Analysis: White smoke in Jerusalem

While it took 2 days for the College of Cardinals to elect a new pope, the new Israeli gov't needed 40 days to take shape.

Lapid at Knesset 370 (photo credit: Uriel Sinai/Reuters)
Lapid at Knesset 370
(photo credit: Uriel Sinai/Reuters)
It took the College of Cardinals just two days to choose Argentinian Jorge Mario Bergoglio as the new leader of nearly two billion Catholics around the world on Wednesday in Rome.
Meanwhile, across the Mediterranean Sea in Israel, it took 40 days to decide that the man who will be in charge of some 2.5 million Israeli school children will be Shai Piron and not Gideon Sa'ar, who coincidentally has Argentinian roots. If any Argentinians were disappointed to see him lose his job, they probably were consoled by winning the papacy.
The proverbial white smoke that emerged from negotiations between Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid that was conducted by Bayit Yehudi chairman Naftali Bennett will enable an Israeli government to be in place when US President Barack Obama comes to Jerusalem next Wednesday.
Obama will find a Netanyahu who has been weakened by an election that disappointed him and a coalition-building process that left him much less powerful than he has been for the last four years. The man crowned King Bibi by TIME magazine just nine months ago will now have to consult with Prince Yair on the Left and Duke Naftali on the Right when making key decisions.
Lapid emerged the victor not only of the election but also of the coalition talks, which are the real battle that decides who runs the Israeli government. He got the number of ministers he desired, the plum portfolio he wanted for his number two, and now the man who entered politics by asking "where's the money?" will be in charge of the country's coffers.
He is no pope, but it is worth noting that the man who is now the power behind the throne in Jerusalem prays at a Reform Temple in Tel Aviv and delivered the keynote address at last year's Conservative Rabbinical Assembly in Atlanta. Lapid can now advance religious pluralism in Israel with a flick of a pen on the state budget and there is nothing thousands of haredi protesters can do about it.
Bennett also emerged successful beyond his wildest expectations from the talks. If Netanyahu and his wife Sara would have had their way, chances are he would have languished in the opposition with 12 frustrated MKs.
Instead, Bennett has a senior socioeconomic portfolio and will use his mother-tongue English to lead Israel's public diplomacy. His party is in charge of the Religious Affairs Ministry that decides the country's Jewish character and the Construction and Housing Ministry and Israel Lands Authority which can help him serve his constituents both in Judea and Samaria and within the Green Line.
Most importantly for Bennett, he re-established religious Zionists to their former role as national mediators who bridge the gaps between different sectors of the population. He will likely continue in that role whenever there are problems between his "brothers," Netanyahu and Lapid.
The big losers are of course the haredim, who will lose huge sums for their institutions and will have to send more yeshiva students to the IDF. They can lead mass protests and say that Netanyahu will never again receive their support, but if he runs against Lapid in the next election, they will have no choice but to crawl back to him.
The little loser is Kadima's Shaul Mofaz, who ended up too irrelevant to even be added to the government. The leader of a party that had 28 seats when he joined the coalition almost a year ago will have to view the cabinet table in the center of the Knesset plenum with binoculars from the back benches.
Now that there was white smoke in Jerusalem, Lapid, whose name means torch in Hebrew, will have to face challenges almost as formidable as those that stand before the new pope. He will have to pass a crash course in economics on the job, reorganize the nation's priorities, and pass the state budget within 45 days, or Israel will go to another election.
Lapid will have a much better chance of succeeding if the smoke that emerged in fiery battles with Netanyahu will finally be extinguished. After 90 days of elections and 40 days of talking, it is time for them to go to work.