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Thursday, January 17, 2019

A Brief Guide to the upcoming 2019 Israeli Election

Israelis will be heading to the polls on April 9th to elect the 21st Knesset.

Since the election was called, Israel's already large number of parties has grown. In order to get seats in the Knesset, a political party must gain at least 3.25% of the vote. This electoral procedure ensures that a wide range of political parties are able to win seats and make their voices heard.

Image result for Likud partyIsraeli political parties can be sorted by religion, ideology, and ethnicity. Here's who to watch for this election.


Likud is a center-right to right-wing political party, led by current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. It is a secular Jewish political party home to moderate and right-wing factions, but has managed to win elections in 2013 and 2015. It currently leads the polls for the 2019 election, hovering just under 30 seats in polling predictions. Prime Minister Netanyahu has wavered in his support for a Palestinian state, at times believing that there should not be one, other times claiming he supports one.

Benjamin Netanyahu is currently on track to return to the Prime Minister's residence in April if polls are accurate, but he's not guaranteed. The Prime Minister is under multiple corruption investigations, and both the police and the State Prosecutor have recommended that Netanyahu should be indicted. It is up to Israeli Attorney General Avichai Mandelbilt as to whether "Bibi" should be indicted. Netanyahu has claimed that he will not resign if indicted, but Israel has dealt with this sort of thing in recent memory. The Prime Minister before Netanyahu, Ehud Olmert, was indicted for corruption charges and he stepped down before the 2009 election, eventually serving time in prison.

Likud is the largest of the secular right-leaning parties in Israel. But if Netanyahu is indicted, its poll numbers may suffer and it could lose its solid grip on first place. If an indictment does get filed by the Attorney General, it is likely to come in February or March.

So who stands to gain most from this possibility?
YESH ATID Image result for yesh atid

Yesh Atid (English: "There is a Future") is a centrist, liberal political party led by former journalist Yair Lapid. Rather than focus on security issues, Yesh Atid is a party that prefers to shift the political dialogue to the economy and social issues such as conscription, corruption, civil marriage and the like. Although Lapid's party entered into a coalition government with Netanyahu and Likud after the 2013 election, it was increasingly critical of Likud leading up to the 2015 elections. Yesh Atid's security ideals are less hawkish than Likud, but definitely to the right of parties like the social democratic Meretz.

Many opinion polls put Yesh Atid second in the running for Knesset seats, even slightly above Likud at times, but their numbers have dwindled as the election draws closer. Lapid sometimes comes across as wishy-washy and indecisive. How well Lapid can unite the center and appeal to voters on the fence is up in the air, but if Netanyahu is indicted, he and his party stand to gain.

However, they're not the only party aiming to capture the center of Israeli voters.


The Israel Resilience Party is a wild card. It is one of the newer political parties and its positions are not yet very clearly defined. The only concrete political position Gantz has taken lately is a desire to reform Israel's controversial "nation-state" law with respect to Israel's Druze population.

It is led by Benny Gantz, a popular former General in the Israeli Defense Forces.

Gantz's party is set to receive around 12-14 seats if polls are to be believed, close to where Yesh Atid stands in the polls.

Lapid and Gantz has reportedly considered an alliance, but nothing has come to fruition quite yet as both want to run for the Knesset at the top of their party lists. If the parties did join, they'd come within striking distance of Likud in the polls. Theoretically, with Gantz's military experience and Lapid's stature in the Knesset, perhaps Lapid could run for Prime Minister and Gantz could be given the Minister of Defense job, though no such agreement has been made.

Logo haAwoda.svgZIONIST UNION...OR NOT

Hatnuah logo.svg
In the weeks leading up to the 2015 election, the social-democratic Israeli Labor Party and the liberal Hatnuah ("The Movement") party joined under one banner, calling themselves the Zionist Union in hopes that the alliance would gain just enough votes to unseat Prime Minister Netanyahu.

They fell short, winning 24 seats compared to Likud's 30. The parties stayed united until the very beginning of 2019, when they abruptly broke into their separate factions.

The Labor Party isn't the force it used to be. It won a respectable 19 seats in the last election, but since its split with Hatnuah, is only expected to win about 7-10 seats. Hatnuah may not even get into the Knesset if polls are to be believed. Both Labor's current leader, Avi Gabbay, and its co-leader when it was part of Zionist Union, Tziporah "Tzipi" Livni, used to be members of Likud. Some left-leaning Israelis are disappointed that the party has drifted away from its social-democratic roots, and the party hasn't been able to gain back its previous mandates on the basis of security policy since the failure of the Oslo Accords.


Four small political parties make up Israel's secular center-right to right-wing outside of Likud, two of which are brand new.



Kulanu is a center to center-right party founded in 2014 by current Minister of Finance Moshe Kahlon. It won a respectable 10 seats in the Knesset in the 2015 elections, and is hovering around 5-7 seats in recent polls. Whereas Likud focuses on security issues, Kulanu focuses more on economic issues, such as the cost of living.

Yisrael Beiteinu party logoYISRAEL BEITEINU

Yisrael Beiteinu ("Israel Our Home") is a minor right-wing nationalist secular party that primarily represents the interests of Russian-speaking Israelis. It ran on a combined list with Likud in the 2013 election. 


Gesher split off from Yisrael Beiteinu when MK Orly Levy left the party in 2016. Levy chose to resurrect the name of her father's party ("Gesher" means "Bridge" in Hebrew), which broke off of Likud in the 1990s. Levy's decision to split off from Yisrael Beiteinu was primarily driven by her frustrations with the party's lack of attention to social issues. Her new party is polling around 4-5 seats, just above the threshold.

Logo of HaYamin HeHadash.pngNEW RIGHT

New Right is a political party that seeks to bridge the divide between Orthodox Jewish voters and Secular Jewish voters under a far-right mantle. The party is led by Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked, former members of the Jewish Home party. Bennett is a Modern Orthodox Jew, Shaked is secular. Their new party is a vocal proponent of a one-state solution.


Other than Labor and perhaps HaTnuah, Meretz is the only other Jewish party in the Knesset that could be considered a left-wing party. Meretz (Hebrew for "Vigor") is a social-democratic party focused more on social issues than Labor, which tends to focus on the economy and security issues.

Like Labor, Meretz was a stronger political player in the past and has faded in the present.


Jewish political parties in Israel can be separated into two camps: secular and religious. This label is a bit wonky as "secular" in this case usually means "not Orthodox".

There are three major Orthodox political parties in Israel. These parties do not typically win many seats in the Knesset, but with Israel's wealth of political parties and low election threshold (3.25%), they tend to become very important and influential when coalitions are built.

Within this group of parties, you have two Haredi parties and one Modern Orthodox party.

The Haredi parties are called Shas and United Torah Judaism, a coalition of two smaller parties called Agudat Yisrael (Union of Israel) and Degel HaTorah (Flag of the Torah).

Shas represents Mizrahi Jews, who trace their heritage to the Middle East, and Sephardic Jews, who trace their heritage to the Iberian Peninsula)

United Torah Judaism represents Ashkenazi Jews, those who trace their heritage to Western and Central Europe.

There exists some schism between secular (not Orthodox) Jews and Orthodox Jews in Israel. Under current Israeli law, civil marriage is not possible and non-Orthodox Jews must marry in an Orthodox ceremony, causing many secular Jews to marry abroad, as Israel does recognize secular marriages conducted abroad. Many of the secular parties seek to change this but Haredi parties want to uphold the status quo.

Haredi Jews also for the most part refuse to serve in the IDF as it would obstruct their religious studies, whereas the majority of secular Jews are conscripted.

The Modern Orthodox party is known as The Jewish Home, but their influence has waned since Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked defected to their New Right party and the party is now barely treading water above the electoral threshold.


About 20% of Israeli citizens are Arabs. Their political representation in 2015's election was fairly significant, as the three major Arab parties combined their resources and ran as one party called the Joint List. The Joint List came in a respectable third place, only behind Likud and Zionist Union.

This big-tent coalition was made up of four parties of extremely variable ideology: Hadash, the largest faction, is a Communist party. Following them into the Knesset in 2015 are Balad, a left-wing, secular Arab nationalist party, Ra'am, who are Islamist, and Ta'al, another secular party.  

Recently, Ta'al split off from the Joint List, preferring to run on its own. It's still unclear how many seats Ta'al will manage to siphon off the still-mostly-united Joint List.


The short answer is that it's too early to tell. Right now, Likud still has a strong lead in the polls. Most polls conducted in January have Likud winning around 27-30 seats out of a total of 120. If the polls hold and Likud wins, they will have to work out a coalition with multiple other parties to create a government with 61 or more seats.

Before elections were called for April 2019, it briefly looked like Yesh Atid might be able to unseat Likud as they led multiple polls in 2017 and early 2018, but they were unable to hold that lead.

Likud's not out of the woods yet, though. Prime Minister Netanyahu is under multiple corruption allegations. Israeli police and more specifically, Economic Crimes Division Director Liat Ben-Ari have recommended to the Israeli Attorney General that he be indicted on three different cases.

If the Attorney General chooses to indict Netanyahu, his decision will likely come in either February or March.  Netanyahu has stubbornly refused to step down if he is indicted, but his party may suffer in the polls if he refuses, possibly forcing his hand.

This is not the first time an Israeli Prime Minister is under investigation as the elections draw closer. Netanyahu's predecessor, Ehud Olmert of the centrist Kadima party, was under investigation, and ended up serving time in prison. Olmert stepped down from power and was replaced by Tzipi Livni. Kadima still narrowly won the election, but Livni wasn't able to form a coalition, and that responsibility was given to Netanyahu because his Likud party had come in second.

Friday, January 11, 2019

BDS: Because Severely Flawed Activism is still protected Free Speech

Various states in the United States have been looking into passing legislation to fight against the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement. The moves have generated considerable debate from both pro-Israel and pro-Palestine movements. This debate has also involved constitutional scholars as to whether restrictions on BDS would constitute a violation of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which states that "Congress shall make no law...abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or of the right of the people to peacefully assemble". 

To gain balanced context on this argument, a healthy amount of background information is necessary. 

The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, officially, seeks "to end international support for Israel's oppression of Palestinians and pressure Israel to comply with international law." BDS believes that Israel practices a form of apartheid similar to the original system in South Africa, in place from 1948 to 1990. Strict economic sanctions and international boycott dragged apartheid South Africa into a deep recession. Considerable violence broke out between white and black South Africans until the government finally capitulated and transitioned from a venomously racist pariah state to a multi-racial liberal democracy between 1990 and 1994.

BDS supporters believe that the same method of protest can be applied to Israel. In their eyes, if Israel is put under sufficient economic pressure, the country will abandon the practices seen as prejudiced and belligerent. Critics of BDS complain that while institutional prejudice exists in Israel, the country is disproportionately singled out, pointing to the discrimination against the Kurdish minority spread out over Syria, Iraq, Iran and Turkey as well as the oppressive treatment of South Asian immigrants (Indians, Bangladeshis, Nepalis) in Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. Some even venture to compare BDS to the Nazi boycott of Jewish businesses as Adolf Hitler consolidated his power.

Is BDS antisemitic? Despite frequent accusations of antisemitism, BDS insists that it does not harbor hatred towards Jews. This question has been debated since the organization was founded in 2005, and the answer may not be a simple "yes" or "no".

The methods of protest mentioned in BDS's name are pretty standard. Boycotts are common and happen for all sorts of reasons. When investors observe business practices they don't want to associate with, they divest their holdings. When a country behaves belligerently or aggressively, they are often penalized with economic sanctions by other countries. These methods can be driven by prejudice. They are  certainly not inherently prejudiced, though.

However, BDS often oversteps legitimate criticism of the Israeli government and appeals to emotion through poorly thought out action which can be interpreted as prejudiced towards Israelis as a people rather than simply critical of decisions made by the Israeli government. 

For instance, Israeli actresses Gal Gadot and Natalie Portman have both run afoul of BDS. Gadot's breakout role in Wonder Woman ruffled feathers because of her previous service in the IDF.  Portman's decision to not accept the Genesis Prize because of her distaste for Prime Minister Netanyahu was claimed to be a bone thrown to BDS by some Israeli right-wing politicians, which she vehemently denied. If you're going to criticize Israel, it seems odd to focus on two actresses that are not involved in policy decisions. Gal Gadot isn't enacting security policy in the Knesset (Israeli Parliament), nor is she building settlements in the West Bank. She didn't even see combat during her conscription. Portman went out of her way to clarify that her disagreement was with Netanyahu, not Israel in general

BDS supporters on Twitter also bombarded Scottish actor Gerard Butler in an immensely cold and condescending manner. When Butler tweeted a picture of his obliterated Malibu home after the wildfires in California, he was shellacked with venomous comments implying that he deserved to have his house burn down for supporting the IDF in a fundraiser. 

This is where BDS loses the trail. Expressing frustration with the Israeli government's handling of the conflict with Palestine is one thing, but hounding an actress for serving legally-required military service is flippant and alienating. Equating another actress' frustration with her country's Prime Minister with wholesale boycott of that country when she explicitly denied supporting such a measure is opportunistic and misleading. Jeering at a man whose house burned down is, to put it lightly, below the belt. 

In their "Frequently Asked Questions" section of their website, one question asks "Isn't a boycott of Israel antisemitic?"

An excerpt from their answer to this question explains: "The world is growing increasingly weary of Israel's attempts to conflate criticism of its violations of international law with antisemitism and to conflate Zionism with Judaism. Israel is a state, not a person. Everyone has the right to criticize the unjust actions of a state."

It is correct that criticism of Israel is not always antisemitic. Israel is not a perfect country; far from it, actually. The IDF has committed its share of disproportionate responses worthy of independent investigation. Israeli settlements are alienating and provocative to Palestinians in the West Bank. Institutional prejudice and discrimination against Arabs are present in Israel. The current government, led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, does not seem to prioritize peace. 

Let's examine that second part, though, about "conflating Zionism with Judaism". 

Zionism is a word that gets thrown around by scholars and conspiracy theorists alike, often with little context or explanation as to what it actually means. 

It actually has a relatively simple meaning. By definition, Zionism is a movement undertaken to establish a Jewish homeland in the historical "Land of Israel", a geographic region historically also known as Palestine. After the establishment of Israel as a sovereign state in 1948, Zionism became a set of beliefs concerned with advocating for Israel's security and defense. There are different types of Zionism as well, such as Labor Zionism, Liberal Zionism, Revisionist Zionism, and Religious Zionism. 

Technically speaking, you can be anti-Zionist and not antisemitic, but it's an awfully difficult tightrope to walk. Some Haredi Orthodox Jews oppose Zionism as too secular a movement, preferring that a Jewish state only be governed by Halakha (Jewish religious law) or to be established only after the Jewish Messiah re-appears. 

Outside these devoutly religious communities, however, that tightrope gets even thinner. Many refrains spouted by self-proclaimed "Anti-Zionists" would sound explicitly antisemitic if you replaced "Zionists" with "Jews". While Anti-Zionism doesn't have one simple interpretation, arguing for Israel to abandon its Jewish identity is extremely alienating to most Jewish Israelis. 

It is also important to remember that criticism of Israeli actions and anti-Zionism are not one and the same. Most of the political parties opposed to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are Zionist. His main competition in the 2015 elections came from the center-left Zionist Union party and the centrist, Liberal Zionist "Yesh Atid" party. One can be vehemently opposed to Israeli security policy but still believe the country should exist as its constitution defines it - a Jewish and democratic state. 

In theory, BDS uses legitimate methods of protest. In practice, however, they refuse to acknowledge, or at least do not do enough to address, the undercurrents of antisemitism in their movement and turn a blind eye to Palestine's shortcomings in the conflict. If BDS was to focus on opposing specific Israeli policies they saw as hurtful to the peace process rather than hounding actors and actresses as well as calling for a blanket boycott against Israel (which, let's not forget, is about 20% Arab), they may have a leg to stand on. That is not the case.

Flawed as BDS may be as an organization, it is still entitled to the provisions of freedom of speech. Restricting the right of the BDS movement to freely protest and publish materials goes against the spirit of free speech in the United States. If the organization is forced underground, it may further radicalize and be able to argue that it is being unfairly singled out.

Freedom of speech must include that which you disagree with. If pro-Israel activists want to lessen the influence of the BDS movement, it should be done with counterpoints and debate rather than legal restriction.

Friday, August 31, 2018

Ironing Out the Kinks? Putin Addresses the Retirement Age Hike

On Wednesday, August 29th, Russian President Vladimir Putin took to national television in Russia to explain, endorse, and tweak United Russia's proposed pension reform project.

United Russia, Putin's big-tent political party, recently proposed that the retirement age in Russia should be raised. Currently, Russian men retire at 60, Russian women retire at 55. Under the original plan, the retirement age for men would increase at a rate of six months per year, topping out at 65 by 2028. For women, the change would be more gradual: it would top out at 63 by 2034.

This proposal, passed unanimously by the United Russia delegation in the State Duma in its first of three readings, but received considerable criticism from members of the Communist Party and Liberal Democratic Party, a relatively rare development.

While not a particularly disagreeable policy project on the surface, the proposal invited many complaints. Russia's communist history makes it especially unpopular to reform or change the country's social safety net. The relatively low life expectancy for Russian men (66 years as of 2016) aroused complaints that Russian men would not live to see their pension benefits. The timing of the proposal's introduction during the World Cup invited critics to accuse the Kremlin of skewed priorities by dumping billions of roubles into an unnecessary soccer tournament but becoming stingy with elderly and potentially vulnerable citizens. And the gradual nature of the program made skeptics wonder how much economic benefit this new program would actually return, as the Kremlin claimed this would be a benefit.

President Putin decided to address the Russian people on this proposal via national television, despite his spokesman previously claiming that the President wasn't involved in the policy proposal.

Putin spoke forcefully, but amicably. In his address, he referred to his audience as "my dear friends" and concluded his remarks with a humble "I ask for your understanding". In regards to the issues, Putin claimed that the retirement age would not be raised to 63 for women, only 60, and that more people would be eligible for earlier benefits and early retirement. Despite his tone, Putin still endorsed the program in general, touting it as a necessary step to economic recovery.

It's too early to gauge whether this speech will stop Putin's high-but-not-invincible approval rating from slipping. The original and wildly unpopular proposal brought the President's approval rating from the low 80s to the mid 60s in only a few months. A report from Meduza, which is generally critical of the Kremlin, claimed that Putin's approval rating had risen back to 70%, but admitted that "Pollsters from the Levada Center told the newspaper Kommersant that the president’s August 29 national address about pension reform had a minimal effect on their survey results, given that only a small number of respondents were contacted after the speech." In fact, that Meduza report only came out one day after the address, and when we consider that there is usually a margin of error to these polling reports, the change is most likely minimal.

This speech may not be all that helpful to the President's approval rating, however. In fact, it could even backfire.  As mentioned before, Putin's spokesman claimed that the President was not involved in the proposal, and now he has thrown his arms around it, for better or worse. The proposed change from 63 to 60 for Russian women is indeed a concession, but women live longer than men in Russia, by nearly 10 years. Russian men are still set to retire at 65 and therefore the fear they may not live to see their benefits still exists. The optics of getting stingy with pension benefits while using a mammoth amount of taxpayer money to fund a soccer tournament still exist. Furthermore, Putin's changing the new retirement age for women to 60 from 63 and claiming wider eligibility for benefits may actually make the plan even more expensive, possibly cancelling out any projected jump-start for the economy. Critics claimed that the gradual nature of the retirement age hike would make any benefits minimal, and now they may be even smaller or nonexistent.

This pension reform project is not law yet in Russia, though it has the support of the United Russia super-majority in the Duma and Putin's endorsement. While Putin still enjoys considerably popularity, the only way he might be able to recapture his previously sky-high approval rating is by scrapping the program, but this would force him to backtrack from a proposal they seem adamant to push into law and find other ways to try to jumpstart the shaky, sluggish economy. In other words, this is probably unlikely. If they push it through, the Russian people will be frustrated by a very unpopular new policy and may not even realize its heralded benefits. Unless a rapid change in public opinion occurs, the Kremlin has put itself into a rut with few good options out.