February 2009 Israel News Review
by David Dolan
Shalom from Jerusalem!
Below is this month's Israel news and analysis report, which naturally takes a detailed look at Israel's recent national Knesset elections, and the prospects of Likud leader Binyamin Netanyahu forming a viable coalition government. He is initially attempting to stitch together a broad national unity government, but so far the leaders of the currently ruling Kadima party and its main coalition Labor party ally are resisting his advances. The former premier is arguing that the existential threat from Iran's nuclear program and the escalating global economic crisis necessitates as strong and broad a government as possible during this critical year, but some political egos seem to be thwarting his attempts, at least so far.
I also take a brief look at the latest attacks from Hamas and how government policy might change toward that radical Palestinian Islamic group and its regional ally Iran under a Netanyahu administration. Meanwhile the land has been experiencing a much needed major winter storm, helping to replenish depleted water sources in the Sea of Galilee and the country's two underground fresh water aquifers. But much more rainfall is needed in the few remaining weeks of the annual rainy season.
May you be safe, warm and dry wherever you are located on this increasingly troubled planet earth!
ELECTION ENDS IN DEADLOCK
By David Dolan
Israel went from a fairly successful conflict with Hamas forces in the Gaza Strip to a fairly inconclusive national election in just under one month's time. The February 10 ballot saw 12 political parties make it into the Israeli Knesset, which is average for the country. But the two largest parties, Kadima and the Likud, ended up in a virtual dead heat. This left Israeli citizens uncertain as to who would actually emerge as their next prime minister.
All opinion surveys had predicted for many months that opposition leader Binyamin Netanyahu's Likud party would capture the most seats in the Knesset election. However the government's well executed military campaign against Hamas clearly boosted the political standing of the ruling Kadima party, led by Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni. It captured one more legislative seat than Likud, 28 verses 27. Ehud Barak's Labor party only finished in an embarrassing fourth place in the national contest, indicating that the Defense Minister did not enjoy the same boost that Kadima did as a result of the war.
Despite Kadima's late surge, most political analysts still expect Netanyahu to emerge as the next premier, returning to a post he held from mid 1996 until mid-1999, when he lost an early election to Barak. The veteran politician was given a mandate to try and put together a coalition by President Shimon Peres on February 20 after Livni rebuffed his pleas that she bring her party into a broad national unity coalition with the veteran Likud leader at the helm.
RAZOR THIN VOTE
Opinion surveys taken during the first week of February forecast that Binyamin Netanyahu's Likud party would increase its pre-election Knesset total of just 12 seats to at least 25 mandates, and maybe to as many as 28. Polls taken before the Gaza conflict began in late December had indicated that the party might capture over 30 seats, or at least one fourth of the 120 member Knesset.
Last minute polls did pick up the Kadima party surge, but still had it garnering no more than 25 seats. They also showed Kadima's main ally, Labor, falling from 19 seats to around 15.
In the end, Kadima captured 28 seats to the Likud's 27, with less than 30,000 votes out of the over two and half million cast separating them (Kadima garnered 758,032 votes to Likud's 729,054). The outcome represented a drop of only one seat for Kadima despite the fact that the new party created by Ariel Sharon in late 2005 had lost significant support do to infighting and the escalating legal crisis surrounding outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.
NEW NUMBER THREE
Despite coming in just slightly behind Kadima, the results still demonstrated the predicted massive surge of support for Netanyahu's party, more than doubling its previous Knesset standing. And most analysts agreed that the party would have done even better if the farther right Yisrael Beiteinu party had not soared to become Israel's third largest political grouping.
Under controversial leader Avigdor Lieberman, the party won nearly 400,000 votes, jumping from its previous 11 Knesset seats to 15. Post election surveys showed that thousands of voters switched at the last minute from Likud to Yisrael Beiteinu because Lieberman pledged to back Netanyahu as premier, with many saying they hoped the populist Russian immigrant politician would help keep the Likud leader on a right-wing course in the face of expected American and European pressure to take a softer line in peace talks with the Palestinian Authority.
Labor lost an astonishing six Knesset seats, falling from 19 to just 13-its lowest level ever. If anyone had predicted that Israel's long dominant political party would fall below a right-wing party headed by the outspoken Lieberman a decade ago-the year that Barak came to power and Lieberman was a crony of the defeated Netanyahu-they would have been laughed out of the room. But now Labor will probably return to the opposition benches unless a broad unity government including Labor is somehow stitched together-a humiliating prospect for Barak.
Other parties likely to join a narrow Likud-led government captured a significant 23 seats between them. The Sephardic Orthodox Shas party won 11 spots in the Knesset, down just one from its 2006 total. The Ashkenazi United Torah Judaism party captured five seats, up one from its previous standing. The National Union party, which is mainly supported by modern Orthodox and secular Jewish voters who reside in Judea and Samaria, won four seats, while the new Jewish Home party received three mandates.
The biggest surprise of the 2006 election proved to be the biggest dud of the February vote. The Gil Pensioners party, which astounded most pundits by winning seven seats three years ago, received just 17,571 votes this time around, meaning it was not even near the threshold for entering the new Knesset. The leftist Meretz party dropped from five to three seats, while three mainly Arab parties captured 11 Knesset seats between them. Attempts by the official election committee to ban two of those parties from the race due to their anti-Zionist platforms were overturned by the Israeli Supreme Court, as also occurred three years ago.
Naturally enough, Tzipi Livni was elated when her party emerged with one more seat than Likud, declaring the election outcome a major triumph for her party and its commitment to vigorously pursue peace talks with the Palestinians. However a quick analysis of the overall vote gave the lie to this pronouncement, which was subsequently confirmed when President Peres assigned the task of forming a new government to Binyamin Netanyahu.
In fact, only 44 seats were won by the three mainly Jewish parties that strongly support the peace process, as opposed to 65 that went to the Likud party and its usual nationalist and religious allies (two of the three Arab parties are lukewarm at best about PA peace talks with Israel). All of the right wing and religious parties either question or oppose the negotiating process, mainly on grounds that it could easily bring a Muslim fundamentalist Palestinian state backed by Iran and Syria to Israel's doorsteps, and would probably result in the political re-division of Jerusalem, Judaism's holiest city on earth. Shas leaders are the most open to the process, but only if Hamas is fully dealt with first.
So given that reality, Netanyahu insisted that the 2009 election was basically an endorsement of his vow to focus on new economic and other practical arrangements with the Palestinian Authority instead of resurrecting stalled peace negotiations, while also keeping up significant military pressure on Hamas and other radical factions and taking a tougher line against Iran's nuclear program (his positions on these issues are also strongly endorsed by Lieberman). He noted with satisfaction that President Peres admitted on February 18 that the 2005 Israeli unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip was "a mistake we shall not repeat." Netanyahu was the most vocal Knesset critic of the controversial evacuation at the time, while Peres and Livni strongly backed it.
Most political analysts said the overall election result was indeed basically an endorsement of the Likud leader's more hawkish positions over Livni's dovish stand, even if her party did manage to win one more seat than Likud. And all agreed Kadima would not have even done that had it not taken on Hamas in such a forceful manner early this year, which most say was basically the Israeli Defense Force's achievement rather than the governments.
SERIOUS HORSE TRADING
Both Livni and Netanyahu made a beeline to Avigdor Lieberman's door soon after the election outcome was announced. But the Yisrael Beiteinu leader had already declared on election night that his first choice was a Likud-led narrow right wing government, as he had stated during the campaign. He repeated this decision when he met with President Peres on February 19, but added that he hoped Netanyahu could set up a broad national unity government with Kadima and his party as the Likud's main partners.
Given that he resigned as Deputy Prime Minister from the Kadima-led coalition early last year due to the government's decision to negotiate a future re-division of Jerusalem with PA leader Mahmoud Abbas, it seemed that Livni would have an impossible task getting him back on board any government she headed unless she drastically altered her party's peace policies, which she again vowed not to do after the election, knowing it would certainly anger many of her supporters.
So instead, the new Kadima leader also proposed that a national unity government be set up with at least most of the Zionist parties participating in it. This concept was then publicly embraced by Netanyahu, although top Likud activists said they still preferred a narrower right wing and religious coalition.
The Likud leader stated that with so many critical issues facing the country, especially the Iranian nuclear threat and likely future rocket assaults from Hizbullah militia forces in Lebanon and Hamas, it might be good to form as broad a government as possible, as has occurred in other times of crisis. He was also aware of opinion polls that showed over 65% of Israeli voters want to see Likud and Kadima join together in a broad coalition to deal with the country's many problems, which now includes the same financial reverses being suffered all over the globe in the wake of the American economic meltdown.
But the former premier was not at all receptive to Livni's next suggestion-that she and Netanyahu each serve for two years as head of a "national emergency government," with the other serving as Foreign Minister. This unique arrangement was tried in 1984 when Likud, under the late Menachem Begin's successor Yitzhak Shamir, came out virtually tied with the opposition Labor party headed by Shimon Peres in the midst of a vote held as severe hyperinflation gripped the land. The so called rotatia that was agreed to then ("rotation" in a Hebrew word borrowed from English) proved extremely difficult to manage, with coalition battles going on all the time between the two dominant parties.
When it became clear that Netanyahu would probably reject her suggestion, Livni announced that she would rather sit in the opposition than join a Likud led "right-wing extremist government," as she termed it. "I've been in second place long enough" she told a party gathering on February 14. And most political pundits predicted that unless she changes her mind and joins a Likud-led broad coalition, that is exactly where she will end up, despite the fact that her party is the largest in the Knesset.
Analysts said it may take over one month for Netanyahu to form a new coalition. He announced he would negotiate first with Kadima, and only afterwards with the smaller parties who are his natural allies. Officially a candidate for prime minister has 42 days to attempt to put a government together. If he fails during that time, the same mandate can then be extended by the President, or he can ask someone else to give it a try. Livni tried and failed to do accomplish that task after Ehud Olmert resigned last September, due mainly to the strong aversion to some of her policies from Lieberman and Orthodox Shas leaders, which is what led to February's Knesset election-over one year earlier than scheduled.
WILL A MARRIAGE DEAL BE BROKERED?
Binyamin Netanyahu will have one particular problem to iron out as soon as he possibly can. Lieberman's party has as one its main planks a call for civil marriage unions in Israel, with the current system only allowing for Orthodox-officiated rabbinical ceremonies, and that only if one partner is Jewish. A majority of Lieberman's supporters are Russian-speaking immigrants, many of whom find it impossible to wed in the country since they are not Jewish according to Orthodox reckoning. (It is estimated that up to one-third of the million plus native Russian speaking immigrants who arrived here during the 1990s fall under this category, many with just a Jewish father and Gentile mother, and others non-Jewish spouses or other Gentile relatives of Jews).
The three Orthodox parties that Netanyahu needs on board his coalition train strongly oppose Lieberman's proposed legal change, viewing the traditional religious marriage ceremony as a sacrosanct issue that can never be compromised upon. Meanwhile they also have their own pet projects and financial demands, especially funding for their religious school systems and other Orthodox institutions. But Lieberman, with a mainly non-religious support base, is unlikely to agree to support all of their demands, as will also probably be the case with the new premier.
Kadima's leadership quickly agreed to fulfill Lieberman's civil marriage demand, given that most of its supporters are secular Israelis who are at least open to the idea, as is even more the case with the Labor party and Meretz. But Likud leaders would only issue a rather vague statement averring that the party "reasons that a solution must be found to the personal status of 300,000 people who are not Jewish according to religious law, who immigrated to Israel over the last two decades." In other words, Netanyahu is making no promises on the highly emotive issue since he cannot possibly do so and gain the support of most of his other natural coalition allies.
Despite his apparent dilemma, Netanyahu still has one major card up his sleeve as he begins the expected tough political bargaining to build a viable coalition: None of the parties wants to go to new and expensive elections anytime soon; certainly not Yisrael Beiteinu which has just come out smelling like a rose from the February vote. So the Likud leader will simply point out that they have only two realistic choices at this time-give in somewhat on their various positions and requests, or sit in the opposition with little governmental benefits or positions of power as the big parties iron out a national unity deal that would undoubtedly leave them completely out in the cold.
Given his heightened status in the wake of the election, Lieberman is expected to once again become a deputy premier under either a Likud or Kadima-led government, with a probable focus on the growing existential threat posed by Iran's nuclear program. Although this was officially his focus under Olmert's administration, Foreign Minister Livni and Defense Minister Barak actually set the policy parameters on that crucial issue, leaving the hawkish Lieberman with nothing more to actually do than make the occasional strong statement on Iran which did not necessarily carry the full cabinet's seal of approval. Under Netanyahu, that would probably change, meaning an Israeli military strike upon Iran's spread out doomsday weapons program is more likely to be carried out than if Livni is at the government helm.
MORE BOMBS FROM GAZA
Hamas rocket fire was directed at several Israeli cities during February from the Gaza Strip, while mortars and gunfire was aimed at IDF soldiers serving along the border fence. In response, the Israeli Air Force was sent into action on several occasions, bombing smuggling tunnels being dug by workmen under the border fence with Egypt. This came as indirect ceasefire negotiations, brokered by Cairo, stalled when Israeli officials made clear they will demand the release of soldier Gilad Shalit be included in any new deal. Hamas leaders rejected the Israeli condition, apparently believing that holding the soldier, who was abducted by the group in June 2007, leaves Israel less likely to launch an even bigger operation than the three week campaign which began in late December. Both Binyamin Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman have said they will indeed see to it that Hamas is removed from power in the small Gaza coastal zone.
Israeli defense officials revealed during February that weapons specialists used the three week war with Hamas fighters to help perfect a new anti-missile system being developed by the government. The system, called Iron Dome, is being designed to intercept most short range low flying rockets like the ones fired by Hamas and by Hizbullah forces during the 2006 Lebanon war. It is expected to be ready for deployment in about one year.
Media reports said Israeli leaders are very worried over a Hamas test firing during early February of a missile launched from the Gaza Strip out toward the Mediterranean Sea. Military analysts initially thought it was merely an advanced version of the Kassam rockets that Hamas has been shooting at Israeli targets since 2002. However it later became clear that the missile was an Iranian-built Nur-C 802 shore to ship weapon modeled after China's Silkworm missile. A similar missile badly damaged an Israel navy ship during the 2006 Lebanon war. Analysts said Iranian military specialists are now operating in the Gaza Strip and probably fired the missile themselves. Their apparent objective is to help the militant Palestinian group end the Israeli naval blockade of the crowded coastal zone, designed to stop weapons smuggling from the sea.
As a new government is formed in Israel amid more Hamas violence, it is good to remember that the country's King reigns over all of the Promised Land, and indeed over the entire universe! "Glorious and majestic are His deeds, and his righteousness endures forever" (Psalm 111:3).
DAVID DOLAN is a Jerusalem-based author and journalist who has lived and worked in Israel since 1980.