Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Benjamin Netanyahu, the next PM of Israel

Crunch the polling numbers any way you want - the inevitable outcome, barring a seismic shift in Israeli voter sentiment over the course of the next 50 days, will be a government headed by current Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Two days remain before final party lists are published, and I can imagine yet another "surprise" joining together of currently separated lists. But barring that, we have the broad contours of the Israeli electorate in the winter of 2015. I think we're looking at a variation of the 2009 Israeli elections, in which Netanyahu's Likud came in second place, but still formed the government.

The best poll averaging web site is Project 61. Seven weeks out, the renamed Labor party - now calling itself "the Zionist Camp" - leads with a projected 25 seats. Netanyahu's Likud party comes in a close second, at 23. The remaining 60% of legislative seats are divided, in descending order, between right-wing, religious, centrist, Arab, and left-wing parties.

As in 2009, the winning party will not be called on to form a government. That task will fall to the leader who can convince Israel's President Ruvi Rivlin that he has the best shot to form a government. And that leader will be Netanyahu.

Take the long view. I've gone back 7 Knesset elections back to 1992, and broken down the political parties into 4 blocs: 1) secular-right-national; 2) secular-center-left; 3) religious-ultra-Orthodox; and 4) Arab. When the secular-center-left bloc gets above 49, it forms a government. It takes 43 seats for the secular-right-national bloc to form the government. According to Project 61, we're at 37 for the secular-right-national and 38 for the secular-center-left. No one has crossed the threshold for a certainty.

The newly united Arab parties' list is not a factor in coalition politics, because all Zionist players consider the Arab parties treyf. So in fact a leader must get to 61 from the remaining 107 seats.

The growing religious-ultra-Orthodox bloc will hold the key. It might surprise you, but various components of this bloc could go either way - it all depends on what is offered party leaders in the inevitable coalition negotiations that will ensue after elections.

One caveat - I think the polling numbers for Bennett's Bayit Yehudi party are too high.

Netanyahu will have two different paths to the required 61 seat majority in the Knesset. Most likely, he will attempt a so-called "national unity government." Despite the acrimony of the current election campaign (oftentimes quite personal), never underestimate the desire of Israeli politicians to have delivered to them control of massive governmental bureaucracies. I could easily imagine a secular center-right coalition made up of Likud, Zionist Camp, Avigdor Lieberman's Yisrael Beytenu, and Moshe Kahalon's new Kulanu party, for a total of 64 seats. Some of these parties could be dismissed for religious parties and still maintain a semblance of "national unity."  And if the "unity" fever becomes strong, one could imagine a not particularly stable government of over 75 seats. This unwieldy scenario would be the best outcome for hopes of holding in abeyance any military misadventure with Iran because of serious disagreements within the unity umbrella. But it would mean continued stalemate with the Palestinians, with a government of Israel torn internally on how to best move forward. One governmental crisis and the whole thing would collapse.

Or Bibi can go the "hard-right" route. Here he works with right-wing, religious, and ultra-Orthodox parties, with Avigdor Lieberman's dwindling Yisrael Beytenu vanity party. He would have 62-69 seats this way.  Then the chances of a military attack on Iran go way up, and re-energized opposition to any American-brokered diplomatic path to resolving Palestinian claims becomes the norm.

Another good web site is batelbe60.com. They try to "Nate Silver" the election polling, and they come up with similar results. While they don't break up the parties into the same blocs that I do, they argue that the current numbers give a very high chance for the formation of a national unity government, either secular or with some ultra-Orthodox components. Next would come a not too impossible center-left government, with some ultra-Orthodox. Least likely would be a hard-right religious ultra-Orthodox government. Impossible would be a center-left secular government.

What is abundantly clear is that these elections are a waste of everyone's time - and that just may be the point. It may have seemed to Netanyahu in December that a rearrangement of the political deck-chairs on the Titanic was in order. Or it may have seemed a convenient way to take a pause from dealing with Israel's security and domestic problems. Either way, the systemic and incapacitating divisions of the Israeli electorate remain. Nothing has changed: the Israeli electorate is as divided as ever, creeping to the right and towards God.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

King Bibi, Messiah Bibi

The furor over Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's shock-and-awe campaign for stricter sanctions against Iran took a new turn this week when US Speaker of the House John Boehner dropped a diplomatic bombshell: Netanyahu would be invited to deliver a speech to a joint session of Congress on March 3, in defiance of the Obama White House. Truth be told, the invitation had been negotiated in a closely-held round of talks between Boehner's office and the Israeli ambassador to Washington, Ron Dermer. On the day of the announcement, Dermer had held a two hour meeting with US Secretary of State John Kerry, and uttered not a word about the pending trip.
In Israel, the surprise announcement has been roundly criticized in the media and amongst Netanyahu's political opponents, but it remains to be seen how the ploy will play with Netanyahu's base and with undecided voters in national elections to be held exactly two weeks after the speech. Even Dan Margalit, columnist for Israel Hayom - the Sheldon Adelson-financed free newspaper which many identify as an organ for Netanyahu's amen corner - criticized the timing and stylistics of what otherwise Margalit regards as a just cause.
In the United States, the Republicans are crowing over the poke-in-the-eye delivered to a President they believe coddles the dithering and duplicitous Iranians. Democrats are furious with Netanyahu, and the White House can hardly contain its anger. American Jews are collectively wringing their hands, No less an Israel supporter than Abe Foxman has called the invitation "ill-advised."
Time Magazine once proclaimed Netanyahu "King Bibi." But I think he is going for something more. When, I asked myself, was the last time a Jew has traveled to the Emperor's doorstep to admonish the Emperor? It's been nearly 750 years since a Jew challenged the reigning hegemon of his day. In 1280 the Jewish mystic Abraham Abulafia travelled to Rome to convert Pope Nicholas III to Judaism. The Pope was at his palace in Soriano, and defying a threat to be burned at the stake, Abulafia traveled to the castle, and was immediately placed under arrest for his insolence, and was ordered to be put to death for his outrage. Only when learning that the Pope himself died was Abulafia released, and from there he went on to Sicily to pronounce himself Messiah. Abulafia, who has left us dozens of books, some of an autobiographical nature, soon disappeared from the historical record. To this day we do not know the precise date of his death. As with all false messiahs, he didn't deliver.
Is that the new role that Netanyahu is taking on for himself? Netanyahu's father was a medieval historian, his brother a lionized martyr from the 1976 Entebbe raid. Netanyahu sees himself on an historic mission to deliver his nation from an Iranian nuclear armageddon. He is a Prime Minister soon to be reelected and to thereby become the longest-serving Prime Minister in Israeli history, even outdistancing the historic founder David Ben-Gurion.
Is Bibi maneuvering to something more than King of the Jewish state? Is he going for the ultimate crown?
This won't end well.