Thursday, January 8, 2009

Israeli Elections

Israeli Elections: Bibi and Livni Tied, Arutz Sheva Founder Heads National-Religious List

By Susan Rosenbluth

January 2009

Although Israel is currently at war, elections are still scheduled for Ferbruary 10th. Some of the more cynical observers suspect the incursion into Gaza may have been timed to help the current government, led by the Kadima and Labor parties, stay in power.

"The war was the right thing to do, even if the Olmert-Livni-Barak coalition went into it for the wrong reasons," said an observer.

According to this argument, for more than a year, Hamas terrorists from Gaza have been lobbing rockets into Israel, but it was not until Labor and Kadima MKs saw their poll numbers plummeting that they decided to act.

Obama’s Silence

These same cynics wonder if the real reason US President-elect Barack Obama has not spoken out on Israel’s military incursion into Gaza has less to do with his honoring the principle of "one President at a time" (he did condemn the terrorist attack in Mumbai) and more to do with avoiding a controversy that could hurt the left-wing Kadima and Labor in the polls.

The Israeli left is more apt to accede to concessions, including relinquishing land in Judea and Samaria, than is the Israeli right.

In fact, there is some evidence that it might be working. Kadima, led by the current Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, is in a statistical dead heat with the front-running Likud, led by Benjamin Netanyahu. While Labor, headed by current Defense Minister Ehud Barak, is polling a distant third, some observers say that with every missile he aims back at Hamas, his numbers rise.

Feiglin Supporters

For awhile in December, thousands of right-wing Israelis made clear that, with no one to vote for, they intended to sit out the Israeli elections, scheduled for February 10.

Many of these eligible voters had been urged by Moshe Feiglin of the Manhigut Yehudit (Jewish Leadership) faction of the Likud to register to vote in the Likud primary, held last month, so that he might win a realistic seat on the Likud ticket.

Mr. Feiglin, a well-known right-winger became active in politics in the mid-1990s during the early Oslo process years, when he and his Manhigut Yehudit colleagues staged a number of creative demonstrations, aimed at drawing attention to their abhorrence of the concessions Israel was being asked to make unilaterally.

In the spirit of American non-violent protests, they blocked roads, causing, at one point, the worst traffic tie-up in Israel’s history, and they asked supporters to synchronize turning on and off lights, successfully interfering with Israel’s electricity grid.

For these efforts, Mr. Feiglin was charged with "sedition," a legal distinction that prevented him from running for office until this year.


Despite Mr. Netanyahu’s clear displeasure with Mr. Feiglin’s presence in the Likud (he went so far as to send a message the week before the primary, warning fellow Likud-niks that he would "view gravely" their presence at a Feiglin rally), the Manhigut Yehudit candidate secured sufficient votes in the primary to win seat # 20 on the Likud list, beating 130 of the 150 candidates who ran in the primary.

Mr. Feiglin won his seat despite Mr. Netanyahu’s decision to eliminate many polling stations in Judea and Samaria, where Manhigut Yehudit’s strength was significant, forcing many of his supporters to travel in order to vote in the primary.

With polls showing that Likud was expected to win as many as 35 seats in the upcoming elections, this meant Mr. Feiglin had an almost secure place in the next Knesset.

Right-Wing Party

In fact, most of the "secure" Likud seats went to political conservatives whom Mr. Netanyahu had not particularly endorsed. Many of those whom he had wanted high on the list did not make the cut. Asaf Heifetz and Uzi Dayan, for example, had been openly supported by Mr. Netanyahu, but they came in only 38 and 42, respectively.

A list circulated by leaders of the former Gush Katif communities gratefully remembered the anti-Disengagement activities of several Likud MKs from 2004-2005. Promoted by Jews who were expelled from Gush Katif, several of these MKs, who rebelled against then-Likud Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, also won realistic seats in the Likud primary. They included, Gideon Saar (#2), Gilad Erdan (#3), Reuven Rivlin (#4), Moshe Kahlon (#6), Leah Ness (#10), Yuli Edelstein (#12), Michael Ratzon (#24), Ayov Kara (#25), and Ehud Yatom (#29).

Of the top 30 candidates, 15 had been endorsed by Mr. Feiglin, including Tzipi Hotobeli (#15), a barely 30-year-old woman who made a name for herself as the right-wing representative on a TV debate program. She said that, in the Knesset, she plans to be active in three areas: keeping the land of Israel for the Jewish people, education and Jewish identity, and public relations for Israel.

"My goal in the Knesset is to stop the next Disengagement," she said, calling the "disengagement" from Gush Katif, Gaza, and northern Samaria "a very non-democratic act."

Like Mr. Feiglin, she had been asked to run with one of the smaller right-wing religious parties, but chose, instead, to cast her lot with Likud. "I believe in a national party, not a sectarian one," she said. "We should strive to have an influence on our entire society and what it looks like. To do this, we need to work within large parties. I think religious people must view themselves as belonging in influential positions."

Not What He Wanted

Sources close to Mr. Netanyahu said he was not pleased at all. Mr. Netanyahu had been convinced that, to win, he had to prove to Israelis that Likud was "more centrist than right." One poll, whose authenticity was questioned, suggested that with Mr. Feiglin on the ticket, Likud might lose as many as five seats, going from 36 to 31.

Using Mr. Netanyahu’s nickname, several left-wing candidates said they planned to capitalize on the fact that "a vote for Bibi was a vote for Feiglin."

To counter this impression, Mr. Netanyahu said that, as prime minister, he would adopt a policy of "pragmatic diplomacy" and continue talks with the Palestinian Authority.

"Our way of doing things combines decisiveness on defense and diplomatic pragmatism," he said.

Right-wing members of Likud said that, after hearing Mr. Netanyahu announce that, as prime minister, he would seek to form a coalition with Ms. Livni and Kadima, they were glad the party had tilted to the right.’

"We will be the ones to hold Bibi’s feet to the fire. We won’t allow him to do just what he wants," said a source who asked not to be identified.

Proudly Conservative

Asked if he was concerned about the rightward tilt of Likud, Mr. Saar, who had come in first in the primary, just behind Mr. Netanyahu, said, "It’s a list made up of diverse people, and it looks balanced to me. These are quality people with a proven record."

He did not dispute that he had been endorsed by Mr. Feiglin. "I don’t intend to apologize for any vote," he said.

Mr. Feiglin did not deny that he is more right-wing and hawkish than the candidates endorsed by Mr. Netanyahu.

"Of course, I’m to the right of Bibi. So what? What’s the problem?" he said, adding that Likud "needs to stop being ashamed of the fact that it’s a nationalist party."

Mr. Feiglin pointed out that the Likud originally supported the establishment of a Jewish state "on both sides of the Jordan River," meaning it would encompass not only Judea and Samaria, but present-day Jordan as well. It is a policy that the party has discarded.

No Mud

Mr. Feiglin dismissed rumors that Likud would lose seats with him on the ticket as "mud slung by Kadima and Labor."

"If the Likud does not spread the mud around, it won’t stick," he said, advising Mr. Netanyahu to retain the party’s nationalist ideology.

"Netanyahu was elected and is going to get a lot of mandates in order to create an alternative to the path set out by the left. If you deny your ideological approach, you’re in trouble," he said.

A poll taken by Ha’aretz after the primary showed Likud had actually gained two seats, rising from 35 to 36. Only one poll indicated the party would lose a seat, dropping to 34. Both polls that Likud’s closest rival, Kadima, would win only 27 or 28 seats.

Manipulating Seats

Dissatisfied with the will of the Likud electorate, Mr. Netanyahu and his allies appealed to the party’s court to change the placement of several candidates, claiming that another candidate had already been promised Mr. Feiglin’s 20th position.

By the middle of December, the Likud Election Committee ruled in favor of Mr. Netanyahu’s ally, Ophir Akunis, and ordered a reshuffling of the Likud list for the Knesset. As a result, Mr. Feiglin dropped down to #36, which some polls, but not others, indicated might still be sufficient to win a seat in the Knesset.

Mr. Feiglin refused to appeal, saying that because the decision was made by a political committee, "it was, therefore predictable."

"This is just another attempt to distort the will of the voters who voted for me," he said.

The Target

Other right-wing candidates in the Likud were also affected, but most observers said it was clear that Mr. Feiglin was Mr. Netanyahu’s target. Some sources inside Likud who were not supporters of Manhigut Yehudit said Mr. Feiglin’s demotion had raised his stature in the party significantly.

Tamar Yonah, a popular Israeli radio commentator, noted that, Mr. Netanyahu was "looking an awful lot like Arik Sharon, as he steamrolled ‘democracy’ in favor of his own desires."

Her reference was to Ariel Sharon’s landslide election as prime minister as the candidate who rejected unilateral withdrawal—exactly the policy he then pursued. Before the "Disengagement," however, he pledged to abide by a Likud referendum on the issue. When the results opposed the Disengagement, he simply disregarded the referendum.

Arguing that in moving Mr. Feiglin, Mr. Netanyahu showed disrespect not only to his voters, but also to the democratic process, Ms. Yonah said, "How do we know he will respect any democratic vote the people of Israel or his own party make?"

She referred specifically to Mr. Netanyahu’s campaign process to keep Jerusalem as the undivided capital of Israel.

Court Case

Ehud Yatom, who was moved from the realistic slot 29 to the highly unlikely 38, and Michael Ratzon, who won slot 24 but was pushed back to slot 37, threatened to file an appeal with the Israeli civil courts. They are both conservatives who opposed Mr. Sharon’s Disengagement from Gaza.

In the end, only Mr. Ratzon filed, and, at the end of December, a Tel Aviv District Court ruled in his favor, forcing the Likud to reinstate him into the 24th slot.

This clearly meant, if they filed, Messrs Yatom and Feiglin would also be reinstated. Mr. Netanyahu, however, appealed, saying that, if he lost, he would reinstate all three of the candidates.

"Invisible Dictator"

Mr. Feiglin said the case for holding onto his seat was "rock-solid," but, he said, he would not contest it in court, because "something much bigger than just a bid for the Knesset is happening here."

Referring to the High Court as "the invisible dictator," Mr. Feiglin said the issue was not whether he could get into the Knesset.

"What is being decided is the question—will the State of Israel return to the hands of the people of Israel, or will it remain a captive of the invisible dictator who will cause it to crumble and bring it to an end," he said. "I have declared war on that hidden dictator, but if, in the moment of truth, I crawled to it and entered the Knesset through its help, then all of my talk would have been empty words."

He predicted that after Mr. Netanyahu forms a government, there will be "a great crisis," and the contest for the leadership of the Likud will be up for grabs.

"Already the Creator of the World has brought us to a situation in which we constantly win, and this victory will only get bigger," he said.

Losing Seats

By the third week in December, polls showed that Likud and Kadima were tied, each expected to win approximately 30 seats. A Teleseker poll conducted for Maariv showed, for the first time, that Kadima might win 30 seats to Likud’s 29.

Most observers doubted that Likud was losing seats to the left. Some said the biggest loss might have been voters who simply planned to stay home, refusing to vote for Mr. Netanyahu after the Feiglin episode.

New Party

But, at the end of December, in a surprise move, several of the smaller right-wing parties decided to merge, forming a newly designed National Union party. The benefit to the nationalist camp is that fewer votes are liable to be wasted, thrown out on parties that might not make the threshold to get into the Knesset at all.

It also gives disaffected right-wing voters a ticket for which they can cast their votes.

Before the union, the new Jewish Home party, a spin-off of the National Religious Party and the religious flank of the original National Union, had held some promise for the right wing. That support largely dissipated when the Home party leader, Rabbi Dr. Daniel Hershkowitz, rabbi of the Ahuza neighborhood of Haifa who is also a professor at the Technion, was evasive on the issue of territorial concessions to the Arabs.

Other members on the Jewish Home’s list seemed similarly less than committed to keeping Judea and Samaria. When Rabbi Hershkowitz announced that all party MKs would be free to vote their conscience on Land of Israel matters, activists began looking for a new home.

Changing Minds

Some politicians slated to run on the Jewish Home list changed their minds.

"The price of unity was too high," said National Union Moledet faction member Uri Bank, who said the Jewish Home party was showing signs if being a party of "homeless nationalists."

This was a blow to people like Rabbi Zalman Melamed, who had hoped the new party would have represented the entire religious camp, "from Kahane to Meimad."

Instead, there will be two parties searching for votes from essentially the same electorate.

The new National Union has taken most of the old National Union party back and added other groups as well, including MK Dr. Aryeh Eldad, who had formed his own HaTikvah party; Baruch Marzel of the Jewish Front; and Rabbi Dov Wolpe of Chabad.

MK Uri Ariel, perhaps the most popular figure in the national-religious camp, also left the Jewish Home for the new NU.


Just before the deadline to file for a run for the Knesset, the new NU selected Yaakov (Ketzaleh) Katz, executive director of the Beit El Yeshiva Center Institutions and Arutz Sheva-Israel National News, to head the ticket.

Mr. Ariel will be in second place, followed by Dr. Eldad. Dr. Michael Ben-Ari will have the fourth slot, and Mr. Bank, an immigrant from North Africa will be in fifth place.

Others on the list include media personality and educator Avi Roth and Dr. Ron Breiman, chairman of Professors for a Strong Israel.

A legendary figure in the national-religious camp, Mr. Katz served in the elite Shaked commando unit during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, in which he was seriously wounded when the unit held off vastly superior Egyptian commando forces at the beginning of the fighting. He was presumed dead, but at the personal insistence of his commander, then-Maj-Gen Ariel Sharon, he was flown to a hospital where he regained consciousness. He still walks with a decided limp.

While he was recovering, he met his wife, Tami, who was volunteering as a nurse.

Arutz Sheva

With the blessings of Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda HaKohen Kook, z"tl, dean of the Yeshivat Merkaz HaRav Kook, he founded Beit El, and, in 1987, shortly after the outbreak of the Arab "Intifada," he created Arutz Sheva, which quickly became Israel’s third-largest commercial radio station. Now also a news agency which celebrates religious-Zionist values, Arutz Sheva became Israel’s first 24-hour broadcast on the Internet.

From 1990-1992, Mr. Katz served Mr. Sharon, then-Housing Minister in the government of Yitzchak Shamir, as a top advisor, initiating countless building start-ups through Judea, Samaria, and Gaza.

He is firmly opposed to relinquishing any land.

Keeping Votes

With the establishment of the NU, many voters who believed themselves disenfranchised now have a ticket to support. Polls show the new party could win as many as five seats.

Rabbi Melamed suggested that Jewish Home and NU sign a "mutual surplus votes agreement," allowing the party with more votes to take surplus votes from the other, preventing them from being lost. This means that if one of the parties has enough votes for a certain number of seats, any extra votes it received that are not enough to qualify it for an additional seat would go to the other party, hoping it might use them to attain another seat.

It also seems to have helped Likud, which, at the beginning of January, seemed to have regained its slight lead over Kadima, although, according to many polls, it is still within the margin of error.

Right-Wing Government

Most polls show that a right-wing coalition, led by Mr. Netanyahu and including Shas, Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu—Immigrants’ Party, Jewish Home, National Union, and United Torah Judaism, would number more than the requisite 61 seats needed to form a government.

When Ms. Livni tried to form a left-wing government led by Kadima, she was unable to do so, leading to the new elections. Even if she were to beat Likud by a few seats in the upcoming elections, she may not be able to form a government.

Shas would not sit in her government when she tried earlier because she would not commit to keeping Jerusalem. It is doubtful that anything would change this time around.

Mr. Lieberman, whose Immigrants Party is doing well in the polls, has presented as one of the party’s central goals "getting rid of the principal of ‘land for peace.’"

"It’s unacceptable. We will not agree to continue with Oslo. We will not agree to continue with Annapolis. We will not agree to ‘land for peace.’ The formula accept is ‘peace for peace," he said.

When Mr. Netanyahu was prime minister in 1996, his slogan referring to the Palestinians was: If they give, they’ll get, and if they don’t give, they won’t get.

The Jewish Voice and Opinion is a politically conservative Jewish publication which present news and feature articles not generally available elsewhere in the Jewish or secular media. Articles may be reprinted in their entirety with attribution.

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