The dramatic coup by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and opposition leader Shaul Mofaz in forming a national unity government and setting aside elections until October 2013 has dazzled the nation.
For more than three years in this column I repeatedly appealed for the creation of a unity government, to facilitate decision-making in the face of the national challenges confronting us. Regrettably, former Kadima leader Tzipi Livni’s egomania and obsessive hatred of Netanyahu made this impossible.
In truth, beyond personalities and ambitions, there was no ideological obstacle preventing the Likud and Kadima, both essentially pragmatic (and opportunistic) centrist political parties, from forming a unity bloc. Most members of the Likud and Kadima could easily trade parties without compromising their outlook.
The vast majority of Israelis will undoubtedly welcome this move which, if managed effectively, could finally overcome the great divide which has so hurt the nation since the era of the Oslo Accords.
The creation of a centrist government of 94 lawmakers also provides the possibility to tackle a host of major political, social and identity issues that were relegated to the back burner because of the excessive veto power of small hardline or one-dimensional parties which have until now controlled the balance of power in the Knesset.
It could make Netanyahu one of the most powerful prime ministers Israel has ever had. By following a responsible centrist policy he will no longer be subject to blackmail or humiliation by the haredim, Yisrael Beytenu head Avigdor Liberman, the extreme Right fringes within the Likud or outside challengers like Yair Lapid. It will also immensely improve his global standing and relationship with President Barack Obama and the Americans in relation to the Iranian threat and Palestinian intransigency.
But Netanyahu is also taking an enormous risk. He was a virtual certainty to win the election, but if he mishandles this unity move, or due to time limitations fails to convince Israelis that the new government is determined to reform the system, this move could represent an end to his flourishing political career. It will require major legislation within nine to 12 months – a daunting but certainly not impossible challenge.
For Kadima and its leader Shaul Mofaz it represents a reprieve, because the party would have collapsed in an election, which explains its lack of concern for cabinet portfolios. Up to two-thirds of the sitting Kadima MKs would have been sent home if elections took place in September. Mofaz now has the opportunity – if he performs well – to regain the support of the electorate or to ultimately merge with the Likud.
The other beneficiary is Labor Party leader Shelly Yacimovich, who now emerges as a genuine leader of the opposition and may concentrate on social and economic issues, and possibly at a later stage still join the government.
In my opinion there are five crucial issues which Netanyahu and Mofaz must overcome if they are to win over the public.
• The first could be the most crucial, because it will set the tone for the new government: to restore the concept of cabinet responsibility.
The worst manifestations of dysfunctionality in recent Israeli governments were the tendency of individual ministers and coalition parties to act as though they represented independent fiefdoms rather than being responsible members of government. Netanyahu must ensure that once the government adopts a position, any minister who feels obliged to make a critical statement must resign.
• The second issue, which seems to have been agreed upon in advance, is to introduce the long overdue and desperately needed electoral reform designed to stabilize the government and to weaken the power of splinter groups to veto the will of the people.
• The third issue, also apparently agreed upon in principle, will undoubtedly prove to be the most challenging: the desperate need to review issues of religion and state, which could never previously be dealt with rationally, due to the opposition of the haredi parties controlling the balance of power.
The replacement for the “Tal Law” and the introduction of a form of national service for all Israeli citizens – Arabs as well as haredim – must be implemented if the national rage and bitterness generated by the burgeoning draft exemptions is to be overcome.
There are other religious issues such as the role of the Chief Rabbinate and the rabbinical courts in relation to marriage and conversions, and the imperative of ensuring that future generations of ultra-Orthodox Israelis are equipped with the education required to enable them to earn a livelihood and not remain lifelong recipients of welfare.
This will require courage on the part of both Netanyahu and Mofaz, both of whom seek to nurture the political support of the religious parties. If they merely introduce cosmetic reforms it will lead to a massive backlash at the next elections and provide strength for opposition parties.
• Fourth, the government must continue along the path of economic reform, especially as the European economic meltdown is likely to affect Israel over the next 12 months. The main focus should be to continue breaking the excessive control of a few large groups which inhibit competition in the market.
• Finally, there is a need to initiate an ongoing review of the education system which currently encourages tribalization of society in lieu of cementing national unity. Whilst the haredi and Arab sectors require considerable autonomy, it is imperative that in the long term all streams be obliged to implement a core curriculum which incorporates minimum standards for secular subjects and in which an atmosphere of national volunteerism is nurtured.
Theoretically, these objectives could all be achieved in a limited time and would enjoy the enthusiastic support of most Israelis.
Of course the most immediate benefit of this government would be the unity conveyed to the world and that the government, far from being a right-wing body, speaks in the name of the vast majority of Israelis. They seek peace and do not desire to rule over or absorb large numbers of Arabs.
Most would wish to see the major settlement blocs annexed to Israel, the adoption of defensible borders and the creation of a demilitarized Palestinian state. But they also recognize that this is impossible today due to the absence of a credible Palestinian peace partner. They have learnt from bitter experience that unilateral withdrawals and ceding territory in the absence of reciprocity are a prescription for disaster and endanger us all.
The presence of three former IDF chiefs of staff in the cabinet also gives us credibility in whatever steps we undertake about the threat of a nuclear Iran and will solidify grassroots support for us in the United States. It would also strengthen our relationship to Diaspora Jews and marginalize those abroad who have the gall to tell us that they know what is good for us better than we do.
The writer’s website can be viewed at www.wordfromjerusalem.com.
He may be contacted at email@example.com