TIME Israel

Israel Dismayed by Iran Nuclear Agreement

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivering a statement to the media in Jerusalem on Apr. 1, 2015.
Debbie Hill—Reuters Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivering a statement to the media in Jerusalem on Apr. 1, 2015.

The agreement unveiled Thursday was criticized by politicians and officials on right and left

A framework agreement on curbing Iran’s nuclear development program announced Thursday was met with concern and criticism across the political spectrum in Israel, with recently re-elected Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu saying it would “threaten the existence of Israel.”

Netanyahu, who has long criticized the negotiations between Israel and six world powers, said his cabinet was united in opposition to the outline deal. “The proposed agreement would constitute a real danger to the region and the world, and it would threaten the existence of Israel,” he said. Any deal, he added, must recognize Israel’s right to exist.

Earlier, an official close to Netanyahu’s office told reporters late Thursday that in the Prime Minister’s eyes, the framework agreement “kowtows to Iranian dictates” and that it “will not lead to a nuclear program for peaceful purposes, but rather to a military nuclear program.”

The official, who provided reaction in the form of an written statement, said the deal would allow Iran to continue progress toward a nuclear bomb unimpeded. “Iran will retain extensive nuclear capabilities. It will continue to enrich uranium, it will continue in is research and development of centrifuges, it will not close even one of its many nuclear facilities, the underground facility in Furdow, and much more.”

The official concluded that there was “no demand that Iran stop its aggression in the region, its terrorism around the world or its threats to destroy Israel, which it has repeated again over the past several days.” (That is a reference to comments made Tuesday by Mohammad Reza Naqdi, the commander of the Basij militia of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, who said that “erasing Israel off the map” was “non-negotiable.”)

That reaction might have been expected of Netanytahu, whose stout opposition to the deal has helped cause a public rift between the U.S. and Israel. But even the Prime Minister’s opposition, which has been critical of his handling of the issue and his March 3 speech to Congress against the wishes of the Obama administration, said it was deeply concerned about the framework agreement.

Omer Bar-Lev, a leading member of Knesset of the left-wing Zionist Union, Netanyahu’s main opposition, said that Israel should work to convince Obama and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry that the one-year period in which Iran, if the agreement collapses, could weaponize its nuclear capabilities – often referred as a “breakout time” – was not nearly enough to assuage Israel’s greatest fears. “If we can convince them to work on these small details, maybe we can get to a point where there will be an expansion of that time period, and perhaps we can get something that is less bad than what we’re seeing here,” Bar-Lev said in an interview with Israel’s Channel One.

Yair Lapid, the head of centrist party Yesh Atid, which was part of Netanyahu’s last government but refuses to join the coalition he is trying to form, says the deal troubles all Israelis. “On the Iranian nuclear issue there is no opposition and coalition. We are all concerned that the Iranians will circumvent the deal and Israel must protect its own security interests,” Lapid said in a statement to reporters. “There is no basis for the determination that today Iran was prevented from attaining a nuclear weapon. Israel needs to work with the United States and the international community to ensure there is no Iranian fraud, something which would threaten Israel’s security and that of the world.”

Dr. Ephraim Asculai, a former member of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and an expert who served as a senior member of the Israel Atomic Energy Commission for over 40 years, says he is most troubled by the lack of scrutiny into his former group’s assessment that Iran was testing a nuclear explosive mechanism.

“That is a serious issue I haven’t heard a word about in any statement,” says Asculai, a Senior Fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University. Moreover, he said, he would have expected a more aggressive inspections regime, and for Iran to be left with far fewer centrifuges.

“This deal is not enough. It doesn’t give the right for inspectors to look anywhere in Iran at any time, and Iran is a huge country — it can set up a mechanism anywhere,” he told TIME. “Keeping 5,000 to 6,000 centrifuges is a large number.”

Finally, he said, one year of breakout time hardly reassures anyone in Israel, just a few hundred miles away from the Iranian border. “I think it is too short a period to deal with this problem, because by the time you discover it, it takes a long time to do something about it … I think that President Obama depends too much on intelligence to uncover any wrongdoing. Unfortunately, intelligence has been known to fail – and we know that Iran is very good at concealing what it’s up to.”

TIME Israel

Netanyahu Divides as He Conquers in Israeli Election

Benjamin Netanyahu addresses supporters.
Salih Zeki Fazlioglu—Anadolu Agency/Getty Images Israeli Prime Minister and the leader of the Likud Party Benjamin Netanyahu greets supporters at the party's election headquarters after the first results of the Israeli general election on March 18, 2015 in Tel Aviv, Israel.

Hard-right shift leaves him with a remarkably raw relationship with Israeli Arabs

Much of Israel and the rest of the Middle East went to bed late Tuesday with initial exit polls showing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party in a virtual tie with its main rival, the center-left Zionist Union, but awoke Wednesday to a vastly different outcome.

Not only was Netanyahu re-elected in a landslide that had been undetected by most pollsters ahead of Tuesday’s ballot, grabbing 30 of the Knesset’s 120 seats, but for the first time in Israeli history the third-largest party is Arab, comprising a bloc of 14 seats.

With this ascendency of Israeli Arabs — some of whom prefer to be called Palestinian Israelis — increasingly apparent in the weeks leading up the elections, Netanyahu played on fears of their empowerment on election day. He sent out controversial videos, text messages and tweets saying that “the Arabs are streaming to the polls in droves,” and accused the left wing of “busing them in.” In the 48 hours before the vote, an intense period in which Likud seemed to be trailing three or four seats behind the Zionist Union, an alliance under the leadership of Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni, Netanyahu vowed there would be no Palestinian state if he was elected.

These moves by Netanyahu may well have helped him win an election that he looked slated to lose just a few days earlier.

Netanyahu said on Wednesday that he would work to form a coalition within two to three weeks, adding that he was “thrilled by the heavy responsibility of his victory.” In a trip to the Western Wall, where he appeared to give thanks for his surprise success at the polls, he also promised that he would work for the benefit of all Israel’s citizens — a sore spot after the tactics of a day earlier. “I appreciate the decision by Israel’s citizens to elect me and my friends, against all odds and in the face of powerful forces,” he said, “and I will do everything I can to care for the security and welfare of all Israelis.”
Those friends with whom he’s likely to form a coalition are the Jewish Home party, the ultra-Orthodox parties Shas and United Torah Judaism, and centrist parties such as Kulanu and Yesh Atid.

But his checkered campaign leaves him with a remarkably raw relationship with the 20% of Israeli citizens who are Arab, following his public painting of their voting power as an existential threat to Israel, and it leaves him with no bridges left to burn with the Palestinian Authority, much less moderate Arab countries that have been pushing for a two-state solution since the launch of the Arab Peace Initiative a decade ago. All this, of course, comes amid an historic low point in relations between Washington and Jerusalem. Tuesday’s elections came about two weeks after Netanyahu addressed a joint session of Congress to warn of a “bad deal” on a nuclear Iran, much to the chagrin of the Obama Administration.

MORE: What Netanyahu’s Victory in Israel Means for the World

Senior officials in the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ office said the election outcome proved that Palestinians had no partner in Israel — a reversal of the accusation that Netanyahu and other right-wing Israeli politicians have often lodged at the Palestinian Authority.

Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat blamed the international community for not doing more to protest Palestinian rights, and indicated that its tolerance of Netanyahu’s policies had paved the way to his successful bid to consolidate his power.

“Such a result would not have been possible had the international community held Israel to account for its systematic violations of international law,” Erekat said in a media statement. “Now, more than ever, the international community must act. It must rally behind Palestinian efforts to internationalize our struggle for dignity and freedom through the International Criminal Court and through all other peaceful means.” Palestinians have been trying to advance a case in the ICC against Israel over its conduct during last summer’s war, when more than 2,100 Palestinians and about 80 Israelis died.

Netanyahu thumbing his nose at the U.S.-brokered peace process and turning his back on the landmark speech he made at Bar-Ilan University in 2009, during which he said he was in principle open to a Palestinian state, was clearly an attempt to lure back right-wing voters. Many of them had drifted over to parties like Jewish Home, headed by Naftali Bennett, who was a key coalition partner in the last government and will almost certainly be in the next one as well. Many others, says pollster Avi Dejani, president of the Geocartography Knowledge Group, for weeks indicated that they were undecided.

“So we asked, if you do vote, for whom will it be — and for whom did you vote in the past? Likud, they said,” Dejani explained, in a conference call arranged by The Israel Project. “Many, many voters who are politically allied with the Likud got scared that the left may actually win, and they came back home.”

The scare tactics included a video sent out early on election day, telling supporters to rush out and vote because Arabs were supposedly voting in high numbers. Arab voter turnout was higher than in previous years — around 68%, members of the United List say. This upsurge in a sector where so many express feeling disenfranchised and marginalized came in large part from the new wings that Israeli Arab politicians got from their constituents by having put aside their internal differences and uniting.

In an ironic twist, this effort to put all four Arab parties on one list, called the Joint List, was born in part of the efforts of right-wing parties to marginalize Arab lawmakers and force some of them out of the Knesset. These right-wing parliamentarians authored legislation that made it necessary for the first time for any party running for office to earn at least 3.25% of the vote to earn a mandate. This means smaller parties under that new threshold would no longer make it into the Knesset, a change that was most likely to affect smaller Arab parties.

“There were really no buses, by the way,” says Yousef Jabareen a new member of Knesset. “When that video came out, the voter turnout then was still very low. So it was factually misleading, and unfortunately, Netanyahu gained some support because of that.”

The video, he said, raised “a feeling of anger” and some degree of shock that a sitting Prime Minister could portray Israeli citizens going to the ballot box on election day as a threat. “He is the top official in Israel, and you would expect him to encourage people to vote and to be part of the democratic process,” says Jabareen. “However, in Israel apparently, the standards are different. Can you imagine if in Europe the French premiers said he’s worried about too many Jews voting?”

That sentiment was reverberating through the American Jewish community as well. Influential Haaretz columnist Chemi Shalev, also the left-wing paper’s U.S. editor, tweeted: “To Netanyahu’s many American friends: what if a US President had said ‘too many Jews are voting?'” Shalev’s comment was retweeted more than 500 times. Rick Jacobs, the leader of Reform Jewish movement spoke out against “disheartening” statements in the campaign and said “Israel deserves better.”

As news of Netanyahu’s win began to settle in, the U.S. rebuked the Prime Minister over his words in the last few days of the campaign, as he aimed to shore up support. “The Obama Administration is deeply concerned by the use of divisive rhetoric in Israel that sought to marginalize Arab Israeli citizens,” White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said.

Netanyahu is now trying to find coalition partners with whom to build a new government, which may be an uphill battle. But repairing relations with his international partners, like the “special relationship” between Jerusalem and Washington, may prove even harder.

Read next: American Donors Give to the Israeli Right

TIME Israel

Netanyahu Defeats Main Rival in Israeli Vote

Focus quickly shifted toward the formation of a coalition government

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ruling Likud party handily beat its main rival in Tuesday’s elections, official results showed as Israelis awoke Wednesday morning, despite initial exit polls that suggested a closer vote.

Likud won 30 of the 120 seats up for grabs in Knesset, Israel’s Parliament, over the Zionist Union’s 24 seats, according to the elections committee’s tally. That’s a far cry from Tuesday evening, when exit polls conducted by three major Israeli television channels had indicated a relative tie, at 27, between the two parties.

Netanyahu declared victory in an early morning speech as the votes were still being counted.

“Dear friends, against all odds we have achieved a great victory for Likud, for the national camp which is headed by Likud, for our people,” he told supporters at his campaign headquarters in Tel Aviv. “Now we must form a strong and stable government that will care for the security and welfare of all of Israel’s citizens.”

The results are a disappointment for the Zionist Union — headed by Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni — which for weeks had shown a four-seat lead over Netanyahu in various opinion polls, and for members of a nonpartisan campaign calling itself V15 (Victory 2015), which declared its main goal was to get Israelis out to vote for any party that would dislodge Netanyahu from power.

When, at one point in the night, the Zionist camp appeared to have won an equal number of seats to Likud, it too claimed to have received a mandate to form a new government. Herzog, speaking a little after midnight, told his supporters that the result of the election would “bring Labor back into power” after 16 years on the sidelines.

“This is a big victory for the Labor Party, which hasn’t done this well since Yitzhak Rabin won in 1992,” he said. He called on the “social parties” — all those who campaigned to help Israelis weather the skyrocketing cost of living here — to unite under him to form “a real reconciliation government.”

Herzog called Netanyahu on Wednesday to congratulate him on his victory, but would not say whether the Zionist Union would consider joining a Netanyahu-led government.

With more than 99% of the votes counted, focus is quickly shifting toward the formation of the coalition government. Israeli President Reuven Rivlin had announced late Tuesday night that he would call on the two leading parties to construct a government. With Likud enjoying such a clear lead, it’s likely Rivlin will put it to Netanyahu to form one.

After each election, Israel’s President is charged with inviting the head of one or more of the largest parties to form a coalition. But in Israel’s fractured political system, being the party with the most votes does not necessarily mean having enough votes to cobble together a government. Given the bitter invective Likud and the Zionist Union have used against each other in the past few months, however, it is difficult to envision them coming together to form a unity government with a rotating premiership, as had been done in decades past. It is possible, however, that Netanyahu will have made so many enemies of late that he’ll find it tough to get to the seats he needs to form a coalition.

As Likud and the Zionist Union now start totaling up their potential partners’ projected Knesset seats to see if they might be able to come up with the right sum to present a ruling coalition — a minimum of 61 of the 120 — centrist parties become the cornerstones for building a new government. In this, all eyes are on Moshe Kahlon, a former Likud party member and government minister under Netanyahu who broke away to form the Kulanu party. Exit polls showed it winning nine or 10 seats, with the latter as the final count. While that only makes it the fifth-largest party to be elected, Kahlon’s preferences can either make or break a coalition on offer by either Netanyahu or Herzog.

But Kahlon already rejected an eleventh-hour promise from Netanyahu to be Finance Minister in favor of an endorsement, saying the Premier has too often failed to keep his word. The waters were further muddied on the eve of the elections when a fabricated ad — essentially an audio-clip job put out by the Likud campaign — made Kahlon sound as if he were fully behind Netanyahu. Supreme Court Judge Salim Joubran, who heads the Central Elections Committee, forced Likud to stop using the ad and ordered it to pay a fine of about $5,000. Kahlon said the tape was deceitful and added he could he no longer support a party that “lost its compassion and its social way,” according to the website of the newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth. “That is exactly why I left the Likud.”

Getting slightly more votes than Kahlon was the Yesh Atid party, clocking in at 11 seats. Its leader, Yair Lapid, was Netanyahu’s Finance Minister in the last government but was fired in November when he opposed the Prime Minister on several fronts, from economics to a controversial “nation-state bill” that opponents say is a step back for Israeli democracy. Given that his falling-out was part of the reason Netanyahu dissolved his government and called for new elections in December, he doesn’t make for a promising coalition material either.

The third-largest party, meanwhile, is the Joint List, a recently unified slate of several Arab parties. This party might join in a government led by Herzog — if at all. In the hours before the polls, Netanyahu released a video and a tweet urging his supporters to go out to vote because the “the Arabs are voting in droves,” and saying that “left” had been “busing Arabs to the polls.” The message led to charges of racist campaigning from Netanyahu’s critics and made it unlikely that Netanyahu could find a way to mend fences with Israel’s Arab minority, or the Palestinians, for that matter. On the eve of the elections, he said that if he remains Prime Minister there would be no Palestinian state.

Despite all of that, many analysts said Netanyahu still looked like he had the upper hand in being able to form a coalition. Although he moved well ahead of the Zionist Union, he still has many other coalition partners to choose from, including the ultra-Orthodox parties as well as Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home party, which largely represents the interests of West Bank settlers and their hopes of expansion.

Bennett’s party won eight seats compared to the 13 it had in the last Knesset. But the party’s relative strength and Bennett’s alliance with Netanyahu points to a path of expanded settlement growth, something that keeps Israel on a collision course with the international community, including the Obama administration, which has called them a hindrance to the peace process. Bennett has long expressed opposition to a Palestinian state.

“Netanyahu has withstood with most serious challenge he faced in continuing as Prime Minister and at the moment has the better chance of forming a government, though it’s certainly not going to be as easy,” said Yehuda Ben-Meir, a public-opinion expert at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University.

“Netanyahu has to make a major decision: whether he wants to form a small, narrow coalition” of center and right-wing parties, added Ben-Meir, or whether to “form a national unity government based on parity between the two largest parties … which is a surprise because the expectation was that neither one of these would be so high, certainly the Likud. What we can say is that Israel has kept to its tradition of surprises in elections. And that nothing is really clear until all the votes are counted.”

TIME Israel

The Kingmaker Who May Decide Israel’s Closely Contested Election

Moshe Kahlon's Kulanu Party could end up holding the key to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's fate

Correction appended, March 17

Shmuel Khavilio is cab driver who hasn’t voted in several elections, as his disillusionment with Israeli politicians and their promises has grown. But this time around he is planning to vote — and he’s casting a ballot for a brand-new party that didn’t even exist four months ago.

That party is Kulanu, and its leader, Moshe Kahlon, had been a longtime member of the ruling Likud, headed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But Netanyahu is facing stiffer-than-expected competition on Tuesday as Israelis vote in a national election that the right-wing premier himself called for back in December. Frustrated with dissent within his own government, Netanyahu dissolved it and asked voters to re-elect him and “give me a real mandate to lead the people and the country.”

That doesn’t look likely to happen. Instead, polls suggest voters will hand Likud only about 20 out of the 120 Knesset seats up for grabs, whereas some 24 or more seats are predicted to go to the Zionist Union, headed by Labor Party chairman Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni, who as justice minister headed talks with the Palestinians in the last government before falling out with Netanyahu.

Livni isn’t the only Israeli to part ways with the three-time Likud leader whom Israelis roundly refer to as “Bibi.” Netanyahu’s traditional voting base is being drained by parties declaring themselves centrist, such as Kulanu and Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party, as well as those further to the right, such as the Jewish Home party led by economy minister Naftali Bennett, and hardliner Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitanu party.

But Kahlon, a former Minister of Communications who is credited with breaking up the country’s cell phone monopoly and drastically bringing down prices, may be the biggest threat of all to Netanyahu’s pool of voters — and could yet decide the premier’s future.

One of the most prestigious names to join Kahlon’s slate is Michael Oren, who served as Netanyahu’s ambassador to Washington until two years ago. In an interview with TIME, Oren says that he was never a member of Netanyahu’s Likud, but had gladly accepted the invitation to help explain Israel’s position in the United States. That included the pivotal issue of Iran’s nuclear program, over which Netanyahu has publicly butted heads with the Obama administration to the point of outright crisis between Jerusalem and Washington. Oren was a key player in many of those discussions in recent years.

“I know better than almost anyone that a nuclear-armed Iran poses an existential threat,” he says by telephone while campaigning for Kulanu in small towns along the coastal plain north of Tel Aviv. “But Israelis overwhelmingly list the price of living in this country and the price of housing as the biggest existential threat of all. My joining this party was an ‘it’s the economy, stupid’ kind of moment.”

That’s a reference, of course, to a popular slogan of the Clinton-Gore campaign in 1992, when the two Democratic candidates initially looked like a long shot for replacing the incumbent, George H. W. Bush. While salaries here have remained flat, housing and cost-of-living prices have skyrocketed in the last few years. A state auditor’s report released a few weeks ago showed that home prices have jumped by 55 percent and rents by 30 percent from 2008 to 2013, which includes most of Netanyahu’s recent tenure.

Like Clinton, Kahlon comes from a modest background. He’s a child of Libyan immigrants to Israel who was raised in a two-bedroom house with seven children, but went on to earn two higher degrees and take on big business while in the cabinet. It was while Kahlon was on a trip to Washington as a Knesset member that they first met. “He made a big impression on me,” Oren says. “He’s very personable and charismatic – but also very grounded and honest, unlike many politicians I’ve met.”

That’s exactly the sentiment that is getting many average Israelis like Khavilio, the cab driver, out to vote. “It’s just hard to make a living here anymore,” says Khavilio, who finds Kahlon – like him a Jew of Middle Eastern descent – more trustworthy than the others. “Most people I know don’t make it through the month without going into debt. By the time you pay your rent or your mortgage, there’s hardly enough left over to buy food, or to get your kid a pair of sneakers.”

Although Oren has chosen a party in fierce competition with his former boss, he says that wasn’t the intention. Ever the diplomat, he treads lightly on any criticism aimed directly at Netanyahu, and with good reason: they may yet end up working together. Even if Likud doesn’t win the most seats, the current prime minister could still end up being invited by Israel’s president to form a coalition of centrist and right-wing parties that would naturally include Kulanu.

In that configuration, Kahlon would almost certainly ask for the finance ministry; in fact, Netanyahu has already offered it to him, but Kahlon declined, saying he had no interest in committing to a government with a man who had failed to keep his word on many occasions. It’s also possible that Kahlon, as the new “kingmaker” who is willing to pair up with a left or right-leaning premier, will demand the foreign minister position for Oren.

But when the election stations close at 10 p.m. on Tuesday and the first exit polls by Israel’s three leading station release their unofficial results, the demands on the leading vote-getters will be immense, and the game of coalition building will begin. It’s a particularly difficult election to call, analysts say, because Israeli voters have been surprised before. Netanyahu’s first victory, in 1996, came the morning after exit polling had predicted a win for Shimon Peres and the Labor Party. And in 2009, Livni’s Kadima party won the highest number of seats — but it soon became clear that only Netanyahu could put together a government because most of the available Knesset seats were center or right-wing.

If the same thing happens again, Kahlon’s role could be decisive. But hours before polls close, no one is placing bets on what might happen. “The Israeli electorate has become very volatile. There are too many voters up for grabs,” says Reuven Hazan, a professor of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. “Usually in a Western democracy, you’re talking 10 to 20 percent to voters who are willing to switch parties. Here it’s anywhere between two to three times as much, and you’re speaking about tremendous volatility in the last couple of days.”

Israeli voters, he says, seem to be in a search for something they still haven’t found. “Voters are looking for someone who’s going to make them feel better off in terms of security and deliver – or someone who will make them feel better economically and deliver,” he says. “Everybody is fighting for every vote.”

Correction: The original version of this story misstated the incumbent U.S. President during the 1992 election. It was George H. W. Bush.

TIME Israel

Is This the Man Who Could Beat Netanyahu and Become Israel’s Next PM?

Isaac Herzog has maintained a lead in opinion polls but winning the election is not enough to become prime minister

When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chose to dissolve his government last November and call for new elections he didn’t expect a formidable challenge from the Labor party leader Isaac Herzog.

Herzog is the closest thing Israel has to a patrician politician. His father, Chaim Herzog, was an Israeli army general and the sixth president of Israel and his grandfather was the first chief rabbi of Ireland. And while the 54-year-old Isaac Herzog has served four times as a government minister since 2004, few have seen him as having the charisma some believe is necessary to be Israel’s prime minister.

But opinion polls show Herzog, who heads an electoral list which combines the Labor and Hatnua parties, with a clear lead. At least three polls released Friday—the last day polling can be released before the March 17 vote—showed Herzog’s Zionist Union with a four-seat lead in the Knesset over Netanyahu and his Likud party.

If these numbers remain true on election day, it will be a major achievement for Labor, which has not won an election in 16 years despite dominating Israeli politics before that.

Herzog appears confident that he can beat Netanyahu. He is attacking the three-term prime minister on his foreign policy; Netanyahu’s handling of the Iran nuclear issue, tensions with the Obama administration and lack of progress with the Palestinians. And on economic problems that trouble average Israelis as much as foreign policy.

“Housing costs have risen 70%. How come the social gaps have grown so substantially?” Herzog said in a press conference with foreign journalists in Jerusalem. “Netanyahu has failed on security, and on all these economic issues. He has to answer these questions, but he hasn’t. He’s run away from any debate with me.”

Election ads pump up Herzog’s wide-ranging experience in government and his service as a major in the Intelligence Corps; a history in an elite unit of the Israeli army is still considered vital for anyone who would serve as prime minister. Eyal Zisser, the Dean of the Faculty of Humanities at Tel Aviv University, served with Herzog in the army. In those days, he was considered a “mensch,” says Zisser – Yiddish for a good guy – who was modest despite his political family.

“In many cases, when someone is from a well-known family, you know it,” says Zisser. “But in his case, no one could observe it because he didn’t show it off. He was always trying to prove himself not based on family affiliation but on his own merits, and people liked that about him.”

Unlike his father, who rose to the rank of general, Herzog left the army after four years to study law and then joined the family law firm. The pedigree aside, he didn’t necessarily act like someone who was destined to be prime minister. “He’s not full of charisma, and still, in his own quiet way, he’s a very smart politician,” says Zisser.

Herzog’s advisors have tried to turn his lack of charisma into an advantage. Herzog has focused on issues rather than trying to get ‘Bougie’ — as he’s popularly know here — to compete with the charisma of ‘Bibi’, as the prime minister is nicknamed.

“People are outgrowing that notion[the need for a charismatic prime minister],” says Asaf Eisin, a campaign strategist for Herzog’s Zionist Union. “We’ve heard people asking over and over again where did all those charismatic leaders bring them, and longing for a leader who works for them. It’s not about making speeches, it’s about actions. People have identified in Herzog a man who works for the country first, not himself. He can put his ego aside, and people want that.”

Herzog told reporters he is interested in resuming peace negotiations with the Palestinians, which collapsed last April. He said he would halt all West Bank construction outside of the major “settlements blocs” that Israel would like be annexed to Israel in a peace deal. But success in resuming talks would depend on how ready the Palestinian Authority is to negotiate with him. “I do not know what kind of mood I’ll find after the 17th of March,” he said.

Even if he emerges as the winner of the general election, Herzog is not guaranteed the job of prime minister. He still has to create a coalition by uniting a group of parties with sometimes contradictory positions. And that takes different skills from winning an election. In the 2009 election, Herzog’s running mate Tzipi Livni emerged as the leader of the largest party but only Netanyahu could form a government.

But Herzog will have an added advantage this time. He hails from an Irish family and the election takes place on St Patrick’s Day.

TIME Israel

Israel is Left Divided By Netanyahu Address to Congress

Opposition attacked the Prime Minister for antagonising Obama while supporters say he has a point

After nearly two months in which the controversial address of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Congress has dominated the headlines here, Israelis received the long-awaited talk with a mix of reactions that demonstrated just how divided the country is two weeks before heading to national elections.

Much of the prime-time coverage of Netanyahu’s speech on Tuesday, which focused on what he calls an impending “bad deal” on Iran’s nuclear development program as being negotiated with the US and other Western nations, took a critical view of the premier’s decision to make the speech despite the unprecedented tensions it has sparked with the administration of President Barack Obama.

Israel’s main opposition leader, Isaac Herzog, gave a prime-time speech soon after the televised address, in which he said that Netanyahu had failed to shift policy — or make history as he’d promised — but had simply succeeded in angering the White House.

“There’s no doubt that that Netanyahu knows how to give an address. But his speech today didn’t stop the Iran nuclear program,” Herzog said. “It did not change US policy, and now Israel stands isolated and alone.”

Alon Pinkas, a former Israeli diplomat and chief of staff to several Israeli foreign ministers, told Israel’s Channel One that Netanyahu focused his persuasive efforts in the wrong direction.

“It was too bad that this was a speech to Congress, because this talk needed to be held inside the White House,” Pinkas said. “All of the behavior that surrounded this speech has been a bit like a circus, which I don’t think serves Israel’s interests. There aren’t huge differences within Israel in terms of our outlook on Iran’s nuclear program,” he added, as many Israelis are troubled by Iran’s threats to “wipe Israel off the map.” But Netanyahu’s decision to defy the Obama administration’s wishes by accepting the invitation of Republican House Speaker John Boehner has Israelis worried about damaging relations between Jerusalem and Washington, with few gains to show for it.

Ben Caspit, a widely followed analyst for Maariv and al-Monitor, wrote on Twitter that from the point of view of the polls — where Netanyahu is lagging slightly behind the Zionist Union headed by Herzog and Tzipi Livni — the speech to Congress is like the last bullet in a faulty gun. It could misfire — or might not fire at all.

Barak Ravid, the diplomatic correspondent of the Haaretz newspaper, said little if anything new was said by Netanyahu in Washington. “We can sum this up like this — one big nothing,” he said in a tweet. His colleague Chemi Shalev, the U.S. editor of the left-leaning paper, was similarly unimpressed: “Don’t know how speech plays in Congress/America but most Israelis have heard this before and are already bored to tears.”

But not all of Israel’s opinion-makers were critical of Netanyahu, and some supporters called his speech powerful and moving. Some pundits argue that he has a point about the dangers of leaving Iran with so-called break-out capability — the ability to weaponize atomic material in a short period of time.

“Netanyahu is right,” tweeted Moav Vardi, the diplomatic correspondent for Israel’s Channel 10 news. “In another 10-15 years when this deal expires, Iran can manufacture as many bombs as it wants. To this argument, Obama doesn’t really have an answer.” He also predicted that the speech would not do either of the things Netanyahu’s friends and foes predict: It will neither stop a deal on Iran nor destroy relations with the U.S. Both of those things are beyond the power of a speech to Congress, Vardi noted.

Netanyahu was accompanied on his trip Washington by Naftali Bennett, the leader of the right-wing Jewish Home party. Although the two men are competitors for votes in the March 17 ballot, Bennett touted his backing of Netanyahu on a critical mission for Israel’s defense, and suggested that those who stayed home were not sufficiently worried about the country’s survival. To the criticism that Netanyahu presented no alternative to the ongoing negotiations, Bennett tweeted that the answer was to increase sanctions against Iran.

TIME Israel

How Israel Sees Benjamin Netanyahu’s Speech to Congress

Israelis are divided on the prime minister's trip to Washington, just two weeks before they go to the polls

If recent history is any indication, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is likely to receive a number of standing ovations when he speaks before Congress on Tuesday to warn lawmakers about what he predicts will be a “bad deal” on Iran’s nuclear program.

But just as members of Congress are voting with their feet whether to attend the controversial speech that the Obama administration has deemed “destructive” to U.S.-Israel ties, Israeli voters are preparing to vote with their ballots as they narrow down their choices ahead of national elections exactly two weeks later, on March 17.

The diplomatic tempest over Netanyahu’s address, which comes at the invitation of Republican House Speaker John Boehner without any coordination with the White House, is also casting a cloud over Israel’s internal debate, with politicians and pundits speaking about little else.

Some analysts say the storm of attention may actually help Netanyahu, who has built himself a reputation as “Mr. Security” since he took the premiership for the second time in 2009 (He was elected for a third term in 2013). Conservative voters who feel Israel must never compromise its defense by relying too heavily upon others believe that even the so-called “special relationship” with the United States should be kept in check. This rightist constituency likes the idea of a leader who will defy what they perceive as pressure from Washington and Europeans capitals to make concessions, whether to the Palestinians next door or to the Iranians in a deal on nuclear enrichment.

“He’s actually speaking the language this audience wants to hear,” says Professor Reuven Hazan, the chair of the political science department at the Hebrew University. “It’s beautiful politicking … Two weeks before the election he is setting the agenda on Iran, which is where he wants it, and not on housing prices. It is increasingly perceived in this audience that Obama wants to reach an agreement at all costs, and Netanyahu will get a free hour of prime time across all the networks to broadcast that message.”

But it’s not just political expediency driving Netanyahu to Washington, says Gideon Rahat, a senior associate at the Israel Democracy Institute in Jerusalem. “It’s his deep belief that Obama doesn’t understand the cruel world outside and he’s trying to be too nice.”

No matter how pure Netanyahu’s ideological motives are for speaking to Congress, the speech could end up hurting him. Critics in Israel and elsewhere say Netanyahu’s decision to speak Tuesday is turning support for Israel into a partisan issue, pitting Democrats against Republicans and threatening the relationship with Israel’s most valued ally. Among these are Commanders for Israel’s Security, a group of more than 200 retired officers who chimed into the chorus of critique over Netanyahu’s plans to address Congress against the wishes of the Obama administration. On Sunday they held a press conference at which they said Netanyahu had gone off course.

“We decided that we need to publicly give our opinion — that the prime minister’s current policy is destroying the covenant with the United States,” said Maj. Gen. (ret.) Amnon Reshef. “The way to stop a nuclear Iran is by strengthening ties between countries, between the U.S. and Israel, between Israel an the international community.”

Amiram Levin, a former northern commander in the IDF, offered that he’d known Netanyahu as a young soldier and had taught him how to navigate while serving in an elite army unit. “I tell him now, Bibi you are navigating incorrectly,” Levin said, using the prime minister’s nickname. “The target is Tehran, not Washington.”

Such censure must surely sting, but Netanyahu left for the U.S. capital Sunday smiling and insisting that his was a “fateful, even historic, mission.” Indeed, his own political fate could be determined by this speech, just days before a national ballot that he himself called when he fired several of his ministers last November. Recent polls show that his rivals in the Zionist Union, an alliance of the Labor Party under the leadership of Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni of Hatnua, have a slight lead over Netanyahu’s Likud. Two centrist parties are siphoning away support from Netanyahu’s Likud base, as are parties further to the right of him led by Naftali Bennett and Avigdor Lieberman.

The strained U.S.-Israel relationship and the Iran nuclear issue are not the only factors weighing on Netanyahu’s popularity, though. The premier has suffered from a string of mini-scandals pointing to excessive spending at his official and private residences, and personal use of public funds. Meanwhile, a report released last week indicated that a housing crisis in Israel is even more severe than previously realized, and found two consecutive Netanyahu administrations coming up short on solutions. Apartment prices jumped 55% from 2008-2013, the study found.

When asked for a reaction, the prime minister immediately turned back to his favorite subject. “When we talk about housing prices, about the cost of living, I do not for a second forget about life itself,” he tweeted. “The biggest threat to our life at the moment is a nuclear-armed Iran.”

TIME Israel

Israeli Critics Sees Netanyahu Putting His Personal Interests First in Addressing Congress

Israeli PM's proposed trip to Washington has caused controversy in the U.S. and at home

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has long found a large welcome mat at the doors of the U.S. Congress, particularly when it comes to his interest in talking about Iran and its nuclear program, When he gave a speech to Congress on the subject in 2011, he was given 29 standing ovations – four more, many noted, than President Barack Obama received in his State of the Union address that year.

The reaction in Israel to Netanyahu’s next visit has been quite different. The Prime Minister was invited by Republican Speaker John Boehner to speak before Congress on Mar. 3, two weeks before the Israeli premier is up for re-election. The focus of the address would be the Iranian nuclear issue, in particular, Netanyahu’s call to Congress to impose further sanctions on Iran. As the Obama administration is pursuing negotiations with Iran, Netanyahu’s intervention is seen as antagonistic.

Obama made clear this week that he would not be seeing Netanyahu during his visit to Washington, telling CNN’s Fareed Zakaria he would never meet with a visiting leader two weeks before their country goes to the polls because he considers it “inappropriate.”

Critics in Israel have attacked Netanyahu for putting his personal political interests above the interests of his country and for jeopardising the U.S.-Israel special relationship by getting involved in U.S. politics.

“Israel’s leaders have always cherished and protected its relations with the United States, understanding that they are of utmost importance for our country’s security,” says Stav Shaffir, a member of Israel’s parliament from the opposition Labor Party, which recent polls show having a slight lead over Netanyahu’s ruling Likud party. “The fact that Netanyahu is willing to jeopardize Israel’s strategic interests for petty electoral gains casts serious doubt on his judgment and suitability to lead the country.”

Amos Yadlin, the former military intelligence chief who has joined the opposition — now running as the “Zionist Camp” as a joint slate of Labor and Tzippi Livni’s Hatnua party — has accused Netanyahu of turning Israel’s relationship with the U.S. into one of allegiance with the Republicans. “When we manage our relationship with the U.S., we have to manage it simultaneously with the President and Congress. The Prime Minister has made it into a partisan issue in the U.S., and we cannot let Israel become a problem for one party or the other,” Yadlin told Ynet, the news website of the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth.

Haaretz, Israel’s broadsheet newspaper, carried a front-page article on Friday saying that as far as the Obama administration is concerned, Netanyahu is “toast.” In other words, even if he does win the Mar. 17 election, he can stop expecting automatic U.S. diplomatic support. Just a month ago, the U.S. used its power at the U.N. Security Council to block a vote for Palestinian state.

“You do not want to be ‘toast’ in the eyes of the American administration,” says Gadi Wolfsfeld, an expert in politics and communications who teaches at IDC Herzliya, a university in the Tel Aviv area. “America could turn away when the E.U. puts pressure on Israel. There’s lot of things Obama can do without directly confronting Netanyahu — there are subtle ways of punishing him and punishing Israel for this move, which are not going to be pleasant.”

According to reports, Netanyahu is working to convince Democrats of the importance of his speech, and they are trying to get him to reconsider. That might be wise, Wolfsfeld says.

“Some people have suggested that he should cancel. People would have to spend a few hours thinking of a creative way to do it, but that may be best, because I think both sides already realize that this was not their finest hour,” says Wolfsfeld. “Of course, when Netanyahu is standing there in front of Congress and receiving applause, it’s possible that he’ll once again be received as a powerful speaker and a great diplomat. But right now, considering the amount of backlash, if he had to do it over again, I’d be surprised if he’d do it at all.”

TIME Israel

Escape to Israel Is Not Always an Easy Answer For French Jews

Life goes on at this Jewish bakery in the Marais, a traditionally Jewish quarter in Paris, France, Jan. 11, 2015.
Julien Pebrel—MYOP for TIME Life goes on at this Jewish bakery in the Marais, a traditionally Jewish quarter in Paris, France, Jan. 11, 2015.

Some return home after finding it difficult to adapt to life in Israel

A few months ago, Pnina and Raphael Kaufmann decided enough was enough. Their six-year experiment of life in Israel was at an end. They decided to move to Strasbourg, a French city near the German border. Though it’s where Raphael Kaufmann grew up, moving back to France wasn’t what they’d expected when they moved to Israel in 2008.

At the time, Kaufmann and his wife Pnina, both lawyers, saw a disturbing rise of anti-Semitism in France and thought that Israel would be a far better place to raise their growing family.

The jobs they had found had little security and were paid far less than they were paid in France. Raphael found a new position in France last year and started commuting twice a month, meaning he was away from his family at least half the time. It was especially hard on their four children.

“There are many French Jews who emigrate to Israel, and afterwards many of them go back, because it’s too hard to make a living in Israel,” says Pnina Benjamin Kaufmann, who, along with her husband, found it difficult to requalify as a lawyer in Israel. “There are tons of people who have university degrees and professions and they find it’s impossible to work in the field, or the pay for other jobs is just too low.”

Theirs is a real but less celebrated side of the story of Jews leaving France for Israel, a trend that is predicted by the Jewish Agency, the organisation that encourages migration to Israel, to increase following the killing of four French Jews in an attack at a Paris supermarket last Friday. In 2014, 7,000 French émigrés arrived in Israel, twice the number from the year before. Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky estimates French immigration will more than double this year to 15,000. The Israeli government doesn’t keep track, however, of how many new immigrants ultimately leave. And while Israel gives a wide-ranging benefits package to its newcomers to enable an easy landing in the country, for some people it’s not enough.

“When you hear Sharansky come out and say they’ll get 100,000 French Jews coming to Israel,” or close to a fifth of the Jews living in France overall, “I say, but then what? How are they going to integrate all of those people?” Benjamin Kaufmann asks. “They need to improve the way they recognize foreign diplomas and open up the job market properly.”

Mickael Bensadoun agrees that new arrivals need support. He left France for Israel in 2001 and for the past eight years he’s been the CEO of an organization called Gvahim, which helps ease the transition of young and well-educated French immigrants into the Israeli labor market by finding them internships and job placements. It’s challenging enough for Israelis to find good jobs, he notes, and most immigrants have the additional handicap of not having native-level Hebrew. What’s more, the cultural gap means the French “don’t interview well,” he says.

“The number-one problem is employment. You interview very differently in France than in Israel,” Bensadoun tells TIME. “In French culture, you’re very modest about saying you’re good at something, but in Israel it’s different, you talk yourself up and you need to sell yourself very aggressively.” Israeli employers, meanwhile, often look at a resume and see names of schools in France they don’t recognize, and end up undervaluing the level of education the newcomers arrive with, or won’t recognize their qualifications in heavily regulated professions.

With the French economy in a slump in the last few years, there has been an additional lure for French Jews to come to Israel. The economy in Israel is growing but the country has rather low wages compared to other OECD countries, putting Israel on a par with countries such as Spain, Slovenia, and Greece. Throw in the high cost of living and exorbitant real estate prices, and many find it difficult to survive. Exasperation with these trends led to a massive social protest across Israel in 2011 that resulted in few noticeable reforms. In recent months, there has been much controversy over Israelis moving abroad — to Berlin in particular — after having grown exasperated with the Israeli economic situation.

“A very important element is that for young people it is almost impossible to buy apartments unless you have very well-to-do parents. The housing in Berlin is much cheaper,” says Uri Avinery, a peace activist and former politician who regularly comments on the plight of new immigrants. Avinery says that he sees the impact of the situation when he asks after his friends’ children, and finds many of them are in Europe or the U.S.

“There’s a big outcry for the French to come here, but there is no affordable housing and there are no jobs,” he tells TIME. “It’s a gut reaction to call on them to come, but this gut reaction does not translate into initiatives, and many of them will find it impossible to stay.”

Joel Bloch, a hi-tech entrepreneur who came to Israel in 2006 and opened his fifth start-up about two years ago, says that many French immigrants like him are staying tied, professionally and economically, to France. Bloch’s company Tag’by is based in Tel Aviv but most of its business in France. That means that he flies to France at least once a month, sometimes twice.

“When you keep your business in France completely, and your personal life is here, that makes it difficult to integrate. It makes for a kind of schizophrenia,” says Bloch.

Besides the economic struggle, of course, there is the challenge of living in a place with a perennially unsolved conflict, and wars that seem to erupt nearly every two years. “When we had the war here this summer, all our family back in France was afraid for us,” says Bloch, “but right now we’re afraid for them.”

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