Israeli elections week in review

Israeli reaction to Netanyahu’s speech to Congress

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s address to Congress last Tuesday drew mixed response from Israeli politicians and journalists that primarily broke down along partisan lines. Several members of the security establishment issued particularly vocal critiques, including Meir Dagan, former chief of the Mossad. At a campaign event shortly after Netanyahu’s speech, Labor’s chairman Isaac (“Bougie”) Herzog told a crowd of supporters that “The painful truth is that after the applause, Netanyahu was left alone. Israel was left isolated. And the negotiations with Iran will continue without Israeli participation.”

Others, including Naftali Bennett, chairman of the Jewish Home Party and the only party leader to travel to Washington with Netanyahu last week, praised the speech, saying that he “gives his full backing to the prime minister,” and that the opposition acted “totally irresponsibly” in response to the speech. Previously Bennett urged Israeli leaders to put politics aside and present a united front in Washington for the prime minister’s address.

Prime Minister Netanyahu responded to the criticism of his speech—from both the Obama administration and from Israelis—asserting that he did offer a viable alternative to terms of the nuclear deal he believes is being negotiated in Geneva.

The latest polls indicate the speech did not provide major gains to Likud.  According to the polls, Likud and the Zionist Union remain in a tight race, with Netanyahu faring slightly better.

Coalition rumor mill

Last Sunday, Yesh Atid Chairman Yair Lapid announced that his party will not join any government that intends to repeal the Haredi draft law, stating that “It is a holy principle that all citizens of the country have the same rights. We will not allow this equality of the burden to be overthrown or shot down.” On Monday Lapid, in a blow to Herzog and the Zionist Union, backtracked on an earlier promise, and announced that Yesh Atid was no longer committed to recommending that the leader of the largest faction form the next government.

Raja Zaatry, spokesman for the Joint Arab List, ruled out joining a left-wing government led by Herzog. In an interview with the Jerusalem Post Monday, Zaatry said that the Joint List “cannot be a part of a government that still occupies our people,” adding that the party would work with Herzog to block Netanyahu from forming the next government.

At a Tel Aviv rally on Tuesday, Shas chairman Aryeh Deri endorsed Netanyahu. Speaking to a 10,000-strong crowd of supporters, Deri proclaimed “We are with you Benjamin Netanyahu. . . We want you as prime minister, but we want you as Bibi-Begin not Bibi-Lapid.”

On Wednesday, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas endorsed the Joint Arab List, stating that “This is not interference [in domestic Israeli politics] . . . it is our right as members of the same nation to [endorse] them.”

On Thursday, Haaretz reported that Moshe Kahlon, founder and chairman of Kulanu, rejected an offer from Yair Lapid for a post-election alliance between the two parties.

In an interview with Army Radio on Wednesday, Defense Minister Moshe (Bogie) Ya’alon said the Likud had not ruled out forming a coalition with the Zionist Union, but stated that the party would not agree to a prime ministerial rotation. In response, Jewish Home Chairman Naftali Bennett warned “Likud wants to establish a government with Buji and Tzipi, and not with [the] Jewish home.” On Thursday, Likud clarified its position, maintaining that there would be no unity government and that, “Prime Minister [Benjamin] Netanyahu will turn to his natural partners, led by Jewish Home, to establish a national government . . .”  Earlier in the week, in an interview with the Haredi Radio Kol Hai, Netanyahu announced his intention to bring the Haredi parties into the next coalition, and pledged to change the Haredi draft law in the next government.

On Friday, Meretz and Labor signed a surplus vote agreement, saving Meretz from possibly failing to pass the Knesset threshold of 3.25 percent.  The Joint List refused to sign a surplus agreement with any party.

Socioeconomic issues take center stage

Following the release of the State Comptroller’s report on Israel’s housing crisis, last Sunday several hundred activists returned to Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv, with protest tents. In an effort to revive protests that swept Israel during the summer of 2011, the organizers said this latest protest was intended to keep the election focused on economic issues.

Yesh Atid and Shas both unveiled economic platforms last week, proposing a series of sweeping reforms. Shas’s platform called for significant changes to the income tax policy, as well as raising the minimum wage. Yesh Atid’s platform introduced an anti-poverty plan that called for increasing the salaries of soldiers performing mandatory service. Last month, the party released a separate platform to address Israel’s housing crisis.

Last Tuesday evening, Israeli television broadcast the first round of campaign commercials. Many focused on socioeconomic issues. In an appeal to secular Israelis, the Haredi party United Torah Judaism released an ad focusing on the Israeli health care system that included women, a first for the party’s commercials. Kulanu released a new campaign video on Tuesday, criticizing Likud for abandoning Israel’s working class and portraying Moshe Kahlon as advancing former Prime Minister Menachem Begin’s legacy of social welfare reform.

Foreign policy

Yesterday, around 40,000 gathered in Tel Aviv in an anti-Netanyahu rally demanding a change in leadership.  Former Mossad chief Meir Dagan, a long-time critic of the prime minister, was the keynote speaker, and levied harsh criticism against Netanyahu for his management of the Iranian nuclear threat, the U.S.-Israel relationship, and of last summer’s war with Hamas.

On Friday, a document was leaked claiming that Netanyahu has offered significant concessions to the Palestinians in August 2013.  Bennett warned that “The masquerade is over.  The next disengagement is already here, and is being led by Likud and by Tzipi Livni,” According to Bennett, “the 2015 elections have become a referendum on forming a Palestine in the ’67 borders,” and that “Without a large Bayit Yehudi [in the next government] this disaster will happen. There will be no one to stop it.”

In an Associated Press interview, Yair Lapid emphasized that Israel’s economy and its diplomatic standing are inextricably linked.  He advocated improving the Israeli economy by pursuing a peace agreement with the Palestinians that is part of a broader deal with the Arab world.

On Wednesday, around 3,000 Jewish and Arab women from across Israel gathered in Jerusalem in a protest organized by the grassroots organization Women Wage Peace. The group formed a chain around the Knesset called on Israel’s leaders to make peace negotiations a priority in the next government.

Other campaign news

In a Jerusalem Post interview with the Jerusalem Post, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman spoke of his desire to change Israel’s electoral system, “I think it’s the problem of our country…Every two years since we established the State of Israel, we have a new government. It’s really a crazy situation.  It’s impossible to handle all the challenges if you change your government every two years.”

A group of Ultra-Orthodox activists protested right-wing activist Baruch Marzel’s merger with Eli Yishai’s Yachad Party, warning of the spread of “Kahanist ideology within the ultra-orthodox community,” and further increase tensions between Israeli Arabs and Jews.

Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu Party is facing a lawsuit over an election ad. The ad wrongly depicted Mohammed Abed, an Arab-Israeli lawyer, as a perpetrator in the 2002 terrorist attack at the Park Hotel in Netanya, that left 30 people killed and dozens injured. Last week Abed filed a police report against Lieberman, and a civil suit against the party.