In signing onto Netanyahu’s center-right coalition, Kulanu’s Moshe Kahlon missed a historic opportunity to demonstrate leadership and inaugurate a productive shift in Israeli governance. Instead of enabling a rightwing-religious coalition, he might have brokered a Government of National Responsibility with Netanyahu as Prime Minister and Herzog as foreign minister. Though it would therefore have resembled a unity government superficially, it would have been something altogether new: a pragmatic centrist coalition capable of addressing big problems.
Unity governments are brokered between two candidates for Prime Minister, but this coalition would have been brokered by two centrists who claim to be more committed to solving problems than their political careers: Kahlon and Yesh Atid’s Yair Lapid. Unity governments are built on policy compromises and the market in ministerial portfolios that lend small parties with narrow agendas disproportionate power. This coalition would have been built on policy agreements and the promotion of consensus.
Of the challenges that affect the widest swath of Israel’s citizens, the housing crisis and the conflict with the Palestinians loom among the largest, and both offer opportunities to grow a pragmatic consensus. Usually, coalition agreements depend upon small parties on the flanks of the political spectrum, or that represent religious constituencies. But this time Kahlon, who occupies the ideological ground between the two largest parties, is the incoming rightwing-religious coalition’s indispensable key. Without him, Netanyahu had no path to the necessary 61-seat majority. (Add to Likud’s 30 seats Habayit Hayehudi’s 8, Shas’s 7, Yisrael Beitenu’s 6, and United Torah Judaism’s 6…and Netanyahu has 57 seats.) Kahlon chose to use this position in the manner of a traditional Israeli politician, trading policy commitments for three ministerial portfolios and control of the powerful Israel Lands Administration. But he could have secured the same posts bycombining with Lapid’s 11 to broker an agreement with Likud and with Zionist Union for a coalition supported by a whopping 75 seats and organized around agreements on approaches to the housing crisis and conflict with the Palestinians.
This now alternate history would have unfolded in the following fashion. Kahlon first contacts Lapid to frame a joint approach to the housing crisis. Both men prioritize socio-economic issues and both want more market competition as well as more government intervention on behalf of the growing percentage of struggling Israelis. Any disagreements between them are more technocratic than ideological, so a joint approach wouldn’t require either to disavow principles. Indeed, compromise would not appear as capitulation, but would burnish their credentials as centrist, pragmatic problem solvers. Their approach would be sufficiently market-oriented to appeal to Likud and sufficiently focused on promoting a more egalitarian economy to appeal to Labor/Zionist Union.
Regarding the Palestinians, the four parties differ more in rhetoric than policy. Netanyahu publicly acknowledges the two state solution as the only way to avoid the looming rock-and-hard-place of either a bi-national, non-Jewish state or an ethnocratic future that eviscerates Israeli democracy. He defers its pursuit by denying the existence of a Palestinian partner and stressing the necessity of avoiding a Hamastan (or ISIS-stan or Antisemitistan or just plain Scary-stan) on the West Bank. Kahlon’s point man on this issue, former US Ambassador and historian Michael Oren, largely agrees with this analysis. But instead of seeing the situation as static and backing policies that are inhospitable to any shift in the dynamic, he argues that this could conceivably change quite quickly, enabling a more pro-active approach. Accordingly, he supports unilateral cessation of all building beyond the areas outlined in the Quartet’s Road Map and more active confidence-building development in the disputed territories to encourage conditions for a credible partner.
Although Lapid strove to demonstrate his centrism during the campaign by painting the left as delusional in seeking peace instead of a realist agreement, this is politically motivated obfuscation. Two state advocates never argue that signing an agreement will immediately end all hostility in a magical kumbaya chorus of rainbow-colored unicorns. Just like Lapid, they seek an agreement to end the occupation as a necessary pre-condition for the development of mutually beneficial relations. The right works the other way around, making peace a necessary precondition for an agreement. This often serves simply to deflect the charge of rejectionism and articulate opposition as pragmatic, when often it’s an ideological prioritizing of Greater Israel over peace. In short, skeptics demand peace in advance of an agreement; advocates argue that an agreement is the necessary means for attaining peace. Lapid’s position is actually in line with both Kulanu and Zionist Union here. So after having creating a consensus framework for addressing the housing crisis, Kahlon and Lapid proceed to highlight Netanyahu’s acknowledgment of the necessity of an agreement as well as the hazards of relinquishing administration of the disputed territories, but pressure him to commit to pro-active policies that are equally sensitive to the hazards of maintaining it. Instead of continuing to exacerbate the former hazards, the government needs to strive to mitigate them with an energetic program to foster conditions hospitable to diplomatic progress. This aim to protect Israel’s democratic future while improving our security, our economy, and our quality of life.
These achievable consensuses could have been sold to Netanyahu as the kind of pragmatic centrism that would receive broad support, and offer him the chance for a legacy beyond his personal political longevity. Lapid and Kahlon could have publicly urged both Netanyahu and Herzog to put their egos aside and begin to address the country’s problems with the backing of 75 MKs in a Government of National Responsibility beholden to no particular constituency, but responsible to all.
This is what Kahlon might have done. It would have been good politics for all involved, except perhaps for Netanyahu, though refusing them would have been worse for him. But even if it had failed, proposing it would have made an alternative to the current damaging policy stalemates more conceivable. We should never forget that Israel began as a utopian dream. Zionism was originally derided by many as ludicrously impractical and unpragmatic. Among the ironies of our history is that while utopianism produced a pragmatic historical program, in contemporary Israel pragmatism has become a utopian dream.