Yishai and Lieberman: An odd couple but natural partners

The interests of their constituencies might be different, even clashing, but in the case of the politicians, there's a clear convergence.

October 11, 2006 01:31
2 minute read.
Yishai and Lieberman: An odd couple but natural partners

yishai lieberman 88. (photo credit: )


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Meeting in the middle of a vacation at an out-of-the-way resort up north isn't the kind of thing estranged politicians do. If Shas chairman Eli Yishai's caustic remark on Sunday that civil marriages would never be allowed in Israel raised any doubts about the possibility of Shas and Israel Beiteinu sitting together in the same coalition, Tuesday's summit with Israel Beiteinu leader Avigdor Lieberman at Yishai's holiday hut in the Golan proved that the parties of Russian immigrants and Mizrahi ultra-Orthodox are much more compatible than one might think. The interests of their constituencies might be different, even clashing, but in the case of the politicians, there's a clear convergence. Yishai and Lieberman will never be able to come up with a formula allowing civil unions for whoever wants one (as Lieberman has promised his voters) that will abide by the narrow definitions of Halacha (as Yishai's rabbis interpret it). Neither does it seem likely that Yishai will agree to most of Lieberman's ideas on electoral reform, which will only reduce the bargaining power of small special-interest parties. But still, a partnership between the two parties and their leaders makes perfect political sense. Perhaps the greatest weakness of the Israeli system is that proportional representation and a low electoral threshold necessitate coalition governments. Obviously, in order to formulate a joint agenda, the member parties will inhabit adjacent regions of the political spectrum, but that also means they are competing for the same voters, a significant obstacle to cooperation. Shas and Israel Beiteinu don't have that kind of problem: the voters of both parties are distinct demographic groups and there is minimal overlap, if at all. Not only is there no fear in either party of losing votes to each other, but both see their potential for growth elsewhere. Shas is interested in attracting the working-class voters Amir Peretz brought to Labor. Lieberman hopes to be the main beneficiary of the erosion of the Kadima dream, gathering up voters desperate for a firm hand on the reins of power. They also share the same electoral threat: They are worried about a Likud comeback under the newly popular Binyamin Netanyahu, the only leader capable of making serious inroads into both constituencies. Yishai and Lieberman have nothing to lose on the electoral field from forming a partnership in government. But can they bridge their differences over policy? Despite deep differences over civil marriages and electoral reform, the two leaders, and even their constituencies, have much more in common than meets the eye. Both are basically right-of-center on security and territorial issues, though they are willing to consider radical solutions, but not any more unilateral withdrawals. Both are suspicious of the "law-and-order mafia" and would be in favor of curtailing the powers of the Supreme Court. Both represent fiercely patriotic and nationalist citizens (non-Zionist haredi voters are a minority in Shas's electorate) who favor harsh measures against the Palestinians. With combined forces, they are larger than the current No. 2 coalition partner, Labor, and create a significant counterweight to swing the Olmert government to the right. Lieberman seems headed for the coalition right now, but the eventual union might take some time yet. One thing looks certain already: Shas isn't going to be an obstacle.

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