Forward Thinking

Third Time Lucky for Bibi?

By Nathan Jeffay

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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.”

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Shaul Mofaz, Israel's Unlikely Kingmaker

By Nathan Jeffay

Could a politician who almost disappeared in to obscurity be poised to take up one of the most powerful positions in Israel?

It is safe to say that as chairman of the Kadima party Shaul Mofaz hasn’t been the greatest of successes. It’s hard to believe but Kadima was actually the biggest party in Knesset after the last election, yet in the poll 16 days ago it almost failed to pass the electoral threshold, and in the final reckoning scraped in with two seats.

To Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is busy building his coalition, every mandate counts, and ever since the election he has apparently been keen to get Kadima on board. Now, with US President Barack Obama set to visit Israel and focus attention on the peace process, wooing Kadima has become more attractive for Netanyahu — and he may well be prepared to make him Defense Minister.

Kadima has a reputation as centrist and pro-peace, and can help with the challenge of giving international credibility to his government on issues of peace. Though the party only has two lawmakers, it’s a pro-peace name on the list of coalition parties, which will allow him to present his government as more centrist. If he also persuades the six-seat Tzipi Livni Party to join, as expected, he will have notched up two pro-peace factions in his coalition — despite the fact that their smallness would compromise their ability to promote a diplomatic process with the Palestinians.

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Bibi Faces Grim Math of Polls

By Nathan Jeffay

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Exit polls are just out in Israel, and the results are, simply put, astonishing. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s list — an alliance between his Likud party and the further-right Yisrael Beytenu — was placed with 31 of the Knesset’s 120 seats according to all three polls that were conducted. The Yesh Atid party headed by political novice Yair Lapid, a popular journalist, surprised pollsters and is placing at 18 to 19 seats.

On the surface, this doesn’t seem amazing, but take a closer look. Netanyahu’s own Likud party will control just 20 seats if you discount Yisrael Beytenu’s seats. This is a very real calculation, as Yisrael Beytenu’s lawmakers will be loyal to their party leader Avigdor Liberman, and not necessarily to Netanyahu.

Labor looks set to come in close behind Yesh Atid with 17 seats. So what is the bottom line? Netanyahu probably will still get to form the coalition, but as a far weaker leader than he would have hoped. And he will do so with either a very strong opposition led by Lapid, or a powerful Lapid inside his coalition, trying to keep him central.

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Whatever Happened to Kissing Babies?

By Nathan Jeffay

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The Israel Land Administration is a notorious government bureaucracy, whose precise functions are a mystery to most Israelis. And yet, one day before polling opens here in Israel, the whole country is talking about it.

The reason is that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced yesterday that the popular minister Moshe Kahlon, who aid ahead of the campaign that he was leaving politics, will become director of this body which controls the release of land for building.

Kahlon is loved because he’s a salt-of-the-earth kind of guy in a Likud party which is increasingly seen as serving Israel’s tycoons. In a country where ethnicity matters in politics he’s Sephardi in an Ashkenazi-dominated faction. Last but not least, in these important hours in which the parties try to catch floating voters (more than 10% of voters are still undecided) Kahlon has the ability to attract socially-concerned voters who may otherwise go for the centrist parties.

And so, while Netanyahu can’t undo the fact that Kahlon isn’t standing for Knesset, he’s done the next-best thing — appointed him to a high-profile unelected post. His big achievement as Communications Minister in the last Knesset was to reduce cellphone prices, and Netanyahu is indicating that he’ll have the same kind of impact on house prices.

But house prices are far more complex than cellphone packages, and one wonders why, if bringing house prices down is really so simple as appointing the right man to the job, why Netanyahu didn’t do exactly that 18 months ago when the social protestors took to the streets objecting to high living costs? If the answer is that this has more to do with the poll than with real concern about housing prices, one wonders how ethical making civil service appointments is as a form of electioneering. What happened to good old fashioned baby-kissing?

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I Love Bibi — No, I Love Him More

By Nathan Jeffay

In the past, Israeli political parties have gotten themselves in to trouble for slurring their opponents during campaigns, with election authorities clamping down on what they see as negative campaigning.

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Strangely enough, there’s the opposite problem this time — a contest to campaign for Bibi.

Given that it’s pretty much taken-as-given that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will win Tuesday’s election with his Likud-Beytenu list, parties on the right have decided that their best strategy is to hang on his coattails.

So Shas and Jewish Home have been declaring their allegiance to Bibi, telling voters that they’ll back him as Prime Minister and join his coalition — and saying that a vote for their party is the best of both worlds. In other words it’ll bolster their party in Knesset, and also bolster Bibi as Prime Minister.

Jewish Home advertisements featured that party’s leader, Naftali Bennett, next to a picture of Bibi, and a slogan “strong together, voting Bennett.” Likud-Beytenu objected, saying the advertisement gave the impression that Bennett and Bibi were actually running together, and election authorities insisted that the advertisements were removed.

Now, Shas has a video with a similar message. Arye Deri, one of the party’s leaders, has promised in a video that whoever votes Shas “gets a double benefit.” He used the slogan: “Voting Shas, keeping Netanyahu.”

Could this extent of devotion to Bibi work against Jewish Home and Shas when it comes to the coalition negotiations? Given that the parties have all but promised their voters they’ll be in the coalition, they’re going in to bargaining with Netanyahu with a pretty weak position.

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Israel's Election Race for Second Place

By Nathan Jeffay

Shelly Yacimovich

So, we all kind of know who is going to take top spot in Tuesday’s general election in Israel — Benjamin Netanyahu and his Likud-Yisrael Beytenu alliance. But who is going to come in second spot?

Some Israelis were starting to eulogize the Labor party after its poor performance in the last election in 2009, but buoyed by the social protests it has emerged as a force to be reckoned with this time around. To the relief of the Israeli left, it has looked all through this campaign like one of its parties would come in as the second largest party. But now it doesn’t look so certain.

A Geocartography Institute poll broadcast today on Israeli Radio predicted that Labor will win 16 of the Knesset’s 120 seats, but the right-wing Jewish Home will win 17.

In another poll released today on the Knesset Channel, conducted by Panels, Labor gets 16 while Jewish Home wins 14 — but the suggestion that it could be beaten to silver by the previously-sectarian religious-Zionist party will be causing some concern in Labor. Second-place is psychologically very important for Labor — for many in the party it’s a sign that the faction has been restored from the sidelines to its prominent status in the country.

The polls give Likud-Beytenu 32 and 34 seats respectively — a comfortable win, but far less than the alliance originally hoped for.

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Donald Likes Bibi

By Josh Nathan-Kazis

The Donald is backing Bibi.

Trump, the flaxen-haired publicity hound last seen pushing birther conspiracy theories in the U.S. presidential race, made what he likely considered a major announcement this afternoon (then again, he thinks everything he says is a major announcement).

He’s backing Benjamin Netanyahu in the January 22 Israeli elections.

“Vote for Benjamin. Terrific guy. Terrific leader. Great for Israel,” Trump said in a web video published January 15.

The endorsement is short on policy but high on praise for the incumbent prime minister. “You truly have a great prime minister in Benjamin Netanyahu. There’s nobody like him,” Trump said. “He’s a winner.”

Trump is a real estate and casino mogul who is also the star of the TV reality show The Apprentice. He toyed with making a Republican run for president last year, punctuated by his latching onto discredited questions about President Obama’s birth certificate.

Netanyahu is projected to come out on top in next week’s electoral contest, though he’s facing pressure on his right flank from the settler candidate Naftali Bennet and frustration from the religious Sephardic party Shas over his alliance with the Russian party Yisrael Beitanu.

What does Trump think of all this? He hasn’t said. He sure does like Netanyahu, though.

“He’s highly respected,” Trump says of Netanyahu. “He’s highly thought of by all.”

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Barack Obama's Israeli Boom Box

By Josh Nathan-Kazis

President Obama listens to Israeli radio on an ’80s-style ghetto blaster. That’s the concept behind a new Israeli ad for a government-owned radio station, promoting its coverage of the upcoming elections in the Jewish state.

The ad pictures the U.S. president on the lawn of the White House with a radio glued to his ear.

But it’s not just any radio. The first black president is depicted carrying a large boom box of the sort associated with the inner city youth culture of the crack era.

Apparently, the eye-catching goal of the ad is to convince Israelis that everybody — even Barack Obama — tunes in to catch the station’s coverage. The ad’s text reads, “When it’s really important for you to know what’s happening in the elections.”

It also shows the First Family’s dog, Bo, clamoring for the president’s attention on the White House lawn.

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Where's the Platform, Bibi?

By Nathan Guttman

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Benjamin Netanyahu

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.

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Kissing Cousins, Israel Election Edition

By Renee Ghert-Zand

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.

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Raining on Likud's Parade

By Nathan Jeffay

It looked as if today’s primaries to choose the candidate roster for Israel’s ruling Likud party was going to be delayed by Operation Pillar of Defense. But the party showed resilience and went to the polls as scheduled — only to have the process descend in to a shambles by problems with the snazzy computerized system on which members are meant to vote.

Several polling stations have closed due to malfunctions and at other stations some people have been told that the system is out of service but they should come back later. Gideon Saar, Likud lawmaker and Education Minister, has called the voting process “a farce” and suggested it should be rescheduled.

What does this mean politically? Given that it’s presumed to be almost certain that Likud will form the next government (along with its running partner Yisrael Beytenu), the composition of the party is very important in setting the legislative agenda for the next Knesset.

But before considering the significance of the computer problem let’s factor in another relevant point. Likud members also have the weather to contend with. It’s a rainy day in large parts of Israel, and Israelis don’t like to go out in the rain unless they really have to. Now, in Likud, it’s the strongly pro-settlement right wingers who are the most determined to vote, and who are most likely to make sure that the make the poll despite the obstacles. And as we reported here there’s a large number of highly ideological new recruits to Likud who are determined for the party to make a sharp right turn. This could well be their day.

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The 'If Only' Man

By Nathan Jeffay

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Ehud Olmert

Ehud Olmert, Israel’s former Prime Minister and the center left’s “if only” man, is expected to confirm any moment that he won’t be running for Knesset.

Soon after the January 22 election was announced, speculation has abounded that if Olmert made a comeback and pulled together a broad center-left alliance he could actually win and once again become Prime Minister. From there, it was said, the Middle East would be his oyster — Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas recently said that he was close to a deal with Olmert in 2008, intimating that the two could return to this point if Olmert returned.

There was some polling to back up this dream. In fact, it appeared that when Likud decided a month ago to run on a joint ticket with Yisrael Beytenu it was a case of Netanyahu trying to ensure that he would have the most Knesset mandates behind him even if Olmert entered the race.

But then came Operation Pillar of Defense, knocking the issues championed by the center-left — Israeli-Palestinian peace and socio-economic issues — off the public agenda and putting security at the forefront. Even if it was right a couple of weeks ago, the national mood in Israel isn’t right for Olmert now.

And so, for the second time in his career, Olmert leaves us all wondering what could’ve been. What could’ve been on the Israeli-Palestinian front had scandal not forced him out of office when it did? Was he planning on running in the coming elections? If so, what could’ve been during and after the election has it not been for Pillar of Defense?

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For Bibi, Two Setbacks on Tuesday

By Nathan Jeffay

Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is reeling from not one but two disappointments on Tuesday. It is widely believed that he was desperate for Mitt Romney to win the American presidential election. But he also had an eye on another election at home.

The main religious-Zionist party Jewish Home was holding its primaries to choose a new leader, and the winner was none other than his former right-hand man who he wanted to lose.

High tech millionaire Naftali Bennett became Netanyahu’s chief of staff from 2006, and was responsible for the campaign that got him elected as Likud leader. But the two didn’t see eye to eye, and in 2008 Bennett left. Bibi was so keen for him not to be elected that his wife Sara Netanyahu was reportedly canvassing against him.

So what is it that made Netanyahu want one of Bennett’s rival primary candidates to lead Jewish Home? It’s not a subject he’s discussed but one can suppose that it’s in large part the very same things he liked about Bennett back in 2006.

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The Forward's Election Poll: The Big Issues

By Forward Staff

What do you think about the presidential election? We want to hear your opinions on a number of topics, so answer today’s question and then check back Wednesday evening for the results. We’ll have a new question waiting for you each night this week and a final roundup blog post on Friday.

Last night we asked for your take on the candidates’ views on the Israel/Iran conflict as they expressed them during the final debate. Twenty-one percent of respondents completely agreed with Governor Romney’s stance and 35% completely agreed with President Obama’s.

How much do these issues affect your vote in the election?

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Obama Won by Talking Like a Republican

By Jay Michaelson

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This late in the campaign, everything is about swing states – and the foreign policy debate was largely about Florida, where moderate Jews could well decide who gets the state’s 29 electoral votes.

On those grounds, on the basis of issues important to Florida Jews, President Obama won this debate, but in a bizarre, looking-glass sort of way in which the candidates seemingly exchanged personalities. Mitt Romney sounded like Obama: reasonable, measured, and knowledgeable about foreign policy. Barack Obama sounded like Romney: making strong rhetorical points with little attention to detail.

On Israel, for example, it was Obama who struck first, citing his support of the Iron Dome defense system, and using the phrase “stand with Israel” numerous times. Romney, meanwhile, sounded like a Democrat: arguing for peace talks with the Palestinians, and a measured approach to Iran.

So too on the emotional issues likely to resonate with the bubbes and zaydes of Palm Beach County. Could anyone have predicted that President Obama would invoke the holocaust in his discussion of the State of Israel? And yet that’s what he did, noting that on his trip to Israel, he visited Yad Vashem (the holocaust memorial, he explained to the non-Jewish voters who happened to be watching the debate too), whereas Romney went to fundraisers.

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