Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Kid Brother Writhes Again: Netanyahu’s failed coup attempt

Earlier this week, Likud leader Binyamin Netanyahu met secretly with Avigdor Lieberman, head of the Yisrael Beiteinu (“Israel, Our Home”) party, and separately with Eli Yishai, chairman of Shas (“Sephardi Torah Guardians”). His goal? Nothing less than to steal the upcoming Israeli elections, which he appears to have despaired of winning the conventional way. Yishai and Lieberman, both of whom can perform simple arithmetic, listened politely (more or less) to Kid Brother’s proposal, thought for a millisecond or two, sent Bibi away empty-handed, then revealed all (or enough, anyway) to the press.

Bibi’s brilliant idea was to form such a firm alliance among the three parties (and presumably the combined National Union / National Religious Party as well) that after the election, he could be presented to Israeli President Moshe Katzav as the leader best able to form a governing coalition – even though the Likud is expected to be only the third-biggest party in the next Knesset. While there is no law against such a maneuver, it would be a complete violation of the tradition that the largest party in the new Knesset is invited to make the first attempt at forming a coalition.

According to current polls, the new Knesset is expected to look something like this:

National Union / National Religious (NU/NRP)10seats
Yisrael Beiteinu9-10seats
Arab parties8-9seats
United Torah Judaism (UTJ)6seats
So a right-wing coalition consisting of Likud, NU/NRP, Shas, Yisrael Beiteinu, and UTJ would control around 51 seats. According to Netanyahu’s logic, if the Right could improve these numbers a little, they could conceivably manage to get up to 61 seats – the minimum needed to form a government. Assuming (A) that the polls consistently underestimate support for the Right, and (B) that a substantial number of Kadima voters could be persuaded to switch allegiance to one of the right-wing parties, it would be possible to cobble together a right-wing government with Bibi as Prime Minister.

Now there’s nothing wrong with a little pre-election scheming and plotting; after all, if the parties didn’t prepare the ground before elections, it would take forever to set up governing coalitions afterwards. Further, Israeli voters are smart enough to adjust their votes based on how the various political parties are positioning themselves as potential coalition members. But unless the polls are far less accurate this time around than they’ve been before previous Knesset elections, Netanyahu’s scheme was bound to create a disaster – either for his own reputation as a political leader and strategist, or for Israel if he happened, by some dark miracle, to succeed.

Since we know how it turned out – Netanyahu got a lecture from his former subordinate Lieberman about “stress and panic” not being helpful to a politician trying to win a national election, while Eli Yishai told him, “Yeah, right – see you after the votes are counted” – it’s obvious that the affair was a disaster for Bibi. He was caught trying to subvert the Israeli electoral system, and (by implication) admitted that his rump Likud is headed for a resounding defeat. Worse, he looks like a fool, since his idea was an obvious non-starter from the beginning:

  • The scheme would work only if every party to the right of Kadima participated and refused to enter a Kadima-led coalition. The problem is that this broad, cooperative, united right-wing community is a figment of the far-Right’s imagination. Shas, for example, despises Netanyahu’s economic policies, as does United Torah Judaism – both represent Haredi (“ultra-Orthodox”) constituencies that are undergoing considerable hardship due to Netanyahu’s slashing of government support for large families. Both Shas and Yisrael Beiteinu have expressed willingness for some form of territorial compromise with the Palestinians, and even more willingness to participate in a coalition government with Kadima. So while all the right-wing parties might be willing to join a coalition if the Likud actually won the election, only the NU/NRP can be relied upon to join a third-place Likud in trying to block the formation of a Kadima-led coalition.

  • While Netanyahu’s plan wasn’t actually illegal, it was enough of a departure from normal procedure that President Katzav would almost certainly have refused to go along with it, even if Shas and Yisrael Beiteinu had signed on.

  • Just when the Likud is struggling to maintain its position as a mainstream force in Israeli politics, Bibi’s scheme would have frightened away whatever moderate center-Right voters were still loyal to the party. By positioning the Likud only as the leader of a right-wing-to-ultra-right-wing coalition and not as a potential partner to Kadima, Netanyahu has made it very clear that a vote for Likud is, in essence, a vote for the National Union. Anyone who wants a moderate-right-wing voice in government but doesn’t want the NU extremists to run the show would be forced to vote for Shas or Yisrael Beitenu; others might bolt to Kadima and hope that Ehud Olmert veers to the right after the elections, or else just stay home and spend the Election Day holiday hiding under the covers.

If Netanyahu’s scheme had worked, Israel would have been in trouble indeed – quite apart from considerations of whether the Right’s policies are correct. Even under the most optimistic scenario (barring major miracles, at least) the coalition envisioned by Kid Brother would be barely large enough to govern. The departure of any one of Netanyahu’s four coalition partners would bring his government crashing down – and he would not have any way of cobbling together a new coalition, since there would be no “reserve parties” in the Knesset willing to join Bibi’s government. (This is in contrast to Ariel Sharon’s coalition with Labor, when Shinui was ready to re-enter the coalition or support the Disengagement from outside, or a possible Kadima-Labor-Shas coalition that could draw on Yisrael Beiteinu or Meretz at need.)

Netanyahu’s previous term as Prime Minister demonstrated that he is completely incapable of exercising effective leadership with a fractious coalition like this; every coalition party would have an effective veto on everything the government attempted to do, and Bibi does not have the force of personality to subdue the extortionists. If Bibi seems to be twisting in the wind now, it’s nothing compared to what his life would be like if his little scheme had worked!

(This post can also be found at the Guns and Butter Blog.)

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At Wed Mar 15, 02:23:00 PM GMT+2, Blogger westbankmama said...

I don't agree with your analysis that this was a bad move for Bibi. He showed undecided voters that both Shas and Lieberman want to get into the coalition more than they want a strong right-wing showing in the Knesset - which may swing voters to vote for the Likud.

At Wed Mar 15, 02:29:00 PM GMT+2, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Palaments were made for moves such as this. Whether or not he can effectively govern such a coalition remains to be seen.

Considering the biased of most of the media and elite institutions in Israel for the last several years. And the unmittigated hatred shown to those of faith, his move was not only prudent but necessary.

To qualify my above comments, I have included the URL to a video of the Amona expulsion. Taken on the ground, it is somewhat different from the Disney Land version of the main stream press.

The source is Israel National TV, Arutz Sheva.


At Wed Mar 15, 02:59:00 PM GMT+2, Blogger Don Radlauer said...

Hi WBM -

Your point is an interesting one - although I don't think it's actually correct, as both Shas and Lieberman had already made it abundantly clear that (A) they were willing to see Israel give up substantial parts of the West Bank under certain circumstances, and (B) they would be quite happy to participate in a Kadima coalition. So I don't think either party will lose many supporters, since nothing really has changed there.

This is unsurprising for Shas, since they've always been flexible on territorial issues and they much prefer being inside coalitions (where they can funnel money to their own institutions, including their school network) than in "principled opposition". It would have been more surprising for "the old Lieberman", who was considered more of a right-wing ideologue; but if you look at how he has been positioning himself for this campaign, there is no question that he wants to be able to fit his party in as part of a right-wing or a center-Left coalition. As one of the commentators on Galei Tzahal yesterday morning put it, Netanyahu's pitch to Lieberman might have made sense five or six years ago, but it didn't make sense today.

Paul, I fail to see the connection between Israeli media/institutional bias and Netanyahu's attempt to make a victory out of an anticipated third-place showing in the election. There seems to be a missing middle premise here. Is it your contention that a right-wing victory is so important that it justifies subversion of our political system? How does the Amona incident justify what Netanyahu tried to do?

The point here is not that Netanyahu shouldn't try to set up a right-wing coalition. That's perfectly OK. What's dangerous is trying to get around the requirement of winning the election first! I get very nervous when third-place finishers try to take over countries: after all, the Nazi's came in third in the 1933 German elections, and look what happened! Not that Netanyahu is Hitler, of course; but subverting democracy is a very dangerous business.

At Thu Mar 16, 08:57:00 PM GMT+2, Blogger Caitlyn Martin said...

I don't know if you've seen the Geocartographia poll taken after the raid on Jericho. The new poll numbers after what Ha'aretz termed "the Jericho effect" look like this:

Kadima 43
Likud 16
Avoda 14
Yisrael Beytenu 11
Shas 9
Yehudat HaTorah 7
Arab parties 7
Meretz 4
Ale Yarok 2

If Prime Minister Olmert really can pull 43 mandates there is no way anyone else can form a government. It would have been nearly impossible with the numbers you posted as well.


At Sat Mar 18, 02:04:00 AM GMT+2, Blogger Why Palestinians Usually Get It Wrong said...

Palestinians Humiliate Themselves

In a March 16 editorial in the New York Times titled, As If That Fire Needed Fuel, the Times writes:

"Israeli Army officials ordered inmates to strip to their underwear [see photo below], which many did, marching out with clothing on their heads, an embarrassing and completely unnecessary provocation that trampled the dignity of any Palestinian watching that spectacle.

Given the humiliations that ordinary Palestinians suffer merely by trying to get through Israeli checkpoints every day, the prison raid just reinforced the already degrading reality of living under foreign occupation."

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas stated, “What happened without a doubt is an ugly crime which can not be forgiven and a humiliation for the Palestinian people.”

Palesinians should feel humiliated. A majority of Palestinians living in the West Bank, Gaza, and Jerusalem support suicide terrorism. A 2001 poll by Dr. Nabil Kukali and the Palestinian Center for Public Opinion (PCPO), found, "a substantial majority [of Palestinians] (76.1%) support suicidal attacks like that of Netanya [in May, 2001], whereas 12.5% oppose, and 11.4% express no opinion." A 2006 poll taken by the Jerusalem Media & Communication Center after the recent Hamas political victories found, “56.2% [of Palestinians] strongly or somewhat support suicide bombing operations against Israeli civilians whereas 40.7% oppose such operations.”

Considering that the majority of Palestinians support suicide terror, and considering that Israel prevents suicide killings on a daily basis, it should come as no surprise that captured Palestinians are asked to remove their clothes during the process of incarceration. Why should any Israeli take a chance of being blown up? Why should Israel present Palestinians with opportunities to commit suicide killings?

Palestinians should feel humiliated about their culture of death and they should be asked to strip naked during the process of incarceration as long as their population continues to support, condone, and commit suicide killings.

At Wed Mar 22, 02:01:00 PM GMT+2, Blogger Jameel @ The Muqata said...


What Bibi tried to do is peanuts for Israel. Its not illegal at all.

And if you want to talk "moral" -- it was far worse for Ariel Sharon to call for a Likud party referendum on the Disengagement, lose by a landslide, and then spit in the face of the party membership and do what he felt like.

At Wed Mar 22, 03:30:00 PM GMT+2, Blogger Don Radlauer said...

Jameel, I believe I already wrote that Kid Brother's idea was not (as far as I know) illegal; it was, however, a fairly radical departure from normal procedure, in which the largest Knesset party is asked to form a governing coalition. Had Bibi succeeded in his scheme (which, in my opinion, was never very likely), an awful lot of Israelis would have felt that he stole the election. I don't think that would have constituted "peanuts".

On the other hand, if Netanyahu manages to put together a "blocking coalition" - such that Ehud Olmert can't recruit 61 MK's without inviting the Israeli Arab parties into his coalition - that would be completely legitimate. There's absolutely nothing wrong with making life difficult for the party attempting to form a governing coalition! The problem was that Netanyahu was trying not just to make Olmert's life difficult, but actually to deny him the opportunity to try to form a government even if Kadima came first in the election.

As far as Ariel Sharon's referendum thing goes, I think it was one of his biggest mistakes in office - not necessarily immoral, but inept and fundamentally undemocratic even if he had won the referendum. I don't think a referendum of any sort was called for - after all, when exactly was the referendum that enabled Israeli governments to establish settlements across the Green Line? - but a referendum of paid-up members of a particular political party has no legal basis whatsoever as a means of making (or authorizing) government decisions. Had Sharon won the Likud referendum, it wouldn't have legitimized the Disengagement any more than his losing it de-legitimized the Disengagement.

Clearly what Sharon was trying to do was to give the Disengagement a "democratic" stamp of approval, a sort of "referendum lite". But since the paid-up Likud membership is not an accurate representative of the electorate as a whole (as no political party's membership is in Israel - and as you know, the vast majority of voters here are not members of any party) or even of the people who voted Likud in the last election, the whole idea was silly. If Sharon wasn't prepared to conduct a real national referendum, there was no reason (and no justification) to perform a "mini-referendum" of a non-representative group.

That said, why does Sharon's mistake - or misdeed, if you insist - have anything to do with Kid Brother's attempt to pre-empt a Kadima victory? I don't see any real connection here, other than an attempt to say that one bit of political sleaziness in support of a decision you didn't like justifies any amount of political sleaziness in support of political positions that you do like.

At Tue Mar 28, 07:41:00 AM GMT+2, Blogger Soccer Dad said...

I'm pretty certain that in 1987 Shamir was asked to form the government even though Labor was a larger faction. In the end Shamir couldn't put together a government and it ended up being a national unity government.
And Bibi when he defeated
Peres in 1996 also presided over a smaller faction. That isn't a good model, because that year there was a direct election of the PM.

At Tue Mar 28, 03:17:00 PM GMT+2, Blogger Don Radlauer said...

Hi David -

I've just done a little checking, and I haven't been able to confirm or refute your claim. One thing is for sure: there was no election in 1987! There was an election in 1984 after which neither Labor nor Likud was able to form a conventional coalition, and thus wound up forming a national-unity government with rotating Prime Ministers. While I haven't (so far) found details of the seats won by each party in that election, the fact that Shimon Peres got the first two-year crack at being Prime Minister leads me to think that Labor must have been the slightly larger of the two factions.

The next elections were in 1988, and Likud beat Labor by a single Knesset seat. The two parties again formed a national-unity government after Likud was unable to form a conventional coalition.

Please check on which election you're talking about, and see if you can find a link to verify the business about the smaller faction being asked to form a coalition; I'm somewhat skeptical, but I'm always open to learning things I didn't expect to learn!

As you say, Netanyahu in 1996 isn't a good example - since that election was under a different system. As I think I've mentioned somewhere, Netanyahu's reputation as a "winner" seems to be based mostly on that single victory, a razor-thin one over Israel's world-champion election-loser.


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