Monday, April 20, 2015

Bibi Buys Time And Tacks Toward The Center

Israel's President Reuben Rivlin has granted Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu a two-week extension to form a governing coalition. Bibi will now have until May 6 to pull together enough parties to form a 61-seat majority or better in the Knesset.

Analysts hailed Netanyahu's win in March 17th elections as a landslide. Yet while the Likud party won a formidable 30 seats in the 120-seat Knesset, coalition formation has dragged on. Creating a coalition should, in theory, be easy for Netanyahu. The Prime Minister has a number of choices for coalition partners, and he is highly adept at playing rivals off each other. However, despite Likud's preference to wrap up negotiations early, they have continued on and forced the Prime Minister to request the two-week extension.

Netanyahu has been particularly interested in forming a coalition with Kulanu, the new centrist party which won 10 seats in the election. Despite scorn from the right-wing HaBayit Hayehudi and Yisrael Beiteinu parties, today Bibi met personally with the Kulanu party's leader Moshe Kahlon. This is a shift from the Likud's right-wing coalition partners in the past few elections, but it is a smart move for the Prime Minister. A centrist party would allow Bibi more political efficacy since he wouldn't be constantly needing to appease to the far-right parties. While he will have to play ball with HaBayit Hayehudi and Yisrael Beiteinu at some level, having Kulanu as the major coalition partner gives Netanyahu some room to pursue an agenda closer to Likud's center-right platform. 

Additionally a move to the center would generate less antagonism within the Knesset itself. The center-left Zionist Camp's 24 seats is a formidable bloc that represents an important constituency among the Israeli public. Netanyahu is making a wise choice by tacking to the center. It allows him to avoid antagonizing centrists and simultaneously accuse the Zionist Camp of being impotent since it will agree with much of what the Prime Minister does anyway. 

Importantly, aligning with Kulanu does not mean Netanyahu will stop settlement building, giving handouts to religious parties, or antagonizing the international community. However, a Likud-Kulanu government might see progress in terms of social welfare for secular Israelis, regulating high prices, and pragmatism rather than dogmatic thinking on other policy areas.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Likud Faces Difficulty In Knesset Coalition Formation

Israel's Likud party is scrambling to form a coalition before an April 22nd deadline. While Prime Minister Netanyahu can request an extension on coalition talks, Likud has been trying to seal a deal prior to the 22nd. Competing demands and party influence have not made this an easy process.

The centrist Kulanu party has been bargaining hard. Kulanu, which gained 10 seats in its first ever election bid on March 17th, is asking the Prime Minister for the Finance, Housing, and Environmental Protection portfolios. As a new and centrist party, Kulanu is unlikely to put the same kinds of demands on the Prime Minister as further right and more established parties. It would be in the Prime Minister's interest to form a coalition with the party. However, United Torah Judaism is also vying for the finance ministry, and Bibi intends to bring both that party and Shas into the coalition. Complicating matters for the Prime Minister, HaBayit HaYehudi leader Naftali Bennett, whose party won 8 seats, is also vying to be Foreign Minister even though the post has been given in the past to Yisrael Beiteinu leader Avigdor Lieberman. Given that Yisrael Beiteinu won only 6 seats to HaBayit HaYehudi's 8, Bennett sees grounds for giving him the ministry.

Two coinciding events have helped Prime Minister Netanyahu in the negotiating process. First, formal negotiations ceased for the week-long Passover holiday. Yet under-the-table negotiations continued which gave Likud more negotiating room. Secondly, the Iran nuclear deal has seen consistent front-page coverage in the Israeli media. The Prime Minister himself has contributed consistently to media coverage of the story, expressing concern about the terms of a potential agreement. However, the media's focus on Iran has allowed Netanyahu to conduct negotiations out of the spotlight, which gives him greater flexibility with the parties.

Now that Passover has ended and the nuclear deal has been in the headlines for over a week, negotiations are likely to spool back up. There are some scattered indications a unity government isn't off the table, but a broad right-leaning government is the most likely possibility once the dust settles.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

BREAKING: Netanyahu To Form Coalition With Republican Party

Speaking to reporters in Jerusalem today (April 1st), Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu confirmed that the Likud would form a coalition government in the Knesset with the Republican Party.

"The Republicans have been a longstanding friend of the Likud and our values often overlap," explained the Prime Minister. The Likud's 30 seats plus the Republican Party's 54 seats in the Senate would put the coalition well over the 61-seat majority needed to govern the Knesset, Israel's parliament.

"This alignment will be a breath of fresh air for the Republican Party," declared GOP chairman Reince Preibus. "Israelis' love of privatization and disdain for the socialist welfare state make us a natural fit." Other Republican leaders were excited as well. "I'm so happy I could cry," said House Speaker John Boehner - who then proceeded to cry. "Finally I will be around arsim who have more obvious fake tans than I do."

Some in the Knesset have objected to the deal on the grounds that the Republican Party is an American rather than an Israeli party, but Netanyahu scoffed at the claims noting, "What then? We should form a coalition with droves of Arabs?"

Some American policymakers supported the deal. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said, via private email, "I think the idea is a wonderful way of deepening the ties with our close ally Israel. Perhaps a good choice of Interior Minister would be Ted Cruz. Or Jeb Bush." 

Others expressed concern the coalition could have implications for an Iran nuclear deal in its final stages. "You think Iran fears an Israeli strike now, just wait until John Bolton is their Defense Minister," remarked Secretary of State John Kerry from Lausanne, Switzerland. For his part, Iranian chief negotiator Mohamad Zarif expressed concern. "We have many questions about this Zionist coalition. For example, do some of them really not believe in evolution? Like really? I mean come on, seriously?"

For now, the deal must be approved by Israeli President Reuven Rivlin. The American President, Barack Obama, has reportedly refused to meet with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell citing protocol, and has called Rand Paul's curly hair "an obstacle to peace."

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Three Takeaways From Israeli Elections

Israel's election results are likely to be certified in the next 24 hours. The outcome leaves Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu with a number of options for coalition formation over the next 28 days or so. As negotiations between Likud and other parties plays out, three important points should frame analysis of the process.

First, Netanyahu's victory is not a death knell for anything. Netanyahu's victory creates important changes to the status quo but not nearly enough to justify leftist sensationalism about the death of the peace process. True, he made comments this weekend eschewing a Palestinian state (which he has now backed away from). Additionally, his absurd warning that the "Arabs are voting" are both shocking and unbecoming of a pluralistic democratic state like Israel. However, there are few entities who can keep these comments salient in the media cycle for more than a few weeks - enough time to matter. Bibi's new coalition will look similar to the current one, consisting of centrist and rightist religious Zionist parties. This is not a game changer. While the status quo is unsustainable, Netanyahu's victory and the policy rhetoric which was largely smoke and mirrors have not sealed Israeli or Palestinian fates. Once the coalition is formed and an actual agenda outlined, analysts will be much better able to assess the future of Israeli policy.

Second, the elections consolidated an opposition to Bibi Netanyahu. The major elements of this opposition are centrist parties, the Arab parties, and Labor. In 2013, Yair Lapid's Yesh Atid party was an anomaly. Now it is not only the fourth largest party in terms of seats, but it is joined by Moshe Kahlon's centrist Kulanu party. In addition, the Zionist Camp's final tally was likely boosted by the participation of Tzipi Livni whose constituency was the centrist Kadima party. Centrist parties are divided but together they have a meaningful constituency among Israelis. The United Arab List has also made an impressive showing with 13 seats despite cynicism about politics from Israel's Arab population. Additionally, the elections showed with certainty that the Labor party remains a major player in Israeli politics. After the 2013 elections, some wondered whether Labor's consistently poor showing in elections compared to other parties signaled the death of the party. As opposed to four months ago, Labor will be leading a real opposition to Prime Minister Netanyahu, a price which is not trivial.

Finally Washington's response to Bibi's win was clouded by wishful thinking. While the extent of Netanyahu's victory (6 seats) is a surprise that will generate many analyses in the coming weeks, the fact that he won re-election was the predicted outcome from the beginning (see here and here). Analysts in DC had hoped that a Zionist Camp win could unseat Bibi and bring about positive change in the damaged US-Israel relationship. Ironically, the Obama administration's curmudgeonly response to Netanyahu's win is actively hurting US-Israel relations. The administration's open disdain for Netanyahu is receiving extensive media attention in a way that harms its ability to influence leadership in Jerusalem. A better strategy would be for Obama to extend neutral post-election formalities, letting Netanyahu make the first post-election overture, while administration members highlight the social welfare issues important to many opposition voters during Netanyahu's coalition formation process.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Vote Tally: Likud Routs Zionist Camp In Elections

With 91% of the ballots counted in Israel's election, Likud appears to be pulling far ahead of the Zionist Camp, which itself is doing only slightly better than the Joint Arab List. The exact number of seats will change as the remaining 20% of votes are counted, but the outcome appears to be a significant win for Prime Minister Netanyahu. While a meaningful opposition coalesced, it appears that it was not substantial enough to challenge the Likud party in coalition formation. President Rivlin's choice of a party to form the next government is very clear at the moment, and Netanyahu has the political allies to form a number of different coalitions.

The final tally will provide important nuances about which coalition the Prime Minister will choose, but there can be little doubt that Binyamin Netanyahu will be the one choosing it.

Israel's Elections Consolidate Opposition To Bibi

Exit polls from Israel are predicting a tie or a win for the Likud party and Israel's Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. Full results may not be available until Friday. The two major parties - Likud and the Zionist Camp - are predicted to win around 27 seats in Israel's 120-seat Knesset. Medium-sized parties are predicted to win between 10 and 13 each, and small parties between 5 and 6. To reach a 61-seat majority, the winning party will have to form alliances with multiple parties, creating the possibility of a fairly unstable coalition.

Israel's President, Reuben Rivlin, will have 7 days to pick a party to form the next government, and that party will have 28 days to do so. As predicted, the two medium-sized centrist parties, Yesh Atid and Kulanu, will play a critical role in this regard. Pending any big surprises, neither Likud nor the Zionist Camp will be able to form a government without Yesh Atid or Kulanu. This situation making these centrist parties the kingmakers in Israel's next government. One important development to watch over the next week is whether these two parties agree to join the same list, or (more likely) let themselves be pursued by Likud and the Zionist Camp.

A unity government between Likud and the Zionist Camp is also a possibility, though it will require some cooling off from this weekend's fever-pitch rhetoric. Such a coalition may not necessarily be stable given ideological differences between Likud and those of the Zionist Camp.

Even if President Rivlin chooses Netanyahu to form the next government, the Prime Minister will have paid a price for an electoral win. Netanyahu's intent on calling early elections was likely to renegotiate a coalition in which he would be stronger. While certain coalitions could produce this result, the campaign created the opportunity to consolidate a significant opposition to the Prime Minister. It also pushed the Likud to use messaging that sounded desperate at best and racist at worst. At this point, a Likud win is still more likely than a Zionist Camp win. However, the close results point to a deep dissatisfaction in Israel with the status quo - a challenge that Prime Minister Netanyahu will need to address if he intends Israel's next government to be long-lasting.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Three Things To Watch In Israel's Elections Next Week

Israel's election campaign is in its final stretch. The Zionist Union, Yisrael Beiteinu, and Bayit HaYehudi all held campaign events over the past few days, and political rhetoric in Israel has reached a fever pitch. While the outcome of the elections is uncertain, there are three important factors of which analysts of next Tuesday's election should be aware.

First, the election is a referendum on Prime Minister Netanyahu. An anti-Netanyahu rally this weekend in Tel Aviv only served to prove the point that the choice in this election is "to Bibi or not to Bibi." Netanyahu has taken criticism for slow changes to Israel's social welfare programs and last week's speech to Congress. Yet no other candidate has established him or herself as a candidate for Prime Minister of his or her own accord. If Netanyahu loses the election, it will be because the Israeli public voted against him, and not for someone else. Given the most recent polls and Netanyahu's political expertise, however, such a loss would be surprising.

Second, centrist parties are unpredictable but important. Knesset Jeremy's latest Poll of Polls has the technocratic Kulanu party polling around 2 seats in the Knesset, with Yair Lapid's Yesh Atid party polling around 20. However, Yesh Atid's success in 2013 was a major surprise, and it's possible that one or both of these centrist parties could do well. It's also possible, however, that Kulanu and Yesh Atid could divide the centrist vote, leaving medium-size parties like HaBayit HaYehudi in an even stronger position. Either outcome has important implications for coalition formation. While the two parties have not driven the narrative during the campaign season, they could be significant and are worth tracking.

Finally, a unity government is possible and should be taken seriously. The Zionist Camp has been polling roughly evenly with Likud. It's unlikely to beat Likud at the polls, but even if it were chosen to form the government, it would be hard for Tzipi Livni and Isaac Herzog to find a coalition partner on the left. This difficulty would make a unity government potentially attractive. If Likud is chosen to form the government (the more likely scenario), negotiations might play out such that aligning with the Zionist Camp is a better deal than aligning with Yisrael Beiteinu, HaBayit HaYehudi, or the religious parties. It would cut Naftali Bennet, a challenger to Netanyahu in the long term, out of the coalition and could make it easier for the Prime Minister to balance the power of far right-wing members of his own Likud party. These scenarios aren't likely per se, but they are a possibility that analysts should evaluate once the results of elections are in.