10 February 2013
End the Shenanigans and form a Government

The excessively slow pace of Israel’s electoral and political systems impose dysfunction at a time when a strong, strategically-directed government is desperately needed.

This is highlighted by the excruciatingly slow coalition building process preceded by the lengthy pre-election campaign. The head of the leading party designated by the president to form the next government has 28 days to build a coalition with an option of an additional 14 days.

To have a hiatus of 3 to 4 months during which the outgoing government functions as a lame-duck, would be intolerable for any country. However, in the context of the extraordinary pressures and existential challenges currently confronting Israel – in particular the expansion of radical Islam in the neighborhood and the critical emerging security threats on all its borders – the absence of effective government for such a long period is appalling.

A strong government is also urgently required to formulate responsible economic and social policies to preempt a domestic crisis – which could ultimately also impact on security.

Moreover, with President Obama scheduled to make his first visit to Israel in the near future, a government with a strategic plan and a unified diplomatic approach is an essential prerequisite. That cannot be achieved if a government is formed only days before the presidential visit.

In light of this, the ongoing shenanigans delaying the formation of a government are a monumental display of irresponsibility by all political parties. This is surely a time when the national interest requires that those elected to office recognize their obligation to concentrate on speedily creating a government. Ideally they would suspend their personal agendas and avoid dragging out the negotiation process in order to jostle for ministerial portfolios.

Remarkably, notwithstanding all the media babble and despite the substantial erosion of Likud-Beiteinu electoral support, Netanyahu is in a uniquely advantageous position to create a genuinely broad coalition. With the exception of the radical Arab parties and Meretz, a genuine centrist consensus in relation to the peace process dominates the political arena. The vast majority of Israelis have no desire to rule over Palestinians and, given a genuine peace partner, would be relieved to separate from them. Even the hawkish Bayit Yehudi would welcome the opportunity of entering the government in the absence of dramatic changes leading to the emergence of a Palestinian state – which is currently not even on the horizon.

Indeed, Yair Lapid – mistakenly dubbed by much of the media as a center leftist –unequivocally committed Yesh Atid to maintaining the unity of Jerusalem and retaining the settlement of Ariel within Israel. He did undertake to pursue negotiations with the Palestinians, but after Mahmoud Abbas responded to Netanyahu’s most recent offer to negotiate without preconditions by demanding a settlement freeze (including all of Jerusalem’s Jewish neighborhoods) and the release of all imprisoned terrorists – there is little doubt that Lapid and Netanyahu would have identical responses to such intransigence.

Despite Shelley Yachimovitch having pledged not to join a Netanyahu government, she admits that today many of her party members are pressing her to do so. Even Tzipi Livni, despite her former histrionics against Netanyahu, is now also almost desperate to join the government. This confirms that in spite of all the posturing, a broad political consensus prevails.

The sole major issue which remains a barrier towards creating a broad national government is the commitment by many parties to introduce reforms to preclude the non-Zionist and inflexible ultra-Orthodox rabbis from exclusively controlling state religious policies.

The most emotional aspect of this is “equalization of the burden” in relation to haredim serving in the Army or National Service. There is also the need to steer them into the workforce, weaning them away from long term reliance on state welfare.

In contrast to his late father, Yair Lapid has been extremely reasonable in his approach to the haredim. Many even consider his proposal to progressively introduce the draft over a five year period to be too gradual. But despite this, the ultra-0rthodox are threatening to go to the barricades and seeking to exploit emerging tensions between Netanyahu and Lapid.

Throughout the election campaign, Lapid was a role model for moderation and restraint. Most politicians harbor dreams of ultimately becoming Prime Minister. But he blundered when in response to a rhetorical question in a TV interview he said that he visualized himself displacing the current prime minister within 18 months – a remark which certainly would not have contributed to Netanyahu’s comfort level with an impending new partner.

The desperate haredim are already capitalizing on this. Indeed, despite Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef having described Bayit Yehudi leaders during the elections as “goyim”, Shas leaders have appealed to them not to support efforts to draft their followers. They seem to have even convinced some of the more stringent religious Zionist rabbis to exert pressure on Bennett to soften his position. Should they succeed, Bennett and Bayit Yehudi would be discredited and may lose a precious opportunity to restore religious Zionism to its rightful place in a Zionist state.

In this context Netanyahu is making Bennett’s position more difficult by publicly humiliating him, meeting with him only after his consultations with Meretz, Labor, Tzipi Livni and even the radical Arab parties. Irrespective of former confrontations, such personal displays of animus by the Prime Minister are misplaced and do not display him in a favorable light.

Netanyahu and Lapid should stop posturing and speedily reach an accommodation regarding the haredi imbroglio. Many Shas supporters already serve in the army. Once appropriate legislation has been passed requiring haredim to serve in the IDF or National Service, Shas may still seek to join the government. The Aguda (United Torah Judaism) would probably stay out which would not be a great loss.

On the other hand, should Netanyahu form another narrow government which would continue to be subject to extortion by the ultra-orthodox and obliged to substitute genuine efforts to draft haredim with mere cosmetic gestures, the electorate would be outraged. Besides, a narrow government under the current circumstances would almost certainly only have a very limited duration. In the ensuing elections irate Israelis would undoubtedly severely punish those leaders – in particular Netanyahu – for failure to create a broad government.

With the impending visit to the region by President Obama there is a desperate need to present a united front in relation to policies regarding Iran and the Palestinians. To achieve this, our politicians have an urgent obligation to cease posturing and form a broad national government.

The writer may be contacted at ileibler@leibler.com

This column was originally published in Israel Hayom

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Isi Leibler

Isi Leibler is a veteran international Jewish leader with a distinguished record of contributions to the Jewish world and the cause of human rights, including the struggle for Soviet Jewry. He was head of the Jewish community in Australia for many years and made aliya in 1999. Leibler has held senior roles in the World Jewish Congress, including chairman of the governing board and senior vice president. Today, he writes prolifically and is a regular columnist for The Jerusalem Post and Yisrael Hayom.

(2) Readers Comments

  1. Isi Leibler was great pleasure and very great interest to listen to. A great man with great wisdom.

    I have known of both Leibler brothers, I live in Melbourne. Just like to say how delighted I was to listen to Isi

    this morning, with Rabbi Mark Golub.

  2. Dear Mr. Lieber,

    I greatly enjoy your comments about Israel and Jewish issues. They are well researched and insightful. I won’t go into my background because it is not germane about which I wish to discuss with you.

    Solving the problem with the Palestinian Arabs is essential if Israel is not to be exposed to continual attacks and demonization. The Arabs as a people have great problems with change. As an example, look at how long it took Syria to accept that the province of Hatay in Turkey (including Iskenderun, also known as Alexandretta) was going to remain Turkish despite the language used by the people being predominantly Arabic.

    It surprises me that even very bright and knowledgeable people like Elliott Abrams and Dennis Ross in my country have not come to the realization that no Palestinian Arab will, on their own, be able to achieve peace with Israel. Most who have tried or have been associated with the West have been assassinated (King Abdullah I, Bashir Gemayel, Anwar Sadat and Rafik Harari). The sole exception is King Hussein.

    With that background how can peace or an absence of hostility be attained? The US is indispensable. For nearly 20 years from 1948 until 1967, there was a modicum of peace except when Nasser wanted to attack Israel and created the rationale to do so.

    What is required for the Arabs is an imposed peace since they are unable to deal with Israel on their own. Now, let me explain how that may be achieved. First, Israel’s security needs must be met. Thus, any Arab entity on the West Bank must be demilitarized and Israel must be able to monitor the Jordan River valley to ensure no weapons enter the West Bank. Second, major Jewish settlements on the West Bank should be incorporated into Israel.

    As probably the first step in the creation of a Palestinian state (and maybe the only step), Jordan should be asked temporarily to assume trusteeship for the incipient state. Neither the Jordanians nor the Palestinians would be happy with that situation but if there was strong political and financial support from Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States, the US and Europe, maybe they would reluctantly agree especially since it was to be viewed as merely a temporary measure.

    A similar case could be made for Egypt being responsible for Gaza on a temporary basis until a peaceful, united Palestinian government could be formed. Any such developments must be carried out in total secrecy until implementation. For this reason, the West Bank should be tackled first since Hamas would be unalterably opposed to any such agreement.

    Can this succeed? Maybe not but what are the alternatives? I’d welcome your comments and especially your criticisms.

    Albert H. Soloway

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