In Israel over the last few months, the religious-Zionist right wing has been buoyant.
Its political party, Jewish Home, reached an all time low in the 2009 general election, winning just 3 of the Knesset’s 120 seats, but then in this year’s election won a remarkable 12 seats. It had finally managed to galvanize the support of the non-Orthodox right wing.
Since the election, as the other big election winner, Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party, has very quickly ended its honeymoon and seen its support drop, Jewish Home has only got stronger. In recent weeks its strength in the polls peaked at 15 seats. But it seems that the party may have pushed its luck over the last few day
It hoped to be the political star this week. It bitterly criticized the release of Palestinian prisoners yesterday, expressing fury over the move and making disparaging comments about Israel’s chief negotiator Tzipi Livni, who also serves as Justice Minister. It was very strong stuff given that Jewish Home actually sits in the government that is freeing the prisoners.
And there lies the conundrum of Jewish Home. It sits in the government that is negotiating with the Palestinians even though it objects to everything involved in doing so — giving status to the Palestinian Authority, talking about evacuating settlements, and considering establishing a Palestinian state. Its awkward decision is to participate fully in the coalition, but distance itself from hard decisions related to the Palestinians.
This strategy seemed to be working. The party tried to present itself, during discussions about the prisoner release, as the only faction with the courage to speak out. But it seems that the public didn’t see it like this.
A new poll puts its support at 13-seats, which may be more than its 12 seats in Knesset, but is real dip from previous polling in September. Instead of boosting its support, the attempt to show indignation while remaining in the government has chipped away at its support. This shows the weakness in its balancing act and raises the question: at what point may its obligations to the coalition and to its supporters cause a crisis for the party?
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:
A new opinion poll shows that if Israel were to hold new elections today, Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party would win with 30 seats in the 120-member Knesset, up from its current 19, putting the former television personality in line to be prime minister, while Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud-Beiteinu would drop from 31 seats to 22. Naftali Bennett’s pro-settler Jewish Home party would gain three seats for a total of 15, while the Labor Party would drop two seats to 13. The poll of 510 respondents, released Thursday, was conducted by Panels Ltd. for the Knesset Channel.
A second poll, conducted by Maagar Mochot for Maariv and published Friday, gave Lapid 24 seats and Netanyahu 28. Bennett would rise to 13 and Shas to 12, while Labor would drop to 11 and Kadima would disappear.
Israelis could be forced to return to the ballot box this spring if Netanyahu fails to assemble a coalition by mid-March. President Shimon Peres could forestall new elections by tapping another candidate to try and form a coalition within two weeks after Netanyahu’s deadline runs out, but at present no such coalition seems likely.
At present, new elections are looking more likely than any other option. Since the January 22 elections Netanyahu has managed to sign one coalition deal, with the dovish Tzipi Livni and her six-seat Hatnuah party, promising Livni the Justice Ministry and control of negotiations with the Palestinian Authority. To win a 61-seat majority he now needs to sign two of the next four largest parties—either Yesh Atid (with 19 seats), Labor (15), Jewish Home (12) or Shas (11). But under current conditions, any such combination is impossible, because no two parties have indicated any willingness to sit together. Here’s how the breakdown breaks down:
The new star of the Israeli right may be heading for the opposition benches. Israeli media are reporting that Naftali Bennett and his religious-Zionist Jewish Home party have rejected an offer that would have made it part of the government with control of the Education Ministry and other prominent positions.
To Bennett’s irritation Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, head of the Likud-Beytenu alliance and convener of the new government, informed them of the offer via the media, so he rejected it via the media.
In addition to the education portfolio the Likud offer would have reportedly given the staunchly pro-settlement Jewish Home a socioeconomic portfolio and a deputy defense minister who would deal with settlements.
This is undoubtedly part of a bargaining game by Netanyahu and Bennett, along with a working through of bad blood that has existed been them since Bennett’s stint as his Chief of Staff, a position he left in 2008.
But it does appear that beneath all the negotiating talk, Bennett truly is unhappy with the offer, which is interesting. In years gone by the National Religious Party, the faction which rebranded to become Jewish Home, was excited at talk of holding the Education Ministry. One of its key priorities was impacting Jewish identity in the state, and it saw the educational realm as an important route for doing this.
The difference is that the NRP was focused on its religious-Zionist ideology and putting it in to action, and wanted the ministries that would best help it to do that. The Bennett Revolution in Jewish Home keeps largest of the ideology, but it’s all about making the party a contender to become the biggest mainstream right-wing faction in the country — he hopes bigger than Likud. Which is why, unlike most of his predecessors he sniffs at the Education Ministry and is desperate for a post where he feels that he can prove his ability to lead the nation. Can he bargain his way to what he considers real power? Well, let’s just say that nobody really believed that the leader of the formerly-niche immigrant party Yisrael Beytenu, Avigdor Liberman, could become Foreign Minister, and he held the position for the last Knesset session.
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.
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.