Once again Prime Minister Netanyahu demonstrated his skills as a magician.
In the morning, his ministers expressed wall to wall opposition to giving up four percent of their budgets for the sake of free pre-school education from the age of three. The government meeting was nastier than usual, with several ministers and senior professionals snapping at one another.
By mid-afternoon, the announcement was that Netanyahu was postponing a vote on the program in light of opposition.
By early evening the Prime Minister had made enough deals--excusing one or another ministry from all or part of the budget cut--so that he could call another meeting of the government and achieve a majority in favor of the program.
It will take some time to see whether the magician was performing a trick with smoke and mirrors, or will actually deliver on his boast of providing free pre-school education from the age of three by September 1.
The Knesset enacted a free pre-school education law in 1984, but the funding has been delayed time after time.
We''ll see if this promise is any more genuine.
Implementation is more complicated, and more hidden from view than policy enactment. The ministries will have several opportunities to fudge the decision about budget cuts in dealings with the Finance Ministry. Local authorities will have to pay their share, and that will produce other snafus. They will ask the Finance and Interior Ministries for additional aid, and that may not come. It is necessary to construct additional kindergartens, and that will invite challenges to local planning decisions. Given what we know about the economic well-being and decision-making capacity of various local authorities, we can expect more free pre-school education in well-to-do Jewish localities than in lower income Jewish communities or in Arab communities. That isn''t what the reformers talked about in their pursuit of social justice.
Politicians lie. They must. They take on the responsibility of leading complex societies without the resources to support all the demands that reach the public agenda.
Perhaps "lie" is too strong a term. Dissembling sounds better. Even better is to describe them as trying to square the circle, or putting out fires that appear all the time while keeping the ship afloat. Politics is the essence of civilization. It is meant to provide an appropriate mix of justice and services when it is impossible to satisfying everyone.
Only about one-half of the headlines have been about Netanyahu''s magic. The other half has dealt with a messiah who has agreed to enter Israeli politics and form a political party. Supporters are sure that he will provide where established politicians fail.
We can hope for the best, but should remind ourselves that we''ve seen this before.
Yair Lapid is an attractive, charismatic, and skilled media personality who finally announced after months of speculation. Polls show that a party he would lead might get as many as 20 seats in a Knesset election. That could make him the leader of the second largest party, and write finish to the short history of Kadima.
Lapid''s postures on current topics are not well known, nor are the people he will assemble as running mates. His party, which still lacks a name, money, and a list of candidates, joins a line of four or five others that have sought to remake Israeli politics in recent decades. The common theme is disatisfaction with existing parties, a prominent personality with a stunning reputation earned outside of politics, and a claim to provide a new centrist alternative between the extremes of existing parties.
The new parties have typically done well for two or more elections and then gone under. The noted archaeologist and former general Yigal Yadin created the Democratic Movement for Change (Dash), that disappeared after aligning itself with Likud. Lapid''s father created Shinui (Change), which was done in by the corrupt practices of a second-tier member. Kadima (Advance) was the work of Ariel Sharon after his split with Likud over the issue of withdrawing settlements from Gaza. It proved resilient to Sharon''s exit with a stoke that put him in a vegetative state that has lasted for six years, and his successor''s (Ehud Olmert) exit under criminal charges. Kadima emerged from the most recent election with the most Knesset seats, but its leader (Tzipi Livni) could not form a government. She has not done well as leader of the opposition, and the polls are showing that Kadima will lose most of the seats that Lapid is predicted to win.
Commentators are speculating the Lapid will carry on with his father''s successful campaigns based on opposition to the demands of the ultra-Orthodox. The setting is appropriate, given the recent bad press earned by extremists in Beit Shemesh and Mea She''arim. However, Lapid will not have that field to himself, if indeed he chooses to play on it. Avigdor Lieberman speaks for Russian immigrants frustrated by the barriers set up by religious authorities who deny them rights of marriage in Israel and burial in major cemeteries on account of not being halachically Jewish, and raise additional demands with respect to their efforts to convert.
Again we see the existential problem of Israel. It is disproportionately in the international spotlight, kept there by a host of Muslim countries who prefer to point their fingers rather than deal with their own problems, and by delusional western politicians who fancy themselves able to employ a combination of brilliance and pressure to quiet the Middle East by solving the problem of Palestine. Israel''s domestic politics feel the heat, and have their own sources of pressure coming out of Jewish traditions of unbridled criticism with roots going back to the Biblical prophets.
It is not a condition for political calm, or for the certain implementation of promises, even when they have been enacted as government policy.