Monday, February 09, 2009

Israeli Election Primer

Reading the Canadian papers online concerning the Israeli election is like reading a primer on ignorance. So I will try to take a very complex election and make it simple. The Israeli (parliament) Knesset is based on representation by population. The number of seats any party receives is determined by the total votes cast for that party. Party ‘A’ receives 15% of the total votes cast and will therefore be allotted the equivalent of 15% of the total 120 seats available in the Knesset. Israeli political parties come up with lists detailing which members will represent them given the percentage of votes cast their way.

The party leader always has the first spot and how any given candidate assumes a place on the party list varies from party to party. Some do it by a membership vote by the party, others have the leader of the party appoint candidates, and still others use a mix of both. For instance, Likud leader Binyamin Netanyahu got into trouble for allowing the Likud membership to vote on the list but when Moshe Feiglin was returned high on the list Netanyahu decided to circumvent the process rationalizing Feiglin’s nationalist stance would cause Likud to bleed votes to Kadima or Labor, hence the fudging of the lists.

Firstly, throw out everything you think ‘right-wing, left-wing, conservative and liberal stand for in a Canadian political context. Almost without exception, all Israeli parties fall on the left side of the Canadian political spectrum. Yes, even the so-called right-wing parties like Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu are still left on our political centre and are the Canadian equivalent of the Liberal party. What separates these two parties is not so much economic theory but their stances national security, the peace process, citizenship, and religious/secular values.

One of the true divides of Israeli political parties is religion or the lack of. Here’s an interesting tidbit. Shas stands approximately at the same point on the political left as the Israeli Labor party. The true separation between both parties has more to do with their belief in how religion should or should not determine how the state is run. Shas is an orthodox Charedi religious party while Labor is secular in nature. Shas’ political leader is Eli Yishai but Shas spiritual leader is Rabbi Ovadia Yosef. If Rabbi Yosef issues a directive, no one in Shas, including the party leader, will take a position contrary to Rabbi Yosef’s directive.

Traditionally, in western democracies Labor parties are said to represent the interests of working men and women but the Israeli Labor party today tends to attract the progressive intelligentsia of Israeli society while Likud, Shas, National Union, and Yisrael Beiteinu can be considered to more rightly representative of the interests of average working class Israelis. Here is another little quirk, communist parties, in most western style democracies are marginal groups at the best of times with a distinctly irrelevant aura; however, in Israel, not only is there one communist party but many and it gets more face time to promote its ideas in the Israeli media than you would find in ten years of Mondays in the media of any other western style country.

It’s been years since one political party has been able to capture more than 50% of the vote so coalition governments are the norm. The current coalition administration is lead by Kadima, the party Ariel Sharon founded after his break with the Likud party, although he never lead the party in an election. The Prime Minister is currently Ehud Olmert, but the leader of Kadima is Tzippi Livni, currently the Foreign Minister, who was chosen by Kadima to lead the party in Tuesday’s election.

Kadima was populated by a series of political opportunists drawn mostly from the ranks of Labor and Likud as well as a few other smaller parties in Israel. Kadima is commonly described as being in the political centre of Israeli leftism and Kadima was founded with much fanfare and excitement drawn from mostly secular ranks but its record of accomplishment has been hampered by general to rank incompetence and scandal upon scandal. It is committed to principle of establishing a two-state solution per the ‘Road Map’. The most important policy issues in this election are the continuing negotiations with the Palestinian Authority as per the Road Map, and instituting civil marriage and burial in Israel.

Currently, Kadima is trailing second in polls to Likud which brings me to the Likud-Ahi ticket. Binyamin (Bibi) Netanyahu is the current Likud-Ahi leader and this time round Likud has entered into a coalition with the Ahi party. Netanyahu, while a favourite for making Israel’s case aboard (especially in the Anglo media circuit) his record as Prime Minister was dismal and is credited for giving up majority control of the ancient Jewish city of Hebron, and second holiest place in Judaism to Arafat and the Palestinian Authority. Despite this, Likud remains a potent mix of the religious and secular elements and truly one of the last great tents in Israeli politics.

The party platform consists of being committed to negotiate peace with a Palestinian leadership ‘not compromised by terror’ which means I don’t know who they will actually negotiate with. An economic plan of fiscal well-being for the Palestinian Authority in the hope the Palestinians can be bribed from committing acts of political terrorism, and continued economic reforms of the Israeli government. Likud has also committed to the refusal to divide Jerusalem, the undivided capital of Israel, as well as any dismantlement of any major settlement blocs in the disputed territories. Currently, Likud-Ahi is favoured to win the election but what to watch for is how many seats over 30 Likud will win. Thirty is the current high for Bibi’s party which isn’t the strongest showing given the general Israeli malaise with both Kadima and Labor parties.

This brings me to Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel is Our Home) and the projected third runner up and potential kingmaker – a position usually held by Shas. Yisrael Beiteinu is lead by a rather brash and sometimes abrasive for Avigdor Lieberman. Check out my ‘Fun with Lieberman’ label which has been detailing the kind of antics that has sent progressive and Arab heads exploding in Israel for years. There are those who assume I am a natural Yisrael Beiteinu supporter being a self-declared Zionist but Yisrael Beitinu is not the natural home for anyone with religious sensibilities or a belief in Zion. Yisrael Beiteinu support traditionally was drawn from the Former Soviet Union citizens but in this election we are seeing support coming from outside the FSU community but still very little support exists from any of the national religious camps in the YB ranks.

I suspect his appeal lies in Israelis choosing to follow their basest instincts due to a number of converging factors such as a rather dramatic escalation in the number of attacks and a growing lawlessness emanating from the Israeli-Arab community. Israelis are tired of feeling like victims while their government twiddles its thumbs impotently and Lieberman is perceived as nobody’s victim and a tough guy able to stand up equally to the Israeli Arab and international community. One crucial party platform calls for a population/land exchange which would see the large settlement blocs in the disputed territories exchanged with large blocs of Israeli Arabs land within Israel. While the international community cringes at Israel Beiteinu peace and land exchange policies Kadima party leader Tzippi Livni is widely reported as saying the Israeli Arabs 'must find their national solution elsewhere’ last December.

All ties with the Gaza Strip will be cut and any acts of aggression would be met with massive retaliation. A citizen’s loyalty oath would be instituted and required of all Israeli citizens. His party would actively lobby for membership in the EU as well as NATO as well as allowing for civil marriage which makes him no friend of the religious.

The fourth runner up brings in Labor lead by Ehud Barak, current Israeli Defense Minister. My how the mighty have fallen can best describe the political fortunes of the current Labor party. Ehud Barak’s former stint as Prime Minister of Israel is perceived as an even greater disaster than Bibi’s. Even the current party platform reeks of yesterday’s half-baked ideas. A commitment to the Saudi peace plan (with revisions) as a basis for negotiating with the Palestinians and a promise to reach a negotiated settlement within two years as well as reaching a negotiated settlement with the Syrians. Labor will use all legitimate means to ensure Iran’s international isolation, with an eye to ending Iran’s nuclear threat. On the home front, Labor will work on behalf of senior citizens by increasing pensions and increasing the safety of long-term savings. Talk about blowing and sucking at the same time and so it is no coincidence that home of the traditional progressive intelligentsia has deserted Labor in groves to either hitch its wagon to Kadima or the Hadash party.

Time is short so I am ending my primer for now and will update it tonight with a profile on the smaller political parties ahead of Tuesday’s election result.

The Update:

Having highlighted the four major parties involved in Tuesday's election it is time to turn to the minor parties.

Shas – Former kingmaker of Israeli politics has been allegedly uprooted by Lieberman's Yisrael Beiteinu. Shas is described as an 'ultra'-Orthodox Sephardi community party officially lead by Eli Yishai but 'spiritually' mentored/directed by Rabbi Ovadia Yosef. Shas is a left-wing religious party whose whole rationale for being is to support and protect the Sephardic way of life. It is commonly held belief in Israeli politics that Shas' vote on any given issue can be had - provided one can meet the price Shas will extract.

Shas is currently against making any significant territorial concessions to the Palestinians or dividing Jerusalem. Shas believes all government policies should be based on strict adherence to Jewish law and is in favour of higher state pay-outs to large families as well as increased funding for religious schools. Recently, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef has taken to issue a set of rather harsh directives against Yisrael Beiteinu, and he has even gone so far as to suggest it is innately sinful to vote Yisrael Beiteinu. Furthermore, if Yisrael Beiteinu is returned with any kind of strength the country's grocers will be forced to sell pork and Israelis of all stripes will be forced to pray in churches. While it would be easy to suggest Shas is undergoing a case of sour groups for being displaced as the kingmaker in Israeli politics, Shas does have a point, in that the incredibly secular Yisrael Beiteinu, is seeking a rather profound change in the nature of the world’s only Jewish state.

Meretz – no outline of Israeli political parties would be complete without mentioning the premier Communist party of Israel. Meretz is a completely secularly party which favors direct negotiates with the Palestinians, a dismantling of the settlements and a withdrawal from the disputed territories. It also wishes to accept any non-orthodox conversions and an acceptance of patrilineal descent as a valid determination as a source of ‘Jewishness’. It carries the traditional social justice agenda. Meretz has fallen on hard times lately among progressive circles and the ranks are now full of aging hippies while all the cool, hip progs have been increasing drawn to the ranks of Hadash and the Green party.

Since the Green parties world wide are fairly indistinguishable from each other and the current polling trend for the Meimad (Green party) is zero; I am not going to waste any more words on them.

United Torah Judaism. The Ashkenazi Anti-Zionist Charedim version of Shas without the political expertise, savvy or number clout to be relevant. Enough said.

Habayit HaYehudi – The Jewish Home party replaces the National Religious zionist party. The party platform is against any further withdrawals from the disputed territories. Stands against the creation of a Palestinian state and wants to strengthen both the state and religious education system. Not much to say really other than it could easily fit into a Likud lead coalition.

Gil or the Pensioners Party. The whole point of the Gil party is to increase funding and highlighting the needs of Israeli seniors. Gil burst on the scene in the last election and would be a fit with either a Kadima or Likud lead coalition. As far as I can determine, the pollsters are suggesting Gil will not be able to hold onto any of their current mandates.

The Hadash party is where all the cool, hip progressive leftie Jews go to hand out with progressive cool, hip Israeli Arabs who have left the traditional socialistic Arab parties. Standard progressive platforms, with the exception of wanting to completely dismantle the Jewish character of the Israeli state and replace it with a completely secular one. One Love people - except for religious Jews among us.

This brings me to the Arab parties. First off is the United Arab List which is a combination of 3 Arab parties. The A-List can be characterized as wanting the dismantlement of a Jewish homeland, the complete right of return for all Palestinians refugees from 1948, full withdrawal from the disputed territories and the establishment of a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as the capital.

Balad or the National Democratic Assembly. Honestly, the only difference I can see from the United Arab List is the name. The platforms are so similar that is might as well be the same party. Maybe the difference is some kind of a clan thingy.

Finally, my political home in Israel - Ichud Leumi or National Union party lead by Yaakov “Ketzaleh” Katz. This is where I cheat and post directly from the National Union website.
The Ichud Leumi represents a broad consensus of the Israeli public that believes in the vital importance of safeguarding the security and national heritage of the Jewish people in the Land of Israel. Our list includes candidates from various sectors of the Israeli public united by a shared commitment to the national rights of the Jewish people and the territorial integrity of our ancestral homeland. As the only party that has remained true to the ideals that have always defined Israel’s national camp, we offer our voters a practical platform to continue the Zionist endeavor and create a brighter future for the State of Israel.

There is one more or less fast rule in Israeli politics – the polls are often deceptive. I know of more cases, when the pollsters got it dead wrong than called it right. Why this is, I am not sure. It could be there are far more Israeli voters who are like me. My natural inclination and political sympathies lie with National Union, but if I had a vote to cast in tomorrow's election, I would probably throw my vote at the Likud and hope I was strengthening the national religious element within the Likud party in order to counter Netanyahu's base and worse instincts. Having said that, did I also mention a number of leading Chabad rabbis have endorsed Ichud Leumi? Call it my inner Lubavitcher asserting herself.

Here is the real deal with tomorrow’s election. Likud could very well come in with the majority of mandates, and then, a bit of political hanky-panky goes on behind the scenes and the country ends up with a Kadima coalition lead by Tzippi Livni and backed by Israel Beiteinu. Realistically, and despite Lieberman’s alleged hard edge/right credentials, Israel Beiteinu has more in common with the secular Kadima than the big tent mix of religious and secular hawks in Likud. Of course, there is always the outside chance that Lieberman pulls a rabbit out of his kippah and we all end up saying, “Prime Minister Lieberman.” And that is the great joy of Israeli politics - anything can happen.


Mad Zionist said...

Great analysis of the election. One thing I would take contention with is regarding your theory of voting Likud rather than your ideological home party of Ichud Leumi. After Moshe Feiglin was expelled from 20th on the party list to the wilderness of 36th all reasoning to vote Likud was thrown out the window.

Remember, Bibi will not be dictated to by religious nationals for any reason except one: If he fears he will lose his coalition because a strong nationalist party could withdraw in protest and force him to assemble a new government.

Bibi wants power, and if a strong rightwing is in place he will be forced to take orders. If the NU is meekly represented, Bibi will do as he pleases and march firmly to the left.

Kateland, aka TZH said...

Why would I vote against my principles rather than for them? In one word, Lieberman - and the rise of Israel Beiteinu. The most disastrous coalition government would be another Kadima led coalition. Given Livni leading it, I would expect to see another major war in the near future – an entirely preventable one I might add. Lieberman’s party has poached from Likud, and therefore, weaken the anchor of the right. As his party has risen in the polls, it has shaken Labor voters out of their hubris and made them cross the floor over to Kadima.

And for a some-time religious Zionist, Lieberman – although ‘right-wing’ is far too secular with little attachment to Zion or a divided Jerusalem for me. Its all just ‘land’ to him and he is no friend to the religious, and hence, ultimately part of the problem.

Look, it’s easy for us living in North America to vote. We have very limited choices but with the Israeli system of representation based on population one needs to vote not just one’s principles but strategically as well. Ultimately, if Kadima prevails, it is entirely an issue of Bibi’s own making. This election was his to lose. He was so concerned to create this ‘national centrist coalition’ (in effect, he was fighting the last election ran than fighting the current one) he summarily dumped Feiglin pushed the religious/settler Ludniks away as irrelevant claiming they would cost Likud mandates, when in effect, he would have gained from the other smaller parties for everything he lost and then some. He would have also shown the Likud something valuable, that unlike Sharon, he would not run roughshod over the membership wishes – it would also be a sign he had matured and grown as a leader and learned from his previous hubris. Instead, we were treated to the same old Bibi.

And I agree with you, a too strong showing for Bibi would allow him to create the broad national coalition he discussed early in the campaign...Likud lefties, Kadmina crooks and Labor hacks. Bibi would owe nothing to the religious and could expect no quarter.

By the way, I love the new picture of the Kotel at your sight.