Before I begin to discuss how it could be worse, a couple of housekeeping matters.
This has not been a happy time for the Israeli electorate. Since the election on March 17, there has been no clarity.
President Rivlin, after meeting with all factions, had offered Netanyahu – whose Likud faction has 30 mandates – the first opportunity to form a governing coalition. A coalition requires sufficient factions coming together with agreements so that they collectively represent at least 61 seats in the Knesset (half plus one). When Netanyahu could not accomplish this within the allotted time, he requested an extension of 14 days, as the law permits.
I had made reference in postings during this time to the fact that rumors were flying fast and furious. In the main, I did not write about those rumors – as they were just that: rumors, sometimes planted for purposes of influencing one faction or another, without shedding any genuine light on the negotiating situations.
There was (still is) talk of a unity government with the Zionist Union (Herzog-Livni). It was said, until very recently, that Netanyahu wanted Lieberman to continue in his role as Foreign Minister. There was a great deal of scuttlebutt regarding what positions former Likudnik Moshe Kahlon of Kulanu was insisting upon – Kulanu’s orientation is socio-economic. It was widely understood, and correctly so, that Lapid of Yesh Atid would remain on the outside.
And there was a lot of talk about discontent expressed by many of the senior individuals who had secured seats within the Likud party.
And on and on.
This new coalition, once it was formed, was supposed to bring stability and a cohesiveness that would permit strong governance. But in the end of the day, that is not what we have gotten, in several respects.
The first parties Netanyahu signed coalition agreements with were Kulanu and UTJ (United Torah Judaism – Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox), with 10 and six mandates respectively. It does appear that Kahlon will be Finance Minister, as had been promised, and have control of related agencies that will permit him to push forward certain reforms – which have undoubtedly been written into the coalition agreement.
But the UTJ agreement? It reverses reforms that had been made in the conversion process, and reinstates funds to hareidi schools that do not teach a core curriculum. These are very bad moves in my opinion. That’s even before we discuss the complex matter of haredi draft (which I would like to return to at another time.)
Following this was the agreement with Shas (Sephardi ultra-Orthodox), with seven mandates. I see this as much worse than the agreement with UTJ, because I do not believe that Shas party head Aryeh Deri is fit to be appointed dog catcher.
And what is this about? Securing mandates for the coalition. Not about forming a solid nationalist base, that is for sure.
At about this point, Avigdor Lieberman, head of Yisrael Beitenu, with six mandates, announced that he was resigning forthwith from his position as Foreign Minister and would be in the opposition – refusing to take part in the new government.
There was some head-scratching at this, because Lieberman had declared consistent intention of continuing in the Foreign Ministry. And he is, generally, erratic in his statements. But I believe the motivation for his action here became quite clear: He was disgusted with Netanyahu’s rush to bring the ultra-Orthodox parties, with their demands, into the coalition and considered it a betrayal of principles, including nationalist principles.
Lieberman’s withdrawal from the process made the numbers a lot tighter.
The final party negotiating a coalition agreement was Bayit Yehudi, with eight mandates – headed by Naftali Bennett.
It has been Netanyahu’s interaction with this party throughout that has been most troubling.
In the course of the elections, with Likud running neck and neck with the Zionist Union in the polls, and sometimes even falling behind Zionist Union – a call went out to nationalist voters to vote Likud rather than Bayit Yehudi in order to ensure a Likud victory. That call was apparently successful, as Likud pulled ahead in the elections – way ahead of what polls had predicted, while Bayit Yehudi fell back a handful of mandates from what the polls had predicted.
I don’t think it is unfair to say that Naftali Bennett took a hit for Bibi Netanyahu’s sake. This is certainly the way I, and many others, saw it. Netanyahu spoke frequently about how Bayit Yehudi and Likud were natural partners in the upcoming government. The expectation, if this was the case, was that this would be the first coalition agreement signed. But that is not what happened.
There are those who say that the problem was that Bennett’s demand’s were excessive: he sought either the defense or foreign ministry. And yes, Bennett is a politician among politicians. But there was more than this going on, perhaps a reflection of tensions between the two dating back for some time. Whatever the case, there was the sense that Likud was distancing itself from Bayit Yehudi.
Was this a desire to appear more “centrist” (read, less nationalist) than Bayit Yehudi?
I am keenly aware of the enormous pressures being placed on Netanyahu from the outside – the expressed expectation that we must commit to negotiations again, etc. But when a government is formed, if it cannot represent what we are supposed to be, than we are in trouble.
In the end, Bennett relinquished demands for defense or foreign affairs and sought the education portfolio. In addition, he sought he sought the Justice Ministry for Ayelet Shaked.
At this point, Bennett was in a very strong bargaining position, because without his mandates, Netanyahu had no coalition. He said he would walk, if his demands were not met. After extensive negotiations, Likud agreed to accept Shaked as Justice Minister. Sort of. For there was an infuriating attempt to strip Shaked, who should be excellent in this post, of her authority in several respects. The stipulations were:
That she not chair the Judicial Committee, the body that appoints judges for the law courts; that she not appoint religious judges; and that she not sit in the Security Cabinet – where Bennett will also be sitting.
What was so enraging about the attempt to limit Shaked’s power is that the last justice minister was Tzipi Livni, and apparently this was all right with Likud. Livni was a fig leaf – giving the world the impression that they were seeing a government to the left. Shaked represents just the opposite.
Bennett balked at these limitations, and they went back into those eleventh hour negotiations. In the end, the only restriction that remained was that a Likud minister would head the panel that would make the religious judge appointments, with Shaked and someone from Shas participating.
Shaked will also sit in the Security Cabinet – although it is likely that Netanyahu will enlarge the number of individuals sitting in it to dilute the Bayit Yehudi influence.
My friends, this is huge, and can change the face of Israel in several major respects.
A Likud official was cited thus (emphasis added):
“…the justice minister will soon have to decide on who the next attorney general will be. It’s a very sensitive position…The second problem is that Shaked is spearheading the battle to change the face of the Supreme Court. Netanyahu has so far avoided going head to head with the court, and he may well not want this headache.”
While Shelly Yachimovich, former head of Labor, said:
“Prepare to see a hard and bitter battle for the welfare and identity of the judicial system and law enforcement…She is capable, but her view of the courts, the judiciary, and the legislature, are the opposite of mine.”
Need we say more?
Nor is Bennett as Education Minister a small matter. The future of the nation rests with the understandings our young people have about Jewish identity, Jewish rights, and our place in the land.
Hear a discussion of these issues, on Voice of Israel, that clarifies their importance:
And so, it could be a lot worse indeed. In spite of Shas and all the rest, there may be some reforms ahead that can affect Israel in significant ways. Let us pray so.
Let me add here that a third member of Bayit Yehudi (Tekuma faction), will be Minister of Agriculture.
One of the major problems to be faced with this new coalition is that it has a razor-thin majority, and is thus vulnerable to extortion that can make moving ahead difficult. (“You do that, and my party walks, bringing down the government.”) The likelihood that this government, as presently constituted, will be stable enough to last four years is small.
Netanyahu commented yesterday that “61 is good, 61 plus is better,” thereby stimulating speculation that he intends to enlarge the coalition. Those rumors that he seeks Herzog for a unity government persist, but Herzog insists that he has no intention of bailing Netanyahu out. A political consultant I spoke with today believes that Herzog means it – that it would not serve him well to join Netanyahu now.
A second possibility is that Netanyahu still hopes to lure Lieberman, with his six mandates, back in. And there are other more obscure possibilities as well. We shall see…
In the meantime, there are more immediate issues confronting Netanyahu. He still has to announce all ministry appointments. Will Yaalon retain his position as Defense Minister? Seems a good bet but we do not know yet with certainty. And Foreign Minister? Netanyahu is reported to be reserving this for himself. But there is the feeling in certain quarters that he’s saving this for Lieberman, should he want to return, or Herzog, should he be lured in.
Additionally, there is discontent within Likud, as I had indicated above. So many major posts have been given to other parties that Likud senior party members feel short-changed. Thus is there also talk about creating more ministries, which would require a change in the law. From the opposition Yair Lapid says he will fight this tooth and nail because of the added expense to the country.
And so, we have a government. But there is yet a great deal to resolve. Within a week, there should be answers, and I will track this to the best of my ability.
Let me end with two good news pieces that show how special we are, no matter what the world thinks:
A team of five Israeli medical clowns has gone to Nepal to help reduce trauma and anxiety.
A medical team from IsraAID, an Israeli humanitarian response non-profit, has carried supplies in backpacks to reach remove villages in Nepal and provide care to the people. Participating are ten doctors, nurses and midwives, who left their jobs in Israel to volunteer for two weeks in Nepal. They first made their way to a group of mountain villages known as Thangpaldkap, in the district of Sidhulpalchowk, one of the hardest-hit regions of Nepal.
“We Have Legal Grounds” –