New coalition, new negotiations

So Avigdor Liberman is Israel’s new Defence Minister, right..? Well, not yet. Negotiations are ongoing for the now-5-seat Israel Beiteinu to join the coalition, with Liberman getting Defence and some sort of vote on the use of death penalty in military courts which might or might not actually happen.

But one big ‘red line’ remains. Liberman wants substantial increases in pensions for Russian olim, costing something like a billion shekels. This is in many ways a good policy to lift people out of poverty, but it faces two problems. One is that it’s hard to justify applying it only to Russian olim and not, say, Ethiopian or Argentinian or French olim — which means it might end up being expanded by the Supreme Court and costing even more.

The other problem is that the budget is controlled, in the first instance, by Moshe Kahlon of the Kulanu party, who said he supports widening the coalition but not at any price. He opposes the plan, and claims it is discriminatory. According to one report, Kahlon said Netanyahu would have to fire him to get his billion shekels.

Then there’s Bayit Yehudi. The party voted unanimously at today’s faction meeting that it would only vote for the wider coalition if the recommendations of the report into the 2014 Defensive Edge war were accepted in full. The report, due out tomorrow, has been substantially leaked and is expected to be highly critical of Netanyahu, Yaalon and the way decisions were taken. Bennett in particular is demanding that the Security Cabinet is given fuller intelligence briefings. Likud MKs have reacted angrily to Bennett’s conditions.

The report is due out tomorrow and I’ve already seen speculation that the reason Netanyahu was so willing to oust Yaalon is because it will insulate him from some of the criticism. Other cynics have suggested that the new coalition deal will be signed minutes before/after the report is released.

And then, hovering in the background of all of this, is the French peace initiative, which will formally start with a multilateral conference in early June with various Foreign Ministers. John Kerry is now expected to attend, but Israelis and Palestinians are not invited.

And despite everything, Netanyahu is still saying that he wants Labour/the Zionist Union to join the coalition, and that he’s not appointing a Foreign Minister for this reason. This seems doubly unlikely, now that ZU Leader Isaac Herzog has refused to conduct any more negotiations, and because Herzog might find himself forced out of the party leadership for holding coalition talks in the first place.

More likely, he’s holding the role (and several others like the Economy Ministry) because appointing anyone would necessitate a whole Government reshuffle, and he’s not willing to go through all that again. The question for the next couple of days is how long Netanyahu will keep his newest job – as acting Defence Minister.

Meanwhile, two Knesset members resigned in the last week: Moshe Yaalon and UTJ’s Meir Porush, who remains a deputy-Minister but left the Knesset to allow a Degel HaTorah member to take his place as part of some sort of deal inside the smaller parties that make up UTJ. Two more are considering leaving – Miki Zohar and Ayoub Kara, both current Likud members. The current Knesset has been seated for a little over a year, but it’s had a remarkably high number of resignations.

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Israel: What if there’s no coalition by tomorrow’s deadline?

The state of play

Yesterday, Yisrael Beiteinu rejected the offer of joining the next Israeli Government. Likud immediately signed a coalition agreement with Shas, leaving them with 53 coalition members and only one open negotiation – with Naftali Bennett and Jewish Home.

A couple of weeks ago, Bennett announced that handing over the Religious Affairs Ministry to Shas would mean the end of negotiations with Jewish Home. Well, that’s happened. Shas has the Ministry, and even got a control of the appointment of judges to the Rabbinic courts via the Justice Ministry.

Jewish Home was offered the Education Ministry and Diaspora Ministry for Bennett, the Culture and Sport Ministry for Ayelet Shaked, Agriculture and the settlement affairs division for Uri Ariel and (I think) a deputy defence minister. Then Liberman’s resignation shook things up. Suddenly there’s an extra senior role – Foreign Minister – up for grabs. Jewish Home was already unhappy with the coalition offer, but is now also insulted that the Foreign Minister role, originally denied to Naftali Bennett partly because Benjamin Netanyahu needed to keep Liberman on-board, is not being offered to Jewish Home.

Last night Likud gave Jewish Home’s negotiators an ultimatum – take our offer or leave it. After midnight, the Jewish Home faction meeting instructed Naftali Bennett to take over negotiating personally, also implying that they were calling Likud’s bluff. Jewish Home is now demanding that Bennett becomes either Foreign or Defence Minister or that Shaked is made Justice Minister.

Since then, apparently, Naftali Bennett is unreachable and has turned off his phone. Now, with 28 hours left until the expiry of the deadline to form a government, a major disagreement has still not been resolved and time is running out.

Options

Most likely, someone will compromise and a deal will be done. I suspect that Likud is in a stronger position than Jewish Home, but we’ll see. But what if there isn’t a deal by Midnight on Thursday?

The law is simple, clear – and widely misunderstood.

By midnight on Thursday (ie Wednesday night), Netanyahu will have to do one of three things:

  1. Call President Reuven Rivlin and tell him that he has failed to form a Government that can win the confidence of the Knesset. If this happens, the President would ask someone else — almost certainly Zionist Union leader Isaac Herzog — to try and form a coalition. This would almost certainly fail because the numbers aren’t there. There are provisions for a third MK to have a try, but if that doesn’t work then there are automatic new elections 90 days or so after the end of the road. New elections would mean new primaries, especially for Likud and Labour/Zionist Union. Both parties might face leadership challenges. Things could get very interesting and very messy, or nothing much could change.
  2. Do nothing. If Netanyahu doesn’t call Rivlin at all it’s considered that he failed to form a government and things proceed exactly as at point 1.
  3. Tell the President that he has formed government.

If Mr Netanyahu tells Rubi Rivlin that he has formed a government, then a new timer starts – 7 days. The Speaker of the Knesset (Likud MK Yuli Edelstein) must schedule a vote on the new government within 7 days of the announcement. However, Netanyahu doesn’t have to announce the full make-up of the Government to Rivlin, and Rivlin doesn’t have to check that it’s true, meaning that negotiations could continue for another week.

Those negotiations could be aimed at bringing either Jewish Home into a 61-seat coalition or the Zionist Union into a National Unity Government. But they could also theoretically be aimed at seeking support for the 53-member coalition as it stands today.

It works like this: The new government is presented to the Knesset. This is the actual government, the list of ministers and deputy-ministers, not the coalition: a government of twenty-something MKs. That list must be passed by a simple majority of the Knesset. It doesn’t need 61 votes. It just needs more MKs to vote for it than vote against it.

Could Netanyahu win support for a minority government? It’s possible. Jewish Home might be able to stay out of the coalition but I’m not sure they can directly vote to bring down Bibi and give Herzog a chance without damaging themselves in a second election. The same logic applies to Yisrael Beiteinu.

That would leave things exactly balanced: 14 MKs abstaining, 53 MKs voting for the government and 53 (from the ZU, Meretz, Yesh Atid and the Joint List) who would probably vote against.

If Netanyahu can convince one extra MK to abstain then he has a Government. It’d be a dysfunctional, weak government that wouldn’t last very long until it needed more parties to join and support it. But so’s the 61-seat coalition deal with Jewish Home.

In those circumstances, the Zionist Union or (more likely) Yesh Atid might decide to allow Netanyahu to form a weak minority government in the hope of bringing him down later. Or they might just vote the government down, sending us back to Step 1 above.

Most likely, of course, is the 61-seat deal with Bennett sooner or later. It should all become clear by tomorrow night. Or in a week. Or so.

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Election Day 2015 – early afternoon update

I voted this morning a bit after 10, so now I have time to speculate about what’s happening out in the country.

To be clear – I have no access to any exit polls or opnion polls since Friday — which is good, because it’s illegal to publicise them even if I did. Those last polls showed the Zionist Union opening up a big gap over Likud in the last week of the campaign.

bicompoll
BICOM’s poll of polls, prepared by me.

Since last Thursday night the Likud campaign has been in overdrive, with Benjamin Netanyahu doing more media interviews in one evening than in the last six years of his time as Prime Minister, talking up the Zionist Union’s chances and calling on right-wing voters to support Likud.

There is anecdotal evidence that this might be working, winning back voters from the Jewish Home party and Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu.

That’s especially bad news for Jewish Home, which was polling at 15-17 seats in January and 11-12 on Thursday. If Mr Netanyahu wins a few seats from Jewish Home, Naftali Bennett’s party could end up doing rather worse than it did in 2013 when it won 12 seats. Some party sources say they’ll be down to single figures.

But it’d good news for Netanyahu.

Here’s my guess about what we’ll see, assuming all three smaller parties (Beiteinu, Meretz, Yachad) make the threshold. If they don’t then every party will increase proportionately.

  • Netanyahu’s frantic campaign and moves rightwards will have stopped the bleeding for Likud and might even help move the party up by a few seats. I reckon 23 or so.
  • Labour and Yesh Atid will benefit from anti-Bibi votes and votes as people come off the fence. Together they’ll be something like 40 seats, but the precise split will depend on how Tzipi Livni’s announcement last night that she’s willing to give up the rotating premiership plays.
  • Jewish Home is in trouble and will be down to at least 10 seats and probably single figures.
  • Kulanu is hard to call. If it does well than it will be taking votes from mainly Likud and possibly Shas at this point. It’ll probably get some “election surprise” seats to counter those Netanyahu has won back. So I reckon 10-12.
  • Likud is claiming massive 300% increases turnout in the Arab sector. That’s not the case — turnout is reportedly slightly up there but not as much as the Right is claiming. So I reckon the Joint List will do as expected at 13-14 seats.

Beyond that we’re into small parties and sectoral parties where things are harder to predict.

I may update later based on rumours and gossip as the day progresses.

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Mergers and rumours – Election roundup Sunday 25 January 2015

I know I was writing about list mergers a month ago, and here I am doing it all again. Luckily there’s only one more week of this until the lists are filed and mergers are impossible, but until then there are plenty of rumours:

For the past week there have been continual low-level rumours that a Likud/Bayit Yehudi merger was still a possibility and could happen within days. Any such deal would HAVE to happen by the end of the week when the lists are supposed to be finalised. There have even been polls that suggest that the merged party wouldn’t lose seats in the merger. The big winners would be Benjamin Netanyahu, who’d almost assure that he’d remain as Prime Minister after the election, and Naftali Bennett, who’d be well-positioned to take over from Mr Netanyahu if and when he does eventually retire. It’d basically be the same as the Likud/Beiteinu deal last election, which is why both parties are suspicious of it. I suspect Likud in particular would be resistant to any such deal but would find it hard to defy Mr Netanyahu during an election campaign.

Tonight, there are possibly-linked rumours that the leadership of Bayit Yehudi is going to refuse to unify with the Tekuma party. Bayit Yehudi and Tekuma ran a joint list last election, and a month ago Tekuma was planning to leave the list and join up with Eli Yishai’s Yachad Ha’am Itanu faction. The party decided to keep its partnership with Naftali Bennett, who offered Tekuma better-placed candidates as an enticement to stay. But it’s Tekuma candidates Orit Struck and Bezalel Smotrich that have been the most controversial people on the joint list, perhaps damaging Bayit Yehudi’s appeal to more-moderate voters. If Bayit Yehudi decides to kick out Tekuma now, Tekuma will surely join Eli Yishai after all, dragging his party over the electoral threshold, with probably no cost to those people on the Bennett-side of the joint list. Of course, it would also leave the way clearer for a merged list with Likud.

Another joint list is that between the two Arab parties and Hadash, running as the ‘Joint List’. The list has said it won’t join any government, but might recommend Issac Herzog as Prime Minister in an attempt to get rid of Mr Netanyahu

One merger that now isn’t happening is Kulanu and Yesh Atid. It seems that there were serious talks but ultimately Moshe Kahlon announced that his party would run alone.

The final rumour is barely more than a whisper of a whisper: If Likud joins up with Bayit Yehudi, then Yesh Atid might join with the Zionist Camp (aka Labour) to create a centre-left counterweight list.

All of this will have to be sorted by the end of the week. Nothing could change or everything could change.

Oh, and one party seems to be out: Moshe Feiglin left Likud announcing he’d run in the election as head of a new party. As of today there is no party and Mr Feiglin organised his son’s wedding on election day. So it’s pretty safe to say that he’ll be too busy to run an election campaign.

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Election roundup Wednesday 21 January 2015: Part 2

(Part 1 here)

Of course now, there are lists and candidates, there can be gaffes and dirt.

There have already been a load of them.

As soon as the Labour primary was finished, Bayit Yehudi put out images attacking the party’s candidates — running as the Zionist Camp — as being anti-Zionist, including quotes in which some candidates appeared to say they supported marking Naqba Day or that the Hatikva was racist. Particular fire has been focused on new candidates Yossi Yonah and Zohir Bahalul, who’ve been involved in activism against Israeli government policies including supporting soldiers who refused to serve in the West Bank. The candidates claimed that the short (few-word) quotes used by Bayit Yehudi were taken out of context. This is part of Bayit Yehudi’s main electoral strategy, which seems to be based around attacking Labour as way to prove they ‘take on the Left’.

One of Yisrael Beiteinu’s new candidates is Shira Mistriel, a 24-year-old student from the Facebook generation who didn’t think to clean up her Facebook before entering politics. A trawl of her Facebook wall revealed her joking about a stone-throwing Arab being run over by a Jewish driver in 2010, laughing at him as a ‘smelly Arab’. A few other Facebook comments from her late teens made jokes about Arabs too. This triggered a debate about the use of old Facebook posts in political campaigns and whether it’s fair to blame someone from teenage stupidity.

Another new candidate drawing attention is Bayit Yehudi’s Bezalel Smotrich, one of Tekuma’s members running in 9th place on the Bayit Yehudi list. Mr Smotrich was once arrested by the Shin Bet with 700 litres of petrol, which they believed he was planning to use in terror attacks on Israeli infrastructure to stop the Gaza Disengagement. No charges were brought. Mr Smotri now runs an NGO dedicated to trying to demolish the houses of Israeli Arabs and Bedouin in the Negev if they were built without permits.

Mr Smotrich was attacked this week for running a ‘Beast Parade’ in Jerusalem in 2006 as an ‘alternative’ to the Gay Pride parade, where he implied that gay people were worse than animals. He reportedly told Haaretz “I did it when I was young, and I regret it”. Yesterday it was also revealed that he’d run a campaign to stop bus companies from employing Israeli Arab drivers

Another Bayit Yehudi candidate, Sarah Eliash, 17th on the list, made the news yesterday for her position that women should not serve in the IDF. She told a radio station last year “I think that the IDF is not a fitting framework for women, I would not recommend that girls to be in it”. Ms Eliash, a High School principal, also said that she encouraged girls in her school not to join the IDF and to do National Service instead. While a common position in the National-Religious world, the idea that women shouldn’t join the army doesn’t fit so well with the modern open image the party’s trying to project.

Part 3 will have to wait until tomorrow, when we’ll talk about political ads and more merger rumours.

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