Price of unity

If broadening the coalition is just a tactical move that extends the life of the government, Herzog should keep his job as opposition leader.

May 12, 2016 20:36
3 minute read.
Tel Aviv

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Isaac Herzog, Co-leader of the centre-left Zionist Union, are pictured together as campaign billboards rotate in Tel Aviv. (photo credit: REUTERS)


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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and opposition leader Isaac Herzog have been negotiating the contours of a national unity government for months. But as May 22 – the end of the Knesset’s spring recess – approaches and parliamentary work resumes – including the passage of a two-year fiscal budget – talks appear to be reaching fruition. At least that is the impression one receives from recent news media reports. Channel 10 even claims to know precisely which portfolios have been offered to Labor. (Tzipi Livni’s Hatnua with its six MKs is expected to split from the Zionist Camp in protest if Herzog enters the government.) If done right, the creation of a unity government that includes Labor could be a blessing for a number of reasons.

Broadening the coalition would improve this government’s stability and thus the chances that it will survive for a full four years. Governments that finish their mandated terms tend to follow through on policy decisions.

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A 2005 study by Doron Navot and Eli Reches found that 70 percent of government decisions – on issues ranging from public housing to privatization of the sea ports, from reforms in the Israel Electric Corporation to the construction of a light rail in Tel Aviv – were left unimplemented for years because the governments that make the decisions do not live survive long enough to carry them out.

Presently, the government can easily be toppled by any single coalition party or even by a group of MKs who decide to splinter away from one of those parties.

Broadening the coalition would also reduce the leverage power of any single party. This is crucial in Israel’s balkanized political environment in which small parties representing narrow interests and specific constituencies all but ignore broader national interests. United Torah Judaism looks out for educational institutions that cater to Ashkenazi haredim; Shas does the same for the Sephardi haredi population. Both parties use their leverage to reinstate more generous National Insurance Institute child allotments and aid to haredi couples and to do away with criteria that made housing aid conditional upon employment. Bayit Yehudi looks out for the interests of the religious-Zionist population by increasing budgets for national-religious educational institutions and for the development of settlements.

In contrast, Labor and the Likud, as well as Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu – which has openly supported a unity government since the March 2015 election results were announced – tend to represent broader national interests.

With Labor in the coalition there is a better chance that policies benefiting a majority of Israelis will be implemented.

The two largest parties – one center-left and one center-right – represent the two mainstream positions on cardinal issues such as security and socioeconomics.

If news reports are correct and Herzog will be appointed foreign minister, bringing Labor into the government would also improve Israel’s image in the world. Presently, Netanyahu’s government is viewed as right-wing and, therefore, intransigent vis-a-vis the Palestinians. In contrast, with Herzog as foreign minister, and with a significant number of dovish Labor ministers in the government, Israel would be better poised to explore renewal of peace talks with the Palestinians.

Labor’s 18 MKs must not, however, enter a government coalition at any price. Experience has shown that when Labor joins a right-wing government and fails to influence policy-making it is punished at the polls by constituents who want to vote for a party that does not compromise on its principles. Extending the Netanyahu government’s lifespan must not be the sole goal served.

Herzog has an obligation to his voters to keep Labor true to its platform and implement it as a coalition partner.

Israel’s vibrant democracy depends on the continued flourishing of a strong center-left party that offers voters a viable alternative to the Right. Democracy’s strength lies in its ability to fix mistakes through self-criticism. Fostering a political culture that encourages dissent and provides citizens with political alternatives is the essence of democracy.

A unity government is good for Israel. But only on condition that Labor is able to make its presence felt within the coalition via domestic and foreign policy. If, however, broadening the coalition is just a tactical move that extends the life of the government, Herzog should keep his job as opposition leader.

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