For Netanyahu, a Narrower Victory

January 23, 2013 10:12 am 1 comment

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Photo: Photo by Yossi Zamir/Flash90

Benyamin Netanyahu will again be prime minister, but with a much-weakened political base after yesterday’s national election. His Likud Party, allied with the mainly Russian immigrant party of Avigdor Liberman, lost one-third of its Knesset seats, due in part to Liberman’s being under the shadow of indictment on rather thin charges by a politicized Attorney-General.

The “not-Likud” vote splintered in two directions, and to two political newcomers: to Netanyahu’s center-left is Yair Lapid’s There Is a Future Party, with about 19 seats, while to his center-right is Naftali Bennett’s resurgent national-religious party, with 11 or 12 seats. Lapid did somewhat better than recent polls were predicting, while Bennett fared somewhat worse. But in order to form a government, Netanyahu will likely have to build a coalition around at least one, or likely both, of these parties. If the final tally gives Likud 31 seats, Lapid 19 seats, and Bennett 11, Netanyahu could not form a government without bringing in another party.

Netanyahu would probably like to ally with one of the two Haredi parties, either Shas, with 11 seats, or United Torah, with 7. But it is hard to see how either party could co-exist in a government with Lapid’s, as their positions on perks to Haredim are diametrically opposed. That leaves the option of Tzipi Livni’s breakaway party, which won 6 seats.

A government including Likud, Lapid and Livni would have a strong emphasis on domestic issues, while likely leaving security policies unchanged. The addition of Bennett would reinforce this trend, though it would anchor security policies to the right. In that case the agenda would be housing reform, a new draft law to incorporate at least some of the Haredim, and a stance against new concessions to the Palestinians.

Each of these agenda points is achievable and enjoys substantial support beyond the confines of these four parties.
Just days before the election, Netanyahu announced he was handing the housing portfolio to one of the young Likud whiz kids, Moshe Kachlon, a 40-year-old technocrat who successfully reformed the country’s telecommunications sector. While real estate is more complicated, a Likud-Lapid-Bennett-Livni coalition would have both the political will and the managerial expertise to act. If successful, it would co-opt the focus of the Labor Party (17 seats) on economic reform.

On the Haredi draft, Lapid and Bennett have differing, but not necessarily irreconcilable positions. Lapid favors universal conscription into some type of national service, while Bennett favors a protected sector for a certain percentage of young Torah scholars. A new law could also mandate a more observance-friendly IDF, with more religious-majority units.

There is also a need to accelerate integration of Haredi youth into Israel’s high-tech business sector, where, for example, one-in-seven employees of Intel Corporation in Israel is already Haredi. In other words, a formula must be found to reach out to the existing desire of rank-and-file Haredim to participate in Israel’s economy and national service, despite the resistance of Haredi leadership, while leaving them free to retain their religious identity and lifestyle.

In the weeks to come there will be the inevitable posturing, posing and grandstanding amongst the various coalition contenders, and certainly a variety of other outcomes is possible. But the center of political gravity today stretches from Netanyahu, left to Lapid, and right to Bennett, and bodes well for the stability of the country, as well as a stable Netanyahu government.

A centrist coalition led by Netanyahu would do much to dispel the reports and speculation emanating from Washington recently that the third-term prime minister, or the Israeli electorate, do not know what is in Israel’s best interest, and are leading the country to “near-total diplomatic isolation.” These reports reflect mainly upon the likelihood that it is President Obama himself who would not like to lend Israel his diplomatic support.

And it is hard to avoid the conclusion that Washington’s 11th-hour intervention did not contribute to the weakening of Netanyahu. With the president’s recent nomination of “a flock of doves” to foreign policy and security positions, and his highly ideological second inaugural address, Netanyahu will clearly be under full assault by progressives, both foreign and domestic.

Benyamin Korn is a veteran Anglo-Jewish journalist and political activist.

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