Sunday, January 4, 2015

Watching the Israeli Election 1: Likud and the Pending Nation State Bill

Will Israel, in the long haul, become a modern democratic nation state that protects all of its citizens equally, or will it further develop into an ethnocracy that will forever discriminate against its Palestinian citizens? Will the 4.2 million inhabitants of the Palestinian territories who have suffered under Israeli occupation for the past 48 years ever become citizens, either of Israel, or of an independent Palestinian state?

There will be an election on March 17, 2015 when thirty-two parties will vie for a share of 120 Knesset seats and for political power.  The most significant issue at stake in this election may be the fate of a pending nation state bill that would enshrine the ethnocratic character of the "Jewish state" into its Basic Law.  Enactment of that law would represent a significant commitment by Israel to the continued discrimination against its Palestinian citizens.

Netanyahu claims no policy differences are at stake, that it's all about an effort to consolidate his power to make governing easier. In a recent article in the New York Times, however, Kai Bird, focusing on the pending nation state bill, argues that much is at stake: "Israel’s voters will be forced to confront stark choices about the country’s national identity."  He points to two competing visions for Israel: (1) Israel as an ethnocratic state for Jews (much of reality today), and (2) Israel as a democratic nation state based, in part, on Hebrew and Jewish culture, but that also provides equal rights to its Palestinian citizens and also fosters and protects Palestinian culture (as promised, in part, in the Israeli declaration of independence). 

In which direction will Israel turn? 

For now, it appears Israel will stay the course.  Here is Noam Sheizaf's analysis
These elections are mostly about Netanyahu ..., more than any other issue or person. ... Bibi came out slightly stronger ... following the failure of his opponents in the Likud primaries and his success in blocking the Palestinian move at the UN. Netanyahu’s appeal to the public has to do with an ability to hold on to the status quo at a relatively low cost. A successful Palestinian bid would have angered Israelis but also demonstrated the dead-end Netanyahu’s strategy has reached, thus increasing the appeal of challengers from right and left alike. Given the Palestinian failure, Israelis can go on ignoring the the issue altogether. That is good news for Bibi. ... Netanyahu has more paths to a coalition of 61 MKs [members of Knesset] than Labor’s Isaac Herzog, but not a lot more. However, even if Herzog does manage to form a government, it won’t be a lefty one (like the Rabin government in 1992) but rather a centrist coalition, more closely resembling the one led by Ehud Olmert.

We can only hope that staying the course will mean continuing to hold off on the nation state bill.

Election Basics

In order to qualify for a seat in the Knesset in 2015, a party will have to receive at least 3.25% of the vote--enough for four seats.  Many parties will not clear that threshold.  For example, in the current Knesset there are just thirteen parties with representation. No party currently has more than 19 seats (Likud and Yash Lapid).

Ahead of the March 17 election the registered members of each party will determine its list of candidates to present to voters.  Some of these lists, like Likud's, are determined in a separate primary election, others, like Yesh Atid have party leadership appoint the list.  

In the general election on March 17, voters will cast a single vote for their preferred party. Seats in the Knesset are then awarded to the different parties in accordance with their percentage of the vote.  After the vote, Israel's President, Reuven Rivlin, will grant the party with the best chance of forming a government a 45 day opportunity to do so. [Note: this is not necessarily the party with the most votes]

Likud Primary December 31, 2014

Likud held their intra party election on December 31, 2014.  From Jerusalem Online:
Roughly 55 percent of the Likud's 96,651 registered voters cast three ballots on Wednesday: one for party leader, one for the party's Knesset slate, and one for giving Netanyahu the option of reserving two slots on the list for candidates of his choosing, subject to the approval of party secretary.
Netanyahu was strongly affirmed as party leader with 75% of the vote. He declared himself pleased with the resulting list.  Two of Likud's most extreme members, Tzipi Hotovely and Moshe Feiglin,  have been substantially demoted in the list.  In the meantime, however, the integrity of the vote has been questioned and there will be a recount of many precincts.  So stay tuned.

Here is a closer look at the Likud.

37 Years of Likud Rule

With three brief interruptions [(1992-1996), (1999-2001) and (2006-2009)] Likud has been in power for the past 37 years.  Menachem Begin formed the first Likud government in 1977 with the help of several minor religious parties.  Since then Likud has been in power 75% of the time.

In 1992 Labor, headed by Yitzhak Rabin, interrupted Likud rule with a platform that embraced the Israel-Palestinian peace process.  But Rabin was assassinated by right wing elements opposed to the peace process.  In the period leading up to the assassination, according to Israeli filmmaker Dror Moreh, there was widespread incitement against Rabin and the peace process, including by Benjamin Netanyahu. After Rabin's assassination, Netanyahu led Likud back to power in 1996-99.

In 1999 several prominent Likud MK's split away in light of Netanyahu's apparent willingness to move towards implementation of the Oslo accords.  The government collapsed, and Likud lost the election to Labor led by Ehud Barak, who advanced a platform of immediate settlement of final status issues outlined in the Oslo accords.

By 2000, the Oslo peace process collapsed triggering the Second Intifada and by March 2001 Likud was back in power, this time led by Ariel Sharon. Sharon embarked on a separation strategy with the building of the separation barrier and withdrawal from Gaza. But withdrawal from Gaza proved extremely controversial within Likud, which resulted in Sharon leaving to form a new party (Kadima, joined by many prominent politicians from other parties, including Shimon Peres and Tzipi Livni) for elections to be held in March 2006.  Prior to this election, Sharon suffered a massive stroke and was replaced by Ehud Ohlmert.  Ohlmert and Kadima prevailed in the March 2006 elections, while the Netanyahu led Likud suffered a serious set-back and was relegated to a tie with the religious Shas party for third largest party in the Knesset.

But Likud was not down for long. By 2009 Netanyahu and Likud were back in power.

Likud Policy

Here is the BBC's description of Likud ideology: 
Ideologically, Likud is right-wing and nationalist. It opposed the 1993 Oslo Accord between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organisation. However, in 2009, under pressure from the United States, Mr Netanyahu affirmed his support for a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict with conditions attached. He said: "If we get a guarantee of demilitarisation and if the Palestinians recognise Israel as the Jewish state, we are ready to agree to a real peace agreement."

During the last government, headed by Likud, US-led talks with the Palestinians stalled over the issue of expanding Jewish settlements. Israeli policies in occupied East Jerusalem and the West Bank were a constant source of tension with the Obama administration and European allies. In this election campaign, support for the settlements has remained an important issue for right-wing voters.

The Likud election campaign is also relying heavily on the image of Mr Netanyahu as a strong prime minister. In terms of foreign policy, he has asked the world to draw "a clear red line" over Iran's nuclear programme. In terms of domestic policy, Likud is promising changes to the political system, a law for equality in national military service, economic reforms and a continued focus on security.
The pending nation state bill was introduced by one of Netanyahu's closest allies in the Likud, Zeev Elkin. As noted, this bill would give preference to Israel's Jewish identity over its democratic character. Elkin's bill would abolish Arabic as one of Israel’s official languages, mandate construction of new Jewish communities without requiring similar construction for Arabs, and seriously hamper the ability of the courts to uphold democratic values. Netanyahu vowed to pass this bill, with or without his political partners.

From this vantage point, Kai Bird is right: the pending nation state bill is what's at stake in the Israeli elections, even if Israelis don't seem to be fighting this election on that issue.  

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