Cabinet ministers opened their email Wednesday night to find a surprise: a meeting on Sunday to discuss a three-year budget.
A minor panic broke out. Three years? Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s plan for a two-year budget, thus bolstering his government’s stability until 2019, was controversial enough. Now that he has five more MKs to vote with the coalition, he’s going to try to make a budget that will last the rest of his term? In the end, the email was a mistake. The Finance Ministry was going to give a three-year overview, which is standard practice, regardless of how many years the budget is to last. (It’s going to be two years; don’t panic.)
This anecdote reflects a sort of mythology that was quickly created since Netanyahu faked left and went right a little over a week ago. Netanyahu once again became “the magician,” as Likud activists nicknamed him after winning the last election by a landslide. In the eyes of pundits and political rivals and supporters, the prime minister instantly powered up, as though soon-to-be defense minister Avigdor Liberman was the polka-dotted mushroom to Netanyahu’s Super Mario, allowing him to do anything. And the life-lengthening power that mushroom bestows is the power of the Right.
THE PANIC over Liberman being defense minister has been much greater than the short-lived false alarm over a three-year budget.
It should surprise no one that the attitude has reached the State Department, where spokesman Mark Toner said Wednesday: “We have also seen reports from Israel describing it as the most rightwing coalition in Israel’s history, and we also know that many of its ministers have said they oppose a two-state solution.... This raises legitimate questions about the direction it may be headed in... and what kind of policies it may adopt.”
Another thing that shouldn’t surprise observers is that the State Department got it totally, utterly wrong. This coalition is not the bogeyman Toner warned about. Not only is this not the most rightwing coalition in Israel’s history, but it now has more ministers who support a two-state solution.
It’s easy to extrapolate from Toner’s statement that the State Department’s standard for “most rightwing” is opposition to a two-state solution.
That is a standard that does not hold water historically, because there was a time when the only Israeli political parties that supported anything resembling that were Arabs and communists. (See: Golda “There is no such thing as a Palestinian people” Meir, an avowed leftist.) Moving to more recent history, the assessment is still wrong, since from 1990 to 1992 then-prime minister Yitzhak Shamir led a government consisting of the Likud, Bayit Yehudi predecessor NRP, UTJ predecessors Agudat Yisrael and Degel Hatorah, Shas, The Party For the Advancement of the Zionist Idea – a Likud breakaway, Moledet, Tehiya and Tzomet. The last three were far-right parties that left the coalition when Shamir attended the Madrid Conference in 1991, where Palestinian, Jordanian, Syrian and Lebanese representatives were also present, and the hosts, the US and Soviet Union, hoped to kick off peace talks.
Today, no one is threatening to leave the government over the fact that Netanyahu constantly invites Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to Jerusalem to negotiate. Perhaps if Abbas didn’t keep rejecting Netanyahu, things would be different. But certainly this government isn’t more right-wing than one that faced a coalition crisis over the prime minister – who was arguably most reticent about peace talks and land concessions – being willing to entertain the idea.
Toner’s assertion that “many of its ministers have said they oppose a two-state solution” is correct, but that was true last week, too. In fact, last week there was one more minister who opposed a two-state solution: then-defense minister Moshe Ya’alon.
Next Monday, if things go according to plan, there will be two more ministers who support a two-state solution: Liberman and soon-to-be Immigration and Absorption Minister Sofa Landver.
Yisrael Beytenu’s platform goes into extensive detail about its plan for a two-state solution involving populated land swaps. Opponents like to call this plan forced population transfer, an idea that has become taboo in the Israeli political discourse, but in reality, it’s drawing borders between Israel and an eventual Palestinian state in a way that will maximize the Jewish population in Israel and the Arab population on the Palestinian side, without physically moving people from their homes.
This is an idea that, in some form, has support on the Israeli Left, too.
It’s fair to say that even US President Barack Obama supports this idea. In 2011, he said: “The borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps, so that secure and recognized borders are established for both states.”
There are, of course, differences in the details of how Liberman or Obama would like to make this vision come true, but their ideas are, in a broad sense, not that different.
Therefore, it’s hard to imagine how the State Department could successfully argue that, based on a standard of support for a two-state solution, this government is the most right-wing in Israel’s history, or that Liberman’s addition has made it any more rightwing that it already was.
In the end, people are just left with Liberman’s rhetoric to pin their fears on, which isn’t really much. As blustery as Liberman’s statements often are – calling to assassinate Hamas chief Ismail Haniyeh or bomb the Aswan Dam – his famous election slogan “our word is our bond” does not really hold up under scrutiny. For example, another famous election promise of Liberman was that all citizens would have to give a loyalty oath. He sat in two governments since then, and no one has to take any loyalty oaths.
More recently, Liberman said he would join the government only if 1,000 new homes were authorized in Ma’aleh Adumim, and those homes are not part of Yisrael Beytenu’s coalition agreement.
However, the construction has a chance of moving forward, since sources close to Liberman told The Jerusalem Post’s Tovah Lazaroff this week that building is still a priority for him and pointed out that, as defense minister, he will have the power to approve settlement construction.
THE IDEA that this government will be practically unbeatable for the next few years is probably right – with the caveat that Israeli politics are crazy, and anything could happen.
Education Minister Naftali Bennett is currently playing chicken with Netanyahu. He’s demanding that the prime minister appoint a military secretary to the security cabinet, preempting expected criticism from State Comptroller Joseph Shapira’s report on Operation Protective Edge that cabinet ministers were insufficiently informed before voting. The Winograd Report following the Second Lebanon War pointed to the same problem.
Bennett is in a position to make demands, because Netanyahu needs Bayit Yehudi’s eight votes in order to have a majority in the Knesset for Liberman and Landver’s ministerial appointments.
This is another example of how the government is not pulling more to the right.
Bennett could have taken the opportunity of renewed coalition talks to demand more settlement construction, for example, but instead he went for something that is not identified with either side of the political map, and is a more general call for responsibility and better intelligence.
But this isn’t an example of a destabilizing factor. Bennett’s people say they plan to “go all the way” with this demand, but chances are they won’t call an election over the issue.
What’s more likely is that Netanyahu will come out as the chicken in this game, since he has a tendency to give in to political threats at the last minute. On the other hand, giving in could be seen as an admission of guilt, which could get Netanyahu in trouble when the Protective Edge report comes out. Either way, they will in all likelihood work it out, not call an election, and approve the new coalition next week.
Then, in the coming weeks, the Knesset will start working on a two-year budget, not a three-year one. By the end of this year, when the budget is likely to be approved, Netanyahu will have a near-guarantee to keep his right-wing government – but not the most right-wing ever – in place until 2019.