The potential pitfalls of a dream come true

Netanyahu finally has the coalition he always wanted. But he has no time to waste in using it.

Mofaz and Netanyahu at cabinet meeting 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Mofaz and Netanyahu at cabinet meeting 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Back before the unity government was formed last week, I’d been planning a column about Yair Lapid’s one contribution to Israeli politics: his pledge to join the next government regardless of who formed it. Far from representing a cynical preference for ministerial perks over principles, I planned to argue, Lapid apparently understood a basic truth that always eluded former Kadima chairwoman Tzipi Livni: You can’t credibly blame a prime minister for capitulating to Haredi demands while simultaneously making it impossible for him to form a coalition without the Haredim. Only if the centrist parties are willing to sit together will it be possible to enact vital domestic reforms long opposed by the Haredim, such as changing the electoral system or instituting universal national service.
Since then, Lapid has proven that I gave him far too much credit: He’s busily denouncing the new coalition, formed to address precisely those issues, as a Soviet-style dictatorship. But fortunately, someone far more important has proven that he does genuinely care about domestic reform: Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.
Two developments over the last year made the public’s desire for a domestic agenda crystal-clear: last summer’s social protests and Shelly Yacimovich’s victory in Labor’s leadership race. But Netanyahu is no Johnny-come-lately to the cause; he actually sought to create a government capable of domestic reform from his first day in office.
Immediately after the 2009 elections, he singled out Kadima as his preferred coalition partner. Livni was the first person he invited for coalition talks, and he reportedly offered her fairly substantial enticements. But Livni was both too egotistical to play second fiddle and too obsessed with “solving the conflict” to tolerate Netanyahu’s more cautious approach to Israeli-Palestinian talks in exchange for a chance to enact domestic reform: She reportedly made demands no self-respecting premier could accept, including sole authority over Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Thus Netanyahu was forced to form a coalition with the Haredi parties instead.
He tried again partway through his term, when he sought to persuade seven Kadima MKs to quit their party and join his coalition as an independent faction. That would have given him a parliamentary majority without the Haredim, comprising his own Likud (27 MKs), Yisrael Beiteinu (15), Labor (13, since that was before it split), and the seven breakaways. That attempt reportedly came close to succeeding, but ultimately failed.
That he did succeed on his third try is no thanks to Livni’s successor: Shaul Mofaz refused to join the coalition after being elected Kadima chairman in March, and changed his mind only to save his political skin (polls showed Kadima losing almost two-thirds of its seats) after Netanyahu called new elections for September. But Netanyahu quickly seized the opportunity.
Now that he finally has the coalition he always wanted, he has promised to use it to tackle some big domestic issues. At a press conference last Monday, he said the new coalition had four goals, three of which are domestic: changing the system of government, instituting universal national service, and economic legislation to increase competition and raise living standards while maintaining fiscal stability. All three are vital objectives.
Nevertheless, he faces three potentially enormous pitfalls.
The first is lack of time. US President Barack Obama may well be reelected on November 6, and if so, he reportedly plans to resume intensive efforts to create a Palestinian state. That would force Netanyahu to spend most of his time and energy fending off pressure for dangerous concessions and coping with constant crises in U.S.-Israeli relations, just as he did during the early part of his term, and would thus deprive him of the time and energy needed to push through controversial domestic reforms.
In short, he may have only a six-month window of opportunity to enact reforms. And of those six months, the Knesset will be in session for less than four, due to the lengthy summer recess.
Second, there’s a very real danger of passing ill-conceived reforms that end up making the situation worse rather than better. A classic example is Israel’s last experiment with electoral reform: the institution of direct elections for prime minister in 1992.
While the reform’s drafters had also intended MKs to be directly elected, the Knesset nixed that idea, deciding only the premier should be elected directly. The result was a “reform” that did nothing to increase MKs’ accountability to the voters but significantly increased political instability: The major parties shrunk once people no longer had to vote for a candidate’s party to ensure his election as premier, so prime ministers ended up even more dependent on small coalition partners than they were before.
Finally, there’s a risk of failing to balance essential reforms with minorities’ concerns. For instance, vocal constituencies will undoubtedly press the unity government to use its power not merely to institute universal national service, but to impose a secular core curriculum on Haredi schools, end stipends for yeshiva students and otherwise radically alter the Haredi lifestyle. Yet an angry, embittered minority that feels persecuted by the majority is ultimately unhealthy for Israel. Thus it would be wiser to seek a compromise that trades secular concessions on some of these issues for Haredi concessions on the primary goal, universal service (a subsequent column will discuss what such a compromise might look like).
Granted, the Haredi parties may refuse any compromise acceptable to the majority. But it’s also possible that their intransigence to date has stemmed mainly from the fact that no politician worth his salt will accept half a loaf when he can get the whole thing – which the Haredim could as long as they were political kingmakers. Faced with a choice between half a loaf and nothing at all, they may be more amenable to compromise.
Netanyahu has now staked his political future on his ability to enact the reforms he promised last week. If he fails to use his grand coalition to effect significant change, Israelis will not quickly forgive him for squandering the opportunity. But if he succeeds, he will have done an enormous service to the country – and almost certainly secured his own reelection to boot.
The writer is  journalist and commentator.