—in order to force Bibi to accept their demands.
The bottom line, though, is that the second-tier Likud leaders on Bibi’s bench haven’t yet internalized the fact that they lost the January 22 election and can’t keep what they had in the last election. Accordingly, they’re making it impossible for Bibi to give Lapid what he earned from the voters. Unfortunately for them, Lapid isn’t ready to fold. He’s already given up too much.
Lapid’s reasoning is that he effectively leads a bloc of 33 seats in the 120-member Knesset, including his own Yesh Atid party (19 seats), Bennett’s Jewish Home (12) and Shaul Mofaz’s Kadima (2). That makes his bloc larger than Bibi’s 31-seat Likud-Beiteinu bloc (which is not a party but rather an alliance of Likud, with 20, and Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu, with 11). Following that logic, Lapid spent days insisting on receiving two of the four senior ministries in the new government: foreign affairs for himself and finance for Bennett. Bibi would keep the prime ministry for himself and the defense ministry for his number 2 (more on that later).
Bibi couldn’t do that, ostensibly because he had promised to keep the foreign ministry open for Lieberman, who had to resign to face trial on corruption charges but is hoping to return after an acquittal or misdemeanor conviction. In fact, keeping promises has never been Netanyahu’s signature issue, but he had two other, more compelling considerations:
Any hopes that Avigdor Liberman had for a quick trial in time to become part of Israel’s new government were dashed today, when his trial opened in Jerusalem and looked set to become a slow affair.
Yisrael Beytenu party head Liberman, who was Foreign Minister until he resigned to face his charges shortly before the election, is accused of fraud and breach of trust. He allegedly promoted an Israeli diplomat in gratitude for information in to a police investigation against him.
He pleaded not guilty and denied all charges against him. But Liberman will pay a heavy price for the trial whatever its outcome, as the timescale under discussion is lengthy, to May and beyond — long after the new government is in place. This means that there’s no way he’s going to be cleared and ready to take up his old job in the Foreign Ministry by the time the new government takes office later this month or next month.
For Liberman this is the ultimate frustration. His party was at an historic juncture — it ran the election on a joint ticket with the ruling Likud party bringing it closer than ever to the real power it has longed for since he set it up in 1999. He had taken Beytenu from a niche Russian speakers’ party to a mainstream party of the right, and this was his big break. Plus, ironically the investigation that had dogged him for years — the one about which the diplomat allegedly gave him information — has been dropped.
As if things can’t get worse for Liberman, his former right hand man in the party and the Foreign Ministry Danny Ayalon is expected to be one of the key witnesses and seems to have lots to say even before he appears in court. The Jerusalem Post reports that he has said that Liberman shouldn’t go back to the Foreign Ministry even if cleared, that the “world treated him like a leper,” and that while the diplomatic appointment in question was appropriate, he “put pressure [on the selection committee] to appoint certain people to the Foreign Service, which I succeeded in blocking, because I convinced him that they were not worthy.”
With less than three weeks until elections in Israel, the nation’s leading party still has no platform.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s hybrid political faction formed from the recent merger between the ruling Likud party and right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu, has yet to publish its platform, in which it lays out its stands on major issues.
It’s a standard practice of political parties in Israel, just as it is in America. But Likud Beiteinu officials in the Israeli press as saying the joint list may forgo one altogether, since the idea is “anachronistic.”
As it turns out, Likud Beiteinu may have good reasons for avoiding the publication of a party platform.
From a practical standpoint, party platforms do little to attract voters and it is hard to find swing voters who sit down and compare platforms before casting their ballot.
But the combined party also has a specific reason to avoid making any policy statement this year. The Likud party has taken a turn to the right in recent years, and with the addition of ex-foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu to the joint list, the new party has moved from center-right closer to the far right wing of Israeli politics.
Nowhere is this more so than when dealing with the Israeli – Palestinian conflict—an issue to which the international community, including the United States — Israel’s prime supporter — is extremely sensitive.
Loverboy Bibi is at it again.
Last year we caught Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu kissing Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Now he’s locking lips with Israeli Labor Party leader Shelly Yachimovich.
Well, not exactly.
Back in November 2011 Benetton photoshopped the embrace between Bibi and Abu Mazen as part of its controversial UNHATE ad campaign. There were lots of other highly unlikely couples, like President Obama and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and the leaders of North Korea and South Korea.
Now, the Israeli leftist party Meretz has produced altered parody images for another campaign — the one for the Israeli elections scheduled for January 23. There is the image of Bibi and Yachimovich. There is also one of Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman kissing Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid, to draw attention to Lapid’s refusal to pledge that he will not enter a coalition with Netanyahu’s Likud party following the elections and the likely event that Netanyahu will remain prime minister.
The Likud-Kadima agreement to form a unity government and cancel the early election makes all the sense in the world for Kadima. It’s arguably the smartest move by any Israeli peace advocate in a long time.
Newly minted Kadima leader Shaul Mofaz, who ousted Tzipi Livni in a primary upset just two weeks ago, inherited a party with 28 seats Knesset seats. It’s the largest bloc in the current house - one seat more than the Likud in the 120-seat legislature. But Kadima was headed for a crash in the coming snap elections. Polls showed Mofaz winning just 11 seats in September, the same as center-liberal newcomer Yair Lapid. Labor Party leader Sheli Yacimovich was polling at 18 seats (up from the 13 Labor won in the last election, which dropped to 8 after Ehud Barak’s defection). Thus the total center-left bloc was headed for 40 seats. Netanyahu was polling at a commanding 30 seats, and with Avigdor Lieberman pulling 15, plus assorted religious and far-right factions, Bibi was headed for a second term that would take him through 2016 essentially unchallenged.
By joining a unity coalition, Mofaz gives himself another year to build up a following and establish himself as an alternative to Bibi. From his perspective, his two rivals for leadership of the center-left, Yacimovich and Lapid, are not serious candidates. Both are former television journalists with little to no leadership experience and only the fuzziest familiarity with foreign and security policy. Mofaz is a former army chief of staff and former defense minister, active in civilian politics since 2003, highly regarded as a team leader, manager and policy wonk on domestic and security affairs. There have been talks in recent days about bringing the three together to form a joint list to oppose Bibi, but no agreement as to who would lead.
What specifically does tonight’s deal gain for Mofaz and Kadima?
Prime Minister Netanyahu’s decision to call early elections in September followed a “discreet” meeting with leaders of AIPAC, who told him that polls show President Obama heading for reelection in November—so writes Maariv chief diplomatic correspondent Ben Caspit, as reported by Noam Sheizaf on the left-wing, English-language Israeli site 972mag.com blog.
Here’s Caspit, as translated by Sheizaf:
Netanyahu’s surprising announcement on the early primaries in the Likud, which fell on his party’s senior member like thunder on a cloudless day, came three days after a discrete meeting he held with the chiefs of AIPAC, that estimated, based on polls, that Barack Obama would also be the next president.
Bibi knew he can’t campaign when Obama is in his second term. This [would be] a dangerous gamble. Sheizaf goes on to note that the September 4 Knesset elections will come during the Democratic National Convention, which means that “Instead of the U.S. president possibly playing a role—deliberately or not – in the Israeli elections, Netanyahu will get a chance to play a part in the American one.” No, Noam, it’s not a coincidence.
Speaking of Israeli elections, two new political parties are forming on the right:
The results of the elections for leadership of the Kadima party are in and Shaul Mofaz has won a decisive victory over Tzipi Livni. With 100% of the votes counted, Mofaz won 61.5 percent to Livni’s 38.5 percent. Ouch.
There was nothing really for Livni to say as she stood in front of her supporters on Tuesday night besides, “These are elections, and these are the results.”
The big mystery at this point is whether Mofaz intends to join Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, as Livni was never willing to do — and whether Netanyahu would have him
To hear Mofaz on Tuesday, he has no plans to accept any portfolio besides prime minister: “I intend to win the general elections and bring Netanyahu down. Our country deserves a new social agenda, a different government system, equality of civic duties, and more serious attempts to achieve peace in our region.”
But there have been comments from other Kadima members that Mofaz wouldn’t mind ousting Avigdor Lieberman as foreign minister.
We will have to wait and see. What is sure is that Mofaz is now emerging as a serious political player, and we’ll be eager to learn a little more about him and his core principles. On the biographical front, we know that he was born in Iran in 1948 and is married with four children. He jumped into politics in 2002 after a long military career. Haaretz has a brief bio here. Surely, there will be more in the coming days and months.
The foreign policy chief of the European Union, Catherine Ashton, is under furious attack for a speech she gave March 19, several hours after the deadly shootings at the Ozar Hatorah school in Toulouse, in which she mentioned the Toulouse attack and deaths of Palestinian youths in Gaza in the same sentence.
First Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, called the supposed analogy “inappropriate.” Then others piled on: Defense Minister Ehud Barak called her words “outrageous.” Interior Minister Eli Yishai demanded she resign. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu criticized her more indirectly, just before a meeting with French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe, who had flown to Israel for the funerals of the Toulouse victims. The Anti-Defamation League expressed “outrage.” The American Jewish Committee expressed “profound dismay.” For a more detailed critique, here’s Middle East scholar (and my old high school chum) Barry Rubin, dissecting what’s wrong.
Actually, what’s wrong is the false notion that Ashton’s words were, as Barry puts it, “a statement” issued “in response to the Toulouse shooting.” They were nothing of the sort. As I write in my latest Forward column, she was delivering the keynote address at a U.N.-E.U. conference on the challenges facing Palestinian refugee youth. She concluded with a sad litany of unrelated tragedies around the world that clearly share nothing except that young people die. Here’s the video of the speech.
How did everyone get it so wrong?
There’s a sort of grim poetry in the timing of today’s news about the burning of two major CIA intelligence networks by Iran and Hezbollah. It was almost exactly 70 years ago, with the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, that the creation of the CIA was set in motion with the birth of the wartime spy agency OSS (Office of Strategic Services), as historian Chalmers Johnson wrote in a devastating 2007 review-essay about the agency and its failures. Johnson claimed that agency “functionally came to an end” with another surprise attack on September 11, 2001. I think he called it prematurely at the time, but this time might be the real thing.
Hezbollah, it must be remembered, was responsible for one of the most devastating of the CIA’s previous counter-intelligence failures, the 1984 kidnapping and slow, horrific 15-month torture-murder of Beirut station chief William Buckley, grippingly recounted in this 2006 profile by British author Gordon Thomas.
There’s a telling hint at how a disciplined, well-run spy agency can be managed in another fresh headline, namely the Sunday night meeting where Benjamin Netanyahu reportedly patched up a ludicrous but potentially dangerous clash, apparently of his own creation, between his foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, and Mossad chief Tamir Pardo.