Sunday, March 03, 2013

Arlene Kushner on Netanayahu's Last Chance To Form A Coalition

From Arlene Kushner:
March 3, 2013


Now I'm referring not to the state of the world, but to the state of Israeli politics.  I am so often proud of who we are. But now?  I would gladly grab hold of certain political shoulders and shake until the heads that sit on those respective shoulders rattled.  Where? I want to ask. Where is your devotion to the state and the greater good during these difficult times?
To whose shoulders am I alluding? There is, in my opinion, enough blame to go around.  No one that I'm seeing stands up as a leader (or even a potential leader), resolute in his vision, embracing his fellow Jews, and focused on the nation and not his own political future or that of his particular party.
Do I know what's in people's heads?  Not with any clarity.  Which makes posting difficult.
On Friday, the coalition negotiations between Likud Beitenu and Habayit Hayehudi broke down.  These are the two parties that should have been natural allies, logical coalition partners.
Prime Minister Netanyahu has secured from President Peres another 14 days in which to form a coalition.   President Obama has said if a government is not formed by the 16th of this month, then he will cancel his trip, scheduled for the week after. 
Today the prime minister met with Shas. There had been reports that he absolutely refuses to exclude them because of Bennett-Lapid demands.  And there have been other, more recent, reports that he told Shas he wants to include them, but that because of Bennett and Lapid, it will be difficult to do so.
Following this meeting, Netanyahu had a long meeting with Bennett, which is being described by members of Habayit Hayehudi as "positive and productive." There was discussion of the party joining the coalition, although there is at yet no announcement.
I am reluctant to repeat rumors or level charges that are no more than hearsay, and yet I feel I must at this point give my readers some window into what is going on here.
By way of a re-cap:
Fault lies first with Netanyahu who ran a regrettable campaign.  The lack of vigor with which he and his party campaigned resulted in fewer mandates for Likud-Beitenu than had been expected and plenty of anger within Likud circles.
What is more, Likud ran a very negative campaign, with the negativity leveled first and foremost against Habayit Hayehudi.  This was stupid and counterproductive.  There are rumors, which apparently do have some basis in fact, regarding bad blood between Netanyahu and Bennett, head of Habayit Hayehudi, who once worked for Netanyahu. 
However, what has been the case, as well, is that Bennett's posture as an up-and-coming leader in the nationalist camp threatened Netanyahu -- who has exposed his insecurities.  Compared with the previous strength of the "old" Habayit Hayehudi (aka the National Religious Party), this new incarnation with Bennett at its head was demonstrating great promise in the polls and it was looking as if Likud was at risk of losing voters to Habayit Hayehudi. 
Thus apparently did Netanyahu level criticism against Bennett.  His hope, surely, was that disenchanted potential Habayit Hayehudi voters would turn to Likud.  What I see is that, seeking a new young face, they instead moved over to Lapid and Yesh Atid.  Netanyahu bears some responsibility for the 19 mandates Lapid garnered.
Since the coalition negotiations began 28 days ago, there are only two discernable facts we can point to:
First, Netanyahu brought Tzipi Livni on board and gave her an incredible amount of power -- Justice Ministry and responsibility for negotiating with the PA -- for her six mandates.  A very foolish move that I have already described as a betrayal of the principles of many inside the Likud-Beitenu faction and of those who voted Likud-Beitenu.
And then, the partnership, the "mini-coalition" of Bennett (on the right in the picture) and Lapid. At first this was no more than suggested by rumor, but the fact of this agreement has become clear in recent days.

Photo of Yair Lapid with Naftali Bennett
Credit: Zimbio
Bennett says he joined with Lapid only because Netanyahu had treated him badly, not negotiating with his party in good faith and passing over him when others were approached. 
Bennett: "for days after the election the Likud refused to speak to the Jewish Home. They boycotted us… we expected to be a natural partner and to be the first to enter the Netanyahu government."  The message he claims he got was, "the religious Zionist party won’t enter the coalition, at any price."  (Whether this was a literal message or the "feeling" he got, he does not say.)
Likud had denied this, saying that Bennett was approached first. 
But it's now clear that this wasn't so, because Likud negotiator David Shimron said today that, "They are trying to punish us because Bennett’s phone rang after Gal-on’s."  Zahava Gal-on, head of the far left Meretz party.  It made the press when Netanyahu contacted her, as well as others, immediately after the elections.  This was before Bennett had been called.
Foolish of Netanyahu. Rude.  Conveying to the newcomer Bennett a sense of being excluded.  But is this sufficient reason for Bennett to have fashioned his current policy as he has?  Once he was called, would it have been prudent for him to have moved on rather than attempting a power play?
The two issues that Bennett and Lapid have raised mutually have been the position of Livni and the matter of legislation that would require haredim who are learning in yeshivas to also serve in the IDF or do national service.  This second issue has been an enormous hot potato, and I have concern that rigid positions on both sides are causing divisions within the country at a time when we can ill-afford this. 
Part of what disturbs me is that I'm hearing that Lapid says he doesn't want to sit in a coalition with the haredi parties. Although we cannot know what's being said in closed rooms or hinted between the lines, this stipulation certainly seems more stringent and stiff-necked than saying he would of course sit with them but wants to see them negotiating a compromise on the issue of haredi service.  A compromise, even if a modest beginning -- a concession that some compromise is necessary.
On the other hand, there are haredi leaders demonstrating no willingness to compromise. They are reported to have said some very disturbing things.  One rabbi allegedly said he would rather sacrifice the settlements than sacrifice Torah.  That got my dander up, big time.  (Translation here: they would sit with Labor.) And then charges against Bennett, who is an observant, kippa-wearing Jew, about his being against Torah.   
This business of saving Torah.  Oi v'voi.  When the nation was founded, the Jewish people had just undergone the Holocaust, and the horrendous destruction in eastern Europe of Torah scholars. Ben Gurion, in a desire to strengthen Torah study -- and the population of those studying -- within the new Jewish state, structured a plan by which ultra-Orthodox men studying in yeshivas would be exempt from army service.  That plan has been retained since Ben Gurion's time.  The haredim have come to see this as an entitlement, and have come to believe -- many with great and passionate sincerity -- that the mantle of preserving Torah rests with them.
But back then there were hundreds studying in yeshivas and today -- thank Heaven! -- there are tens of thousands.  More studying than has ever been the case.  The haredim protest that they are serving Israel as much as those who serve in the IDF -- that it is this religious study that guards Israel.  Who can say otherwise? 
But no one is suggesting that the yeshivas be closed.  There are proposals that would defer the age at which these yeshiva students could be drafted.  And proposals that say that the finest of Torah students -- however they would be identified and however many would be included in this category -- would still be exempt, and still be permitted non-stop study.  Part of the problem, of course, is that there are multiple proposals with various proponents arguing for what they have advanced.
It should also be noted that there currently are alternatives within the IDF that permit a combination of study and military service, alternatives that must be expanded and seriously developed.  I have in mind the Hesder Yeshiva programs and the battalion called Nahal Haredi.  There are some haredim who do serve now, and this practice needs to be publicized and encouraged.   
There are multiple problems with the current deferment system for yeshiva students.  One is that not every haredi man is automatically a scholar who merits the latitude of being exempt from other duties.  While there are pious and devoted men who spend long hours in their study, there is a certain percentage of the haredi population that simply takes advantage of that exemption.
Another is the sense within the larger population (and to a considerable extent this is what Lapid represents) that the burden of serving must be equalized.  The haredi population must give, in service to the State.
And even beyond the issue of military service, there is the question of their subsequently joining the ranks of the employed and thus contributing to the economic wellbeing of the nation -- and, in the process, becoming less isolated and more firmly part of the social fabric of the nation. 
It is my own conviction that changes are necessary, but that they have to be made slowly and with awareness of the sensibilities of the haredi community, so as to avoid tearing this nation apart.  It is my impression that the IDF is not prepared to accept all of them immediately in any event, if ever.
And there is yet one other part of the equation here that must be addressed, and that is Yair Lapid and his manner of conducting himself.  His 19-mandate victory went to his head and he has made some unfortunate  statements:  Failing to project the humility and the desire to garner experience that we might hope for from someone new at politics, he has presented himself as someone who can come in and change matters forthwith.  This is unsettling and suggests the possibility of rash judgment.
There has been a good deal of criticism of Bennett, and talk about what is in his head, that he has held fast to this agreement with Lapid, with whom he hardly agrees on all particulars.  Of late, Netanyahu has been working to break apart that mini-coalition, bringing Bennett in, and leaving Lapid out.
What makes it somewhat less likely that Netanyahu can succeed is this:
Four key rabbis of the Tekuma faction of Habayit Hayehudi have now come out supporting Bennett's agreement with Lapid.  Tekuma, please understand, came from National Union, which is to the right politically; Uri Ariel, Bennett's second on the list and the one who has been doing negotiating for the party, is from Tekuma.
Rabbis Dov Lior (a big name), Haim Steiner, Isser Klonsky and Haim David Halevi have released a letter that they sent to Bennett and Ariel:
“In the light of updates we have received from MKs and members of Jewish Home, and taking into account the media stories on the matter, we wish to 'strengthen the hands' of the path Jewish Home has chosen, as it works to preserve the world of Torah and the communities of the Land of Israel. We support the cooperation with Yesh Atid and with Yair Lapid." 
Interesting..."to preserve the world of Torah and the communities of the Land of Israel."
Here is the situation for Netanyahu:
In spite of enormous pressure on Shelly Yachimovich of Labor, she refuses to join the Likud-Beitenu coalition because the factions are too far apart on basic issues.  Pheww!! 
He does not want to alienate the haredi parties.  But he wants a coalition.
Thus, he may have to take both Bennett and Lapid, without Shas and United Torah Judaism (UTJ).  That would bring him 68 mandates or 70 if he brought in Kadima.
Or, if he can draw Bennett away from Lapid, he can include Shas and UTJ with Bennett for 67 mandates or 69 with Kadima. 
In either event, I would say he will have to restructure his deal with Livni, even as he retains her party in the coalition.
My prediction is that we're on the cusp of a resolution here.  What we will still need to watch, even after resolution, is which party is granted which portfolios.  If he does lure Bennett from Lapid, what he offers Habayit Hayehudi will be a big part of the story.
Another major part will be the selection of Defense Minister. This will tell us a good deal about what Netanyahu intends and how secure he is.
Sincerely do I hope I have helped my readers to wrap their heads around a crazy and complex situation, and not simply caused confusion.  Hopefully, in my next post I will be able to turn to other matters. 
© Arlene Kushner. This material is produced by Arlene Kushner, functioning as an independent journalist. Permission is granted for it to be reproduced only with proper attribution. 
If it is reproduced and emphasis is added, the fact that it has been added must be noted.

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