President Obama is supposed to be in Israel in about two weeks. Israel doesn’t have a government.
The Israeli elections were on January 22. Contrary to widespread expectations, the right didn’t score a big win; instead the electorate returned complex, angular results. The religious right gained, the secular right lost a lot, and a brand-new party that could be loosely described as secular-centrist, Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid, made a big splash by coming in second with 19 seats (out of a total of 120 in the Knesset).
Binyamin Netanyahu, for whom the election results were sufficient for a third tenure as prime minister, has been trying ever since to negotiate his way to a coalition. It’s been brutal.
The basic struggle pits, on the one side, Netanyahu, striving for as broad a coalition as possible including the two haredi (ultra-Orthodox Jewish) parties. And on the other, an alliance that has formed between secular-centrist Lapid and Naftali Bennett, head of the nationalist-religious Habayit Hayehudi party that also did well in the elections. Bennett wants to weaken the haredi camp; Lapid insists on excluding it from the coalition entirely.
Just now, the Israeli media is reporting that the very tight (at present) Lapid-Bennett alliance has prevailed, with Netanyahu agreeing to their terms—meaning that a coalition without the haredim is on the way, possibly by the end of this week.
What’s at stake here? Netanyahu’s preference for a wide coalition is easily understandable. Wide coalitions are more stable, with no one party wielding extortionate power (by threatening to bolt the coalition and thereby dissolve it). Netanyahu also sees Israel facing critical security (particularly Iran), diplomatic (particularly getting along with Obama), and economic (particularly budget-cutting) challenges for which a wide coalition can give him the most ballast.
Netanyahu also wants to preserve his secular-right Likud Party’s alliance with the haredi parties, which goes back four decades; excluding these parties could lead them to punish Likud in the next elections.
Lapid and Bennett, however—particularly the former—insist that Israel cannot keep allowing most haredi men to refuse army service, and to live cloistered lives as yeshiva students on the public dole. They say having the haredi parties in the coalition will inevitably lead to compromises on these issues that will ensure the situation stays the same.
A large majority of Israelis, right, left, and center, agree that the present situation with the haredim is untenable. The Lapid-Bennett alliance, however, has been criticized as cynical and opportunistic; some say these two novice politicians, intoxicated with their electoral success, are essentially confronting Netanyahu with a power play and securing plum ministerial positions for themselves.
In particular, whereas Bennett—whom foreign media have portrayed as a “hip settler”—is, while not actually a settler, supposed to be sympathetic to their outlook, Lapid—while projecting himself as a centrist during the election campaign—actually has a backlog of viciously anti-settler statements (usefully collated here by Israeli commentator Martin Sherman) typical of the far left.
They do indeed, then, form an odd couple; and there is ample reason to fear that a coalition of Netanyahu’s, Lapid’s, Bennett’s, and a couple of smaller parties would be creaky and possibly cacophonous.
On the economic front, with Netanyahu, Lapid, and Bennett all sharing a free-market philosophy, the prospects of such a coalition tackling Israel’s economic challenges effectively are bright. The diplomatic front is a good deal more complicated.
Claims and speculations about Obama’s upcoming visit vary widely—from a report Monday on World Tribune that he intends to demand a West Bank withdrawal to Secretary of State John Kerry’s assurances that he only seeks to “listen.” Potentially, Lapid’s more dovish party could provide an ideal pressure point for a U.S. administration seeking to harry and ultimately undo Netanyahu.
One hopes, then, that the key figures of whatever coalition finally forms will put politics aside and face Israel’s challenges responsibly. Foremost among those challenges is Iran; as Netanyahu put it in a speech two weeks ago:
Iran’s development of nuclear weapons will make the Middle East a nuclear tinderbox. It will change the world…. Sanctions alone will not stop the nuclear program of Iran….
Although Obama, too, claims he’s determined to stop Iranian nukes, his choice of defense secretary casts a thick shadow over his credibility. The situation calls for maximal Israeli unity and seriousness.
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