Israeli Coalition Building:
There’s (Much) More than the Peace Process
Prof. Sam Lehman-Wilzig
Schusterman Visiting Israeli Scholar, Brown University
The American media may be forgiven for having focused on the national-security / peace process aspects of Israeli party platforms during the recent election campaign, and now during the complex negotiations to form a new government. But if the matter were merely “Right-Left” regarding the Palestinian conflict (Syrian negotiations too), the new government could be formed tomorrow with a coalition of 65 (out of 120) Knesset seats belonging to what is generally called the “national(ist) camp”. However, there is a lot more involved than this centrally salient issue – which is why there are going to be some “surprises” up ahead. Here, then, are some of the other important issues that will complicate the coalition-forming process.
1) Election Reform: I have already written about this issue in a previous post (http://profslw.com/?m=200812 – Dec. 1) and predicted there that this would be an important issue for the coming government. I was “wrong” – it is THE central issue, if one can judge by the pronouncements of almost all the important parties once the election results became clear! Israel simply cannot continue on the path of fragmented politics with elections held once every 30 months or so. Who is against such reform? The smaller parties (e.g. MERETZ; Bayit Yehudi) and the sectoral ones (Arab; SHAS). As the entire right-wing has only 65 seats, this essentially gives SHAS and other smaller right-wing parties veto power over electoral reform – something that Lieberman’s party has clearly said that it will not countenance (it strongly supports electoral reform). Thus, there is very serious disagreement on this critical issue within the right-wing camp.
2) Child Allowance: I have discussed this profoundly important issue in a previous post as well (same URL – Dec. 9). Briefly, SHAS demands the return of the child allowance cuts; both Netanyahu and Lieberman are dead set against it. So once again, it will not be easy at all to get SHAS to join this coalition. Moreover, most of the right-wing parties have a relatively strong capitalist bent, as opposed to SHAS’s Socialist-type of governmental largesse. After having saved the Israeli economy from disaster in 2003 as Finance Minister, Netanyahu will not want to jeopardize his image by going on a spending spree – especially with the economic tsunami hitting the world and catching Israel in its backwash.
3) Conversion and Civil Marriage: If there is one issue that Lieberman’s constituency demands to be dealt with immediately, it is the problem of hundreds of thousands of former-Russian “Jews” who need to somehow be formally incorporated into Jewish society through an easier conversion process and/or legislation enabling civil marriage. On the other hand, the ultra-Orthodox parties (SHAS; Yahadut Ha’Torah) have drawn a line in the sand on this issue. Both sides see it as central to the continuation of the Jewish State – the Russian immigrants in order to strengthen the State with more “newly minted” Jews; the ultra-orthodox by maintaining Jewish “purity” through conversion exclusively by way of the traditional (and very arduous) process. One should also keep in mind the personal animosity that this election campaign engendered, with SHAS’s spiritual leader Rav Ovadia Yosef lambasting Lieberman’s supporters for their “pig-eating tendencies”.
Therefore, left to their own devices, Netanyahu and Livni have the task of squaring the circle inside a triangle – an almost insuperable task without combining forces to form the core of the new coalition. If, on the other hand, they form the government’s foundational structure with their collective 55 seats, perhaps also adding Lieberman’s 15 seats to reach 70 in total, then they can turn to the other right-wing parties with a “take it or leave it” offer – and be certain that enough of the smaller parties will swallow hard and accept the Likud-Kadima(-Lieberman) principles of government that will call for election reform, civil marriage, and economic sanity. And if the smaller parties refuse? Even a coalition of 70 seats with three parties is more than enough to maintain a somewhat stable government for the foreseeable future, and certainly more stable than a 65 seat “right-wing” coalition spread over six parties!
Feb. 11, 2009