Forward Thinking

Why Israeli Left Should Stop Backing Gaza Wars

By Raphael Magarik

Palestinians carry a boy following an Israeli military strike on the Gaza beach / Getty Images

In the current outburst of violence, perhaps the only pliable and docile actor is Israel’s center-left. Politically speaking, opposition leader Isaac Herzog might as well be cowering in a shelter. He toes Prime Minister Netanyahu’s line, supporting both the airstrikes and the ground invasion. True, he popped up to demand an exit strategy from the government, but he did so just as Hamas was rejecting a cease-fire — rendering his quibbles about an exit strategy weak and irrelevant. Centrist Minister of Finance Yair Lapid is even more accommodating, loosening the purse-strings for an indefinite war.

The trouble is that acquiescing to periodic escalations in Gaza makes mincemeat of the mainstream left’s supposed stance on the conflict. It’s a strategic disaster.

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Israel's Finance Minister Worries About Boycotts

By Nathan Jeffay

As the Scarlett Johansson-stoked controversy rages over SodaStream’s West Bank operation, Israel’s centrist Minister of Finance has been considering what effect international opposition to settlement production will have if peace talks fail. And his verdict is pessimistic.

In a speech at the Institute for National Security Studies, Minister Yair Lapid said that if Israeli or Palestinian negotiations break down or hit an impasse, resulting economic actions by Europe could have a major impact on Israel.

“Every resident of Israel will get hit straight in the pocket,” he said. “The cost of living will rise, the education, health, welfare and defense budgets will be cut, and many international markets will be closed to us.” He stressed that the European market, the main focus of his concern, is Israel’s primary trade market.

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Is Yair Lapid's Honeymoon Over?

By Nathan Jeffay

The Israeli election in January was widely lauded as a testament to the revival of Israel centrism. Coming out of nowhere the brand new Yesh Atid party won 19 seats — almost a sixth of the Knesset’s mandates. Is this revival now over?

A poll just conducted for the Globes financial newspaper found that if elections were held now, Yesh Atid would poll at just 12 seats, down by 7.

The two main parties to the right of Yesh Atid have, between them, increased their support by the equivalent of 6 seats, which would appear to indicate that Yesh Atid voters have shifted their support rightwards. Yesh Atid’s loss is the gain of Likud and the religious-Zionist Bayit Hayehudi.

But how much is this shift about ideology, and how much is it about the honeymoon period of celebrity-turned politician Yair Lapid ending, hitting Yesh Atid support hard? Has the ideological direction of Israel changed, or have Israelis just lost their love of Lapid and looked around at which other parties are options for their support?

And if the shift is ideological, is it as simple as it seems? With the Likud-led government participating in peace talks with the Palestinians, many Yesh Atid voters may have turned to Likud but remained avowedly centrist on the peace process. Their logic most likely goes: why support a centrist party when the stronger Likud party is following the centrist policy of negotiating?

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu went a long time to neutralizing Lapid’s appeal on social issues, which had been strong, by cornering him in to the role of Finance Minister. Now he could be stealing his thunder as a centrist.

The Knesset returns to work this week after a long summer break. Whether Yesh Atid’s woes stem from personality factors or Likud bursting its bubble, if is to survive as an electoral force, it desperately needs to prove its relevance.

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Yair Lapid's Great American Tour

By Nathan Guttman

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Israel’s political golden boy Yair Lapid has been making the rounds in Washington this week, filling up some necessary gaps in his resume.

The telegenic Lapid, who until recently was a newspaper columnist and TV host, had hardly had a chance to establish ties with the American political elite before pulling a huge surprise in last year’s elections and becoming the leader of Israel’s second largest party.

Now finance minister, Lapid has replaced his trademark black T-shirt with a dark suit. And he is making sure not to miss any required stop on the power tour.

In his week long tour of New York and Washington, Lapid spent an evening speaking to PBS’s Charlie Rose and the Wall Street Journal’s editorial board; in Washington he met with the House and Senate leadership; sat down with the pro-Israel lobby AIPAC; and gave what is almost a mandatory presentation for any aspiring Israeli leaders coming to town – a speech at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

In coalition negotiations with Benjamin Netanyahu following the January elections, Lapid initially aimed for the post of foreign minister, but after Likud members insisted on keeping the position open for Avigdor Lieberman, Lapid opted for the treasury. The trip to Washington was timed to fit his participation, with other finance ministers from around the world, in the fall meeting of the International Monetary Fund.

But Lapid succeeded in packing his schedule with diplomatic meetings and speeches, indicating that his interest in the foreign ministry, or, as many speculate, in running for prime minister in the next elections, has not subsided. The administration rolled out the usual tribute it reserves for up-and-coming Israeli leaders: a one-on-one meeting with the vice president. Biden and Lapid met for more than an hour on Thursday and the meeting, according to official readouts, focused on Iran’s nuclear threat and the upcoming negotiations with Tehran.

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Watch: Lapid vs. Haredim — The Fireworks Begin

By J.J. Goldberg

Israel’s new finance minister, Yesh Atid party leader Yair Lapid, gave his first Knesset speech as a cabinet minister on Monday, April 22, the opening day of the parliament’s spring session, and in defiance of longstanding tradition, he seemed to be thoroughly enjoying himself. Longtime Knesset observers say they can’t remember ever hearing such a frontal, direct confrontation with the Haredi parties from the Knesset rostrum.

Beforehand, the session heard six opposition motions of no-confidence, including several attacks on Lapid’s government budget proposal. Meir Porush of the opposition United Torah Judaism party (the seated man with the white beard; to his right, with a black beard, is UTJ’s Moshe Gafni) complained about the impact of the budget on Israel’s security and also charged that the government was “starving children.” Instead of defending his budget proposal, Lapid delivered a stinging, sarcastic attack on the Haredi parties.

If you understand Hebrew, it’s worth watching. In fact, even if you don’t understand Hebrew well, you can watch it while following along with my translation, which appears after the jump. Lapid’s exchange with the Haredi lawmakers goes up to 7:15. After that he begins to respond to a no-confidence motion of MK Moshe Mizrahi of Labor. I stopped translating after a few sentences of this exchange, because it starts getting into budget technicalities.

For context, you can read this Haaretz report on the proposed cuts in government budgets for Haredim. Also worth reading: this column on the speech and its fallout by Jerusalem Post commentator Ben Caspit, as well as we this one by Haaretz Jewish World writer Anshel Pfeffer on the challenges facing Lapid and this one by Haaretz columnist Carlo Strenger looking at ways Lapid and the Haredim can find common ground. But above all, watch Lapid, Porush and UTJ’s Israel Eichler go at each other. It’s great theater.

And my translation:

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Yair Lapid's Party Popularity Jumps 50%

By Nathan Jeffay

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Yair Lapid

Yesh Atid surprised pundits when it came second in the January general election in Israel, despite the fact it was a brand new political party with a leader, Yair Lapid, who had never served in Knesset. But it doesn’t stop there. If a poll released today is right, then Yesh Atid has increased its popularity by almost 50% since the election.

It has 19 of the Knesset’s 120 seats, but if new elections were held now, according to a Knesset Channel survey, it would win 28. And you guessed it — that means that it would be the biggest Knesset party and Yair Lapid would be Prime Minister.

In today’s poll, it looks like Yesh Atid has been winning its newfound support from the right. The religious-Zionist Jewish Home party loses two seats and Likud-Beytenu, which was already miserable at winning only 31 seats in the election, is down to 25.

It would seem that the opinion changes since the election reflect the fact that the coalition negotiations led by Likud-Beytenu’s Benjamin Netanyahu were long and chaotic, and that Lapid came out looking like a winner. After all, he stuck to his insistence that Haredi parties were omitted from the coalition, and that the new government progresses legislation for a draft of Haredi men to the army.

The question now is whether Prime Minister Netanyahu can pull back from the humiliation of the coalition negotiations and regain his political dominance. There are no obvious initiatives on the horizon that will see him woo the public, apart from any flexing of muscles on security matters. But we’re now entering the phase where Lapid’s newness to the political fold may lead to the end of his honeymoon and the start of Bibi’s reassertion of his power. Lapid has just become Finance Minister, a position he didn’t particularly want, and only once his decisions start to filter through and impact of people’s day-to-day lives will we know if he’s built for politics, or whether today’s poll is a case of him peaking early.

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Bibi's Final Snub

By Nathan Jeffay

Getty Images

Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud-Beytenu party announced Friday afternoon Israel-time that the coalition negotiations are complete, and the government will be presented to President Shimon Peres on Saturday night. Expect a swearing in on Monday (just don’t ask what Sara Netanyahu will be wearing for this swearing in).

There was a last-minute hitch last-night which saw Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett going of in a huff over Netanyahu’s refusal to make him and Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid vice prime ministers. But today, Bennett backed down, and the path is clear for the new government.

The debacle over the vice prime ministers title is indicative of just how much the final phase of the negotiations turned out to be about one thing — honor — and not about policies or ideals. The vice prime ministers is basically honorific, and means very little in day-to-day political life. But it’s become a staple of the Israeli scene.

Netanyahu doesn’t seeme to have had any desire to dispense with the vice PM roles before the election. After all, why would it matter to the invincible Bibi at a time when nobody could even conceive of anyone else as PM? But after his battering at the ballot box, and loss of face in coalition negotiations faced with Yesh Atid and Jewish Home’s stubborn refusal to do as he said and sit with Haredim, he was on the look out for ways to claw back some respect and impression of control. And so, after a chaotic coalition negotiation, he got in one final snub for Bennett, and in true Bibi style ensured that he got the last word.

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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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Poll: New Vote Would Net Lapid 30 Seats, Bibi 22

By J.J. Goldberg

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:

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Lapid to Haredim: 'You Won'

By Gal Beckerman

A fascinating speech that Yair Lapid delivered last year has emerged. It offers a glimpse into his views on religion and secularity in Israel, and specifically on the role the Haredim play and will continue to play in Israeli society.

For anyone interested in understanding what philosophy Lapid will be bringing to his role in either government or opposition to it, this is worth a look.

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What's Yair Lapid's Next Move?

By Nathan Jeffay

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Yair Lapid

What is Yair Lapid’s next move?

The man who shocked Israel with a stunning showing in the elections could try to establish a “blocking coalition” by uniting parties that want to stop Benjamin Netanyahu from forming the next government. Labor would definitely be game for that, as would Meretz, Hadash, the Arab parties and probably the Tzipi Livni party. But according to the exit polls, there would not be quite enough mandates to make this possible.

If he could convince the Haredi Shas party he could make it work, and such a move may appeal to Shas’ recently returned dovish leader Arye Deri. However, given that Yesh Atid is all guns blazing to draft Haredim to the army and Shas is dead against the draft, it’s difficult to imagine Shas cooperating with Lapid.

Lapid’s other hope is that exit polls may have underestimated Livni’s showing and Labors. If this is the case he could pull off the blocking coalition.

But even without a blocking coalition, Lapid’s victory is big news. If the figures are right Netanyahu could form a coalition It means that Netanyahu could leave the Haredi parties out in the cold and push through the Haredi draft. If he did this Lapid, who after all went in to politics to become a minister, could negotiate handsome portfolios for his party — I predict he will become Education Minister. The other coalition partners would be the Tzipi Livni Party and Jewish Home.

The difficulty with this option is that both Yesh Atid and the Tzipi Livni Party say they wouldn’t enter a government that won’t negotiate for a peace deal, while Jewish Home is totally opposed to a two-state solution. This raises the possibility that Netanyahu could substitute Jewish Home for Shas and resolve to advance negotiations. It’s hard to imagine given that much of his party is against a Palestinian state, but it’s a possibility nevertheless.

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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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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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Bibi-Kadima Unity Deal Saves the Peace Camp

By J.J. Goldberg

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?

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