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Aspects of Israel’s new coalition government

Mar 19, 2013

Aspects of Israel's new coalition government

Update from AIJAC

March 19, 2013
Number 03/13 #04

With the details of the new Israeli cabinet still being sorted out right up until the night before the cabinet was sworn in on Monday, this Update is devoted to the details of the cabinet and coalition, as well as the implications for both domestic Israeli and international policies of their composition.

First up is a detailed backgrounder on the Cabinet from BICOM, the British/Israel Communications and Research Centre. This outlines the composition of the coalition and new cabinet, and discusses likely effects on domestic Israeli politics, the Palestinian issue, and regional politics, especially Iran. On the first point, the emphasis is on the likely end to exemptions from national service for Israel’s ultra-Orthodox sector; on the second point, the diversity of views in the cabinet and a likely test of its unity in the face of a possible future partial freeze on building in settlements; and on the third, the many unknowns about Iran, including the complex views of new Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon. For all the basic information everyone should have about the new government, CLICK HERE. More on the process of swearing in the new Israeli government is here.

Next up is a largely positive review of the new government from the veteran Australian Jewish leader Isi Leibler, now living in Israel. Leibler argues that while Netanyahu ostensibly looks weakened, in fact, if he plays his cards right he can use the new government for crucial domestic reforms, and for stablising Israel’s global position. Leibler is particularly keen for the government to harvest the fresh team, many of whom seem talented, to resolve the issue of participation in work and national service by the ultra-Orthodox, and to introduce reforms to Israeli politics. For his full argument, CLICK HERE. Also making the point that Netanyahu has more room to manoeuvre and is in a stronger political position than many commentators recognise is Haviv Rettig Gur of the Times of Israel.

Finally, a different and more sceptical view comes from Israeli journalist and blogger Shmuel Rosner. Rosner argues that the parties in the coalition look like having interests too diverse to work together well, and predicts that this government may well not last a full four year term. He does stress that the alliance between Jewish Home’s Naftali Bennett and Yesh Atid‘s Yair Lapid  – which effectively forced Netanyahu to make a coalition different than the one he preferred –  is “the most surprising, revolutionary and positive result of the last elections”, and may lead to a positive reformist domestic agenda for Israel providing foreign policy issues don’t end up interfering. For Rosner’s take in full, CLICK HERE. Agreeing in tone with Rosner is David Horovitz, editor of the Times of Israel. Another fascinating and different view on the government and its prospects comes from Barry Rubin.

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BICOM Analysis: A new Israeli government – domestic and regional implications

14/3/2013, 12.00 GMT (Updated March 18)

Key points

  • The new government marks a significant change of direction for Israeli politics with the exclusion of the ultra-Orthodox parties and the entry of a range of disparate parties who agree on ending ultra-Orthodox exemption from national service and a better deal for the middle class.
  • On the peace process, views in the government could hardly be more diverse. Whether Netanyahu takes a more progressive or more conservative approach to brewing international pressure to rein in settlement construction, either way the unity of the coalition and the priorities of its members will be tested.
  • On the Iranian issue, the most consistent advocate of an Israeli unilateral military option, Ehud Barak, has been replaced by Moshe ‘Bogie’ Ya’alon as defence minister, who though no less determined to stop Iran, was recently critical of Barak’s posturing on the issue.

What is the makeup of the new government?

It appears that the new government, when the final agreement is signed, will have a 68 seat majority in the 120 seat Knesset based on a coalition deal between four Knesset factions (for a full list of ministers see below):

  • The right-wing Likud Beitenu faction with 31 seats (itself a coalition of Likud led by Benjamin Netanyahu with 20 seats and Yisrael Beitenu led by Avigdor Lieberman with 11);
  • Yair Lapid’s centrist, secular Yesh Atid with 19 seats;
  • Naftali Bennett’s national religious Habayit Hayehudi (Jewish Home) with 12 seats;
  • Tzipi Livni’s peace process focussed Hatnua with six seats;

What does the new government mean for Israel?

The new government marks a significant change of direction. Though Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu remains in place, he is now working with a dramatically reshuffled political deck. The big shift is the removal from power of the ultra-Orthodox parties and the entry into government of a range of disparate parties who don’t agree on much except the policy of ending ultra-Orthodox exemption from national service and a better economic deal for the middle class. The roots of this transformation are in the social protest movement in the summer of 2011. This remarkable change in the political agenda has created what is in many ways an unlikely looking coalition. The cabinet is also considerably smaller that before as a result of a demand by Yair Lapid to cut out wasteful and redundant ministries.

The coalition building process has been defined by an alliance between the centrist-secular Yair Lapid and the national-religious Naftali Bennett. Despite having very different world views, these two share positions in the socio-economic sphere. They agree on reducing the growing economic burden created by the ultra-Orthodox by drafting them to national service and more importantly, by bringing them into the workforce. Both constituencies want to see the over-concentration of wealth in the country addressed and a reduction in the cost of living.

Lapid, therefore, wanted Bennett in the government to keep out the ultra-Orthodox. Bennett, for his part, needed the alliance with Lapid to get his party into government. Despite appearing ostensibly to be a natural partner for Netanyahu on peace and security issues, Netanyahu did not seem keen to have him, with a history of personal animosity between the two. Netanyahu unsuccessfully explored the options of including Labour or the ultra-Orthodox, before finally bringing Bennett in.

Completing the picture, and balancing the government out on the left is Tzipi Livni, now at the head of her own hand-picked faction. Leading a small faction and with no appetite for another spell in opposition, she turned out to be the easiest partner for Netanyahu to bring in, and fulfil his desire for a coalition in which he sits at the centre of a range of views on the peace process.

For Israel this government means almost certainly a new law that will end ultra-Orthodox exemptions from national service and other measures aimed at addressing middle class economic and social concerns. It is also reported that the government will raise the threshold for a party entering the Knesset from 2% to 4%. On other key issues, it is much harder to say what it will do.

What about the peace process?

Views on the peace process in the new government could hardly be more diverse. Tzipi Livni, who has been given the job of leading negotiations with the Palestinians, believes it is an imperative for securing Israel’s future as a Jewish and democratic state to seek an accord with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Whilst Yair Lapid agrees in rhetorical terms, his commitment to the issue is untested. At the other end of the spectrum, Naftali Bennett and his party do not believe in the two-state solution and want to promote continued settlement construction in the West Bank. Those views are shared by a number of the Knesset members in Benjamin Netanyahu’s own Likud party.

Netanyahu himself is somewhere between these positions. He accepts the two-state idea in principle and has called consistently for direct talks with the Palestinians to seek a deal. But he is sceptical about the Palestinians as a partner, and generally seems more concerned about the security implications of leaving the West Bank, than the diplomatic implications of continuing the occupation.

Very considerable diplomatic pressure is now likely to build on Israel to offer gestures to the Palestinians in return for which the Palestinians would re-enter negotiations and hold off further unilateral steps. In the first year of his last term Netanyahu imposed a ten month settlement moratorium, and some measure to rein in settlement construction may come back onto the table.

This will be a key test of Netanyahu’s intentions and those of his coalition partners. Will Naftali Bennett leave the government if Netanyahu makes concessions to the Palestinians? How much pressure will Lapid put on Netanyahu if he does not? Both will know that there are parties in opposition, the ultra-Orthodox parties and Labour, who could potentially replace them. Left leaning opposition parties could also potentially prop up a minority government from outside the coalition, if it is for the sake of maintaining the peace process.

If negotiations are resumed with the Palestinians, it will remain to be seen how Tzipi Livni’s role as the minister responsible for negotiations will translate in practical terms. The key decision maker will remain Netanyahu, who will no doubt continue to rely closely on personal aides in the peace process, foremost among them his long time negotiator and legal advisor Yitzhak Molcho.

Other ministers will play an important role. Incoming Defence Minister Moshe Ya’alon is more hawkish in his approach to the Palestinians that his predecessor Ehud Barak, who enjoyed a productive working relationship with Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. Ya’alon holds a key position when it comes to approving decisions over settlement construction and the legal status of settlement outposts, which fall under the scope of the defence ministry.

What about Iran and other regional threats?

Iran tops a list of acute strategic threats to Israel from the region. The popular Israeli political parlour game of guessing how each minister in the security cabinet would vote on a decision to launch a military strike can begin afresh, with a new cast of characters whose views are not well known. Ehud Barak, who was perhaps the loudest advocate for an Israeli unilateral military option and Prime Minister Netanyahu’s closest confidant on this issue, has now left the defence ministry. His replacement Moshe Ya’alon, though no less determined to stop Iran, was recently critical of Barak’s public posturing on the issue, and is believed to see military action as a very last resort.

Any decision regarding Iran in the coming year will be determined primarily by whether Iran crosses Netanyahu’s red line of enriching enough uranium up to 20% for one nuclear weapon, and the position taken by the US.

Provisional list of ministers (according to latest reports)

Likud – Beitenu (12 ministries)

  • Prime Minister: Benjamin Netanyahu (Likud)
  • Defence Minister: Moshe ‘Bogie’ Yaalon (Likud)
  • Foreign Minister: Benjamin Netanyahu (acting, pending trial of Avigdor Lieberman)
  • Interior Minister: Gideon Saar  (Likud)
  • Transport Minister: Yisrael Katz (Likud)
  • Communications/Homefront Defence: Gilad Erdan (Likud)
  • Culture and Sport: Limor Linat (Likud)
  • Negev and Galil/Energy: Silvan Shalom (Likud)
  • Interior Security Minister: Yitzhak Aharonovich (Yisrael Beitenu)
  • Agriculture Minister: Yair Shamir (Yisrael Beitenu)
  • Immigration and Absorption Minister: Sofa Landver (Yisrael Beitenu)
  • Tourism Minister: Uzi Landau (Yisrael Beitenu)
  • International Relations: Yuval Steinitz (Likud)

Yesh Atid (5 ministries)

  • Finance Minister: Yair Lapid
  • Education Minister: Shair Piron
  • Welfare Minister: Meir Cohen
  • Health Minister: Yael German
  • Science Minister: Yaakov Peri
  • Deputy Defence Minister: Ofer Shelah

Habayit Hayehudi (3 ministries)

  • Economy and Trade: Naftali Bennett
  • Housing and Construction Minister: Uri Ariel
  • Pensioners Minister: Uri Orbach
  • Deputy Religious Affairs Minister: Eli Ben-Dahan

Hatnua (2 ministries)

  • Justice Minister and minister responsible for negotiations with the Palestinians: Tzipi Livni
  • Environment Minister: Amir Peretz

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Mulling over our new Government

by Isi Leibler

Jerusalem Post, March 14, 2013

Bravo! After six tortuous weeks of horse trading, spins and hypocrisy, Israel has its 33rd government.

Most of us, not already having written off our politicians, were thoroughly distressed that even during this crucial period for Israel our elected representatives still spent so much time in jockeying for personal or political benefit.

The principal beneficiaries were Yesh Atid and Bayit Yehudi who set aside their major political differences and made a pact to negotiate jointly towards the formation of the government. They succeeded and thus foiled Binyamin Netanyahu’s efforts to play them against each other, ultimately obliging him to concede to their core demands.

The principal losers were the haredi parties who, despite Netanyahu’s extraordinary efforts to retain them, were excluded from the government. Reviled by most Israelis as extortionists willing to sell their votes to the highest bidder and seeking to impose the most stringent halachic interpretations on the entire nation, their exclusion was greeted with enthusiasm.

The outcome may have been different had they been more cooperative with respect to sharing the burden, in particular in relation to conscription and encouraging their youngsters to earn a livelihood, but they refused to concede an inch. Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, Shas’ spiritual mentor, even outraged the national religious Bayit Yehudi leaders by calling them “goyim”. Their subsequent behavior extending to vile threats by United Torah Judaism to boycott settlement produce – alienated whatever lingering sympathy remained.

As anticipated, in this government, Netanyahu will be in a weaker position and far more dependent on his coalition partners than was the case in the past.

Yet, if he plays his cards properly, this may prove to be a blessing in disguise. It could even represent a new dawn and provide him with the unique opportunity of stabilizing Israel’s global position and implementing crucial overdue reforms in the social and economic arena that had been repeatedly vetoed by the ultra-Orthodox groups.

Netanyahu’s ministerial team includes some stunning new talent but unfortunately in some cases, politics prevented the best people from assuming positions optimally suited for them. Thus, Yair Lapid’s ascension to the Treasury is a huge risk. He has no financial or business background and it is a major gamble for a novice to take on such a role especially when he must grapple with a massive opening deficit which will require resolute and unpopular cutbacks.

The choice of Foreign Minister, whose primary requirement must be to effectively promote Israel’s image and articulate the government’s policies, is also problematic, especially now as we confront such a hostile and biased world. Liebermann is a capable and talented politician who could take on any key ministry. But why does he insist on retaining the one portfolio in which rightly or wrongly, he is regarded with hostility by most global leaders?

The appointment of the respected former IDF Chief of Staff, Moshe Ya’alon as Defense Minister, will strengthen morale and signal to the Palestinians that they will pay a heavy price if they resume missile launches or terrorist attacks.

But despite such shortcomings, the presence of many talented young new faces augers well for the future if the parties concentrate on working for the betterment of the nation rather than scoring partisan political points.

Although the likelihood of being obliged to formulate major or controversial decisions in relation to the peace process is remote, the inclusion of Yesh Atid (and Tzipi Livni who will now be marginalized) may somewhat ease the international hostility against Israel by demonstrating that the government represents a broad cross-section of Israelis rather than an inflexible right-wing party.

Lapid is a genuine centrist committed to a two state policy but supports the retention of the settlement blocs, Ariel and a united Jerusalem. This would hardly qualify him as a left-winger and Netanyahu should find him a kindred spirit in relation to most issues.

Besides, the Palestinians will undoubtedly maintain their intransigent attitude and refuse to negotiate or if they did, Mahmoud Abbas would be unwilling to even minimally compromise on any substantive issue.

The government’s most urgent domestic challenge must be to introduce painful remedial measures to ensure that our economy does not suffer a meltdown and follow the disastrous example of many European countries.

It will take advantage of this historic opportunity to deal with outstanding issues relating to religion and the state, especially the profoundly emotional issue of equalizing the burden in relation to the draft. In the latest compromise, national service will become universal in gradual stages over a five year period. Up to 2000 Yeshiva students will continue receiving exemptions and state subsidies.

More importantly, all subsidized education will be required to incorporate secular core studies of math, English, civics and history, creating constructive citizens who will seek gainful employment rather than subsisting on welfare. Although haredim should be treated with courtesy and respect, they will no longer be a law unto themselves and will be obliged to share the burden as well as benefits of citizenship.

Today, for the first time in decades, there are more religious Zionist than haredi MKs in the Knesset. Bayit Yehudi has the opportunity of reversing the tide of haredi domination of religious instrumentalities like the Chief Rabbinate and promoting Zionist rabbis to occupy state roles, making Judaism more attractive to non-observant Israelis by example rather than coercion. They must ensure that conversion, marriage and divorce, and other life cycle events are conducted with compassion by enlightened rabbis who have the capacity to make Judaism more inclusive.

This government will amend the electoral system and reduce the number of parties. It must also devise a new method of selecting MKs and eradicate the current system of primaries which is being abused and riddled with corrupt practices.

Despite the fact that Lapid has introduced some talented new personnel into the Knesset, a system must be devised in which Knesset candidates are not simply recruited according to the predilections of individual party leaders . There is no perfect democratic solution but a structure could be devised by which elected party committees will subsequently preselect candidates and avoid the abuse and corruption associated with the primaries.

There should also be an arrangement whereby at least the majority of Knesset members are directly accountable to those who elected them rather than to party leaders.

Netanyahu must now set aside party politics and act as a national leader, solely focused on governing the country. He should not concern himself with the next election.

He has four critical years in which basic decisions affecting the future of Israel may well be determined. If he convinces his coalition partners to set aside the past and cooperate to devise long term strategies, both in terms of the peace process as well as implementing the long overdue domestic social, economic and electoral reforms, he will establish a legacy that could enable him to be regarded as one of the greatest leaders of the nation. But to achieve this he must resolve to set aside the sleazy political infighting and concentrate exclusively on serving the national interest. If he fails to do so, the government’s life span will be extremely limited.

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‘Rivals’? Certainly. A ‘Team’? That’s Yet to be Determined: Notes on a New Israeli Government

Shmuel Rosner

Jewish Journal, March 14, 2013


1. The “team of rivals” cliché is becoming common as writers around the world struggle to explain the new Israeli government, a coalition made of five parts: Likud (Netanyahu), Israel Beiteinu (Liberman), Yesh Atid (Lapid), Habait Hayehudi (Bennet), and Hatnua (Livni). The fact that these are all rivals is obvious, but can they be a “team”? I very much doubt that. Israel’s new coalition is problematic, and its chances for long-term survival seem slim. A new election cycle in two or two and a half years would not be a surprise.

2. Why problematic? Because the people running this coalition have many conflicting interests. Netanyahu knows that his partners want to replace him. He has an interest in belittling them while they are his coalition members. They will resist such attempts and are going to try and undermine Netanyahu while he is nominally their boss. This is not a recipe for a healthy work environment. 

3. Netanyahu didn’t get the coalition he wanted. He had to break with the Haredis, and had to accept Lapid and Bennet playing a much larger role than he’d ideally give them. He will also have to deal with an unhappy party in which people will soon be talking about the “next leader”, surely making Netanyahu even more paranoid than he already is.

Don’t envy the Prime Minister- he still has one of the toughest jobs on earth. He has to deal with all of the following: his most trusted advisers are leaving one by one; his party is grumbling; he got a Defense Minister that he didn’t exactly want; he doesn’t have a Foreign Minister he can trust; his coalition members are plotting against him; they have also dictated an agenda he did not choose; and if this agenda makes this government a success they will get most of the credit; his old partners are angry with him for abandoning them.

4. Liberman is on trial. If acquitted, he will also come back wanting to be a Prime Minister. If he is found guilty and cannot be a minister, he has little interest in keeping this government alive (especially if the verdict says that he can’t be a minister in the current Knesset).

5. Lapid should be happy with the outcome of coalition negotiations, except for two little things: He is Finance Minister in tough economic times. Traditionally, that is a job that makes a politician less popular, not more so (as Netanyahu, a very good Finance Minister, could tell Lapid). He also – by dictating terms to Netanyahu – owns the agenda of the new government. If the government doesn’t deliver, it is his government that doesn’t deliver (unless he can put the blame on Netanyahu – which he’d surely try to do).

6. Bennet handled the coalition talks masterfully. He was humiliated by Netanyahu at first, but soon made lemonade out of this lemon-like reception. The problem for him is different from that of Lapid: if there’s any movement on the peace front, he’ll have to make some tough choices and will have to deal with a party that can be unruly. In fact, one of Netanyahu’s best options for unraveling the annoying alliance (annoying for him, that is) between Lapid and Bennet is to make friends with Mahmud Abbas.

7. Livni wanted to be Netanyahu’s second in command, but now she’s not the third but rather the fifth wheel of this coalition. Netanyahu still needs her though, for one of two options: if he can get rid of Lapid and get the Haredis back Livni will be his centrist cover; if he wants to get rid of Bennet, he’d do it by advancing a peace process – and Livni is his tool for that too.

8. A paragraph on the Lapid-Bennet alliance- the most surprising, revolutionary and positive result of the last elections. If these two camps of Tel Avivian bourgeois and settler ideologues can come together to make this country a better place, a lot can happen. As I’ve written many times in recent weeks, the division of Israel into a right-wing camp and a left-wing camp is outdated (see some discussion of “blocs” in the fifth part of my exchange with pollster Prof. Camil Fuchs). Lapid and Bennet make it seem even more outdated, almost irrelevant. By adopting a domestic agenda, and by demonstrating that two camps that still differ somewhat on the “Palestinian question” can cooperate on many other issues, these two leaders have created an Israeli agenda that the majority of voters seem to like. Of course, there’s a possible problem with such an agenda: the ‘region’ might not want to cooperate with it and might force the Israeli government to focus on other issues.

9. Wild cards:

  1. Does Netanyahu want a fourth term as Prime Minister? If, for some reason, Netanyahu makes a decision to focus on this term and not worry about his chances for the next election (having realized that he might not want to run again), this changes many of the previously-presented calculations of all partners.
  2. Iran. Does anyone know what Lapid and Bennet have in mind regarding Iran? I’ve made some calls and the answer is no. If there’s a war with Iran, if there’s an attack on Iran, if Iran manages to acquire nuclear weapons, if the US decides to act against Iran – all bets are off.
  3. Other skirmishes or wars – in Syria, Lebanon, the Palestinian territories, Gaza – can turn any agenda upside down, and with it the projection for this government.
  4. Will a new alternative to Netanyahu emerge? Olmert? Ashkenazi? This can make things even more complicated.

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