After nearly six weeks of poker-like negotiations, Israel seems to have a government. It contains Likud-Beiteinu (an electoral alliance of Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu), Tzipi Livni’s Hatnua, Jewish Home, and Yesh Atid (Kadima was left out). At 68 MKs, it’s not the most stable. It’s also noteworthy that it took so long, and the gaps were so difficult to narrow. I’d argue this is a sign that the coalition embedded too many contradictions into its foundation. These will make it hard for the government to last its full term.
Still, it is remarkable in a number of ways because of the changes it will make and because it’s a real test for new leaders Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid.
For the first time since Ariel Sharon’s 2003 to 2005 government, no haredi party (Shas or United Torah Judaism) was part of the initial formation of the government. In addition, while Jewish Home falls into the cluster of religious parties (entrenching Judaic norms in the polity are one of its goals), it has other political, economic, and social concerns at this point. This government is, therefore, the most centrist-secular since Menachem Begin’s first government (1977 to 1981).
This will have a severe impact on the religious parties, particularly their political power. (Amir Mizroch called it “a battle of historic significance.”) Their communities are about to face a major drop in resources at the same time there are concerted effort to drag them more directly under state control—in everything from supervision of education, to personal status issues, to service in the military or some other national institution. Their communal independence from yet financial dependence on the state will be brought more into balance.
Their position as kingmakers will be changed forever: part of the coalition agreement includes the stipulation that the threshold for getting into the Knesset is raised to 4 percent of the national vote and an increase the number of Knesset members whose vote can bring down the government. In this past election UTJ got a little over 5 percent of the vote. All other things being equal, it would send far fewer members to the Knesset the next time around. It and Shas would also be in a weaker position to play the larger parties off against each other.
Both will have to come up with new ways to remain relevant at their current strength, or face the possibility of voter defection. If the electorate knows that fewer candidates on their lists will enter the Knesset, and that the parties will therefore be less serious contenders for government, the non-haredi voters could well decide to switch their votes to secular rightwing or even leftwing parties. The failed experiment that was the direct election for prime minister indicates voters are smart enough to know when their party is too weak to matter.
Raising the threshold will also mean the end of the three Arab parties (Balad, Hadash, and Ra’am-Ta’al) as we know them. They all received less than 4 percent of the vote. They, too, will have to unite—or rally the Arab electorate more effectively.
It bears noting that for both the haredi and the Arab parties, each one represents a different interest and segment of the population, and are subject to personal antipathies. There’s no guarantee that they’ll be able to cooperate with each other, in any electoral alliance.
I’d also suggest that the difficult nature of the bargaining is captured by my early contention that Benjamin Netanyahu would have preferred to avoid bringing Naftali Bennett and Jewish Home into the government. After being tasked with forming the government, Bibi called Bennett last, after speaking even with Meretz’s Zahava Gal-On. He worked hard to give Yair Lapid whatever he could to get him to break the alliance Lapid had forged with Bennett. He did, it is true, offer incentives to Bennett to break the alliance as well, but I suspect he would have then gone back to Lapid and said, “Look! Bennett is less interested in your work together than he is in himself! Now you can leave him behind and join us.”
Bennett will have to fight to remain at the top, then. He’s off to a good start. He got everything he needed: he’s in the coalition; he’s got important ministries—Economy and Trade, Housing (where he can influence though not determine settlement policy), Religious Services; he defeated Bibi’s efforts to leave him out, and moreover played the key role as mediator between Bibi and Lapid; and he kept the haredim out. But any movement on the peace process will force him to have to choose between staying in and accepting a defeat there, or leaving the government and taking a chance on not being able to get back in.
Yair Lapid faces two important tests now. He finally agreed, after trying to avoid it, to be Finance Minister. This will be a thankless job: Israel faces a critical budget deficit, while the public’s demands for an easing of prices, reduced housing costs, and other economic transactions has gotten quieter but not disappeared. Some of this can be addressed by reducing subsidies to the haredi population. But a sudden removal of resources without a long-term plan in place will lead to serious social dislocation. It’s not clear yet that Lapid has Bibi’s “it needs to be done and damn the consequences” attitude. He’ll have to make some very tough impositions on the economy much like Bibi did in the early 2000s.
On the peace process, Lapid started off by taking a middle ground during the campaign. He became popular among many for arguing that there is, in fact, a Palestinian partner for peace and that a resolution was as necessary as any domestic reforms. But his position on Jerusalem is a non-starter, and his alliance with Bennett means the peace process took at best a secondary position compared to “sharing the burden.” He’ll have to band together with Livni to have any real effect on the peace process; otherwise, his connection to Bennett and Bibi’s inherent mistrust of any peace process won’t allow room for progress.
Kadima is finished. After being the largest party in two elections, it dropped to two seats in January. The need to balance so many competing demands left no ministries for Kadima; it was deemed unnecessary.
Finally, there’s Avigdor Lieberman. If he doesn’t get through his trial fast, and unscathed, his power will be weakened. He’ll be joining a government late (Bibi is holding the Foreign Ministry for him), and Lapid and Bennett—his main rivals now—will have been working to promote their own interests and position.
In theory, then, the coalition’s makeup can have enormous implications for Israeli society and politics. It remains to be seen whether it’ll last long enough to make them happen.