Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

Herzog's Shadow Coalition

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Amotz Asa-El

 

It was rare, strange, and bold. Faced with the coalition's resolve to pass three laws that are deeply disagreeable, each to a different part of the opposition, new Labor party chair and Opposition Leader Isaac Herzog led a boycott of the plenary votes which turned those bills into law.

The bills passed in a half-empty plenary - a scene many found ugly, beginning with Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein who tried in vain to mediate between the sides. 

The amendments were about three entirely separate issues. One instituted political reforms including raising the electoral threshold from 2% to 3.25%, another will gradually slash ultra-Orthodox men's exemptions from military service, and a third requires holding a referendum before relinquishing territories under Israeli rule in return for peace. 

The opposition's wrath followed the coalition's decision to introduce the three bills as a package and thus force its own members, some of whom had grievances with one or another of the bills, to back the legislation despite any misgivings.

It is the kind of procedural manoeuvre that happens routinely in democratic parliaments, except this time the opposition faced issues which some of its disparate components saw as existential, and which its largest member, Labor, seized on as an opportunity. 

Raising the electoral threshold, which means that following the next election any faction in the 120-member Knesset will have at least four members, does not threaten Labor, which has never won less than a tenth of the vote. Nor does it threaten the ultra-Orthodox, whose two parties comfortably command followings twice and three times as big as the new threshold. 

Similarly, the new law's other clauses - like limiting of the cabinet to 18 ministers, banning the appointments of ministers without portfolio, and conditioning a no-confidence vote on the availability of an alternative government - raised little ire. 

What was greeted with fury was the raised threshold, because it threatens three small, almost exclusively Arab factions, two of which currently have four members each, and one of which has three. To them, this issue is existential. As things currently seem, the law will compel the Arab factions to unite in a straightjacket where Islamists, women, communists, Bedouins, and Christians will have to manage to coexist. 

The Arab lawmakers, for their part, have no natural position concerning the law that pushes increased ultra-Orthodox enlistment in the IDF. 

According to this new law, an annual minimum of 5,200 ultra-Orthodox men will be drafted as of 2017, while 1,800 identified as outstanding scholars will be fully exempted from military service. As a sanction, state financing for ultra-Orthodox Talmudic academies will be slashed, should the conscription quotas not be met. Currently, about a thousand ultra-Orthodox men are believed to be enlisting annually into various army programs and units custom-tailored for them, and their numbers are steadily rising.  

However, the new legislation is disagreeable to the ultra-Orthodox rabbis for whom any caps on exemptions are anathema. In protest against the new legislation, they called a mass prayer demonstration in Jerusalem. The exact number of participants was impossible to gauge due to a dust storm, but it clearly reached hundreds of thousands before dispersing peacefully.

This part of the legislative package was spearheaded by the centrist Yesh Atid party whose leader, Finance Minister Yair Lapid, thus challenged Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who feels less urgency about the issue - though it is dear to many of his voters.

At the same time, the bill also challenged Labor, whose liberal electorate is even more opposed to ultra-Orthodox exemptions than the more conservative Likud's voters. It followed that on the legislation that mattered to them most, the ultra-Orthodox had no natural allies among their colleagues in the opposition, as the vote approached. 

Lastly, there was the referendum law. In Israeli conventional wisdom, this idea is often presented as a hawkish spanner to be thrown into a future peace deal. The Right, traumatised by the Oslo Agreements' ratification in the Knesset two decades ago thanks to defections from right to left, assumes the public will be more sceptical than its lawmakers next time a peace agreement emerges. On the left, many actually share this assumption, and thus prefer that a peace agreement be passed solely by the legislature, assuming the public will then back it retroactively after it sees the benefits.

However, it is worth noting that if a future government wishes to go ahead with a deal without a referendum, the legislation can be cancelled by a simple majority Knesset vote. Furthermore, supporters of the legislation note that the referendum requirement might actually provide cover for a government containing right-wing parties to sign a peace deal, as the Israeli public actually tends to be much more moderate than hard line elements that can often hold disproportionate political influence in governing coalitions.

Then again, the referendum bill mattered little to the ultra-Orthodox parties, for which the peace issue is generally less central than their religious concerns and economic priorities.
Faced with all this Labor Chairman Herzog decided to create his unusual opposition alliance. He then held a press conference to announce that all three camps had agreed to shun all three votes.

Israel has never had a shadow cabinet, and it still doesn't, but for a moment it had a shadow coalition of sorts. The ordinarily disjointed components of the opposition joined each other's causes - with Labor saying coercion was not the way to deal with ultra-Orthodox conscription, the ultra-Orthodox assuring that referendums obstruct the democratic process, and all participants charging that raising the threshold reflected a plot to erase the Arab parties. 

To underscore this new understanding, Aryeh Deri of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, sitting between Labor's Herzog and outspoken Arab lawmaker Ahmed Tibi, said to the cameras that he hopes that Herzog will be Israel's next prime minister. 

The show of harmony among strange bedfellows surprised many in the political system, and has been interpreted by pundits as a display of originality and leadership on Herzog's part, as well as a warning sign to Netanyahu.

 

Herzog, 53, became Opposition Leader in December, after winning a Labor primary. A corporate lawyer who served as cabinet secretary 15 years ago before running for the Knesset, and becoming minister of welfare, Herzog was born to political nobility. His father, Chaim, was president of Israel, and before that a general and ambassador. One uncle was famous Israeli diplomat Abba Eban. Another uncle, Yaacov Herzog, was director of the prime minister's office. And Isaac Herzog's grandfather, after whom he was named, was Israel's first Chief Rabbi.

Herzog therefore breathed politics from infancy, and seems to have assumed his new position with ease. At the same time, his past as a partner in his father's elite law firm shaped his image as a well-born servant of big business. In addition, his boyish looks have led some to describe Herzog as a "baby-face" and question his ability to engage in the kind of street fighting that Israeli politics often involves. 

Herzog has done plenty to offset his aristocratic stereotype, most notably as welfare minister, a position in which he displayed a social consciousness that fashioned him as an Israeli version of Tony Blair, whom he sees as an inspiration for creating an Israeli New Labor.

While his battle readiness remain to be tested, his deployment of a united opposition was more than a gimmick. 

Ultra-Orthodox Israel has generally been a strategic ally for Likud in general and for Netanyahu in particular. Their absence from the current government was imposed on Netanyahu by Lapid, but ultra-Orthodox politicians believe that responsibility for their political displacement lies with Netanyahu. Now, not only have they been manoeuvred into the opposition, but their political assets are under attack. It is only natural that they seek solace, if not salvation, in someone else's arms.

Labor has never been anti-religious and Herzog's rabbinical lineage further enhances their willingness to consider switching horses, should the opportunity arise. Gaps on the peace process are also narrower than meets the eye, considering that Labor is now more concerned about domestic affairs, while ultra-Orthodoxy's leading politician right now, Aryeh Deri, is a longtime dove.

Most importantly, Netanyahu's and Lapid's Thatcherite economics are at odds with both Labor and ultra-Orthodoxy. 

Obviously, if the next election allows it, Likud's long-standing alliance with the ultra-Orthodox could be restored without much of a ripple. However, if events turn out differently, the axis that Herzog has just created may yet be recalled as the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

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