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:
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?
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:
Ross Douthat, conservative-in-residence on the New York Times’ Op-Ed, makes an important cautionary point in his Sunday July 24 column, “A Right-Wing Monster,” about the surge of progressive comment citing the Norway massacre as an indictment of the New Right of Angela Merkel, Nicolas Sarkozy (and the House Republicans and Yisrael Beiteinu, I might add) with their anti-immigrant, anti-foreigner, anti-multiculturalist ideology. That’s no more legitimate, Douthat argues, than tying the environmental terrorism of Unabomber Theodore Kaczynski to Al Gore:
For many years, a quiz entitled “Al Gore or the Unabomber?” circulated on conservative Web sites. The quiz juxtaposed passages from the former vice president’s eco-manifesto “Earth in the Balance” with quotes from Theodore Kaczynski’s critiques of industrial civilization and asked the reader to guess which writer was which. …
Enterprising left-wing bloggers have already begun to play a similar game with Anders Behring Breivik, the Norwegian man who apparently justified last week’s mass murder of helpless teenage campers with a 1,500-page “compendium” calling for a right-wing revolution against Europe’s ruling class. Judging by the manifesto’s contents, Breivik has roughly the same relationship to the cultural right that Kaczynski had to certain strains of environmentalism. The darkest aspects of his ideology belong strictly to the neo-fascist fringe. But many of his beliefs and arguments echo the rhetoric of mainstream cultural conservatives, in Europe and America alike. …
How should European conservatives react? Not with the pretense that there’s somehow no connection whatsoever between Breivik’s extremism and the broader continental right. While his crimes should be denounced and disowned, their ideological pedigree has to be admitted.
But this doesn’t mean that conservatives need to surrender their convictions. The horror in Norway no more discredits [Angela] Merkel’s views on Muslim assimilation than Ted Kaczynski’s bombs discredited Al Gore’s views on the dark side of industrialization. …
Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party, flush from its victory in the boycott law debate, plans to bring another gag-rule bill to the Knesset floor for final vote next week, Ynet reports. The bill would create a Knesset investigative committee to examine the funding of “leftist” NGOs that “delegitimize” the Israeli army. Members of the Likud are trying to convince the party to hold off to let the passions over the boycott law cool down, but so far Yisrael Beiteinu is adamant, Ynet reports.
The Anti-Defamation League, by the way, became the first major national Jewish organization to criticize the boycott law. ADL issued a public statement today saying it is “concerned that this law may unduly impinge on the basic democratic rights of Israelis to freedom of speech and freedom of expression.” Also on record: the smaller but feistier Labor Zionist organization Ameinu, which called the bill “merely the latest round of the battle that the current government of Israel is waging against the democratic foundations of the State of Israel.”
A Yisrael Beiteinu lawmaker, Alex Miller, appears to be the first individual to sue under the boycott law, the Jerusalem Post reports. He announced today that he plans to sue lawmaker Ahmed Tibi of the United Arab List for a one-minute speech Tibi made to the Knesset Tuesday morning in which he protested the new law and said his party “calls on the public to break this law, boycott settlements, their products, and Ariel, take apart Ariel and send away its residents. They have no right to live on occupied land.” Does parliamentary immunity figure in here? Does Miller care?
Miller lives in Ariel, a city of 30,000 that sits, unlike most other urban settlement blocs, deep in the heart of the West Bank, providing the biggest single headache to negotiators drawing maps of prospective Israeli-Palestinian compromise.