December 8, 2014 - The Israeli elections issue

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Israeli elections

This week, Alpher discusses why the new Knesset elections have been set so soon; who Netanyahu's rivals on the right are; whether the left-center is incapable of mounting a challenge; what is happening with Yesh Atid; what will happen to the Arab parties, with a new threshold law that requires a party to gain a minimum of four mandates; and whether the bombings of Damascus airport and a second site at Dimas near Damascus that Syria accused Israel of on Sunday have any connection to Israel's elections.

Q. The Netanyahu government has set new Knesset elections for March 17, 2015. Why so soon? The current Knesset is not yet two years old.

A. The reasons for Netanyahu's decision last week to fire Finance Minister Yair Lapid and Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, effectively dismissing their parties (Yesh Atid and HaTnua) from the government and triggering the elections, are the subject of endless speculation.

The prime minister accused the two centrists of organizing a "putsch" or political coup to install a left-labor-haredi government instead of the current one, without elections. No one takes him seriously, simply because such a feat was virtually impossible. Still, Netanyahu had serious disagreements with Lapid's spending priorities and with Livni's efforts to block ultra-nationalist legislation.

An additional explanation pins the blame on the "Yisrael HaYom" law, which was about to be approved by the Knesset but will now be shelved for months pending elections and the emergence of a new coalition. The law, backed by both the opposition and some parties on the right, would ban the free mass distribution of daily newspapers. Yisrael HaYom, a freebee bankrolled by billionaire Sheldon Adelson, a prime financial backer of Netanyahu as well as of conservative American Republicans, is the target of this law because of its open and unbridled support for the prime minister: it is in effect perceived as fronting Adelson's direct intervention in Israeli politics. The proposed law, backed by virtually all of Netanyahu's detractors from the left and the right, is controversial insofar as it could constrain free speech and a free press in ways that might not stand up to High Court constitutional standards.

Netanyahu's political enemies argue that the prime minister has simply become paranoid from serving in office too long. To all these allegations, Netanyahu would simply respond (were there to be a moment of candor--a lost cause now that elections are in the offing) that his coalition had become unmanageable, with the ideological gap between its right wing (Naftali Bennet's Jewish Home party, many MKs in the Likud) and its center (Lapid and Livni) growing so wide that Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, Netanyahu's election partner last time around, was able to fill it with a two-state solution initiative (see last week's Q & A) that was attracting international attention. By preempting and forcing early elections, Netanyahu presumably hopes to gain an advantage over some of his prospective opponents from the dominant political right and center right.

Q. Who are they? Who are Netanyahu's rivals on the right?

A. First and foremost is Bennet. Early polls show Jewish Home with its quasi-apartheid agenda (also reviewed in last week's Q & A) rising from its current 12 mandates to as many as 18 and rivaling Likud. Lieberman also aspires to challenge Netanyahu. Both Bennet and Lieberman don't hide their ambitions to become prime minister.

Another interesting challenger from the center-right is Moshe Kachlon, former "wonder-boy" minister of communications whose reforms won him considerable popularity. Kachlon resigned from Netanyahu's previous government and has been organizing an as-yet nameless new political party ever since. His initial campaign statements in recent days present him as a moderate on the Palestinian issue (two states, territorial compromise, including in Jerusalem) who will focus on socio-economic issues and appeal to the lower middle class. Initial polls give Kachlon 10 mandates, but experience tells us that this sort of new centrist party initiative could easily inflate or deflate radically in the coming three months.

Then there is Gideon Saar, another popular former Likud minister (he has held the education and internal affairs portfolios) who left the government barely a month ago to "devote time to his family" and at last report was considering challenging Netanyahu for leadership of the Likud when the party holds its primaries (on Dec. 30 or Jan. 6). Neither Saar nor at least one probable internal challenger from the far right of the Likud is likely to dislodge Netanyahu from the leadership spot. But it is indicative of Netanyahu's problematic status on the political right that one rival leaked an internal Likud poll that awarded far-right Likud critic MK Moshe Feiglin18 mandates if he led the Likud--about as many as Netanyahu would apparently muster.

Q. So far you've discussed only the political right. Is the left-center incapable of mounting a challenge?

A. The polls currently give the right, including Lieberman and Kachlon, a small majority, and a right-religious bloc a large majority. Yet, judging by their current views on the Palestinian issue, Lieberman and Kachlon are capable of joining a left-center coalition as well. And so are the ultra-orthodox (Haredim), who harbor resentment at the outgoing government because it legislated criminal penalties for yeshiva students who avoid IDF conscription. So a left-center-led coalition is definitely possible, particularly if Labor moves toward the center on the Palestinian issue, thereby enabling it to appeal to moderate right-wing voters.

But such an effort will also require greater unity on the center-left. Based on their conversations over the weekend, Labor appears likely to run on a joint list with Tzipi Livni and the more dovish half (Livni and two additional MKs, both former Labor leaders, Amir Peretz and Amram Mitzna) of HaTnua, along with Shaul Mofaz of Kadima. Other conceivable though more problematic candidates for mergers with Labor are Kahlon and Lieberman.

Q. Hold on. What is happening with Yesh Atid, the second largest party in the outgoing Knesset?

A. It has been largely left out of the equation of future coalition politics, for understandable reasons. Yesh Atid is predicted to shrink radically from its current 19 MKs to half that number or less. Voters who followed the charismatic Yair Lapid in January 2013 are disappointed with a party that has turned out to be based mainly on "atmosphere" and that failed to deliver on most of its commitments to better the lot of the middle class. Further, Lapid, who spearheaded aggressive measures to bring the Haredim into the socio-economic mainstream through military service, is now "radioactive" as a coalition partner not only for the Haredim but for any party--meaning both Labor and Likud--that contemplates working with the Haredim in the next coalition.

Here we are likely to encounter a vicious circle: if the shrinking Yesh Atid is unacceptable as an electoral partner, even more voters are likely to abandon it. Yesh Atid looks set to suffer the fate of previous centrist parties, e.g., Dash and Kadima, that registered a meteoric rise only to collapse second time around for lack of a stable electoral base.

Q. And with a new threshold law that requires a party to gain a minimum of four mandates, what will happen to the Arab parties, at least one of which would not have entered the current Knesset based on this standard?

A. They will either unite, or one or more of them will disappear, taking a lot of Arab votes with it. Uniting won't be easy: the Arab parties represent a wide spectrum of ideologies, ranging from the Islamist through the secular nationalist to the (former) communist. The latter always presents a Jewish candidate in a "safe" slot, thereby rendering it less attractive to the other Arab parties. On the other hand, it could conceivably enter a joint list with Meretz, which is predicted to hold its own (six MKs) or even improve in the coming elections.

Q. On Sunday, Syria accused Israel of bombing Damascus airport and a second site at Dimas near Damascus. The bombings took place in broad daylight. Any connection to Israel's elections?

A. Probably not. Such operations require considerable preparation time and have been carried out in the past without any obvious political linkage. In any case, Israel has once again avoided confirming its role in the bombing, which reportedly targeted arms depots and which follows a pattern established over the past two years of interdicting alleged transfer by Syria of sophisticated weaponry to Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Obviously, Netanyahu is happy to be portrayed by the Arab media as a leader who does not hesitate to look after Israel's security needs. And in the Syria-Lebanon arena, Netanyahu can take credit for considerable caution and prudence--though from herein and for the next few months, his security cabinet, without Livni and Lapid, will have a distinctly hawkish lack of balance. Still, the last thing Netanyahu needs with elections nearing is a volatile border, Israeli casualties and public concern regarding escalation.

The Syrian army and Iranian sources portrayed the attacks as an Israeli move to help rebels fighting to oust President Bashar al-Assad. This follows on a recent UN report alleging that Israel offers aid to Syrian rebel units across the Golan border. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the conflict with considerable credibility, said both of the targeted sites in Syria were used for military purposes and weapons storage. The closest Israel came to acknowledging a role in the latest bombing was when Israeli Minister of Strategic Affairs Yuval Steinitz confirmed on Sunday that Israel has "a firm policy of preventing all possible transfers of sophisticated weapons to terrorist organizations."

Syria probably will not retaliate. President Bashar al-Asad is aware just how vulnerable his country is right now, given the ferocity of the Syrian civil war. Nor should he have been surprised: As Steinitz intimated, Israel's "red lines" regarding weapons transfers to Hezbollah have been laid out for him several times. Moreover, Asad currently enjoys a degree of tacit coexistence with the US-led war against ISIL in Syria and Iraq and hardly needs to get into a fight with a US ally intent on preventing Asad from arming Hezbollah, which is recognized by Washington as a terrorist organization. Hezbollah, on the other hand, has in recent months launched fairly low-level retaliatory attacks against Israeli targets, particularly on the Golan, and could do so again.

Still, a daring daylight bombing against such well guarded sites as Syria's international airport, with jet trails streaming over Damascus, is something of a humiliation for the Asad regime and its Iranian and Russian backers. Russia hastened on Monday to demand an explanation from Israel. As for allegations that Israel is aiding the anti-Asad rebels across the Golan border, if indeed this is the case the aid is meant not to interfere in a civil war between fanatics and barbarians on both sides but rather to ensure a modicum of peace and quiet along the border--something Asad is apparently no longer able to provide but Israel has a right to expect.

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