AnalysisWhy 'bad cop' Liberman was given control of the state budget

Lapid’s great gamble: Once the government is in place, the Haredim will join

A narrow, fractured coalition needs the ultra-Orthodox parties to survive. Bennett is trying a conciliatory approach to achieve that, while Lapid opts for blunt force trauma

Haviv Rettig Gur

Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.

Blue White  MK Yair Lapid speaks at the Maariv conference in Herzliya, on December 25, 2019. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)
Blue White MK Yair Lapid speaks at the Maariv conference in Herzliya, on December 25, 2019. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

Naftali Bennett announced on Sunday evening that he had finally made his decision. No right-wing government was possible, he told Israelis in an address carried live on prime time television from the Knesset, so he would join a government with Yair Lapid that consists of up to eight factions spanning the political spectrum from deep left to deep right — a “change” coalition.

The responses were predictable and predictably intense.

The announcement drew thrills of delight from the left, including tweets against Benjamin Netanyahu from as far left as Meretz and Peace Now, and bitter excoriation from the right, including cries of “traitor” against Bennett from right-wing media personalities and activists. Netanyahu himself lashed the nascent Bennett-Lapid government as “non-democratic” and compared it to the tyrannical rule of Bashar Assad in Syria.

No politician elicits as much emotion from Israelis as Netanyahu, so it makes sense that the impending end of his long rule won’t be a quiet one.

And yet, for all the excitement/despair, it’s still too early to celebrate/sulk.

Yamina leader Naftali Bennett greets his supporters after first exit poll results for the election at his party’s headquarters in Petah Tikva, March 24, 2021. (AP Photo/Tsafrir Abayov)

As Bennett and Lapid — now publicly committed to each other — try to lock down the coalition agreements that will give shape to their declaration of intent, the thorny problem of actually building and stabilizing that unwieldy coalition is still ahead of them.

This is a coalition that could have formed in no other political context. Nothing unites deep-right Yamina with fervently progressive Meretz, nothing could bring ex-Likud hawk Gideon Sa’ar to make common cause with Islamic Movement official Mansour Abbas, except the desire across wide swaths of the Israeli electorate and political system to see the end of Netanyahu’s long rule.

And even with seven or eight factions (which would be the most ever for an Israeli governing coalition), it will only have the slimmest possible parliamentary majority. Can a 61-seat coalition in a 120-seat Knesset that straddles such enormous political divides survive a no-confidence vote, pass a budget, develop a coherent foreign policy or conduct a war?

Will the desire to oust Netanyahu be enough to hold it all together?

Benjamin Netanyahu attends a ceremony for the victims of the 1948 Altalena incident, at Nachalat Yitzhak cemetery in Tel Aviv on May 26, 2021. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Defusing the Ra’am-rightist minefield

Lapid and Bennett are, of course, asking themselves that very question. As they soldier on in building their new coalition, they are relying on two basic assumptions that will shape the coming government.

The first of these: that the Islamist Ra’am party will sit reasonably comfortably in support of a coalition that may find itself grappling with more violence in Gaza, more tensions in Jerusalem, including at the Temple Mount, as well as pressure from the coalition’s rightist flank for pro-settlement policies.

Don’t let Bennett’s first-turn run as premier fool you; it is Lapid who will lead the new coalition, and who has quietly been coaxing and negotiating it into existence while the right’s attention was focused on Bennett. It is in Lapid’s actions, not Bennett’s rhetoric, that one can begin to sketch out the shape of the new government.

Mansour Abbas of Ra’am (left) meets with Yair Lapid of Yesh Atid, April 19, 2021 (Courtesy)

And a close look at the way Lapid has begun to distribute cabinet posts reveals a careful effort to neutralize potential coalition dust-ups with Ra’am before they happen. The ministries that could cause friction on the Ra’am-rightist axis are being handed to the center-left, with the Defense Ministry going to Benny Gantz and the Public Security Ministry to Labor. Yamina will make do with something vague and toothless that coalition negotiators are for the moment calling a “settlements ministry.”

Enter the Haredim

Then comes the second assumption, unstated for the time being so as not to torpedo the coalition talks with Ra’am, Yisrael Beytenu and others. It is this: Once the coalition is formed, the ultra-Orthodox parties Shas and United Torah Judaism will beg to join.

The Haredi parties have long insisted that they won’t leave Netanyahu’s side, that the presence of secularist Lapid and downright anti-Haredi Liberman (who ran an election campaign explicitly promising to oust the ultra-Orthodox parties from power) makes the new coalition a toxic environment.

But the new government needs the Haredi parties, and the Haredi parties need to remain in power. Their combined 16 seats solve a very large number of problems for Lapid, who would no longer have to depend on successfully herding each and every MK to each and every vote in order to survive. Ra’am could be jettisoned, as could Yisrael Beytenu or Meretz or Blue and White, should they prove unreliable.

Members of the United Torah Judaism party give a press statement after meeting with President Reuven Rivlin at the President’s House in Jerusalem on April 5, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

For the ultra-Orthodox, the need is no less acute. Their institutions are almost wholly dependent on state largesse to survive. They cannot afford to be far from the state budget negotiations table for any length of time.

Bennett has repeatedly spoken about the new government’s ethos of “unity” and “inclusivity.” That’s partly an attempt to justify to former allies on the right his turn against Netanyahu, but it is mostly a signal to the Haredi leadership that he wants them as part of the new government. As he put it in his Sunday night speech, “This government won’t be against any community, any group. It won’t be hostile to anyone.”

Lapid, for his part, is just as eager as Bennett to have the Haredi parties on board, but he has opted for a dramatically different approach.

In the very first coalition deal he signed, Lapid handed the Haredi factions’ bête noire, Avigdor Liberman, every government position vital to the Haredi community. Liberman will be the finance minister, his party will chair the Knesset Finance Committee, and one of his appointees will lead the Galilee and Negev Ministry, a key pipeline of state funds to local councils that has been central to Shas’s efforts to build its support base in recent years.

A United Torah Judaism newspaper ad featuring the face of Israel Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman, published in Haredi newspapers on March 15, 2021. The text reads: “Either he wheelbarrows us all to the garbage dump, or we all run to vote [UTJ]. Beating the incitement at the ballot box!”
It is the first time in at least two decades that both the treasury and the parliamentary committee tasked with oversight of the treasury will be held by the same party.

That means the ultra-Orthodox parties’ great nemesis — the man who ran on the promise to “wheelbarrow” Haredi politicians “to the garbage dump” — will be in control of all the chokepoints of the state budget so crucial to the community. If he so chooses, Liberman will be able to quickly and comprehensively dry up funding for Haredi institutions and charities.

Lapid doesn’t intend to come begging for Haredi support. To have any hope of maintaining government funding for their institutions and way of life, it is the ultra-Orthodox parties who will have to come to the negotiating table to regain control of the budgets slated for their community.

What if it doesn’t work?

But what if those assumptions prove wrong? What if Ra’am, Yamina and New Hope can’t maintain the détente the new coalition will need to get on its feet? What if the Haredi parties, instead of rushing to an accommodation that stabilizes the Lapid-Bennett government, conclude that the whole edifice is likely to collapse under the weight of its own contradictions and choose to stick by the Netanyahu-led bloc?

In fact, what if ultra-Orthodox politicians want a few good months in the opposition? The Haredi parties watched in frustration in the last election as some of their constituents left to Religious Zionism and Likud. Maybe it’s not such a terrible thing, they may feel, to let their constituents spend a little time in the fiscal wilderness as a painful but ultimately healthy reminder of the politicians’ indispensability?

That’s not idle speculation. The Haredi news site Behadrei Haredim on Saturday quoted unnamed Haredi MKs mulling just that.

Haredi party leaders Aryeh Deri of Shas and Yaakov Litzman of United Torah Judaism hold a press conference at the Knesset, May 6, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

One lawmaker was quoted as saying: “If we sit in the opposition, without funding and without any ability to help [our constituents], then the disgruntled Haredi public will finally understand how much the Haredi MKs do for them.”

And another: “After half a year of a government without Haredim, the public will understand the significance of voting for the Haredi public [sic], and won’t go in search of another party like Yamina or [Religious Zionism’s leader Betzalel] Smotrich, who won’t look out for the Haredim — and they will all return home.”

If and when it is finally sworn in, the Bennett-Lapid government may well be the most politically fragile in the country’s history. Deep divides of ideology, demographics and political interests run like geologic fissures through the anti-Netanyahu coalition. And it will be too narrow, at least at first, to survive a rebellion by even a single MK.

To have any hope of surviving, the new government will first have to prove its mettle. It must convince the Haredi parties it will be around a while — and, paradoxically, it must do so quickly.

Lapid and Bennett are taking a gamble with their new coalition, but not necessarily a reckless one. They have good reason to believe that careful stewardship of the coalition, navigating especially carefully through the early weeks of left-right tensions to convince the Haredim they’re not going anywhere, will clear a path to a stable, long-term coalition.

Their first steps toward that goal suggest they understand the challenge.

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