This coalition ain't big enough for the both of us

Analysis: The real question is: How long can Netanyahu balance Israel Beiteinu on one hand, and haredi (ultra-Orthodox) parties on the other?

PM Binyamin Netanyahu and FM Avigdor Lieberman 311 (R) (photo credit: Ronen Zvulun / Reuters)
PM Binyamin Netanyahu and FM Avigdor Lieberman 311 (R)
(photo credit: Ronen Zvulun / Reuters)
The government’s three senior ministers – Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman and Defense Minister Ehud Barak – all scrambled to announce that they will propose alternatives to the Tal Law, a day after the High Court declared it constitutional.
Meanwhile, United Torah Judaism and Shas have mostly kept mum on the subject, but are clearly unhappy with possible changes in the so-called “status quo.” The “status quo” is a term for the balance of Jewish religious elements in Israeli democracy – including marriage and divorce according to Halacha, as well as the exemption of women and many Torah scholars from military service. The “status quo” is also part of the coalition agreement, as Shas and UTJ have the power to veto any bill or policy that may change it.
Who will win? Are winds of change blowing, or will the status quo stand strong? Or, will the clash between them topple the current government? The real question is: How long can Netanyahu balance Israel Beiteinu on one hand, and haredi (ultra-Orthodox) parties on the other? After weeks of talk about whether Netanyahu would call early elections, the date of this government’s demise – whether by the prime minister’s choice or coalition crisis – seems clearer than ever: July, as the Tal Law’s August 1 expiration date nears.
Two weeks ago, this government passed the three-year mark, something that has not occurred in two decades. Most of the coalition’s parties are committed to staying together and working out issues from within – each for its own reasons, of course.
At the same time, it seems like the coalition is living out the Western cliché: This town ain’t big enough for the two of us.
Each party is pulling in a different direction and the chasm between Israel Beiteinu and United Torah Judaism and Shas seems to be wider than ever.
Liberman seems confident that he will get his way, congratulating the High Court for adopting Israel Beiteinu’s platform following their decision on the Tal Law.
“I think everyone understands, both in the coalition and the opposition, that there’s no other way,” Liberman said on Wednesday evening.
At the same time, Israel Beiteinu held a conference on Tuesday about changing the system of government, in which Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon emphasized over and over again that stability is a priority for the party.
In fact, nearly any time Israel Beiteinu has opposed coalition parties – usually Shas and UTJ – on an issue, either Liberman or Tourism Minister Stas Meseznikov has asserted the party’s power as the “senior coalition partner,” while saying that they are also a responsible partner that finds working within the coalition more effective than breaking it up.
Also, with recent polls showing Liberman’s party weakening slightly, calling elections at this juncture would put them at a disadvantage, which could be overcome by a creative new solution for “sharing the burden equally,” as Israel Beiteinu puts it.
Barak is less of a player in this game, as his party is unlikely to pass the elections threshold, and leaving the coalition would only hurt Independence. Plus, the party was seemingly founded for the express reason of allowing its leader to remain defense minister while other Labor members could join the opposition.
If they learn from recent experience, the haredi parties probably only have what to gain by remaining in the coalition. After all, Shas basically won the affordable housing battle, despite outrage by Israel Beiteinu and Independence.
Construction and Housing Minister Ariel Attias and Netanyahu agreed on a system in which those who served in the IDF receive more points.
However, the ultra-orthodox are still more likely to qualify for affordable housing, because of additional points for each child and each year of marriage.
Therefore, Shas and UTJ are likely to buy time until July, when they can enrage their coalition partners by using their right to veto bills involving religion, or even leave the coalition because it favors drafting haredim.
Where is Habayit Hayehudi in all of this? Party leader Science and Technology Minister Daniel Herschkowitz presented a lukewarm speech on the issue in the Knesset plenum on Wednesday, making it glaringly obvious that the Tal Law is not their priority.
Finally, we have Netanyahu and Likud, who have to keep the team together. The prime minister has almost succeeded in striking a balance between ultra- Orthodox parties and Israel Beiteinu, though the housing issue is a glaring exception, since Israel Beiteinu MK Faina Kirschenbaum is bringing Attias’s policy to the High Court. How long can Netanyahu play both sides? After all, the prime minister does not seem excited about the prospect of dissolving the coalition early when the government is so strong and long-lasting, though some of his senior advisers are telling him to do so.
That is why waiting until July is his best bet. He only stands to gain political points in the next elections by standing up to haredim – and that standoff is set to take place this summer.