Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Israel's Elections - What We Know So Far

Israelis went to the polls today for the first time since 2009 to elect a parliament.  Voter turnout was 66.6%, slightly higher than the last time around.  Israeli television and social media are abuzz with speculation about what the next coalition in the Knesset will look like.  This speculation is likely to shift throughout the night and into tomorrow as new election results come in (as of 5:45pm Washington time about 56% of the votes have been counted).  At present there are three things we can say with any measure of confidence about the results of these elections.

1) Yesh Atid will be a kingmaker. A January 18th poll put Yesh Atid at 11 seats in Israel's 120-seat Knesset, but exit polling has the party winning nearly twice as many as that (18-19).  If correct, these numbers put Yesh Atid in an extremely powerful position.  In Israeli politics, the second most powerful party can make or break a coalition and has a huge impact on its policy agenda.
2) The coalition building process will be drawn out.  While its possible Yesh Atid's leader, Yair Lapid, could let inexperience get the best of him, it's in his interest to proceed slowly.  Both Likud Beiteinu (the projected winner of tonight's elections) and Labor (likely to be in the opposition) will try to woo the party.  It's worth it to Lapid to wait and see what prominence he can get in either the government or the opposition.  It's also worth waiting to see what policy items he can ensure from both sides.

3) Israel's center remains politically relevant.  Ironically one of the most certain outcomes of the election is also the most surprising.  In earlier posts on this blog I described how Prime Minister Netanyahu made a calculation that the center of Israel's political spectrum would fracture.  It appears the parties are fractured.  However, it also appears that Yesh Atid was able to gain the vote of enough centrist Israeli voters to be a politically relevant actor.  Yesterday, political relevance was Yair Lapid's best-case scenario.  Today, it's the minimum he can expect as the leader of Yesh Atid.

The question now remains how much influence he will have, and how aggressively he and the Yesh Atid party will pursue incentives and concessions from the other parties before determining whether to join the government or the opposition. 

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Obama, Bibi, And Israel's "Best Interests"

President Obama's statements that "Israel doesn't know what its own best interests are" come as news but hardly as a surprise.  The relationship between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu is notoriously dysfunctional, as Jeffrey Goldberg reports in the article, and this latest development is not likely to smooth over the bad experiences of the past.

Whether or not the President's comments were intended as interference in the Israeli elections, they are being perceived as such in Israel.  While the story is not front-page news, some Israelis see the comments as an attempt to swing voters away from the Prime Minister's Likud party.  Given the low coverage the comments are being given and the proximity to elections, it is unlikely they will actually swing the election.  Such sentiments from the President are also not particularly surprising, least of all to Likud voters.  However, the comments are likely to draw annoyance from center to right-wing Israelis over "American meddling" in Israel's democratic process.    

On the policy side of things however, the President's comments could signal a real change in the political cost to Israel of building settlements.  As Peter Beinart explained in a recent Daily Beast piece, the Obama administration has been gradually disengaging from an active defense of Israel, especially at the U.N.  The President's comments may signal to the Netanyahu administration that if it intends to keep building settlements, Israel proceeds at its own risk.  The United States may no longer be willing to serve as Israel's diplomatic shield on the settlement issue at the U.N. and its alignment with the rest of the international community is a significant loss for the Netanyahu administration.  Unless Netanyahu can find another issue on which to appease his right wing base, the cost of holding together a Likud-Beiteinu coalition may very well be even further diplomatic isolation and questions about whether Israel is committed to actual change on the ground.  

In navigating this tricky political landscape, both leaders should proceed with caution.  President Obama should keep in mind that Israel's "interest" is the matter of considerable debate among U.S. Jews and Israelis alike.  Prime Minister Netanyahu and his supporters should keep in mind the key difference between dependence and interdependence as they craft an Israeli foreign policy for the years ahead.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Struggle For Kingmaker: Yesh Atid Versus Shas

Over the weekend in Israel, Hatnua party leader Tzipi Livni arranged to meet with Labor's Shelly Yachimovitch and Yesh Atid's Yair Lapid to discuss running as a united bloc in Israel's elections on January 22.  Lapid has not ruled out joining a Netanyahu-led government and stated that he is against the idea of a bloc.  Nonetheless he agreed to meet with Livni and Yachimovitch to discuss in principle what would be an alignment of centrist and center-left parties.

While most analysis focuses on Yesh Atid in the context of these meetings, there is another key player which impacts how Yesh Atid will react to these talks: The religious Shas party.  Analysis of Shas has focused particularly on the balancing role it is playing with regards to the Jewish Home party led by Naftali Bennett.  Bennett's party recently overtook Shas and a poll of polls released today has Jewish Home 4 seats ahead.  To be sure, this competition for religious votes is an important dynamic which affects not only the next coalition in Israel but the role of religion in Israeli politics and society as well.

However, Shas plays another important balancing function - acting as a counterweight to Yesh Atid.  On Saturday, Israel's Housing Minister Ariel Atias, a member of Shas, warned against a Likud-Lapid government.  Today, an unnamed Likud party official sent a message to Channel 2 saying that if Lapid "gets a number of seats that could compensate for Shas' power, we would prefer to sit with him and not with them."  Regardless of whether this official has actual decision-making authority, Shas is clearly feeling the heat from a similarly sized party which challenges its spot in the next coalition.  While it would probably prefer to join Netanyahu in the next government, Shas may well find itself on the outside when the next government is seated. 

Yesh Atid is a particularly attractive coalition partner for PM Netanyahu for three reasons.  First, it is much more closely aligned ideologically with Likud than Shas.  Second, while centrist, Yesh Atid's leader Yair Lapid is not as politically experienced as the Shas leadership, making negotiations to join the coalition easier on Likud's end.  Finally, PM Netanyahu may be under pressure from Naftali Bennett not to include Shas in the coalition in order to maximize Jewish Home's influence as a religious party.  Bringing in Yesh Atid would preserve the strength of Netanyahu's coalition numbers wise, but without alienating Bennett - a man who has quickly become a mover and shaker in Israeli politics.

Shas is therefore operating under a reasonable suspicion it could be ousted from the coalition come February, opening an opportunity for Labor and other opposition parties.  Since Labor is a secular party campaigning on populist social welfare policies, discussions between it and Shas - whose members often receive social welfare payouts despite not working - will be muted before the elections.  However, once the elections are over, discourse between the two parties may become more open, especially if Yair Lapid looks to be aligning with Likud Beiteinu.  Shas will probably try to play Labor and Likud Beiteinu off each other but may well end up in the opposition.

All these considerations go to show that while some may consider Israel's elections a done deal, the day after elections will be just as chaotic and uncertain as any post-election wrangling in the Jewish State.  While the Prime Minister seems all but certain to cruise to victory on the 22nd, the ultimate balance of Israel's political power is still very much unknown.