Opinion: Waking Up from the Coalition Nightmare

The elections in Israel are over, but there’s still no government yet. The diversity of parties in Israel has reached a critical point at which forming a coalition is extremely difficult. Forming a stable coalition? Nearly impossible. The Right bloc, according to final vote tallies from Haaretz, will take a narrow majority of 61 seats—barely enough and extremely vulnerable to internal politics.

But the Left can’t even form a government, because there’s not really a true centrist bloc that could give them the edge. In fact, it appears as though forming an effective government will be quite a challenge for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But there is one way to do it best—as long as the West lets them.

Netanyahu’s Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu joint ticket is again the largest group in the new Knesset (parliament) with 31 seats. But while that may be more than a quarter of the Knesset’s 120 mandates, it is a far cry from being a power party that can dictate the terms of the next coalition.

That’s because the next largest party—the center-left Yesh Atid led by former journalist Yair Lapid—won 19 seats and appears to represent a lot of the middle class angst that has redefined the Israeli political map. The leftist Labor party, a strong opponent of Netanyahu, is the third largest with 15 seats.

What this means is that Netanyahu is looking at a formidable opposition that is growing and ready to pounce if the next coalition stumbles, unless he can somehow convince Yesh Atid to join him. Of all the parties on the Left in Israel, Yesh Atid is the most capable of working with Netanyahu since their mostly internal agenda of helping the secular middle class can gel nicely with a Netanyahu government.

The Rightwing Mirage

The reality is that Netanyahu could form a 61-seat rightwing government. But that will leave him exposed politically to the whims of even the smallest party. In light of that, the internal demands of the Israeli public—growing the economy, better sharing the public burden and lowering the cost of living—will be very difficult to accomplish with all the loud voices in the coalition.

Furthermore, any splits in any of the parties, should any groups within parties get dissatisfied and seek to pursue their own goals, will bring down the government. Stability is out the window.

On top of all of that is the risk that a rightist government will be far easier for the liberal governments of Europe to unfairly pick on and possibly even punish as the Palestinian conflict just gets worse.

The Palestinians have a brutally effective PR system that has no qualms with deception. Painting a rightist Israeli government as the roadblock to peace, even if it’s really the Palestinians who refuse to compromise, will be too easy.

The Ideal Coalition

So what is the answer?

A grand coalition, focused on internal issues first, that centers itself on the parties who most want to help the Israeli middle class. This would take Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu (31 seats), Yesh Atid (19 seats) and the rightist Habayit Hayehudi party (12 seats) as the core of the coalition. Together, they would hold a 62-seat majority in the Knesset. While still susceptible to internal splits, this bloc would have the power to accomplish important goals in Israel and thereby be more likely to maintain a stable government.

What are those goals? Firstly, all three groups see the need to run a better economy that benefits the middle class. The price of housing is a real concern, and making headway there would really score political points. Habayit Hayehudi is led by an Israeli-American millionaire, Naftali Bennett, who knows how to run a successful business. Netanyahu has been a successful finance minister in the past ,and Yesh Atid is committed to helping the middle class in Israel.

The other major need is to address the issue of army service in Israel. Today, it is far too easy to get exemptions from service by engaging in religious study. Not everyone should be a full-time student. While Yesh Atid are pushing this issue the hardest, the religious Habayit Hayehudi believe the system should be more evenhanded as well.

By forming a government that stabilizes without the ultra-orthodox parties, who have understandable qualms about changing the system, a wise approach to this delicate issue will be easier to find. Another party that could fit with this internally-focused approach is the two-seat Kadima party.

Kadima, remember, already tried to join a Netanyahu coalition last year, and it collapsed over the army service issue. Therefore, if they can set aside the Palestinian conflict as the less important issue for them, they could bring yet another faction and Israeli voting bloc into the fold. That makes a 64-seat coalition that is relatively stable and encompasses two parties each from the Right and the Left.

And it’s not as though the ultra-orthodox Shas and United Torah Judaism (UTJ) parties can’t be part of the process. In fact, if they’re willing to make a grand compromise on the army service issue, including their joint 18 seats in the coalition would make it a powerful, broad group that holds more than two-thirds of the Knesset. It would truly represent the overwhelming majority of Israel.

It also wouldn’t be held hostage by narrow constituencies. Netanyahu’s parties, Yesh Atid and Habayit Hayehudi could all reach agreement on a plan to dramatically improve Israel internally.

The Dangers

That doesn’t mean there aren’t pitfalls to this approach. The first is that Yesh Atid’s dramatic rise to the second-largest party could give them an itch to bring the government down and try to win it all in the next election.

What could stop them? Yesh Atid’s own political platform—which actually calls for government stability. They want to change the government system in Israel by raising the threshold to topple a government from a simple majority of 61 votes to 70 of the 120 Knesset votes. So that’s one reason they wouldn’t just bring it all down on a whim.

What’s more, this government could accomplish much of their agenda and set them up to be extremely popular and successful next time.

Problem two is that a 64-seat group—assuming the ultra-orthodox parties don’t join—is still at risk of collapsing due to party splits. Yet with a relatively focused agenda and the fact that just three parties would form the foundation of the coalition encourages hope that such instability would not be a factor.

Lastly, and perhaps most seriously, is the risk that Yesh Atid could balk at the opportunity and not join the government at all over the Palestinian issue. Ynet reported that they intend to make resuming talks with the Palestinians a core demand for joining the coalition. And Habayit Hayehudi is strongly opposed to a “land for peace” deal that historically has only brought more war, not peace.

Technically, Yesh Atid’s apparent desire not to divide Jerusalem is probably enough of an issue of debate to prevent talks with the Palestinians from achieving a deal any time soon. So Habayit Hayehudi might be willing to risk sitting in a government that’s talking to the Palestinians, knowing they can always collapse the coalition if things get too serious. It beats letting the coalition form without them and having even more drive towards it.

Plus, so far the Palestinians haven’t shown a strong desire to even talk without first getting outrageous Israeli concessions at the outset. So as long as Yesh Atid is willing to simply try and not demand that Israel jump through all the hoops, this government can work.

West, Back Off

What might cause it to crack is external pressure. The Europeans and the Americans have long sought an Israeli territorial compromise with the Palestinians despite the evident dangers of such a deal. Now the Palestinians are getting more aggressive diplomatically and are threatening to even take Israel before the International Criminal Court for trumped up war crimes charges.

Should the Europeans turn on Israel and try to use boycotts or even sanctions to pressure them to bend over backwards for the Palestinians, it could harm the Israeli economy enough that Yesh Atid would demand the government act or threaten to bring down the coalition.

Should the US start to turn on Israel, this process will only get worse. In other words, perhaps the biggest threat to Israel finally being able to make real headway on internal issues, to really have a truly stable government that can accomplish critical needs for the country, is the West.

The West should back off of Israel. It’s not their fault the Palestinians pulled out of peace talks and have refused to re-engage for more than two years. It’s not their fault the Palestinians keep making new demands of Israel before they’re even wiling to resume negotiations. It’s not their fault the Palestinians continue incitement against Israel, while Hamas and violence are growing in popularity for the Palestinians.

It’s time for the West to pressure the Palestinians to really reform, or at least take a broader perspective, realize what’s happening and be willing to wait for a better, healthier environment. There are more serious issues at hand.

Let Israel’s democracy work. Give a new Israeli government room to do what it needs to do. Don’t let a narrow and clouded perspective on a secondary conflict veto the Israeli vote.

Right now, there’s one hope for Israel to wake up from what looked like a political nightmare and actually get something done. So dear governments of the West, please don’t frighten Israel back to sleep—especially not just for your unattainable and irresponsible Middle East pipedream.

(By Joshua Spurlock, www.themideastupdate.com, January 24, 2012)