Here in Israel, the formation of the government has literally come down to the wire with no clear path in sight. The assumption is that PM Netanyahu will be able to accommodate the “Jewish Home,” his erstwhile “natural” partner. But as noted here right after the election, Netanyahu has often backtracked on pre-election promises, turned to parties with whom he shares no real symmetry of views, and spurned his natural allies. There are so many competing interests and personalities the process is soap-operatic.
Israeli society is split, not evenly down the middle, but with a leftist minority that is substantial enough that the right wing can never win an outright majority, even given its multiple parties. Once again, the mandates were distributed in such a way that the small parties were given disproportionate control over the formation of the government, and each is squeezing the largest party – Likud – for as much as it can get.
The surprise of the week was the resignation of FM Avigdor Lieberman, who took his shrunken party (down to six seats) into opposition. He was an unusual Foreign Minister, to say the least: not really fluent in English, not engaged in the “peace process” negotiations – what one might think is the natural domain of a foreign minister – and subjected to recurrent investigations for alleged misdeeds, most of which amount to nothing. His muted status enabled Netanyahu to serve as his own foreign minister. But Lieberman’s six seats are not indispensable to the formation of the government, his role would not have changed much, and he craves another opportunity: to present himself as the right-wing alternative to Likud. That, too, is odd given some of his past positions in the real world (population and territorial exchanges), but then politics is odd. So why participate in a nominally right-wing government from a weak position when you can carp from the outside that the government is not strong, forceful or right-wing enough? That lays the groundwork for the next campaign, which looks like it will come within a year or two anyway.
The real drama is over the inclusion of the Jewish Home, and here the situation is much murkier. The Bayit Hayehudi is the successor to the parties of the Religious Zionist movement but rightly aspires to national, rather than sectoral, leadership. But it lost ground in the last election after Netanyahu blatantly appealed for the Jewish Home’s voters, asserting that the Jewish Home will definitely be part of his coalition but that he would have no coalition at all if Likud did not win more seats. This appeal worked, and it is clear that Likud picked up 4-5 seats that would have gone to Naphtali Bennett’s party.
What is equally clear is that, as noted here in March, Netanyahu has been known for playing post-election games, that nothing is guaranteed in politics, and that a weakened Bayit Hayehudi is less attractive to Netanyahu. That is indeed what happened, and despite all of his protestations, Netanyahu offered the Jewish Home the rough equivalent of cabinet scraps, construing it as a minor party. Bennett, who had been promised the Defense Ministry and rejected so far for the Foreign Ministry, was appalled. And rightly so: in urging Israelis to vote for the Bayit Hayehudi, I noted that people should vote their dreams and not their fears, and that the added seats for the Jewish Home would strengthen Likud with whom it could unite right after the election. That did not happen.
Worse, the Shas party was given control over the Religious Affairs ministry and the Rabbinical Courts, which would likely result in restorations of policies and practices that were widely panned by the public, both secular and religious, before they were reversed in the last administration. It is further inexcusable that Shas leader Aryeh Deri, a convicted felon, has been returned to government service after serving substantial prison time for taking bribes, as the sentencing judge noted, “in every government position in which he has served.”
What is even worse than the practical dimensions of the loss of the Religious Affairs ministry are the political dimensions. The Jewish Home is still, at its core, a religious party – the Religious Zionist party. Deprived of the opportunity to make a difference in the spiritual lives of the public, it becomes a shell without a core. That is one reason for the Bennett discontent and his persistent threats to go into opposition even if that results in a national unity government or new elections (both of which are likely to occur anyway in due course).
The better reason is that the Jewish Home has suffered in recent years because of the accusation that it is nothing but “Likud B.” In truth, both Likud and Bayut Hayehudi are parallel parties but they are not identical. Likud is a secular party, notwithstanding the presence in its ranks of some religious Zionists. It is a secular party and toes a secular, though traditional-leaning, line. The Jewish Home is a religious party, presumably capable of infusing the public debate with the wisdom of Torah. It would not be the worst thing to have some daylight between the Likud and the Jewish Home so the differences between them are underscored, something which would induce the latter’s voters to stay “Home” come the next election.
If Bennett is offered substantial ministries – Foreign, Education, Justice, for example, in which his party can shape Israeli society, then it is worthwhile to be part of the government. If not, not. What happens if the Jewish Home does not join the government? That is impossible to predict. The Labor party would not remain intact if it joined a national unity government, nor would Likud remain intact. As high-sounding as is the concept of “national unity,” little good comes from it, and governments that have enjoyed great legislative majorities in Israel in the last two decades have made disastrous mistakes. The configurations of parties and personalities are too abstruse to calculate. But to form a new government by bringing in current opposition figures who served in the last government and were fired, precipitating these elections, does not seem to be a very logical approach.
Of course, Bennett will be blamed for entering the government in some reduced capacity, and blamed for not entering the government and engendering either new elections or a center-left government. It seems to me that his best move is either being in opposition if he is offered little or being in the coalition if he is offered something substantial. Either way, he will be able to present his party as a credible alternative to leadership looking forward.
The other interesting phenomenon is the antipathy towards the Charedi party, Yahadut Hatorah. They make few demands, and most of their demands can be met by something the leading party can always trade: money from the public treasury. They unabashedly believe in the welfare state, income redistribution and the rest, and would feel much at home in today’s Democratic Party. Politics does make some strange bedfellows.
They may not be my cup of tea but Netanyahu is being widely lambasted for “caving in to the Charedim” and the Charedim for “blackmailing” the leading party. Which begs the question: why is it that when Netanyahu reaches an agreement with, say, Moshe Kachlon’s Kulanu party, that is perceived as fair negotiations and reasonable compromises but when he reaches an agreement with Yahadut Hatorah that outcome must be attributed to blackmail, pandering and bad faith? The only logical answer is anti-Charedi bias, which is outrageous. They have their voters and their right to be represented. And give them credit – they know how to negotiate and they know how to keep their agreements.
As this is disseminated, the Jewish Home is very close to entering the government with control of the Education, Justice and Agriculture ministries. All three promote basic interests of the party: the spread of Torah education, the reform of the leftist legal system to include more right-leaning, Torah-educated justices (as well having the values of Torah play a more explicit role in Israeli jurisprudence; the left will scream themselves hoarse) and support for the right of Jewish settlement.
That sounds like good negotiations and a good outcome. Assuming, though, that a 61-seat bare majority government is not long for this world, the Jewish Home is well-positioned to make a positive difference in Israeli life and lay the groundwork for the next stage of leadership.
And the merry-go-round continues…