Britain has just reelected a Conservative government, avoiding a “hung parliament,” a situation in which no single party wins an absolute majority of the votes. That, despite the fact that British polls had steadfastly predicted that neither the Conservative or Labor parties would win a majority. Israel, which reelected the Likud party in a landslide in mid-March, has always had a “hung Knesset,” necessitating coalition rule in every government. Therein lies the problem.
Just prior to Israel’s election, the pollsters had the Likud party and Zionist Union (a combination of Labor and Tzipi Livni’s small party) in a close race, with the Zionist Union slightly ahead. There’s no doubt that scared Prime Minister Netanyahu, who became afraid that his bid to elect a more accommodating coalition had backfired. As March 17 neared, Bibi decided to try to convince the right wing supporters who favored two other rightist parties, Jewish Home and Our Israel, to “save” Israel from a left wing coalition by voting for Likud. The ploy worked, but it may have been a Pyrrhic victory for Likud.
The Knesset has 120 Members (MKs) necessitating a coalition of at least 61 members. After he triumphed by a large margin (confounding the pollsters), Bibi planned to have a 67-member coalition, including Our Israel, headed by Avigdor Liberman. However, at the last moment and for reasons which are not entirely clear, Liberman declared that his party would not join the coalition. That put Bibi in a real bind, because he had designated Jewish Home to be the last party with which to negotiate. Naftali Bennett, who is Bibi’s former, estranged, chief of staff (ditto for Liberman), was then in a vastly improved position to demand more clout in the coalition, which he duly received.
The resulting government has only 61 MKs, the barest of majorities. In addition to Jewish Home, the coalition includes two ultra-Orthodox parties and one center, economically focused party. Bibi ended up giving each coalition partner nearly everything they demanded, angering his fellow Likud members, who are left with fewer spoils from their “landslide” victory.
There’s a lot to be dissatisfied with in the new government. From my point of view, the religious parties will unfortunately succeed in negating all the reforms passed in the previous government. The worst aspects of that rollback will be a return to the religious parties’ stringent control over religious affairs, which include marriage, conversion, and “Who is a Jew;” the ability to receive full educational funding for yeshivas without including mandatory secular subjects (a necessity for employment in the general workforce); and the loss of the requirement for a greater proportion of yeshiva students to serve in the army or do national service.
Along with these undesirable results, the economic benefits to the large Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) families will be raised to their previous levels. That is less upsetting, since even the increased amounts will be low by the standards of the most developed countries.
I was one of those who, worried by the possibility of a left wing government, listened to Bibi’s entreaties and decided to vote for Likud. Because the polls were so inaccurate, it turned out that I could have voted for a more right wing party without endangering Bibi’s role as prime minister. Therefore, I’m not displeased to see that Bennett turned the screws on Bibi, gaining the influence he probably would have had if more if more voters like me had chosen Jewish Home.
Bibi has many things to recommend him, such as his steadfast warnings about the danger of a nuclear, or nuclear-ready Iran, but sticking to Zionist principles in the face of unrelenting pressure isn’t one of them. With Bennett prodding him from the right, and with the desire to keep his government intact, Bibi will be strengthened to resist the inevitable pressures from the Obama Administration and the EU to make gestures to the Palestinian Authority (PA) for “peace.” Those gestures would hurt Israel, adding more impediments to a peaceful solution, not less. For a change, Obama and the EU should pressure the PA to make gestures towards Israel. Perhaps, when the PA refuses to give up its demand for EVERYTHING, the US State Department and the foreign policy leadership of the EU might rethink their obsession with the 2-state paradigm.
As a rule, governments in Israel don’t fulfill their full, four-year terms. This new government will probably not be an exception. However, It may last longer than two years, the duration of the larger but more heterogenous 19th government. Hebrew University professor Avraham Diskin says that his studies show smaller, more cohesive government’s tending to last longer than larger, more diverse ones. Only time will tell if Israel’s 20th government since independence is a dud or successful.