Saturday, November 30, 2019

Will Israel's Religious Zionists finally get smart?

(posted in Israel Saturday night, app 100 minutes after end of Shabbat)

As many of you already know, Israel today faces the prospect of a third national election in one 12-month period, April 2019-March 2020. It's a historic first for Israel, so many attempts to create a coalition government. 

One culprit for this three-elections-in-one-year dilemma is, in my opinion, the very nature of Israel's election system. It's not a system that pits two or perhaps three rivals against one another, as in the USA, Canada or the UK. It's messier than that. 

Israel's election system seems designed to encourage 20-40 Parties to join in. It's a system that requires not just politicking to get elected--but, for the winner, even more politicking to create a ruling coalition after the election, where a coalition of Members of the Knesset commit to 'bind' (in a loose way) together to create a minimum 61-seat majority for the winner. In Israel's system, getting to 61 seats is not guaranteed by simply winning an election. That's why this second set of politicking after the election is so necessary.

A winner might not be able to get those 61 seats because the political compromises he needs to make to get those seats may be more than he can ideologically bear. Or, no one wants to join his side. 

This means that Israel has an election system that always has the seed for what we've got now--a stalemate or, perhaps more accurately, a mess, with neither of the two top rivals able to cobble together 61 Members of Knesset to create that ruling coalition. It's a system that actually opens the door to great election uncertainty, when instead an election should, by definition, put an end to political uncertainty.

Israel's election system is unwieldy. Most here in Israel can't even explain how it works. Read herehere and here. After you've read these three articles, try to explain to someone how Israel's election system works. 

Israel's election system seems to attract political fragmentation the way a magnet attracts metal filings. For example. a modern Israeli national election doesn't present Israel's voters with 2-4 Parties. It presents somewhere between 30-50 political Parties, all seeking to get voted into the Knesset. But, typically, less than 15 get enough votes to get into the  Knesset. In the September 2019 election (our most recent election), only 10 Parties got into the Knesset. The votes of the remaining, failed 21 Parties got split up and redistributed according to a complex pre-established formula (see those three articles, above). In the end, the 20+ smallest Parties disappeared--and their votes got divided among the bigger Parties. Some of these redistributed votes actually went to Parties the voters for these tiny Parties abhor. 

This 'lost vote' issue is especially important to Israel's Religious Zionists. During an election season, this political segment typically forms 5-7 Parties, most of which  don't get enough votes to qualify to enter the Knesset; some of these Parties actually fail and pull out of running just before the election, a failure-to-compete that might encourage supporters to skip voting altogether (why vote when my favorite Party just 'died'?).

Religious Zionism isn't a huge segment of Israel's population. Yes, it's larger than Israel's true Left. But the committed Religious Zionist base still only represents perhaps 20% (at most) of the total voter base (my estimate). Failing to unite means that much of this base isn't proportionally represented in the Knesset.

For example, in the September 2019 election, only two of some five Religious Zionist Parties qualified to get into the Knesset. If all Religious Parties had run as one Party, Religious Zionists could have gotten at least another 4 seats in the Knesset (see the articles above to understand the need to 'pass the threshold test'). But because the Religious Zionist vote was split between all those 5 Parties (above), the votes of the three failed Parties didn't go to this 'bloc'. They were redistributed among non-Religious Zionist Parties.Those Religious Zionist votes, therefore, were indeed 'lost'--or, as some would say, wasted.

By contrast, in that same September 2019 election, the Haredi (ultra-religious) were united into just two Parties. The Ultra-Religious in Israel represent perhaps 11-15% of Israel's population. But because they have united, this 'bloc' is truly proportionally represented in the Knesset: it won a total of 16 seats in the Knesset, which is approximately equal to its population size--13% of the total Knesset vs 11-15% of total Israeli population). The Ultra-Religious are, therefore, fairly and 'proportionally' represented in the Knesset.

The same isn't true for the Religious Zionists. The population of Religious Zionists isn't proportionally represented in the Knesset, as are Haredi: while Religious Zionists may represent some 15-20% of Israel's population, they secured only 7 seats (equal to 5.8%) in the Knesset. Those 'lost' 4 seats (from the failed Parties, above) would have given the Religious Zionists perhaps 11 seats, or some 9.2% of the Knesset--still not as proportionate as the Haredi vote/population numbers (above).

That means Religious Zionists are under-represented in the Knesset. Of course, there's another complication for these Zionists: some Religious Zionists will vote not for a Religious Zionist Party, but for a larger Party (typically Likud or, this year, Blue-and-White). This year's potential 9-10% representation in the Knesset is, possibly, the best that Religious Zionists could hope for--a situation that leaves the Religious Zionist population severely under-represented in the Knesset. 

Nevertheless, in political terms, if all the failed Religious Zionist Parties had been united with the successful Religious Parties (which won seats in the Knesset), the four votes that  got 'lost' (see above) would have gone to the Religious Zionists, to give these Zionists 11 seats, not the 7 they currently hold.

How important would that 11 seats have been? Very important. The current 7 seats makes the Religious Zionist the 7th largest Party in the Knesset (of 10 Parties that won seats). But 11 seats would have made Religious Zionists the 4th largest Party, after Blue-and-White, Likud and the Arab Joint List. 

The point of Israel's election isn't just to win; it's to corner control of as many seats in the Knesset as one can. Seats equal power. Put another way, for an Israeli election, the mantra shouldn't be 'me first' but instead, 'united, we'll stand strong; divided, we'll be ignored'.

Of ten Parties, it's relatively easy to ignore the 7th of that 10. It's much harder to ignore the 4th largest Party. 

Clearly, Religious Zionists haven't learned that lesson. 

The longer Religious Zionists refuse to unify, and the longer they spread their votes over too many Parties that fail, the longer the entire Religious Zionist bloc remains, essentially, partially disenfranchised. 

But now, there may be a change. A group of Religious Zionists has had enough. It's created a petition. It's demanding that all Religious Zionist Parties run as one Party (here)--including primaries to choose the new Party slate.

The petitioners claim that, if rebuffed, they'll vote for no Religious Zionist Party at all, but instead for one of the larger Parties, presumably Likud or Blue-and-White. They sound serious.

Personally, I believe that if Religious Zionists really want power, they should not join together among themselves to form a new, united Party. Instead, they should join Likud.

If they'd done that in the first-of-two-so-far national elections (back in April, 2019), the lost seats might have been 5 or 6 (from Zehut, Otzma Yehudit and Naftali Bennet's failed Party), not four. Even with an additional 5 seats, back in that April election, Netanyahu would have been able to form a coalition with at least 62 seats--enough to form a government. 

If all Religious Zionists had united under Likud, we wouldn't have the  mess we've got now, stalemated, with no one able to attract the needed 61 seats. If the Religious Zionists had joined Likud back in April, Netanyahu would now be Prime Minister: game over. 

As it is, Religious Zionists haven't united. They won't join Likud. And Israel suffers an insufferable mess.

Will Religious Zionists finally get smart--or will they stay fragmented? Will they unite in some way to win? Will they join Likud to win?

Stay tuned. Just don't hold your breathe while you wait.

Sunday, November 17, 2019

The greatest threat to a democracy: a rogue police and Prosecutor's Office

(Last update: November 18, 2019)

Can a democracy survive if a nation's voting public no longer trusts the police and its legal arm, the nation's Prosecutor's Office? As you'll see in a moment, recent events in Israel suggest just such a question. 

This question has arisen because of a series of criminal investigations against Israel's Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu (here). Rumor has it that an indictment now appears practically guaranteed (here), possibly as early as November 26, 2019. 

Netanyahu has been fighting to save his career. For some, the fact that Netanyahu fights against the criminal accusations against him doesn't prove that Israel has a vibrant democracy--you know, that Israel allows the man to claim he's innocent until proven guilty. Instead, those against Netanyahu take a different approach. They say that his fighting for his career threatens the integrity of Israel's democracy (here). 

These anti-Netanyahu 'experts' see their accusations against Netanyahu as pure proof of guilt, nothing less. Essentially, they ask, how can a democracy remain a democracy when those found to be criminally guilty (in the media) remain in power?

For others, Netanyahu is innocent until proven guilty. That, they say, is his democratic right. The  counter-argument that  'we must defend our democracy by forcing the man to resign now' only suggests that it is they who stand against Netanyahu in this matter who threaten Israel's democracy. 

The police and its legal arm, the national Prosecutor's Office (the Attorney General's Office) contribute to the fog that has surrounded this 'good for democracy or bad' discussion. They've been working overtime to criminalize what some call normal interactions between politicians and publishers (here). If Netanyahu goes to trial, the police and the Prosecutor's Office will cast a chill on publisher-politician behavior--and give police effective control over the press (see here).

The argument here is that he who controls the freedom of speech (and press) more easily controls whether or not a nation retains its democracy.

Israel's voters don't know how to respond to such a discussion. They can barely understand Israel's election system, let alone a discussion about what threatens the democracy that underpins those elections. 

This is a complicated case with enormous consequences. It isn't just about Netanyahu. It's about how a democracy is supposed to work, something Israel's Prosecutor's Office might not understand (here). 

Voters have reacted in two ways to all of this. First, these criminal allegations against Netanyahu have meant that Israeli voters have become unable to decide who they want to see as a national leader. The key election question seems to have been, how can I vote for someone the media calls a criminal? 

The police-media drumbeat against Netanyahu has taken its toll. In  reality, voters have turned against Netanyahu. But barely--only enough to give his opponent a meager one-seat advantage in this last election. That's not a resounding rejection of the current leader (Netanyahu). But it's enough to paralyze Israel's election system.

In fact, in the two election-attempts we'd had during 2019, voters haven't chosen anything at all: neither Netanyahu nor anyone else in Israel has received enough votes to form a national coalition government. (Read here for a fairly even-handed look at how Israel's election system works, one that was prepared in April 2019 before the first of two elections in 2019; for an explanation of why that first election failed--and why now the second election is so close to failing (Benny Gantz has until November 20th to form a government; if he cannot, there could well be a third election)--read what I would call a highly-charged-but-possibly-accurate view of Israel's voting system, by Daniel Greenfield (here).

This question of Israel's democracy being threatened started because of what some see as police misbehavior during its investigations against Netanyahu. Police have been investigating Netanyahu for almost three years for crimes against the State (or, the 'people'). Netanyahu now faces serious criminal charges for bribery, corruption and what Israel calls, 'breach of trust' (here). 

These investigations appear, so far as many voters are concerned, to render Netanyahu a criminal (above). At least, that's how some in the media present this unfolding drama. While there is no law that says a Prime Minister indicted for crimes must step down until he's been cleared of all charges, many in Israel's media cry that Netanyahu is guilty-until-proven-innocent--and must therefore step down immediately. They claim he is 'clearly' unfit to hold National Office, something which, of course, has not yet been proven. 

Given the pressure the police and their media allies have put on the Prosecutor's Office through almost three years of damning leaks against Netanyahu, the Attorney General may be trapped. He may feel that this 'ongoing public trial' the police and media have engaged in against the PM needs to be cleared up. Facing three years' worth of damning anti-Netanyahu media reports, the Attorney General may feel the only way to end the anti-Netanyahu clamoring is with a trial.

The stakes for Netanyahu are high. If found guilty, he (Israel's longest-serving Prime Minister) could land in prison. 

The second part of Israel's voter response to these accusations has just shown up in a new poll. Here, just 22% of Israelis maintain a strong faith in Israel's police, and only 28% percent feel the same about Israel's Prosecutor's Office (here). 

This isn't good news for the police, the Prosecutor's Office--or for Israel. On average, some 75% of Israeli voters appear not to trust the police or the Prosecutor's Office. Please note that these numbers may not be just a one-off experience  for Israel. They're part of a disturbing trend. 

Back in early March, 2019, some 42 percent of respondents to another poll agreed that, when it came to the accusations against Netanyahu, the public perception was that the nation's Attorney General had caved in to Israel's political Left to hound, harass and seek the arrest of the Prime Minister (here). That's how much voters trusted the Prosecutor's Office (and the police doing the investigations) eight months ago. Now, public trust in these two institutions appears to have cratered, as the latest poll (above) suggests: only 22% of respondents trust the police?

This is dangerous. If a nation's voters come to believe the police are not honest, and if at the same time that public also believes the Prosecutor's Office, which prosecutes those whom the police want prosecuted, also is untrustworthy, then that democracy will be seriously threatened. 

That's how much power the police have. That's how powerful a nation's Prosecutor's Office is. These two institutions are supposed to protect a democracy's Rule of Law. If they 'go bad', they can destroy a democracy.

Have they now gone bad? 

Read Caroline Glick (here). Unelected officials in the Prosecutor's Office will very soon judge Netanyahu. They're going to decide if or how politician-publisher interactions should be criminalized. Apparently, at least some in that office may also have an 'anti-capitalism' (read, 'anti-Western-style democracy') bias as well (Glick, ibid). That's an existential threat to Israel's democracy because Israel has a Liberal, Western-style democracy (here) where the freedoms of speech and press are fundamental to Israel's political structure (ibid); a Netanyahu indictment could redefine what is 'freedom' for the press (see the Glick essay just cited). 

When the police and Prosecutor's Office criminalize politician-publisher interactions, how do you think publishers will start behaving? Will they risk jail by interacting with a politician? Will they risk bankruptcy to defend themselves against a long string of leaks against them?

Indicting Netanyahu means the Prosecutor's Office will not defend two of a Liberal Democracy's founding Principles (to protect freedoms of speech and the press). They will be criminalizing those Principles. 

That doesn't protect anybody's democracy. It hurts it. It undercuts it. Instead of protecting democracy in Israel by indicting Netanyahu, Israel's Prosecutors will be condemning it. That will elevate the power of the police--and that, in turn, will open the door to a state controlled by the police.

This is a real problem for Israel. The nation's democracy is being threatened by the very people supposed to protect it.

The Left in Israel, including much of the media, may finally get what it's wanted for more than a decade--to get rid of Netanyahu. Be careful what you wish for, Israel. You may get it. 

Stay tuned. 

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Israel under attack!

In the early-morning darkness of November 12, 2019, Israel's IDF (Israel Defense Force), along with Israel's Security Agency (Shin Bet), attacked a home in Gaza (here). Killed in that attack was a man named, Baha Abu Al Ata. This is a name you have probably never heard before.

Al Ata was no ordinary man. He was a Senior leader of the terror group, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, one of the  most aggressive anti-Israel organizations trying to destroy the Jewish state. They appear to be based in Gaza. He is considered to have been responsible for most of this organization's recent anti-Israel terror activities in Gaza. He led and personally participated in attacks against Israeli civilians (ibid). He is considered to have been responsible for  most of the terror attacks against Israel from from Gaza over the past year (ibid).

He was no saint. He lived to commit violence against Israel. He died an appropriately violent death.

Less than an hour after Al Ata died, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad threatened revenge. "We will" it declared, "Shake the Zionist entity" (newsbrief, arutzsheva, 0543, November 12, 2019). 

This is exactly what Israel experiences this morning. At 0553 today, just ten minutes after that threat of 'revenge', air raid sirens in Southern Israel (near the Gaza-Israel border) began to sound. It is now 1050 in the morning here in Israel, November 12, 2019. In the slightly more than 4 hours since that threat, at least 100 rockets have been reported to have been fired into Israel, some 28 just between the two minutes, 1003-1005, alone. That adds up to one rocket every 4.5 seconds.

This barrage continued through 1008. The intensity remained the same, app one rocket every 4-5 seconds.

In Israel's South, near the Gaza border, at least 17 small communities have had air raid sirens sounded. Everyone runs for a shelter. At least two children are reported to have 'collapsed' trying to get into a shelter.

Right now, I'd say the two main target areas for these rockets have been, first, the southern coast of  Israel, including the cities of Sderot and Ashkelon. My guess also is that the second main target has been Tel Aviv.

It's hard to tell. Tel Aviv is my guess because these rockets from Gaza are not guided missiles. They aren't precise. Tel Aviv seems to me be a target area because so many rockets have landed in communities 4-6 miles south of Tel Aviv--or closer.

I have a son and daughter, both married, living in the Northern portion of Tel Aviv, inside city lines. At app 0800 this morning, my daughter 'whatsapped' us to say she had just heard three explosions. My son talked to me at about 1000 this morning. He lives not far from his sister. He reported that, so far, as of 1000, he'd heard 5 explosions. Three of them seemed farther away from his apartment in center-city, two closer. 

Israel is truly under siege. Schools in these areas above are closed. Businesses are closed. People are being told not to go out. My Tel Aviv son-in-law has been told not to go to work today, but to stay home and work from home. It's as close to a 'lock-down' as you can find.

Public transportation has been disrupted.  Train service has been disrupted in these areas. Emergency Medical Services are out in force treating people. So far, these injuries seem to be mostly shock and 'injury'. Public shelters have been opened. An emergency 'situation room' to monitor health services and damage report services have been opened.  

The IAF (Israel Air Force) has begun to bomb Gaza. No reports as yet--but in the past, most targets for the IAF in Gaza have been empty buildings and warehouses. Will we see more of the same?

Today, a Tuesday, is the day new Defense Minister Naftali Bennett is to start his first day as Defense Minister. In the past, he has been a critic of 'soft' Israeli responses to these rocket attacks. Will his response to this new rocket assault be more severe?

Stay tuned.