Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Israel Election 2013 - Iran off the Table

So it looks like there will be no Israeli attack on Iran in 2013. That might be the big takeaway from the January 2013 legislative elections just held in Israel.
What just happened?
First, overall turnout was slightly higher than in 2011. Possibly the longish hiatus between elections prompted more Israelis to cast a participatory vote after a decidedly uneventful and far from mesmerizing campaign. Rather than shifting to a more hard-line right-wing pose (as many had predicted), the country moved away a slight bit from the hard-line pro-settler, pro-muscular security and foreign policy orientations of "fortress Israel."
I've yet to see any turnout numbers by electoral sector, but it looks like the Arab-Israelis voted at a rate close to previous elections, bringing to a halt the long decline that has been noted by poll watchers. In fact - though the numbers aren't yet final - it looks like the 3 so-called "Arab" parties improved their standing, possibly picking up a seat between them.
Second - and here is what I think is the big story - an unprecedented 29 seats went to religious parties (though with a proviso). This is an unheralded new number - the last benchmark was 27 seats set in 1999. Almost a quarter of the Israeli electorate voted for parties that insist they have the interests of the Torah-observant as either their ultimate or central focus. The proviso is that it is hard to pin down precisely what Naftali Bennett's Jewish Home party is all about, and the likelihood that a sizable number of non-religious voters neverthless turned to Bennett's rebranding of what in the end is nothing more than the National Religious Party, version 2.0.
Third - the demise of incumbency. An unprecedented 53 new faces will be sworn into the new Knesset. That means more than a 40% changeover in lawmakers. Many pundits argue that the massive disgruntlement of the general population with the socio/economic condition of the country (remember the tent city protests of 2010?) resulted in the "out with the scoundrels" turnover of legislators.
Fourth - the collapse of Kadima, the vanity party created by Ariel Sharon in 2005, and the wholesale shift of the centrist voter from Kadima to the New Kid on the Block, Yair Lapid. This is being touted as the "big story" of election night. I'll have more on that later. 
And finally - elections 2013 was a serious setback for Netanyahu. Bibi will still  be selected to form a new government, though as a much weakened leader who in all likelihood will have to bring into his next government the 19 new faces which make up Lapid's Yesh Atid party (though at least 2 are seasoned security veterans). A domestically weakened Bibi, forced to turn to his left, will take an Iran attack off the table.
Until the next election...which will come much sooner than 2017.
Here is a not particularly outlandish prediction for the coming month of coalition negotiations: watch for at least one "rotten deal" - some improbably underhanded alliance between sworn political enemies - to be floated, or consummated.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Israeli Election Eve 2013 - No Change

It has been my practice on this blog to make predictions about American and Israeli elections. My track record on American presidential records has been simply awful. I was embarrassingly wrong in 2008 and wrong again in 2012. I should just stop trying.
But...when it comes to Israeli elections, I do much better. I got the 2006 elections pretty much right. The 2009 election was much harder to call, insofar as it ended with a dead tie favoring the right, but I didn't too badly.
Which brings us to 2013.
The last set of scientific polling has been published. The polls all point to an outcome that will require the President of Israel, Shimon Peres, to conduct his mandated consultations with party leaders and then designate Binyamin Netanyahu with the task of assembling a coalition government under his leadership.
What will Netanyahu then do?
This is the same question that emerged in February and March of 2009, after similar political consultations led Peres to reluctantly request Netanyahu to form a government. Normally, the President is mandated to turn to the winning parliamentary bloc with the task of forming a government. But back in 2009, even though Netanyahu's Likud party came in a close second in the race for Knesset seats, Peres learned that a coalition of smaller religious/nationalist and conventionally designated "right-wing" parties were prepared to join Likud, and not the leading bloc of Kadima. For Peres it must have been a bitter pill to swallow. It was also a disappointing outcome for the incoming Obama administration, which clearly preferred a Kadima-led government.
Netanyahu indeed assembled a comfortable coalition government in 2009. Starting with his 27 seats in the 120-seat Knesset, he reached an agreement with Avigdor Lieberman's Russian immigrant Yisrael Beiteinu ("Israel is Our Home") faction of 15 seats (=42), and then added to his total Labor's 13 seats and Shas's 11, as well as the 3 seats of the former National Religious Party, now renamed The Jewish Home (ha-Bayit ha-Yehudi) (=69). A day after he presented the government to the nation, the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism added its 5 seats to the coalition, creating an unassailable majority of 74 seats.
Netanyahu's government survived for nearly its full 4-year term. A number of changes whittled away slightly at the coalition's majority. Many Laborites were unhappy with Ehud Barak's decision to join the Netanyahu government, forcing Barak out and withdrawing their support. Barak formed a rump party and took 3 Laborites with him. The remaining wreck of Labor (now a mere 8 seats) went into opposition.
In the early summer of 2012 Netanyahu attempted a short-lived "national unity government" with Kadima (after Kadima had ejected its leader in the 2009 campaign, Tzipi Livni, for her internal rival, Shaul Mofaz). That experiment, which created a super-majority of 96 seats and prompted Time magazine to call Netanyahu "King Bibi," lasted for all of 70 days. 
In the fall of 2012 Netanyahu calculated that new elections would strengthen his already strong hand. He announced a call for elections by dissolving the parliament, and immediately merged his Likud with Lieberman's party, beginning therefore with an unassailable bloc of 42 seats.
Two "new" parties have emerged this election cycle: one was formed by a popular former news reader and talkshow host, Yair Lapid, with the name Yesh Atid ("There is a Future"). A second party was cobbled together by Livni, with the simple and bombastic name ha-Tenu`ah ("The Movement"). The Jewish Home went through a rebranding, and for all intents and purposes can be regarded as a "new" political force. And finally, Barak's Independence party simply disappeared from the scene, with Barak "retiring" yet again from politics.
Internally, each of the parties held primaries to determine the order of their lists. Israeli elections are national, not regional, enterprises - a voter votes for a party, and then the vote is divided into 120. Every seat won is designated to a list - and if your party wins 17 seats, and you appear as number 18 - you're shit out of luck. So the higher you appear on a party's list, the more likely you will become a MK (member of Knesset). The newsworthy outcome of the party primary voting took place in Likud - a sizable number of current ministers and conventionally-described Likud "moderates" were ousted from their high positions, to be replaced by right-wing settler representatives. Likud turned harder to the right.
So that sets the stage for Tuesday's voting: a more right-wing Likud now merged with Yisrael Beiteinu, campaigning with the slogan: "A strong Prime Minister - a strong Israel"; a new Labor under the leadership of (yet another) former media star, Shelly Yachimovich; a collapsed and no longer relevant Kadima under loser Mofaz; a rebranded Jewish Home under the leadership of American immigrant and hi-tech tycoon Naftali Bennett; a new party led by the cipher Lapid; and a new party under perennial loser Livni.
It is simply too much to follow, all these comings and goings. So most pollsters and pundits neatly divide the squabbling parties into 3 blocs: the right-religious; the center-left; and the Arab parties (who never play a part in coalition formation). Looked at that way, the current situation of the outgoing Knesset is thus:

Right-Religious coalition - 67
Center-Left "blocking" opposition - 42
Arab parties - 11

First, notice the low numbers for Arab parties. Though Arabs constitute 20% of the population of Israel, they hold only 10% of Knesset seats (though there are a handful of Israeli Arab candidates scattered amongst the Jewish Zionist parties). This is because of the question of voter turnout. Essentially, Arab voters have given up voting in Israeli elections. But this question of turnout relates to a bigger trend: religious and nationalist Jews turn out at a much higher rate than either the secular Jewish Israeli or the Israeli Arab. In 2009, overall turnout was 65% (in fact slightly up from 2006) - certainly impressive when compared to other democracies. But there persists a wide gulf between the turnout of self-defined religious voters (over 85%) and secular voters (slightly more than 50%). Mobilized small-sector interest groups rule the roost in contemporary Israeli democracy. Put another way - if Israeli secularists were as interested in participating in democracy as the Orthodox, then the religious and right-wing camps would be proportionally smaller factions in parliament.There has been a concerted effort to stress the issue of voter turnout, but it is likely the results will vary little from historic patterns.
Noisy foreign protagonists and antagonists of Israel devote a great deal of time to her conflicts, and can get quit passionate in their advocacy. On the other hand, a sizable number of Israelis couldn't give a shit one way or the other.
That brings us to the polls. First, going in to the weekend the polls uniformly report that 15% of likely voters are undecided. This is not as newsworthy a number as it might first appear. Many undecided voters know what they believe - for them the question is simply which party in the Israeli political smorgasbord will best enable their vote.
Even though the larger outcome - an easy Netanyahu victory leading to a 3rd government under his leadership - is all but certain, there are still a few small surprises to be had.
Let's take a look at the numbers of the last round of polls (current size in parentheses):

Likud Beiteinu (merged parties - 42) - 32-34
Labor (8) - 16-17
Yesh Atid (0) - 12-13
Shas (11) - 10-12
Kadima (28) - 0-2
Jewish Home (7) - 12-14
Movement (0) - 7-9
Meretz (3) - 6
Arab Parties (11) - 11-12

So what have been the main story lines? First, it has been a dull and uneventful campaign - hardly an energizing civic exercise. Given all the fateful decisions facing a new government - Iran, continued tension with the US administration, the seething Palestinian powderkeg - this election campaign has generated minimal interest amongst Israeli voters. Unlike elections past, there hasn't been a single nationally televised candidates' debate. Imagine that - no debates.
Second, the merger of Netanyahu and Lieberman (sometimes dubbed "Biberman") has been a tactical failure - the constituent parts equal more than the combined whole by a wide margin.
Third, the surprise new party (and there always seems to be at least one each election cycle) has got to be Lapid's. Livni's new party and its single-digit results has been described as a bitter disappointment for her. What we are likely seeing is the scattering of Kadima voters (who might be described as right-centrists) for smaller factions. And the rebranding of the old NRP under Bennett is notable (Likud Beiteinu defections?).
Finally - it is worth noting the recovery of Labor under Yachimovich to at least semi-respectable size, and the apparent doubling of the leftist bastion Meretz party.
Now let's look at the final polling numbers by breaking them down into the 3 aforementioned big blocs:

Right-Religious coalition - approx. 66
Center-Left "blocking" opposition - approx. 42
Arab parties - 11-12

And look! - bottom line...nothing changes. Only if there is a serious divergence - a swing from bloc to bloc of 7 or 8 seats - does there emerge a serious opportunity for Peres to entertain the option of turning to anyone other than Netanyahu to form the next government. Highly unlikely.
Netanyahu always has the option of reaching out to some of the Center-Left opposition in order to abandon the religious-Orthodox (a persistent pipe dream of secularists - and hinted at for a time in his short-lived national unity government of 2012), but his likely route to a stable coalition is to turn to his "natural" partners. Depending on the final numbers, that is what he will do.
Will there be any surprises? In other words, polls have a history of getting something wrong. What will be the electoral surprise of 2013? I think that the numbers for Bennett are too high - Israelis are enamored with his personal story, but there are many unpalatable forces underlying his rebranded party, and I suspect he won't do as well as the polling suggests. Expect a better outcome for Likud Beiteinu than 32, and a poorer showing for The Jewish Home than 13.
Finally, there is an interesting rule in Israeli parliamentary elections - a party must garner a minimum 2% of the raw vote in order to gain one seat in the Knesset. Are there any current parties who will fall below the threshold? Yes, possibly Mofaz and Kadima - the party created by Ariel Sharon in 2005 as a vehicle for implementing his short-lived and new-found conversion. Good riddance to pointless Kadima.
Will any tiny party break through the threshold in 2013? I always hold out hope for Green Leaves (`Alei Yaroq) - the decriminalization of marijuana party, now trying to recast itself as an economic, anti-corruption party. Much more likely is Strength to Israel (`Otzmah la-Yisrael), a rightist splinter group.
Bottom line - to repeat - nothing changes. One of the most pointless and insubstantial Israeli elections in history. Then comes the month-long rug-trading to form a coalition. That's where the story - if any - will emerge.

Sunday, January 06, 2013

First Look at 2013 Israeli Elections

One of the most volatile and fickle electorates in the world - certainly in the Middle East - is about to go to the polls. I've not ventured yet into the thorny subject of the 2013 Kenesset elections in Israel, as has been my wont in elections past, because I firmly believed this election would not be decided until the last few weeks of campaigning. I just didn't believe the story was worth my time - not until the shifting political players had finally dug in for the final push. And we've now reached that point.

Outgoing (and the smart money says incoming) PM Benyamin Netanyahu has been enjoying a comfortable lead in opinion polls, and the left-center potential opposition has been fractured, rudderless, and ineffective. Thus, every imaginable pundit and pollster has predicted a comfortable majority for an even harder right Netanyahu-led coalition once the voting takes place.

But as any seasoned Israeli election watcher ought to remember, there is a general rule of thumb that renders all early punditry meaningless: there is a solid, consistent 40% of the Israeli electorate which votes for the right/religious/nationalist parties (the "Fortress Israel" crowd), and a solid, consistent 40% of the Israeli electorate which votes for the left/secular/centrist parties (the accommodating "peace process" crowd). It is the 20% perennial undecideds, the moody feel-it-in-their-kishkes Israeli voters, who make the difference. These bipolar voters often do not decide until the final 48 hours of a campaign.

And this year, despite the collective wisdom of the pundits, the undecideds are definitely in play.

It looks for the moment like the undecideds are leaning to the right. That's why all the polls are showing an easy majority for "Fortress Israel." But now that the election, which has been bereft of issues and debate-free (not a single one has been scheduled between any of the principal contenders), is heating up, watch for some surprises. I'll try to highlight some of these surprises in the coming days.

Take this weekend: the most recent former heard of the General Security Service (known in Hebrew as shabak - think of the FBI with spycraft and special ops) gave an interview published Friday in Israel's largest circulation daily newspaper, in which he labelled Netanyahu and outgoing Defense Minister Ehud Barak as unfit to lead the nation. We've heard these complaints from other former Israeli intelligence chiefs - but the gravitas of Yuval Diskin's critique is a carefully timed body blow to Netanyahu's carefully messaged narrative of a strong national leader.

Will Diskin's charges have any effect on the undecideds? There are new and untested parties and political figures in the hunt, and thus there is no historical data for predicting how Israeli voters will respond to reading yet again of credible doubts concerning their current PM. Unfortunately, there has yet to emerge any Nate Silver-like authority who has an accurate read of voter preferences, and historically, pre-election polls are often wildly off the mark.

So I'll simply put it this way: it's time to start paying attention to the campaign. All the electoral verities of the last 2-1/2 months are melting away in the harsh light of the looming election scheduled for January 22.

Election Day may yet turn out to be an easy rout for Netanyahu. But don't lay odds just yet. The game has finally begun.