For centrists who seek domestic reform, vote here

Getting Am Shalem into the Knesset is the best way to up the odds of this happening

Ballots are printed ahead of elections 370 (photo credit: REUTERS/Baz Ratner)
Ballots are printed ahead of elections 370
(photo credit: REUTERS/Baz Ratner)
Hillel Halkin’s lament in the Forward last week, titled “An Israeli ballot with no good options,” perfectly encapsulated what many voters feel. Indeed, I had trouble disagreeing with his analysis of the various parties’ flaws. Yet I couldn’t disagree more strongly with his conclusion. Granted, I’m politically to his right. But speaking as someone who wants our next government to carry out the same kinds of domestic reforms as he does, I think centrists who want to increase the odds of that happening actually have an excellent voting option.
Here’s Halkin’s analysis in a nutshell: Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu isn’t as bad as he’s often painted; he “performed well on Iran,” isn’t to blame for the Israeli-Palestinian stalemate, and “deserves credit for standing firm on the West Bank and Jerusalem.” But he “missed golden opportunities to carry out the economic reforms he knows are needed, to make Israel a more affordable place for its young people, and to spur the integration of its haredi community into its army and society.” So why should anyone think he’ll do differently next time around? Kadima, Tzipi Livni’s Hatnuah, and Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid are all little more than vanity vehicles, while Naftali Bennett’s Bayit Yehudi obviously isn’t an option for center-leftists. And though Halkin initially liked Labor, party leader Shelly Yacimovich queered that idea by vowing not to join a Netanyahu government, thereby nixing the chance of a centrist coalition that could enact the necessary reforms. Therefore, he concluded, “It looks like I’ll be staying home on January 22.”
Yet Halkin is wrong. A coalition capable of enacting the needed reforms is no less possible now than it was before Yacimovich’s announcement – but only if centrist voters help it along.
In truth, a Likud-Labor coalition was never realistic. Netanyahu and Yacimovich are too far apart on economic issues, and having campaigned entirely on economics, this isn’t something Yacimovich could compromise on.
In contrast, at least four parties could potentially agree on both free-market-oriented economic reforms and measures to integrate the haredim: Likud Yisrael Beiteinu, Hatnuah, Yesh Atid and Habayit Hayehudi. And all polls show these parties winning enough seats to form a coalition. But as things stand now, a combination of diplomatic incompatibility, simple arithmetic and the character of at least two of the party leaders make such a coalition impossible. 
Clearly, the chances of Livni and Bennett being able to compromise sufficiently on diplomatic issues to sit in a coalition together are almost nonexistent. But even if they did, there’s the arithmetic problem: Likud Yisrael Beiteinu would have only half the seats in such a coalition and no good options should one of its partners quit. It couldn’t, for instance, neatly substitute Shas for Hatnuah; Lapid won’t sit with Shas. Thus Netanyahu would be utterly at the mercy of his coalition partners.
Since Lapid and Bennett are political newbies, one can’t be sure how they’d behave in such a situation. But Livni is a known quantity: Her ego is monstrous even by the outsized standards of politicians. Last time around, she was actually Netanyahu’s preferred coalition partner, precisely because they agreed so closely on domestic issues. But the negotiations failed because she posed conditions so outrageous that no self-respecting prime minister could accept them. Thus any sane premier would be wary of making his government dependent on her.
And while Netanyahu has his strengths, political courage isn’t one of them. Faced with such a risky alternative, he’d choose the safe option: a coalition based on the two Haredi parties. Such a government won’t enact any reforms, but it will be stable: As long as it refrains from drafting yeshiva students and coughs up the necessary billions for Haredi institutions, the Haredi parties can be trusted not to quit.
Nevertheless, center-left voters can do one thing that would alter the above calculus radically: Get Haim Amsellem’s Am Shalem party into the Knesset. That would significantly increase the chances of a domestic-reform coalition.
Substantively, the party’s raison d’etre is integrating the haredim, and it would likely acquiesce in any other domestic reforms as long as the government does that. Tactically, giving Netanyahu more parties to choose from means that at least, each would have less power to hold him hostage, making the domestic coalition more viable from his perspective.
But the real bonanza is that if current polls hold, a mere three seats for Am Shalem could enable Netanyahu to form a domestic-reform coalition even without Hatnuah.  Excluding Livni would make it much easier to reach a modus vivendi on diplomatic issues, since Lapid is both more centrist and far more concerned with domestic issues. And even if she joined, Netanyahu wouldn’t be hostage to her, which would increase his willingness to take the gamble.
For right-of-center voters disappointed with Likud, Bennett is a more attractive option than Amsellem. Bennett would probably support free-market reforms (after all, he’s a successful high-tech entrepreneur), and despite his bizarre remark last week, he would almost certainly back efforts to get haredim into the army and workforce, that being a goal his constituency overwhelmingly supports. But he also has known diplomatic views and is certain to enter the Knesset – whereas Amsellem’s diplomatic positions are uncertain, as is the chance of his winning enough votes to pass the electoral threshold.
But centrist or left-of-center voters have nothing to lose by voting Amsellem: The next government isn’t going to lean left diplomatically anyway, so they may as well vote to encourage domestic reform. And since a domestic-reform government probably won’t happen without him, there’s no fear of wasting their vote; they won’t be any worse off if his party fails to make it into the Knesset.
Thus centrist voters who want a domestic-reform coalition can greatly increase the odds of it happening by voting Am Shalem. At the very least, doing so would support a worthy candidate: How can centrists not respect a Haredi rabbi and former Shas MK willing to stand up publicly and say most haredim should do army service and work? And it might even end up being good for Israel.
The writer is a journalist and commentator.