Mon, March 18, 2013 | RubinReports | By Barry Rubin
On the issues about which the world is obsessed, Israel’s new government is basically a continuation of the old one. That is the key point to keep in mind regarding the new coalition which has a comfortable 68-seat majority, well over the 61 minimum parliamentarians required.
Basically, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is in a strong position as these things go. It is notable that there is not a single other person seriously considered to be a serious candidate for prime minister. Of course, he will have the usual headaches of managing a disparate coalition in which parties will quarrel, threaten to walk out, and make special demands.
The coalition consists of Netanyahu’s Likud; Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party, which might be called traditionally liberal in American terms; Naftali Bennett’s right-wing and dati religious (Modern Orthodox, in American terms) party, Habayit Hayahudi; and Tsipi Livni’s rather shapeless and personalistic Hatnuah party. A key element of this coalition is the alliance of Bennett and Lapid in opposition to the Haredi (mistakenly called “ultra-Orthodox” in the West) religious parties.
While this is certainly a conservative-dominated government, I have yet to see anyone in the mass media point out that it includes two of the three largest left of center parties!
Of the three key ministries, Netanyahu will be foreign minister, holding that post “in trust” for indicted former foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman, whose old party ran on a joint list with the Likud. In practice, this means Netanyahu will have close control over implementing his policies internationally. The defense minister is the very able Moshe Yaalon, a Likud member and former head of military intelligence.
Lapid will run the Finance Ministry, dealing with issues on which he has no experience at all. This is not so unusual in parliamentary systems, where senior civil servants actually run the ministries. But Lapid holds this post because his signature issues are to urge reforms in the economy. His party will also get education, social services, health, and science and technology.
Here is something of a paradox. Israel has been one of the most successful countries in the developed world because it has refused to join the high-spending, high-debt, subsidy-oriented policies of Europe and now the United States. Unemployment and inflation have been low; growth has been relatively high. The problem, though, is that prices are also relatively high compared to incomes, causing problems especially for young people and consumers generally.
Lapid is expected to revise the management of the golden eggs without doing harm to the goose that laid them. Arguably, the number-one issue for this government is whether Lapid can perform well. His father, a popular journalist, followed the precise same course as the son a few years ago and failed completely. The junior Lapid has no actual political experience and does have characteristics of Tel Aviv beautiful people society. If he falters, his party will disintegrate in the next election.
As for Bennett, the amusing spin on much coverage is that his party has succeeded, that settlers even dominate the government, because he will have a couple of minor ministries which don’t have much power. Actually, he got less than I would have expected. While the settlements might benefit a little economically from these positions — and from the party’s holding the chairmanship over the Knesset finance committee — they will not have much authority and control little money directly.
If there is a big winner in the new government it is Lapid’s reformist liberals (in the old American sense, not the redefinition imposed on that word by the American far left). They are going to have a chance to show if they can improve social services, a fairer distribution of resources (the issue isn’t so much between rich and poor but across different sectors), and an economy that retains its growth while managing the problem of high prices, among other things.
Meanwhile, although the world is obsessed with non-existent issues regarding the long-dead “peace process” or fantasy options for Israel to make friends with neighboring Islamist regimes by giving even more concessions, Israel strategically is focused on defense.
Four of the six bordering entities — Egypt, the Gaza Strip, Lebanon, and soon Syria — are ruled by radical Islamist groups that openly declare their goal of wiping Israel off the map. And that list doesn’t even include extremely hostile Iran (whose drive toward nuclear weapons cannot be forgotten for a moment) and the virulently anti-Israel regime in Turkey.
The fifth neighbor, the Palestinian Authority (PA) is totally uninterested in negotiating toward peace. Its strategy revolves around trying to establish unilateral independence based on the UN General Assembly, which lightly bestowed on it the status of non-member state. Only Jordan, among the neighbors, can be deemed to be friendly when it counts, given the monarchy’s own interests.
This looks like a rather grim strategic situation and it is one generally disregarded by the West. Yet Israel has maneuvering room:
- Prospects for a third intifada (guerrilla-terrorist war) in the PA have dissipated for the moment.
- A quarrel between Hamas and the Cairo regime has cut off arms and reduced political support within Egypt for Hamas.
- In Lebanon, Hizballah has to cope with the loss of its patron, Syria.
- And the PA’s diplomatic strategy is fruitless, incapable of bringing about change.
- Finally, the Sunni-Shia clash among contending Islamists and the need for quiet by Islamist regimes trying to consolidate power at home are also factors making Israel’s situation easier.
The glib idea that the situation is “unsustainable” is no truer than it has been for most of the past 65 years. Aside from the momentous decision on whether to attack Iranian nuclear facilities — something that won’t be a serious prospect in the next year — the Netanyahu government doesn’t have many big decisions on foreign policy.
And if Bennett’s presence protects the Israel settlements on the West Bank, the absence of any serious “peace process” means that this will be an easy task, except for some potentially nasty skirmishes over funding. So desperate is the effort to portray Bennett as the winner that even the coalition agreement’s not talking about the peace process is claimed as evidence. Obviously, if anything had actually been written to limit Netanyahu’s autonomy on the issue, one could make the case far better. Bennett’s failure to get assurances on that point is hardly a sign of victory for him. Quite the opposite.
As this analysis indicates, the main battles will be over budget, economic, and social issues. In particular, Bennett and Lapid are committed to reduce Haredi benefits. Note that this isn’t an “anti-religious” issue because Bennett’s party is largely religious. While the most visible issue is army service, Haredi housing and child benefits might be more likely areas for change.
Indeed, perhaps the most interesting cabinet appointment is that of Rabbi Shay Piron, from Lapid’s party, as education minister. In the past, such a selection would have caused a firestorm of protest among secular Israelis. But Piron is a liberal rabbi and will likely spend more time trying to modernize religious education than to affect the secular aspects of teaching.
The problem of this government is more likely to be one of personalities, marginal issues that get blown up in importance, and jockeying for financial benefits for different constituencies. There will be a lot of fireworks but far fewer explosions. And if any coalition party wants to test Netanyahu’s power at the polls before the government’s four-year-long term ends, they know that he will win the prime ministership again.
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest book, “Israel: An Introduction“, has just been published by Yale University Press. Other recent books include “The Israel-Arab Reader” (seventh edition), “The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East” (Wiley), and “The Truth About Syria” (Palgrave-Macmillan). The website of the GLORIA Center and of his blog, Rubin Reports. His original articles are published at PJMedia.