Israeli politics just got more complicated

Two Israeli politicians, Ayelet Shaked and Naftali Bennett, announced yesterday that they will leave the party they have led for the past six years and form a new party, called Hayamin Hehadash (The New Right).

Recent polls say Shaked, who is Justice Minister in the present Likud-led coalition, is by far the most popular minister (Hebrew link) in the government, while Bennett, the Education Minister, comes in second.

Shaked and Bennett were formerly members of PM Binyamin Netanyahu’s Likud party, but joined with what was then called the National Religious Party to create the Beit Hayehudi (Jewish Home). The idea was to build a party that would appeal to both secular and religious Israelis on the right side of the spectrum: those who favor Jewish settlement in the territories, oppose a Palestinian state, and are hawkish on security issues.

They didn’t succeed. Although in 2013 Jewish Home got a respectable 12 seats in the Knesset, it dropped to only 8 in 2015. Bennett and Shaked did not succeed in broadening their base in the secular community, and it became clear that they would never have a chance to lead a government as representatives of a purely “religious” party. And as a small minority in Netanyahu’s government, they felt that they had little or no influence on its decisions.

Israeli coalition politics are more complicated than they may look, because a party has to get 3.25% of the vote in order to get into the Knesset at all (if they receive less, the votes may be distributed according to preexisting agreements, or they may simply be lost). There are always parties on the extreme right and left, as well as special-interest parties, which do not pass the threshold.

Ayelet Shaked has distinguished herself as Justice Minister, by working to reduce the extreme left-wing bias of the legal establishment, especially the Supreme Court. Israel does not have a constitution. It does have a series of Basic Laws, one of which deals with the judiciary system. However, the Basic Laws are broad, and interpreted according to legal precedent, often established by the Supreme Court; and I and many others believe the Court has taken for itself far more power than is healthy in a democracy. Naftali Bennett has been very critical of PM Netanyahu on security matters, calling for stronger measures against the rocket and arson attacks from Gaza. He also criticized the government’s failure to deal with the threat from Hamas’ cross-border tunnels prior to the 2014 war.

They will certainly draw votes from those who previously voted for Jewish Home, but their main source of support will have to be from Likud voters. There are some who simply dislike Netanyahu for various reasons but see no reasonable alternative. Some lean right, and would vote for a party to the right of the Likud, but have not wanted to vote for an explicitly religious party. Personally I like the idea of a party that is firmly right-wing on security matters and which can walk the sometimes fine line between respect for Jewish tradition and religious coercion.

Until now Netanyahu’s poll numbers have been solid, but he faces a concerted media and legal campaign against him. He is accused of corruption on four separate matters (which, in my opinion, are either picayune or politics as usual). The police and state prosecutor have recommended that he be indicted on three of them, and the decision is in the hands of Israel’s Attorney General, Avichai Mandelblit. Every time Netanyahu or his wife is interrogated by the police, the subject matter of the interrogation is leaked to the media, which gleefully reports it. There are demonstrations in front of the home of the Attorney General, calling on him to indict Netanyahu, and a demonstrator even followed Mandelblit to a synagogue where he was saying Kaddish for his mother.

The PM says that even if he is indicted, he will not resign, and that the law does not require him to. On the other hand, there is no doubt that if it happens, his opponents will challenge his right to keep his job in court. It is impossible to predict exactly what will happen, but the idea that somehow Netanyahu could be knocked out, leaving an opening for the Left to come in, is frightening for the majority of Israelis – who believe that the Left is not only incompetent but positively dangerous.

Some who are critical of the decision of Bennett and Shaked to start a new party raise the specter of 1992. In 1992, a very close election ended up with a coalition of the Left in power, after several small right-wing parties did not make the cut to enter the Knesset (at that time, the cutoff was 1.5% of the vote). Both the technical issue of the cutoff and the political problems caused by dissention on the Right led to Rabin’s left-wing coalition and the Oslo accords – a disaster from which the nation has yet to recover.

Netanyahu effectively used the fear of another 1992 to convince voters in the last election (2015) to vote for the Likud rather than Jewish Home, despite the fact that Bennett promised to support Netanyahu in coalition negotiations, and despite surplus vote sharing arrangements that keep votes for marginal parties from being lost. Regardless, a unified Right is more likely to succeed than a fragmented one, and I know several people who voted for Netanyahu while preferring Bennett in their hearts.

Where Bennett and Shaked’s new party could change the equation is if it can draw voters from the center – from parties like Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid, Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu, or the new centrist parties started by Orly Levy-Abekasis or former chiefs of staff Benny Gantz and Moshe Ya’alon.

The constellation of parties is still fluid, and I’m sure the pollsters are feverishly trying out all of the combinations. My dream is a strong coalition, firmly on the right on matters of security, but without the Haredi (“ultra-Orthodox”) parties. Although it is true that around 12% of Israelis identify as Haredim and certainly deserve a voice in governance, in my opinion the Haredi parties have proven to be excessively narrowly focused on immediate benefits for their constituents, and too ready to sacrifice the good of the nation for those interests. The recent struggle over national service for Haredim is an example.

But at this point nothing is certain, except that on April 9, I and my fellow citizens will go to the polling place (it’s an official holiday), show our national ID card, and place a pre-printed paper ballot in a box. Humans will count the ballots. There won’t be any chads, hanging or otherwise. And in 2015, about 76.1% of voting-age Israelis voted in national elections.

It could be better, but compared to the US, where turnout was only 55.7% in the hard-fought 2016 contest, that’s not bad at all.

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3 Responses to Israeli politics just got more complicated

  1. MrCohen says:

    Victor Rosenthal said:

    “Ayelet Shaked has distinguished herself as
    Justice Minister, by working to reduce the
    extreme left-wing bias of the legal establishment…”

    my personal response:

    Since Ayelet Shaked is doing very good work as
    Justice Minister, it is logical for her to remain in
    her current job, so she can continue her good work.

    Maybe I am wrong about that. What would Spock say?


    Mr. Daniel Byman said:

    “…roughly half of Palestinians say it
    [suicide bombing] is at least sometimes justified…”

    SOURCE: Al Qaeda, the Islamic State,
    and the Global Jihadist Movement: What Everyone
    Needs to Know
    (chapter 3, page 56)
    by Daniel Byman, Oxford University Press, year 2015,
    ISBN: 019021726X (paperback) ISBN: 9780190217266
    (paperback) ISBN: 0190217251 ISBN: 9780190217259


    Mr. Dennis Prager said:

    “According to Pew Research, approximately
    10 percent of world Muslims have a favorable
    opinion of the Islamic State and terror against
    civilians. That’s more than 100 million people.”

    SOURCE: The World Is Getting Worse
    But This Time America Won’t Save It

    by Dennis Prager, 2016 March 8,
    seen in Jewish World Review

  2. Shalom Freedman says:

    There seems no one on the same level as Netanyahu. On the other hand there seems to me something not alright about his being in power so long, and his having assumed so many different cabinet positions. The impression that he and he alone can lead Israel does not suggest that Israel is an enduring enterprise. His cozy game with the Haredim have cost Israel in a number of different ways, also in terms of its relation with the wider Jewish world.
    Still I do not at present see an attractive alternative. Bennett and Shaked are two great favorites of mine and they are a distinct possibility. But as you indicate too much is up in the air at the moment to really know what the scene will be like on election day.

  3. Hava Goldman says:

    You wrote, “in my opinion the Haredi parties have proven to be excessively narrowly focused on immediate benefits for their constituents, and too ready to sacrifice the good of the nation for those interests. The recent struggle over national service for Haredim is an example.”

    Another example is the United Torah Judaism party (UTJ) voting FOR the “disengagement” in 2005! I found the following at the Israel Democracy Institute (IDI):

    “…United Torah Judaism was a member of the coalition government that carried out the disengagement from the Gaza Strip. The party does tend to support the right-wing camp, however, because that camp tends to have a more conservative outlook on religious issues.”

    UTJ likes the right because it is religiously more in line with them, but it seems they have been left when it comes to things like giving land away — definitely against the nation’s interests as a whole. They call themselves “centrist.” You’ll note that the coalition that makes them up has been there since 1992 – a year before the infamous Oslo Accords – that should tell you something, too.

    It just seems to me that truly Torah-observant Jews and their political parties should be united for the keeping of land in the hands of a state of the Jews, not breaking off pieces for the sake of money for their Torah scholars (if I remember correctly, that is what swayed the party’s choice to be in the coalition, and thus its vote, supporting your statement above.). After all, if an evil king of Israel (Omri) could add the city of Samaria to the Land and get G-d’s reward for it, how much more would good Jews get for keeping, or adding back, land that is reserved for us and that we’ve already lived on – in real history, not fake-news “history”!

    But, to my chagrin, too many people who call themselves “tremblers before G-d” don’t think that way. And that hurts the entire Israeli polity, despite their small size and the proportion of votes they hold.

    UPDATE: UTJ is considering splitting into its two components in the wake of the Zionist Union breakup:

    A belated happy 5779!

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