A new spirit is abroad in Israeli politics.
Young new Knesset Members and
the young people who elected them are demanding a new, more open and honest
politics that deals fearlessly with the real problems the country faces. They
are tired of the jaded old ways, of power wielded for its own sake or to advance
the goals of small special-interest groups.
The new politics means not
allowing single- sector parties like the ultra-Orthodox Haredim to hold the
majority for ransom; it means no-nonsense problem-solving on a national scale.
It is Israel’s belated version of the regional spring. And like its Arab
counterpart, it holds out hope for a better future, tinged with potential for
The politician most in tune with the new mood is
Yesh Atid’s Yair Lapid. “We have come to change things,” he promised during the
election run-up. So far he has been as good as his word. Immediately after the
election, he dismissed any thought of trying to build a blocking alliance of the
center-left to prevent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from forming a new
government. What this breakaway from old-style bloc politics did was to prevent
the Haredi parties from playing both sides and putting the squeeze on Netanyahu
for their support.
In his maiden Knesset speech, Lapid shrugged off
ultra-Orthodox threats of major civil disturbances if yeshiva students are
drafted. “There will be no civil war, because 10 percent of the population
cannot threaten the rest,” he declared. He went on to argue that “the education,
welfare and even the health budgets are not determined by public needs but by
coalition pressure,” decrying this as a prime example of the old politics that
Most importantly, Lapid’s new politics means tackling endemic
strategic problems everyone knows should be solved, but which have proved
intractable in the old politics. He has targeted three key issues – equal
sharing of the defense burden, that is drafting yeshiva students and making it
clear who rules Israel, the elected representatives not the rabbis; changing the
electoral system to create a stronger executive less susceptible to minority
extortion; and addressing the Palestinian problem to secure Israel’s future as a
Jewish and democratic state.
Lapid is not the only new politician on the
block: Labor’s Shelly Yacimovich has made ideology-over-expedience her calling
card; Naftali Bennett of Bayit Yehudi insists his party is not merely a pressure
group for the settlers; and during the election campaign Eldad Yaniv, a former
aide to Defense Minister Ehud Barak, made waves especially among the young with
a series of unprecedentedly daring Internet exposés of “the system” (he did not
manage to get elected).
In the last two Knessets, Hatnua’s Tzipi Livni,
then Kadima, played the new-style principled politician. But in her rise and
fall lies a cautionary tale: She lost credibility by failing to move things, and
crashed against the manipulative old politics of Netanyahu, Barak, Shas and
company. Clearly, if they are to make a serious impact, the new politicians are
going to have to take on and beat the old school at their own game, without
corrupting themselves in the process.
Of the 120 members of the new
Knesset, 48 are new faces; all 19 of Lapid’s Yesh Atid are first-time
legislators; both Lapid and Bennett, the leaders of two of the larger parties,
are new to the Knesset. All the rookies come with impressive credentials, fresh
ideas and innovative ways of doing things. For example, Labor’s Stav Shaffir, at
27 the youngest member of the Knesset, has already set up a social justice
caucus to solicit public feedback on social needs and find solutions to specific
More importantly, the new politics and fresh politicians will
be judged on the degree to which they are able to solve the big strategic issues
Lapid has put on the table. Progress on all three is imperative.
serving in the army or doing national service, which afterwards makes it
possible for them to join the workforce, is vital because of the demographics.
At present, the ultra-Orthodox make up just over 8 percent of the population. If
current trends continue, by 2030, the figure will be over 17 percent, or one out
of every six Israelis. No government will be able to go on making welfare
payments to such vast numbers of unemployed Haredim and continue to fund basic
social and defense needs. The economy would simply collapse.
That is why
Eugene Kandel, the prime minister’s chief economic adviser, has been working on
a compromise proposal that Likud politicians hope will be acceptable to both
Lapid and the ultra-Orthodox parties.
Kandel’s proposal includes
vocational training programs for yeshiva dropouts, graded enlistment of Haredim
over a five-year period, and a system of financial incentives and fines to
encourage yeshivas to send lesser students to enlist.
The second goal
will be to tweak the electoral system to facilitate government in the wider
national interest. Two of the key ideas are to make the leader of the largest
party automatically prime minister and to raise the election threshold from 2
percent to around 5 percent. The thinking behind this is that it will lead
parties to merge, both to avoid missing the threshold and to create a platform
for their preferred candidate to become prime minister.
fewer parties should promote greater stability. Moreover, since the prime
minister will automatically be the leader of the largest party, other parties
won’t be able to blackmail various contenders, offering their support to the
highest bidder, as has often been the case in the past. For obvious reasons,
these amendments have been opposed by the ultra-Orthodox and the smaller parties
for years. In this Knesset, however, there could be a majority for
The most significant strategic issue the new politics could
affect is peacemaking with the Palestinians. After Lapid made renewal of stalled
peace negotiations a condition for joining the government, Netanyahu intimated
that he, too, would like to see progress towards the two-state solution that has
eluded previous Israeli administrations. This has created a unique opportunity
for the international community to help create a new framework for
US President Barack Obama will be able to exploit this when
he visits Israel in late March. Obama may well present the parties with new
terms of references for reengagement, focusing first on territory and security,
with the issues of Jerusalem and refugees coming later. He could also bring in
regional players like Jordan and Egypt to help take a wider peacemaking process
forward. One idea is to launch the new process with a summit in Jordan, at King
Abdullah’s Aqaba palace.
The trouble with all this is that Netanyahu is
still marching to the beat of the old politics, with all the attendant
He has been trying to break up the ad hoc alliance
between Lapid and Bennett and play Yacimovich off against them both. He has also
been working to split both Labor and Bayit Yehudi, aiming to lure some members
of each into the new coalition. And whereas the Lapid-Bennett alliance is
designed to keep the ultra-Orthodox out of government, at least until the draft
issue is settled, Netanyahu is determined to bring them in from day
There are also strong forces militating against movement on the
Over the past four years, Netanyahu did little to take
the process forward, and Lapid, the supposed catalyst for a new beginning, is no
dove either. In Lapid’s view, former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert went too far in
his negotiations with the Palestinians, and should never have put Jerusalem or
refugees on the table. But without give-and-take on the core issues, what kind
of progress will be possible with the Palestinians? And what if Bennett joins
the government, adding his adamant opposition to the two-state solution to that
in Netanyahu’s own Likud-Beytenu faction? How far would Netanyahu be able to go
then? The new politics gives hope for better things. But the old system is so
entrenched that it could prove too tough for the new generation to overcome. New
politics or old, the key player for now is Netanyahu.
Past experience has
shown that he promises much, but delivers little. Will Netanyahu Mark 3,
impressed by the changes around him, be any different?