Politics: A tale of two premierships

A look at the potential pitfalls for the prime minister’s coalition in its second year.

By GIL STERN STERN HOFFMAN
March 26, 2010 17:23
Netanyahu and Barak.

Netanyahu Barak 311. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)

‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” Charles Dickens wrote in 1859, describing the contrast between peasantry and aristocracy in Paris and London in his novel A Tale of Two Cities.

The opening line of that acclaimed work of fiction could just as easily describe Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s first year in office, which ended Sunday on the Hebrew calendar and will come to a conclusion on the civil calendar on Wednesday.

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The political quiet that Netanyahu enjoyed inside his coalition would normally be a cause for celebration by a prime minister looking back at his first year in office. But Netanyahu is in no position to celebrate after a harrowing year in Israel’s relationship with its allies around the world, most notably the United States, Britain and Turkey.

The year in domestic politics ended with debates on matters of religion and state that highlighted one of the major fault lines inside his coalition, which will undoubtedly intensify in its second year but is not expected to deteriorate into a major tremor.

The year in international politics, by contrast, concluded with an earthquake instigated by US President Barack Obama that a well-versed historian like Israel’s ambassador to Washington Michael Oren may no longer deny is the worst in decades.

The intense pressure applied by Obama enabled Netanyahu to build what has often amounted to a consensus in Israel, as has developed whenever the Jewish state has been threatened by foes or purported friends. It has long been axiomatic that external threats create the internal unity required to counter the external threats.

But adversaries endeavor to sow discord, and that is the case with reported messages from Washington that the prime minister must break up a coalition that represents the overwhelming majority of Israelis from moderate Left to moderate Right and shift leftward to merit US support in preventing Iran from becoming an existential threat.

Sources close to Netanyahu vowed not to break up a coalition that has functioned so well, just to satisfy Obama’s dictates. They said they would be happy if Kadima joined the government to help Israel at such a challenging time, but that the centrist party could not come at the expense of one of the preexisting partners on the Right.

Coalition chairman Ze’ev Elkin downplayed both the chances of Obama causing a coalition upheaval and the impact the president has had on keeping the coalition united. He attributed the political stability that Netanyahu has enjoyed to a genuine desire by the coalition partners to settle their differences privately and prevent them getting out of hand.

“We have had our share of problems, but we found solutions quietly,” Elkin said. “There were problems that the public doesn’t even know about, but we proved we can overcome them behind the scenes and not lose a single vote in the Knesset plenum or committee despite the challenge of having so few MKs who are not ministers.”

EXACTLY A year ago Saturday, The Jerusalem Post published a preview of the potential political pitfalls Netanyahu would face in the coalition’s first year on five fronts: economic, religious, legal, political and diplomatic issues. The guide included timetables for trouble on each topic.

The prime minister easily overcame all of them, which is not supposed to be a challenge in the first year of a government when elections are not in the air, but is nonetheless an accomplishment for Netanyahu, who saw two key ministers quit in his first year in office the last time he was prime minister.

Netanyahu’s associates take it for granted that when it comes to the problems internationally, the worst of times will continue, because of the nature of the administration in Washington. They questioned whether Israel would be going through any less of a tough time had Ehud Olmert still been prime minister and making his substantial offers to the Palestinians, which undoubtedly would also have been pooh-poohed by an adversarial White House.

But will the best of times continue in internal politics? That depends on how Netanyahu handles the challenges ahead on the same five fronts as last year.

Economic – Key date: July 14

Last year’s article predicted no significant problems on this front due to Netanyahu’s decision to pass a two-year budget. That proved correct, but the prime minister had to put up with populist MKs in his party who gave him headaches when they joined up with Shas on initiatives like a proposed sales tax on fruits and vegetables.

The precedent Netanyahu set by giving in whenever he was faced with disputes on the budget could cause political problems for the prime minister as elections come closer and MKs’ feelings of independence inevitably increase. Knesset Finance Committee chairman Moshe Gafni and Labor MKs will fight against a bill mandating another two-year budget that Elkin wants to pass before the summer recess begins July 14.

Religion and state – Key date: October

A year ago, speculation focused on how Israel Beiteinu, Shas and United Torah Judaism could find compromises on conversion and civil unions for couples seeking to be legally recognized without an Orthodox ceremony. In a prediction that turned out correct, the article said, “The government’s survival could depend on haredi rabbis making compromises, which is never a good risk to take.”

That is still correct now, when it is closer to the deadline Israel Beiteinu set for passing a proposal to follow up last month’s passage of civil unions for non-Jews with similar legislation for Jews who cannot marry according to Jewish law. The deadline is in August, which means it won’t be dealt with until October, after the holidays end. Deadlines for reaching a compromise on conversion have come and gone, but the issue will continue to cause problems in the coalition.

Kadima has worked hard to embarrass Israel Beiteinu leader Avigdor Lieberman in the Russian-language press over his failure to advance his civil agenda and allowing the passage of Sunday’s vote to move a proposed emergency room at Ashkelon’s Barzilai Hospital because ancient graves were found there. If Lieberman needs an excuse to quit the coalition, this could be a convenient one.

Legal – Key date: Unknown

This has not changed since last year, even though the attorney-general has. New Attorney-General Yehuda Weinstein holds the key to the stability of Netanyahu’s government.

If Weinstein decides to indict Lieberman, he will quit, even though he is not legally required to do so. Lieberman has said that Israel Beiteinu would remain in the coalition. But if the party’s future is in doubt, its MKs who are notorious for being conveniently monolithic could suddenly discover their independence.

All indications are that Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon would hold the portfolio for three months under Netanyahu, but after that, the prime minister would have to appoint a replacement for Lieberman, which could cause new political problems or create an opportunity to bring in Kadima.

Politics – Key date: April 15

Last year’s article incorrectly predicted that the biggest challenge for the coalition would be a Labor leadership race that, by the party’s bylaws, had to take place by April 10, 2010 and could have unseated Labor chairman Ehud Barak. But Barak crushed Labor’s rebellion and succeeded in delaying the race until October 2012.

Despite speculation that Barak would cause Netanyahu the same problems he gave Olmert, the two men have gotten along extremely well, and Barak has acted as Netanyahu’s top salesman to the world. Netanyahu even brought Barak to Washington this week in an unsuccessful effort to defuse tensions with Obama.

There are no internal primaries set in any of the coalition parties. But Netanyahu could face annoyances from the Likud central committee when rightists try to pass a proposal requiring construction in Judea and Samaria to restart when the 10-month moratorium ends September 25.

That central committee meeting was supposed to take place last Thursday, and a new date for it must be set by April 15.

Diplomatic – Key date: September 25

No substantial diplomatic test for the coalition was expected at this time last year, until a Palestinian election was set to be held in January that could have highlighted differences among coalition parties about how to advance the peace process. That vote did not take place, but problems on this front were obviously plentiful.

As predicted, differences between Lieberman on the Right and Barak on the Left did not flare up. Nevertheless, Netanyahu discovered that his range of flexibility on diplomatic issues would not be between the views of his foreign and defense ministers, but between the sympathetic view of US Vice President Joe Biden while he is happy and the rigidity of Obama when he is angry, or between US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s praise in one conversation and her condemnation in another.

Labor ministers are threatening to force the party to bolt the coalition if Netanyahu keeps his promise to restart construction in Judea and Samaria after the moratorium ends September 25.

That threat could be advanced as pressure increases from Washington to extend the freeze now.

Netanyahu was expected to convene the inner security cabinet Thursday night to decide how to respond to Obama’s latest demands. Even if Netanyahu partially yields to pressure from the president, the right-wing parties in the coalition have so far proven to be understanding of the situation he is in, so chances are that they will continue their track record of not flexing their muscles.

How Netanyahu handles all these challenges will determine whether the second year of his government will be, as Dickens writes, “the age of wisdom” or “the age of foolishness,” “the spring of hope” or “the winter of despair.”


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