Commentary Magazine


Topic: Israel Beiteinu

Why Likud Wants to Absorb Israel Beiteinu

The Times of Israel is reporting that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party will merge with Avigdor Lieberman’s Israel Beiteinu party in advance of the January Knesset elections. There are four reasons for this.

First, as I wrote recently, in the 2009 elections Tzipi Livni’s Kadima party won the election by a single seat, but was unable to form a governing coalition, thereby enabling Netanyahu’s Likud, the runner-up, to form the current coalition. Polls have shown that such an outcome could repeat itself in January. However, if the Labor party continues its revival in the polls, it’s possible there would be enough seats to Likud’s left for Kadima to put together a governing coalition, especially if Aryeh Deri’s return to the Orthodox Shas party enables it to drain some votes from Likud, as polls have suggested it might.

Netanyahu wants to avoid any chance of this outcome, and the only way to do that is to win the election outright. Likud and Israel Beiteinu currently have 42 Knesset seats between them.

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The Times of Israel is reporting that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party will merge with Avigdor Lieberman’s Israel Beiteinu party in advance of the January Knesset elections. There are four reasons for this.

First, as I wrote recently, in the 2009 elections Tzipi Livni’s Kadima party won the election by a single seat, but was unable to form a governing coalition, thereby enabling Netanyahu’s Likud, the runner-up, to form the current coalition. Polls have shown that such an outcome could repeat itself in January. However, if the Labor party continues its revival in the polls, it’s possible there would be enough seats to Likud’s left for Kadima to put together a governing coalition, especially if Aryeh Deri’s return to the Orthodox Shas party enables it to drain some votes from Likud, as polls have suggested it might.

Netanyahu wants to avoid any chance of this outcome, and the only way to do that is to win the election outright. Likud and Israel Beiteinu currently have 42 Knesset seats between them.

Second, the looming threat of a dominant Likud victory may ward off an attempted return by Ehud Olmert. Third, Yair Lapid’s new party, Yesh Atid, has finally made clear that it is a rightist party much in the mold of Israel Beiteinu—pro-two state solution but protective of major settlement blocs and a unified Jerusalem, with a secular political outlook. That revelation enables Netanyahu to absorb Israel Beiteinu and replace it with a nearly identical party, thus preserving the structure of the current governing coalition without making any major ideological changes or having to accommodate extraneous parties.

And fourth, demographics. Part of Likud’s success over the years was due to the fact that Mizrahi Jews–Jews from Arab lands, primarily, and their descendants–found a home in Likud. Labor tried clumsily to win them over about five years ago, but failed. Netanyahu is now hoping to secure the loyalty and partisan affiliation of Israel’s Russian immigrant community, which is over 1 million strong and represented by Lieberman and Israel Beiteinu.

Assuming the merger comes through and then the marriage withstands the test of time (and raucous, factional Israeli politics), what would Lieberman get out of this? When I profiled Lieberman and his impact on the Israeli political scene for COMMENTARY in the summer of 2011, I wrote the following:

There is one way in which Lieberman’s political career represents a new paradigm in Israeli politics: he is a heterodox political figure for the 21st century in Israel, a secular nationalist immigrant. His base is within the enormous Russian community, but, unlike previous ethnic politicians, he has interests and goals far more ambitious than bringing home the kosher bacon to his constituents through the use of government largesse. And unlike his predecessors in the ethnic political game, like the Moroccan populist David Levy or the religious Sephardi leader Aryeh Deri, he is playing on a far larger field.

Lieberman wants to be prime minister someday. And he happens to be almost a full decade younger than Netanyahu (Lieberman is only 54). It’s possible Lieberman–whose political instincts have always been vastly underestimated—sees the possibility of inheriting what would be the political party with the largest Knesset vote share since Yitzhak Rabin’s Labor party in 1992, if its electoral success continues at this rate.

But that is looking a bit far into the future. The truth is, such mergers are almost always unstable, and Lieberman has split from Likud before. But the Israeli left will take some encouragement from this if they believe they have spooked Netanyahu into thinking he could lose the January elections after all.

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Israeli Political Parties Find Their Voices

One of the more interesting aspects of the current Israeli political pre-election shuffling is the unsettled nature of every major political party to the left of Likud. Kadima and Labor, the two largest parties outside the current governing coalition, have each been going through identity crises. The third wild card, Yair Lapid’s new Yesh Atid party, has no record and Lapid has no real political experience, leaving the public guessing as to where they fit on the ideological spectrum.

But now, it seems, there is suddenly a great degree of clarity. Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert may be back in court, as the state is strongly considering appealing some of the acquittals in his corruption case, and such legal action may make it impossible for him to run. That would make it much more likely that Tzipi Livni would return to the political stage without having to compete with Olmert. (Though the two reached some sort of agreement not to compete against each other anyway. No one, however, seems to know exactly what that means in practice.) But even more interesting–if not surprising–is the emergence of an identity for Labor and for Lapid’s Yesh Atid.

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One of the more interesting aspects of the current Israeli political pre-election shuffling is the unsettled nature of every major political party to the left of Likud. Kadima and Labor, the two largest parties outside the current governing coalition, have each been going through identity crises. The third wild card, Yair Lapid’s new Yesh Atid party, has no record and Lapid has no real political experience, leaving the public guessing as to where they fit on the ideological spectrum.

But now, it seems, there is suddenly a great degree of clarity. Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert may be back in court, as the state is strongly considering appealing some of the acquittals in his corruption case, and such legal action may make it impossible for him to run. That would make it much more likely that Tzipi Livni would return to the political stage without having to compete with Olmert. (Though the two reached some sort of agreement not to compete against each other anyway. No one, however, seems to know exactly what that means in practice.) But even more interesting–if not surprising–is the emergence of an identity for Labor and for Lapid’s Yesh Atid.

Labor’s new leader, Shelly Yachimovich, has been hinting that her slate of candidates will move Labor to the left and incorporate leaders of Israel’s social protest movement. But it has also been courting the military to burnish the party’s national security credentials. The strategy of moving to the left is, as I wrote last week, a risky one, since the Israeli electorate has moved to the right on the peace process and has been in the habit of punishing Labor at the polls repeatedly.

But the ideological outlook of the party took another step to the left, as Peace Now Executive Director Yariv Oppenheimer announced he’ll run for a seat on the Labor slate. The Jerusalem Post reports:

“In addition to the social agenda, the Labor Party must raise the diplomatic flag and fight against the expansion of settlement construction and waves of anti-democratic legislation that the Israeli Right is leading,” Oppenheimer said after resigning from his post in Peace Now on Monday.

Thus far, Labor leader Shelly Yacimovich has focused almost exclusively on social issues.

An overwhelming focus on social issues with a dash of anti-settler, land-for-peace moral thundering is a recipe for a full reengagement of the culture wars. For Lapid, on the other hand, accommodation with Palestinians must be found without uprooting large Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria:

The Yesh Atid leader courted rightwing voters, saying “I’m not a lefty,” that settlement blocs, including the city of Ariel, must stay under Israeli sovereignty, and Jerusalem should not be divided.

As for the lack of peace talks in recent years, Lapid said “the Palestinians brought this upon themselves. If after the disengagement [from Gaza] they didn’t build hospitals and schools, but training sites, there is no doubt that it is their responsibility – but we also need negotiations for ourselves.”

Lapid quipped that his late father, former justice minister and Shinui leader Tommy Lapid, “did not leave the ghetto to live in a binational state.

This is the land of the Jews, and we have the right to finally get rid of the Palestinians. There won’t be a new Middle East, but we won’t have 3.5 million Palestinians in Israeli territory.”

I’m sure pundits will glom onto the typically nuanced phrase “get rid of the Palestinians,” but the overall sentiment—peace negotiations are stalled because of the Palestinians’ rejectionism, but necessary in the end to disentangle the two sides—is a common attitude among the Israeli electorate, and perfectly sums up the outlook of Avigdor Lieberman’s increasingly successful Israel Beiteinu party. Lapid also noted that he would not rule out sitting in a coalition with Orthodox parties, something his father refused to do. If Lapid even gains the seats he is projected to win in early polling (a big “if”), the right would be an absolutely dominant force in the Knesset. And that doesn’t even count Kadima, which began as a center-right party as well.

Lapid, by being so explicit about his views, is betting that despite the existence of a broad, center-right governing coalition, there are still more votes to be had for another rightist party. Labor is betting that if it can swell its ranks to include everyone to the left of the current governing coalition, it can at least return to prominence as the main, if not the only, electoral vehicle for left-leaning Israelis. That might mean a Labor that is increasingly successful electorally and increasingly marginal politically at the same time.

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