So Israel has a new government.
Prime Minister Netanyahu must be wondering why he decided to go to early elections after all:
– his government currently has a slim majority indeed, just 61 out of 120 seats in the Knesset,
– he has been forced to pay a very high price to bring in his coalition partners,
– he has alienated many of his own party members yet again, who thought that with 30 seats (half of the coalition) they would/should dominate the portfolios, but do not,
– and he is still holding one major ministerial appointment – Foreign Minister – in his back pocket, in the hope that he can lure Buji Herzog and/or Avigdor Lieberman, into the government.
Well at least there was one benefit of holding this election. Since the beginning of this year the government has an unpredicted surplus of around 1 billion US$ due to more vigilant tax collections and the election process itself meaning no extra spending legislation could be enacted.
The general description of this government is that it is “right wing” and “nationalist”.
In my view there is little evidence to support this contention.
On the Palestinians the government coalition guidelines – that is the official government policies of the Likud and its partners – were presented to the Knesset this week and included:
“The Jewish people have the undisputable right to a sovereign state in the Land of Israel, its national and historic homeland.
The government will advance the diplomatic process and strive to reach a peace agreement with the Palestinians and all our neighbours, while maintaining Israel’s security, historical and national interests.”
Or in other words, no change to the previous government’s policy, a government that included Yair Lapid and Tzippi Livni.
13 seats in the coalition come from the 2 Haredi parties. Generally speaking they have no positions on the foreign policy issues and if anything Shas led by Deri who is known as dovish, is more left wing than the previous Shas leadership.
Nor are they nationalistic. In fact the opposite is true. They are purely sectional interest parties.
In paying the Haredi price Bibi has rolled back the army/national service requirements, reversed the trend to tackle matters of personal status such as marriage, divorce and conversion and committed large funds to Haredi life.
All of these are seen by most Likud voters as contrary to the national interest and to their personal interests.
10 seats in the new government come from the new Kulanu party led by Moshe Kahlon.
Kahlon made no secret of the fact that his party was based on a social agenda and that he would go with whoever won the election, on condition he got the Finance Ministry.
Kahlon too, does not look favourably on the Haredi wins as ultimately the non-sharing of the national burden – army service, tax etc – is what undermines the social agenda.
In Kahlon’s party is new MK Michael Oren for example. The ex Israeli ambassador to the USA is very much what used to be called a Labor Hawk – a centrist. Still holding out hope for a 2 State for 2 Peoples resolution, but not seeing a safe way to do so currently.
In an interview this week he expressed his views which pretty much represent the Israeli consensus as well:
“To prove to the world that we have no desire to rule over the Palestinians, and that we’re going to make positive and concrete efforts to show that. To make it clear that we will always keep the door open to final status negotiations, should a Palestinian leader appear. I don’t think one’s about to appear, but you don’t know what’s going to happen in the coming years.”
“There’s no withdrawal now, we’re not at that stage. You don’t uproot any settlements, you’re not going to redivide Jerusalem. Not even remotely.”
“The army stays where it is. We maintain our prerogatives, which include control of airspace, and the right of hot pursuit.”
Oren’s plan involves Israel acting:
“in accordance with the Bush-Sharon understanding of 2004, which was approved by both houses of Congress and has a special standing. And that is we will build in the settlement blocs and in Jewish Jerusalem. In other words, only in areas which will be part of the State of Israel in any final status agreement.”
With no viable or credible or deal seeking Palestinian leader visible, the matter of any progress with the Palestinians seems just theoretical currently and hence is not an issue within the government or the country generally.
Which is lucky for Bibi as being Prime Minister when/if Israel’s allies perceive a deal might be on the table, he would quickly be regarded as one of the leftists in the coalition – a position he would prefer to be held by Herzog for example.
When Ariel Sharon was Prime Minister he manoeuvred a strategic triumph by making Shimon Peres his Foreign Minister. Firstly he split Labor (from which they have never really recovered) and secondly he gave the world the person they preferred to see for public relations.
Both Labor (now Zionist Union) and Likud are well aware of the lessons learnt from that as they watch Bibi do the silent will he/won’t he dance with Buji.
Which brings us to Naftali Bennett. Although his party lost a third of their seats in the election, with Lieberman’s last minute refusal to join the coalition he has managed to extract a big price from Bibi as well in terms of Ministries.
But on settlements?
Will Bibi follow the ideas of Oren or Bennett?
That remains to be seen, but on Tuesday this week the government tore down 2 settlement buildings in Tekoa D – that might provide us with some clue.
As an aside, wild card Lieberman held his 6 seats out of the coalition.
Self-interest say some.
Self-respect say others.
His main constituents are harshly affected by the deal the Haredim extracted from Bibi early on in the negotiations.
The correctness of the terms “right wing” and “nationalist” to describe this government depend more on one’s own starting point, reflecting optics rather than tachlis.
What has been a constant is that the challenges facing Israel remain, as does the need to have a strong government to deal with them.
And finally, as we approach Yom Yerushalayim it is important to understand just how the 6 Day War in 1967 changed Jewish life and how no Israeli government, of any colour, will allow anyone to deny us access to the Kottel again.
Yom Yerushalayim Sameach