Forward Thinking

Kotel Ball Is in Tzipi Livni's Court

By Nathan Jeffay

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Tzipi Livni

Could Tzipi Livni be sweetening feminists before dropping a bombshell?

As discussed earlier on Forward Thinking, Justice Minister Livni has just announced that she is working on legislation to criminalize the exclusion of women from the public sphere. The timing is interesting — just as she could find herself in a very awkward position on women’s issues.

Women of the Wall, the interdenominational feminist group that prays once a month at the Western Wall, is waiting to see what will become of its newfound rights.

For the first time ever, women tried to hold public prayers at the Western Wall with he blessing of the state today. It was be the group’s first prayer meeting since a landmark court ruling that will put an end to the police’s habit of detaining its members.

Women planned to gather at the Wall, some of them wearing prayer shawls and phylacteries, with guarantees from police that they will respect the protection that the court afforded them.

Instead of the police, women found themselves facing off against thousands of ultra-Orthodox demonstrators. Police had to protect them from the Haredi mob.

Now, non-Orthodox religious leaders are demanding an investigation into the violence.

Israel’s Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein has just dealt the political establishment a trump card to clamp down on the women. This week he waived his right to challenge the permissive court ruling they received as he believes it accords with the current law, but in his decision he left the door wide open for the Religious Services Minister Naftali Bennett to redefine the law and put a stop to their newly-won right to public prayer at the Wall.

If Bennett decides to alter the law, he will head straight to Livni’s office for her signature to do so. The pressure will be high on Livni, the junior party of the coalition, from strongman Bennett. Perhaps she’s making a big gesture to women in her announcement today so that, if and when the time comes to reel in rights at the Kotel, she can say that she’s only lost a battle but won the war.

Either way, the ball is in Tzipi’s court.

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Behind Coalition Standoff: Likud MKs Can't Face Loss

By J.J. Goldberg

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Benjamin Netanyahu

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:

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Israel Update: Coalition Government Expected Soon

By Nathan Guttman

Netanyahu is almost there. As Israeli politicians took a pause in their discussions for the Shabbat break, all sides expressed optimism that a new coalition could be announced within days.

Netanyahu’s Likud-Beiteinu party is close to finalizing a deal with its two major coalition partners: Yesh Atid and HaBayit HaYehudi. According to press reports, in meetings that took place on Friday, Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid agreed to give up his previous demand to become foreign minister and instead will take the treasury portfolio. This will leave the foreign ministry open, a position Netanyahu wishes to keep for Avigdor Lieberman, if and when he is cleared on the corruption-related trial. As part of the emerging deal, Naftali Bennet, leader of the right-wing HaBayit HaYehudi party will get the commerce portfolio with some added-on areas of responsibility.

This coalition deal will provide Netanyahu with a stable government that, for the first time in over a decade, will not include members of the ultra-Orthodox parties. Such a coalition will allow Lapid to move forward with his plan to increase the military draft for Haredi men, many of whom are currently exempt of military service.

On the Israeli-Palestinian front, however, the emerging coalition does not carry much promise for change. According to some reports, Netanyahu will agree to drop any mention of support for a two-state solution from the new government’s guidelines in order to ease Bennet’s way into his government. He may also re-negotiate the coalition agreement reached with Tzipi Livni to limit her responsibilities relating to the peace process.

Lapid, in his way into Netanyahu’s coalition, is also willing to make some concessions. His demand to limit the number of cabinet ministers to 18 was only partially accepted and the next government will have 24 ministers, instead of 28 who currently serve in cabinet-level positions. Lapid, according to the Israeli media, will also have to forgo his early demand to include in the government’s platform support for gay marriage and for allowing public transportation on Saturday.

Coalition talks are scheduled to resume on Saturday night with a possible agreement signed toward the middle of the Week. Netanyahu has until the end of next week to form a new government.

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What Is Tzipi Livni Thinking?

By Nathan Jeffay

Given that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is hardly famed for his enthusiasm on the peace process, it’s interesting that his first signing for his new coalition is the party that ran the campaign with the strongest make-peace-with-the-Palestinians emphasis

Today, Netanyahu recruited the six-seat Tzipi Livni Party, and announced that the party’s leader Tzipi Livni, will become a “senior partner” in the government on this issue. She is widely expected to lead negotiations, and will also serve as Justice Minister.

One wonders what was going through Livni’s mind as she made the agreement. She spoke of her “strategic and moral imperative” to “become a part of any government that commits to bringing peace.”

Now, when did she come to that conclusion? This statement showed a huge change in her thinking since the 2009 election. She won that poll, returning her then-party Kadima to Knesset as the largest party, but flatly refused to form a unity government or any other kind of alliance with Netanyahu. Then, going in with Likud would have made her Prime Minister; now, it will make her a “senior partner” on the Palestinian issue and Justice Minister.

Why was sitting with Likud inconceivable in 2009, but an imperative now? Has her political philosophy changed? If so, how?

It’s worth wondering where Israel would be is she had come to this conclusion back in 2009 and served as Prime Minister, either alone or in some type of rotation with Netanyahu. Would she have continued the progress of her predecessor Ehud Olmert towards peace — maybe even closed a deal? Would Kadima still be a large party instead of the shriveled two-seat entity it is today? And could Livni possibly be, right now, starting her second term as Prime Minister?

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Will Gaza Rockets Reelect Bibi? Is That Hamas' Aim?

By J.J. Goldberg

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Benjamin Netanyahu

Center-right commentator Shalom Yerushalmi at Maariv argues that the rockets from Gaza seem likely to turn the upcoming Israeli elections once again into a referendum on who has bigger guns, meaning a Likud reelection. Sadly, he says, that would again bury the election that seemed to be shaping up, the one that Israel deserves, the one that’s typical in normal democracies, over the country’s intolerable social and economic inequities.

This assumes, at least in part, that Israel launches a serious attack into Gaza to stop the rockets, in some sort of reprise of Operation Cast Lead in 2008-09. Military correspondents Amos Harel and Avi Issacharoff at Haaretz think that’s unlikely and will have to settle for less aggressive action, like resuming aerial targeted assassinations of Hamas leadership. They say Bibi’s freedom of action is limited because

…the diplomatic reality now is far different than it was when that offensive was launched in 2008: Israel fears a direct confrontation with the new regime in Egypt and it knows that neither the United States nor Europe will be as tolerant of a large-scale military operation this time around.

Here’s my question: Is it possible that Hamas has heated up the border, after close to three years of relative quiet (broken mainly by jihadi groups) because it wants the Likud to win – that it fears a possible victory by an Olmert- or Livni-led center-left leading to renewed negotiations with Abu Mazen? Is this Hamas’s bid to ward off a two-state solution and keep Palestine indivisible? I’m just saying …

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2 Questions: 1st, Will GOP Let Him Govern? 2nd, Will Olmert Run?

By J.J. Goldberg

Now that Obama has won the Electoral College, two questions remain. First, will he win the popular vote? Second, will Republicans let him govern? There are some very big decisions to make, starting with a deal on the budget and the debt, and addressing the growing climate crisis. Will the Republicans be chastened by their strategy of obstructing everything, or will they sit down and begin talking about real compromise?

Will the Senate Republicans the chamber do business, or will they keep tying everything up in filibusters? Will the House negotiate in good faith? Or will they double down on the policy of blocking everything to make the administration look incompetent?

Another question relates to Israel. Bibi got a big splash of cold water in the face. Olmert and Livni are generally thought to be holding out to see whether they will have a cooperative, competent and experienced White House to help them work on the peace process. Now that they’ve got it, will they jump in? And can they work out a big center-left coalition to face Bibi-Liberman?

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Bibi-Liberman End Run vs. 2 States: The Odds

By J.J. Goldberg

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Israel’s political map is about to upended when Netanyahu and Liberman go on television at 2 p.m. Eastern time to announce a joint Knesset run. They’re apparently not merging their parties but forming a joint list. The aim is to ensure that Bibi ends up with the largest Knesset bloc after the January 22 elections, guaranteeing that he can form the next government. A Haaretz poll last week showed that if Ehud Olmert enters the race atop a new list that includes Tzipi Livni and Yair Lapid, he would outscore the Likud by one seat, 25-to-24, and win the first shot at forming a coalition. An earlier Jerusalem Post poll showed the Olmert superlist doing even better, beating the Likud 31-27. News 1 reports today that Bibi and Liberman could jointly grab 40 seats, guaranteeing that they bury even an Olmert superlist.

The kink in the plan is the religious vote. Liberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party puts a very high priority on a secularist agenda. Haaretz reports today that the joint Bibi-Liberman list is expected to give high priority to Liberman’s secularist agenda, and might even reach out to bring Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party into a governing coalition. But the Likud relies heavily on religious voters who won’t like that. There’s a good chance that some of them will flee to the settler-based national-religious bloc, which appears to be running under a new banner that will join the Bayit Yehudi-NRP party with the National Union, reducing the Knesset strength of the Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu list. It’s possible, though, that some will break toward Shas, particularly now that Arye Deri is returning (sharing power with Eli Yishai, who remains no. 1 on the Knesset list but hands over the party chairmanship to Deri).

So the 60,000 shekel question becomes: Can Haim Ramon engineer a center-left coalition that brings back Olmert atop a new list uniting him and Livni with Lapid and Mofaz’s Kadima, and work out a platform that allows them to join after the election with Ramon’s old friend and fellow dove Arye Deri? Can the various personalities bury their egos and feuds and join together to restore the peace process and two-state solution before it dies forever?

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Where Does Kadima Go Without Tzipi?

By Liam Hoare

If Tzipi Livni’s defeat in the Kadima leadership contest results in her diminution in Israeli public life, then Shaul Mofaz’s victory will prove to be entirely Pyrrhic. If Livni merely heads towards the door marked exit and retires from public life, Israel’s domestic scene and the international community will be all the poorer for it, for Livni is a first-rate politician whose intellect and vision for her country is equal only to her striking beauty and grace.

It is not unreasonable to place her philosophically in a line of Israeli leaders which runs from David Ben-Gurion through Yitzhak Rabin and Ariel Sharon, who came to the necessary conclusion that in order to secure a Jewish and democratic state for future generations, Israel would have to relinquish lands gained in war beyond the Green Line, and forge some kind of peace with the Palestinian leadership.

“The dispute,” Livni remarked on the anniversary of Rabin’s assassination, “is around the question of whether you can have it both ways – maintaining Israel as a Jewish state and keeping the entire Land of Israel”. The answer, she concluded, is that you can’t.

Her flaw, and what may indeed have resulted in her defeat to Mofaz, is that once the decision was made to take Kadima into opposition as opposed to coalition with Likud in 2009, she appeared lacking when it came to articulating a powerful and gripping counter-narrative to the more hard-line stance Benjamin Netanyahu has adopted towards both the Palestinians and Iran. Whilst Livni remains popular amongst the international community and in particular within the U.S. State Department, at home recent polling data before the primary showed that though Likud would stand to gain seats in the next election, Kadima under Livni would see their chunk of seats in the Knesset slashed in half.

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Goodbye Tzipi, Hello Shaul

By Gal Beckerman

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.

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The Political Dividends of the Shalit Deal

By Gal Beckerman

Looking at the results of a poll conducted by Israel’s Channel 2 and the Sarid Institute for Research Services, it’s clear that the Israeli public is smiling on Benjamin Netanyahu, now fresh from negotiating the release of Gilad Shalit.

The poll shows that Likud would win 37 seats in the next Knesset, up 10 from its current number. Labor would have 22 seats, up from its current eight (though it did win 13 at the last election, before Ehud Barak split off to form his Independence party, taking five mandates with him).

The two most interesting data points, however, are the plummeting fortunes of Kadima, which would go 17 Knesset members from 28 and become the third party, trailing Labor. How much this has to do with Tzipi Livni’s criticisms of the Shalit deal or her general tepidness as an opposition leader is hard to tell. And then there is Yisrael Beiteinu, which, besides its bluster, in the poll does not budge either way from its current 15 seats.

It’s not surprising, perhaps, that Netanyahu gets such a boost from what was seen as a widely popular move in freeing Shalit (perhaps the reason for his smiling mug in a picture of the Shalit father-and-on reunion that has now become a brilliant meme).

One might have assumed, however, that Labor would find itself in a stronger position after the summer tent protests and the recent election of a fresh face in its new leader, Shelly Yachimovich. But maybe all this proves is that politics in Israel, like everywhere, are often reactive and emotional. We’ll see what the polls say in a month from now…

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Dinner With Livni

By Jane Eisner

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Leader of the Opposition

The Tzipi Livni who spoke before a small, private dinner on Wednesday evening in New York seemed more excitable, passionate and downright worried than she has been in these sort of settings. Barely had the guests invited by the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace taken their seats when the leader of Israel’s Kadima party launched right in, with a spirited critique of the Israeli government and a plea to relaunch negotiations with the Palestinians as soon as possible.

“The price of not making decisions is higher than the price of making decisions,” she argued, with a notable sense of urgency.

In her many references to her own experiences in the negotiating room, Livni was clearly agitated that the progress she had made and the trust that she gained was lost when her arch rival, Benjamin Netanyahu, was given the opportunity to form a government even though his party had won one less seat in the 2009 election. Once in office, Netanyahu effectively canceled those talks (though there’s some dispute about whether the Palestinians also deserve blame for the resulting stalemate).

Livni argued that the negotiations should start immediately. She scoffed at the diplomatic dispute over President Obama’s reference to the 1967 borders with mutually agreed land swaps. “Everyone knows it won’t be pure 1967,” she said. “It’s going to be the ugliest border in the world, but there is a way to minimize damage to Israeli citizens.”

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Peres's Big Ideas, Tzipi Livni's Raw Politics, Sarah Silverman's Low Humor

By J.J. Goldberg

Shimon Peres likes to bill his Israeli Presidential Conference, the star-studded international talkfest that he’s convening in Jerusalem this week for the third time (the previous ones were in 2008 and 2009) as a Davos-style gathering of great minds to consider the great issues of the day. And it is that, in part. But like most everything else Peres touches, it combines big ideas and soaring rhetoric with healthy dollops of raw politics and moments of unintended, embarrassingly low humor

The big ideas were big indeed. At one session, Peres shared the stage with the presidents of Macedonia, Mongolia and the Dominican Republic to discuss climate change, poverty and the demands of leadership. At another, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales and British media mogul Sir Martin Sorrell discussed the ways in which technology is changing decision making.

At a third, Bank of Israel governor Stanley Fischer moderated an intense discussion over the future of the global economy—meaning, mostly, the rise of China and the threat of a Greek debt contagion—with former U.S. Treasury secretary Larry Summers, former World Bank president James Wolfensohn, former president Alejandro Toledo of Peru and former Bank of Israel governor Jacob Frenkl (Frenkl was sitting in for French finance minister Christine Lagarde, who dropped out at the last minute; she was scheduled to be interviewed this week to take over the International Monetary Fund).

Thousands of delegates attended each of those sessions. When they were done, I couldn’t find anybody out in the lobby standing and discussing what had transpired inside. Most people I talked to couldn’t remember exactly what was said.

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