Election Fever Hits Israel, Hamas
This week rumors swirled about the possibility Benjamin Netanyahu will call for Israeli elections. Despite no official announcement or confirmation, all signs and sources indicate Israelis will go to the polls on September 4. The term of an Israeli prime minister is supposed to be four years but Israeli politics are as unpredictable as they are confusing. Here is a run down of the process so far and how it went during the last election in 2009:
- Parties hold their own nationwide primaries to determine their leader. This step in the process is complete. On January 31, 2012, Netanyahu’s Likud party held their primary.The prime minister remained the head of the party, winning 76.8 percent of the vote. Kadima held its primary on March 27, 2012, resulting in a big loss for current opposition leader Tzipi Livni. Shaul Mofaz beat her 62-38.
These are the next steps…
- National elections can then take place. Voters pick one party to vote for and every party that gets above 2 percent can get a seat in the Knesset. The proportion of the popular vote determines the number of seats each party receives. Israelis last voted in February 2009. 12 parties passed the threshold to get seats. Kadima won with 28 seats. Likud received 27.
- The president picks the party leader most likely to get a 61-seat majority in the Knesset. He or she then has 42 days to finalize a coalition. For the first time in history, the Israeli president did not choose someone from the largest party. Shimon Peres saw that the right wing parties overall got more votes than the left leaning ones. Therefore, he chose Netanyahu to form a government.
- The selected leader courts other smaller parties to convince them to join a coalition. The government’s cabinet must proportionally represent the number of seats each party in the coalition received; the leader can typically sway the smaller parties by promising them certain positions. In just over a month, Netanyahu convinced right-wing parties Yisrael Beiteniu and Shas as well as the left-center Labor party to join.
- The Knesset votes to approve the government with a minimum of 61 votes needed. With his coalition’s support, Netanyahu reached 66 votes. His is the largest cabinet in history with 30 members.
Netanyahu’s coalition has been strong in the past three years despite a few cantankerous partners. Israel’s typical coalition government only lasts about 22 months, but so far this one has lasted 37. Mati Tuchfeld from the pro-Likud paper Israel Hayom explains just how successful Netanyahu’s government has been, writing, “A government this stable has not been seen here in decades, nor has there been a coalition so strong that it never lost a Knesset vote.” So what happened?
Domestic issues appear to be the likely culprits for capsizing the coalition. The Israeli Supreme Court ordered the government to dismantle outposts in the West Bank and the ultra-right wing parties were fiercely opposed. The state asked the court to push back the May 1 deadline and they got a 60-day extension. During the same week, Netanyahu retroactively legalized several new settlements to show his right-wing credentials. Eventually a decision will have to be made about the outposts and Netanyahu does not want his government torn apart by it.
There is also a debate going on in Israeli society about the Tal Law, which exempts Orthodox yeshiva students from the mandatory military service. Passed in 1999, the Supreme Court ruled that the state had until August 1, 2012 to toss it out. Netanyahu’s coalition is again deeply divided on this issue. The ultra-Orthodox members of a coalition hold the balance of power in Israeli coalitions and the Tal Law is one of their top concerns. On the other side of the issue is surprisingly Avigdor Lieberman who’s Yisrael Beiteinu party is on the right when it comes to Arabs but is also secular. On Sunday, Lieberman said on Israel’s Meet the Press that if the Tal Law is not struck down, “Our commitment to the coalition has ended.”
Despite all of the favorable polling Netanyahu is receiving, on May 4, Ha’aretz reports that he is considering running a joint Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu ticket with Lieberman. The prime minister is concerned about the three center-left parties of Labor, Kadima and Yesh Atid fielding a joint list and getting enough votes to form a government. However, the odds are slim that any of the three leaders of those parties would ever agree to have either of the other two named the head of a list.
Hamas is also shaking things up in their leadership hierarchy. On April 24, Ha’aretz reported that the group’s members in Gaza held “utterly covert elections” two weeks prior and paper’s sources indicated that Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyah was easily voted the head of the Gaza political bureau and the moderate wing of the party did not succeed in getting elected to the body.
The Washington Post explains,
Hamas consists of four branches — Gaza; the Israeli-controlled West Bank, where it operates underground; Israeli prisons where thousands of Hamas members are held; and exile where most of the top leadership is based.
In elections held every four years, each of the branches chooses delegates to an overall leadership body, called the Shura Council, which consists of several dozen members. The Shura Council selects a decision-making political bureau and a supreme leader.
In elections in Gaza earlier this week, Hamas members selected a new local leadership and delegates to the Shura Council. By next month, the other three branches are to complete their selection, to be followed by the election of the supreme leader, Hamas officials said.
According to theNational “some analysts questioned the Ha’aretz report and cautioned that it was too early to draw conclusions about who won the elections. Some, such as Mamoun Abu Shahla, a Gaza-based businessman who helped broker the Hamas-Fatah reconciliation pact, said moderates had come out ahead of the hard-liners.” According to Shahla the opposite of the Ha’aretz story is true, because “you can read from all the chatter about the recent elections here that the moderates won.”
A senior Hamas member echoed this sentiment, telling The Washington Post, “Hamas (in Gaza) will be more realistic, more moderate after the election.”
Hamas denies that Haniyeh won, but will not say what actually happened. Hamas does not reveal much about its internal structure in order to protect the leaders from Israeli assassinations.
Haniyeh is gearing up to battle for position in the Hamas leadership against current political bureau chief Khaled Mashaal, who was based in Damascus before leaving for Qatar. Mashaal announced last year he will not run for reelection but most analysts say he is bluffing and think he may retain the current post. He was one of the main supporters of reconciliation with Fatah and moderating the party. Haniyah and most of the leadership based in Gaza do not agree with the conciliatory tone that could weaken their control over Gaza, creating a power struggle between them and the leadership in exile.
An internal vote by Hamas’ leadership is expected to take place later this month and sources tell Ha’aretz that they are going to do some restructuring. Mashaal will continue to head up the political bureau but after leaving Syria, the exiled leadership is scattered around the region and many Hamas leaders think that the Gazan authorities should control the organization’s budget and military wing.
The National’s article indicates that Mashaal may still have the majority of the support because Haniyeh could damage Hamas’ public perception. The party has improved ties with Egypt and Tunisia and they prefer Mashaal’s reliability and moderation.