The new politicians

The results of the election seem to be a sign of in with the new, but not out with the old

February 20, 2013 11:21
Bibi 521

Bibi 521. (photo credit: OLIVER WEIKEN/REUTERS)

A new spirit is abroad in Israeli politics.

Young new Knesset Members and the young people who elected them are demanding a new, more open and honest politics that deals fearlessly with the real problems the country faces. They are tired of the jaded old ways, of power wielded for its own sake or to advance the goals of small special-interest groups.

The new politics means not allowing single- sector parties like the ultra-Orthodox Haredim to hold the majority for ransom; it means no-nonsense problem-solving on a national scale. It is Israel’s belated version of the regional spring. And like its Arab counterpart, it holds out hope for a better future, tinged with potential for profound disappointment.

The politician most in tune with the new mood is Yesh Atid’s Yair Lapid. “We have come to change things,” he promised during the election run-up. So far he has been as good as his word. Immediately after the election, he dismissed any thought of trying to build a blocking alliance of the center-left to prevent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from forming a new government. What this breakaway from old-style bloc politics did was to prevent the Haredi parties from playing both sides and putting the squeeze on Netanyahu for their support.

In his maiden Knesset speech, Lapid shrugged off ultra-Orthodox threats of major civil disturbances if yeshiva students are drafted. “There will be no civil war, because 10 percent of the population cannot threaten the rest,” he declared. He went on to argue that “the education, welfare and even the health budgets are not determined by public needs but by coalition pressure,” decrying this as a prime example of the old politics that must stop.

Most importantly, Lapid’s new politics means tackling endemic strategic problems everyone knows should be solved, but which have proved intractable in the old politics. He has targeted three key issues – equal sharing of the defense burden, that is drafting yeshiva students and making it clear who rules Israel, the elected representatives not the rabbis; changing the electoral system to create a stronger executive less susceptible to minority extortion; and addressing the Palestinian problem to secure Israel’s future as a Jewish and democratic state.

Lapid is not the only new politician on the block: Labor’s Shelly Yacimovich has made ideology-over-expedience her calling card; Naftali Bennett of Bayit Yehudi insists his party is not merely a pressure group for the settlers; and during the election campaign Eldad Yaniv, a former aide to Defense Minister Ehud Barak, made waves especially among the young with a series of unprecedentedly daring Internet exposés of “the system” (he did not manage to get elected).

In the last two Knessets, Hatnua’s Tzipi Livni, then Kadima, played the new-style principled politician. But in her rise and fall lies a cautionary tale: She lost credibility by failing to move things, and crashed against the manipulative old politics of Netanyahu, Barak, Shas and company. Clearly, if they are to make a serious impact, the new politicians are going to have to take on and beat the old school at their own game, without corrupting themselves in the process.

Of the 120 members of the new Knesset, 48 are new faces; all 19 of Lapid’s Yesh Atid are first-time legislators; both Lapid and Bennett, the leaders of two of the larger parties, are new to the Knesset. All the rookies come with impressive credentials, fresh ideas and innovative ways of doing things. For example, Labor’s Stav Shaffir, at 27 the youngest member of the Knesset, has already set up a social justice caucus to solicit public feedback on social needs and find solutions to specific problems.

More importantly, the new politics and fresh politicians will be judged on the degree to which they are able to solve the big strategic issues Lapid has put on the table. Progress on all three is imperative.

Haredim serving in the army or doing national service, which afterwards makes it possible for them to join the workforce, is vital because of the demographics. At present, the ultra-Orthodox make up just over 8 percent of the population. If current trends continue, by 2030, the figure will be over 17 percent, or one out of every six Israelis. No government will be able to go on making welfare payments to such vast numbers of unemployed Haredim and continue to fund basic social and defense needs. The economy would simply collapse.

That is why Eugene Kandel, the prime minister’s chief economic adviser, has been working on a compromise proposal that Likud politicians hope will be acceptable to both Lapid and the ultra-Orthodox parties.

Kandel’s proposal includes vocational training programs for yeshiva dropouts, graded enlistment of Haredim over a five-year period, and a system of financial incentives and fines to encourage yeshivas to send lesser students to enlist.

The second goal will be to tweak the electoral system to facilitate government in the wider national interest. Two of the key ideas are to make the leader of the largest party automatically prime minister and to raise the election threshold from 2 percent to around 5 percent. The thinking behind this is that it will lead parties to merge, both to avoid missing the threshold and to create a platform for their preferred candidate to become prime minister.

Theoretically, fewer parties should promote greater stability. Moreover, since the prime minister will automatically be the leader of the largest party, other parties won’t be able to blackmail various contenders, offering their support to the highest bidder, as has often been the case in the past. For obvious reasons, these amendments have been opposed by the ultra-Orthodox and the smaller parties for years. In this Knesset, however, there could be a majority for change.

The most significant strategic issue the new politics could affect is peacemaking with the Palestinians. After Lapid made renewal of stalled peace negotiations a condition for joining the government, Netanyahu intimated that he, too, would like to see progress towards the two-state solution that has eluded previous Israeli administrations. This has created a unique opportunity for the international community to help create a new framework for negotiations.

US President Barack Obama will be able to exploit this when he visits Israel in late March. Obama may well present the parties with new terms of references for reengagement, focusing first on territory and security, with the issues of Jerusalem and refugees coming later. He could also bring in regional players like Jordan and Egypt to help take a wider peacemaking process forward. One idea is to launch the new process with a summit in Jordan, at King Abdullah’s Aqaba palace.

The trouble with all this is that Netanyahu is still marching to the beat of the old politics, with all the attendant wheeler-dealing.

He has been trying to break up the ad hoc alliance between Lapid and Bennett and play Yacimovich off against them both. He has also been working to split both Labor and Bayit Yehudi, aiming to lure some members of each into the new coalition. And whereas the Lapid-Bennett alliance is designed to keep the ultra-Orthodox out of government, at least until the draft issue is settled, Netanyahu is determined to bring them in from day one.

There are also strong forces militating against movement on the Palestinian track.

Over the past four years, Netanyahu did little to take the process forward, and Lapid, the supposed catalyst for a new beginning, is no dove either. In Lapid’s view, former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert went too far in his negotiations with the Palestinians, and should never have put Jerusalem or refugees on the table. But without give-and-take on the core issues, what kind of progress will be possible with the Palestinians? And what if Bennett joins the government, adding his adamant opposition to the two-state solution to that in Netanyahu’s own Likud-Beytenu faction? How far would Netanyahu be able to go then? The new politics gives hope for better things. But the old system is so entrenched that it could prove too tough for the new generation to overcome. New politics or old, the key player for now is Netanyahu.

Past experience has shown that he promises much, but delivers little. Will Netanyahu Mark 3, impressed by the changes around him, be any different?

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