Pre-Annapolis Briefing: The Israeli Political Math

As Annapolis is approaching and with folks re-learning how to pronounce Shas, Yisrael Beteinu and getting their heads around the quirky nature of Israeli politics, I thought it would be useful to put out this rather comprehensive briefing (apologies up-front for the length of this, by way of compensation here is a link to the hilarious Obama Girl’s “Perfected: the Ann Coulter Song”—not to be opened until completing this piece though).  As reported at Prospects for Peace, the emphasis has shifted from delivering a document at Annapolis that provides some clarity on permanent status to focusing on issues of process with the likely product being a rather familiar mix of procedural commitments and on-the-ground deliverables (that are then not delivered).

A major reason for the shifting of emphasis away from core permanent status issues has been the lack of political wiggle room afforded to Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert by the coalition math. Parties within Olmert’s governing coalition, as well as members of his own Kadima party, declared their opposition to any far reaching understandings with the Palestinians on territory, Jerusalem…etc.  Nevertheless, whether before Annapolis in a last ditch effort to make the gathering something more than a “photo-up” or post-Annapolis as negotiations move forward, the core issues will eventually have to be addressed.  So too will be the thorny Roadmap Commitments — settlement freeze, outpost removal, checkpoints, prisoners, and re-opening Palestinian institutions in East Jerusalem.  And so the question will be asked: what can the Israeli domestic political traffic stand?  How far can Olmert go while maintaining a governing majority? Below is a detailed primer on that Israeli political landscape.  Obviously all the disclaimers apply of unpredictability, especially when Israeli politics is concerned—but some basic Israeli political number crunching can be attempted.

First, in a way it’s nice to be discussing these issues.  Last time the Israeli pulse had to be checked on anything even vaguely peace related was the disengagement with Gaza, and, previously, during Ehud Barak’s negotiations with Yasser Arafat.  Anyone familiar especially with the Sharon disengagement story will remember the dynamic that often came into play.  On the one hand, an Israeli prime minister wants to get something done on the political track and genuinely needs to secure a Knesset majority to do so. On the other hand, displays of domestic political opposition, in particular when they come from within the governing coalition, are useful in demonstrating to the Palestinians, the Americans, whoever, that the Israeli leader has very limited room for maneuver.  Haaretz analyst, Aluf Benn, has called this the PM’s “Welcome right-wing leverage.” Arik Sharon played this game all the time.  Ehud Olmert appears to have recently got into the same habit, and fallen into this convenient modus operandi.  The American Secretary of State is encouraged to, “hear for herself” just how inflexible the Israeli Prime Minister’s coalition allies can be.  So Condoleezza Rice met with Shas party leader, Eli Yishai and Yisrael Beteinu Chair, Avigdor Lieberman, both of whom are Cabinet ministers and both of whom are threatening to bolt the coalition if Jerusalem is even discussed.

Of course the political acumen of the Israeli Prime Minister in question is also a very major factor in coalition building and maintenance.  Ariel Sharon had the political skill to hold things together; Ehud Barak did not.  Ehud Olmert has already proven what a smart, tenacious and effective political operator he can be.

Let’s jump straight to the political threats facing Ehud Olmert and the seemingly endless calculations that are thrown up by an Israeli Knesset consisting of 120 members who are divided into 12 parliamentary factions, three of which are themselves coalitions of more than one party (the Ra’am-Ta’al inappropriately named United Arab List, the United Torah Judaism faction and the National Union-National Religious Party faction) and one more which is on the verge of a split—the Pensioners Party.

The news of Ehud Olmert’s prostate cancer discovery (which medical experts have thankfully said is not threatening), the sympathy that it generated and the impressively transparent and forthcoming way in which the PM notified the public, have all given Olmert a boost in the polls.  Olmert continues to trail his challengers, the respective leaders of the Likud and Labor parties, Netanyahu and Barak.  But let’s not get carried away, this is not a popularity contest that excites most Israelis.  A few weeks ago during the Jewish holidays, the Ma’ariv newspaper polled Israelis on who was the best Prime Minister in the country’s history: Netanyahu scored 4.4 percent, Barak, 0.2 percent, Olmert, 0.0 percent.  Clash of the Titans this ain’t.

Health issues notwithstanding, there are four issues on the horizon that threaten to put an end to Ehud Olmert’s fine political run.  Fall-out from any peace effort is one of the four, but let’s first look at the other three.

(1.)  The final report of the Winograd Committee investigating last summer’s Lebanon war 

It is still unclear when the final report will be made public, the issue is being contested in the courts and any delay beyond early ’08 is likely to lead either to the Committee disbanding itself or to its findings losing their political punch.  Court rulings permitting the report will be out by year’s end. The final version will not be significantly more damning than the interim report released in April 2007, except in one respect.  Prime Minister Olmert authorized the ground operation on Friday, August 11th even though the UN Security Council was in the process of approving Resolution 1701. That operation, in which 33 Israeli soldiers lost their lives, is widely considered to be the singular most catastrophic decision of an overall flawed war. The report will lead to new public, media, and political calls for Olmert’s resignation.  The public are unlikely to mobilize and the real question will be how Ehud Barak and his Labor party act.  During the Labor leadership elections, Barak committed himself to a vague formula on bringing down the government if Olmert did not draw the necessary conclusions from the Committee’s final report.  Barak is keen to flexibly interpret his own commitment and is unlikely to face significant pressure from within his own party to push for immediate elections. Barak intends to remain Defense Minister for a period of time and told Ma’ariv lead commentator, Ben Kaspit, that

I will live up to my promise. I never said that Labor would quit the government the moment the report is published.  I said that if Olmert did not reach the conclusions that he should, we will start talking in the Knesset about forming a new government or setting an agreed date for new elections.  That is what will happen.

Not exactly the kind of political threat that has Olmert quaking in his boots.  The Winograd report can act as an organizing moment for opposition to Olmert but absent an existing majority within his own party, in the coalition, or in the Knesset to exploit the moment, the report in itself, will not bring Olmert down.

(2.) The ongoing police investigations against the Prime Minister  

There are several cases, in which Olmert is involved, which are currently being investigated in parallel.  All are related to supposed wrongdoings that preceded him becoming Prime Minister. These include framing the terms of the tender for the sale of Bank Leumi to assist an associate, political appointments when Trade and Industry Minister, and handing contracts to his friend, Uri Messer.  These investigations obviously make the public atmosphere in which Olmert operates uncomfortable.  It is worth remembering though that Olmert’s three predecessors—Sharon, Barak, and Netanyahu—were all in a similar position, serving in the highest office of PM while under investigation.  Such cases tend to proceed slowly and many neutral observers consider most of the allegations to be hard to substantiate, insufficient to bring down a Prime Minister, motivated by an over-zealous State Comptroller, or a combination of the three.  Unless something changes during the course of the investigations, these are likely to remain an annoyance rather than an imminent threat.

(3.) Approval of the annual state budget 

According to Israeli law, if the Knesset fails to pass the state budget 90 days into a new year then the Knesset is automatically dissolved and new elections are held.  This is not to suggest that insoluble budgetary issues confront Olmert in the weeks ahead, rather that the budget is always a good opportunity for the opposition to push the envelope with disaffected coalition members and for political brinksmanship. Given that the budget debates this year will coincide with the post-Annapolis political fall-out, there is likely to be a significant overlap between the two. Rebellious coalition allies could choose to force a showdown over budgetary rather than diplomatic squabbles.  Historically, the ultra-orthodox parties, on whom Olmert may end up relying, tend to be rather good at translating the mending of ideological differences into quantifiable budget lines. In fact, the budget conversely could be as much an opportunity as a threat and creates the prospect of treasury generosity securing the quiescence of the United Torah Judaism and/or Shas for Olmert’s diplomatic moves.

Annapolis Number Crunching

It is though, the renewed dialogue with the Palestinians that has coalition allies shuffling in their seats and threatening to abandon Olmert.  At this stage one can quite confidently predict that the Annapolis Summit will be light on substance of permanent status issues and rather heavy on matters of process and on Roadmap Phase 1 commitments.  Avoiding taking a stand on the questions of Jerusalem, territory, and refugees will ease the immediate coalition jostling.  In fact, fear of political fallout seems to have played a role in convincing Olmert to back off from the more substantive dialogue that was begun with President Abbas in advance of Annapolis.  Olmert convinced President Bush, Secretary Rice, and his Palestinian interlocutors that his political predicament was sufficiently precarious as to preclude outlining permanent status parameters.  Ambitions for Annapolis have been scaled back accordingly.  Yet whatever the outcome of Annapolis and even the limited commitments undertaken there will cause a degree of domestic political rupture.  And certainly if there is a process post-Annapolis that includes permanent status negotiations and implementation of previous commitments on settlements, outposts, closures, prisoners, etc. (as Secretary Rice is determined to see happen) then the Israeli coalition number game will become a popular spectator sport.

Speaking at the Brookings-Saban Forum on Sunday, the Israeli Prime Minister directly addressed the rocky coalition road ahead, “We will not avoid fulfilling our own obligations [Roadmap]…some of them are difficult, some will create considerable political hardships—and I have no intention, no matter how difficult it is of attempting to escape the obligations imposed on the state of Israel.”  All three parties, American, Israeli, and Palestinian, have spoken in recent days of attempting to conclude negotiations while President Bush is still in office. So, in the absence of formaldehyde being applied to the process post-Annapolis, sustained progress will be intimately linked to the dynamics within the Israeli Knesset.  Of course the situation on the ground, divisions on the Palestinian side, and American tenacity will also all play key roles.  But they are not the subject of this briefing.

Knesset Recap

Before playing with the numbers let’s just remind ourselves of the composition of the current Knesset:

Kadima: 29
Labor-Meimad: 19
Likud: 12
Shas: 12
Yisrael Beteinu: 11
National Union (NU)/National Religious Party (NRP) (Ichud Leumi-Mafdal): 9
Gil-Pensioners Party: 7
United Torah Judaism (UTJ): 6
Meretz-Yahad: 5
United Arab List (UAL)/Ra’am-Ta’al: 4
Hadash: 3
National Democratic Assembly (Balad): 3

In broad brush terms this is how the various factions line up on peace efforts with the Palestinians;

Kadima (29)

The party was formed around the agenda of further disengagement from the Palestinians and withdrawals on the West Bank although the platform avoids specifics on territory, Jerusalem, etc. As a bloc, Kadima will support the efforts of its own Prime Minister; there exists though potential for a small rebellion within Kadima—part of the rebellion will be ideological and part personal-political.  Of the ministerial heavyweight political rivals to Olmert inside Kadima, only one, Shaul Mofaz, is really likely to lead an internal opposition.  Of the other potential candidates; Interior Minister, Meir Sheetrit, belongs to the dovish wing of the party; Foreign Minister, Tzipi Livni, now heads the negotiation team and it would be very awkward for her to break with the PM over the Palestinian issue and Public Security Minister; Avi Dichter, though occasionally openly critical of Olmert’s peace efforts and least reliable of the three, is still unlikely to cross party lines.

Transportation Minister, Mofaz, traditionally a hawk, has already voted against Olmert in the cabinet on prior prisoner releases and seems to be positioning himself to possibly attempt to pull Kadima rightwards or lead a group that would split and reunite with the Likud.  In terms of Kadima foot soldiers to join a rebel movement, there are perhaps half a dozen MKs in the mix.  MKs Otniel Schneller and Ze’ev Elkin both live in settlements on the West Bank and occupy Kadima’s hawkish flank while MKs Marina Solodkin and Avigdor Yitzhaki both harbor personal political grievances against the PM.  With deft political management, Olmert could keep the Kadima political defections on peace to very small and manageable numbers.  The same applies to the seven-member Pensioners Party, which sits in the Knesset as a joint faction with Kadima.  The internal personal rivalries within the Pensioners Party again create the potential for a mini-rebellion (2 MKs perhaps).  According to Israeli rules, one-third of the members of a Knesset party faction is required in order to break away and form a new, independent and recognized faction.  The potential for a one-third breakaway within the Kadima/Pensioners faction does not seem to exist, individual rebellions are likely.

Labor (19)

Despite Ehud Barak’s unconcealed skepticism and right-wing posturing in the run-up to Annapolis (he described the summit as a soufflé), the Labor party, even under his leadership, cannot politically oppose the peace efforts of a centrist Prime Minister.  In fact, Barak has already started tempering his rhetoric, describing the Annapolis Conference as “an opportunity not a threat.  I hope it will succeed with all my heart” when speaking at the rally to commemorate the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin on Saturday night.  Virtually the entire Labor party faction in the Knesset is less hawkish than Barak and the Defense Minister is, therefore, ultimately severely constrained in his ability to mount any political opposition to Olmert’s peace moves. In fact, criticism is growing within Labor ranks of their leaders apparent sabotaging of a peace effort — from Minister Ami Ayalon and MKs Sneh, Pines-Paz, Peretz and Cabel among others. But Barak is Defense Minister and in this capacity he will have endless opportunities to undermine the Prime Minister were a serious peace push to be embarked upon. Olmert has the 19 Labor votes in the Knesset, Barak has a security tool-box full of tempting provocations and obstacles.

The Likud and Right-wing Opposition         

The 21 seats of the Likud (12) and NRP-NU (9) opposition will be solidly against any diplomatic effort by the current government.  The Likud could change its posture were they to join the coalition but that is sufficiently unlikely at this stage as to not be worth factoring into the equation.  Nahum Barnea commented in Yediot Aharonot this week that for the first time in a long time, “the extreme right-wing is returning to the streets.”  This renewed protest activity represents a certain trepidation regarding Annapolis (that it might actually lead somewhere), is designed to keep the parliamentary opposition right on a short leash (no difficulty there) and more importantly to put pressure on the right wing parties within the coalition—Shas and Yisrael Beteinu.  It is worth noting and it is a remarkable feature of the current Knesset that the only hands that are guaranteed to be raised against any peace move right now belong to the 21 members of this bloc.  Virtually every other vote is up for grabs at least to abstain and this is a crucial asset for Olmert if he actually intends to make progress.

The Ultra-Orthodox Parties

Shas (12) and UTJ (6) do not of course begin their voting calculations on the diplomatic process from the same position, Shas being inside the coalition and UTJ not.  And there is no guarantee that they will vote the same way, yet there is a strong interaction between these two parties on such issues.  It is more difficult for Shas to display flexibility on a given peace-related vote if UTJ is implacably opposed and vice versa.  This is because the respective Rabbinical councils, ultra-orthodox media, pamphleteers, and street activists are rather good at embarrassing each other, and take great spiritual pleasure in so doing.

The key historic moment for Shas on the peace process came when its spiritual leader, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, in 1989, announced a religious halakic ruling that land could be ceded if that would help save lives (Pikuach Nefesh). The Shas of then is not the Shas of now—the party now competes more aggressively for a broader rightist Likud-leaning constituency and has drifted toward ever more resolute hawkishness. Yet Rabbi Yosef remains its spiritual mentor and under certain circumstances Shas could still swing both ways.  Those circumstances tend to be intimately connected to budgetary allocations. But it is too simple to say that Shas support for a diplomatic effort can be bought.  The Shas leader, Eli Yishai, is on record as opposing even a discussion of the issue of Jerusalem with the Palestinians and has threatened to quit the coalition if this happens.  Shas is constantly looking over its rightwing shoulder.

UTJ is similarly most open to diplomatic initiatives when its snout is at the appropriations trough.  If anything, UTJ has a more vociferously rightwing constituency than Shas and more rigid rabbinical leadership.  UTJ actually contains representatives of two competing trends within Ashkenazi Ultra-Orthodoxy—Degel HaTorah and Agudat Israel—and they do not necessarily vote the same way.  Both parties have a keen sense of political strength and political weakness, of where the political winds are blowing and of self-preservation.  So the surrounding envelope, the context in which any key diplomatic vote takes place can be crucial to how Shas and UTJ behave.  A yes vote is a stretch although just conceivable but an abstention by the 12 members of Shas or the six members of UTJ or both is within the realms of the politically deliverable.

Yisrael Beteinu (11)  

Party leader, Avigdor Lieberman, has gone as far as to produce a document of principles and red-lines for final status arrangements with the Palestinians that he shared with PM Olmert.  Suffice it to say that a minor ingredient lacking from this plan is the machine that would produce the Palestinians who would agree to its content.  The eleven members of Yisrael Beteinu are likely to be the most ardent Annapolis rejectionists from within the ranks of the current coalition.  Lieberman’s party may choose to oppose implementation of Roadmap Phase 1 issues from within the coalition but are likely to join the opposition benches should real progress be made on any permanent status document.  Lieberman may prefer to quit the coalition closer to elections rather than spend a longish period on the opposition benches.

The Zionist and Arab Left

Meretz (5) will likely provide a safety net even from outside of the coalition for any agreement with the Palestinians.  While there is some dissent within the ranks led by MK Zahava Galon that calls for bringing down Olmert irrespective of any peace overtures, that is currently a camp of one person and is unlikely to grow.  The three parties that represent the Palestinian-Arab community in Israel are, unsurprisingly, not on the same page.  Hadash (3) is closest to the secular nationalist PLO leadership and is most likely to support any agreement that Israel reaches with them.  UAL (4) is closer to the Islamists and could possibly split on a peace process related vote (with MKs Ahmad Tibi and Talab El-Sana closer to a Fatah line, and MKs Abbas Zkoor and Ibrahim Sarsur more Hamas-sympathetic although if these last two had the deciding votes they would be hard pushed to oppose something that a PLO leader supports).  The Balad faction (3), whose party leader, Azmi Beshara, is now in exile and faces a criminal investigation were he to return to Israel, would feel the least constrained in unapologetically rejecting any deal reached with only one part of a divided Palestinian leadership.  Given the unfortunate (and sometimes racist) nature of the Israeli political discourse, one can anticipate Olmert being less than enthusiastic about relying on Arab support to secure a majority in any critical peace vote.  In political terms Olmert may prefer winning on a vote where the opposition includes Arab MKs.

Get out the Abacus

So where does all this leave us?  First, a reminder of recent history.  Just over seven years ago when then Prime Minister Ehud Barak left for Camp David he was leader of a minority coalition of only 30 members.  From a high point of 77 members when the government was formed and included 7 parties, the coalition had collapsed to include just one quarter of the Knesset (30 MKs) and only two parties (Barak’s own Labor Party-One Israel faction and the Center party).  Olmert will leave for Annapolis in an incomparably better position in this respect.

There are many ways to slice the Israeli Knesset.  Here are the relevant ones when looking at Olmert’s maneuverability for before and after Annapolis.
The coalition/opposition split is 78/42.
Within the coalition, 55 MKs are from parties in the center, 23 MKs are from parties on the right.

On the opposition side, 21 MKs are from the right and far right, 6 are ultra-orthodox and 15 on the left, including the far-left that will not take its cues from the PA-Ramallah leadership.

Dividing the Knesset, center-left versus center-right (that includes all the religious) the breakdown is 70 versus 50.

On the diplomatic process the best way to present the numbers is probably as follows: 67 MKs from parties/factions favoring a deal, 21 MKs from parties opposed to a deal, 32 MKs from undecided parties who will tend to oppose but who have a certain degree of flexibility at least to abstain.

So let’s take that starting position of 67.  It includes Kadima, Labor, Pensioners, Meretz, Hadash and UAL.  Olmert has to lock-in these votes and lose as few as possible.  There will be defections—mostly from within his own Kadima party—5 or so rebels is manageable, 10 becomes a melt-down and has the political danger lights flashing.  The melt-down is avoidable. In addition, Olmert has to woo as many of the 32 undecideds as possible to at least abstain or be absent in key votes.  That is a more realistic prospect at least with Shas and UTJ, and absentees/abstentions would be enough to hand Olmert large margins of victory in key votes (one could imagine 60 MKs in favor, 40 MKs against and 20 MKs absent/abstain).

Of course much depends on what issue is being brought to a vote.  Prisoner releases, checkpoint removal and easing of closures all do not require Knesset approval—they can be challenged by no-confidence motions but coalition allies (Shas, Yisrael Beteinu) have all opposed such measures in the past without threatening to bring down the government and that is unlikely to change.

A settlement freeze, outpost removal, IDF redeployment and re-opening Palestinian institutions in East Jerusalem also need not be taken to a Knesset vote—but these issues have not been tested in the current Knesset and the opposition would seize on any of them in order to push no confidence votes, pressure and embarrass reluctant coalition allies.  IDF redeployment is the easiest to do politically but the most difficult to convince the security establishment on.  The Knesset traffic can almost certainly bear the token removal of a few outposts—but not implementation of the actual Roadmap commitment of removing all outposts erected since March 2001.

Declaring a settlement freeze would possibly take PM Olmert into new coalition territory and lead to a coalition re-shuffle.  If the US is insistent and Olmert convincingly depicts the settlement freeze as the price for not making concessions elsewhere, for broader Arab participation in the process (i.e. Saudi Arabia) and for maintaining an international front against Iran, then the politics of a freeze can be surmounted with only limited and not fatal coalition damage.  The East Jerusalem institutions would be a much more challenging political stretch, although it is worth noting that this is a Roadmap deliverable that the Palestinians rarely mention.

And what of an agreement on permanent status issues?

While Olmert is very unlikely to be up-ended and lose his coalition over the act of conducting negotiations, the reaching of an agreement or parameters or a DOP, is another matter.  This would be a moment of truth—all the Israeli protestations of being so peace-loving would be put to the test, and it would have something of a sobering effect on all concerned.  When the prospect of creating such a moment was contemplated in the run-up to Annapolis, Olmert blinked first.  If, as all parties will claim at Annapolis, great effort is to be devoted to securing an agreement during Bush’s remaining months in office, and it “succeeds” then Olmert is more likely to take that to the public than to the Knesset.  In the unlikely event of an agreement being reached on permanent status, expect Olmert to call new elections, make this his platform and turn the poll into a kind of referendum on peace.

Bottom line, should he be so inclined, Olmert has a majority to pursue negotiations and for many key Roadmap deliverables; and yes there would be the political knocks, bumps and crises that can be safely avoided by doing nothing.  None of those crises will be as damaging to Olmert politically or to Israel strategically as the folly of last summer’s Lebanon war.  Probability?  Well here’s one indicator: there used to be, but there is no longer a market for trading on Israeli-Palestinian peace at (you can though bet on an air strike on Iran by December ’08 and that last traded at 50% probability).  The folks at Intrade ain’t betting on Annapolis and so, thus far at least, neither can you!