New Israeli Government Finally Formed
By David Dolan
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu finally succeeding in putting together a new coalition government in March, just one day before his legal deadline to do so arrived in the middle of the month. His 24 member cabinet, the smallest in many years, was sworn into office at the Knesset in Jerusalem just two days before American President Barrack Obama landed with his large entourage at Ben Gurion airport near Tel Aviv.
The new government is comprised of just four political parties, also the smallest number in many years. It is therefore not the "broad" unity coalition that the Premier said he hoped to form after his joint Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu party won the most Knesset seats in national elections held last January 22. If fact, the final composition of the new government came as a complete surprise to almost all Israeli political pundits, not to mention to Netanyahu himself, along with his Likud party colleagues. Instead of containing the two ultra-orthodox Jewish parties that have been a staple of the two previous Netanyahu governments and in most other governments formed over the past three and a half decades, the religious parties were left entirely out in the cold, to their strongly expressed chagrin.
PM Netanyahu's new coalition brings together the most unlikely of bedfellows. Almost no one originally expected it would include his longtime nemesis, Tzipi Livni, who assumed the important role of Justice Minister. It was also not even remotely anticipated that the former Kadima party leader and Foreign Minister would actually turn out to be the first politician to jump on board the Premier's new coalition train. Nor did many pundits predict that the government would include both the new secularist Yesh Atid party and the right wing Jewish Home party. At least the latter, strongly nationalistic party was expected to be part of the coalition following its relative success in the election, winning nine more seats than the three it held in the previous Knesset. This was despite the fact that the Premier's wife, Sara, is known to loathe party leader Naftali Bennett and reportedly tried hard to keep him at bay. The successful business entrepreneur has assumed the role of Israel's new "Economy and Trade" minister, a fresh title he created for the former "Industry, Trade and Labor" ministry to emphasize his hoped-for role in further strengthening Israel's fairly healthy economy.
Despite the inclusion of Livni's leftist Hatnuah party and Yair Lapid's centrist Yesh Atid party in the coalition, with a combined total of 25 seats, the new 68 member government was immediately labeled by the media as more right wing than Netanyahu's last government. This was mainly because the combined total of Knesset seats that the hawkish Likud Beiteinu and Jewish Home parties hold is 43. However the characterization was also due to the fact that the man he named to one of the most important cabinet portfolios is Moshe Ya'alon, the new Defense Minister. The former Armed Forces Chief was fired by Ariel Sharon after he openly opposed the controversial 2005 withdrawal of all Israeli civilians and soldiers from the Gaza Strip. Two other influential deputy ministers are also known for their strong nationalistic views.
Naturally enough, the first official state visit by Barrack Obama was also the focus of rapt media and public attention in Israel during the month. After being formally greeted on the tarmac by President Shimon Peres and PM Netanyahu on March 20, the American leader was whisked off for a brief look at the Iron Dome anti-rocket system, partially funded by the USA. The inspection came just one day before Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip fired several rockets at the frequently attacked Israeli town of Sderot. Earlier in the month, a young Jewish girl was critically injured when Palestinians threw stones at her mother's car in Samaria.
On his second day in the Holy Land, President Obama visited Jerusalem's Israel National Museum with Peres and Netanyahu, where he viewed the Dead Sea scrolls before heading north to Ramallah for a meeting with Mahmoud Abbas and other Palestinian Authority officials. While there, he stated publicly that the PA must drop its demand for a total Jewish building ban in the disputed territories before peace talks can resume, but instead settle that issue and all others via negotiations. This upset Abbas and company, but was welcomed by Netanyahu who has long stated the same thing. That afternoon, Obama delivered his main speech at Jerusalem's largest public hall, conveniently packed with carefully handpicked Israeli university students. The President earlier turned down an official Israeli government invitation to speak instead before the Knesset, where he may have faced some heckling from right wing Jewish legislators, if not from Arab representatives.
Among topics discussed between Obama and his Israeli hosts was the rapidly deteriorating situation in Syria, the continuing political and economic crisis in Egypt, and the escalating nuclear development program in Iran. This came as Iran's supreme leader warned in a message delivered while Obama was speaking that both Tel Aviv and Haifa would be obliterated if the IDF attacks his nuclear facilities. Just one day before the President's arrived, chemical weapons were reportedly used in a suburb of the Syrian capital city of Damascus and in the country's largest city and financial center, Aleppo, leaving dozens of people dead or wounded. Russia backed the Assad regime's claim that rebel forces had deployed the deadly weapons, while commanders of the so-called Free Syrian Army pointed an accusative finger at the besieged Assad government.
Soon after the ominous story broke, a senior Israeli army commander stationed on the Golan Heights said his forces were preparing for the likely prospect the IDF will soon be drawn into the prolonged Syrian conflict, which the United Nations reports has left over 70,000 people dead since March 2011. Several days after Obama flew back to Washington, Syrian army forces fired on an IDF position in the north, prompting a strong Israeli response. Heavy fighting took place all month close to the border between regime forces and their Hizbullah and Iranian partners, battling rebel fighters who are mostly thought to be Syrian Sunni Muslim fundamentalists supported by growing numbers from Iraq, Libya and other regional Sunni Arab countries. In nearby Lebanon, the sudden resignation of Prime Minister Jadib Mikati prompted armed clashes in several parts of the increasingly Shiite Hizbullah-run country.
The big surprise of Obama's visit was the last minute announcement that PM Netanyahu had phoned hostile Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to satisfy his demand for a formal apology over the deaths of nine Muslim militants aboard a Turkish ship trying to break the Israeli Gaza Strip naval blockade in 2010. Brokered by the US leader, the announcement was welcomed by some members of Netanyahu's new cabinet and condemned as a humiliating sellout by Avigdor Leiberman and many others. The former Foreign Minister noted that a UN investigation had ruled Israel had a legal right to enforce its weapons blockade and was therefore not responsible for the clash at sea. The Israeli leader later made clear he had only agreed to the controversial apology because of the deteriorating situation in Syria, indicating that military action against the crumbling Assad regime by Israel and/or NATO forces, including Turkey, may be in the offing. Erdogan subsequently revealed he was not yet ready to restore normal ties with Israel despite Netanyahu's apology.
To the south, more violent anti-government protests took place in Egypt during the month, some not far from Israel's Sinai border with the Arab world's largest country. Most of the demonstrators demanded that Muslim Brotherhood member Muhammad Morsi resign his presidential post. To the east of Israel, the struggling county of Jordan, now being flooded by Syrian refugees, was the scene of more anti-government demonstrations by Islamic fundamentalist groups aligned with the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas.
TWISTS AND TURNS
In the months before Israeli Jewish and Arab voters went to the polls last January to elect a new parliament, all opinion surveys forecast a substantial victory for Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud party. At least this was the case until he announced that his party was merging with Avigdor Leiberman's Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel is Our Home) party. However when the Foreign Minister was indicted on several criminal charges in December, things began to change. Still, Netanyahu's American political strategist, Arthur Finkelstein, reportedly assured the Premier the joint list would still receive at least 42 seats, and possibly as many as 45, which is well over one-third of the Knesset's 120 members. Of course, in the end that did not happen, with Likud Beiteinu winning just 31 seats, a substantial drop of 11 seats from the total that the two merged parties held in the last Knesset. As many Israeli commentators pointed out, the politician dubbed "King of Israel" by America's Time magazine last year now seemed to have something other than royal blood running through his veins.
As noted in last month's report, 31 is also the exact number of seats that two other parties received in the national vote: The new centrist Yesh Atid party, which won an unexpectedly high 19 seats, and the Jewish Home party, widely supported by Jewish voters living in the disputed territories north and south of Jerusalem. Still, Netanyahu was confident he could persuade at least one of the victorious parties to join his government along with his traditional coalition partners. His main usual partner has been the Sephardic religious Shas party, which captured 11 seats, one more than in the last Knesset, and the United Torah Judaism (UTJ) party, which gained two more seats than it controlled in the previous parliament for a new total of seven.
The PM originally aimed his coalition-building efforts at Yair Lapid, the popular Yesh Atid leader who is well known to most Israelis from his days as a witty television talk show host and news anchorman, and also from his widely-read opinion column printed in the country's largest newspaper, Yediot Achronot. Netanyahu thought it would be relatively easy to recruit Lapid, especially since he had no previous political experience apart from being the son of the late Tommy Lapid. His sharp-tongued father served in Ariel Sharon's cabinet as Justice Minister after his centrist Shinui (Change) party won 15 seats in the 2003 elections. Like his son, he had previously worked in radio and television.
However also like his son, Tommy Lapid was known for his fierce opposition to the growing role that Israel's ever-expanding ultra Orthodox community plays in the Jewish State. Echoing Shinui, Yesh Atid's election platform included calls for state funding to be sharply reduced for religious school systems run by both Shas and UTJ, and for most young ultra Orthodox men to be drafted into the army or some other form of national service. Having frequently written about these issues in his popular opinion column, Yair Lapid pointed out that when his father entered politics in the late 1990s, the number of religious Jews exempted from national service amounted to around 20% of the overall Israeli population. Today that number is closer to 30%. Government financial assistance to usually large ultra Orthodox families was therefore also eating up a growing percentage of the stretched state budget, largely due to the fact that most young fathers do not have jobs, meaning they pay little if any taxes. Instead, they actually drain the tax coffers by receiving state stipends to study at Jewish religious seminaries on top of government assistance for their normally large families.
THE DEVIL IS IN THE DETAILS
Benjamin Netanyahu was quite aware that all Israeli opinion surveys have shown for many years that an ever growing number of taxpayers resent the above noted realities and want their government leaders to alter them. That was exactly what Lapid and his Yesh Atid colleagues pledged to do if they joined or formed any new government (few expected the political novice to be asked by President Peres to actually attempt to put together a new government). Yet the question was how the veteran Premier could stitch together a stable coalition including both the two large religious parties and Lapid's new secular party-which had basically pledged to significantly curb their political and financial powers. This seemed especially problematic since both Shas and UTJ leaders had characterized Lapid as the devil incarnate in their campaign ads.
As noted in last month's report, it was therefore widely expected that the Premier would put together a coalition with his traditional religious allies and Naftali Bennett's Jewish Home party, which has many modern Orthodox Jewish supporters who hold jobs and serve in the army. This was especially the case after Netanyahu surprised almost everyone by successfully drafting Tzipi Livni into his new coalition by promising her control over the pivotal Justice Ministry and a major role in the struggling peace process. It was assumed that Bennett would serve as a good balance to the liberal former Kadima party leader.
However there was one serious obstacle in the way of forming the original coalition Netanyahu had in mind: His wife is known to despise Bennett, who served as her husband's chief of staff when he was opposition leader from 2006 until 2008. The handsome 40 year old Haifa-born Jewish Home leader, whose parents Jim and Myrna Bennett immigrated to Israel from San Francisco soon after the Six Day War to join Jim's parents who were already living near Israel's third largest city, apparently rubbed Sara Netanyahu the wrong way. Israeli media reports claimed she insisted that his party be left off of the coalition train.
AN ALLLIANCE FROM HELL?
Despite his wife's aversion to his former aid, it was widely assumed that the PM would be forced to ignore her and welcome Naftali Bennett and his 11 Knesset colleagues to come on board his coalition train, which eventually took place. But very few expected before the January elections that Bennett-a kippa-wearing observant Jew-would end up forging what he later termed "an unbreakable alliance" with the very secular Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid. However that is also exactly what took place, with both relatively young nascent politicians, who share very few political positions in common, pledging to stay out of the Premier's coalition if the other was not also included. Israeli media reports said Netanyahu tried in every conceivable way to break the new bond, obviously without success. This forced him to choose between the new Yesh Atid-Jewish Home block of 31 seats, or his traditional ultra Orthodox partners whose combined numbers only amounted to 18 seats. Therefore without the inclusion of either Bennett or Lapid, the PM would only be ruling a minority government of just 55 seats (or more likely 57 if the Kadima party added its paltry two seats to the mix). Analysts said such a government would probably not have survived its first no-confidence vote, given that both Bennett and Lapid vowed that if they were left warming the opposition benches they would bring Netanyahu down.
So in the end, the veteran Likud leader was forced to exclude his usual religious allies, who bitterly condemned the move in very harsh terms. Scorn was heaped on the Premier for naming Lapid as his new Finance Minister, with an ability to draw up government spending budgets and thus help to carry out his campaign pledges to cut state funding for religious schools and other ultra Orthodox institutions, and to reduce child support stipends. One of the main spiritual leaders of the Ashkenazi spiritual world, Rabbi Aharon Shteinman, called Lapid "an evil man who grew up with an evil father." He also argued that it would be "impossible" for any of his fellow ultra Orthodox Jews to maintain their faith if forced to serve in the armed forces. Rabbi Moshe Gafni, the leading UTJ Knesset representative, characterized the new coalition as "the worst government in Israel's history" in both spiritual and material terms.
Although Yair Lapid desperately wanted the prestigious post of Foreign Minister, Netanyahu was able in the end to persuade him that his campaign agenda would be better served if he became Finance Minister. The Premier will hold the diplomatic post himself until it becomes clear if the indicted Lieberman will be able to keep his pledge to clear his name and return to his former cabinet position. This effectively means that the Likud branch of the joint party will control all three senior government positions for the first time in many years, since new Defense Minister Ya'alon is also a member of the party. However this did not satisfy many Likud members, with most ministers either remaining in their previous postings or being booted out to make room for Yesh Atid, Jewish Home and Hatnuah members.
NETANYAHU'S NEW CABINET
In all, PM Netanyahu's new cabinet contains nine Likud ministers, including the Premier. Among them is the hawkish security expert Yuval Steinitz, pegged to serve as Minister of Intelligence, International Relations (meaning he will have an official say on the Foreign Minister's turf) and Minister of Strategic Affairs. However he will not sit on Netanyahu's new eight-member inner security cabinet. Like Steinitz, former Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom will hold three titles, including Minister of Regional Cooperation and Minister of Energy and Water Resources. Other Likud ministers will control the strategic Communications Ministry and, for the first time in many years, the important Interior Ministry, which will be run by veteran Likud politician Gideon Sa'ar. The Shas party was said to be especially perturbed to lose the Interior posting since the ministry has a large say over who is allowed in and out of the Jewish State, and also plays a significant role in allocating government funding for local municipalities.
The Russian immigrant based Yisrael Beiteinu branch of the new joint party with the Likud received four cabinet positions (actually five if Leiberman returns to his post), including Agriculture, Tourism and its usual control over the Immigrant and Absorption Ministry. Along with the pivotal Finance Ministry, Yair Lapid secured five other cabinet assignments for his There is a Future party, including control over the important Education and Health Ministries. Despite its relatively small size, Natfali Bennett's Jewish Home party will run four government ministries, three of them substantial assignments. Along with Finance, Bennett will also serve as Religious Affairs Minister, meaning for the first time in many years a non-ultra Orthodox national Zionist observant Jew (as he is) will oversee the Chief Rabbinate. It wields significant power over all Jewish marriages and burials in Israel, and many other things related to Judaism. Bennett has vowed to appoint Zionistic Jews like himself to key positions in the Chief Rabbinate offices. His party will also control the powerful Housing and Construction Ministry, meaning it will have a large say in future government building projects in the disputed territories where many of his party's supporters dwell.
As an apparent reward for her early support for Netanyahu's new coalition, Tzipi Livni's small Hatnuah party received one additional cabinet position beyond her own prestigious Justice Ministry appointment. Her dovish colleague, former Labor party leader and Defense Minister Amir Peretz, was named Minister of Environmental Protection, which fits Livni's campaign emphasis on environmental and other social issues. Livni will serve with Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett on PM Netanyahu's new eight member inner security cabinet, which will make any final decisions concerning a potential IDF military strike upon Iran's nuclear production targets and other pressing regional security issues. This is despite the fact that none of the three new party leaders have any experience dealing with national security issues. Russian immigrant politician Ze'ev Elkin, who was a member of Ariel Sharon's Kadima party but quit to join the Likud after charging that Kadima had veered too far to the left, was named Deputy Foreign Minister. Likud member Danny Danon, who joined Moshe Ya'alon in his outspoken opposition to Sharon's highly controversial Gaza withdrawal, was named Deputy Defense Minister.
CHARM OFFENSIVE HITS ISRAEL
There was little question concerning Barrack Obama's main public goal in making his first state visit to Israel. Almost all pundits said he clearly came to woo over the Israeli people, who have been telling pollsters over the past four years they perceive him as the least friendly American leader since Israel's re-birth in 1948. The US President's visit was labeled a "charm offensive" by many commentators, with Obama saying all the right things he knew would tickle Israeli ears. Among them was stating several times that the United States will remain a strong ally of Israel no matter what comes along. More than that, he spoke extensively about Israeli security needs in the increasingly turbulent Middle East, and emotionally acknowledged the extensive suffering the Jewish people have endured at the hands of their enemies both historically and today.
President Obama's pro-Israel remarks were mostly embedded in his Jerusalem speech, delivered before carefully selected young students from all Israeli universities, except the one in the city of Ariel. The omission from the only university located in the disputed territories was condemned by many right wing Knesset members, who had earlier expressed surprise that the American leader chose to address the Israeli people in front of mainly left wing students rather than before Israel's elected representatives. Given the make up of his enthusiastic audience, it was not a big surprise that many also applauded and cheered when he delivered his few critical remarks about Israel. Among those was his contention that Israel can "remain Jewish and democratic only through the realization of an independent and viable Palestine." He was loudly applauded when he said, "Neither occupation nor expulsion is the answer," adding that, "Palestinians have a right to be a free people in their own land." These comment prompted Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett to point out that "a nation does not 'occupy' its own land." Indicating the future clashes he will probably have with coalition partner Tzipi Livni, he also stated that "A Palestinian state is not the right way" to arrive at a lasting peace accord. Others noted that the Palestinians actually already have not one, but two states: In the Gaza Strip under Hamas rule, and in most parts of Judea and Samaria under Palestinian Authority control.
Many analysts said the private part of Obama's Israel visit was undoubtedly by far the most important one. This included many hours of off-record meetings with PM Netanyahu, exceeding what had been scheduled. The talks were assumed to have focused on the quaking Middle East; seemingly perched on the edge of a massive explosion that could make previous wars look relatively tame by comparison. They said the public emphasis on the frozen peace process was window dressing for the real action going on behind the scenes. Indications this was indeed the case were many, including the surprise last minute rapprochement engineered by Obama between Israel and Turkey-both key American allies in the unraveling region-and several public remarks by the US leader that echoed Netanyahu warning of possible pending Western military action against the Syrian and Iranian regimes.
Whatever occurred in the unseen realms during the Obama visit, it is clear that the visible situation in this trembling region is increasingly grave. While we pray for the peace of Jerusalem, as instructed in Psalm 122, let us also remember with thanksgiving that it was the Lord Himself who promised long ago to both restore His ancient Jewish people to their Promised Land and to watch over them there. "Thus says the Lord of Hosts; behold, I am going to save My people from the land of the east and from the land of the west. And I will bring them back, and they will live in the midst of Jerusalem, and they will be My people and I will be there God in truth and righteousness (Zechariah 8:7-8).
DAVID DOLAN is a Jerusalem-based author and journalist who has lived and worked in Israel since 1980.