Israel’s new coalition government: a three-headed monster pulling in two different directions.
Stuck in the Middle East with you.
Israel’s 33rd government is on the cusp of being formed. It has been a tortuous coalition negotiations path, and the fact that it has gone all the way to the 42nd and very last day of the mandated time allotted to form a coalition does not speak well about the ability of the erstwhile political partners to work together in the future.
Assuming that there is no final [really final this time] glitches, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid, and Habayit Hayehudi’s Naftali Bennett will sign a coalition deal Friday afternoon.
Netanyahu’s government will be made up of the Likud-Yisrael Beytenu [31 seats], Yesh Atid , Habayit Hayehud , Hatnuah , a thin ruling majority of 68 MKs.
Significantly, this government will not include the haredi Shas and United Torah Judaism parties. It is the first time, apart from one brief stint of two years in the Knesset opposition, that the haredim have not been included in an Israeli government for almost forty years – an entire generation. What was not possible with the haredim in government – teaching core curriculum in haredi schools, drafting haredim into the army and increasing their participation in the workforce – may now be possible. Possible, but perilous, as much rests on how much is done with the cooperation of the haredi leadership. While the haredim are out, the settlers of the religious Zionist stream are in, and they’re making a beeline for the institutions of religion and state, most significantly the position of Chief Rabbi. Again, the outcome of any potential changes to the fabric of haredi society relies on a smart and humanistic combination of kosher carrots and sticks.
Once installed in his third term as prime minister, Netanyahu’s first challenge will be to pass the national budget, ostensibly the reason he called elections in the first place. Israel is in murky financial waters, and the government will have to cut over NIS 30 billion in the state budget, as well as increase taxes and institute other painful austerity measures. He will have to do this while keeping the coalition intact, if that’s what he wants. It will be interesting to see how Lapid fares as Finance Minister in what is shaping up to be a severe austerity economy [it is telling that Netanyahu all but begged Lapid to take on the finance portfolio.] Lapid will have to immediately cut at least NIS 14 billion from state expenditure and may even need to raise taxes. “I’ve got your back,” Netanyahu told Lapid. Just Do It, go find the money.
On socioeconomic issues, the coalition may be able to make some important reforms to the structural flaws in Israel’s society and economy, but any far-reaching, root-and-branch reforms, if they happen, will take time. While some change can be expected to the institutions of religion and state in Israel, it is unlikely that Likud and Habayit Hayehudi will agree to transportation on the Sabbath, for instance. While the coalition will move to redress the imbalance in the equality of national burden, don’t expect to see thousands of young haredi men join the ranks of the IDF, or, alternatively, be locked up behind bars for draft dodging.
Not a lame-duck Prime Minister
Netanyahu’s second order of business will be to quell the uprising within his own Likud, borne out of deep and discernible dissatisfaction of many Likud ministers and MKs with the results of the elections and the results of the coalition talks. Netanyahu will move quickly to change the primaries system in the Likud, which was abused by interested parties, like the settlers and their supporters, to vote in hard-line politicians ahead of the moderate, old-guard conservatives. Tens of thousands of settlers, card-carrying Likud members all, voted in the Likud primaries to make sure that certain politicians were in and others out, but then voted for Habayit Hayehudi and other parties in the general elections. This was one major reason why the Likud fared so badly in the general elections. If he doesn’t want to be a lame-duck prime minister, Netanyahu first, and foremost, has to reassert his authority within the Likud party. Make no mistake, Netanyahu wants to run for a fourth term.
Divide and Conquer
His third order of business will be to make sure that Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett don’t make his bid for a fourth term impossible. The country may have voted for Lapid and Bennett to ease their financial burden, but they also voted for Netanyahu to steer the country through burning Middle East sands. And this is how the government has ended up being divided: socioeconomic issues go to Lapid and Bennett, defense and foreign affairs stay with Likud-Beytenu. Lapid and Bennett can tackle the labor unions, striking nurses and dissatisfied teachers. Netanyahu and Ya’alon will tackle the Ayatollah. Lapid can “look for the money” leaving Netanyahu to “look for the centrifuges.” If Finance Minister Lapid wins, Netanyahu wins. If Lapid loses, Netanyahu wins.
The story of this post-election coalition-forming period was undoubtedly the historic and ironclad alliance between Lapid and Bennett. It began because of Netanyahu’s negative emotional response to Bennett’s electoral success which pushed Bennett into Lapid’s arms, and ended with Bennett becoming the real power broker behind Netanyahu’s ability to form a coalition.
Apart from their ideology over the peace process with the Palestinians, the two ascendant leaders see eye-to-eye on almost every socio-economic issue, especially the tough nut that is the inequality in the national burden, also known as the non-participation of the majority of the ultra-Orthodox sector in the military and, more crucially, the workforce.
The alliance worked well for both Bennett and Lapid, essentially forcing Netanyahu to bring them both into his coalition, as forming a government without them would have forced Netanyahu to form a coalition with Labor’s Shelly Yachimovich and the haredi parties – something he tried desperately to do but failed, largely because Yechimovich wanted to stay in the opposition and build herself up there.
But the alliance between the centrist Lapid and the rightist Bennett was for coalition negotiations leverage only, and should, by all accounts, flounder on the rocks of serious diplomacy with the Palestinians, should such diplomacy actually happen.
That’s not to say that even if serious diplomacy happens, the Palestinian Authority will come to the party. They refused Barak’s offers, they refused Olmert’s offers, they refused to come to the table during a ten-month settlement freeze – so any offer they’re liable to get under Netanyahu now is not going to be better than anything previously offered them. Which is why Bennett is not sweating it.
Jewish Home won’t leave the coalition if talks with the Palestinian Authority restart. It won’t even leave the coalition if a limited settlement freeze is implemented to get PA President Mahmoud Abbas to the table. Bennett will only leave the coalition if a real deal is likely. Israel and the Palestinians can talk all they want, as long as there is no deal, no practical outcome to the talks that leads to a Palestinian state, says Naftali Bennett, the Jewish Home leader.
The truth is that this suits Netanyahu just fine: the kind of Palestinian state he’s willing to agree to is the kind of Palestinian state the Palestinians will never agree to. And in any case, there is absolutely no appetite in Jerusalem to make any bold moves in the current regional turbulence, and especially the implications of a rapidly imploding Syria and an uncertain Egypt.
The Americans can push to restart the talks, but the ball is really in PA President Abbas’ court. If he comes to the party without any preconditions, then it’s game on.
During the election campaign, Netanyahu said repeatedly that should he form a government, he would make sure that Tzippi Livni gets “nowhere near” the negotiations with the Palestinians. Livni was the first person Netanyahu signed a coalition deal with, placing Livni in charge of peace talks with the Palestinians, with the caveat that a Netanyahu representative is in the room with her whenever she’s meeting the Palestinians. It’s obvious why Livni accepted this: she had no choice. With six mandates, her and her “Movement” would have disintegrated in the Opposition. Livni was not a very effective Leader of the Opposition with 28 Knesset seats, so a b backbench with 6 seats and a slow death, or “Justice Minister and person in charge of talks with the Palestinians that go nowhere.” The choice was clear and Livni signed on to become this government’s centrist fig leaf. Bennett however is demanding that Netanyahu amend his coalition deal with Livni, to make doubly sure that she is not able to give away any meaningful concessions [read settlements] to the Palestinians.
Some movement on the diplomatic track does seem likely, even though the consensus in Washington, Israel and the Palestinian territories is that a deal is very, very far off, if even possible. Right now, Israel, the Palestinian Authority, and the second Obama administration have an interest in restarting the process and keeping it going. Whether Abbas can deliver the Palestinians [he does not speak for Gaza] has always been a sticking point. And the same goes for Netanyahu’s right flank.
The upcoming visit by US President Barack Obama, and the planned visit to the region afterward by Secretary of State John Kerry do not represent an American administration imposing a peace plan on both sides. Obama and Netanyahu have much bigger fish to fry, namely the Iranian nuclear program, Syrian chemical weapons, and an Egypt spinning out of control. But there will be increasing pressure by the international community to move towards a two-state solution.
2013 could be the year of Iran, or it could not. What we are seeing however is an increasing military threat from the Sinai and the Golan Heights, both formerly quiet borders, now major issues on the Israeli national agenda. The next government then is likely to focus on internal issues such as the haredi question and the cost of living, and gird for possible violence against jihadis in Sinai and the Golan.
Netanyahu, convincingly drubbed in both the elections, and in coalition negotiations, is not going to let Lapid and Bennett dictate his premiership.
The prime minister has already stated his intentions for his next term in office:
“The coming term will be one of the most challenging in the country’s history. This is no exaggeration. We face security and diplomatic challenges. The important thing is for this government to be able to meet the challenges. We did our best with 31 Knesset seats; we’ve kept the important portfolios. We’ve taken back the defense portfolio and we’ve kept the foreign affairs portfolio.”
In other words: this will be the government that deals with Iran; this will be the government that deals with the Sinai and the Golan Heights; this will be the government that deals with fallout from Syria’s implosion; this will be the government that deals with the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood across the region. Equalizing the national burden is important, lowering the cost of housing is important – and best of luck to Finance Minister Yair Lapid and Economics Concentration Minister Naftali Bennett. But what’s more important is facing the most challenging security and diplomatic challenges this country has ever faced. And for that, I’m the boss.