Israel/Palestine,  Your View

Politics as Usual: Thoughts on the new government

A guest post from Alex Stein of

Benyamin Netanyahu started the coalition negotiations desperate to avoid the mistake he made in 1996. Then, he formed what’s colloquially known as a narrow right-wing coalition with Shas, the National Religious Party, United Torah Judaism, and the now defunct Yisrael BaAliyah and the Third Way. The government barely lasted three years. From the outset, then, Bibi wanted to avoid a repeat of this scenario. With his cards on the table so early, though, did his rivals manage to make the most of the situation? Or has Netanyahu (for it is Netanyahu, now, with all the backbiting within the Likud) emerged triumphant?

At first, Netanyahu tried to form a national unity government with Kadima. Having won more seats in the Knesset, Livni’s party arguably had more legitimacy to form a government than Likud. This meant that Bibi had to at least be seen going through the motions of trying to form a government with her. But I think his attempt was genuine. He reasoned that, whatever ideological differences there may be between the different parties on the future creation of a Palestinian state, there’s near consensus between the major players that to establish one in the next few years would be folly. So why not build a national unity government on the basis of the relative consensus that exists on the more urgent issues of Iran and the economy? 

Despite various late-night trysts, the negotiations with Livni failed. By the end, Bibi was wondering aloud what kind of naïve political advice his rival was getting. This is unfair. Livni might have sold out for a more egalitarian rotation-agreement (as opposed to the other variations she was offered, in which Bibi remained the first among equals), but since when was guaranteeing a strong opposition to the public considered politically irresponsible? By drawing a clear dividing line between Kadima and Likud – if only on the issue of Palestinian statehood – Livni has managed to show Netanyahu up for what he seems to be, which is part of the rejectionist camp. The world should take notice.

Meanwhile, Bibi ploughed on with securing the support of his ‘natural partners’ on the right. Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beytenu gave him his first major coup, but at a predictably steep price. Lieberman will be the new Israeli Foreign Minister,  domestically the least significant position of Israel’s holy trinity of cabinet positions, but a cause for deep alarm in the international community, where he will be responsible for making the case for Israel. Given that Bibi is transparently in thrall to American power, and given the recent election of Obama, I’m surprised that Lieberman got the position. I understand the corruption charges against him mean the Treasury would be an irony too far, and that he lacks the military experience to qualify him for the Defence Ministry (although I’m in rare agreement with Moishe Yaalon’s suggestion that the Defence Minister should be lifted from an exclusively civilian background), but was this really the lesser evil? Or was he just hoping to pull the rug out from under Lieberman at the last moment by dramatically bringing in Kadima? Perhaps Lieberman will succumb to the charges being made against him, in which case solving the problem for Netanyahu once and for all.

In the end, though, Netanyahu turned to his old buddy Barak for a modicum of unity. This deal is being dubbed in some quarters as the Israeli equivalent of the Nazi-Soviet pact (despite the precedent of Dayan joining Begin in 1977 and Peres joining Sharon in 2001), so it’s worth being a bit more sober in our analysis. Labour’s dilemma demonstrates the impossibility of the Israeli system. We all know that Barak’s cynicism is barely concealed, that he’s generally interested in maintaining his status at all costs, and that he’ll zig-zag like a zapped Mario Kart buggy if the need arises. But even a broken clock is right two times a day; as a result we should have more sympathy for the choice that was laid before the Labour party. 

The coalition agreement between Labour and Likud represents an outstanding piece of political bargaining on Barak’s part, although most of the credit needs to go to Histradut leader Ofer Deini. In returned for an unprecedented failure in the elections, Labour receives five cabinet posts, as well as important (and very un-Bibi like) policy commitments in the socio-economic sphere – NIS100 million for retraining people for new professions, NIS200 million for funding day-care for working women’s children, as well as an increase in pensions and a greater involvement in decision-making for the Histradut. It’s the dying explosions of the power of labour in this country, of course, but that doesn’t alter its significance. Nor does the fact that the treasury is effectively empty – budgetary promises are the name of the game for all the parties, no matter the economic reality. No wonder Lieberman was pissed off.

But should Labour have abandoned the country to the dogs, in the hope that the government would fall quickly, leaving Labour in a position to return strengthened a year or two down the line? Or were they right to join the government in order to protect the interests of millions of people up and down the country? History will tell us; in the meantime it’s important to take note that the Labour party is now little more than Shas for kibbutzniks.

It may still turn good for the Tsar. The presence of Labour in the government gives Lieberman slightly more legitimacy in the eyes of the world, while at the same time his voters are reminded that he was not given his proper place at the table, that they will have to push harder next time. Lieberman is in an envious position; he is both an indispensable part of the government and a potential agitator in the county at large. Sometimes it doesn’t have to be an either/or. Livni is now the strangest of opposition leaders, all alone, in charge of a party that remains dominated by Likudniks in all-but name, left with no other option than to turn left at a time when it’s considered dangerous to do so.

I’ll pass on the predictions regarding how long the government will last; events will no doubt determine the future. Netanyahu has completed his first mission reasonably successfully, and – dare I say it – maturely, at least given the circumstances. Far trickier tasks lie before him, and I’m cynical as to whether he has the ability to see them through. In the meantime, we should reflect on how long Israel can persist with this system in which it takes a month to form an unstable government and in which the interests of the nation (yes, I still believe there to be such a thing) are held hostage to the interests of a few. Politics as usual indeed…