All bets are off regarding the outcome of Israel’s March elections, thanks to a massive corruption investigation involving senior figures in Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party. See the details here.
Early signs suggest it could cripple his political career, even though he hasn’t been implicated. And it might badly hurt the chances of the Labor-Livni alliance to lead the next government.
More than two dozen people were arrested on Wednesday on suspicion of involvement in a huge bribery and kickback scheme. They include a deputy cabinet minister, a former cabinet minister, top party officials and numerous current and former local government heads and non-profit managers. Allegations include demanding and paying kickbacks in return for government budgets and contracts as well as hiring relatives of government and party officials.
The top suspect, Knesset member Faina Kirschenbaum, is deputy interior minister, secretary-general of the party organization and one of Lieberman’s closest confidantes. One of the allegations is that the Beef Cattle Growers’ Association gave her daughter Ranit a job in return for certain considerations.
Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday fired the heads of the two center-left parties in his coalition, finance minister Yair Lapid and justice minister Tzipi Livni. He’s expected to address the media at 10:10 p.m. Israel time (3:10 Eastern) to discuss the political situation.
The dramatic event came less than a day after Netanyahu and Lapid had met Monday evening, ostensibly to patch up their differences. Sources in Lapid’s Yesh Atid party said Netanyahu had presented Lapid with a list of demands that were designed cause the talks to fail, allowing the prime minister to go to the public and point his finger at Lapid. Among them were support of the controversial Jewish Nation-State bill.
It now appears inevitable that Israel is heading to early general elections next spring. The current Knesset was elected in January 2013 for a statutory four-and-a-half year term that would end in June 2017.
Efforts have been underway from both right and left to woo the Haredi parties Shas and United Torah Judaism into a government within the current Knesset, avoiding elections. Shas leader Arye Deri told a press conference today that he had been approached yesterday — he wouldn’t name names — to form “an alternative government without Netanyahu.” He said despite the economic burden of a new election, it was the only way out and he had rejected the proposal. He said Shas’s “iron-clad” conditions for joining any government were raising the minimum wage to 30 shekels an hour and ending the value added tax on basic commodities (such as milk and bread).
An alternative government with a more moderate policy on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could theoretically be formed within the current Knesset, with 65 of the house’s 120 seats, by including Lapid and Livni, Labor, Meretz, Kadima and the two Haredi parties. However, it would require a great deal of swallowing hard by Lapid and the Haredim, given the bad blood between them.
Ironically, current polls show that in new elections, Lapid and Shas would each lose nearly half their seats.
Netanyahu had reportedly presented Lapid with five conditions to continue the current coalition. According to Haaretz, they included: First, that Lapid back away from his signature housing bill, which would eliminate the value-added tax for first-time homebuyers. Second, that Yesh Atid support the so-called Jewish nation-state bill. Third, Lapid and his allies had to cease their attacks on government policies, including construction in East Jerusalem and deteriorating relations with the United States.
The fourth and fifth conditions involved releasing funds for the military that Lapid had been holding up. One is a 6 billion shekel ($1.53 billion) addition to the defense budget requested by the IDF. The other is a release of funds budgeted to move military installations to the Negev from their current locations on valuable real estate in the center of the country.
Netanyahu had told a meeting of his Likud Knesset faction that morning that the government couldn’t continue to function while ministers continually undermined it and attacked it from within.
Yesh Atid sources told Ynet that the meeting and subsequent statement were all a “show” put on by the prime minister in order to justify early elections that would benefit his own political standing while paralyzing the economy for months and costing the nation billions.
The latest opinion poll, published Sunday by Haaretz, showed that if elections were held today for a new Knesset, Likud would rise from 18 seats to 24 in the 120-member body, while Yesh Atid would drop from 19 seats to 11.
In a scarcely noticed series of political maneuvers, Bibi Netanyahu’s Likud party lost its primacy as the largest party in the Knesset last Wednesday. It’s now equal in size to Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party at 19 seats each. Moreover, don’t be surprised if the prime minister finds himself dropping to 18 in the fall. I don’t know how, but I’ll bet Avigdor Liberman does.
The shift came when Liberman, foreign minister and head of the Yisrael Beiteinu party, appointed Likud lawmaker Carmel Shama-Hacohen to become Israel’s ambassador to the Paris headquarters of the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) as well as UNESCO and the Council of Europe.
Shama-Hacohen was confirmed by the cabinet and sworn in as ambassador by newly elected state president Reuven Rivlin on Tuesday, August 5. The following day, August 6, the last day of the Knesset’s summer session, he was replaced in the Knesset by the next candidate on the 2013 Likud-Beiteinu joint Knesset slate, Yisrael Beiteinu veteran Alex Miller, a longtime Liberman ally.
Netanyahu’s Likud and Liberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu had joined forces in a joint list for the January 2013 election and formed a joint caucus in the Knesset that was sworn in the next month. Of the 31 Knesset seats they won in the balloting, 20 were held by Likud candidates and 11 by Yisrael Beiteinu.
The two parties retained separate organizations, however. Liberman ended the partnership this past July, claiming that he could not support Netanyahu’s too-moderate response to Hamas rocket fire. He kept his party in the governing coalition, however, and retained his post as foreign minister.
Reducing Likud to parity with Yesh Atid could create serious strains in Netanyahu’s governing coalition. Under the 2013 coalition agreement, Likud-Beiteinu got 13 of the 23 ministerships in the cabinet, though it had 31 of 68 seats in the coalition, on the principle that the governing party must control a majority of the government’s ruling institutions. Following last month’s Netanyahu-Liberman split, Likud had 8 ministers and Yisrael Beiteinu had 5. Of the three junior partners, Yesh Atid had 19 Knesset seats and 5 ministers; Jewish Home had 12 seats and 3 ministers; and Tzipi Livni’s Hatnuah had 6 seats and 2 ministers.
The Shama shuffle means that Likud now has 8 ministers for its 19 seats while Yesh Atid has 5 for its 19. Yisrael Beiteinu has 5 ministers for its 12 seats while Jewish Home has 3 for its 12.
The all-important security cabinet is even more lopsided: Likud-Beiteinu had 5 of the 8 seats while the other 3 parties had 1 each. Now Likud has 3 to Yesh Atid’s 1 and Yisrael Beiteinu has 2 seats to Jewish Home’s 1.
Avigdor Liberman at Likud-Beiteinu campaign rally, December 2012 / Getty Images
Israeli Foreign Avigdor Liberman announced today that he was pulling his Yisrael Beiteinu party out of its electoral alliance with Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud. The two combined forces in a joint electoral slate in advance of last year’s Knesset elections, but never merged the two parties into a single organization.
Liberman isn’t taking his party out of Netanyahu’s governing coalition, he told a press conference this morning. Nor is he quitting his job as foreign minister. Still, the split of the erstwhile Likud-Beiteinu alliance into two separate Knesset caucuses leaves Netanyahu in a precarious position, commanding just 20 lawmakers in his 68-member coalition.
Liberman’s split with Netanyahu comes after days of increasingly harsh squabbling over policy toward Hamas. Liberman has repeatedly called for the government to step up its attacks on Hamas, including a reoccupation of Gaza on the scale of Operaiton Defensive Shield in 2002. On Saturday, appearing in the southern city of Sderot, he slammed as “unthinkable” and “a serious mistake” Netanyahu’s offer to Hamas of a restored cease-fire, or “quiet in return for quiet.”
The dispute reached a climax at the weekly Sunday cabinet meeting, where Netanyahu and Liberman traded insults while ministers on the right lined up with Liberman and Netanyahu’s strongest support came from his usual critics to his left, including Yair Lapid, Tzipi Livni and environment minister (and onetime Labor Party chief) Amir Peretz.
Netanyahu now heads a coalition of five parties in which his own Likud, nominally the governing party, holds a plurality only by the narrowest margin. Of the coalition’s 68 lawmakers (in the 120-member Knesset), 20 belong to the Likud, 19 to finance minister Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid, 12 to economy minister Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home, 11 to Liberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu and 6 to justice minister Tzipi Livni’s Hatnuah.
Im Tirtzu, the right-wing Israeli truth squad best known for bashing the New Israel Fund, allowed itself a victory lap this week after taking credit for an “emergency” gathering in the Knesset on “delegitimization of Israel.”
Unfortunately, as with so much else the organization touches, the facts of the case are a bit murky. Im Tirtzu claimed in a press release afterward (full text appears below) that it had participated in a meeting of the Knesset Caucus on the Struggle Against De-legitimization of the State of Israel. The meeting’s topic, it said, was “organizations claiming to be Zionist, but which actually espouse BDS philosophies,” alluding to Im Tirtzu’s conspiratorial view of the New Israel Fund. The meeting had been convened, the release said, “as a result of Im Tirtzu’s campaign” to link the New Israel Fund with the BDS movement.
But a news report on the pro-settler news site Arutz Sheva-Israel National News said the caucus had convened “for an emergency discussion on the topic of anti-Israel boycotts in the wake of the rise of the extreme right in Europe.” The report cited Im Tirtzu leader Matan Peleg as one of a string of speakers, most of whom focused their remarks on European antisemitism, the shooting attack at the Brussels Jewish Museum and what’s been described as a link between the shooting and anti-Israel incitement.
The delegitimization caucus is one of 132 such groupings of Knesset members registered with the speaker’s office to advance specific causes. They range from promotion of Israeli-Arab peace to annexation of the West Bank, higher education, autism awareness, Israeli Arab economic development and a one-member “Tuesdays without meat” caucus.
The May 27 meeting reportedly drew several dozen attendees, including a half-dozen guest speakers, all but one of them right-wing specialists in left-wing perfidy, as well as seven Knesset members. The seven included four from the settler-backed HaBayit HaYehudi-Jewish Home party, two from Yisrael Beiteinu and one, caucus chairman Nissim Ze’ev, from Shas.
According to several reports, including a detailed account at the Haredi website Kooker, Ze’ev opened the meeting with a declaration that “delegitimization leads to anti-Semitism and antisemitism leads to terrorism.” He called for “dealing with” sources of funding for organizations that promote delegitimization and “exposing their true face,” as there are some that “pose as Zionist organizations.”
Tzufim settlement outpost, western Samaria, October 2012 / Getty Images
The chairman of the Knesset’s law and legislation committee on Thursday postponed, for the second time in two weeks, a scheduled vote on a bill requiring transparency in government funding of West Bank settlements.
The bill has majority support in the committee, whose membership mirrors the overall Knesset party breakdown. The chairman, David Rotem of the Yisrael Beiteinu party, asked by opposition lawmaker Ahmed Tibi “what you’re trying to hide,” said — according to an official Knesset record — that he didn’t want to give settlement opponents “information that you can use to bring a Supreme Court lawsuit and prevent construction in Judea and Samaria.”
The postponement came three days after the Knesset’s finance committee approved an allocation of $51 million (177 million shekels) requested by the government for the private organization that conducts most settlement development, the Settlement Division of the World Zionist Organization.
The allocation passed with the support of three committee members from the center-left Yesh Atid party, part of the Netanyahu coalition, after they received a promise from coalition leaders that the transparency bill would be brought to a vote on Thursday. On Thursday, however, a committee member from the pro-settler Jewish Home party, Orit Struck, asked for a postponement for “consultation within her party.” Rotem promptly granted the request.
The transparency bill was submitted last year by Justice Minister Tzipi Livni. It would subject the WZO Settlement Division to Israel’s freedom of information law, which currently applies to government bodies. The WZO is a private nonprofit controlled by coalitions of Diaspora Jewish organizations and Israeli political parties. Its Settlement Division has been run for years as a semi-autonomous unit, funded entirely by the government but nominally owned by the WZO.
The arrangement allows the government a measure of deniability in settlement activity and frees the settlement body from the public scrutiny required of government bodies, including the freedom of information law.
The Diaspora organizations that share control of the WZO, including B’nai B’rith, the Reform and Conservative movements and others, have acquiesced in the arrangement out of a professed respect for Israeli democracy, and have been repeatedly assured that the Settlement Division operates under close government scrutiny.
New outpost goes up at Eli, Judea-West Bank, February 2008, courtesy of the World Zionist Organization / Getty Images
The settler movement and its right-wing Knesset allies are finding they’ve got their hands full swatting back demands from the center and left — an unusual alliance of Labor, Yesh Atid and Tzipi Livni’s Hatnuah — for transparency in the World Zionist Organization’s Settlement Division budgets. Committee chairmen from the right, meaning Likud Beiteinu and Jewish Home-Bayit Yehudi, have been forced to resort to a series of slimy parliamentary moves to keep the Settlement Division’s budget and operations under wraps.
Among other things, the maneuvering shows that the center-left that opposes new settlements has a voting majority in the Knesset and its committees. The only reason there’s a right-wing government under Bibi Netanyahu is because of Yair Lapid’s decision to join with Jewish Home and Naftali Bennett on domestic issues rather than form a center-left peace coalition.
The latest maneuver was a decision by the chairman of the Knesset Finance Committee, Nissan Slomiansky of the settler-dominated Jewish Home-Bayit Yehudi party, to cancel a planned vote on a requested 177 million shekel ($51 million) allocation to the Settlement Division, after Slomiansky figured out the allocation was headed for rejection, Haaretz reported.
Lawmakers from two coalition factions, Yesh Atid and Tzipi Livni’s Hatnuah, had indicated that they were going to join with the opposition parties to oppose the allocation, which totaled 177 million shekels ($51 million). Stav Shafir of the opposition Labor Party had demanded before the vote that the Settlement Division be required to report to lawmakers on its budget and activities before receiving further funding.
Justice Minister Livni has been pressing in recent months for legislation bringing the settlement division under the authority of Israel’s freedom of information law. The division is currently exempt. A bill that would have given her the authority to require disclosure — in compliance with a Supreme Court ruling — was defeated in the Knesset’s constitution, law and legislation committee after committee chair David Rotem of the Yisrael Beiteinu faction brought it to surprise vote with only one other committee member present, Shuli Muallem Refaeli of Jewish Home-Bayit Yehudi.
The Settlement Division, nominally a department of the nonprofit, Diaspora-controlled World Zionist Organization, is the Israeli government’s designated subcontractor for construction and infrastructure in new communities, mostly in the West Bank. The WZO’s governing bodies, which represent a range of Israeli and Diaspora organizations from Likud and Shas to the American Reform movement and B’nai B’rith International, have no control over the budgets or activities of the Settlement Division, despite their nominal ownership of the body. At the same time, because the division is technically owned by a private, Diaspora-led organization, it is not bound by the rules of transparency that apply to government institutions.
To understand why Shelly Yachimovich was booted out as head of the Israel Labor Party after just two years on the job, it helps to note that Labor has had a bad habit, ever since Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination in 1995, of changing leaders every time it holds a primary.
But this time was different. Previous primaries were held after a general election, and leaders were dumped because they’d lost. Yachimovich, by contrast, did fairly well in the 2013 Knesset elections. She nearly doubled the party’s Knesset share, from eight seats to 15. What she lost was the trust — indeed, the patience — of her colleagues and the party membership. This time it wasn’t about Labor, but about Yachimovich. Virtually every senior figure in the party complained bitterly of her high-handedness, her inability to work in a team, her refusal to share decision-making. The poison finally filtered down to the rank and file.
Labor’s new leader, Isaac “Buzhi” Herzog, steps into an unusual situation. He’s well liked by his colleagues and popular among the members in the party branches. He was effective as a government minister, particularly in his 2007-11 stint heading welfare and social services. As the son of ex-president Chaim Herzog, grandson of longtime chief rabbi (and namesake) Yitzhak Herzog and nephew of Abba Eban, he has a Kennedy-like aura of aristocracy, something like what Likud “princes” Bibi Netanyahu, Dan Meridor, Benny Begin, Tzipi Livni and Ehud Olmert all had. Unlike Likud, Labor has never chosen a “prince” before.
And, in stark contrast to Yachimovich, those who know Buzhi agree that he’s a genuinely nice guy, a rarity in Israeli politics. The question is whether he has it in him to capture the public’s trust as the leader of the troubled, threatened nation.
Israeli politics were turned upside down this week by the surprise acquittal on Wednesday of Avigdor Lieberman, the blunt-talking, Arab-bashing, Soviet-born former foreign minister and head of the Yisrael Beiteinu party. He had been charged with fraud, witness tampering and breach of trust for allegedly promoting a crony to an ambassadorship. The promotion was allegedly in exchange for leaked information about an ongoing police investigation into Lieberman’s business affairs.
The verdict ends one of Israel’s longest running political dramas. Police began investigating Lieberman in 1999 on suspicion of operating dummy companies in Cyprus and elsewhere, nominally headed by his daughter and driver among others, that allegedly funneled millions of dollars in illegal cash to him from European tycoons seeking favors. In the meantime, Lieberman’s star kept rising as the voice of Russian-speaking Israelis and scourge of Arabs, leftists and human rights activists.
The latest stage of the drama began in 2011 when attorney general Yehuda Weinstein decided not to indict him on the main charges of bribery and illegal cash, claiming insufficient evidence. Instead he filed the lesser charges of fraud and breach of trust related to the ambassadorship. The indictment was issued in December 2012, forcing Lieberman to step down as foreign minister. His Yisrael Beiteinu movement, one of Israel’s largest political forces, was left leaderless, with nobody approaching his stature as a potential successor. Prime Minister Netanyahu left the foreign minister’s post open pending the verdict at Lieberman’s insistence, nominally holding it himself but effectively leaving the ministry and diplomatic corps in limbo. A guilty verdict would have ended Lieberman’s political career and set off a free-for-all as individuals and parties tried to coopt his followers, fill the leadership vacuum on the secular right and pick up Lieberman’s ultra-nationalist, minority-bashing banner.
Now that the case is closed, Lieberman is expected to return to the foreign ministry on Monday, November 11. That will set off a scramble all its own. The Cabinet currently includes 22 ministers, two more than the 20-minister to which Netanyahu agreed last February at the insistence of good-government advocate Yair Lapid of the Yesh Atid party. Speculation for weeks has been that Lapid would insist on forcing one minister to be fired, a daunting political dilemma for the prime minister.
This week, however, Lapid is said to have agreed tentatively to let the Cabinet expand to 23 ministers. But there are two conditions: First, coopt his Yesh Atid ally, Science Minister Yaakov Peri, a former director of the Shin Bet security service, to the seven-member inner security cabinet. Second, put Yesh Atid Knesset whip Ofer Shelah, a former military reporter (and onetime Forward correspondent) in Lieberman’s place as chair of the powerful Knesset foreign affairs and defense committee. Both conditions would put Netanyahu in a tough spot, though.
If you want to find out the facts behind the violence on Sunday in Silwan village in East Jerusalem during a march by far-right Israeli activists, you have to do a lot of Web surfing. Everybody offers bits of the story, but only the bits they want to share. Everybody’s got an angle.
The short version is that somewhere between 40 and 70 far-right settler activists marched on Sunday through Silwan, a close-knit Arab village-turned-city neighborhood just south of the Temple Mount in what is known to Jews as the City of David. Silwan is one of the Arab neighborhoods where Jewish settler groups are moving families in, despite the neighbors’ protests, with the aim of asserting Israeli sovereignty through facts on the ground. The marchers on Sunday were surrounded by a huge cordon of police along a half-mile route lined with Palestinian protesters and left-wing Jewish allies. Violence broke out when groups of Palestinians broke off and began pelting the police with stones.
The Jerusalem Post’s reportage leads with the fact that two police officers were injured by Arab counter-protesters. One was treated on the spot; the other, a policewoman, was hit “in the shoulder and evacuated to Jerusalem’s Shaare Zedek Medical Center.” The Post notes that one Palestinian was arrested on suspicion of throwing the rocks.
Maan, the Palestinian news service, leads its report with the news, based on ambulance services’ reports, that some 30 of the counter-protesters were treated for injuries, at least 11 of them caused by rubber bullets. In addition, two paramedics were hurt by rubber bullets while trying to treat the wounded. The Jerusalem Post forgot to mention that. On the other hand, the Maan article doesn’t mention any Israeli injuries, in uniform or out.