From the blogs

Pick-up sticks, political tricks, and the power of definition

OP-ED: There’s a pathway to a unity government, but first we need to know what ‘unity’ means, and then we need to create a new (Likud) party

Right now, we don’t have enough parties for a viable coalition. Grabbing for more sticks will not change that fact.

When we were small, we used to play a game called pick-up sticks. The object of the game was to collect as many sticks as you could, without dropping the ones you already had in your hand. You mastered the game when you realized that aiming to pick up the “wrong” sticks, wrong because of the way they were positioned, would cost you more in the end.

This is a skill Israeli prime-minister wanna-bes should learn. In a vain attempt at collecting mandates, they (and bored, fed-up or lemming-like citizens) fail to appreciate that not all the children in the park are going to ‘play nice in the sandbox’ with each other. Even if a coalition is in fact commandeered, shortly before the next budgetary process begins these hastily collected candidates will cannibalize each other, and this coalition, or any coalition, based on numbers and without regard to position, will fail.

The conflict over who rotates first as prime minister or whether a prime minister who has not been convicted of a crime can continue sitting, is now recognized as a diversion. All sides claim a unity government is the only solution. But no one bothers to define what a unity government means.

A Sa’ar-led party in which Gantz joins is hardly a ‘putsch,’ although it may lead to Netanyahu’s political demise

So, let us first define terms. A unity government, by definition, means it is neither right nor left. It is the median, the mode, the bulk of opinion sitting under the bell curve. This group seeks to unify, even if half officially sit to the right or the left of midpoint. The outliers are truncated. That means, in case there is yet misunderstanding, that the extremes on both sides are left out. (And Netanyahu’s coming with a right-wing bloc is, per se, a non-starter.)

We will assume people realize that means both the Arabs and the Haredim are ineligible. But a unity government also excludes extremes of any stripe. This includes messianics and other extremists, whether in the realm of economics or the judicial system. Ayelet Shaked has proudly boasted she wants a right-leaning judiciary and she is prepared to eviscerate the democratic process to accomplish this end. She is also on record as being an Ayn Rand libertarian, meaning a “free-market” advocate of the extremist variety. Since Ms. Shaked has been reported as going after the top spot in Rabbi Peretz’s Union of Right-Wing Parties and since Jewish Home’s Bezalel Smotrich is a “Liberman-messianic” – that makes the entire Yemina, save Bennet, ineligible.

Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Perhaps you disagree. But consider Ms. Shaked sitting in coalition with the newly minted Labor party. Who prevails on pension issues, on minimum wage, on labor laws? A solution acceptable to both sides is plainly – by definition – impossible. Now, that obviously didn’t bother Netanyahu, who tried to co-opt Labor/Gesher with promises smacking of socialism in an attempt to garner their six votes. And it seems not to bother Gantz, who reportedly will promise Ms. Shaked anything, giving her the perfume of the ministry she desires in order to co-opt her votes.

Now, let’s get real. For Netanyahu to wave his wand and march all the animals into the same boat, even if only temporarily before they tear each other up in order to save his own skin may not be stupid. Remember, he is angling for six votes to achieve a majority government. For Gantz to play the same game shows a lack of cunning. After all, he’s giving away the store just to get three votes, and only to have the whole edifice topple down in a few months should he even succeed. If this scenario seems remote, remember what happened when Bennet and Lapid sat together in the same coalition. How long did that government last before they came to blows over funding the settlements?

There is one solution, and only one. And trying to pick up a few votes here and there – even if it works for a short time – isn’t it. The solution is creating exactly what everyone is clamoring for: A unity government. Now let’s do what no one has done before: let’s ignore Netanyahu and his own personal agenda. Let’s focus on the country, and only the country. Let’s forget (or perhaps let’s remember – and learn from) Netanyahu’s own articulated nightmare – the “putsch” of Sa’ar and Rivlin.

Building a house is easy when you know exactly what resources you have and what the respective objectives of the inhabitants are. The resources are the parties; the inhabitants are existing MKs. Right now, we don’t have enough parties to manufacture a viable coalition. Grabbing for more sticks will not change that fact. As for the objective of the inhabitants, it is to retain their coveted MK designation at all costs. (As we said, forget the elephant in the room, for now, please.)

So let’s start building: We start with Gantz – 33 votes. We bypass Netanyahu’s Likud, since by now we have no doubt he is not serious. So, we go to the next player who we can be sure will not fry the project: Liberman and his eight seats. Now we must add new residents who won’t antagonize the 41 seats we already have. We can have either Labor/Gesher or Shaked — but not both. The two parties are immiscible. Shaked’s desire to “rightisize” the judiciary is incompatible with the Labor/Gesher’s raison d’etre. For Gantz, the choice should be Labor/Gesher, with the six votes it brings, over Shaked’s possible three (if, that is, she stays aligned with Bennet). That brings us to 47 seats –14 votes short of coalition.

Where will we find 14 seats? Again, remember the rules: the fringes are not eligible, as tempting as they are because they exist and are easily identified. To obtain the missing votes, then, we will need to be imaginative and create a party. But how will we do that without going to new elections?

Remember the MKs who want to keep their seats? We estimate there are at least ten seats in Likud in jeopardy if we go to new elections. (While there may be less in actual danger, we can guess that at least ten ministers will properly be frightened of losing their incomes). Plus let’s say four from Kahlon’s party also would be available to populate a new “and better” party. That gives us — 14 seats. Added to the 47 we already have, we have a very stable 61 seats made up of reasonable men and women who are driven to saving the country, not to personal goals or an idiosyncratic ideology.

Former minister Gideon Sa’ar speaks at a Likud party conference in the central city of Lod, on December 31, 2017. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

So, now all we need is a leader who can entice these 14 players to follow him; we need a leader who isn’t afraid of Netanyahu, we need a leader to become the national savior – leading the march to disentangle a core group from Netanyahu’s grasp. Of course, the name Gideon Sa’ar, comes to mind.

The press seems to have concluded that if Gantz can’t form a government, we go directly to elections. But if we had a President who isn’t afraid of Netanyahu and his brilliant use of rhetoric, and who is willing to assign this new leader the baton of leadership – we could indeed create what we say. Abra Cadabra.

Actually, this scenario eventually foresees a new Likud, perhaps under the leadership of Katz or Barkat or Edelstein. When that occurs, this new Likud will undoubtedly join the new government – bringing us up to an unheard of 70 – 80 seat, stable coalition! Yes, this visionary construct is a gamble. Perhaps Sa’ar won’t be able to assemble 14 seats. So what? The worst that happens is that he loses his seat in this government’s Likud party. What happens next? We go to new elections (which would happen anyway) and he starts a new party then. Certainly, he would command four seats to cross the threshold, so his seat is safe. Of course, if we have new elections (under this or any other scenario), no matter who wins, if there isn’t either a Likud-without-Netanyahu or a Likud-break-away party – we won’t have a government now, and we wouldn’t have one then, so no one gets to be prime minister. Fourth elections, anyone?

At the finish, we must remember the importance of definitions. Someone should remind the PM that a “putsch” is defined as a “violent” attempt to overthrow a government. A Sa’ar-led party in which Gantz joins is hardly a “putsch,” although it may lead to Netanyahu’s political demise. We shouldn’t allow faulty definitions to frighten us away from pursuing the only solution that will save the country.

Barbara Pfeffer Billauer JD, PhD, is Research Professor at the Institute of World Politics in Washington DC and Professor in the International Program in Bioethics at the University of Porto, Portugal. Norman A Bailey PhD was Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan and served on the staff of the National Security Council and the Office the Director of National Intelligence. He is currently Professor of National Security Studies at Haifa University.

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