Hillel Halkin’s lament in the Forward
last week, titled “An Israeli ballot with
no good options,” perfectly encapsulated what many voters feel. Indeed, I had
trouble disagreeing with his analysis of the various parties’ flaws. Yet I
couldn’t disagree more strongly with his conclusion.
politically to his right. But speaking as someone who wants our next government
to carry out the same kinds of domestic reforms as he does, I think centrists
who want to increase the odds of that happening actually have an excellent
Here’s Halkin’s analysis in a nutshell: Prime Minister
Binyamin Netanyahu isn’t as bad as he’s often painted; he “performed well on
Iran”; isn’t to blame for the Israeli-Palestinian stalemate; and “deserves
credit for standing firm on the West Bank and Jerusalem.”
But he “missed
golden opportunities to carry out the economic reforms he knows are needed, to
make Israel a more affordable place for its young people, and to spur the
integration of its haredi community into its army and society.”
should anyone think he’ll do differently next time around?
Kadima, Tzipi Livni’s
Hatnuah, and Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid are all little more than vanity vehicles,
while Naftali Bennett’s Bayit Yehudi obviously isn’t an option for
And though Halkin initially liked Labor, party leader
Shelly Yacimovich queered that idea by vowing not to join a Netanyahu
government, thereby nixing the chance of a centrist coalition that could enact
the necessary reforms. Therefore, he concluded, “It looks like I’ll be staying
home on January 22.”
Yet Halkin is wrong.
A coalition capable of
enacting the needed reforms is no less possible now than it was before
Yacimovich’s announcement – but only if centrist voters help it along.
TRUTH, a Likud-Labor coalition was never realistic. Netanyahu and Yacimovich are
too far apart on economic issues, and having campaigned entirely on economics,
this isn’t something Yacimovich could compromise on.
In contrast, at
least four parties could potentially agree on both free-market-oriented economic
reforms and measures to integrate the haredim: Likud Yisrael Beiteinu, Hatnuah,
Yesh Atid and Habayit Hayehudi. And all polls show these parties winning enough
seats to form a coalition.
But as things stand now, a combination of
diplomatic incompatibility, simple arithmetic and the character of at least two
of the party leaders make such a coalition impossible.
chances of Livni and Bennett being able to compromise sufficiently on diplomatic
issues to sit in a coalition together are almost nonexistent. But even if they
did, there’s the arithmetic problem: Likud Yisrael Beiteinu would have only half
the seats in such a coalition and no good options should one of its partners
quit. It couldn’t, for instance, neatly substitute Shas for Hatnuah; Lapid won’t
sit with Shas. Thus, Netanyahu would be utterly at the mercy of his coalition
Since Lapid and Bennett are political newbies, one can’t be
sure how they’d behave in such a situation. But Livni is a known entity: Her ego
is monstrous even by the outsized standards of politicians. Last time around,
she was actually Netanyahu’s preferred coalition partner, precisely because they
agreed so closely on domestic issues.
But the negotiations failed because
she posed conditions so outrageous that no self-respecting prime minister could
accept them. Thus any sane premier would be wary of making his government
dependent on her.
And while Netanyahu has his strengths, political
courage isn’t one of them.
Faced with such a risky alternative, he’d
choose the safe option: a coalition based on the two haredi parties. Such a
government won’t enact any reforms, but it will be stable: as long as it
refrains from drafting yeshiva students and coughs up the necessary billions for
haredi institutions, the haredi parties can be trusted not to
Nevertheless, center-left voters can do one thing that would alter
the above calculus radically: get Haim Amsellem’s Am Shalem party into the
Knesset. That would significantly increase the chances of a domestic-reform
Substantively, the party’s raison d’etre is integrating the
haredim, and it would likely acquiesce in any other domestic reforms as long as
the government does that.
TACTICALLY, GIVING Netanyahu more parties to
choose from means that at least each would have less power to hold him hostage,
making the domestic coalition more viable from his perspective.
real bonanza is that if current polls hold, a mere three seats for Am Shalem
could enable Netanyahu to form a domestic-reform coalition even without Hatnuah.
Excluding Livni would make it much easier to reach a modus vivendi on diplomatic
issues, since Lapid is both more centrist and far more concerned with domestic
And even if she joined, Netanyahu wouldn’t be hostage to her,
which would increase his willingness to take the gamble.
right-of-center voters disappointed with Likud, Bennett is a more attractive
option than Amsellem. Bennett would probably support free-market reforms (after
all, he’s a successful hi-tech entrepreneur), and despite his bizarre remark
last week, he would almost certainly back efforts to get haredim into the army
and workforce, that being a goal his constituency overwhelmingly
But he also has known diplomatic views and is certain to enter
the Knesset – whereas Amsellem’s diplomatic positions are uncertain, as is the
chance of his winning enough votes to pass the electoral threshold.
centrist or left-of-center voters have nothing to lose by voting Amsellem: The
next government isn’t going to lean left diplomatically anyway, so they may as
well vote to encourage domestic reform. And since a domestic-reform government
probably won’t happen without him, there’s no fear of wasting their vote; they
won’t be any worse off if his party fails to make it into the
Thus, centrist voters who want a domestic-reform coalition can
greatly increase the odds of it happening by voting Am Shalem. At the very
least, doing so would support a worthy candidate.
How can centrists not
respect a haredi rabbi and former Shas MK willing to stand up publicly and say
most haredim should do army service and work? And it might even end up being
good for Israel.
The writer is a journalist and commentator.
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