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Israel’s Political Circus In Full Swing

The Knesset

The Knesset

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On October 15, the Knesset voted unanimously to dissolve itself. Elections will be held on January 22, 2013. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu decided to take the step after realizing he could not obtain a majority for his proposed budget.

The weeks since the announcement have been characterized by several unexpected maneuvers, most of which have not yielded anything of substance.

There were initial efforts to build a center-left party led by former prime minister Ehud Olmert which would include his two successors at the helm of the Kadima Party, Tzipi Livni and present leader Shaul Mofaz, as well as political newcomer Yair Lapid. The latter, a well-known media figure, founded a new party called Yesh Atid (“There is a Future”).

A Jerusalem Post poll gave the imaginary mega-party 31 seats, well ahead of the Likud’s projected 22.

Olmert began to check into the possibility of a return to politics. He had resigned in 2008 in the wake of corruption allegations against him. This year he became the first Israeli prime minister condemned by a court of law, which found him guilty of breach of trust.

The condemnation did not include moral turpitude, which would have prevented Olmert from running for the Knesset. But he is still involved in another court case, concerning bribery by real estate developers.

Sources close to Livni said she was considering a political comeback as head of a new party. But an Israel Radio poll on October 30 found that Labor Party leader Shelly Yachimovich is the preferred leader of the center-left, well ahead of Olmert, Livni, Mofaz and Lapid.

Kadima won 28 seats in the February 2009 elections – one more than the Likud. Kadima joined the Netanyahu government in May of this year, a move that prevented early elections. It left the coalition just two months later, however, when Netanyahu refused to introduce full conscription for haredi men.

Public support for Kadima crumbled almost immediately, creating many floating voters in the center-left arena.

Surprisingly, a major development came on the right side of the political spectrum. Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, leader of Israel Beiteinu, announced that they had agreed on a merger of their parties.

Some saw it as a panicked reaction on the part of Netanyahu to those center-left discussions about establishing a party that might possibly overtake Likud. Others interpreted it as Netanyahu’s determination that the center-right bloc would form the next government and return him as prime minister.

For Lieberman, being Number Two in the combined party brings him closer to his long-term aim of becoming prime minister. (Both leaders, apparently for different reasons, were willing to sacrifice seats, since party mergers often lead to diminished electoral returns for each of the component parties.)

Popular Likud Minister of Communications Moshe Kahlon initially announced that he would not be a candidate in the next elections. Then he played with the notion of establishing a new party that would emphasize social issues. Polls gave him ten or more seats. When he announced that he had abandoned the idea, there was relief in the Likud and in the ultra-Orthodox Shas Party, which focuses on social issues.

Shas closed ranks when it brought back its former leader, Aryeh Deri, as the party’s Number Two. Ten years after serving out a prison term on bribery charges, Deri was allowed under Israeli law to return to politics.

Other recent developments concerned the introduction by some of the parties of new, name-brand candidates. Yachimovich felt Labor needed more “visible” candidates and lacked a credible defense figure so she hauled in General Uri Saguy, a former military intelligence chief.

Lapid succeeded in attracting former domestic intelligence head Yaakov Perry, who has also enjoyed a successful business career.

Several Kadima parliamentarians and senior politicians jumped ship to both Likud and Labor.

A number of polls indicate that the Independence Party of Defense Minister Ehud Barak might just barely pass the threshold or even fail to muster any seats. If that plays out, it would be the most dramatic fall in Israeli parliamentary history.

In Israel, the weeks leading up to an election can feel like quite a long time. One only has to recall that during the previous election campaign Operation Cast Lead in Gaza began and ended.

Party platforms are hardly an issue at the moment and Israeli politics are such that they may not even become so. The elections will probably focus on personalities, as they did the last time around.

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About the Author: Dr. Manfred Gerstenfeld is a board member and former chairman of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs (2000-2012). He is a recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award (2012) of the Journal for the Study of Anti-Semitism.


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