The excessively slow pace of Israel’s electoral and political systems impose dysfunction at a time when a strong, strategically directed government is desperately needed.
This is highlighted by the excruciatingly slow coalition building process preceded by the lengthy pre-election campaign. The head of the leading party designated by the president to form the next government has 28 days to build a coalition with an option of an additional 14 days.
To have a hiatus of three to four months during which the outgoing government functions as a lame duck would be intolerable for any country. However, in the context of the extraordinary pressures and existential challenges currently confronting Israel — in particular the expansion of radical Islam in the neighborhood and the critical emerging security threats on all its borders — the absence of effective government for such a long period is appalling.
A strong government is also urgently required to formulate responsible economic and social policies to pre-empt a domestic crisis, which could ultimately also impact on security.
Moreover, with U.S. President Barack Obama scheduled to make his first visit to Israel in the near future, a government with a strategic plan and a unified diplomatic approach is an essential prerequisite. That cannot be achieved if a government is formed only days before the presidential visit.
In light of this, the ongoing shenanigans delaying the formation of a government are a monumental display of irresponsibility by all political parties. This is surely a time when the national interest requires that those elected to office recognize their obligation to concentrate on speedily creating a government. Ideally they would suspend their personal agendas and avoid dragging out the negotiation process to jostle for ministerial portfolios.
Remarkably, notwithstanding all the media babble and despite the substantial erosion of Likud-Beytenu electoral support, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is in a uniquely advantageous position to create a genuinely broad coalition. With the exception of the radical Arab parties and Meretz, a genuine centrist consensus on the peace process dominates the political arena. The vast majority of Israelis have no desire to rule over Palestinians and, given a genuine peace partner, would be relieved to separate from them. Even the hawkish Habayit Hayehudi would welcome the opportunity of entering the government in the absence of dramatic changes leading to the emergence of a Palestinian state — which is currently not even on the horizon.
Indeed, Yair Lapid — mistakenly dubbed by much of the media as a center-leftist —unequivocally committed Yesh Atid to maintaining the unity of Jerusalem and retaining the settlement of Ariel within Israel. He did undertake to pursue negotiations with the Palestinians, but after Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas responded to Netanyahu’s most recent offer to negotiate without preconditions by demanding a settlement freeze (including all of Jerusalem’s Jewish neighborhoods) and the release of all imprisoned terrorists — there is little doubt that Lapid and Netanyahu would have identical responses to such intransigence.
Despite Labor leader Shelley Yachimovich having pledged not to join a Netanyahu government, she admits that today many of her party members are pressing her to do so. Even Hatnuah head Tzipi Livni, despite her former histrionics against Netanyahu, is now also almost desperate to join the government. This confirms that in spite of all the posturing, a broad political consensus prevails.
The sole major issue which remains a barrier towards creating a broad national government is the commitment by many parties to introduce reforms to preclude the non-Zionist and inflexible ultra-Orthodox rabbis from exclusively controlling state religious policies.
The most emotional aspect of this is “equalization of the burden” for haredim serving in the army or national service. There is also the need to steer them into the workforce, weaning them away from long term reliance on state welfare.
In contrast to his late father, Yair Lapid has been extremely reasonable in his approach to the haredim. Many even consider his proposal to progressively introduce the draft over a five year period to be too gradual. But despite this, the ultra-Orthodox are threatening to go to the barricades and seeking to exploit emerging tensions between Netanyahu and Lapid.
Throughout the election campaign, Lapid was a role model for moderation and restraint. Most politicians harbor dreams of ultimately becoming prime minister. But he blundered when in response to a rhetorical question in a TV interview he said that he visualized himself displacing the current prime minister within 18 months — a remark which certainly would not have contributed to Netanyahu’s comfort level with an impending new partner.
The desperate haredim are already capitalizing on this. Indeed, despite Rabbi Ovadia Yosef having described Habayit Hayehudi leaders during the elections as “goyim,” Shas leaders have appealed to them not to support efforts to draft their followers. They seem to have even convinced some of the more stringent religious Zionist rabbis to exert pressure on party leader Naftali Bennett to soften his position. Should they succeed, Bennett and Habayit Hayehudi would be discredited and may lose a precious opportunity to restore religious Zionism to its rightful place in a Zionist state.
In this context Netanyahu is making Bennett’s position more difficult by publicly humiliating him, meeting with him only after his consultations with Meretz, Labor, Tzipi Livni and even the radical Arab parties. Irrespective of former confrontations, such personal displays of animus by the prime minister are misplaced and do not display him in a favorable light.
Netanyahu and Lapid should stop posturing and speedily reach an accommodation regarding the haredi imbroglio. Many Shas supporters already serve in the army. Once appropriate legislation has been passed requiring haredim to serve in the Israel Defense Forces or national service, Shas may still seek to join the government. United Torah Judaism would probably stay out, which would not be a great loss.
On the other hand, should Netanyahu form another narrow government which would continue to be subject to extortion by the ultra-Orthodox and obliged to substitute genuine efforts to draft haredim with mere cosmetic gestures, the electorate would be outraged. Besides, a narrow government under the current circumstances would almost certainly only have a very limited duration. In the ensuing elections irate Israelis would undoubtedly severely punish those leaders — in particular Netanyahu — for failure to create a broad government.
With the impending visit to the region by Obama there is a desperate need to present a united front in relation to policies on Iran and the Palestinians. To achieve this, our politicians have an urgent obligation to cease posturing and form a broad national government.