Politics

03.22.13

In Israel, Netanyahu Assembles the Coalition That Eluded Romney

Bibi’s coalition could help show the way forward for a GOP that’s more than just a vehicle for donors, writes Lloyd Green.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has accomplished what Mitt Romney only dreamed of—a government by and for the 53 percent. Netanyahu’s new ruling coalition appears affluent and engaged, a grouping of Israel’s high-tech start-up nation, West Bank Settlers, upwardly mobile Sephardic Jews, and immigrants from the former Soviet Union. It is government of and by those who soldier and pay taxes. 

Sitting on the outside are Israel’s ultra-Orthodox, the haredim—who don’t seem all that eager to work—and the Arabs, who don’t seem all that eager to be Israelis. To be sure, this is not the cabinet that Netanyahu had preferred. He wanted the ultra-Orthodox inside the tent as they conferred a patina of religious authenticity and added a layer of political insulation. However, Netanyahu could not convince his two largest coalition partners, Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party (“There Is a Future”) and Naftali Bennett’s Bayit Yehudi party (“Jewish Home”)—both relatively high-end constituencies—to join a coalition that included the ultra-Orthodox, who generally decline to join the workforce or the military. In hindsight, Romney might have been successful had he run for prime minister.

Although Lapid and Bennett speak for different political streams, they have more in common than not. Both are creatures of modernity and lead bourgeois lives. Politically, their respective supporters shoulder the twin burdens of military service and taxation and are not shy about saying so.

Lapid’s core is comprised of secular-educated Ashkenazi Israelis and Bennett’s base is religious-nationalist. Lapid, the new finance minister, previously served in the Israeli Defense Forces as a reporter and made his name as a print journalist and on television. To put things into perspective, according to Israeli exit polls, Lapid actually ran well ahead of Netanyahu in those precincts heavily populated by members of Israel’s Air Force and their families—who are predominately secular, and wary of both Iran and excessive alarm about Iran. They would be the tip of the spear if Israel were to strike at Iran’s nuclear facilities.

As for Bennett, who has been tapped to serve as minister of Industry, Trade and Labor, he is a clean-shaven, Modern Orthodox high-tech millionaire, whose parents immigrated to Israel from California in 1967 after the Six Day War. Bennett holds the rank of major in the IDF Reserves and served in the same commando units as Netanyahu and former Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak. He wears a kippah that is large enough to be seen but small enough not to scare. On security and territory, Bennett is a hardliner, opposing a two-state solution and dismissive of negotiations with the Palestinians.

Bennett’s primary constituency is heavily represented among the ranks of Israel’s Army officers, many of whom live in the West Bank. But according to exit polls, Bennett’s support was not limited to religious Israelis. Rather, Bennett made inroads among younger voters, regardless of religious observance, and among voters disenchanted with Netanyahu’s ruling Likud-Beiteinu Bloc, which exudes disdain for good government.

To illustrate, Avigdor Lieberman, Likud-Beiteinu’s second in command, was forced to step down as foreign minister during the closing days of the campaign after being indicted on corruption charges, and presently Netanyahu is keeping the foreign minister’s post vacant pending the outcome of Lieberman’s trial. To the casual observer, the Moldovan-born Lieberman oozes a certain off-putting Soviet-style sensibility. The resentments voiced by Israel’s middle class, and that fueled the rise of Lapid and Bennett, are reminiscent of the disdain toward welfare that helped boost both Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton. The fact is that fewer than half of all haredi men, participate in the Israeli workforce (the same is also true of Israel’s Arabs).

Sloth in the name of God is still sloth. A self-perpetuating, draft-avoiding mendicant class is unlikely to be welcomed with open arms by those who pay taxes and fight wars. The haredim (literally, “those who tremble”) are not Israel’s analog to the Quakers, who were nonmilitaristic but nevertheless fully engaged in commerce and public life. In the January elections, Israel’s political center gave out a collective yell of ¡Ya Basta!

And draft avoiding? Even when the war is unpopular, draft dodgers generally come out second best. America ultimately exited Vietnam and President Nixon ended the draft, but George McGovern—a heroic World War II combat veteran—lost the 1972 presidential election in a landslide. Being painted as the candidate of amnesty, acid, and abortion came with a price. In Israel, conscription remains the rule and military service is the norm. For the foreseeable future, Israel will not be fielding a volunteer army. And if it ever does, it would probably be disproportionately filled with Bennett’s backers as the secular middle class would likely recede from the IDF.

This brings us back to Mitt. He failed to address the hopes and anxieties of most Americans. Rather, Romney mistakenly calibrated his message toward America’s rich, and so he lost. And yes, Bennett is also wealthy, but he built a software startup, exudes personal simplicity, and still serves in the military. Where Bennett sheltered his money was never a real issue.

In the end, Romney failed to connect with America’s workers, and not just the 47 percent. Having a job on an auto assembly line makes you a maker, not a taker, and Romney and the Republicans forgot that. Whether the GOP can return to being something more than a vehicle for its donors or a megaphone for electoral discontent remains to be seen.