We have a government (for as long as it lasts)

Last night, or early this morning, Binyamin Netanyahu finally cobbled together a governing coalition with the slimmest of majorities – 1 seat. The haggling and horse trading went down to the wire and no one was sure we wouldn’t wake up facing either a Labour government or new elections. The new coalition is more or less centre-right, with the exception of Shas which defies description besides being a haredi party out to get as much money as it can for its constituents and damn the consequences.

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Bayit Yehudi leader Naftali Bennett shake hands on finalising the coalition agreement

Just like in the last elections, and breaking his promise to invite Bayit Yehudi first into the government, Netanyahu’s and Likud’s most natural partner, Bayit Yehudi let by Naftali Bennett, was pushed off, humiliated, scolded and made to stand in a virtual corner until the very last (and I mean VERY last) minute – midnight last night – when the deal was signed to give Bennett the Education portfolio and Ayelet Shaked the Justice Ministry. More haggling ensued when Netanyahu tried to empty the Justice portfolio of any meaningful content by removing Shaked’s ability to appoint judges, but that was one maneuver too many for Bennett and he threatened to withdraw from the coalition. At that point Netanyahu capitulated.

Along the road Yisrael Beitenu walked out of the coalition and joined the opposition, while on the other hand Netanyahu is reportedly keeping the Foreign Ministry in his pocket to tempt Zionist Union to join the coalition.

The only party that was treated fairly and in parity with its electoral success was Moshe Kachlon’s new Kulanu party, with Kachlon being appointed Finance Minister as promised.

Haviv Rettig Gur explains how Netanyahu’s election victory became a political rout:

The last coalition deal signed Wednesday with Jewish Home saw Netanyahu handing an eight-seat faction two top ministries — education and justice — together with the Agriculture Ministry, the Diaspora Ministry, the West Bank settlement planning and budgeting body, the chairmanship of the Knesset Law Committee and the state committee that appoints judges, and the post of deputy defense minister, along with countless financial and legislative promises that have yet to be fully hammered out.

But even earlier in the process, when Netanyahu was less desperate for time, his deals with parties such as Kulanu and United Torah Judaism were generous to a fault. Kulanu head Moshe Kahlon won not only the finance and housing ministries, but the state agencies responsible for zoning and land planning, along with additional promises and positions yet to be finalized. In effect, Kahlon won control of much of the land-reform pipeline he needs to enact the significant housing reforms he promised in the election. It’s a sensible package, but one that leaves Netanyahu and the ruling Likud with little control over and no credit for any successes Kahlon may achieve.

Shas, with just seven seats, won the Economy Ministry, the Interior Ministry, the Religious Affairs Ministry, de facto control over the state rabbinate and its appointments process — and on and on.

And all that doesn’t account for the literally billions promised away to ultra-Orthodox and national-religious institutions and to funding various reforms demanded by each party as a “win” for its constituency.

And when all that had been auctioned off, what did Netanyahu have to show for his generosity? A coalition of 61 seats set against an opposition of 59.

Worse, it’s a coalition that already clarified in the negotiations that it would not be beholden to Netanyahu — that is, would not act as a coalition — on no small number of issues.

But even without Zionist Union, why didn’t Netanyahu simply stare Jewish Home down, refuse the continually rising set of demands and call their bluff?

The answer: perhaps Netanyahu didn’t fear Herzog, but rather the Israeli voter. Jewish Home believed that Netanyahu had managed to attract a last-minute Election Day rush toward Likud of voters who were more naturally inclined to vote Jewish Home. In other words, another election just weeks after the last would shrink Netanyahu’s faction and grow Bennett’s.

And so the 30-seat Likud finally handed the eight-seat Jewish Home the powerful Justice Ministry in the last two hours of the last day in the 42-day coalition-building period allowed by law.

Netanyahu has vowed to pass electoral reform in the new Knesset that would help a future prime minister avoid the struggles he has faced. But it’s not clear how raising the electoral threshold a bit higher or enlarging the Knesset – among the suggestions floated over the years – would solve the essential problem, which is that the electorate is too fractured to allow for a decisive majority to form in Israel’s Knesset.

With one-quarter of the electorate voting left, one-quarter right, and roughly half voting not on issues but on social and religious identities, the math never seems to add up to a coalition without the ruling party having to barter away large swaths of the political system and the economy.

There’s just one problem. While such a reform might reasonably win the support of Likud, Labor and Yisrael Beytenu – either because they would benefit from it directly or because they have espoused similar reforms for years – those parties might manage to deliver between 55 and 60 votes at best, just shy of the majority needed to actually pass such a law. The 20th Knesset, Netanyahu is beginning to realize, may be too fractured to even fix itself.

You might have guessed from the tone of my virtual voice above that I am not happy with the coalition and you would be right.

Of course I’m glad that Bennett and Shaked have received such important portfolios and I believe they will be a positive influence on Israeli society. I think that Bayit Yehudi’s ethos, a continuation of the old National Religious Party which held the Education portfolio for decades, will uphold and improve our educational system and will cultivate in the students a love of Israel, broaden interest in Jewish history and hopefully will continue to strive for excellence in the sciences and humanities. As for the Justice Ministry, that has been in the hands of the left for too long, and the Israeli system of judges appointing their own successors has led to a distortion of the judicial system which must be reformed. Similarly, the Supreme Court’s insistence on “finding everything justiciable” makes a mockery of the powers of the Knesset to create new legislation. At the moment we are in a situation where any law created stands to be struck down before it is ever enacted by an unelected, self-appointed, ultra-leftist Supreme Court answerable to no one. If Ayelet Shaked can improve or change this situation she will be a hero to vast swathes of Israeli society.

But Netanyahu’s rush to invite the haredim to the coalition is infuriating, and his caving in to all their demands simply outrageous. With the flick of a pen all the religious and educational reforms achieved over the last few years are in danger of being rolled back to the bad old days, and this is before we mention the hugely generous financial “persuasions” offered to Shas and UTJ.

My frustration, even anger, at Netanyahu’s needless politicking when he could have secured a solid right-wing government immediately after the elections which he won by a landslide, is expressed more eloquently than I could manage in this column (h/t JudyPT) by Gil Troy in the Jerusalem Post: “Say it ain’t so Bibi – a Zionist critique of the coalition cave-in“. (emphases are mine):

… Say it ain’t so Bibi, say it ain’t so. Can you imagine just how opportunistic you must seem when Yisrael Beytenu chairman Avigdor Liberman emerges as the man of principle? Are you really so desperate to stay in power that you needed to auction off Israel’s future? What kind of a nationalist are you? What kind of a Zionist? Clearly, I am not as smart as our prime minister.

I do not understand how someone who calls himself a Zionist can promise hundreds of millions of shekels for ultra-Orthodox education which is proudly, flamboyantly, often crudely anti-Zionist. I do not understand how someone who calls himself a nationalist can abandon the progress his last government made in demanding all Israeli schoolchildren learn core curriculum subjects such as modern Hebrew, English, math and science – where in the Torah is knowledge banned? I do not understand how someone who calls himself a security hawk can mortgage Israel’s future just to stay in office, producing more draft-dodgers and job-shirkers, inducing some Israelis to take from the state not contribute to it. …

Jabotinsky believed in sticking to principle not succumbing to blackmail. At what point does holding onto power for its own sake become pointless? Doesn’t Benjamin Netanyahu hope to leave a legacy beyond mere longevity? And why won’t he stand by the important reforms he implemented in 2003? Back then, Israel was overtaxing and under-incentivizing too many citizens, bribing them to procreate, discouraging them from working. Netanyahu’s cutbacks helped trigger Israel’s economic miracle then, what will his cave-ins accomplish now? I am not angry at the United Torah Judaism negotiators.

…  They did what Israel’s malfunctioning coalition system and what the current prime minister masquerading as Chicago ward heeler encourage them to do. As New York’s corrupt nineteenth-century Tammany Hall pol George Washington Plunkitt boasted: “I seen my opportunities and I took ‘em.”

Netanyahu’s appeasement puts added pressure on Bayit Yehudi leader Naftali Bennett if he becomes education minister. The haredi sellout constrains everyone else financially and contradicts Bayit Yehudi’s founding principles, too. His party’s vision statement endorses nurturing a “Jewish-Zionist identity” among “all the state’s children,” teaching about “Herzl and the founders of Zionism, David Ben-Gurion and the leaders of the nation.”

The pressure is on Moshe Kahlon too. Kahlon vowed that his party, Kulanu, would keep Netanyahu centered and protect the average taxpayer.

The base of “Kulanu” – all of us – is tired of being mugged. … Turning the budgeting process into a political auction is exactly the kind of bad-government practice Kahlon’s good-government promises pledged to end. Kahlon and his party members should beware. If they start weak, they will become another impotent minor party.

Our politicians should address the Ethiopian crisis as a Zionist crisis too. Let’s redirect the haredim’s billion-shekel ransom toward these hard-working, taxpaying, army-serving patriots. The Ethiopian rescue is one of the great Zionist adventures of recent times – we should make their successful adjustment one of the great Israeli success stories of all time.

And watching the IDF’s heroics in Nepal, one wonders, how can one security establishment – the army – be so good and a second security establishment – the police – so jinxed? Did any coalition partners demand a thorough police reform, weeding out sexual harassers and removing racists? Will the new government effectively target organized crime and disorganized but rampant home burglaries, two of Israel’s biggest policing challenges today? If the search for Cabinet-issued Volvos trumped those issues in Bibi’s bazaar, shame on all our leaders.

Despite this deep criticism of Netanyahu and Israel’s chaotic political process, Troy finishes on a note with which I identify completely:

My current anger will not sour me on our state or our mission. Just as I can support Netanyahu regarding Iran – and other matters – while criticizing him when necessary, I can distinguish between my current, immediate, completely justified anger at this coalition sellout and my ongoing, deep commitment to Israel and the Zionist enterprise. I don’t see any Americans, Left or Right, abandoning the America of Baltimore and Ferguson, no matter how angry they might be. We should not abandon Israel – while reminding our country and ourselves about the core Zionist mission to create the model Jewish Democratic state at least some of the coalition partners, and most of Israel’s citizens, desire. Let’s build it together, in hope not despair, in optimism not cynicism.

All we need do now is wait for Zionist Union to decide to join the coalition and sit back and watch the histrionics begin all over again.

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7 Responses to We have a government (for as long as it lasts)

  1. Pete says:

    Political processes are always a MESS – no matter what country you live in. For those of us outside Israel, your way for making Governments seems horribly complex. But this is YOUR PROCESS, and it does eventually work. It has worked since Israel was created, so apparently it does get to a final result!

    Hopefully, all Israelis will work for the common good, once the new Government is formed. Your people DO have an incredible capacity to SET ASIDE differences when your natio0n is truly threatened. This current year, and the next one, are HIGHLY COMPLEX years in world history. The ongoing saga between Israel, Iran, and the nuclear situation shows no signs of relenting. Meanwhile, the entire banking system of the Western hemisphere is slowly but steadily crumbling. America’s role in the world is changing rapidly, and there is MUCH uncertainty connected with this process.

    There is a real chance that somewhere in this future mess, and crumbling world order, that Israel may have to stand alone. You will NEVER be entirely alone – because you always have Friends!!! But you might find yourselves without the support of Governments who were once your staunchest supporters. Therefore, hopefully this new Israeli Government can set aside all differences and reach a greater UNITY!

    Good luck!
    Pete, USA

    • anneinpt says:

      Pete, thank you for putting our chaotic political system into perspective. However, although it may have worked for some years, it has become increasingly unstable, to the extent that now a government can barely hold together for 2 years before needing to call new elections. The situation is now completely out of hand.

      Your words of support, and yoru reminder that we are a united society in times of emergency, and that we have many friends, are very welcome and timely. Thank you.

  2. ShimonZ says:

    What can I say, Anne, after this mean one sided analysis? If you think that the supreme court has been in the hands of the far left for too long, why are you willing to support opera, countless institutions for democratic education, legitimating the theory of evolution, and guarding the rights of gays… on and on… all the wonderful things this country supports, but would be willing to put yeshivah students in jail if they refuse to be drafted because of conscientious objections? Why support all the Arab babies in our country, even if their fathers don’t serve in the armed forces, but punish the haredi population because they don’t mirror the ideas of the wonderful Zionist example you’re offering them. Who kept the Jewish people alive for the last 2000 years… even before the UN recognized that the holocaust was unfair? And do you really believe that Ben Yehudah reinvented the Hebrew language so Israelis wouldn’t have to speak German? What do you call this antagonism towards the haredi community?

    • anneinpt says:

      (I edited my comment after posting to add more).

      My apologies if you’re unhappy with what I wrote Shimon. I admit I was in a bit of a temper (my family can testify to my temperament…) and feeling very frustrated with the whole coalition-forming process. I’m also extremely frustrated with Bibi’s seemingly throwing away of his massive advantage after the elections and selling out to the haredim.

      Re your comment about the courts, during the last session matters have improved with the appointment of Asher Grunis as the president of the Supreme Court, but the years of Aharon Barak in that position cannot be described as anything other than left. When we see how the Supreme Court allows for example massive Arab building around Jerusalem and the shtachim, but orders a little shack on a barren hilltop to be torn down because it was put up by a Jew – well, what other conclusion can I draw?

      Please don’t misunderstand me. I have no objection at all to all the culture that Israel has to offer and am very happy with the opera, cinema and music scene here. I’ve also no objection to civil partnerships for gays but I do not approve of same-sex marriage. I’m not so sure about teaching evolution either (I don’t know where you got the idea that I approve of it). My children went to mamlachti dati schools where they learned about creation via Sefer Bereshit.

      I do object to the haredi evasion of army and/or national service and don’t see why their blood is redder than ours. My own boys learned in yeshiva AND served in the army, as did my sons in law. One of my sons in law is a Rav Tzva’i, very learned after years of learning in yeshiva, and very Zionist and nationalist (I hate that description but it’s late at night to think of another word), and is the Rav of a combat unit, and is contributing to Israeli AND Jewish society. They have all turned out very religious as have thousands of others and I see no reason why the haredim should be exempt – especially on my and other Israeli citizens’ tax shekels. I do NOT think that jail is the correct solution for the haredim though. I think the persuasion through financial incentives plus the natural evolution (there’s that word again) of their society and integration into wider Israeli society will do the job gradually and painlessly. Putting Shas and UTJ in charge of the religious affairs ministry and finance committee will roll back all the progress that had been made until now.

      The religious courts, the Batein Din HAVE to be reformed and brought into the 20th century if not the 21st. Their treatment of women is positively medieval, and I speak – as I have said – as an Orthodox Jew. My cousin has been outrageously treated during her divorce case and property settlement in the Bet Din, but in the last 2 years, after her previous panel of judges was arrested for corruption (!!), the new apnel has started to make progress. (She has her get, but her ex is harrassing her, enabled by the Rabbanim. Long story…). If Shas get their way, who knows what changes they will make to her panel and what will happen to her and thousands of other women languishing through the torture chamber that is the Rabbinical Courts. They are a chilul Hashem.

      Of course the religious Jews kept Judaism alive through he centuries. I’m a religious Jew myself! And I’m not calling for closing the yeshivot or disallowing learning in yeshiva or deferring army service for talmidim. What I am asking for is both sharing the burden and that they should become part of Israeli society. If they don’t want to serve in the army, and I can understand their fears, they can serve in some kind of national service. The haredim have amazing gemachim and self-help societies. Why won’t they allow them to become part of the national service framework? If they think Israel is so tref, why don’t they take themselves somewhere else?

      I feel the same way about hilonim who shirk their duty too.

      • ShimonZ says:

        Maybe I wasn’t clear enough in my objection to what you said in your article. I believe that just as we are tolerant to different phenomena that are now part of Israel, including certain things which are in out and out contradiction to our traditional values, we should have tolerance and respect for those who follow the traditions that have kept the Jewish people alive and growing through the dark years of the diaspora. We should be able to acknowledge that a the state supports behavior which is unacceptable to the haredi life style and not try to force them to participate in activity which is against their conscience. Nor should we cut off support for their children. Just as money is spent for the cultural enrichment of opera, we should financially support the religious institutions of the haredim, even if they have a different world view than the religious Zionists. Wishing you a very good shabbes, Anne.

        • anneinpt says:

          Ah, OK, So I misunderstood you and you misunderstood me I think.

          I’m not sure if we now agree, or if we agree to disagree. 😛

          At any rate, let’s hope the new coalition works and manages to remain stable, whether out of the parties’ fear of bringing it down or whether by Bibi bringing in more parties.

          Shabbat shalom to you too.

  3. Reality says:

    I cannot understand Bibi,in my opinion when he begged for voters to turn up on election day,&basically has thrown them under the bus.I seriously hope they have primaries soon in Likud.He will lose,but he created this problem.I am so disappointed in his giving into Shas.The UTJ are a little better(I personally think that they are just more honest) but he really behaved disgustingly to Jewish home.I hope that they next time do some sort of arrangement with Eli Yishai’s party(if they are still around)as many voters weren’t sure which way to place their votes.A lot of votes were lost through this,and we are all paying the price now.I give this government up to a year,no more.The “(un)Zionist”Union has already declared war and announced that their new raison d’etre is to topple the government!Who needs to be afraid of Iran?They should wait awhile,we”ll probably self-destruct!

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