Sep 23, 2008

September 2008 Israel News Review

By David Dolan


Tzipi Livni, Israel’s Foreign Minister, emerged victorious in the Kadima party primary vote held on September 17. Despite earlier indications that she would probably be forced into a runoff vote with the more hawkish Transport Minister Shaul Mofaz, the 50 year old female politician garnered just enough ballots in the first round to be declared the outright winner. However her supporters were embarrassed when initial television exit poll projections that she would defeat Mofaz by around 10 points proved to be far too optimistic.

Analysts said the fact that Livni received a mere 431 more votes than Mofaz out of over 38,000 cast by Kadima party members indicates she may have serious trouble forming a viable coalition government. Under Israeli law, the new Kadima leader has just 28 days to try and stitch together such a government after being formally asked to do so by President Shimon Peres. However he can grant Livni a two week extension if he believes she is likely to succeed in her appointed task during that additional time frame.

The Israeli political scene remained murky at best in the wake of the mid September vote. It was not only unclear whether the dovish Foreign Minister could actually form a viable government, but also exactly when current Prime Minister Ehud Olmert would finally exit Israel’s tumultuous political stage.

Dealing with a recommendation by Israeli police investigators in early September that he be indicted over various corruption charges, Olmert formally resigned as premier just a few days after the close primary vote. However he will continue to serve as Israel’s caretaker leader until a new government if formed. If Livni fails to do so within six weeks after receiving her initial charge from President Peres, another Knesset member could be asked to step up to the plate. If that occurs, and the chosen Knesset member fails to knit a new coalition together, fresh national elections must be held within three months.

Despite the political upheaval, peace talks with Palestinian Authority leaders continued to draw headlines, with further indications that the most contentious issue between the two sides—the final status of Jerusalem—is under discussion despite Olmert’s insistence that this is not the case.

Meanwhile tensions remained high with Iran, Hizbullah and Hamas during the month as army commanders revealed they are preparing for a possible Hamas coup attempt early next year against the PA government that rules most Arab population centers in Judea and Samaria. Many Israelis were also transfixed on the severe financial crisis gripping the United States in September, which obviously has far reaching global implications, especially for countries like Israel that are strongly allied to America.


A virtual unknown in the Israeli political scene until she entered parliament for the first time in 1999 (after serving for a short time in the early 1980s as a low level agent in the Israeli Mossad secret service), the Tel Aviv-born Tzipi Livni nevertheless beat three veteran Israeli male politicians, all ex-security officials, to become her party’s first female leader. Not a few Israeli political analysts compared the race to the US presidential campaign, where a noted military and security expert—John McCain—is up against a relative newcomer to the political scene with little security background.

In Israel’s case, Livni—a licensed attorney who garnered 16,936 votes in the leadership contest—was competing with Shaul Mofaz (16,505 votes) who has previously held many top army positions all the way up to Chief of Staff, and was also Ariel Sharon’s Defense Minister. One of the other two candidates that Livni bested, Avi Dichter, had served as head of Israel’s internal Shin Bet intelligence agency after a long and distinguished military career, while Interior Minister Meir Shitreet had earlier held the role of Internal Security minister. In the September 17 vote, Shitreet captured 8.5% of the vote, while Dichter received just 6.5%.

There was another obvious comparison with the US presidential contest—a woman was hoping to grab the top ring. Of course, former American First Lady Hillary Clinton failed in her attempt to wrest the Democratic Party nomination, although the female angle is clearly still alive in the US contest with Senator McCain’s surprise choice of Alaska’s Governor Sarah Palin as his running mate. However unlike in Washington, Livni would not become Israel’s first ever female leader if she succeeds in forming a new coalition government—the late Golda Meir secured that distinction when she became prime minister in 1974.


In her victory statement, the beaming Foreign Minister declared she was thankful for the “national responsibility given me by the public,” despite the fact she barely won the Kadima tussle, and only a small portion of Israeli voters were eligible to cast ballots in the internal party competition. Speaking as if she had already overcome the many obstacles ahead and successfully knitted together a coalition government to become Israel’s new prime minister, Livni added that she will “approach this job with great reverence.”

Political analysts noted that several exit polls suggested many Kadima voters chose Livni mainly because national opinion surveys reveal she has the best chance of beating opposition leader Binyamin Netanyahu in the next general election. Quite a few said they actually preferred Mofaz or one of the other two candidates to head the party. But many added it was more important to select the politician which has the best chance of keeping the Likud party leader from returning to the premier’s chair. Several recent opinion polls had Livni just slightly trailing Netanyahu if national elections were held today, with Mofaz performing more poorly against the veteran Likud leader.

Labor party leader Ehud Barak lags far behind both Livni and Netanyahu in all current popularity surveys. Analysts say Barak’s low political standing will undoubtedly help Livni in her attempts to glue together a workable coalition government, although Labor’s cost for jumping aboard will probably be very high. The Defense Minister and former premier wants to avoid new elections at all costs, and is said to be hoping he can improve his ratings under a new Kadima-led government, especially if military conflict erupts in the region. Therefore he is the most likely candidate to bring his 19 seat party—the second largest in the current Knesset—into a new Livni administration. At the same time, some Labor leaders are concerned that Livni might become more popular as the country’s premier, and so are urging Barak to hold out for early elections.

Meanwhile Netanyahu has vowed to thwart the new Kadima leader’s declared goal of establishing a broad unity government, which she says would be designed to help heal the country after nearly three years under the deeply unpopular Ehud Olmert. The Likud chief insists it is time for the entire country to choose a new premier, not just registered members of the embattled Kadima party. Most political analysts predict that fresh Knesset elections, currently scheduled for late 2010, will indeed be moved up to sometime next year even if Livni succeeds in forming a workable coalition, especially if any preliminary peace accord is initialed with the Palestinian Authority.


Binyamin Netanyahu was among many politicians who predicted that the ruling Kadima party will soon fall to pieces in the wake of Livni’s razor thin victory. This contention was significantly buttressed when Shaul Mofaz abruptly resigned from the cabinet and the Knesset just one day after the close leadership ballot, saying he wanted “to take time out” to reassess his future goals and moves. The action stunned Livni, who attempted to phone Mofaz to try to persuade him to change his mind. The narrowly defeated politician refused to even take her call, which many saw as a severe personal blow to Livni’s new party leadership status.

The Likud leader hailed the retiring Mofaz as “a top notch guy who has greatly contributed to Israel’s security over many years of distinguished service in the Israeli Defense Forces.” Netanyahu added that Mofaz’s exit from the political stage, even if just temporary, will greatly weaken any new government that Livni is able to establish. Another prominent Knesset politician, Labor’s Ofir Paz-Pines, echoed this sentiment, saying the unexpected Mofaz resignation showed that “the Kadima party is disintegrating before our very eyes.”

Mofaz, who was born in Iran and appointed defense minister by former PM Sharon in 2002, resisted calls from many party backers that he demand a recount of the close primary vote despite the fact that Livni had beaten him by only just over one per cent. Instead he congratulated the new leader during his concession speech, but said he would not serve in any cabinet that she sets up.

Political analysts agreed that the dramatic departure will greatly weaken the ruling party, along with any coalition government that Livni establishes. It will also increase public perception that Kadima, established by Sharon in late 2005 as a supposedly centrist party, had become a virtual clone of the leftist Labor party under Olmert’s controversial leadership.

The political intrigue intensified when a leading Mofaz supporter, Kadima parliament member Ronit Tirosh, charged soon after the primary outcome was announced that the vote counting process was “riddled with irregularities that bordered on criminal activity.” Speaking on Israel Radio, she challenged the legality of the contest, pointing out that a top Livni aide was present when the votes were counted, while no one was allowed to view the process from the Mofaz camp. She maintained this might have influenced the outcome. Tirosh also noted that the Mofaz campaign had filed several written complaints over this and other questionable matters with the Kadima party’s election committee chairman, Dan Arbel, who she said refused to even look at the objections, let alone formally rule on them.


Using his longtime ties to various religious political parties forged during $nearly ten years as Jerusalem’s mayor, the back slapping Olmert was able to fairly easily bring the largest Orthodox party, Shas, on board his coalition train in the spring of 2006. However venerated Rabbi Ovadia Yosef and other leaders of the Knesset’s third largest party had become increasingly nervous about their inclusion in his government, especially as it became clear earlier this year that Olmert and Livni might be willing to re-divide Jerusalem as part of a final peace deal.

Livni was clearly the most dovish of the four candidates who ran for Kadima party leader—strongly backing Sharon’s controversial 2005 Gaza Strip pullout and playing a pivotal role in the US-backed peace process with the Palestinian Authority. Therefore it is thought highly unlikely that Shas, with 12 Knesset seats, will join any coalition she attempts to form unless it also includes the Likud and other right wing and religious parties. However the new Kadima leader’s pledge to continue negotiating with PA leader Mahmoud Abbas will probably prevent all such parties from joining any government she attempts to set up.

Although more hidden from public view, some analysts insist that another serious obstacle in Livni’s way could be the basic fact that she is a woman. They point out that female leaders of any kind are almost unheard of in most religious parties and institutions. “Under Orthodox law, Rabbi Yosef will not even be allowed to shake her hand,” noted one analyst on Israel television.

If the doors on her right remain tightly closed as expected, Livni will have no other choice but to turn to left wing parties to form a viable coalition. While Labor’s Ehud Barak will probably be willing to join as noted above, along with the small seven-seat Pensioners Party and the five-seat Meretz socialist party, it would not have the necessary majority of 61 Knesset backers without the inclusion of Shas.

Still, Livni believes she could rely upon at least some Arab party Knesset legislators to back her from outside the coalition if she brings a final peace deal to the legislature for an up or down vote. However many Israelis would strongly object if such critical issues as the future of Jerusalem, permanent borders and Palestinian refugees were in effect decided by a handful of Arab politicians, especially since some are stridently anti-Israel in their public comments and actions.


An American diplomat stationed in Israel’s ancient and modern capital city created a firestorm during September when he claimed that Israeli and Palestinian leaders have agreed to negotiate the explosive issue of Jerusalem as part of the White House-backed peace process. Jacob Walles, the US counsel general for the eastern half of Jerusalem and adjacent Arab areas, told the Palestinian Al-Ayyam newspaper that Israel’s leaders understood that the talks would probably eventually result in a re-division of Judaism’s holiest city on earth.

Walles averred that the purported talks would commence with the long standing Palestinian demand for a full Israeli withdrawal to the temporary pre-1967 borders, meaning the entire historic walled Old City and the Temple Mount could come under full Palestinian Muslim control. However he added that “some border adjustments” would probably be agreed upon by the two sides, without clarifying if these would be mainly inside Jerusalem’s current municipal boundaries or elsewhere. The American diplomat said any preliminary or “shelf” agreement arrived at before the end of this year would devolve to the next American administration, whether led by Senator McCain or Barak Obama.

Right wing political parties, including Shas, angrily charged that Olmert and Livni were apparently ready to abandon the Jewish people’s historic heartland to the weak and unstable Palestinian Authority. However the retiring Prime Minister’s office responded by reiterating Olmert’s pledge to postpone the highly emotive issue of Jerusalem to future negotiations after a preliminary shelf accord is arrived at. However analysts noted that the same promise has not been made by the new Kadima leader, leading to speculation that Livni may be more willing to open up the Jerusalem can of worms now, whatever the political consequences.

PM Olmert met with his PA counterpart on the eve of the Kadima party leadership vote, reassuring Mahmoud Abbas that he intends to keep up the negotiating pace as long as he remains in office, even in a caretaker role. This came amid unverified media reports that Olmert has offered to hand over around 98% of the territory captured from Jordanian forces in 1967 to full PA control in a final peace pact, which would reportedly include the bustling Jerusalem Jewish suburbs of Ma’ale Adumim and Givat Ze’ev along with most Arab neighborhoods in the capital city.

While Olmert’s office would neither confirm nor deny the reports, the departing PM did tell his cabinet in mid September that Israelis who believe their government can maintain total control over Judea and Samaria “are deluding themselves.” Olmert’s purported willingness to abandon most of Judaism’s biblical heartland to Arab Muslim control angered many Israeli politicians, including several members of his own Kadima party.


The radical Iranian and Syrian-backed Palestinian Hamas movement announced that it will launch a violent coup attempt against PA forces inside Jordan’s former West Bank if Abbas does not step down as PA leader next January. That is when his two term presidential rule is set to expire. A third term is prohibited under Palestinian law. However some top Abbas aides said he will stay in office for one more year in order to complete peace talks with Israel, claiming this is allowed under emergency legislation passed by the Palestinian parliament several years ago. Israeli army commanders say they are gearing up for a possible showdown with Hamas forces in the area early next year. Hamas replied that this was further proof that Abbas is nothing more than “a stooge for Zionist occupation forces.”

Meanwhile Israeli military and political leaders were unhappy to learn that the White House has refused to grant them permission to fly over Iraq if any Israeli air force action is launched against Iran’s threatening nuclear program. This came soon after the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency stated that Iran is preparing its long range missiles to accommodate nuclear warheads. The North Korean designed missiles, with a range of around 1,250 miles, can potentially strike targets in Israel and southeast Europe.

However, the Pentagon did inform Congress it will allow Boeing to sell 1,000 precision guided missiles to Israel which can strike targets from a distance of 60 miles and slice thought up to eight feet of reinforced concrete. The US earlier turned down an Israeli request to purchase the more powerful “bunker buster” bombs currently deployed in America’s arsenal. This came as an increasingly anti-American Kremlin announced it is renovating the Syrian port of Tartus so that Russian naval vessels can be based there for operations in the eastern Mediterranean Sea.

Meanwhile Iran’s radical Shiite leaders continued their annihilationist verbal assaults upon the world’s only Jewish majority state. Extremist president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said once again that Israel must disappear from the regional map, adding with a straight face that Hitler’s mass slaughter of millions of European and North Africa Jews during WWII did not take place. He also threatened a preemptive strike against “the occupation Zionist regime.”

Two days later, overall Iranian leader Ayatollah Khamenei said his country is “on a collision course” with Israel, which he claimed “acts as a stooge in the service of all the arch foes of the Muslim world.” He went on to say that Iran’s beef was not just with the government of Israel, but with its citizens as well, augmenting Ahmadinejad’s earlier vows to wipe both out in a coming second holocaust.

In increasingly tumultuous times like these, it is essential to recall that the God of Israel is still in overall control of the swirling events all around us—the same Sovereign Lord who promised that His people Israel will one day “live securely on their own land with no one to make them afraid” (Ezekiel 39:26).