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Netanyahu's Election Dilemmas 2013

30  January 2013

By Yisrael Ne'eman.


In Israel's January 22, 2013 elections PM Benyamin Netanyahu's Likud Betainu Party were the victors, but lost much ground to the middle and left in the Israeli political spectrum. Netanyahu will continue as prime minister but it is doubtful he will push forward with the same right wing – religious coalition. Technically he can, but such a move would be interpreted as defying the "people's will" for change. Israel's 120 member Knesset (parliament) is elected proportionally. Citizens vote for a political party running a list of candidates and the percentage of votes acquired entitles each party to a certain number of Knesset representatives. For instance with 10% of the vote Party A' would get 12 MKs (members of Knesset), while 15% would constitute 18 MKs for party B'. Last time (2009) the Likud had 27 MKs or 22.5% of the vote. This time in alliance with the Yisrael Betainu faction they took 31 seats or almost 26% of the vote.

So how are the Likud and secular right weakened, and what are Netanyahu's options? In 2009 the former foreign minister Avigdor Leiberman's Yisrael Betainu took 15 seats or 42 MKs when counted together with the Likud. In 2013 they ran on a unified list but polling 11 seats less as compared to four years ago. The ultra orthodox (haredi) Shas and United Torah Judaism parties had 17 seats last time and 18 at present (Shas 11, UTJ 7). In 2009 the national religious representatives totaled 7 (Jewish Home 3 and National Union 4). Today under the youthful rising star Naftali Bennet the Jewish Home (Bayit Yehudi) took 12 after unifying most of the national religious camp. The 2009 right/religious bloc numbered 66 while today they total 61 still enough for a coalition out of 120 MKs but a shaky one at that especially since there are special interests among the smaller factions and any singular MK can hold the government hostage to his demands since the coalition (and government) majority will be dependent on every individual.

Last time the left polled 16 seats total – quite a dismal showing. Labor under Ehud Barak took 13 and the staunch left wing Meretz faction managed 3. The situation only got worse when the Labor party split and Barak carried 5 of the 13 into the now defunct Independence group which remained in the government when the other 8 in Labor pulled out. Today under party chairwoman Shelly Yachimovitch Labor totals 15 and Zahava Galon's Meretz doubled to 6. A still not impressive 21 but greatly improved over last time. Labor and Meretz have sworn themselves to the opposition citing irreconcilable differences with the Likud. They also realize that for the left to ever regain power they must continue rebuilding in the opposition.

The big story concerns the Israeli center. Kadima, originally formed under PM Ariel Sharon in 2005 and led by Tzippi Livni in 2009 garnered 28 mandates but shattered after non-stop infighting prior to the recent elections. Former army chief of staff Shaul Mofaz sank the party to 2 seats in one of Israel's greatest election disasters ever. The centrist vote did not disappear but went mostly to two other factions. Livni lost control of Kadima but formed her own following in Hatnuah and polled 6 seats while the upstart Yair Lapid took 19 mandates in his newly formed Yesh Atid (There is a Future) faction. Having tapped into secular middle class discontent Lapid is the biggest story of these elections especially since the 2011 social protest movement was accused of being cover for the left wing opposition to attack the government. Many would claim that adding up the mandates of the three center parties results in 27 MKs vs. Kadima's 28 from the 2009 elections does not really show a shift in perspective. The difference is that Livni and Mofaz emphasized foreign policy and security accordingly while Lapid pitched on domestic issues. A dashingly handsome former journalist and news broadcaster with a black belt in karate Lapid is respected for his astute analysis of the Israeli political scene. He is also the son of the ardently secular late Tommy Lapid who built the Shinui faction into 15 seats in 2003, joined Ariel Sharon's second government and was instrumental in revamping Israel's economy in wake of the Low Intensity Conflict with the Palestinians (Second Intifada) from 2000-04.

Tommy Lapid was the bane of the haredi factions, Shas and UTJ. Not only did they remain in the opposition from 2003-06 but much of their funding was cut, thanks not only to the elder Lapid's Shinui but let's not forget that Netanyahu was finance minister. Today's PM prefers to smooth things over with these two ultra orthodox coalition partners while Yair Lapid owes them nothing and ran on a platform of "equality for all with everyone pulling their weight" meaning the haredi populations will be expected to work, pay taxes and serve in the army. As opposed to his father Tommy he is willing to take a more gradual approach but not one that advocates "some time in the future".

To round out the picture there are the Arab factions, very much representing Arab world politics and the specific predicament of Israeli Arabs or as many refer to themselves "Palestinian Arabs with Israeli citizenship". The veteran Communist party polled 4 seats, the United Arab/Arab National list (RAM/TAL) took another 4 and Balad 3. The veteran secular Communists believe in a two-state solution and advocate socialism. RAM/TAL unifies Islamists with secular Arab nationalists, two very different factions in today's Arab world but in Israel they have more in common than not when opposing Israel as a Jewish State. Former Arafat advisor Ahmed Tibi is their most well known MK. Balad (Land) represents secular Ba'ath pan-Arab thinking and at times takes an even harsher stance against the State of Israel. Their most infamous daughter is Hanin Zuabi who accompanied the Mavi Marmara Islamists who attempted to break the Gaza blockade in May 2010. The Arab factions totaled 11 in 2009 and again in 2013.

So the victorious Netanyahu faces a dilemma. Should he continue with the right/religious coalition or break towards the center? The former would prove much easier but leave him in the clutches of the haredi parties with their continual demands for army draft deferments by the tens of thousands, continued mass government support for yeshiva education (no secular or Zionist narrative), major housing subsidies and as far as UTJ is concerned – a still questionable alliance with a party that does not fully recognize the State of Israel. The Jewish Home or in essence national religious party demands partial annexation of Judea and Samaria (West Bank), opposes a Palestinian State and advocates expanding settlements and construction new ones. Such stances are a foreign policy disaster when confronting Europe and the Obama administration in Washington.

Should Netanyahu take in Yesh Atid and Lapid? He is said to be leaning in that direction but such a move only brings him to 50 MKs. Even Livni's Hatnuah and Mofaz's Kadima do not put him over the top at 61. It is said he can take in the Jewish Home party (12) and he has 62 or Shas (11) and arrive at 61. In both cases he could add Kadima (2) but that does not get him far enough. Livni's party is far too small to help and she demands a diplomatic initiative with PA President Mahmoud Abbas to arrive at the long awaited two-state solution. She is already signed on much of the solution secretly negotiated up until 2009, making an alliance here quite difficult. But the problem is now inside the Likud. The 2013 list is far more hawkish and settlement oriented than the outgoing Likud MKs. Livni is a direct challenge to Netanyahu and the party she left when Kadima was established.

On the domestic policy front everyone knows unemployment is rising well above the 7% mark (not including another close to 2% of haredi men who study as a full time profession and are supported by the state) and the state deficit is some 40 billion shekels, NIS 14 billion needing to be cut immediately in 2013. Israel was riding a wave of 4 – 5% annual growth in 2011 which has slowed dramatically. 40% of Israel's exports are high tech now being badly battered by the euro zone and American fiscal crises. The world recession is washing up on Israel's shores. Lapid will demand monies be cut from the haredim but altogether we could arrive at a billion shekel or so if the ultra orthodox are fully squeezed. Other funds come from raising taxes (Value Added and income tax), something he is loathe to support as Israel's pressured middle class will once again bear the burden and he could be signing off on his own demise. The 2012 state budget was 365.9 billion shekels ($97.5 billion) of which the defense establishment took NIS 50.6 billion. This is the place to cut but everyone is afraid of Iran, another Palestinian uprising/border clash with Gaza or a spillover of the increasingly anarchical Islamic Awakening (Arab Spring) across Israel's borders – most probably from Syria/Hezbollah either with Tehran's blessings or without. And let us not forget that if the Jihadis win in Syria, Israel will be confronted by a new Hamas on the Golan front but quite possibly with chemical weapons.

The betting is that Netanyahu and Lapid will form the next government but there is less agreement as to who else will join. Netanyahu needs either Shas or Jewish Home (national religious) but in either case major disagreements arise either over the haredi agenda or settlements. It is said he prefers Shas as they will be more pliable. But Yesh Atid and Lapid cannot compromise on subsidies for the haredim and survive with their constituency.

It will be extremely difficult to construct a coalition but in the end it will be done. Compromises will involve major disappointments but with the 2013 state budget to pass, economic downturn on its way and continuing external threats, this next year in Israel will be anything but boring.