Elections? That was the easy part. Cobbling together a coalition? That’s where Israeli politics start to get interesting — or disappointing, depending on your point of view.
It’s unlikely to be fast. We voted last Tuesday, but it will take until the end of this week before President Shimon Peres even formally charges Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with the task of ensuring he remains Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and a fair while after that, presumably, before the coalition deals are inked.
In the interim, we’re going to endure lots more of the informed and less-informed speculation that’s been choking the airwaves for the past week: Shas will certainly be in the coalition; it certainly won’t. Labor will lead the opposition; actually, it might join Netanyahu after all. Ehud Barak will be ambassador to the US, defense minister, and head of the Port Workers’ Union (made that last one up). Yair Lapid will be foreign minister, finance minister, and the star of Strauss’s new Milky chocolate pudding commercial (yup, that one too). Oh, and Naftali Bennett won’t be joining the coalition because Sara Netanyahu doesn’t like him (didn’t make that one up).
All the media speculation runs the risk of missing the point and, worse, of Netanyahu missing it too: The coalition is meant to be a means to an end, not an end in itself.
This process of constructing a multiparty government — imposed on Netanyahu by our gloriously complex electorate, facilitated by our deceptively simple electoral system — ought not to be about building partnerships of convenience with the more palatable political leaders for the short-term purpose of retaining power. It ought not to focus on whether taking control of the Treasury would mark the beginning of the end of Yair Lapid’s glittering political career, or on whether Mrs N harbors a grudge against Mr B.
The campaign is over. Bad enough that the politicians didn’t use it to focus sufficiently on the issues. Unforgivable if they don’t do so now.
Shas should be invited to join the government if it is prepared to compromise on national service for the ultra-Orthodox and support a fair allocation of national resources. The same, however unlikely the prospect of a middle ground, goes for United Torah Judaism. Far better to bring the Haredim into the IDF and into the workforce by consensus, sensitively addressing the needs of both sides.
The fitness of Bennett’s Jewish Home to serve in the coalition must be a function not of Sara Netanyahu’s purported personal preferences, but rather of whether Bennett is prepared to accept Netanyahu’s platform on the Palestinians, and if he is prepared to correct his public assertion that the “black flag” of illegality flies over any government decision to evacuate settlers.
Lapid should be a key coalition partner only if he truly believes he can prompt real progress on universal conscription — the key issue for him — and if he can find common ground regarding Netanyahu’s plans regarding the Palestinians.
In 2009, by giving Kadima 28 seats and Likud 27, our wily electorate all but imposed a unity government on Netanyahu and then-Kadima leader Tzipi Livni. But the two leaders’ inability to place the national interest above their own first saw Livni struggle to comprehend that, no, she had not been elected as prime minister, and then saw efforts to build a governing partnership rapidly founder. (Interestingly, center-left alliance talks involving Livni also quickly collapsed before these elections. What is it about her?)
When you look at the electoral results this time, you see that the electorate actually did much the same in 2013 as it did four years ago: It gave the center — Lapid (19 seats), Livni’s new center-left Hatnua (6) and the remains of Kadima (2) — an almost identical 27 seats.
The question now is whether Netanyahu will this time draw some or all of these parties, led by Lapid, into his coalition — signs are that he wants to — and, if so, which other parties he’ll partner with. He should be asking and answering that question on the basis of the issues.
He’s set out five so far: countering the threat posed by Iran; what he called on election night a “responsible” approach to peacemaking; nurturing the economy; fairer distribution of the national burden (including national service); and cutting the costs of living and of housing.
A prime minister whose “natural” right-Orthodox coalition — Likud-Beytenu (31), Jewish Home (12) and the ultra-Orthodox (18) — actually won fewer seats (61) than last time (65), Netanyahu nonetheless has quite a range of potential coalition options to weigh.
Quite handy for a leader widely and erroneously depicted as having lost the elections. And something of an opportunity for Israel — should he choose his partners wisely and for the right reasons, and should those partners reward the faith the electorate showed in them.