We''ve had a few days rest from coalition negotiations. Media and political personalities have been busy with Prisoner X, i.e., Ben Zygier. For all that has cost Israel in embarrassment (due to a prisoner who committed suicide while he was supposed to be under 24-hour supervision two years ago, and the government press corps not having a story ready when the news broke last week), there may be no serious repercussions. Journalists, politicians, and government professionals are still working on this issue, most prominently in Australia and Israel. As far as is apparent to date, however, it falls within the category of foul-ups that occur in public (and private) bureaucracies. This one''s connection with death and the murky world of espionage make it spectacular, but perhaps not all that meaningful.
Now we''re back to coalition-making. But not really. From all the signs available to us commoners, not much is happening. The scene behind the curtains may actually be quiet, as the realities have hit home. Lapid and Benet don''t want to join a coalition with the Haredim. Bibi wants the Haredim. He cannot form a coalition without Lapid and/or Benet, and they will not agree individually. Lapid and Benet, for their part, cannot make a government without Bibi.
Several commentators have employed the classical Hebrew expression, פול גז בנוטרל (full gas in neutral) to portray negotiations producing considerable noise but no movement.
What to do?
Reports are that Bibi has offered to break the jam by assigning the honey pot of the Finance Ministry to the head of the Labor Party, Shelly Yehemovich. The prospect has its own spectacular features against the backgrounds of Bibi''s commitment to free enterprise and Yehemovich''s campaign verging on socialism. So far she is sticking with her insistence that she will not join a Bibi government. That may be due to her realization of the policy gaps she would encounter with the Prime Minister, as well as her realization that the Finance Ministry is not about to be its usual honey pot, or even a small step on the road to socialism. In the cards are massive cuts in spending and/or tax increases to deal with deficits that have gotten out of control. We can assume that those budget cuts and tax increases will weigh heavily on Israel''s middle class, i.e., the bulk of the individuals who receive social services, pay taxes, and vote. Those unpleasant actions appear to be inevitable, and are merely waiting for a new government, with a Finance Minister who is willing to harm his/her political career by signing the appropriate documents.
There is speculation, both by commentators and a senior Likud politician (Tzachi ha-Negbi ) that it might be necessary to call another election due to the political impasse. Netanyahu may have offered Benet a place in his coalition, without Lapid, with the warning that there will be another election if Benet does not accept.
A campaign would feature each of the parties blaming the others for the impasse. It will not help Likud our Home that Avigdor Lieberman''s trial on charges of corruption has begun, and is likely to continue throughout the campaign.
It will be a crap shoot of a gamble about who would lose, and if any of the parties would gain enough to be able to enjoy an advantage in the composition of the government.
Netanyahu has used only two weeks out of the six allotted to the composition of a coalition. What we are hearing may by nothing more than the warm up when all participants proclaim their maximum demands, realizing that serious negotiations, and the phase of mutual flexibility, will not occur until the deadline is closer.
Meanwhile, not all of the negotiations focus on Netanyahu. Knesset Members and activists associated with the various parties are meeting, and trying to strenghten or weaken lines of cooperation. Likud and SHAS have each tried to break the alliance between Lapid and Benet. They are appealing to members of Jewish Home on grounds of their affinity with SHAS and Torah Judaism on issues of Judaism, or their affinity with Netanyahu for issues of settlement and resistance to the idea of a Palestinian state.
The politics of coalition formation are reminding us about the nature of Judaism. By some reports there are more Jews who consider themselves religious in this Knesset than in prior delegations, but not all are similarly Jewish. Most marked is the divide between Haredim and Orthodox, with several of the latter being "religious nationalists" along the model of what had been the National Religious Party. The delegation of Jewish Home is revealing tensions between those who consider themselves closer to the Haredi or closer to what can be called Modern Orthodox. It is these tensions that SHAS MKs are trying to exploit in order to bring Jewish Home into their camp against the more overtly secular of Lapid''s There is a Future.
Lapid''s party also has its secular-religious divisions. Among its MKs is an Orthodox rabbi, who aspires to be Minister of Education, and Dr. Ruth Calderon. Dr. Calderon''s PhD in Talmudic Studies is from the Hebrew University. In her maiden speech in the Knesset, she quoted the Talmud in Aramaic, and expressed her commitment to bringing Jews of various congregations--presumably including the Reform and Conservative--closer to one another and their common spiritual roots. The contents of her speech and her problems with Aramaic produced some mild ridicule from Haredi Knesset Members. None has yet gone so far as their constituents who would delegate Dr Calderon to the back of the bus.
Each of the ultra-Orthodox parties have their own internal problems between compeiting rabbis, along with the traditional tensions between the Sephardim of SHAS and the Ashkenazim of Torah Judaism. For the time being, those tensions are less important than both parties'' concern that a government with Lapid and Benet would cut severely into the resources and privileges provided to their constituents.
Experience may count for something. Neither Lapid, Benet, nor Yehemovich have been as close as they are now to real power. They all have advisers they have employed, and are getting advice from many more activists who want to be part of the action. It is not yet apparent if they are playing by the conventional the rules of the game, where maximum demands inch downward and fall significantly when participants seek to achieve part of what they desire.