Israel’s new government is a partnership of ambitious rivals

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He’s had to bite a few bullets to get there, but Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will lead Israel’s next government.

The new governing coalition is a center-right grouping of Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud-Beiteinu faction, the centrist Yesh Atid party, the religious nationalist Jewish Home party, the center-left Hatnua led by Tzipi Livni and the tiny, centrist Kadima.

In total, the coalition will include 70 of the Knesset’s 120 members.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leading the cabinet meeting at his office in Jerusalem on March 10 photo/jta-flash90-miriam alster

The government’s priorities will be to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, enact budget reform, expand Israel’s mandatory military conscription and lower the cost of living, according to Netanyahu.

“Above all,” Netanyahu said at his weekly Cabinet meeting March 10, the next government must address “the major security challenges that are piling up around us.”

The coalition deal is a bittersweet victory for the prime minister. He won a disappointing 31 seats at the ballot box in January. That divided vote has turned into a divided government that he’ll have to lead with ambitious rivals by his side.

The divisions have grown more intense since the election, as Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid and Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett formed an alliance after the vote.

“He’s a much weaker prime minister,” said Hebrew University political science professor Shlomo Avineri. “We see the emergence of two popular leaders who are not constrained by internal party institutions and can dictate to their own parties whatever policies they wish.”

By forming the coalition days before his deadline of March 15, Netanyahu gains another term as prime minister. And because his party will control the Foreign and Defense ministries — Likud’s Moshe Ya’alon is slated to be the next defense minister — Netanyahu will be able to preserve the status quo regarding security issues and Iran.

Israelis shouldn’t expect a renewed peace process with the Palestinians. The Hatnua party supports a two-state solution, while Jewish Home resolutely opposes a Palestinian state, as do many in Likud.

Netanyahu will serve as foreign minister, while former Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, Netanyahu’s No. 2, fights corruption charges. Should he be acquitted, he will return to the post. Lapid, who has said he wants to be prime minister, had fought hard in negotiations for the foreign minister post. As of press time, he was battling Bennett for control of the Finance Ministry.

In managing his coalition, Netanyahu’s biggest challenge will be including haredi Orthodox men in Israel’s mandatory draft. Yesh Atid campaigned on a platform of drafting nearly all haredi men, who currently receive exemptions if they stay in yeshiva. Along with Bennett, a pro-settler politician who strongly favors haredi conscription, Lapid has been pushing for a strict draft law.

Not wanting to alienate the haredim — a traditional support base for Netanyahu — the prime minister has pushed for a more lenient version. The compromise, according to the latest Israeli reports, will be that haredim will be subject to the draft at age 22, not 18 like the rest of Israelis. And up to 2,000 haredim could continue to receive exemptions, far higher than the limit of 400 that Lapid had sought.

Avineri says he’s skeptical the haredim will obey any draft law reached without the imprimatur of the haredi parties.

Draft reform is one of Lapid’s signature issues; but his more difficult task may be succeeding as finance minister should that come to pass. During the campaign, Lapid promised not to raise taxes on the middle class. But facing a budget deficit of $10 billion, he may become the face of unpopular spending cuts or tax hikes.

That could condemn his Yesh Atid to the fate of other Israeli centrist parties that flared and burned out. Kadima, for example, dominated Israeli politics after being founded in 2005 by Ariel Sharon, and it won 28 seats in the previous elections, in 2009. But this year it squeaked into the Knesset with just two.

For his part, Bennett, Netanyahu’s former chief of staff, reportedly does not get along with the prime minister. Personal rivalries could cause rifts in the government should Bennett, Lapid and Netanyahu disagree on sensitive issues.

“There are too many internal coalitions inside this coalition,” said Bar-Ilan University political science professor Eytan Gilboa. “The prime minister is not good at resolving coalition disagreements.”

Netanyahu’s main threat, however, may come from outside the coalition. Usually part of the government, the Knesset’s haredi parties — Shas and United Torah Judaism — have been excluded this term because they oppose drafting haredim. They have vowed to fight the coalition on this and budget issues that affect them. The opposition leader will be Labor, with whom the haredi parties share support for progressive economic policies.

“I think the haredim will fight the government on economic issues, but I think the Israeli public in general will support reforms,” Gilboa said. “But I would advise the new politicians to go slowly and cautiously.”

Ben Sales
Ben Sales

Ben Sales is news editor of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.