I am a political junkie. My drug is not domestic, as I prefer to feed my addiction with Israeli politics. This current round of elections has provided me with a particularly potent dose and it’s one that’s never been concocted before. Simply put, what’s happening now is unprecedented.
Israeli coalition politics has always been a particularly rarefied specimen of the art of compromise. No party ever accumulates sufficient seats to form a government. This always makes the search for bedfellows as interesting as the elections themselves. It also explains the general weirdness that often ensues once they’ve all piled into bed together.
Netanyahu’s last government was unusually stable. This stability came at the cost of anointing no fewer than thirty-nine ministers and deputy ministers who all got fancy offices, cars, staffs and other goodies. Though Bibi didn’t really need them, even the Labor Party joined last time, at least until most of them became fed up, leaving Defense Minister Ehud Barak behind and taking the Labor Party name with them.
This time around, the Labor Party is not going to join Netanyahu’s government. And it’s not for lack of Bibi’s trying.
If he could only get the completely ideologically incompatible Laborites to sign on, then he could have the government that he really wants with his self-styled “natural partners,” the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) Shas and United Torah Judaism parties. But, alas, the Laborites are not interested in bringing their party to that kind of party. Especially not when a budget crisis – the very one that set the election in motion – guarantees painful cuts and angry voters.
Under what passes for normal Israeli political circumstances, Bibi shouldn’t really need Labor this go-around. As you’ll understand shortly, these are not normal Israeli political circumstances. Likud performed quite poorly in the polls, landing only thirty-one seats. Actually, they did worse than that. This Knesset only swore in twenty genuine Likudniks. This is due to their bizarre election-eve decision to merge their list with Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu which seated the other eleven.
Yet Likud-Beiteinu, as the newly merged list styled itself, seemed in good shape nonetheless. It should have been easy to form a right-wing-plus-Haredim government. The Haredim have eighteen seats. Likud’s ideological fraternal twin, the newly re-launched National Religious Party, d/b/a the Jewish Home, won twelve seats. Even better, just days before the election, they posted billboards picturing their charismatic new leader, Naftali Bennett, alongside Bibi as a pledge to back the once and future P.M.
So what went wrong for Bibi? Why can’t he put together a government with the Haredim and the right-wing Zionist Orthodox Jewish Home? It has all the ingredients that were ever necessary in the past to cook up a nutritious Netanyahu stew, and in the right proportion.
As the saying goes, all politics is personal and Bibi, it would seem, has a personal problem with Bennett who once served as Bibi’s chief of staff. It ended badly. So Bibi, acting like a baby, decided that he would rather not deal with Bennett. As coalition talks got underway, Likud ignored the Jewish Home despite their almost identical political agendas. Instead, he set his sites on the new darling of Israeli politics, Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid (“There’s a Future”) Party and its nineteen seats.
Lapid, a well-known television journalist and personality, is indeed something very new in Israeli politics. His party features moderate Orthodox rabbis, radically secular journalists, university professors and activists from every corner of Israeli society. Not a one of them has ever sat in the Knesset before.
He was the real big winner in the election. He built victory with a promise of radical changes to Israel’s politics as usual. He tapped into middle class resentments about the cost of living, unaffordable housing and bloated ministries. And he zeroed in on the most acrimonious issue of all: the Haredi refusal to serve in the military.
There is nothing – but nothing – that rankles the average Israeli more than the Haredi refusal to serve in the military or national service. It’s not only about the fact that other parents are sending their children into harm’s way while Haredi men sit in yeshivas all day long. It’s also that the Haredim are paid to sit there. And the yeshivas are paid to have them there. And because the vast majority of Haredi men don’t work, the government gives them endless handouts for their enormous families.
How did they rate all of this taxpayer largesse? Well it helps that for decades they’ve been the lynchpin of almost every government – right, left or center.
Lapid, in an astonishing expression of integrity, has refused to sit with them. Not, as he has painstakingly explained, because he hates the Haredim (though they all think so). But because he knows that with them, his promised reforms will hit a big black-suited wall.
If Bibi thought he could do an end-run around Bennett by bringing in Lapid to sit with Likud and the Haredim, he was quickly disabused of that notion.
Bibi’s next move was to go after Labor. As I pointed out above, it’s not going to happen. Then, unexpectedly, he brought in Tzipi Livni (who swore on a stack of whatever she swore on that she would NEVER join up with Bibi). In exchange for her six seats, he even gave her responsibility for negotiations with the Palestinians. This did not endear him to the right-wing Jewish Home who resent her previous offers to Abu Mazen and company.
While Bibi was busy courting Labor and Livni, Bennett and Lapid were getting busy too. The two of them were falling in love. Politically.
No one saw it coming.
I don’t know how many dates they had or if they kissed or fooled around right away, but Bennett and Lapid have become inseparable. The right-wing Jewish Home and the centrist Yesh Atid made an unbreakable pledge: they would enter the coalition as a couple or not at all. In other words, if Bibi wants either one of them – and he needs at least one – he can forget about the Haredim.
He’s tried to break them up, applying all kinds of pressure on the Jewish Home to join solo. He made an offer through the media (!) of all kinds of goodies for them. He enlisted the Haredim to put pressure on them. Haredi rabbis invited Zionist rabbis to their yeshivas and talked to them as if they believed that they are their equals. They didn’t buy it. Only weeks earlier during the election, Rav Ovadia Yosef, Shas’ “spiritual” leader, had called them the “Goyish Home” party so their sincerity was suspect. Then the Haredim became petulant, threatening to actively work to freeze and dismantle settlements that they had previously supported. Finally, they screamed and jumped up and down and held their breath and cried, “Discrimination!”
Nothing worked. The two are committed.
There are many reasons, but one of them certainly is that Bennett and the Jewish Home don’t want to sit with the Haredim any more than Lapid does. Even though Lapid’s father was Israel’s premier atheist and even though Lapid has his own religious needs met at a Reform synagogue, Bennett’s folks still like him better than the Haredim.
Could it be because during their run in government the Haredim created thousands of jobs for non-Zionist Haredi rabbis, displacing modern Orthodox (i.e., Zionist) rabbis in the presumably Zionist government rabbinate? Could it be because Haredi rabbis have spent decades running down the legitimacy of Zionist rabbis’ conversions? Or is it because while Haredim evade service, the Zionist Orthodox Jews have managed to take up arms for the state and then get jobs while still managing to study Torah?
It’s all of those things and more.
Last night, with no choices left to him and a two-week deadline looming, Bibi finally saw the writing on the wall. He cannot have a government without either the Jewish Home or Yesh Atid. Neither will join without the other and neither will sit with the Haredim.
Personally, I hope that once they do go in, they will make the kinds of reforms that Lapid wants. Ultimately, I can foresee a scenario where Lapid’s and Bennett’s ideological differences will outweigh their commonalities. There has already been some internal Yesh Atid friction caused by Lapid’s request of his Knesset members to withdraw from a tour of some particularly troublesome areas of the West Bank. Yet there is much that they can accomplish together before that day arrives.
No matter what happens, it’s so nice to see that the darkest, most parasitical and religiously coercive elements of Israeli society – and the Jewish world – will be forced to sit on the sidelines for a while.