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Ballot Box Fever

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Israel’s Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, the recently elected head of the ruling Kadima party, informed President Shimon Peres on October 26 that she has been unable to form a new governing coalition. This announcement made the holding of early general elections inevitable. This analysis looks into the events leading up to Livni’s announcement, the procedure and time-frame for general elections, and the state of affairs in the three major parties – Kadima, Likud and Labor – as the prospect of early elections looms.


What led to the failure of the coalition talks?

Following her victory in leadership elections in Kadima in September, it was expected that Foreign Minister Livni would seek to form a new governing coalition, rather than go straight to general elections. This was seen as in Livni’s interest, because she would benefit from the stature attached to a sitting prime minister in a future election campaign. Opinion polls since mid-2006 have for the most part indicated a likely Likud victory in general elections, so it was also seen as in Kadima’s interest to put off elections.

However, the attempt to build a new coalition did not succeed. The stumbling block proved to be the negotiations with Sephardi ultra-Orthodox party Shas. Shas demanded a sum of NIS 1 billion (A$420 million) for child allowances. Livni made a counter offer of NIS 650 million (A$275 million). Shas’ Council of Torah Sages, a committee of senior rabbis which is the ultimate authority in the ultra-Orthodox party, met to discuss this matter and on Oct. 24, party leader Eli Yishai announced that Shas had decided not to join the coalition.

Kadima officials accused the opposition Likud party of interfering with the negotiations by making a counter-offer, which far exceeded Kadima’s offer, to join a Likud led government after elections, thus ensuring Shas’ refusal. Likud spokespersons, for their part, blamed what they referred to as Tzipi Livni’s “inexperience” for the failure of the negotiations. However, it was certainly in Likud’s interest to prevent Livni forming a coalition, and it is thus likely that Likud leader Binyamin Netanyahu made every effort to use his own political influence to scupper her chances.

Livni, for her part, said that she felt she had to “draw the line” at “impossible” demands raised by potential coalition partners. The Kadima leader told reporters that “when it became clear that every person and every party was taking advantage of the situation to make illegitimate demands – both economic and diplomatic – I decided to put a stop to it and go to elections.” She had promised the Israeli electorate a “different kind of politics” and her decision also reflected her desire not to sacrifice her reputation for strong principles and integrity, which has earned her respect with the public.

Following the Shas announcement, the Degel Hatorah party, which represents half of the Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism faction, announced that it too would not be joining a coalition led by Livni. This effectively foreclosed any possibility of ultra-Orthodox parties helping Livni form a coalition that would prevent early elections.

The refusal of Shas and Degel Hatorah to join the coalition did not, however, signal the end of Livni’s options for forming a government. According to the current Knesset arithmetic, she could have tried to form a coalition based on Kadima (29 seats), Labor (19), the liberal left-wing Meretz (5), the Pensioners’ Party (6) and a single member list formed by a former Pensioners’ Party MK. This would give Livni 60 seats. Her government would not have an overall majority in the 120 seat Knesset and would have been reliant on support from the Arab factions outside the government to allow it to function. Meretz leader Yossi Beilin encouraged Livni to take this step. However, Livni made it clear that she had no intention of pursuing this approach, which would have placed her at the head of a weak and vulnerable government, leaning too far to the left of the political centre ground she wants to control. In any case, Pensioners’ Party leaders rejected a request by Kadima for a meeting on Oct. 25. Thus, after consultation with her advisers, Livni made the decision to recommend to President Peres that general elections be held.


The Constitutional Process

President Peres, according to Israeli law, had the option of giving another faction leader a period of 28 days to try to a coalition. But at the opening of the Knesset on Oct. 27, with no leader having a realistic prospect of forming a coalition, he confirmed that Israel was heading for elections. Whilst elections should be held 90 days from the formal announcement of the President that a government cannot be formed, this process can be interrupted if the heads of Knesset factions agree on a specific date for elections, and vote to pass a law to that effect. Livni, in an interview on Oct. 26, expressed her preference for this possibility, and for concluding the elections process “within two months.” Kadima coalition chairman Yoel Hasson prepared legislation that would lead to the elections within 90 days, but each party made their own calculation about whether this timing is in their interests. In the end, February 10 seems most likely to be agreed upon.

Within the parties, meanwhile, processes have now begun for selecting the list of candidates for the Knesset, and determining in what order the candidates will be ranked. Primaries are to be expected in the three major parties. In Israeli parties, rules also exist allowing favoured individuals to be “parachuted” into reserved places on the list, according to the wishes of the party leadership.


Situation in the parties on the eve of the campaign

Who are the favourites to win an Israeli election in early 2009, and what is the internal state of affairs in the major parties?

According to a poll conducted by the Teleseker agency for Maariv newspaper and published on Oct. 27, if elections were held immediately, Kadima would be victorious, with 31 seats. Likud would be second, with 29, while Labor would be left far behind, with only 11 seats. An additional poll by the Dahaf Research Institute has Kadima on 29 seats, Likud with 26 and Labor with 11.

The encouraging polls notwithstanding, some Israeli analysts consider that Livni’s image will suffer as a result of the perception that she was unsuccessful in conducting the negotiations. Ofer Shelah, writing in Maariv, considered that “Livni will not love the comparison but this is the second time she has allowed events to dictate a problematic decision for her: The first time, of course, was when she did not resign after the Winograd Committee preliminary report [into the government’s handling of the Second Lebanon War].” Whilst Aluf Benn in Haaretz took a similar view, Dan Margalit in Yediot Ahronot took a different line, suggesting that Livni’s refusal to accede to Shas’ budgetary demands will lead to her being perceived by the electorate as a candidate of principle.

The Kadima leader faces an additional task of ensuring unity in the top echelons of her party. As a new leader now entering general elections without the status attached to a sitting prime minister, this is a considerable challenge. Maariv even reported that Transport Minister Shaul Mofaz, who Livni defeated in the Kadima party leadership election, is engaged in attempts to assemble his own coalition. Whether this is true or not, it should be noted that Livni’s victory over Mofaz in the primaries was narrower than expected, and the loyalty of some of her party’s senior figures is less than assured.

The Likud party faces no such unity issues, with the ranks within the party generally unified behind Netanyahu’s leadership. Having led in polls consistently over the last year and a half, the coming elections had been considered Likud’s to lose. But as the more recent polling suggests, the Likud leader faces a serious challenge. In March, 2006, Likud suffered the most serious defeat of its history, reducing it to a mid-level Knesset list of only 12 seats. This time around, Netanyahu will be seeking to claw back the support of centrist voters from Livni and Kadima. Netanyahu’s economic record may make him vulnerable also to challenges from Shas and the predominantly Russian immigrant Yisrael Beiteinu party for the support of Israelis in poorer peripheral areas. Netanyahu, as finance minister in Ariel Sharon’s government, implemented policies which involved cutting benefits for poorer Israelis. Likud has traditionally drawn much of its support from these less well-off sections of the population, and their resentment was a factor in Likud losing support in peripheral areas of the country in 2006, with Shas and Yisrael Beiteinu the beneficiaries among voters of Sephardi-Middle Eastern and Russian origin, respectively.

Nevertheless, initial indications are that Netanyahu intends to run a campaign based centrally on his achievements as finance minister. This indicates that Netanyahu has set his sights on the large number of middle-class, centrist voters whose support brought Ariel Sharon and Likud their major victories in 2001 and 2003, and who then deserted to Kadima in droves in 2006. Netanyahu is thought to consider that his record as finance minister will differentiate him from Livni in terms of achievements likely to appeal to these voters.

In the battle for the centre ground, Netanyahu is also understood to be negotiating to bring in former Israel Defence Force (IDF) Chief-of-Staff Moshe Ya’alon and former Justice Minister Dan Meridor to the Likud Knesset list. The presence of these two high-profile and respected public figures would significantly boost the centrist credentials of the Likud list.

Ehud Barak’s Labor is entering the race in by far the weakest position of the three main parties, with a situation of some internal discord. Barak is generally seen to have had a fairly successful period of incumbency as defence minister. However, all polls have shown Labor losing strength in the elections. Despite his competent ministerial performance, Barak has failed to appeal personally to the electorate, and his sceptical approach to the Annapolis negotiations championed by Kadima has left his party struggling for an identity. Furthermore, the party is carrying a deficit of NIS 70 million, and there have even been rumours of a leadership challenge to Ehud Barak prior to the elections. Such a challenge is unlikely to emerge, but it is indicative of the extent of the task facing Barak.

As is usually the case in Israeli elections, whilst the economy will be a factor, the key issue will be how to move forward on peacemaking without compromising Israel’s security. Likud is likely to focus on the dangers of the Iran-led regional bloc, and will seek to warn that territorial concessions to the Palestinians are likely to benefit this hostile bloc. Kadima, meanwhile, is likely to focus more on the hopes offered by the Annapolis process and the negotiations with the Palestinian Authority. Since both parties will be competing for centrist votes, however, the likelihood is that the differences will be somewhat blurred, with each party in essence trying to depict itself as the voice of responsible pragmatism and its opponent as naïve or ideological. Labor, too, will be competing for the same ground, but will have to work hard to find a distinctive voice and appear relevant.

The next elections are shaping up to be a contest between Kadima and Likud for the bloc of centrist voters which brought Kadima victory in 2006. Labor, meanwhile, was characterised by Israel Channel 2 News as “fighting for its political life.” Polls indicate that Kadima and Likud are currently running almost neck and neck. The right to lead the next Israeli government will be won by the party best able to position itself as the force of the credible centre.


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