In an article that appeared in the May 5 issue of Haaretz, Israel’s preeminent English language newspaper, the well-respected columnist Chemi Shalev pointed to the irony of Israel’s most recent coalition-building crisis. By withdrawing at the very last moment from Prime Minister Netanyahu’s emerging coalition, Avigdor Lieberman, head of the Yisrael Beiteinu party, had gifted the Israeli left, who reviles him, with an unintentionally sweet gift: schadenfreude.
Without Yisrael Beiteinu’s participation in the coalition, Prime Minister Netanyahu was left (and this is indeed the way the new government was formed) with a mere sixty-one seats in the Knesset, the smallest possible Knesset majority and a government so unstable that it is virtually assured of collapsing. Lieberman didn’t kill Netanyahu’s chances outright. He didn’t have quite enough seats to do that. Rather, he left him to twist in the wind, subject to every extortionist whim and fancy of his ever-so-right-wing coalition partners. For someone like Prime Minister Netanyahu, who, for reasons still unfathomable, called for early elections to give him a more stable government, this has to be the most bitter setback of his career. Without a doubt, that is exactly what Avigdor Lieberman was trying to accomplish, and he certainly did it with flair.
For Israel and her citizens, this is just the latest reason to be cynical, and to despair over the sorry state of her electoral politics. The only people that I can imagine being happy with what has happened are the ultra-Orthodox parties in the coalition, because there is no way that Netanyahu can say no to their requests, however excessive. His government will fall if he does. From the standpoint of leverage, they are in a most enviable position, to be sure.
Imagine, though, what this kind of government says, what kind of message it projects, to those sectors of the Israeli population (the majority!) for whom the idea of shivyon banetel, sharing the societal burden, is important.
At a time when the gap between the haves and the have-nots in Israel is gaping, and Israel is struggling with its own racial biases as evidenced by the recent rioting of her Ethiopian citizens, the Prime Minister will have no choice but to resort to some very unpopular maneuvering. He will need to raid the education budget to provide ever-increasing funding to Haredi yeshivot, and eliminate or severely curtail other social service items in the budget to restore handouts to very large Haredi families whose children will never serve in the army. None of this is going to go over well with the majority of Israel’s population. With the very clear and present dangers that Israel faces on virtually every border, the formation of this government is almost an act of contempt for Israel’s citizens.
But what about for us on this side of the ocean?
“Us” is a problematic term, because it implies that there is an “us”: that we of the Jewish community in America are a solid block, of one mind when it comes to Israel. Clearly, we are not. Though largely united in our concern for Israel’s security and wellbeing, we have different perspectives on what is good for Israel and what is not, and on how her policies might impact us and our interests.
Whatever negative signals the cobbling together of a narrow, right-wing government dominated by nationalists and ultra-Orthodox parties will send to the average Israeli, it must be clear that, as regards non-Orthodox Jews both in Israel and the Diaspora, our concerns (along with whatever progress was made during the past few years to address those concerns) are officially yesterday’s news. With Shas slated to control the Religious Affairs ministry, Israel will be reverting back to its worst instincts as regards the role of religion in the life of the average Israeli.
It has always served Prime Minister Netanyahu’s interests to have the ultra-Orthodox parties in his coalition. As long as they got funding for their Yeshivot and other social programs, and were allowed to inflict their own rigid and inflexible views of Jewish law on marriage, divorce and conversion on all Israelis, the Haredi parties tended to stay out of Netanyahu’s foreign policy decisions. The reason why there was progress on issues like Women of the Wall and prayer space for non-Orthodox Jews at the Kotel was that the Haredim had been excluded from the last government … much to the Prime Minister’s dismay. Without them fighting progress at every turn, serious work was done to address long-festering discontents.
But now, at least for the immediate present, the government of Israel appears to be regressing. Along with so many of Israel’s citizens who will feel disenfranchised by a government that does not represent their interests, we, too, will feel very much left out in the cold. This is a government that has been constituted solely for the reason of facilitating Prime Minister Netanyahu’s continued service as Prime Minister. It is hard, if not impossible, to see it as being in any way designed to serve the long-term interest of the State of Israel as a whole, and certainly not to improve the relationship between Israel and the United States, or American Jewry.
The left-of-center parties in Israel may be experiencing schadenfreude because of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s unhappy situation, and I can’t really blame them. But I can’t bring myself to feel anything other than sadness as I survey the current goings-on. This rabbi’s world will be made much more difficult because of it.
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the spiritual leader of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.