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."