The coalition negotiations that are mercifully set to end Thursday when a new government is finally sworn in have not been the Likud’s finest hour.
That it has also not been incoming prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s finest hour is clear to most, even his most avid supporters. A veteran of political negotiations, he has folded to his coalition partners, ceding concessions and authority that clearly goes against his better judgment.
Netanyahu is out of options
Why did he fold? Because he had no other option.
True, the elections gave the right-wing block a 64-seat majority, but - except for Avi Maoz’s Noam faction - if any of the other factions in the coalition would not join the government, there would be no government. The reason: None of the country’s other Jewish parties would be willing to sit in a government led by Netanyahu.
In short, Netanyahu came into the negotiations with no leverage, while those he was negotiating with had leverage in abundance.
So Netanyahu agreed to a series of far-out demands. He agreed to chop up the Education Ministry into three different fiefdoms. He agreed to strengthen the authority of the National Security Minister, even while weakening the authority of the Defense Minister.
He agreed to increase budgets to haredi educational institutions, even though they don’t teach the core course curriculum that will give students marketable skills in the future. He agreed to a bill that would withdraw state recognition of non-Orthodox conversions performed in Israel. He agreed to withdraw the Kotel compromise - a plan he initially agreed to a few years back but never implemented.
He supported repealing a ban on racist MKs standing for election to the Knesset. Also, he supported an amendment to the country’s anti-discrimination law that would let businesses and institutions deny services if providing those services goes against their religious beliefs.
Two hands on the steering wheel?
To the outside world, Netanyahu has said that this would be his government, that he has “two hands on the steering wheel,” and that the coalition partners will follow his policies, not the other way around. But the coalition agreement - at least the one that has been reported upon but not yet been fully published - has various provisions and promises that would indicate the exact opposite.
Much of this came to a head over the last few days when two Religious Zionist Party (RZP) MKs defended the amendment to the anti-discrimination laws. RZP’s Orit Struck said in a radio interview that doctors should be able to deny treating someone if the treatment goes against their religious beliefs and can be found elsewhere. At the same time, Simcha Rothman agreed that a hotel owner should be able to bar entry to his establishment to gays seeking a room.
These declarations were too much, and a few Likud MKs finally took issue with the wishes of their coalition partners.
New MK Tali Gotleib tweeted to her “friends in the LGBTQ+ community” that they can rest assured that her hand would not be raised in favor of any law that would harm their rights. “Laws that harm the LGBTQ+ community are not part of the coalition agreements,” she said.
Some other voices were raised as well, such as those of Danny Danon and David Bitan.
In an Army Radio interview, new MK Boaz Bismuth said that the “LGBTQ+ community would not be harmed a millimeter. We are a liberal party.”
But the raising of these voices has just made the silence of others inside the Likud even more thunderous over the last seven weeks of coalition negotiations.
Where have Yoav Gallant, Amir Ohana, Nir Barkat, Avi Dichter and Yuli Edelstein been during this period? Why have their voices - more moderate voices inside the Likud - not been heard during this entire coalition-building process?
The likely reason is that they did not want to do anything to harm their chances of being appointed to a top ministerial position. Speaking out now, they figured, could hurt them when Netanyahu parceled out plum positions to his party members.
Netanyahu gov't criticised by unexpected voices
In the meantime, opposition is being voiced from some unexpected corners.
Degel Hatorah’s mouthpiece, Yated Ne’eman, published an editorial on Tuesday sharply taking Struck and Rothman to task for their recent comments.
Saying that haredim know what it is like to be discriminated against because of who they are, the paper said that the haredi public “needs to be the first to oppose any type of discrimination based on beliefs or world views.”
Permitting discrimination through the law is a real danger, the paper wrote. “It is a slippery slope that will anchor into law discrimination that already exists. It is likely that the Supreme Court will reject such a law - this time justifiably. Still, these comments are without any benefit and pointless, presenting the future government to the world as one that persecutes Arabs, persecutes minorities and discriminates based on religion, and more.”
These two MKs, the paper said, are giving Judaism a bad name around the world, and “these dangerous statements need to be shunned.”
Degel Hatorah’s flagship newspaper recognized something that many Likud MKs, who consider themselves “liberal,” seem not to: that damage is being done to Israel’s reputation by these statements alone, even if these statements are never translated into action.
In many regards, a coalition agreement is an aspirational document that spells out the goals of each party making up the government. In this sense, it is more a wish list than an operational plan of action.
As Gottlieb, Bismuth and others in the Likud have made clear, they will not allow laws such as the amendment to the anti-discrimination law to pass. That is commendable. But they also need to speak out against these types of proposals.
The nearly seven weeks of coalition negotiations have fostered an image of Israel as an undemocratic, intolerant nation on the verge of trampling its minorities. Some of this perception is being fed by opposition politicians keen on bringing down the government by sowing fear that Israel is about to lose its democratic character. But much of the perception has also been created by various clauses inserted into the coalition agreement.
The liberal voices inside the Likud, those who consider themselves the rightful heirs of Ze’ev Jabotinsky and Menachem Begin, have not done much to raise their voices in opposition.
The Likud’s constitution defines the party as “a national-liberal party advocating for the ingathering of exiles, the integrity of the Jewish homeland, human freedom, and social justice.” The party’s goals listed in the constitution include “safeguarding moral values and ethical principles, maintaining a democratic form of government, guaranteeing the supremacy of law, human and civil rights, individual freedoms, equal rights and opportunities of all citizens.”
Those giving the Likud “moderates” the benefit of the doubt for not speaking out will say that their overall silence is born of a fear that if they do so, they might not get senior portfolios. On Thursday, all the portfolios will be handed out. Will they then finally find their voices and speak out against steps that would distance the government from half the country, much of the Jewish world, a good part of the international community, and even the Likud constitution itself?