No partners for peace in any likely new coalition
Trying to fix it: Netanyahu and President Peres. Photo by Dan Balilty/AP/Press Association Images
By AFP/Naharnet Newsdesk
February 02, 2013
Israeli President Shimon Peres was on Saturday expected to task Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with forming a new government after two days of intense talks with parties elected to the new parliament.
On Thursday, Peres concluded the second day of back-to-back meetings with representatives of all 12 parties voted into Israel’s 19th Knesset in last month’s general election.
A statement from the president’s office said Peres would “announce the candidate who will be tasked with forming the government on Saturday night,” without naming a candidate.
But a simple breakdown of the representatives’ statements to the president over the course of the meetings shows that six parties, comprising 82 out of the total 120 parliament members, were in favor of Netanyahu continuing as premier.
Netanyahu’s Likud-Beitenu, the joint list uniting Netanyahu’s Likud party with the hardline nationalist Yisrael Beitenu, won 31 seats to make it the largest bloc in the upcoming Knesset.
Yair Lapid, whose centrist Yesh Atid won 19 seats in parliament, reiterated his support for Netanyahu during a Wednesday meeting with Peres, and his party now looks set to become the Likud-Beitenu’s senior coalition partner.
The far-right national religious Jewish Home, which under Netanyahu’s former chief of staff Naftali Bennett won 12 seats, also recommended Netanyahu and will also probably be part of his coalition.
Ultra-Orthodox parties Shas, which received 11 seats, and United Torah Judaism (UTJ), which won seven, also seek to join a Netanyahu coalition.
Both parties voiced their support for him, but Netanyahu might have difficulty seating them in a coalition alongside Lapid, whose campaign stressed the need for a more equal “sharing of the burden.”
This is a euphemism for making more ultra-Orthodox Jews serve in the military, which is anathema to Shas-UTJ doctrine.
Center-right Kadima, which in the outgoing Knesset had 28 seats and barely scraped by with two this vote under former defense minister Shaul Mofaz, has also told Peres that Netanyahu is the most suitable candidate to form the coalition.
Another potential coalition partner is HaTnuah, headed by Tzipi Livni. The former foreign minister left the Knesset last year after losing the leadership of Kadima to Mofaz, and later in 2012 announced her new movement.
Livni failed to galvanize the center and center-left to form a bloc that would defeat Netanyahu, but her party still won six seats.
In campaigning, Livni did not rule out joining a Netanyahu-led coalition.
But during her Thursday meeting with Peres, she did not recommend him as premier as he had not yet indicated if he would sufficiently pursue peace with the Palestinians, which Livni said was the cornerstone of her movement.
Informal talks on forming a viable governing coalition have been under way since the January 22 election, but the process can only begin in earnest after Peres makes his announcement, which is expected at 18:00 GMT.
After the announcement, the nominee will have 28 days to put together a coalition.
What will the third Netanyahu government look like, and how will it deal with the Palestinian issue?
Netanyahu would like to include some centrist elements in his government in order to present a more moderate face to the world. However, any meaningful effort to end the occupation is not very likely.
By Noam Sheizaf, +972
February 1, 2013
The Israeli post-election routine is under way, and [on Saturday night], President Shimon Peres will officially ask Benjamin Netanyahu to try and form a new government. Netanyahu will have 28 days for his coalitions talks (which are already underway), and he may ask for an extension of 14 days.
While I do not have high hopes from the new government regarding the Palestinian issue, it is enough to examine Yair Lapid’s platform to understand how talk of a centrist or even lefty “victory” has been simply wrong – but the exact nature of Israeli policy will depend on the new coalition that will emerge.
Here is a quick rundown of the main options we face, and what each one means:
1. A narrow Bennett-Bibi-Lapid coalition. Probability: likely. This government would include Yesh Atid (Yair Lapid’s party), Likud-Beitenu (the Netanyahu-Lieberman joint ticket, which still operates as one bloc), Naftali Bennett’s hard-right Jewish Home party and two seats from Kadima. Altogether, that’s 64 seats. This government will concentrate on changing the status quo with the Orthodox parties, perhaps resulting in more ultra-Orthodox drafted to the army or joining the work force. The problem for Netanyahu is that this a very narrow coalition, which gives veto power to any one of his partners on any issue. Such a government won’t be able to do anything on the Palestinian issue, since it would include at least 20-25 members from the hard-right, both from the Likud and from Bennett’s list. Construction in the occupied territories will continue, as well as the effort to push the Palestinian population out of Area C (60 percent of the West Bank) – an essential part of the settler movement’s strategy right now.
2. A “wide” Bennett-Bibi-Lapid-Shas collation. Probability: likely. This coalition would be the same as the above option, but would include Shas. The coalition would be 74 seats strong, such that no party can force its policies. Wide governments tend to be reactive in nature and do not initiate major policy changes, as the prime minister always needs to look for consensus among the various elements (at the height of the Oslo process, for example, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin had a coalition of 61 MKs – the smallest Knesset majority possible). I think that this is Netanyahu’s preferred option, and I don’t see this government initiating major diplomatic moves for the same reasons listed under the previous option. An even wider coalition could include Tzipi Livni. The settlers will be a bit weaker in this government, so the colonization of the West Bank might not be as rapid – but it will certainly continue, along with some drama over the evacuation of certain outposts (the kind we saw over the last four years).
3. Narrow Shas-Lapid-Netanyahu collation. Probability: less likely. This coalition will include Shas instead of the hard right. In theory, such a government could initiate a settlement freeze or present a final agreement map (something Netanyahu refused to do in the past) as a way of restarting negotiations with the Palestinian leadership. This coalition – 64 seats, or 70 with Livni – would also enjoy the support of most of the opposition if it was to honestly engage with the Palestinian issue. Netanyahu’s problems would come from within, since many of Likud’s Knesset members oppose the very idea of a Palestinian state and thus could destabilize the coalition, forcing Netanyahu to depend on support from the left-wing opposition. Yet we should also remember that honest negotiations or even unilateral retreats will always carry a serious political price. Netanyahu could potentially have a majority to end the occupation, and his decision to avoid any step in this direction would not be the result of political circumstances, but rather of his own policy choices.
4. Very narrow Right-Orthodox government (hard-right coalition). Probability: unlikely. Netanyahu could easily form a government with his “base”: Likud, Shas, Jewish Home and United Torah Judaism. These parties have a 61-seat majority (Kadima with its two seats may also join). I believe this would be Netanyahu’s last option, since such a government would have serious opposition at home and would likely attract a lot of pressure from the world. Netanyahu has learned that he needs a buffer in the form of a centrist party, whose ministers conduct relations with Europe and the United States, to present a more moderate face to his extreme coalition. Naturally, a narrow right-wing coalition will not challenge the status quo on any one of the issues on the Israeli agenda. In the unlikely event that Netanyahu ends up with such a narrow government, he would at least try to have Tzipi Livni on his side, perhaps in the Foreign Ministry, and mainly for PR reasons.
There will be a lot of spin thrown around in the next month or so – such is always the case during the coalition-building period. Ultimately, I believe Netanyahu would rather close a deal with Lapid on many of the internal issues such as tax breaks for the middle class and military draft reform, rather than change his approach to the Palestinian issue. Most likely, he and Lapid will agree to “make every effort” to renew negotiations but not take actual, serious steps toward negotiations (A good litmus test for the “seriousness” of a government is the behavior of the settlers. When they leave the coalition and break the Likud in two, we will be able to assume something is really happening).
One last thing to remember is that military escalation – with Syria or Hezbollah for example – will make parties more likely to join the government, and at a much lower price.
Woe to the Victor
By Uri Avnery, Gush Shalom
“VAE VICTIS!” was the Roman cry. Woe to the vanquished.
I would alter it slightly: “Vae Victori”, Woe to the victor!
The outstanding example is the astounding victory Israel won in June, 1967. After weeks of approaching doom, the Israeli army beat three Arab armies in six days and conquered huge stretches of Egyptian, Syrian and Palestinian territory.
As it turned out, this was the greatest disaster in our history. Intoxicated by the very size of the victory, Israel started down a road of political megalomania, which led to the dire consequences from which we are unable to free ourselves to this very day. History is full of such examples.
Now we have witnessed the totally unexpected election success of Ya’ir Lapid. It may turn out to be the same story in miniature.
LAPID WON 19 seats. His is the second largest faction in the 120-seat Knesset, after Likud-Beitenu, which has 31 seats. The composition of the House is such that it is almost impossible for Binyamin Netanyahu to form a coalition without him.
The former TV star is in the position of a child in a candy store, who can take whatever he desires. He can pick and choose any government post he fancies for himself and his minions. He can impose on the Prime Minister almost any policy.
That’s where his troubles start.
Put yourself in his place, and see what that must mean.
FIRST OF ALL, what job should you choose?
As the major partner in the coalition, you have the right to choose one of the three major ministries: defense, foreign affairs or treasury.
Seems easy? Well, think again.
You can take defense. But you have no defense experience whatsoever. You have not even served in a combat unit, since your father got you a job on the army’s weekly paper (a lousy paper, by the way.)
As defense minister, you would in practice be the superior of the Chief of Staff, almost a Commander in Chief. (Under Israeli law, the entire government is the Commander in Chief, but the Minister of Defense represents the government vis-à-vis the armed services.)
So defense is not for you.
YOU CAN take foreign affairs. It’s really the ideal job for you.
Since you want to become Prime Minister next time, you need public exposure, and the Foreign Minister gets plenty of that. You will appear in photos alongside President Obama, Angela Merkel, Vladimir Putin and a host of other world celebrities. The public will get used to seeing you in this distinguished international circle. Your telegenic good looks will enhance this advantage. Israelis will take pride in you.
Moreover, this is the only job in which you cannot fail. Since foreign policy is largely determined and conducted by the Prime Minister, the Foreign Minister is not blamed for anything, unless he is a perfect fool – and you certainly are not that.
After four years, everybody will be convinced that you are prime ministerial material.
Even better: you can dictate the immediate opening of peace talks with the Palestinians. Netanyahu is in no position to refuse, particularly as Barak Obama will demand the same. The opening ceremony of the negotiations will be a triumph for you. Actual progress will be neither demanded nor expected.
SO WHY not take it?
Because you see a big warning sign.
The 543,289 citizens who voted for you did not vote for a foreign minister. They voted for making the Orthodox serve in the army, providing affordable housing, getting food prices down, lowering taxes on the Middle Class. They don’t give a damn about foreign relations, the occupation, peace and such trivia.
If you evade these domestic problems and go to the foreign office, a deafening cry will be taken up: Traitor! Deserter! Cheat!
Half of your followers will leave you at once. For them, your name will be mud.
Moreover, in order to follow a peace agenda, even pro forma, you must discard the idea of having Naftali Bennett’s ultra-rightist party in the coalition, and take in the Orthodox parties instead. If so, how to compel the Orthodox to serve in the army, akin to feeding them pork?
THE LOGICAL conclusion: you must choose the treasury.
I would not wish this fate on the worst of my enemies, and I feel no enmity towards the son of Tommy Lapid.
The next Finance Minister will be compelled to do exactly the opposite of Ya’ir’s election promises.
His first task concerns the state budget for 2013, already overdue. According to official figures, there is a hole of 39 billion Shekels, something like 10 billion dollars. Where will they come from?
The real alternatives are few, and all are painful. There must be heavy new taxes, especially on the glorified Middle Class and the poor. Lapid, a neo-liberal like Netanyahu, will not tax the rich.
Then there will be sweeping cuts in government services, such as education, health and the welfare state. At the moment, hospitals are working at 140% capacity, endangering the lives of patients. Many schools are falling apart. Lower pensions will spell misery for the old, the disabled and the unemployed. Everybody will curse the Finance Minister. Is this how you want to launch your political career?
There is, of course, the huge military budget, but dare you touch it? When the Iranian nuclear bomb is dangling above our heads (at least in our imagination)? When Netanyahu is promoting his latest scare – the Syrian chemical weapons, which may fall into the hands of radical Islamists?
You can, of course, reduce the pensions of army officers who retire – as is the custom in Israel – at the age of 45. Dare you?
You could drastically slash the immense sums invested in the settlements. Are you that kind of a hero?
As if this were not enough, the high echelon of economic officials is in disarray. The much respected Governor of the Bank of Israel, Stanley Fischer, an import from the US, has just resigned in mid-term. The highest officials in the budget department are at each other’s throats.
You would be very brave or very foolish (or both) to accept the post.
YOU COULD, of course, be satisfied with something less elevated.
Education, for example. True, the education ministry is considered a second-grade ministerial job, though it has many thousand employees and the second largest budget, after defense. But there is one big drawback: any success would take years to show.
The outgoing minister, Gideon Sa’ar, a Likud member (and a former employee of mine) has a knack for attracting public attention. At least once a week he had a new project, which attracted lavish publicity on TV. But serious achievements were rare.
From my late wife’s experience as a teacher I know that the frequent “reforms” ordered by the ministry hardly ever reach the classrooms. Anyhow, to achieve anything real you would need enormous new sums of money, and where would you get them from?
And will a second-grade ministry satisfy your ego after such a glorious election triumph? You could, of course, enlarge the ministry and demand the return of Culture and Sport, which were split off in order to create a job for another minister. Since one of your basic election promises was to reduce the number of ministers from 30 to 18, that may be possible.
But will your voters be satisfied with your concentrating on education, instead of working for the economic reforms you promised?
ALL THESE unenviable dilemmas boil down to a basic one: who do you prefer as your main coalition partner?
The first choice is between Bennett’s 12 seats and the 11 of Shas (which, if they were combined with the Torah Jewry faction, would become 18.)
Lapid prefers Bennett, his far right mirror image, with whom he hopes to enforce his “service equality” program – canceling the exemption of thousands of Torah students from military service. But Sarah Netanyahu, who rules the Prime Minister’s office, has put a veto on Bennett. Nobody knows why, but she clearly hates his guts.
With Bennett as a coalition member, any real move towards peace would, of course, be unthinkable.
With the religious, on the other hand, movement towards peace would be possible, but no real progress towards getting the Orthodox to serve in the army. The rabbis are afraid that if they mix with ordinary Israelis, especially females ones, their souls will be lost forever.
(As for me, I am ready to join a movement Against Service Equality. The last thing we need is a kippah-wearing army. We have quite enough kippahs in the army as it is.)
THESE ARE some of the questions facing poor Lapid because of the scale of his electoral success. His voters expect the impossible.
He has to make his decisions right now, and his whole future depends on making the right ones – if there are any right ones.
As George Bernard Shaw put it: “There are two tragedies in life. One is not to get your heart’s desire. The other is to get it.”