Pretty much as the white smoke billowed out of the Vatican chimney, news broke in Jerusalem Wednesday that Benjamin Netanyahu had finally all but cobbled together a coalition. But while the cardinals’ conclave gave absolute authority to Jorge Mario Bergoglio, Israel’s returning prime minister is anything but the sole master of his domain, as the ongoing hitches and glitches clearly illustrate.
The composition of the coalition is a function less of common ideals and goals, and more of leverage and arithmetic. Its component parties’ challenge will be to rise above their differences. If the tone of the negotiations these past six weeks is anything to go by, that challenge will be arduous, indeed.
Here are 10 initial thoughts on the apparently soon-to-be sworn-in Israeli government:
1. This is not the coalition that Netanyahu wanted
The ultra-Orthodox parties are often described as Netanyahu’s “natural allies,” which inaccurately suggests a commonality of purpose and orientation. In fact, the ultra-Orthodox parties are Netanyahu’s unthreatening allies. So long as he funded them, they supported him. And they were never going to produce a rival prime ministerial candidate. His initial intention was that Shas (11 seats) and United Torah Judaism (7) would be integral to his third term as prime minister. That was thwarted when Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home (12) and Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid (19) agreed to go into the coalition, or the opposition, as one, and insisted on reforms that are anathema to the ultra-Orthodox. From there on, no amount of creative arithmetic, threats or media spin could give Likud-Beytenu (31) a stable majority coalition without the allied Bennett and Lapid.
2. ‘King Bibi’ now has two potent rivals
When Israelis voted on January 22, they saw no real alternative to Netanyahu as prime minister. Shelly Yachimovich, at Labor, had offered no significant alternative policies on diplomatic and security issues, Tzipi Livni at Hatnua was seen as a quitter, and Lapid and Bennett were political neophytes. Now, Lapid and Bennett are prime ministers-in-waiting — not only in their own minds, but also in the view of growing swaths of the electorate. Both men led effective election campaigns. Both men stood by their principles in the coalition negotiations — in stark contrast to the former Mrs. Integrity, Livni. And both imposed their agenda on Netanyahu. Still, their real tests, of course, will come only now, in government.
3. Allied parties pulling in different directions
There are only four coalition parties (or five if you want to count Likud and Yisrael Beytenu separately), but they pull in all manner of separate directions. To take the Palestinian-settlement issue — a prime potential source of major disagreement — Livni wants to accelerate peace talks with the Palestinians, while Jewish Home’s Uri Ariel, the putative housing minister, is a lifelong advocate of settlement expansion; Yesh Atid’s former Shin Bet chief Yaakov Peri is desperate to end Israeli rule over the Palestinians, while Bennett talks of annexing most of the West Bank.
4. On Iran, not much has changed
The rise of Lapid, and the likely presence of Peri in any smaller ministerial security forums, mean the addition of relatively moderate voices on the issue of military intervention to stop Iran. The imminent appointment of Moshe Ya’alon as minister of defense also brings to greater prominence a politician reported to have reservations about a resort to force at this stage. As in the past year, however, the key to the unfolding Iran dilemma will lie largely in how the United States acts, and how Israel assesses that the US will act. President Barack Obama will next week doubtless again encourage Netanyahu to hold his fire, assuring him that the US will stop Iran one way or another. Thus far, the combination of US pressure, and extreme wariness on the part of Israel’s security establishment, has prevailed over the prime minister’s publicly expressed concern at the dire cost of inaction.
5. The coalition partners do share some domestic goals
Where the new partners do have certain common interests is on the domestic agenda. Already, word is that they will legislate to raise the Knesset threshold from 2% to 4%, a reform that would have kept all three Israeli Arab parties, and Kadima, out of the Knesset this time. (Even Hatnua and Meretz, it might also be noted, got less than 5% of the national vote.) In practice, this change might actually benefit the Israeli Arab parties: They will have to unify to avoid the risk of extinction. And a single Israeli Arab party might reasonably expect to fare better at the ballot boxes than the splintered factions have thus far.
6. An early imperative will be legislation on ultra-Orthodox service
The Supreme Court struck down the Tal Law, which enshrined ultra-Orthodox draft avoidance, more than a year ago. A first priority for the new coalition will be drafting new legislation. Yesh Atid wanted a law that would exclude only 400 of the best and brightest Torah scholars from national service from age 18. Word is that a compromise formula would raise that cap to about 1,800 and require service only from age 21 or 22. Even though the ultra-Orthodox are not sitting in the coalition, that does not free the government to impose draconian, unworkable arrangements on the ultra-Orthodox. There will need to be negotiation and consultation, common sense and no little sensitivity. Many in the ultra-Orthodox community are more than ready to share the burden of national service, and many are anxious to enter the work force. They have been failed by their political leadership, which will doubtless continue to resist radical change. But change there will have to be.
7. Education is the key
Yesh Atid, in particular, has been insistent on requiring ultra-Orthodox schools to teach a “core curriculum” including math, the sciences and English, and to deprive of state funding those institutions that resist. The situation to date, where the state funds an educational wing that is producing graduates with no basic equipment to hold down a job, growing up in a community that has lost sight of the Biblical imperative that “six days you shall work,” has persisted for far too long. If the political will is there, this is one reform that could and should be introduced rapidly, to the significant benefit of the ultra-Orthodox community and the rest of Israeli society.
8. Netanyahu is at the center of his coalition
For all that this is not the government he would have chosen, it still finds Netanyahu personally where he wanted to be: at the center of a coalition that runs from Jewish Home to his right, via Likud Beytenu, to Yesh Atid and thence to Hatnua at the center-left. Mr. Survival will not want to alienate Jewish Home and his own Likud base with overly dramatic moves on the Palestinian front, but neither will he want to lose Lapid and Livni — and such support as remains in the international community — by obviously dragging his feet. If Obama pushes for some kind of settlement freeze in an effort to get Mahmoud Abbas back to the peace table, Netanyahu may well go along, and should be capable of pushing that through, especially if it is limited to building outside the main settlement blocs. In the unlikely event that any such talks yield genuine possibilities of substantive progress, however, the coalition will likely be strained beyond breaking point.
9. Likud is not a happy party
Likud had 27 seats in the last Knesset, and dominated the cabinet. It has only 20 seats this time, and looks likely to muster only eight ministers, including Netanyahu. Not all of its outgoing ministers are keeping their jobs, and none of the party’s new high-fliers has made it into the cabinet. As Netanyahu and Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman addressed the joint Knesset faction on Thursday, some in the Likud were muttering that the alliance with Liberman had been a disaster for the party pre-elections, costing it traditional and Orthodox voters, and still more of a disaster in the coalition negotiations, where Yisrael Beytenu somehow wound up with a whopping five cabinet seats (including Liberman’s as would-be returning foreign minister). Netanyahu was distinctly unhappy with the hardline roster Likud party members chose for their Knesset slate in late November. Much of the party membership, and no small number of leading Likud politicians, are distinctly unhappy with everything that has unfolded since.
10. The infighting is not over
We’ll apparently have a coalition on Monday, but the bickering among its components will continue unabated. The last-minute glitch that delayed the signing of coalition terms on Thursday underlines the personal frictions and hostilities. Lapid and Bennett wanted the title of “deputy prime minister.” Netanyahu, or possibly Sara Netanyahu — who has a reported history with Bennett — decided not to give it to them. The title has no significance whatsoever. It does not bestow upon its holder the right to fill in for the prime minister if he is incapacitated. Yet its denial to Lapid and Bennett prompted a spate of leaked accusations and counter-accusations, blame and recrimination. Not the most encouraging portent for the new Israeli leadership partners, but a fair reflection of the climate of mutual mistrust in which they will likely be working.
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