Bravo! After six tortuous weeks of horse trading, spins and hypocrisy, Israel has its 33rd government.
Most of us, not already having written off our politicians, were thoroughly distressed that even during this crucial period for Israel our elected representatives still spent so much time in jockeying for personal or political benefit.
The principal beneficiaries were Yesh Atid and Bayit Yehudi who set aside their major political differences and made a pact to negotiate jointly towards the formation of the government. They succeeded and thus foiled Binyamin Netanyahu’s efforts to play them against each other, ultimately obliging him to concede to their core demands.
The principal losers were the haredi parties who, despite Netanyahu’s extraordinary efforts to retain them, were excluded from the government. Reviled by most Israelis as extortionists willing to sell their votes to the highest bidder and seeking to impose the most stringent halachic interpretations on the entire nation, their exclusion was greeted with enthusiasm.
The outcome may have been different had they been more cooperative with respect to sharing the burden, in particular in relation to conscription and encouraging their youngsters to earn a livelihood, but they refused to concede an inch. Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, Shas’ spiritual mentor, even outraged the national religious Bayit Yehudi leaders by calling them “goyim”. Their subsequent behavior extending to vile threats by United Torah Judaism to boycott settlement produce – alienated whatever lingering sympathy remained.
As anticipated, in this government, Netanyahu will be in a weaker position and far more dependent on his coalition partners than was the case in the past.
Yet, if he plays his cards properly, this may prove to be a blessing in disguise. It could even represent a new dawn and provide him with the unique opportunity of stabilizing Israel’s global position and implementing crucial overdue reforms in the social and economic arena that had been repeatedly vetoed by the ultra-Orthodox groups.
Netanyahu’s ministerial team includes some stunning new talent but unfortunately in some cases, politics prevented the best people from assuming positions optimally suited for them. Thus, Yair Lapid’s ascension to the Treasury is a huge risk. He has no financial or business background and it is a major gamble for a novice to take on such a role especially when he must grapple with a massive opening deficit which will require resolute and unpopular cutbacks.
The choice of Foreign Minister, whose primary requirement must be to effectively promote Israel’s image and articulate the government’s policies, is also problematic, especially now as we confront such a hostile and biased world. Liebermann is a capable and talented politician who could take on any key ministry. But why does he insist on retaining the one portfolio in which rightly or wrongly, he is regarded with hostility by most global leaders?
The appointment of the respected former IDF Chief of Staff, Moshe Ya’alon as Defense Minister, will strengthen morale and signal to the Palestinians that they will pay a heavy price if they resume missile launches or terrorist attacks.
But despite such shortcomings, the presence of many talented young new faces augers well for the future if the parties concentrate on working for the betterment of the nation rather than scoring partisan political points.
Although the likelihood of being obliged to formulate major or controversial decisions in relation to the peace process is remote, the inclusion of Yesh Atid (and Tzipi Livni who will now be marginalized) may somewhat ease the international hostility against Israel by demonstrating that the government represents a broad cross-section of Israelis rather than an inflexible right-wing party.
Lapid is a genuine centrist committed to a two state policy but supports the retention of the settlement blocs, Ariel and a united Jerusalem. This would hardly qualify him as a left-winger and Netanyahu should find him a kindred spirit in relation to most issues.
Besides, the Palestinians will undoubtedly maintain their intransigent attitude and refuse to negotiate or if they did, Mahmoud Abbas would be unwilling to even minimally compromise on any substantive issue.
The government’s most urgent domestic challenge must be to introduce painful remedial measures to ensure that our economy does not suffer a meltdown and follow the disastrous example of many European countries.
It will take advantage of this historic opportunity to deal with outstanding issues relating to religion and the state, especially the profoundly emotional issue of equalizing the burden in relation to the draft. In the latest compromise, national service will become universal in gradual stages over a five year period. Up to 2000 Yeshiva students will continue receiving exemptions and state subsidies.
More importantly, all subsidized education will be required to incorporate secular core studies of math, English, civics and history, creating constructive citizens who will seek gainful employment rather than subsisting on welfare. Although haredim should be treated with courtesy and respect, they will no longer be a law unto themselves and will be obliged to share the burden as well as benefits of citizenship.
Today, for the first time in decades, there are more religious Zionist than haredi MKs in the Knesset. Bayit Yehudi has the opportunity of reversing the tide of haredi domination of religious instrumentalities like the Chief Rabbinate and promoting Zionist rabbis to occupy state roles, making Judaism more attractive to non-observant Israelis by example rather than coercion. They must ensure that conversion, marriage and divorce, and other life cycle events are conducted with compassion by enlightened rabbis who have the capacity to make Judaism more inclusive.
This government will amend the electoral system and reduce the number of parties. It must also devise a new method of selecting MKs and eradicate the current system of primaries which is being abused and riddled with corrupt practices.
Despite the fact that Lapid has introduced some talented new personnel into the Knesset, a system must be devised in which Knesset candidates are not simply recruited according to the predilections of individual party leaders . There is no perfect democratic solution but a structure could be devised by which elected party committees will subsequently preselect candidates and avoid the abuse and corruption associated with the primaries.
There should also be an arrangement whereby at least the majority of Knesset members are directly accountable to those who elected them rather than to party leaders.
Netanyahu must now set aside party politics and act as a national leader, solely focused on governing the country. He should not concern himself with the next election.
He has four critical years in which basic decisions affecting the future of Israel may well be determined. If he convinces his coalition partners to set aside the past and cooperate to devise long term strategies, both in terms of the peace process as well as implementing the long overdue domestic social, economic and electoral reforms, he will establish a legacy that could enable him to be regarded as one of the greatest leaders of the nation. But to achieve this he must resolve to set aside the sleazy political infighting and concentrate exclusively on serving the national interest. If he fails to do so, the government’s life span will be extremely limited.
The writer may be contacted at [email protected]
This column was originally published in the Jerusalem Post and Israel Hayom