The Tzippi-Bibi Adloyada Coalition Follies

Amid this weekend’s festive Purim spirit, Israel’s biggest adloyada festival occurred in the new Knesset. Adloyada is the standard for Purim partying, with Jews commanded to drink themselves silly, until they cannot distinguish – ad-lo-yada -- between evil Haman and virtuous Mordechai. With Tzipi Livni emerging as Bibi Netanyahu’s first ally, with rumors that Labor’s Shelly Yachimovitch might enter the government, and with continuing fears despite Netanyahu’s most recent moves that Yesh Atid, the centrist party that was most open to entering the government, might not be welcomed in the government, it has been hard to distinguish, fiction from fact, and promises from lies.

True, commenting about a coalition government-in-formation is like tasting half-baked hamentanschen. The mushy results lack real definition and it is unclear whether they will be palatable. In rushing to judgment we risk jumping to the wrong conclusions.

Nevertheless, as kids say, tick-tock. With riots simmering on the West Bank, and President Barack Obama’s March 20th arrival looming, Netanyahu should transcend the usual brinksmanship. Assembling a coalition before the deadline would boost his credibility and help him live up to his campaign slogan promising a Strong Israel.

Meanwhile, Netanyahu’s first formal move, inviting Tzipi Livni into the coalition, seemed half-baked. Livni suffers from political arrhythmia, perpetually out of step with the Israeli electorate. Four years ago, many of us begged her to join the coalition. Her party had won more popular votes than Likud, even if she could not assemble a coalition. And it was obvious that Netanyahu and Obama were destined for tension, whereas Livni as Foreign Minister could have improved relations through her friendship with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Predictably, inexcusably, Livni’s failure to enter the government hurt the State of Israel and the Jewish people.

Now, four years later, after most Israelis rejected her and her new party, providing a paltry six Knesset seats, Tzipi suddenly decides she can work with Bibi. “When there''s a common goal, you put aside your differences," she said too earnestly – as if last time the “common goal” of smoothing American-Israel relations was not significant enough. The “common goal” this time appears to be avoiding personal political purgatory rather than giving the voters what they asked for or providing what the times demand.

Fortunately, the Likud recently invited Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid to join the government, which is what these times demand. A significant percentage of the Israeli electorate made it clear that Yesh Atid belongs in the next Israeli government. If Netanyahu cuts out Lapid’s faction, it will hurt the new government’s legitimacy and long-term sustainability. Democracy is more than amassing enough votes. Legitimacy is more organic and chemical. Establishing a new government without Lapid would be like a Purim feast without Hamantaschen: you can do it, but something crucial will be missing.

The times not only demand Yesh Atid’s participation politically, the time has come to solve the ultra-Orthodox draft impasse. Shelly Yachimovich’s sarcastic blast that the Lapid people think this Haredi draft is a cure-all misses the point. Solving that problem will not make peace with the Palestinians or close the gap between rich and poor. But since Shaul Mofaz led Kadima into the coalition last year in that ill-fated and too-short political marriage, popular demand for a new citizens’ covenant with the ultra-Orthodox has been growing. Leadership on this issue will break the broader logjam, demonstrating that Netanyahu is not handcuffed by his Haredi partners and is ready, this time, to lead boldly, and democratically, reflecting the people’s will that all Israelis share their burdens fairly.

Netanyahu should echo the Lapid line, that drafting Haredim is not a hostile act. Actually, it respects the ultra-Orthodox as a central part of Israeli society, no longer hiding in the margins like oppressed Galut Jews, but, dare I say it, taking their place in modern Israel like good Zionists.

Yair Lapid therefore should hold the line, forcing Netanyahu to do what is best for Netanyahu’s legacy and for the Jewish State’s future. Lapid should watch the Oscar-winning movie “Argo,” and get inspired by the out-of-the-box, willing-to-buck-bureaucrats, keep-your-eye-on-the-ball leadership style celebrated there. Meanwhile, Netanyahu should watch “Lincoln” to think big, bang that fist, take that stand – and do what my son wanted to see more examples of in the Lincoln film too, orchestrating those big public leadership moments that can shape discourse, lead a country, change a trajectory, and make history.

As an historian, my professional ego makes me hope to be proven right as I utter final judgments about leaders (although as a teacher I love it when my students disagree). However, as a columnist, rather than begging “prove me right,” I frequently beseech “prove me wrong.” I do not relish bashing failed politicians; I prefer celebrating their successes – and seeing them evolve. Unlike so many in the media, I want to see this new government win and win big, on many fronts.

In Jerusalem, I sense a new, more upbeat mood. Cleaner streets, better schools, and big projects like the Railway Park in Bakka and the Old Railroad station are improving residents’ quality of life. I am happy to see my assessment of Mayor Nir Barkat improving. – although I still cannot get a needed crosswalk at the intersection of Cremieux and Emek Refaim. Similarly, I want my assessment of Netanyahu to change from Chicago ward heeler, cautiously holding power to Lincolnesque leader making history. And I don’t want to lose my respect for Lapid, hoping he will be the sparkplug for change by holding the line on the draft, then joining a new, dynamic, epoch-making, forward-thinking, Israeli government. Wouldn’t that be a breakthrough, a real Purim, “nahafochu,” or turnaround – much needed, and surprisingly, in reach.