Saturday, 5 January 2013

Emotions running high as Israeli elections approach

The electoral campaign goes into overdrive next week when the parties launch their TV commercials. Meanwhile, Habayit Hayehudi's Naftali Bennett is laughing all the way to the ballot box, but his rivals are suffering.

In the election campaign for the 19th Knesset, the Habayit Hayehudi-National Union ticket is growing at a rate of 1.5 seats a week. It has already doubled its strength compared to the outgoing Knesset. Naftali Bennett, a 40-year-old lad who seems to be hiding most of his party's candidates from the public - and he knows why - has become the hot story of this campaign.

Bennett is laughing but others are crying. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is crying, as the magnificent creation called Likud-Beiteinu shrinks before his eyes. The American election strategist Arthur Finkelstein was summoned urgently to Israel - a week before his planned visit - in an effort to staunch the bleeding. Also crying is Yair Lapid, who, on the basis of some mysterious information, has vowed to win 22 seats. He's currently hovering at around half that number.

Other weepers are Shas leaders Aryeh Deri and Eli Yishai - proving that the whole is not greater than the sum of its parts. Also lamenting is Kadima head Shaul Mofaz, who, in the worst-case scenario, will have the dubious pleasure of signing the death certificate of the largest party in the outgoing Knesset, and, in the best, see it get barely enough votes to be part of the new Knesset.

Tears are also flowing from Zahava Gal-On (Meretz ), who can't understand why the left-wingers are not streaming in their masses to the only left-wing Zionist party that is proud of what it is - and from Shelly Yacimovich, whose party has so far been unable to recover from Tzipi Livni's entry into the race and has been stuck at 17 seats for weeks (down from the 21-22 it had for a whole year ). Livni is also lamenting, because she wanted to be the tie-breaker and bloc-buster, but so far is busting only the center-left bloc.
Yacimovich's announcement on Thursday that she will not join a Netanyahu government - after stubbornly declining to rule out such a possibility until this point in the race and claiming that it would be "political folly" - is intended to bring back the seats she had been losing recently. This was the sharpest U-turn of this campaign, and it is the result of panic. Anyway, the chances that this would have been an issue are less than slim: Netanyahu does not want Yacimovich in his government. She spells trouble. He's trying to catch the attention of Lapid and Livni.

On Tuesday the election commercials will start to be broadcast on the three main TV channels. With 18 seats still in the floating category, a brilliant TV campaign or a good spot that is repeated almost every evening can move a certain number of seats from one side to another. It will be interesting to follow the Likud-Beiteinu ads to see how far to the right they veer. Netanyahu is a great believer in getting messages across. The organizational aspect doesn't interest him. "A minute on Channel 2 is worth 100 parlor meetings," he often tells his aides.

This is the fourth election campaign in which Netanyahu has headed Likud. He was elected twice and defeated twice. He has never managed to get 30 seats or more for the party, as Ariel Sharon did easily with his 38 in 2003. In 1996, when Netanyahu was elected prime minister, Likud-Gesher-Tzomet won 32 seats, of which Likud’s share was 22 seats. In 1999, Likud under Netanyahu tumbled to 19 seats; in 2006 it plunged to a nadir of 12; in 2009, it rose to 27. At present, according to the polls, the share of Likud representatives in the joint list with Yisrael Beiteinu is 21-22 seats.

In the merger deal between Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman, Likud is now losing six seats, but Yisrael Beiteinu losing only two. Lieberman is riding Likud’s back into the next Knesset. Is it any wonder that Likud’s grass-roots activists and Central Committee members are furious at the partnership?

Nor are they alone. Likud MKs and ministers are asking themselves, with trepidation, what Netanyahu and Lieberman agreed about divvying up the ministerial portfolios in the next government. According to the regular model, Yisrael Beiteinu will get six portfolios, one more than in the outgoing government, and Likud nine − five fewer than it now has. What an uproar we can expect in the ruling party when Judgment Day − the day ministerial portfolios are distributed − arrives.

Survival game
Last week, former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert took part in two political events organized by Kadima, alongside party leader Shaul Mofaz. In both of them he targeted Netanyahu, Yacimovich and Livni. He railed against their lack of content, empty slogans, pretentiousness and unfulfillable promises. Yair Lapid alone escaped his verbal barbs.

It is no small matter when a former prime minister throws himself wholeheartedly into the campaign of a party that is tottering on the edge of an electoral cliff. He also attended two meetings at Kadima’s campaign headquarters. “Play up Mofaz,” he told the staff, “his experience, his record, his character.”

The connection between Olmert and the party he led for three years is a perfect confluence of interests. On the bride’s side, he is considered the most effective weapon in the struggle for the hearts and minds of Kadima voters who defected to Livni’s Hatnuah, but have not yet come to terms with their choice. Olmert is the only player on the Kadima court who is capable of persuading some of them to return home.
On the groom’s side, there is a dual interest. First of all, Olmert enjoys attacking

Livni. After it looked as though they had resumed a normal relationship and even talked about running together − something happened the week or two before her decision to run and his decision not to run. In private conversations, Olmert talks about her with the tough language he used in the period of the Winograd Committee report on the Second Lebanon War or during the period of his police interrogations. He also relates that MKs who abandoned Kadima for Hatnuah are expressing remorse.

About two weeks before the deadline for submitting party lists of candidates ‏(December 6‏), Olmert went abroad for eight days. Until then, he and Livni had been in constant touch. During his stay in the United States, Olmert broke off contact. Livni left messages but he didn’t get back to her. However, he did speak with others, and at length. More


 Pirate party sets sail in Israel

Shiver me timbers! Israel's newest political party has more than a platform - it's got a plank.

The Israel Pirate Party is one of 34 competing in the country's Jan. 22 parliamentary election. While only a dozen or so have a realistic chance of getting elected, many Israelis fed up with existential issues like the conflict with the Palestinians and possible war with Iran are seeking sanctuary with some of the quirkier parties.

It's a regular ritual in Israeli politics. In addition to the usual battles between parties representing doves and hawks on the one hand and secular and Orthodox Jews on the other, each election season typically offers an array of obscure and offbeat parties.

Previous offerings have included a faction calling for the establishment of a national casino and a group led by a fishmonger and puppeteer that tried to abolish bank fees. Green Leaf has made several runs for parliament looking to legalize marijuana, and in the 2009 election an offshoot of that party aligned with elderly Holocaust survivors in one of the oddest mergers in Israel's mottled political history. It, too, fell far short of making the house.

This time around, a castaway from the marijuana-Holocaust party has drifted even further off shore, offering a "pirate" platform that promotes a variety of personal freedoms, including the right to plagiarize and sail the high seas.

The main chance for niche parties to make a splash is just before the election, during a two-week TV ads campaign. Since all registered parties receive government advertising subsidies, even the most marginal movements can get airtime. All the party commercials are concentrated in a single nightly segment on TV.

The pirates, though, had a head start. The party's 33-year-old ponytailed leader, Ohad Shem-Tov, showed up at parliament to register the party earlier this month wearing a scarf on his head and a hook on his hand.

This is the same mate who won notoriety in Israel for heading to Gaza on the eve of Israel's 2005 withdrawal and recommending that settlers prepare for their impending forced evacuation by rolling a joint and relaxing.

Accompanying him, skull in hand, was one of his hearties, who identifies himself - with proper pirate inflection - as Noam Kuzarrr. He sported long black hair and an impressive "black beard."

Number five on the party list, Rafram Haddad, spent five months in Libyan captivity facing espionage charges before he was released in 2010 in a secret deal brokered between Israel and since-deposed Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi.

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