First the Speech
I wasn’t planning on watching Prime Minister Netanyahu’s speech to Congress. But Stacy and I traveled to Yad HaShmonah (Messianic Jewish moshav outside Jerusalem) for a 1 ½ day conference with Messianic Jewish leaders in the land and the Union of Messianic Jewish Congregation leaders from the US on the evening of the speech. The speech was turned on in the lobby of hotel, and so we joined 30 others (Israeli and American) in watching it. It was odd watching the Prime Minister of our new country speak to the legislative body I used to work for.
I’ve seen numerous Presidential addresses to Congress, and the feel of this one was similar. Unlike Presidential appearances where the House of Representatives’ Sargent of Arms announces the President’s arrival, the House Speaker announced the Prime Minister. However, Netanyahu entered like most US presidents, where he moved side to side down the aisle greeting the members of Congress. It’s incredible to think the only other head of state ever to address Congress three times was Winston Churchill. More amazing is the fact that Israel is a such a small country, both geographically and in population. Consider Israel’s population is approximately 8 million people, only 2/3 the size of Chad. Has Chad’s president ever spoken to Congress even once, and, if he did, would anyone show up? When God said Israel is the apple of His eye and is called to be a light to the nations, we’re seeing it played out in our day and age.
Netanyahu is a brilliant orator in English (I’ve heard he’s better in English than in Hebrew). In my estimation he ranks with the top American political speakers of all time. He didn’t disappoint. Of course, the downside is the political fallout from a serious breach of protocol by disrespecting President Obama for not checking with him prior to his acceptance of the appearance, and then publicly criticizing the Administration’s negotiating tactics with Iran. Unfortunately, that fact cast a serious pall over the proceedings, leading to numerous influential Democrats boycotting the speech and many others criticizing Netanyahu’s appearance both before and after. Support for Israel has been waning in Democratic circles for a few years. The last thing Israel needs is to be part of the continuing partisan divide in the US. Of course, polarizing a current administration is far worse and could undermine US support for Israel internationally.
What I also found interesting is that Congress’s enthusiastic response to Netanyahu including to many of his points was far greater than the support he currently has in Israel. He has been mercilessly attacked in the Israeli press both before and after the speech. Many past military and intelligence leaders criticized him for jeopardizing US/Israeli relations for what appeared to be a political ploy. The latest polls show he gained little if any additional votes for his actions. Time will tell whether it was a Churchillian moment that warned the world of impending disaster or whether his impetuousness permanently harmed US/Israel relations. In my view, while I agreed with the substance of his speech, I think it was a very bad move.
Then Come the Elections
On March 17 we will participate in our second national election since we moved here three years ago. Israeli governments are elected to four year terms, but rarely last that long due to early coalition breakups. This election is expected to be very close between the two leading parties, Likud, led by Netanyahu, and a hybrid of the Labor party called the Zionist Camp. Neither one will come close to the necessary 61 member majority. With Israel’s electoral system and multifarious parties, a coalition of parties is necessary to govern. At this moment Likud and Labor are essentially tied in the polls with each garnering around 23 seats, very small for a party to attempt to form a government. Additionally, between 15-20% of the Israeli public is undecided as to what party to vote for, a huge undecided block, which could swing the election in numerous directions.
Unlike the US, voters vote for a party, not an individual. When you enter the voting booth, you choose a party designated by initials, place it in an envelope and drop it in a ballot box. For a party to be represented in the Knesset, the party must achieve at least 3.5% of all votes, a much higher threshold than the last election. A party that meets the threshold is guaranteed a minimum of four Knesset seats. The more votes a party gains above that threshold the more seats. Votes for parties that do not cross the threshold are divvied up among the other parties, according to a complicated formula, but definitely one in which the larger parties gain more. Also, votes for a party that successfully crosses the threshold but whose extra votes do not yield an additional seat can be assigned to another party, again under very complicated election procedures. All this makes for tremendous difficulty in trying to predict an election outcome.
Following the election, the President of Israel, Reuven Rivlin (an appointed office), will ask one of the leading parties to attempt to form a coalition. The parties likely to be represented in the Knesset are the following: Likud (Netanyahu – a right wing party), Labor (Zionist Camp – a left wing party), Yesh Atid (there’s a future, led by Yair Lapid – a center party), Bayit Yehudi (Jewish Home, led by Naftali Bennet – a far right wing party), a United Arab list (comprised of four separate Arab parties – it could become the 3rd largest Knesset party), Kulanu (all of us, led by Moshe Kahlon – a center right party), United Torah (an ultra-Orthodox Ashkenazic Jewish religious party – European Jews), Shas (led by Aryeh Deri (formerly imprisoned for corruption - an ultra-Orthodox Sephardic Jewish religious party – Jews from Africa and the Middle East), Yachad (unity, led by Eli Yishai – former head of Shas who was supplanted by Deri above, also an ultra-Orthodox Sephardic party),Yisrael Beitenu (Israel, our home, led by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman – a right wing, nationalist party, Russian), Meretz (energy – a far left wing party, which may not cross the threshold for representation).
Unless the Labor party surges at the end, the likely scenario is that Netanyahu will be asked to form a government, likely leading to a far right one including the ultra-Orthodox parties. In my view this will be a setback for the country, undoing some of the better reforms in the last government, further isolating Israel on the international scene and once again targeting Messianic Jews for discrimination. Please pray that corruption will be exposed, that righteous leaders will take over and that wisdom will be given to the President who will choose which party will be asked to form a government.