Politics: After synagogue attack, coalition crisis on hold

The terrorist attack made a country struggling with internal political strife realize it must yet again unite against a cruel enemy.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in his opening speech to the Knesset's winter session, October 27 (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in his opening speech to the Knesset's winter session, October 27
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
After this week’s terror attack, no one can justify initiating an election, when the public wants its leaders to focus on restoring their security When Abed Abu Jamal and Ghassan Muhammad Abu Jamal stormed the Kehillat Bnei Torah Synagogue on Tuesday wielding axes, knives and a pistol, shouting “Allahu akbar,” chances are that saving Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s governing coalition was the last thing on their mind.
Nonetheless, the attack did help Netanyahu and the heads of the parties in his coalition tremendously – and it might have even saved the political career of embattled Finance Minister Yair Lapid.
The night before the outrage, all the parties in the coalition were advancing toward an election that none of them wanted. Tensions were high, and election fever had begun.
MKs had kicked off fund-raising efforts for their campaigns in Israel and abroad. Former welfare and social services minister Moshe Kahlon was readying his political comeback.
Netanyahu and Lapid, not known as big sports fans, went all the way to Haifa to cheer on the national soccer team as it defeated Bosnia; Netanyahu even went to the locker room afterward to get photographed embracing sweaty players in his suit.
The terrorist attack changed the atmosphere in the country completely: from a country struggling with internal political strife to a nation that realizes it must yet again unite against a cruel enemy.
The violence was there before, of course. But even the murder of a three-month- old baby and the trend of vehicular terror did not serve as a wake-up call as much as a massacre of Jews wearing tallitot and tefillin in a synagogue.
The politics are still there, too, of course. But they have been temporarily postponed, and when they come back, it will be with different perspective.
Does anyone other than Lapid still remember what the fights were all about? How many people even knew what prompted the disputes before the attack took place? One of the fights was over whether to tax so-called “health tourism” of people coming to Israel for elective surgeries. If terrorists continue to stab people on the streets of Tel Aviv, hack people to death in synagogues and use their cars as deadly weapons, those health tourists are not going to come anyway.
The morning of the attack, Likud MK Ze’ev Elkin said it was not the time for politics.
He would take off his coalition chairman hat, he stated, and wear only his hat of chairman of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee.
That statement, which was delivered to the media in a formal press release, looked ironic several hours later – when Elkin was on the phone at the prime minister’s request, calling the heads of the opposition parties to discuss Netanyahu’s call for a national emergency government. There was no press release about that.
Netanyahu made the statement at the end of a Jerusalem press conference, when he had no idea that Channels 2 and 10 had already ended their coverage in favor of their nightly newscasts.
Those who do not watch the low-rated Channel 1 had no idea the prime minister called on the opposition heads to join their government until Labor and Meretz put out statements saying no.
Wednesday at the Knesset, Labor leader Isaac Herzog mocked Netanyahu for an invitation he said was “not serious political spin.” But Meretz head Zehava Gal-On admitted she was impressed by the smart politics behind the gesture.
Netanyahu knows full well there is no chance Meretz would ever join his government, even if Israel was attacked by a nuclear Iran.
But the polls say unity governments are popular, and the political divisiveness of the past week or two did not look too good to the public.
Bayit Yehudi leader Naftali Bennett, who has proven adept at judging what helps him politically, jumped on the bandwagon, saying he wanted Gal-On in the government, too.
Even the most right-wing Bayit Yehudi MKs had nothing against Bennett’s empty gesture to Gal-On. Rebellious MK Yoni Chetboun respectfully declined to comment, and MK Mordechai Yogev said he was in favor.
Netanyahu and Bennett are not the only ones to promote the lion-and-lamb style myth of Meretz joining right-wing parties in a coalition. Herzog has been floating the idea for months.
The opposition leader said it again at a Shabbat cultural event in Beersheba last Saturday. He maintained he could form a government with Gal-On, and with Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman.
Herzog’s associates explained Thursday that they are not the same government; they said Herzog was merely highlighting that he had good ties across the political spectrum, but that the grandson and namesake of former Ashkenazi chief rabbi Isaac Halevi Herzog realizes he cannot make miracles.
If given the opportunity by President Reuven Rivlin to build a governing coalition, Herzog could invite Gal-On to join his government, or he could invite Liberman – but not both. Surprisingly, Herzog’s associates said he could choose the latter, especially if Yisrael Beytenu wins many more seats than Meretz.
“It’s the numbers that will make all the difference,” a Herzog associate said.
But such speculation is pointless after the attack on the synagogue in Jerusalem’s Har Nof neighborhood.
No one can justify initiating an election now, when the public wants its leaders to focus on restoring their security.
So the warring parties inside Netanyahu’s coalition will have no choice but to stay together a while longer. Meanwhile, they can only speculate about what Netanyahu would have done had the attack not taken place.
Would he have had the courage to initiate an election three years before his term was set to end, just to try to get a more governable coalition? Or would he have made a more conservative decision, to settle for the government he has? Would he have been satisfied with the proverbial bird in hand, or would he have tried to prove to US President Barack Obama that when it comes to taking political risks, he is not “chickenshit”?
The answer will never be known – because two birds of prey attacked a synagogue full of people who just wanted to pray.