Who can break Israel's political deadlock?

MIDDLE ISRAEL: Left, Right, and Center can each do something to cure Israeli politics' paralysis.

 OPPOSITION LEADER and head of the Likud Benjamin Netanyahu in the Knesset. (photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
OPPOSITION LEADER and head of the Likud Benjamin Netanyahu in the Knesset.
(photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

Councilman Rahamim Kalantar was nearly anonymous until a deal he struck in summer 1956 led his name into Israel’s political dictionaries.

Some eponyms, like Shakespearean, Kafkaesque and Orwellian, reflect their subjects’ greatness. Kalantar, alas, was no luminary, and the term he unwittingly coined – “Kalantarism” – connotes political cynicism, self-service and betrayal.

Kalantar abandoned his National Religious Party in return for an appointment as deputy mayor of Jerusalem after the mayor approved a Reform synagogue’s construction. (The mayor, incidentally, was this newspaper’s founding editor, Gershon Agron.)

Kalantar’s act was repeated in 1990, when Likud minister Avraham Sharir agreed to jump ship and join a Labor-led government. The plot ultimately collapsed, but the name Yitzhak Rabin gave it, “the stinking trick,” is what Israelis call it to this day.

Now such a stinking trick is once again at play, restoring the political limbo that Left, Right, and Center must each seek a way to undo.

 Prime Minister Naftali Bennett at the cabinet meeting, April 10, 2022.  (credit: OHAD TZVEIGENBERG‏/POOL) Prime Minister Naftali Bennett at the cabinet meeting, April 10, 2022. (credit: OHAD TZVEIGENBERG‏/POOL)

KALANTAR’S CURRENT disciple, MK Idit Silman, has bolted the coalition legitimately, citing displeasure with its direction on religious issues. What is illegitimate is that in return for her defection she was reportedly promised a cushy job, health minister in a Likud-led government, a report she did not deny.

It is therefore tempting to focus public discourse on this personal context of what now awaits us – renewed legislative paralysis, budgetary impasse, political blackmail and yet another early election.

Such a personalized discourse will obviously proceed to the much bigger personality hovering above the unfolding chaos – Benjamin Netanyahu – a discourse that will be fueled by the man’s worshippers and detractors with equal zeal. These will say Netanyahu is the root of all evil, and those will say he is the messiah.

This column’s views on Netanyahu need no repetition. In fact, everyone’s views on Netanyahu are so well known that one is at a loss to understand why people still bother saying what they think of him, for better or worse. All, in this regard, has long been said, by everyone, from this end of the country to that.

That is why now, as yet another premature election looms, the politicians’ focus should not be on what to say, but on what to do; what to do so the political arena that our Right, Left, and Center share does not fall apart. What, then, should each of them do?

FOR THE Left the task is straightforward: help Mansour Abbas. The Islamist humanist who revolutionized Israeli-Arabs’ role in Israeli politics should be nurtured by both Labor and Meretz as a strategic ally.

That means treating him as a civic hero, a role model of religious tolerance and political pragmatism. At the same time, his nemeses from the Joint List should be treated by the rest of the Left as Abbas’s unworkable alternative. Such an effort can help lead more Arab voters away from the political fringes and closer to the political mainstream.

Conversely, if political stability is to be restored in a way that returns the Arab electorate to the political margins, all will lose. Stability in such a scenario, even if underpinned by a comfortable Knesset majority, will be illusory, because stranding one fifth of the population out of political relevance is a recipe for neglect, alienation and wrath.

Having said this, the Left is in no position to cut the Gordian knot that the Jewish state has to come to face. The Center and the Right are.

THE CENTER’S task is to take the Bennett government’s big achievement – its very emergence – and turn it into a social ideal and political gospel.

No matter how young it dies, this government’s success in making political opposites harmonize has been miraculous and inspiring. The sight, for instance, of ultraliberal Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz fighting the pandemic hand in hand with former settler leader Naftali Bennett has proven that Israeli society, as this column has been arguing for decades, is not nearly as torn as many claim it is.

This feat of reconciliation would not have happened if not for Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid’s political engineering, acrobatics and magnanimity, most notably in his willingness to let Bennett rotate as prime minister first.

In cobbling this government together, and in his performance as foreign minister, Lapid has proven that his young political career has matured fast, and that he now possesses what national leadership requires. However, victory will demand a much larger following, and for this to happen he must create an alliance of political parties, the way Menachem Begin did when he established the Likud.

The obvious candidates are Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman. Yes, Lapid and Gantz have personal baggage, and Liberman is more hawkish than Lapid. Still, Lapid must overcome these differences, or his party will never be as big as the Likud.

The Likud’s task is even harder.

THE LARGEST party’s chieftains, people like Israel Katz, Nir Barkat, Yuli Edelstein and Avi Dichter, must prepare for the prospect of Netanyahu once again leading them to a political dead end.

They must ask themselves what they should do if the morning after the next election they learn that Netanyahu once again fails to harness half the Knesset.

They must realize that by losing the trust of Liberman, Bennett, and New Hope’s Gideon Sa’ar, Netanyahu has effectively split the Right and made it impossible for the Likud to rule. Any of them can recollect these lost sheep in one hour, and also create a coalition with Lapid.

Yes, some of the Likud’s alternate leaders truly admire Netanyahu, and the rest truly fear him. Even so, if he leads their party into yet more of the limbo he has concocted, their political right to life will depend on their willingness to tell him enough is enough.

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The writer’s best-selling Mitz’ad Ha’ivelet Hayehudi (The Jewish March of Folly, Yediot Sfarim, 2019) is a revisionist history of the Jewish people’s leadership from antiquity to modernity.