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Topic: Shelly Yachimovich

Avigdor Lieberman Returns

The most unpopular popular Israeli politician has returned to center stage. Avigdor Lieberman, the former foreign minister and deputy prime minister, was acquitted this morning in Jerusalem on fraud charges that have been following the Moldova-born firebrand around for the latter part of his political career. The case involved a former ambassador who passed to Lieberman information he had on a police investigation, who Lieberman was then accused of promoting. Though the shadow of scandal never deprived Lieberman of advancement in his own meteoric career–he gave the huge Russian immigrant community a party to rally around, making him a kingmaker in the Knesset–it appeared that his legal trouble had finally caught up with him.

That’s because his former deputy at the Foreign Ministry, Danny Ayalon, had agreed to testify against Lieberman. (Ayalon, who had previously been Israeli ambassador to the U.S. and made a habit of running circles around his leftist antagonists on Twitter, was dropped by Lieberman from the party slate before the last round of elections.) But Lieberman won this battle too–and, it seems, his protracted war with the Israeli legal system. When he was finally hit with the latest charges, in late 2012, Lieberman stepped away from Benjamin Netanyahu’s government and the Foreign Ministry. Netanyahu has held the position of foreign minister for Lieberman in the event he would return. And now he has.

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The most unpopular popular Israeli politician has returned to center stage. Avigdor Lieberman, the former foreign minister and deputy prime minister, was acquitted this morning in Jerusalem on fraud charges that have been following the Moldova-born firebrand around for the latter part of his political career. The case involved a former ambassador who passed to Lieberman information he had on a police investigation, who Lieberman was then accused of promoting. Though the shadow of scandal never deprived Lieberman of advancement in his own meteoric career–he gave the huge Russian immigrant community a party to rally around, making him a kingmaker in the Knesset–it appeared that his legal trouble had finally caught up with him.

That’s because his former deputy at the Foreign Ministry, Danny Ayalon, had agreed to testify against Lieberman. (Ayalon, who had previously been Israeli ambassador to the U.S. and made a habit of running circles around his leftist antagonists on Twitter, was dropped by Lieberman from the party slate before the last round of elections.) But Lieberman won this battle too–and, it seems, his protracted war with the Israeli legal system. When he was finally hit with the latest charges, in late 2012, Lieberman stepped away from Benjamin Netanyahu’s government and the Foreign Ministry. Netanyahu has held the position of foreign minister for Lieberman in the event he would return. And now he has.

“This chapter is behind me,” Haaretz quotes Lieberman as saying after the acquittal. “I am now focusing on the challenges ahead.”

Lieberman’s political power does not stem from his job title; it’s the other way around. Yet his relative political independence has always been something of a barometer of his electoral strength, and the argument can be made that it’s on the wane, acquittal or no acquittal.

Lieberman started out managing Netanyahu’s campaigns in the early 1990s, and when Netanyahu became prime minister, Lieberman was arguably the Likud Party’s second most powerful member. Yet Lieberman had found a way to tap into the Russian immigrant community’s desire for authentic political representation–Lieberman was himself a Soviet immigrant–in a way that others, like Natan Sharansky, didn’t. In 1999 he formed his own party, Yisrael Beiteinu. As his domestic constituency grew in influence, prime ministers made it a point to find a place for him in their governments, until they started needing Lieberman more than he needed them.

There was always going to be a ceiling of support over Lieberman for demographic reasons. But it was a high ceiling: Russian immigrants account for about 20 percent of Jewish Israelis. Additionally, in an age of fragmented party politics in Israel, Lieberman’s ability to garner 15 or so seats per Knesset was worth steadily more as it became rare for the winning party to even break the 30-seat barrier.

But it also meant Yisrael Beiteinu was perpetually a bridesmaid, and so a year ago Lieberman merged with Likud. He did so because he is younger than the Likud old guard and was positioning himself to one day inherit the Prime Minister’s Office. But Israeli politics is governed by a centripetal force that keeps the Knesset consistently close to the Israeli political center (which is to the right of where most Westerners think it is) and thus militates against the accumulation of overwhelming power in any one party’s hands. Minor parties are also disproportionately powerful in Israel, so larger parties tend to produce diminishing returns after a while.

Because of all that, the new Likud-Beiteinu party did not gain the vote share of the two parties combined; it simply fell into place as a strangely throwback version of Likud, with Bibi and Lieberman at the helm. It is to that party that Lieberman now returns.

Lieberman’s portfolio remains a powerful one, and self-styled “centrist” flash-in-the-pan parties tend to fizzle, so Lieberman may still be better positioned for the long haul than his political rivals. But oh how he has political rivals! In his absence, Israel saw the rise of another secular nationalist–albeit slightly less nationalist–who is seen as far more palatable to the West in Yair Lapid. And the Israeli political scene welcomed the charismatic tech entrepreneur and pro-settlement politician Naftali Bennett, whose new party won 12 seats in the last elections (and briefly made liberal American journalists lose their minds–something he has in common with Lieberman).

On the left, the Israeli Labor Party is showing signs of life with a new leader, Shelly Yachimovich. Tzipi Livni is still hanging around, and her work on the peace negotiations arguably enabled Netanyahu to let her act as foreign minister the way Ehud Barak did when he was defense minister. Speaking of defense minister, Barak’s departure from government opened the space for Moshe Ya’alon to take the defense portfolio, giving Lieberman another powerful rival within Likud.

And yet, Lieberman doesn’t appear too concerned, perhaps because his career has acquired a reputation for indestructibility. Indeed, there is something comical about the way Lieberman’s political career rolls along like a tank despite the scandals, intrigue, and alienation associated with it. His adversaries have always underestimated his toughness and political skills, a mistake that has consistently served him well and may yet continue to do so.

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Israeli Poll Shows Labor at a Crossroads

Earlier this month, I wrote about an Israeli news report suggesting former Kadima party leaders Ehud Olmert and Tzipi Livni were considering teaming up with former Israeli TV journalist Yair Lapid for the upcoming Knesset elections. One detail in that report was that Lapid had created his own party and was unwilling to leave it to join Kadima, no matter who leads the centrist opposition party. But what if he were willing to join Kadima?

That is the subject of a story in Haaretz today. The Israeli daily reports the results of a poll taken to determine how all the major parties would perform in January’s elections in three different possible scenarios. One of those scenarios had Lapid, Olmert, and Livni together in a “super-party.” And Haaretz reports that such a super-party would win the election. Sort of:

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Earlier this month, I wrote about an Israeli news report suggesting former Kadima party leaders Ehud Olmert and Tzipi Livni were considering teaming up with former Israeli TV journalist Yair Lapid for the upcoming Knesset elections. One detail in that report was that Lapid had created his own party and was unwilling to leave it to join Kadima, no matter who leads the centrist opposition party. But what if he were willing to join Kadima?

That is the subject of a story in Haaretz today. The Israeli daily reports the results of a poll taken to determine how all the major parties would perform in January’s elections in three different possible scenarios. One of those scenarios had Lapid, Olmert, and Livni together in a “super-party.” And Haaretz reports that such a super-party would win the election. Sort of:

A new centrist party formed by Ehud Olmert, Tzipi Livni and Yair Lapid would win more seats in the next Knesset than the Likud, according to a new Haaretz poll. Were such a party to be formed, it would grab 25 seats, compared to Likud’s 24. However, the survey also indicates that, whatever its composition, a right-wing bloc would not lose its Knesset majority….

According to the poll, even if former Prime Minister Olmert and former Kadima leader Livni join forces, or if Livni instead links up with Labor leader Shelly Yacimovich, they would face a right-wing bloc, a bloc of “natural partners,” that would retain its majority – meaning that Benjamin Netanyahu would remain prime minister after the January 22 elections. In a worst-case scenario from his perspective, he would just have to sweat a little more before reaching the finish line.

The third scenario would be if the current party composition remains unchanged. In that case, the poll projects a 65-seat governing coalition for the rightist bloc led by Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud, Avigdor Lieberman’s Israel Beiteinu, and the Orthodox Shas party.

That first scenario, which projects a one-vote win for the centrist supergroup but a failure to form a coalition, leading Netanyahu’s Likud to put his coalition back together, is an almost exact replay of what actually happened the last time Livni led a party that challenged Netanyahu. In 2009, Livni’s Kadima garnered one more Knesset seat than Netanyahu’s Likud, but was unable to form a coalition. (The Kadima win was less than it seemed; voters wanted a rightist coalition, and they got one.)

But there is a fascinating side story to compliment this one, also on Haaretz’s website. The paper reports that the Labor party, now led by Shelly Yachimovich, is working hard to recruit young talent, leaders from Israel’s social protest movement, and popular military and media figures to run in this winter’s election on the Labor slate. This is fascinating in part because it stands in such contrast not only to the first story, but also to conventional wisdom. As the first Haaretz story shows, in Israel the electoral success of a political party is overwhelmingly dependent on the popularity of its leader. (Just for fun, ask a Western media personality who rails against the Orthodox and Russian immigrant parties to name anyone besides the leader of those parties. They probably can’t.)

And in fact, a Livni-Olmert-Lapid party is considered a supergroup despite the fact that poll respondents were given only three names. Who else is on the ticket? Who cares? Yet the Labor party, which until recently was led by Ehud Barak, is rebuilding from the ground up. It cannot trade on Yachimovich’s name or fame. And the strategy represents an honest grappling with the Israeli left’s freefall. Yachimovich is saying, in effect, this isn’t your father’s Labor party.

It is also, however, risky. The Israeli left has had its clock cleaned in Knesset elections over the past decade because the electorate has moved to the right–at least on the peace process. Yachimovich is branding Labor as being further to the left than it has been under the hawkish Barak. It she is successful, it will be a big victory for a rejuvenated left. If not, it will have been a massive missed opportunity to grab what’s left of the political center before someone else does.

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Why Netanyahu Will Be Re-Elected

Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu announced yesterday that he would seek to move up the date of his country’s next election from October 2013 to either January or February. While nothing is certain in a democratic system, the odds that Netanyahu will emerge triumphant from the next test at the ballot box are overwhelming. While the prime minister is widely disliked by international elites, American Jewish liberals, and the Obama administration, he stands alone at the pinnacle of Israeli politics with no credible challenger. Though this state of affairs is deplored by Bibi-bashers, this would be an apt moment for them to ponder why exactly Netanyahu is virtually a lock to hold onto power.

The answer has little to do with his personal charms (of which he has few) or his political acumen (which is considerable). Nor is it solely the product of an unimpressive array of potential challengers that few in Israel think are fit to lead the country in his place. Rather, it is the result of the fact that the majority of Israelis share his pragmatic view of the strategic challenges that face the country as well as his grasp of economic reality. For all of the fact that many in the West regard Netanyahu as an ideologue, he will retain his office because he is a voice of common-sense wisdom that ordinary Israelis respect, even if they don’t love him.

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Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu announced yesterday that he would seek to move up the date of his country’s next election from October 2013 to either January or February. While nothing is certain in a democratic system, the odds that Netanyahu will emerge triumphant from the next test at the ballot box are overwhelming. While the prime minister is widely disliked by international elites, American Jewish liberals, and the Obama administration, he stands alone at the pinnacle of Israeli politics with no credible challenger. Though this state of affairs is deplored by Bibi-bashers, this would be an apt moment for them to ponder why exactly Netanyahu is virtually a lock to hold onto power.

The answer has little to do with his personal charms (of which he has few) or his political acumen (which is considerable). Nor is it solely the product of an unimpressive array of potential challengers that few in Israel think are fit to lead the country in his place. Rather, it is the result of the fact that the majority of Israelis share his pragmatic view of the strategic challenges that face the country as well as his grasp of economic reality. For all of the fact that many in the West regard Netanyahu as an ideologue, he will retain his office because he is a voice of common-sense wisdom that ordinary Israelis respect, even if they don’t love him.

It is true that had Netanyahu chosen to go directly to new elections last May rather than attempting to create a “super coalition” with the leading opposition party, he might well be in an even stronger position today. Ever the cautious tactician, Netanyahu thought putting Kadima in his camp and putting off elections till next fall would neuter his foes. But the onetime centrist juggernaut was in no condition to be a partner and its leader, Shaul Mofaz, jumped ship at the first opportunity.

In the ensuing months, Netanyahu has been buffeted by bitter criticism about his confrontation with President Obama over the Iranian nuclear threat both at home and abroad, leaving him a bit weaker than he was in May. But even when these recent blows are taken into consideration, Netanyahu’s confidence in his ability to outfox his opponents is justified.

Kadima is a shell of its former self and is certain to lose much of its strength at the next election. It’s roster of former and present leaders — Ehud Olmert, Tzipi Livni and Mofaz — may seek to combine forces with a new party led by journalist Yair Lapid or cut a deal with Netanyahu’s erstwhile partner, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who is something of a man without a party. But whatever configuration their machinations produce, it is more likely to resemble a political island of lost toys than a viable opposition party.

The one opponent of Netanyahu’s Likud that can be said to be on the rise is the Labor Party. Labor has abandoned its old obsession with land-for-peace deals with the Palestinians that nearly destroyed the one-time perennial party of government. Instead it is now concentrating on exploiting discontent with the economy. Labor’s social democratic prescriptions make no economic sense — especially since the country has thrived under Netanyahu’s stewardship — but its seizure of the banner of social justice makes it a clear favorite to wind up as the leader of the opposition in the next Knesset. But though Labor is once again a force to be reckoned with, few believe its leader, Shelly Yachimovich, has the credentials to deal with the country’s security challenges.

But Netanyahu’s good luck in being opposed by an array of opponents who are either inexperienced, discredited or merely unsuitable (such as his coalition ally Avigdor Lieberman as well as Olmert) would be nothing if not for the fact that Israelis happen to agree with the prime minister on the big questions facing the country.

The majority of Israelis agree with him that peace with the Palestinians is not possible until they undergo a sea change in their political culture that will allow them to recognize the legitimacy of the Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn. And though much of the world (including President Obama) may be tired of Netanyahu’s warnings about Iran, they resonate with an Israeli public that understands that they face existential threats that can’t be wished away.

As Haaretz columnist Ari Shavit ruefully noted, Netanyahu has rejected the false hopes of the peace processors and opted instead for stability and management of the country’s conflicts. With the Arab Spring producing more danger for Israel in the form of Islamist governments, the Palestinians locked in internecine conflict and a culture of violence, and Iran more dangerous than ever, Netanyahu’s approach is the only one that makes any sense. Leftists and liberals may long for the lost hopes of Oslo or pine for the socialism of Israel’s past, but most Israelis sensibly reject such foolishness. That makes him, as Shavit puts it, “virtually the sole candidate to head the government of Israel.”

Like it or not, Americans need to make their peace with Netanyahu. The odds are, he will not only remain in office throughout the next U.S. presidential term but also possibly still be there when the next inauguration rolls around in 2017. That’s a reflection not so much of his political skill as it is a reflection of the realism of the Israeli electorate.

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