Updates from Israel and the Jewish World
Compiled by Dr Ron Wiseman
US calls Golan ‘Israeli-controlled,’ drops all mention of West Bank ‘occupation’
For the first time, the Trump administration referred to the Golan Heights on Wednesday as “Israeli-controlled” and ceased to refer to the West Bank as “occupied” in the State Department’s annual report on human rights around the world.
While last year’s report marked a departure from years of American foreign policy by no longer calling the West Bank, Gaza, and the Golan Heights “occupied” in the section title, this year’s report went two small steps further.
“Authorities subjected non-Israeli citizens in Jerusalem and the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights to the same laws as Israeli citizens,” this year’s text says. In previous iterations of the same report, the Golan Heights was described in the text as “Israeli-occupied.”
This year’s report also refrains from labeling any of the territories as “occupied.” In last year’s document, the US government took a position in referring to these areas. “Authorities prosecuted Palestinian non-citizens held in Israel under Israeli military law, a practice Israel has applied since the 1967 occupation,” read one passage. The new report, by contrast, uses the term “occupied” just twice — and only when quoting outside organizations, such as the Israeli nonprofit Breaking the Silence and the United Nations.
Despite the change in language vis-a-vis the Golan Heights, an administration official on Wednesday denied that it amounted to American recognition of Israeli sovereignty over that area.
“Our policy on Golan has not changed,” a spokesperson for the US embassy in Jerusalem told The Times of Israel.
Israel captured the Golan Heights from Syria in the 1967 Six Day War and extended Israeli law to the territory in 1981, a step tantamount to annexation. But the United States and the international community have long considered it Syrian territory under Israeli occupation.
In Israel, the altered language in the State Department report drew praise from some right-wing leaders.
Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely praised the move on Wednesday afternoon, and attributed it to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s diplomatic efforts. “The fact that the definition ‘occupied territory’ is missing from an official document of the State Department is an important step for Israel’s foreign relations and for the future of the settlements,” she said.
“This year’s report for the first time does not use the inaccurate legal description ‘occupation’ to refer to Israel’s presence in the West Bank or Golan,” said Professor Eugene Kontorovich, a professor of international law and director of International Law at the Jerusalem-based Kohelet Policy Forum.
“This is a massive change in how America relates to the conflict. It is coming to understand that while Israel and the Palestinians have a dispute, international law does not provide the answers to that dispute. The report also for the first time expresses skepticism at the claims and submissions of anti-Israel groups, whose poorly documented allegations had previously been accepted as gospel,” he said.
The report also includes a lengthy section on Hamas activities in Gaza, including its orchestration last summer of border protests that resulted in violence.
“Israel Defense Forces (IDF) shot and killed 190 Palestinians at the Gaza fence as of the end of the year, including 41 minors, according to B’Tselem [an Israeli NGO],” the report said.
“Human rights organizations claimed most victims posed no imminent threat to the IDF,” the report went on. “The [Israeli] government stated that many of the victims were operatives of Hamas or encouraged by Hamas to protest near the fence. The government claimed the IDF used live fire as a last resort, when a clear and imminent threat existed, and they aimed below the knee with the intention to wound but not to kill.”
The Trump administration’s shift on Wednesday could be seen as a victory for Netanyahu, who is in the middle of a fierce re-election campaign.
Earlier this week, during a visit to Israel, South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican and ally of the president, made a plea alongside Netanyahu for the US to officially recognize Israeli sovereignty over the Golan, saying he planned to “start an effort to recognize the Golan as part of the State of Israel, now and forever.”
Israel’s Channel 13 news reported Wednesday night that Netanyahu is working “very hard” to have the Trump Administration recognize Israeli sovereignty over the Golan before the April 9 elections, and noted that his rival, Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz, is worried by the prospect of this happening and boosting Netanyahu’s popularity.
The use of “Israeli-controlled” in the State Department report, the TV report said, might constitute “a hint” at US readiness to consider moving toward recognition.
It said the use of language in the report was closely overseen by US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, who tasked an aide with going through the text “with a red pen, crossing out the word ‘occupation’.” (the Times of Israel)
Hizbullah’s Military Infrastructure Discovered on Golan Heights
Hizbullah’s operational infrastructure, which was recently discovered in the northern Golan Heights, is an expression of Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah’s determination to establish another front in its war against Israel, alongside the Lebanese front and in spite of the organization’s tough economic situation. Hizbullah has found a strategic necessity to build a front on the Golan Heights that will complement the Lebanon front in the next war with Israel. In the meantime, until the outbreak of the war, the Golan Heights front is meant to serve as an alternative to action on the Lebanese border at the appointed time, as defensive operations, or in revenge for Israeli actions, primarily against Iranian targets in Syria.
Map of Hizbullah infrastructure
As part of this framework, Hizbullah has invested considerable efforts even from the beginning of the civil war in Syria, constructing operational infrastructure in the northern Golan Heights. The importance of what it calls the “Golan Heights File,” is attested by the personalities has chosen to lead this front. The first to be appointed as its commander was Jihad Mughniyeh, the young son of Imad Mughniyeh, a senior Hizbullah military commander who was assassinated in 2008. Jihad Mughniyeh received intelligence and operational support from the top brass of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, primarily from Qasem Soleimani, commander of the Quds force, who adopted him and treated him like his own son. It is, therefore, no wonder that when the younger Mughniyeh was assassinated in January 2015 during an operational patrol in the northern Golan Heights, senior Iranian officers were with him, one of whom a general in the Revolutionary Guard who was also killed.
Jihad Mughniyeh was replaced by Samir Kuntar, who brutally murdered three Israelis, including a father and daughter, in a terror attack in northern Israel in 1979. Kuntar used his Druse origins to invest a special effort in building operational infrastructure among the Druse villages in the Syrian part of the Golan Heights. Kuntar was assassinated in December 2015.
Hizbullah continued with its efforts to operate in the northern Golan Heights. Iran joined in this mission, escalating its attempts to import into the area fighters from its Shiite foreign legion, who had just completed their fighting in the war in Syria. Throughout months, Iran built several military camps deep inside the Golan Heights with the purpose of turning them into regular camps for Shiite fighters from Iraq, Pakistan, and Afghanistan as part of its Shiite foreign legion. However, these camps were destroyed in Israel air force operations, and the Shiite fighters remained deep inside Syria. Hizbullah’s efforts in the Golan Heights did not stop. In recent months, senior Hizbullah commander Ali Mussa Daqduq (nom de guerre of Abu Hossein Sajed), who has strong operational capabilities, was tasked with the command.
Daqduq belongs to the generation of Hizbullah’s operational founders. He joined the movement in 1983 and over the years became a close associate of Imad Mughniyeh. In 2006, he was sent by Imad Mughniyeh to Iraq as part of a joint effort of Hizbullah and the Iranian Quds force to organize an “Iraqi Hizbullah” and train Shiite militias in jihad against the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq. Daqduq himself even stayed in Iran, where he was considered a “master instructor,” and he trained the Shiite fighters who arrived there in preparing explosives and carrying out kidnappings following the model used by Hizbullah against Israel in Lebanon.
On January 2007, Daqduq was a senior planner of a sophisticated operation against the U.S. forces in Karbala, where five American soldiers were abducted and executed. In March 2007, Daqduq was captured by British Special Forces in Basra and handed over to the U.S. Army.
He was held for five years, but for political reasons – bordering on misfeasance or malfeasance – Daqduq was not brought to justice by the Americans. Consideration of transferring him to the United States or Guantanamo for trial were rejected. After the U.S. forces left Iraq in 2011, Daqduq was transferred to the Iraqi authorities. After heavy pressure from Iran and Hizbullah, Daqduq was released and transferred to Iran, and from there he returned to Lebanon to join the ranks of Hizbullah’s special operations.
The exposure of Daqduq’s infrastructure in the northern Golan Heights is meant to signal Hizbullah and Syria that the continuation of its operations will lead to its destruction.
(Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.)
Netanyahu to Iran and Hezbollah: Israel Knows What You Are Doing on Golan
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu issued a warning to Iran and Hezbollah on Wednesday, following the publication of new information on their activities on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights.
According to the IDF, Hezbollah operative Ali Mussa Daqduq — who was previously imprisoned in Iraq for a 2007 attack in which five US soldiers were killed — is in charge of a unit that has been scouting Israeli targets in the Golan border area.
“I have a clear message for Iran and for Hezbollah,” Netanyahu said on Wednesday. “Israel knows what you’re doing. Israel knows where you’re doing it. What we’ve uncovered today is just the tip of the iceberg. We know a lot more.”
“Israel will continue to do all that’s necessary to defend itself,” the prime minister added. “We will continue to use all means, overt and covert, to block Iran’s effort to use Syria, Lebanon and Gaza as forward bases for attacking Israel.”
Iran and Hezbollah — the Lebanon-based Shi’a proxy of the Tehran regime — have both deployed forces in Syria in recent years to bolster their ally, the Assad regime, in the civil war there.
The IDF has acted numerous times to thwart Iran’s ambitions in Syria — including the transfer of advanced weaponry to Hezbollah.
An IDF spokesperson said on Wednesday, “We’re not going to allow Hezbollah to establish a terror infrastructure on the Golan capable of striking Israeli civilians.”
“Anybody who cares about regional stability should be concerned by the fact that Hezbollah is trying to build a terror network on our doorstep,” the spokesperson stated. (the Algemeiner)
Satellites indicate new missile factory in Syria
Satellite images taken by Israeli intelligence firm ISI on Tuesday seem to confirm suspicions that a missile factory is being constructed in the Syrian town of Safita, east of Tartus on the Mediterranean coast.
The images show a secured site surrounded by a fence, vehicles, three hangars and a newly built water tower. “The building components and patterns of activity in and around the compound strengthen the probability that this is a missile manufacturing plant,” ISI’s intelligence report said. It is however not possible to determine with certainty whether this is an Iranian site.
According to the report, buses and private vehicles were identified in recent months at the entrance to the suspect site, east of the port city of Tartus. The workers at the site come and go in patters consistent with military installations. The water tower, clearly discernible in the images, indicates that it was built only recently.
These findings prove that the compound is already active and is in development stages. However, it appears that the site does not produce missile engines and warheads, since no protected structures were identified in the compound. The same building patterns seen at the site, according to the report, are also seen in other sites with an identical purpose, such as the missile manufacturing plant in the city of Khojir in Iran.
The compound contains three main hangars, which resemble large industrial structures. It is possible that two of them are used for production lines and the third is intended for the assembly of the missiles.
In a dirt area about 500 meters from the site, ISI intelligence personnel identified marks on the ground, apparently created by heavy vehicles. “In our assessment, the tire prints are not related to the activity of quarries operating in the area,” it says.
Fox News reported in October that western intelligence agencies believe that Iran transferred to Hezbollah technology to improve the precision of missiles, a matter which Israel views gravely. (Ynet News)
Saudis, Egypt, United Arab Emirates openly reject call to isolate Israel
The United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt rejected on March 4 a clause in a statement by the Arab Inter-Parliamentary Union (APU), that called for a stop to normalization with Israel, laying bare a growing divide between Arab governments and individual parliamentarians in their approach to the Jewish State.
The speaker of the Kuwaiti National Assembly, Marzouq Al-Ghanim, had urged the group to include in its final statement at the 29th Conference of the APU, which kicked off on March 2 in the Jordanian capital Amman, a clause that rejects normalization between Israel and the Arab world.
Al-Ghanim slammed rapprochement with Israel as a “political taboo” and emphasized that Arab states must stand united against “our enemy [Israel]” in support of the Palestinians.
His demands, however, were rejected by the speaker of the Saudi Shura Council, Abdullah Al-Sheikh, who noted that, “Calls for stopping normalization with Israel is the authority of politicians not the parliamentarians,” stressing that this recommendation be deleted from the statement. Al-Sheik received support from representatives of the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, who all called on the APU not to include the clause in its final statement.
In recent months, several Arab states – including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Oman – have developed closer ties with the Jewish State.
As part of the International Judo Federation’s Abu Dhabi Grand Slam in October, Israel’s culture and sports minister, Miri Regev, paid a historic visit to the United Arab Emirates, where, in a moving ceremony, Israel’s national anthem – Hatikvah – was played for the first time after the Israeli team took gold. The minister also toured the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi, where she signed the guest book in Hebrew.
Earlier in October, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had embarked on a groundbreaking visit to Oman, where he met with Sultan Sayyid Qaboos bin Said al Said. Oman later called on the Arab world to recognize Israel’s right to exist and invited Israeli Transport Minister, Yisrael Katz, to the upcoming World Congress of the International Road Transport Union in Oman to discuss plans for a railway linking Israel to the Persian Gulf.
In May, Bahrain had officially supported Israel’s right to defend itself against Iranian aggression. In March, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said in an interview with The Atlantic that, “I believe the Palestinians and the Israelis have the right to have their own land.”
Israel enjoys unprecedented cooperation with the Arab Muslim world in light of shared security interests and changing dynamics in the region, Joshua S. Block, CEO and President of The Israel Project wrote in an op-ed for The Wall Street Journal in November. Block concluded, “The rapprochement between Israel and the Arab world will change the region for the better.” (WIN)
Leifer’s alleged victim calls on Government to expedite extradition process
Dassi Erlich, one of the three sisters allegedly abused by Malka Leifer in Australia, has called on the government to expedite the extradition process given the many more months the proceedings are likely to take.
She also protested against the testimony given by a psychiatrist to the Jerusalem District Court in an extradition hearing on Wednesday claiming she is mentally unfit for extradition, due to his previous public comments declaring Leifer to be innocent.
Leifer is standing trial for extradition on 74 counts sexual abuse in Australia against sisters Dassi Erlich, Ellie Sapper and Nicole Meyer, but has for many years claimed to be mentally unfit for extradition.
The court has set another two hearings at the end of March and in April to hear from other psychiatrists about Leifer’s mental fitness for extradition, and a third witness may also testify in another hearing in May.
At least one hearing, and likely more, will be set to allow the defense attorney’s to cross-examine a private investigator who uncovered evidence that Leifer was living a normal life in her town of Emanuel despite her claims to be mentally unwell.
The extradition hearings are likely therefore to extend well into the second half of 2019 – having been initiated in 2014 – some six years after Leifer fled Australia because of the sexual abuse charges against her.
Leifer’s defense are promising to stretch this out as long as possible, and I hope Israel realizes that Leifer’s defense are playing games and that they therefore expedite the case,” Erlich told The Jerusalem Post.
“We call on the Israeli government to stop pandering to these games and ensure justice happens in this case.”
Erlich also called on Deputy Health Minister Yaacov Litzman to resign over his alleged interference in extradition proceedings, and his alleged efforts to prevent Leifer from being deported.
Litzman, who is now under police investigation, allegedly threatened to fire health ministry officials if they did not produce a psychiatric evaluation declaring Leifer to be unfit for extradition.
Litzman has denied any wrongdoing.
“We feel angry and betrayed, he [Litzman] has allegedly had a hand in preventing justice and has played around with our lives,” said Erlich.
“We have been waiting for this for such a long time and allegedly some of that is his fault.”
Erlich said insisted that Litzman should step down owing to his “position of influence” as deputy health minister over Leifer’s case and over similar such cases.
“He should absolutely resign,” she said.
As the hearing was underway, several dozen demonstrators, including, Jerusalem Deputy Mayor Fleur Hassan-Nahoum, staged a protest outside the court to express support for Erlich and her sisters and to condemn the lengthy delays and alleged corruption in the handling of extradition proceedings to Australia.
“Litzman needs to resign. This is a man who is hugging sex offenders and protecting pedophiles. Why? Because the name of his group is more important than the people of his group. This is a warped situation,” declared Hassan-Nahoum.
Erlich and her sister Nicole Meyer joined the protest after the hearing and spoke out in particular against the psychiatrist who gave testimony supporting Leifer’s claim that she is not mentally fit for extradition.
“A series of Facebook posts was found under his name stating his personal opinions about Malka Leifer and us the victims, that he doesn’t believe us, that we’re not religious enough, and therefore we don’t deserve justice,” said Meyer.
“No credibility should be given to the report he wrote in 2015 after observing Malka Leifer for a number of hours,” she added.
First reported by the Australian Jewish News, the psychiatrist in question is Dr. Brian Trappler of New York who stated on Facebook in 2017 that he believed Leifer to be innocent and opined that he believed this to be the case because protesters against her did not appear to be religious.
“She never committed the crimes she was accused of,” he stated on Facebook, adding “Just looking at their pictures and listening to their comments should give you an idea that this is not a Heimeshe or haredi crowd.”
In 2004, Trappler had his medical license suspended for one month and was fined $50,000 by New York State for filing false documents to dodge paying parking tickets.
Speaking at the demonstration, Manny Waks – director of the Kol V’Oz organization – said that Trappler’s testimony was tainted and should be dismissed.
“Today’s hearing should’ve lasted no more than a few minutes – the prosecution should’ve presented the judge with Dr. Trappler’s previous absurd public statements regarding this case and the judge should’ve dismissed Dr. Trappler as a witness,” said Waks.
“Dr. Trappler has absolutely no credibility as a witness.” (Jerusalem Post)
Dogs to the rescue: United Hatzalah’s psychotrauma K-9 unit expands
United Hatzalah’s new psychotrauma K-9 unit recently got a boost from a dog-loving donor who appreciates the contributions dogs male to comforting trauma victims throughout Israel.
The six-month-old unit, now called the Sylvia and Max Shulman K-9 unit, received a generous donation in honor of Sylvia and Max, both dog-lovers themselves.
The psychotrauma K-9 unit currently includes three dogs which are brought by their handlers to various emergency situations, including fires, serious car accidents, sudden death, incidents of violence and searches for missing people.
“We look for the right type of situation where the dogs can add an extra level of care and treatment for the patients,” said Pyschotrauma and Crisis Response Unit Director Avi Tennenbaum. “Not all segments of Israel’s population react well when animals are near, so we are very careful as to which calls we send our dog unit members to.”
“Our aim is always to make the patient feel more comfortable and empower them,” Tennenbaum added. “In most cases, the dogs help us do that. They are brought in to assist in an emergency to help patients calm down, recover and cope with the incident that they just experienced.”
United Hatzalah’s Sylvia and Max Shulman psychotrauma K-9 unit
The dogs and their handlers, usually their owners, undergo specialized training that enables the dogs to become therapy dogs. For one owner and handler, Batya Jaffe, who runs the K-9 unit, her course entailed an intensive three-year training course that enables her to train others to become therapy dogs and therapy dog handlers.
“One of the basic rules we learned in animal therapy is that animals don’t judge people. While some patients may be hesitant to talk with people, even therapists from our unit, that same hesitancy does not exist with Lucy, or with any of the dogs in our unit,” Jaffe said.
Over the next few months, the psychotrauma unit hopes to expand the number of dogs in service as well as the situations in which the dogs will be used.
“One area in which we believe the dogs will be very useful in the future is with situational debriefings of our own volunteer responders who suffer trauma from witnessing the medical emergency that they responded to,” Tennenbaum said.
“EMS personnel are exposed to an incredible amount of trauma and one method we are employing to deal with that is by having debriefings. We believe that the dogs will be able to assist the first responders to process the incident that they just witnessed in a healthier manner.” (Jerusalem Post)
‘How to Recognize A Jew’: Outrage Over Sale of Antisemitic Newspaper at Polish Parliament’s Hotel
Poland’s parliament faced international embarrassment on Wednesday after one of its lawmakers spotted a newspaper on sale at the parliament’s hotel with the blood-curdling headline, “How to Recognize A Jew.”
Michal Kaminski, one of the parliamentary representatives of the opposition centrist PSL party, said he saw the paper on sale at the kiosk in the hotel on the parliament’s grounds where many members hold meetings and dine on a daily basis. The paper, a nationalist publication called “Tylko Polska,” ran a headline above the paper’s masthead that screamed in large red letters, “Jak Rozpoznać Żyda” (“How to Recognize A Jew”).
The paper then listed various methods of “recognizing” Jews — “Name. Anthropological features. The way of speaking. The look. Features of the character. The methods of action. The methods of disinformation” — before exhorting its readers to “…Fight them — it can no longer be this way!”
Kaminski said it was an “absolute scandal” that such “filthy texts, as if taken from Nazi newspapers” were sold in the Polish Parliament. He said he had demanded an explanation from Parliament Speaker Marek Kuchcinski, a member of the right-wing ruling Law and Justice party.
Andrzej Grzegrzolka, a spokesperson for the Polish Parliament, said on Wednesday afternoon that the distributors who supply the hotel kiosk would be told to remove the offending title. In a statement to the Polish news agency PAP, Grzegrzolka added that any ban on “Tylko Polska” for violating the country’s hate speech laws was the responsibility of “law enforcement agencies, not the Chancellery of the Sejm [the Polish parliament].”
One leading Polish anti-racist NGO said that the prominent display of an openly antisemitic title at the hotel “illustrates the longterm presence of antisemitism in Poland.”
The very fact that “Tylko Polska” was being distributed “unfortunately demonstrates the stubborn ignorance or even toleration of antisemitism in the political mainstream,” the Polish “Never Again Association” said in a statement emailed to The Algemeiner on Wednesday.
One American Jewish leader with several decades of experience of dealing with successive Polish governments reacted with dismay to the news.
“How sad for Poland and the Jewish people that antisemitism continues in so many forms and in so many places in today’s Poland,” Abraham Foxman –the national director emeritus of the Anti-Defamation League and the head of an antisemitism study program at the Museum of Jewish Heritage — A Living Memorial to the Holocaust in New York City– told The Algemeiner. “This time, an antisemitic publication with classic antisemitic tropes is being sold in all places at a kiosk in the Polish Parliament.”
“When will Poland begin in earnest a major educational campaign to educate against antisemitism?” asked Foxman, a Holocaust survivor who as a child was hidden by his Polish Catholic nanny from the Nazis. (the Algemeiner)
A beginner’s guide to the 2019 Israeli elections
Trying to understand the upcoming Israeli elections can get confusing.
The country’s long time prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, is mired in a series of corruption scandals and facing a serious challenge from a new rival. Other politicians are maneuvering behind the scenes to form new coalitions that would allow them to be included in Israel’s parliament majority and thus have more influence over Israeli policies. It’s a fascinating race that changes by the day.
The following guide, broken into topical sections, breaks down how Israel’s government is constructed, why Israelis are going to the polls on April 9 and who the major players are in the campaign to govern the Jewish state. Click on some of the links directly below as a shortcut, or scroll through for a complete primer.
- Israel’s 13 biggest political parties, each explained in one sentence
- Why are there elections in April?
- Can Netanyahu withstand his big corruption scandals?
- The rise of Benny Gantz’s coalition, a formidable challenger to Netanyahu
- Netanyahu and the Kahanists
- The decline and steep fall of the Labor Party
- Israeli Arabs might have even less political power now
- The rise of fake news in Israel
- Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked have shaken things up with a new party
Israel’s 13 biggest political parties, each explained in one sentence
Israel’s election is a free for all: Instead of two major parties, there’s a whopping total of 47 parties competing at the ballot box. Israelis vote for parties, not individual candidates (the candidates are chosen by the parties, some through primaries). The more votes a party gets, the more seats it has in Israel’s 120-seat parliament, the Knesset. A government is formed by a party — more likely a coalition of like-minded parties — that captures more than 60 seats.
More than a dozen parties could make the next Knesset. Here’s a short description of each of them.
Likud, Israel’s right-wing flagship, and Netanyahu’s party, opposes a Palestinian state, supports settlements and encourages privatization in the economy — but its main selling point is the longtime prime minister, who is seeking his fifth term.
Blue and White is a new centrist coalition led by a former military chief of staff, Benny Gantz. It was created to oppose Netanyahu and his alleged corruption.
Supporting actors on the right:
The New Right is kind of like Likud on steroids: Led by the prominent figures Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked, the party staunchly opposes Palestinian statehood and supports settlement growth, and features a very hawkish defense policy — what its platform calls an “iron fist” against Israel’s enemies.
Jewish Home-Jewish Power is the controversial union between a religious Zionist party and a far-right party, also known as Otzma Yehudit, that supports implementing religious law and waging “total war” on Israel’s enemies.
Israel Beiteinu champions the interests of Russian-speaking immigrants, along with a hard-line defense policy that calls for the execution of terrorists.
Kulanu is a center-right party focused on lowering Israel’s high cost of living.
Zehut is an unusual mix: libertarian — and in favor of marijuana legalization — but strongly against Palestinian statehood and Arab-Israeli equality.
Supporting actors on the left:
Labor is the sad trombone of Israeli politics. Once the left-wing flagship and largest party in the country, it’s now an also-ran to Blue and White.
Meretz is about as far left as you can go while remaining Zionist, supporting a Palestinian state alongside Israel along with minority rights and religious pluralism within Israel.
United Torah Judaism is the Ashkenazi haredi party — the guys (they’re all guys) who support Orthodox control of Israel’s religious life, oppose mandatory army service for their followers and speak Yiddish.
Shas is the Sephardi haredi party — the guys (again, all guys) who stand for religious traditionalism as well as the rights of Israel’s Mizrahi (Middle Eastern and North African) Jewish population.
Hadash-Taal supports Palestinian statehood and advocates for Israel’s Arab minority.
Balad-Raam supports Israel being a secular state for all its citizens and no longer a Jewish state.
Why are there elections in April?
First, it’s important to understand how Israel’s government works.
In broad strokes, the government operates under a proportional representation system. There are 120 seats in the parliament, or Knesset. To gain a seat, a party needs to win at least 3.5 percent of the vote. Whoever wins at least 61 seats controls the government. Simple enough, right?
Well, no — because no party has ever won the necessary 61 seats. That means the party with the most votes has to form coalitions with other smaller parties to reach the threshold.
In the last elections, held in March 2015, the Netanyahu-led Likud won 30 seats and formed a coalition with smaller right-wing and religious parties (Jewish Home, United Torah Judaism, Kulanu and Shas, with Israel Beiteinu joining a year later). If the coalition were to fall apart — a minister leaving the government, for example — Netanyahu would lose his coalition, lose control of the government and have to call new elections.
That is almost exactly what happened last November: Israel Beiteinu left the coalition when Avigdor Liberman resigned, disgusted by a cease-fire with Gaza militants. Netanyahu was left with 61 seats – an ultra-slim majority that doesn’t allow for easy legislating. If just one small faction of his coalition disagrees with a bill, it’s dead in the water.
Sure enough, coalition disagreements over a bill to draft haredi Orthodox men into the military caused the party heads to call for new elections in December. However, many believe the timing of the elections has more to do with Netanyahu’s legal troubles, which led to his indictment on corruption charges at the end of February. A victory, pundits surmised, would give Netanyahu leverage in fending off the charges.
Can Netanyahu withstand his big corruption scandals?
Netanyahu is the first sitting prime minister to be indicted on criminal charges – but that doesn’t mean he won’t be re-elected in April.
Netanyahu allegedly attempted to improve his press coverage through illegal dealmaking on multiple occasions and is accused of receiving $200,000 in illegal bribes of Cuban cigars and champagne.
On Feb. 28, Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit made the decision to indict Netanyahu in three separate corruption cases. But under Israeli law, a hearing must precede the formal filing of charges. This hearing won’t be held before the elections — look for it in July.
Netanyahu’s situation is not quite unprecedented: In 2008, his predecessor, Ehud Olmert, resigned before he was formally indicted on bribery charges. Olmert eventually was convicted and served 16 months of a 27-month sentence.
But unlike Olmert, Netanyahu will not step down and remains defiant.
“[The left has] mounted a thuggish, incessant campaign of pressure – I’d say almost inhuman – on the attorney general,” Netanyahu said the day the indictment was issued.
Netanyahu served a term in the 1990s and has served continuously as prime minister for the past decade. He remains popular among voters — or at least more tolerable than his rivals. Some polls have shown Blue and White inching up and even surpassing him, although the coalition math still favors the right.
Even if Netanyahu is re-elected and formally indicted, there is likely no legal requirement that he step down from office — though not leaving would certainly be an eyebrow-raising choice.
The rise of Benny Gantz’s coalition, a formidable challenger to Netanyahu
At the last minute, a new party has entered the Israeli political scene and stands a decent chance of toppling the ruling Likud party.
On Feb. 21, the last day to submit a party list for the elections, Gantz decided to merge his fledgling Israel Resilience Party with media personality and politician Yair Lapid’s established centrist Yesh Atid. They named the alliance the Blue and White for the colors of Israel’s flag.
Yesh Atid, a surprisingly successful party established in 2012, is almost radically centrist and focuses primarily on social and civic issues.
It’s still hard to discern where exactly Gantz stands on most issues, but from what we’ve seen, he is a centrist as well. Blue and White’s platform emphasizes global collaboration on security issues and true Israeli democracy that recognizes Israeli Arabs as equal citizens and requires religious Jews to serve in the IDF.
Though this is Gantz’s first foray onto the political stage, he is well respected as a general, having served as the chief of staff for the IDF from 2011 to 2015. In Israel, former chiefs of staff cannot serve as prime minister for at least three years after completing their service, so this is Gantz’s first opportunity to do so.
Likud and the Blue and White are virtually tied in the polls, with both expected to pick up somewhere in the neighborhood of 30 seats. The party that receives the most seats will have a few months to cobble together a governing majority coalition of at least 61 seats. Both Likud and Blue and White would likely try and do so by allying with center-right (and in Likud’s case, some far-right) parties.
If elected, Gantz and Lapid would alternate who gets to be prime minister, with Gantz serving for the first two years.
Netanyahu and the Kahanists
In February, Netanyahu helped broker a pact between an extreme right-wing party, Jewish Power, or Otzma Yehudit, and the more moderate right-wing Jewish Home. By combining forces, the parties would have a better shot at winning Knesset seats than making it on their own.
This is a big deal for one main reason: Netanyahu is effectively legitimizing the ideology of a man named Meir Kahane. The late Kahane, an American extremist rabbi, is known for his legacy of violence and spreading hate in both Israel and America.
Although he was assassinated in 1990 in New York, Kahane’s racist legacy lives on in Israel through groups such as Jewish Power and their followers (known as Kahanists). Jewish Power is a descendant of Kahane’s Kach party, which was outlawed in 1988, when Kahane himself was up for re-election (he served one term in the Knesset). Kahane’s followers have perpetrated acts of terror in his name — most infamously the American-born Baruch Goldstein, a doctor who murdered 29 Muslim worshippers at the Cave of the Patriarchs in 1994 before survivors killed him. He’s buried in the Meir Kahane Memorial Park in the West Bank settlement of Kiryat Arba.
“The Arab is a cancer in our midst,” Kahane said. “And you don’t coexist with a cancer.”
Baruch Marzel, a Kahane disciple who now leads Jewish Power, recently told The Jerusalem Post: “There is no way we will have quiet or peace inside Israel as long as we have here millions of supporters of terror, people that believe in their religion that all of the Land of Israel, including Tel Aviv and Haifa and Beersheba, is theirs, and that we are occupiers and the Jews have no right to a state or can even exist here. … The only way to have peace is to get them out of Israel.”
While some of Kahane’s ideas have moved to the mainstream Israeli right (he was one of the first to discuss the idea of a “demographic time bomb”), he is still undeniably considered an extremist figure. That’s why Netanyahu has taken so much heat for the move at home and abroad.
The decline and steep fall of the Labor Party
The party that founded the State of Israel and governed it for three straight decades is now, to put it bluntly, weak sauce.
Labor, the party of many Israeli political legends — think David Ben-Gurion, Golda Meir and Yitzhak Rabin — is expected to finish fourth(ish) in the election. It hasn’t won an election in two decades, and now it has been supplanted as the main opposition party by Blue and White. Its best hope is to be a junior coalition partner in the next government.
So what happened? Labor used to be almost synonymous with Israel: It stood for social democracy, kibbutzim, a strong defense posture and negotiations with the Palestinians. In 1999, it was riding high; Party leader Ehud Barak had defeated Netanyahu in the election, and was pushing toward a peace treaty with the Palestinians. But negotiations failed and the second intifada began — an unprecedented wave of terror attacks in Israel that led to a clampdown on Palestinians in the West Bank.
Since then, Labor has lost its mojo. Likud and its offshoots have led the Israeli government for the past 18 years. Israelis have lost hope in peace coming anytime soon (even though a large portion still supports Palestinian statehood). And the whole country, including Labor itself, has moved away from Israel’s former socialist identity. More of the country has become privatized, and though inequality has risen and the housing market is dire, the economy in general is humming along.
Labor has tried to rebrand as a centrist party, and came close to winning the last election in 2015. But since then it elected a former business executive named Avi Gabbay as its leader, and he hasn’t captured Israelis’ imagination. Voters who oppose Netanyahu have turned to Blue and White, which leans to the right.
Not too long ago, the choice in Israel was between Likud on the right and Labor on the left. But now Labor is hardly even part of the conversation.
Israeli Arabs might have even less political power now
Israel’s Arab minority has the right to vote, but those votes usually don’t mean much. Arab-Israeli parties — there have been several over the years — never sit in Israeli governing coalitions and usually are at odds with both the Israeli Jewish left and right. This year, that split may grow wider while Arab-Israeli representation in Knesset could shrink.
For the elections in 2015, the four Arab-Israeli parties united in a coalition called the Joint List and became Israel’s third largest party, as well as a symbol of opposition to the right-wing government. Netanyahu’s fears of Arab political power culminated in an infamous Election Day video warning of “Arabs streaming in droves to the ballot box” (where as citizens they have the right to vote).
Despite its size, the Joint List could not block legislation that it hated, including the Nation-State Law, which defined Israel as a Jewish state and reserved the right of national self-determination in Israel to Jews.
And now it has split. The four parties are running as two competing factions: The religious Raam with the secular-nationalist Balad, and the Arab-Jewish leftist Hadash with the comparatively moderate Taal. The schism, a result of political infighting, could lead the parties to lose a couple seats collectively.
Parties across Israel’s spectrum have long refused to join coalitions with Arab-Israeli political parties. Politicians usually frame this refusal around the Arab-Israeli parties’ opposition to Zionism and Israel’s Jewish character — they are fundamental to the platforms of the major Jewish parties. Arab-Israeli parties have never been part of an Israeli government.
Aman Odeh, the leader of the Joint List and currently of Hadash, wrote in a New York Times op-ed that the time has come for Israel’s left to include Arab-Israeli parties in the coalition.
“If the center-left parties believe Palestinian citizens of Israel have a place in this country, they must accept that we have a place in its politics,” he wrote. “We cannot build a shared future if we are relegated to the back seats of the Knesset chamber.”
But it’s almost certain that that plea will go unheard. Netanyahu’s main opponents, Blue and White, lean to the right. And it has already vowed not to partner with Arab-Israeli parties.
The rise of fake news in Israel
It was only a matter of time: The “fake news” epidemic has reached Israel.
For example, after Avigdor Liberman resigned as defense minister in November, a Twitter account later deemed to be dubious began sending Israeli journalists links to news stories accusing Liberman of being a Russian spy. They were fake.
Israel’s Foreign Ministry was aware of the possibility of the spread of fake news even earlier than Liberman’s resignation. In November, it warned journalists that people or countries with bad intentions were trying to spread fake news.
Less than two weeks after new elections were called, the head of the Israel Security Agency, the Shabak, went public with the news that a foreign country intends to intervene in the elections. Nadav Argaman said he could not name the country, and it was not clear exactly what its political interests were in the elections. But, he said, “It will meddle – and I know what I’m talking about.”
Late last month, the Central Elections Committee chairman, Supreme Court Justice Hanan Melcer, announced a ban on anonymous election ads on social media and in all other media. It went into effect on March 1.
Meanwhile, the Academy of Hebrew Language has called on Israelis to say “hadashot kazav,” which literally translates to “lying news,” as opposed to the English phrase “fake news.”
Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked have shaken things up with a new party
In December, Israeli government ministers Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked broke away from the Jewish Home party that Bennett headed to form a new right-wing party. They said they were not doing it to hurt Jewish Home, but rather to benefit the larger right-wing bloc.
Bennett is religious and serves as education minister; Shaked is secular and serves as justice minister. They describe the New Right party as a home for Israelis who are right wing, but do not necessarily buy into the religious political agenda of Jewish Home.
If the most recent election polls are any indicators, it was a smart move. The New Right party jointly led by Bennett and Shaked could pull in about seven seats in the new Knesset. And the Jewish Home party, which formed a coalition with Jewish Power is polling at between seven and eight. (Jewish Home had eight seats in the last Knesset.)
The party’s platform calls for the cooperation of religious and secular Jews, full civil rights for minorities and a belief in personal freedom. But it also has a familiar right-wing tone, with its opposition to a Palestinian state, its view that Israel is the nation-state of only the Jewish people and its promotion of the Jewish character of the state.
Bennett has already said that the party will join a government formed by Netanyahu and will continue to support him until he is convicted of any of the charges for which he is set to be indicted. So a vote for the New Right is a vote for Netanyahu.