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Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The kiss of death?

Shas leader Eli Yishai announced on Tuesday that his Sephardic ultra-Orthodox party will only go into a coalition led by Binyamin Netanyahu and the Likud and not one led by Tzipora Livni and Kadima or Ehud Barak and Labor.
Speaking at the ultra-Orthodox party's election campaign launching event, the industry, trade and Labor minister said that "Shas will recommend Benjamin Netanyahu to the president as the next prime minister.

"A strong Shas will ensure Netanyahu doesn’t repeat his mistakes," he added.

"Netanyahu has learned the lessons from his previous tenure as prime minister, and Shas will make sure that he doesn’t cut the child allowances and the disadvantaged populations' budgets. We won't be forming the government this time. Perhaps next time, God willing," Yishai said.
Netanyahu gave Shas the cold shoulder.
Likud chairman Binyamin Netanyahu sent a message to voters on the Right on Tuesday that the only way to strengthen a government led by him would be to vote for the Likud and not smaller, right-wing parties.

Netanyahu's call came on the day Shas chairman Eli Yishai formally endorsed him for the premiership and Israel Beiteinu leader Avigdor Lieberman said the country needed a right-wing nationalist government. Yishai's and Lieberman's comments were intended to persuade voters that they could vote for their parties and still help Netanyahu get elected.

"We need a strong government, and for that we need a large Likud," Netanyahu said at a massive rally of more than 1,000 Likud supporters at the Jerusalem International Convention Center.

"There is a chance, maybe even a good chance that two weeks from now, we will receive the trust of the nation. And if the nation gives us its trust, we will work to unify the nation and form a strong government, with God's help."
Why did Shas, which has always played both sides against the middle, seemingly put itself so firmly in the right wing camp? After all, it was Shas that engaged in all sorts of verbal acrobatics to stay in the Olmert-Livni-Barak government long after it was clear that government was negotiating over the division of Jerusalem - supposedly a red line for Shas. And what is Netanyahu afraid of?

Below is the latest Knesset poll, a Channel 2 Knesset poll from January 26, which I shamelessly lifted from Arutz Sheva.

The poll shows Shas with eleven Knesset seats and Yisrael Beiteinu with fifteen. In the current Knesset, Shas has twelve members and Yisrael Beiteinu has eleven.

Yisrael Beiteinu, which engaged in those same acrobatics, but not for as long as Shas, has benefited greatly from Operation Cast Lead. Some polls (including this one) even show it beating the Labor party, which dominated Israeli politics for the country's first 30 years of existence. By comparison, Shas is declining and Yishai knows it. The reason Shas is declining is that its electorate is far to the right of its leadership, particularly Yishai and the party's spiritual leader, Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef, who is known to favor 'territorial compromise.'

On the other hand, Shas is not an ultra-Orthodox party like United Torah Judaism, most of whose adherents will vote however their Rabbis tell them to vote. Many of Shas' voters are traditional and moderately observant. This tends to give them a conservative political outlook, but a religious outlook that is less stringent in its requirements to obey its Rabbis. Shas voters have been defecting to the Likud. Yishai is trying to reverse that trend.

Netanyahu has two reasons to be concerned with Yishai's 'endorsement' - the one he talks about and the one he doesn't talk about. The reason Netanyahu says he is concerned by Shas' endorsement is that he sees it for what it is: An attempt by Shas to grab Knesset seats from the Likud. Netanyahu has framed this in terms of endangering the Likud's being in a position to form the next government: If the right bloc wins more seats than the left but Kadima wins more seats than the Likud, Kadima would likely be asked to form the next government. Because of that, one pundit on Israel Radio on Tuesday referred to Yishai's endorsement of Netanyahu as a 'kiss of death.'

A look at the chart above shows that is not a serious concern. Every poll that has come out since the end of Operation Cast Lead has shown Likud 4-10 seats ahead of Kadima. That's why Kadima is trying so desparately to make a deal for Gilad Shalit's release. If the numbers shift back so that Likud is 27 and Shas is 13, that won't stop the Likud from forming the next government.

But there's a second reason Netanyahu is concerned by Shas' endorsement. The only thing that scares Binyamin Netanyahu more than being Finance Minister or Foreign Minister (both positions for which he is eminently qualified) in a Livni-led government under Kadima, is being Prime Minister in a government in which everyone is to his right. If you look at the chart above, you will see that Shas, Yisrael Beiteinu and Likud have 56 seats in the current polls. Presumably, United Torah Judaism or National Union (or more likely both) could be convinced to join, and Netanyahu would have his right wing coalition. But it's a coalition he doesn't want. In fact, Netanyahu would rather have a coalition with Labor than with the right wing parties. And that explains another story that some of you overseas who saw it may have found odd yesterday.

Fellow lawyer and 'activist' Susie Dym, whom I have known for several years, is about as grassroots an activist as one can find in this country. She runs an organization called Mattot Arim (city centers) which sends out email updates in Hebrew and English on a regular basis, organizes trips to support embattled Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria and generally promotes the cause of Jewish settlement in the entire Land of Israel. They toil tirelessly but in relative anonymity - most of us who know of them seem to be Anglo (English-speaking) right-wingers who live in Israel (a Google search returned only 214 hits). Yesterday, Susie did something that I can only describe as a publicity stunt, but a very effective publicity stunt: She asked the Likud's candidates for Knesset to sign a statement that they would never endorse a 'Palestinian' state reichlet. Three quarters of the candidates refused to sign.
The oath, distributed by the Matot Arim organization, included a vow not to lend a hand to the formation of a Palestinian state.

The National Union, Habayit Hayehudi, Israel Beiteinu and Shas signed the document.

Shas chairman Eli Yishai signed the document on behalf of his party. Meir Porush was the only United Torah Judaism MK who made the pledge.

The only candidates in the Likud's top 28 who signed the pledge or were tied to previous such pledges were Moshe Ya'alon, Yuval Steinitz, Ze'ev Elkin, Ayoub Kara, Tzipi Hotovely, Yariv Levin and Danny Danon.

A similar document was distributed when former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's government was formed. While there were MKs who signed it but later supported the Gaza Strip disengagement, and MKs who refused to sign it but later opposed the move, Matot Arim spokeswoman Susie Dym said there had been a direct correlation between who signed and how they voted.

Ironically, Interior Minister Meir Sheetrit attacked the Likud for opposing a Palestinian state at a Kadima press conference on Monday.

He called on reporters to do exactly what Matot Arim did and ask the parties whether they support a Palestinian state.

Netanyahu addressed the matter in a meeting with religious-Zionist Likud supporters in Jerusalem on Monday. At the meeting, he ruled out future unilateral withdrawals. He warned about the creation of a Palestinian state but declined to rule it out.

"Any Palestinian state that would be formed under the current conditions would become an Iranian state as we saw happen in Gaza," Netanyahu said. "[But] we all must work to advance peace while considering reality."

Netanyahu's associates said he did not want to govern a single Palestinian, but under certain circumstances, he would agree to a state with limited sovereignty and powers.
That's how crazy Israel has become in 2009: the 'right wing' party has to 'defend itself' against 'charges' that it doesn't favor a 'Palestinian' reichlet. And that's why Netanyahu needs to be hemmed in on the right and to worry less about how many MK's Shas is going to get.


At 5:50 PM, Blogger NormanF said...

My views exactly. The makeup of the Right needs to be decisively changed in Israel. It hardly matters if voters bring in the Likud only to wake up the next morning feel had and discovering its pursuing the same Kadima-Labor policies they thought they rejected. That's why there need to be so many MKs to Bibi's right that the only coalition he can form is a right-wing government. And that is the only outcome that can save Israel.

At 10:52 PM, Blogger Soccer Dad said...

What's remarkable is that pundits refer to the Likud as right wing. While it's certainly to the right of Kadima and Labor (by how much is debatable), the view of Likud now, is the view of Shalom Achshav 20 years ago. (Shalom Achshav has also moved significantly to the Left.)

At 4:50 AM, Blogger NormanF said...

The Left has moved into the anti-Zionist fever swamps. Israel's academics and intellectuals are on record as favoring Israel's destruction. That's the kind of viewpoint that didn't exist twenty years ago. Israel's Right hasn't moved that far left and that is why is hated by Israel's useful idiot chattering classes.

At 8:32 AM, Blogger Carl in Jerusalem said...

Soccer Dad,

Exactly what I'm trying to make people understand.

Where's Shy Guy? He usually steps into these posts to defend the Likud.


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