Big Government, Israeli-style

Big Government
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National Unity government offers new poltical opportunities

Amotz Asa-El

 

In one of the strangest about-faces ever seen in its politics, the Jewish State woke up Tuesday, May 8 with the main Opposition party, Kadima, joining the Government, after the country had gone to bed the previous night with an early-election bill already in the process of being legislated.

The new broad government, whose backing by 94 of 120 lawmakers makes it the second largest in Israeli history (in 1969 Golda Meir headed a coalition of 102 MKs), is a result of momentary circumstances, but it may have longer-term implications.

The circumstances came in two instalments. First, a Supreme Court ruling that forced the Knesset to pass by August new legislation concerning the ultra-Orthodox community’s military service, and second, an agreement between Netanyahu and various other parties to call an early election because of this ruling.

The early election was scheduled by its planners for September, more than a year before its legal deadline in November next year, and hardly two months after the Kadima party replaced Tzipi Livni, the former Foreign Minister who took it to the previous election, with Shaul Mofaz, the former Defence Minister.

After unseating his party leader, an energised Mofaz vowed to shun Netanyahu’s coalition and fight it to victory. Mofaz also went personal, publicly and repeatedly calling Netanyahu a “liar,” shortly before announcing he would be leading the summer’s expected social protests against Netanyahu’s conservative economics.

However, the early-election move caught Mofaz off balance, as polls immediately indicated his party would lose two-thirds of its current 28 Knesset seats. Kadima’s loss of altitude is generally attributed to its dual failure to either join Netanyahu’s government even after his adoption of the two-state solution back in 2009, or to play a leading role in championing domestic causes at a time when the public was increasingly focussing politically on social and economic issues.

Staring at an electoral abyss, Mofaz decided that of the two evils he faced – a trouncing at the polls or a blow to his image – he preferred the latter, choosing to ignore his own public declarations.

Netanyahu, for his part, opted for the deal despite polls promising him a cakewalk at the ballots, because he considered an early election costly and unpredictable.
An early election would have weighed on the budget at a time when Netanyahu believes spending cuts are in order. Following three months of overspending, Treasury officials warned that unless spending is checked, the 2012 budget deficit might reach 3.3% or even 4% of GDP, as opposed to the originally planned 2%.

Spending grew largely because of new social commitments following last summer’s social protests – particularly the extension of compulsory education to 3 to 5 year olds – and from the failure to cut defence spending due to the persistence of the Iranian threat and the missile challenges from Lebanon and Gaza. An election season would have resulted in pressures to increase spending. Instead, Netanyahu can now cut spending, an intention he included in his agreement with Mofaz as a precondition for the national unity deal.

Yet the most ambitious agreements underlying this political marriage concern not the budget, but legislation.

Kadima joined the government without taking any ministerial appointments other than Mofaz’s as deputy Prime Minister, but two of its lawmakers are to head the Knesset Economics Committee and the Knesset Defence and Foreign Affairs Committee. Rather than take cabinet seats, Kadima demanded the lead in two legislative efforts: one that would reset ultra-Orthodox military service, and a second that would reform the political system.

Ultra-Orthodox Israelis are allowed to avoid military service as long as they study in religious academies. The arrangement began with the state’s establishment, when it was limited to 400 exemptions annually. Since that time, ultra-Orthodox politicians managed to get that limit lifted, and the annual number of exemptions has multiplied to 7,000. It was against this backdrop that appeals to the Supreme Court caused it to review this arrangement, and ultimately rule it unconstitutional – a violation of the principle of equality before the law.

The court’s imposition of a deadline for this legislation, July 31, means that something will be done. The question is what, and more specifically, whether Netanyahu is prepared to abandon his ultra-Orthodox coalition allies. In the broad government he has cobbled together there is no longer a problem in terms of coalition survival if he does so. In the longer term, however, Netanyahu believes in cultivating the religious parties as Likud’s natural allies. Given this, he will likely try to avoid full confrontation with them, and seek a formula that will somehow please both the court as well as the ultra-Orthodox community.

One possibility is that a new law will redefine the studying of Torah as a contribution to national strength, and at the same time place a low cap on those allowed to avoid service in its name. Another possibility is that ultra-Orthodox men will be offered a broader range of service options, like fire fighting, which is less challenging in terms of religious observance. Ultra-Orthodox men already are given the opportunity to opt for national service, for instance in hospitals, as an alternative to military service.
In any event, the court-imposed deadline means that the public will be able to judge relatively quickly whether the Netanyahu-Mofaz deal has more to it than just mutual political expediency.

The political reform bill is even more prickly, as it also involves a likely lethal blow to the interests of the religious parties. There are many ideas for political reform in Israel, ranging from raising the threshold for the election of parties to the Knesset from 2 to 3 or more percent to instituting personal regional elections of lawmakers, and from adopting a presidential system to crowning the leader of the largest Knesset faction prime minister regardless of coalition engineering.

The common denominator among all these proposals is that they will considerably weaken the small parties – likely shrinking their representation and removing the king-making status the current system bestows on them, as well as the ability to extract from future prime ministers special benefits for their constituents.

The self-imposed deadline for a political-reform bill is December 31. Few believe an ambitious bill will be passed. However, Netanyahu now has a solid secular majority in his government with which he can pass legislation that most Israelis find long overdue. He may well surprise, especially since Kadima is motivated to make this happen.

Even more importantly, the broad government gives Netanyahu the backing he arguably lacked for drastic action in Iran, should circumstances lead there. Mofaz has said that Israel should allow the US to lead any action against Iran, but his stance is considered flexible.

Yet even if no reform is passed and no conflict erupts, one major change is widely expected: Kadima – the party that was established by Likud founder Ariel Sharon and former Labor Prime Minister Shimon Peres – appears to be well on its way back to the Likud, where most of its lawmakers originally hailed from. There remains a slim chance that Kadima will be tempted to leave Netanyahu’s Government at some point and try to restore some of the following it has lost according to the polls. However, as things now stand, such a move would be a political nonstarter, while returning to Likud would come naturally to most of its legislators, beginning with Mofaz himself.

Indeed, with Kadima in his pocket, Netanyahu has come to dominate the contemporary political scene in Israel as decisively as Ariel Sharon did last decade.Heading a party that comprises less than a quarter of parliament, Netanyahu is of course far from being “King of Israel”. However, after having surprised three years ago by luring Labor into his cabinet, then by making Labor split, and now by hunting and bagging Kadima – Netanyahu has certainly earned the title of “King of Israeli Politics”.