A New Coalition Now

These days Israel would be well-served by a new coalition consisting of Likud, Labor and Kulanu. The last election campaign was excessively ad hominem in character (“It’s us or him”, “It’s us or them,”) which made the immediate post-election environment highly unconducive to the emergence of a government anchored on the two largest parties. While there was some talk of such a coalition, which might have only been talk designed to influence other coalition discussions, the forces against it were manifestly dominant and it did not materialize.

Due in part to the pique of Yisrael Beytenu’s leader, Avigdor Lieberman, the coalition that emerged has only 61 members, making it highly vulnerable to threat from small parties or recalcitrant MKs. The presence of the Haredi parties and Bayit Yehudi pulled the coalition towards more extreme positions on religion-state matters and on the funding of construction in Judea and Samaria.

Very recent changes have strengthened the case for a more centrist, more stable coalition. Israel’s embattled external situation was already difficult due to profound differences between the Obama administration and the government of Israel as well as due to reactions to last summer’s warfare with Hamas. It worsened a few weeks ago with the highly problematic agreement between the P5+1 countries and Iran. Now the internal situation has also deteriorated during the excruciatingly difficult week that has followed Tisha b’Av. First, there was the violence in Beit-El directed against security forces by those trying the prevent the court-ordered demolition of two structures. This was followed by a highly objectionable verbal assault on the Supreme Court by a Bayit Yehudi MK, as well as by the hasty announcement of new construction in Beit-El, seemingly aimed at keeping the fragile coalition together. However, the worst came last Thursday and in the early morning hours of Friday in two horrendous and deadly acts of violence, one directed at participants in the Jerusalem Gay Pride Parade and the second an arson attack aimed at an Arab house whose residents were asleep.

A larger, more centrist coalition would be better-suited than the existing coalition for dealing with the enormous external and internal challenges and pressures facing Israel now and in the near future.

Yitzhak Herzog serving as foreign minister would likely help ease Israel’s external relations. Why? Regarding the Palestinians, a unity government might well agree to limit future construction to defined settlement blocs, while, at the same time, insisting on long-term Israeli security control around and, when necessary, within the West Bank. This combination of a small but significant shift regarding building, combined with evidence of strong consensus on security matters, would likely defuse some of the animus against Israel After all, no one could reasonably frame Israel’s position as “Netanyahu’s intransigence” when Labor is a senior coalition partner. The same applies to the P5+1/Iran deal, which Herzog has spoken out strongly against.

Dealing with Jewish violence: A government without Bayit Yehudi would likely move more forcefully and consistently against the settler fringe responsible for violent acts. Why? With Bayit Yehudi in the coalition, initial strong words and actions aimed at those Jews using violence are more likely to dissipate over time, given the party’s strong affinity for settler interests; with Labor, that is less likely to happen.

A government without the Haredi parties would more likely adopt and restore measures that will integrate more Ultra-Orthodox men into the labor force and national service (military or otherwise.) Such measures seem to be strongly supported by people who regard themselves as “centrist,” regardless of which party they vote for.

For Labor, participation in a unity government would present an opportunity to really influence key actions and decisions of the government, build its ministerial experience, and improve the party’s prospects for future electoral success. For Likud, the proposed coalition would be more enduring and more effective than the current fragile 61-member configuration, whose tiny margin of error causes continual worry and impedes policy initiatives. Some critics disparage Netanyahu as being only concerned with remaining in power. However, in addition to defending Israel against perceived threats, he, like any leader, wants positive accomplishments as well, such as development of the Leviathan gas field. The existing narrow coalition may not be broad enough to facilitate bold policy decisions of that kind. Lastly, since a coalition anchored on Likud-Labor cooperation will advance Israel’s external and internal interests, as outlined above, both parties will likely receive public credit for such a course of action.

Yes, building such a coalition will involve difficult compromises and strong leadership by key politicians in each party. But, finding suitable compromises is what good politics is all about. Are such compromises possible at this point? Netanyahu, who leads the centrist part of the Likud, ought to be inclined show some flexibility in negotiating a new coalition agreement; in addition to some changes regarding West Bank construction, he might offer some modifications to the proposed gas deal to make it more attractive to the less ideologically-rigid wing of Labor. Understanding that Kulanu’s Moshe Kahlon shares some key views with Netanyahu on security and the Palestinians, and sensing that a more centrist Labor is probably critical to the prospect that a Labor leader might again become Prime Minister, moderate compromises by Herzog would serve his interests. Yes, there are those in Labor who caustically disdain Netanyahu’s leadership and wouldn’t want to help him. Politics is a rough world and cool calculations of benefits and costs, not visceral reactions, are what’s needed. Furthermore, Herzog’s alternative of trying to topple the current coalition and holding new elections is a gamble. At the very least, it would take time, be costly, and might fail to change of balance of power among the parties in a meaningful way.

Given that the suggested coalition would not only serve Netanyahu’s and Herzog’s personal and political interests but would also be for the greater good of the country, one hopes that they will move to form such a coalition very soon.

About the Author
Lewis Rosen is a retired economist who has lived in Jerusalem for more than 35 years. Born and educated in the US, he worked for the Office of Economic Opportunity for two years in Washington D.C. and was on the economics faculty of York University in Toronto, Canada for 13 years. In Israel he has been involved in a wide range of business planning and economic analysis projects.