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May 9, 2012 2:21 pm

The New Israeli Coalition and the Elephant in the Cabinet Room

avatar by Shoshana Bryen

Israeli Knesset Hall. Photo: Wiki Commons.

Rarely do politics in a democratic country wrap up as neatly as they did for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu this week.  Having scheduled new parliamentary elections that he was assuredly going to win, today he announced that the coalition was expanded and reconstituted, and will last until September 2013 – the legal expiration of the current Knesset.

A partial list of Netanyahu’s accomplishments:

  • He saved millions of dollars the country didn’t need to spend right now. There are a lot of Americans who think a parliamentary system looks pretty good at this point for speed and thrift.
  • He added a Persian-born, Farsi-speaking former Chief of the IDF General Staff to his Cabinet. This helps counter criticism of the government’s posture on the Iranian threat from former Mossad Chief Meir Dagan and former Shin Bet Chairman Yuval Diskin.
  • He diminished the importance of Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman whose Yisrael Beiteinu Party, farther to the right than Likud, is no longer essential to the coalition. This allows the Government greater flexibility in domestic as well as foreign policy, if the Government wants greater flexibility.
  • He effectively froze the Labor Party, which split in 2011 when Defense Minister Ehud Barak pulled out the more centrist elements and formed the Independence Party, which stayed in the Government. Labor was hoping to find more seats in the Knesset by consolidating the left wing of Israeli politics.
  • He protected himself from electioneering nastiness that might be cooked up by domestic opponents, or perhaps opponents directed by friends of the American administration – which sees Netanyahu as something between an unwelcome dinner guest and the devil. Just because President Obama has to be on his best pro-Israel behavior until November doesn’t mean his friends did.

Bonus Point: By stretching from the right-of-the-center-right to the center-of-the center-left, Netanyahu’s new coalition embodies the Sharon doctrine of big issues.  Shortly before the Gaza Disengagement, then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon met with a group of American military professionals[1] and told them, “When you plan to do something really big on a national scale – whether it is to go to war or to make peace – you should have as many of your people with you as you can.”[2]

Pundits quickly latched onto the idea that the broad coalition is a “sign” that Israel is going to engage in a military strike against Iran.  There is no denying the elephant in the Cabinet Room, and there is a palpable sense in Israel of the gravity of the Iranian threat.  But an Israeli government will have to deal with that regardless of when elections come and regardless of who wins.

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In the meantime, there is still a country to run.  A series of domestic issues are on the government’s plate, and Israeli government fall over those, not foreign policy.

Israel weathered the roiling economic crisis better than most countries, but the government is determined to prevent a repetition of last year’s large public demonstrations.  Ostensibly over the cost of living (and cottage cheese), the demonstrations quickly became a vehicle for an uneasy national sense that income disparity — an offence against Israel’s socialist roots — was driven by a small, well-connected cadre, and that not everyone serves the State equally — an even greater offense against Israel’s Zionist roots.

At the announcement of the new governments, the first two priorities were national service for all, and reforms to governance and the electoral system.  These were followed by maintaining “a Jewish and democratic State” and a willingness for “territorial compromise in the cause of a viable accommodations with the Palestinians.”

But, if the elephant needs attention, Sharon’s requirement for broad political consensus has been achieved.

[1] I was honored to lead that delegation

[2] He was reflecting the difficulties Prime Minister Rabin had because the Oslo Accords were passed in the Knesset by only one vote.  There was never a national consensus on the government’s negotiating posture or on concessions.

This article first appeared in American Thinker.

Shoshana Bryen is Senior Director of The Jewish Policy Center

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