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International Politics Meets Domestic Politics

Next week, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will speak before a joint session of Congress at the invitation of the Republican Party.  There are many reasons why this speech is unprecedented, but the biggest reason may be that this speech occurs smack in the middle of the Israeli elections which will be held on March 17.  Simply put, Prime Minister Netanyahu will not be speaking before Congress as the representative of Israel but rather, through his speech to Congress, will be presenting the position of the Likud Party to the voters of Israel.  The tone deafness of the Republicans in scheduling this speech for this moment in time, however, reflects a more general failure of American politicians to recognize the impact that elections have on the foreign policy of other countries (and the possible adjustments that we will have to make in reaction to those elections).

With only three weeks to go until the elections in Israel, it is hard at this time to determine whether or not Prime Minister Netanyahu will still be Prime Minister in four weeks or if the position of Israel on the U.S.’s position in negotiations with Iran will change.  In Israel, rather than electing members by districts, Israel elects members by proportional representation.  This situation tends to lead to multiple parties with no party being close to a majority and the formation of a government depending upon negotiations between the parties to form a government.

Based on current projections, Likud and associated parties that take a “hardline” position on negotiations with Palestinians and Iran is likely to fall slightly from 43 seats to 40 seats.  On the other hand, Labor and other parties that take a more moderate position on these issues is likely to rise from 21 seats to 30 seats.  That will leave the balance of power with three groups:  1) Arab parties (representing the approximately 10% of the Israeli population that is not Jewish) — likely to hold 10-15 seats; 2) Religious Parties (representing ultra-Orthodox Jews who seek preferred treatment for the ultra-Orthodox as well as to make Israel law comport to their interpretation of rabbinic law) — likely to hold 15-20 seats; and 3) secular parties (parties that seek to focus on economic issues first and to reduce the preferential treatment currently given to the ultra-Orthodox) — also likely to hold 15-20 seats.

The split among the minor parties reflects the difficulty anybody will have in forming a government.  The Arab parties will not formally join a government (but might support a Labor government on “no confidence” votes.  The secular and religious parties are unlikely to agree to a joint coalition.  Even among the religious party, there are ethnic differences between Ashkenazi (Central European) Jews and Sephardic (Middle Eastern) Jews.  While the religious parties will sometimes join together to support a government, it takes a lot of effort to keep them on the same page (particularly as they are all interested in the same cabinet ministries).

Of course, Israel is not the only significant ally having elections this year.  In May, the United Kingdom will have elections.  The last election resulted in a hung parliament and a coalition government between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats.  Since the last election, both of these parties have lost some of their popularity. Also since the last election, the Scottish Nationalist Party (seeking Scottish independence or, at least, greater Scottish autonomy) and the United Kingdom Independence Party (a semi-isolationist party seeking to leave the European Union) have gained substantial popularity.  While it is unclear whether UKIP will win any seats (given that it finished in third or four place in most of the seats in the last election), by taking votes away from the Conservative Party, UKIP is making it likely that the Labour Party will win the elections.  (Although Labour’s loss of seats in Scotland to the SNP may force a coalition government of some type).  Even the current Conservative government has been reluctant to commit the UK to any great involvement in the Middle East.  If Labour wins, it is very likely that any proposal from the U.S. for military intervention against ISIS or Iran would be met with a deaf ear by London.

Additionally, Turkey will hold elections in June.  Current projections suggest that the present government (a moderate Islamic Party) could win re-election.  Like Israel, Turkey uses a system based on proportional representation with the kick that, if a party fails to meet the required threshold for votes, their seats are transferred to the party that finishes first.  According to the latest polls, the government is expected to get 40% of the vote and the next three parties are expected to get 55% of the vote.  However, the fourth largest party is currently polling just under the 10% required to win seats.  If they can pick up the extra votes, there could be a hung parliament.  If not the government would get those seats and probably keep the majority.  Most of the differences between the major parties center on domestic issues and will not impact relations between the U.S. and Turkey.  All of the major parties share similar concerns about wanting stability on their border while not seeming to be part of colonial-type Western actions against Islam.  Most of them are also greatly concerned about the exact scope of Kurdish autonomy in Iraq (given the restless Kurdish population in eastern Turkey).

Lastly, in the fall, Canada will hold elections.  In the last elections, back in 2011, the Liberal Party had a very bad election, falling to third place behind the mildly socialist New Democratic Party.  The collapse by the Liberal Party resulted in the governing conservatives winning a substantial number of seats by narrow margins in three-way contests giving the Conservatives a slim majority.  For the 2015 election, there will be 30 more seats in the Canadian Parliament.  Since then, the NDP have fallen back somewhat and the Liberals appear to have regained parity with the Conservatives. A return to a hung parliament with a minority government seems likely.  A loss of control by the Conservatives, however, would likely result in a less intense support for a new Keystone pipeline by the new government.