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Ruling Party's Shift Causes Consternation In Israel

Posted: November 22, 2012

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With elections set for January, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu changed the political landscape last month by announcing his Likud Party would run along with a right-wing party. Moderates say centrists should put aside their differences and unite to take back the political majority.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman shake hands in front of the media after giving a statement in Jerusalem last month. Netanyahu said his Likud Party will join forces with the hard-line party of his foreign minister in upcoming parliamentary elections.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman shake hands in front of the media after giving a statement in Jerusalem last month. Netanyahu said his Likud Party will join forces with the hard-line party of his foreign minister in upcoming parliamentary elections. Bernat Armangue

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 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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