Open Zion

05.09.12

What Will Change

Israel’s largest opposition party has joined the Prime Minister’s coalition rather than go to elections, and has done so at a bargain-basement price. Not exactly standard political MO for oppositions; not entirely inexplicable either. As of today Israel has a governing coalition composed of seven parties, with ninety-four MKs, approximately 80% of Parliament. Most of the Netanyahu-Mofaz deal was based on raw political calculations. But it also offered an insight into a man, Benjamin Netanyahu, who has become one of Israel’s longest-serving Prime Ministers and into the direction in which he might now be taking the country. 

Netanyahu was, it seems, ready to go for early elections (September 4th was the proposed date); his position was strong, approaching unassailable. Elections rarely are an entirely smooth ride and Netanyahu faced some uncomfortable bumps (the question of whether to implement a Supreme Court ruling to evacuate a settler outpost near Beit El, the prospect of primaries accompanied by much extremist rhetoric within his own party, etc.). Post-election, assuming victory, he might have expected to face a tricky balancing act in piecing together a new governing coalition (including how to re-appoint the rather useful Ehud Barak to the defense ministry given Barak’s lack of popularity and, by extension, electability).  

The prospective Israeli election already had something of a surreal quality to it, given that all of the larger (or to be more accurate, mid-sized) opposition parties had expressed a greater or lesser willingness to serve under Netanyahu in a future government. So we were set for an election that would be more reshuffling than deciding who would lead or what Israel’s guiding political philosophy might be. 

The apparently decisive move to postpone elections came when the Kadima party’s new leader, Shaul Mofaz, (who polled horribly in early surveys), sent out feelers expressing an interest to join the government. Mofaz’s asks were minimal in the extreme: no replacing of existing coalition allies, no revisiting of coalition guidelines, no ministerial portfolios (Mofaz alone of the 28 Kadima MK’s will serve as a Deputy PM and Minister without portfolio). Given Bibi’s anticipated re-election bumps, the minimal cost of the Mofaz alternative, and given the reasonable Netanyahu calculation that—surprises notwithstanding—he was unlikely to face a much stiffer challenge at elections due in seventeen months, Netanyahu embraced the idea of heading an outsized coalition, the largest in Israel’s history. 

Netanyahu’s cumulative track record suggests that an Israel in stable equilibrium with its neighbors, let alone peaceful coexistence, is not a proposition he views as attainable and perhaps not even desirable. He appears to have a catastrophist vision of Zionism and of Jewish life. Netanyahu sees his job as guaranteeing the security of the realm, settling relevant parts of the Biblical patrimony, all while viewing his own state as the front-line of a Judeo-Christian civilizational struggle. None of the above easily translates into diplomatic achievements. At least, not of the more traditional peace-making or alliance-expanding kind. It rather suggests that, for Bibi, success is best measured in terms of bad things being  averted.

In terms of the new coalition, Netanyahu has presented a four point agenda: (i) a new law on military service to replace the Tal Law (in particular addressing service for the ultra-orthodox and Arab Palestinian communities), (ii) reforming Israel’s system of governance (a stronger executive, less coalition horse-trading), (iii) passing a new budget, and (iv) managing the peace process and Israel’s external threats. 

On the latter two items, little by way of change is in the offering. The budget will be more of the same, a combination of neo-liberalism where he can get away with it combined with public investment where the red lines of his coalition allies would otherwise be crossed. 

On Iran, Mofaz will likely be a somewhat more measured and cautious voice and he will likely echo the distinct lack of enthusiasm for an Israeli solo military strike espoused by Israel’s security chiefs, past and present. With Netanyahu himself hesitating on the Iran file, the government as a whole still remains susceptible to pressure. Speculation that the new coalition escalates the chances of military action should be taken with a pinch of salt. Netanyahu will continue to bluff and bluster, but no dramatic change should be expected. (He already started in today’s meeting with EU foreign policy chief Ashton) 

On the Palestinian front, the new coalition may be less susceptible to the furthest of far-right hijackers who would withhold Palestinian tax revenues or take a more in-your-face (as opposed to methodical) approach to settlement expansion. But it will not be the harbinger of territorial compromise or respect for international law. Though Mofaz may present a less pugnacious posture, the trend toward an immovable Israeli presence beyond the green line and the slippage of the two-state paradigm will continue. 

But where this new coalition might leave its mark and might allow Netanyahu to point to a broader legacy of change is on the question of military service and governance reform. Those were the two issues Netanyahu and Mofaz emphasized at a press conference presenting their new arrangement (though they gave no specifics on their plans), and those are the areas where the new coalition may be best positioned to act. For Netanyahu and probably for many Israelis, this might go down as quite an achievement. It is, however, questionable whether any such a legacy will be positive or constructive. The ultra-Orthodox may feel the need to engage and compromise regarding military (or as a substitute national) service. But the eleven members of Knesset from non-Zionist parties and representing the vast majority of voting Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel are unlikely to even be consulted when it comes to changes greatly impacting that community. 

While the new coalition is large, it might be particularly ill-placed to undertake major reform of either national service or of the structures of democratic governance. The last three years have been marked by anti-democratic and sometimes racist legislative initiatives coming from members of the governing coalition, often supported by Kadima MK’s. That trend of favoring the narrowly Jewish over the broadly democratic may become more, not less pronounced. 

Israel is in need of a new social contract that takes an inclusive approach to the non-Jewish Palestinian-Arab population and also to the ultra-Orthodox, creating a long overdue democratic as opposed to ethnocratic basis for shared citizenship. That is unlikely to happen. The new government, led by three veterans of the IDF’s elite Special Forces unit (Benjamin Netanyahu, Ehud Barak, Shaul Mofaz) and facing a shrunken opposition, may further suck the oxygen out of Israeli democracy. 

The limited opposition (ostensibly made up of 22 MK’s), headed by the new Labor Party leader Shelly Yachimovich and including the civil rights-oriented progressive Meretz party and the non-Zionist parties (Hadash, Balad, and the United Arab List) will be better placed to present an alternative if they can work together and build elements of a common alternative narrative. And while Yachimovich might grow into the role of opposition leader, and start to delineate progressive positions across a range of issues (not least those relating to the territories), for now, that seems a long way off.   As for a new wave of summer social protests—that is about to be put to the test and that may be Israel’s best hope.