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Ruling Party's Shift Causes Consternation In Israel

Nov 22, 2012
Originally published on November 25, 2012 10:02 am

Some analysts have suggested that one impetus for the Israeli military strikes in Gaza is the upcoming election season in Israel. With elections set for January, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu changed the political landscape last month by announcing that his Likud Party would run along with a right-wing party led by hawkish Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman.

Likud Party leaders complained that they were left in the dark before the prime minister effectively vaulted Lieberman into the No. 2 political position.

The upheaval has left politicians and pundits scrambling to gauge the fallout. Moderates anguished over whether the country is lurching ever further to the right. Conservatives responded by confidently saying, "Of course it is, thanks for noticing."

"Well, it is true that for the last decade, decade and a half almost, the Israeli public shifted to the right," says Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon, who is a member of the Knesset from Lieberman's Yisrael Beiteinu Party. The party is popular with Russian-speaking Israelis, among the most secular and conservative parts of the population.

Ayalon says the average Israeli's disillusionment with the peace process is largely responsible for the rightward political shift. He hopes the center-left will respond with an alliance of its own, so the voters have a clear view of their options in January.

"And then you really can come to the voter with a clear choice — different ways, different ideologies, different leadership. It's cleaner; it's less wheeling and dealing — especially political extortion by small parties," he says.

Israel's parliamentary system is plagued by what is sometimes called a "wag the dog" effect, in which small, often single-issue parties wind up driving the agenda because their seats are needed to put a coalition over the 61-seat majority in the 120-seat Knesset.

Reuven Hazan, head of political science at Hebrew University, says it will be fascinating to see whether voters really want Netanyahu to be negotiating policy from within a coalition with the far right instead of with more moderate parties.

"Governing is going to be keeping a whole bunch of balls up in the air, and he has to be a master juggler. The Likud Party, by joining forces with a hard-right party, has probably lost some moderate voters," Hazan says.

The lightning rod in this political debate is Lieberman, the firebrand conservative who has been criticized for voicing hostile, even racist views.

A campaign ad urged that all Israeli Arabs, nearly 20 percent of the population, be forced to take loyalty oaths. The tag line — "No loyalty, no citizenship — only Lieberman speaks Arabic" — struck even some conservatives as crude and self-aggrandizing.

In 2008, when former Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak turned down a chance to visit Israel, Lieberman was characteristically undiplomatic: "If he wants to talk to us, he should come here. If he doesn't want to come, then he can go to hell."

Political scientist Hazan says one question is what will happen to U.S.-Israeli relations in President Obama's second term, if Netanyahu returns as head of a much more conservative government. Another is what role Lieberman will play.

"If he remains foreign minister, he's already done most of the damage he can do, and it's a minor post in Israel. But if he takes the Finance Ministry, then he's really playing big time. And if he takes the Defense Ministry, then we're going headlong into a clash with the United States," Hazan says.

Moderates say Netanyahu's move could serve as a wake-up call to centrists to put aside differences and unite to take back the political majority. But analysts say doing that in less than three months will be a major challenge.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

In Israel, the airstrikes on Gaza have been popular, getting almost 90 percent support in the polls. And that's fueled speculation that the military campaign in Gaza has been partly aimed at the political campaign now underway in Israel. In the run-up to that vote in January, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has tilted the political landscape. Last month, he announced his Likud Party would run along with the right wing party lead by the hawkish foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman.

NPR's Peter Kenyon reports that the new alliance has many in Israel pondering this shift to the right.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Likud Party leaders complained that they were left in the dark before the prime minister effectively vaulted Avigdor Lieberman into the number two political position. The upheaval has left politicians and pundits scrambling to gauge the fallout. Moderates anguished over whether the country is lurching ever further to the right. Conservatives responded by confidently saying, of course it is. Thanks for noticing.

DANNY AYALON: Well, it is true that for the last decade - decade and a half, almost - the Israeli public shifted to the right.

KENYON: Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon is a member of the Knesset from Lieberman's Yisrael Beiteinu Party. The party is popular with Russian-speaking Israelis, among the most secular and conservative parts of the population. Ayalon says the average Israeli's disillusionment with the peace process is largely responsible for the rightward political shift. He hopes the center-left will respond with an alliance of its own, so the voters have a clear view of their options in January.

AYALON: And then you really can come to the voter with a clear choice, different ways, different ideologies, different leadership. It's cleaner, less wheeling and dealing, especially political extortions by small parties.

KENYON: Israel's parliamentary system is plagued by what is sometimes called a wag-the-dog effect, in which small, often single-issue parties wind up driving the agenda because their seats are needed to put a coalition over the 61-seat majority in the 120-seat Knesset. Reuven Hazan, head of political science at Hebrew University, says it will be fascinating to see whether voters really want Netanyahu to be negotiating policy from within a coalition with the far right instead of with more moderate parties.

REUVEN HAZAN: Governing is going to be keeping a whole bunch of balls up in the air, and he has to be a master juggler. The Likud Party, by joining forces with a hard-right party, has probably lost some moderate voters.

KENYON: The lightning rod in this political debate is Avigdor Lieberman, the firebrand conservative who's been criticized for voicing hostile, even racist views.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL ADVERTISEMENT)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)

KENYON: This campaign ad urged that all Israeli Arabs - nearly 20 percent of the population - be forced to take loyalty oaths.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL ADVERTISEMENT)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)

KENYON: The tag line - no loyalty, no citizenship - only Lieberman speaks Arabic, struck even some conservatives as crude and self-aggrandizing. In 2008, when former Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak turned down a chance to visit Israel, Lieberman was characteristically undiplomatic.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

AVIGDOR LIEBERMAN: (Through translator) If he wants to talk to us, he should come here. If he doesn't want to come, then he can go to hell.

KENYON: Political scientist Reuven Hazan says one question is what will happen to U.S.-Israeli relations in President Obama's second term if Netanyahu returns as head of a much more conservative government. Another is what role Lieberman will play.

HAZAN: If he remains foreign minister, he's already done most of the damage he can do, and it's a minor post in Israel. But if he takes the Finance Ministry, then he's really playing big time. And if he takes the Defense Ministry, then we're going headlong into a clash with the United States.

KENYON: Moderates say Netanyahu's move could serve as a wake-up call to centrists to put aside differences and unite to take back the political majority. But analysts say doing that in less than three months will be a major challenge. Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Jerusalem. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.