Borderline Views: The coalition minefield

For those of us who remain disappointed by the election result, it is about time we got our act together and formed a real opposition.

Peres meets ministers 2013 coalition (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Peres meets ministers 2013 coalition
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
As readers of this column will be aware, I did not vote for Binyamin Netanyahu, or for any right-wing party. But I don’t envy Netanyahu’s task of negotiating through a political minefield in an attempt to create a broad coalition government.
Four diverse issues are on the table, and each of the potential coalition partners have stated their unwillingness to back down. Either they will stand true to their pre-election commitments to their supporters or, as has happened so often in the past, they will accept watered-down versions of their policies, with implementation put off to an undetermined future date.
Netanyahu will argue that they are behaving irresponsibly in preventing the establishment of a new government, that they are not behaving in the best interests of the state, and eventually especially newcomers such as Lapid and Yesh Atid will buckle to the more experienced coalition negotiators of the Likud, and perhaps even the ultra- Orthodox parties.
Of the four major issues on the table, the security/peace issue will, surprisingly, be easiest to reach an agreement on. Of the major potential coalition partners, the majority – Likud, Bayit Yehudi and the ultra-Orthodox parties (Shas and United Torah Judaism) are not in favor of undertaking any major new peace initiative, while Yesh Atid’s position is unclear; its MKs hold diverse views on the issue. Tzipi Livni may hold out, but she will be irrelevant, as will Kadima, if and when the other parties are in place.
The spectre of a nuclear Iran will continue to be thrown up by Netanyahu as the major security issue on the table. This will forestall any serious debate on the Israel- Palestine issue, to which lip service – but nothing more – will be paid during the coalition negotiations.
On social and economic issues, Yesh Atid will insist on taking the lead. The party’s rise to power on the wave of the social protest is also mirrored in the Labor Party list (who look as though they will be the largest party left in opposition) as well as among many of the MKs of the Bayit Yehudi party, and there is strong cross-party support for significant changes in economic policy and priorities.
Shas will throw up the situation of the poorer sectors of the population, but this election was not about them – it was about the middle class, those who contribute to the state through their professionalism and high taxes and without whom there would not be any public resources available for the poorer sectors of society.
THE THIRD issue, perhaps the most contentious this time round, is that of military conscription for the entire population. For Yesh Atid, this has become a major principle, and it is also supported by Bayit Yehudi.
But it will be strongly rejected by UTJ and Shas, although the latter, the majority of whose voters serve in the army, have made some early conciliatory statements about their willingness to consider changes.
If there is one party which, more than any other, will not allow itself to be squeezed out of the coalition, it is Shas, and it is aware is will have to distance itself from UTJ’s uncompromising stance on this issue.
A compromise stance on the conscription issue will entail it being implemented over a long – perhaps five years – period, and it will include all forms of national service, not just military service. There is every reason why haredi and Arab citizens should contribute to a variety of social and welfare programs – in hospitals, schools and other welfare and educational projects – if they are unable, or unwilling, to serve in the army.
Add to that the fact that the army is not interested in suddenly recruiting tens of thousands ultra-Orthodox Jews or Arab citizens, and the fact that thousands will simply refuse to be conscripted in what could become a mass civil insurrection, and it is obvious that a compromise will have to be reached, one which will satisfy Yesh Atid in terms of the burden falling equally on everyone, but one with which the haredi and Arab parties can live. It is about time that this highly sensitive issue was dealt with properly.
THE FINAL issue, which will probably get brushed aside in the heat of negotiations on the other topics, concerns electoral and constitutional reform. This is again promoted by Yesh Atid and, to a lesser extent, by Bayit Yehudi.
Unlike the 1990s, when this was a major topic on the national agenda, it has largely been put aside during the past decade. The failed attempt to implement direct elections and the return to the old electoral system, but with a few small but significant changes, has resulted in greater government stability than in the past.
The solutions for real electoral reform – a mixed electoral system, the introduction of multi-member constituencies, the raising of the electoral threshold – have been discussed and analyzed ad nauseam. It is not a lack of solutions but rather opposition among the MKs themselves which has prevented it from happening. It is just possible that given the fact that almost half of the Knesset is new and that, at least at this early stage in the game, they do not have the same built-in interests, there would be greater support for real electoral and constitutional reform – but if I was a betting man, I wouldn’t put too much money on it becoming part of the new coalition manifesto.
Lapid has also stated that the new government should not have more than 18 ministers and that none of them should hold the dubious, and wasteful, position of “minister without portfolio” just to satisfy the large number of coalition demands for seats around the cabinet table. There is absolutely no reason why one in every three to four members of Knesset should assume the right to be a minister, and the number of ministers should not be dependent on the number of coalition partners. Parties should get used to the idea that no more than a few of their senior members will occupy ministerial positions.
Not only will this save millions for investment in other, much more important projects, such as welfare and education, it will also mean that MKs will have to get back to doing what they are meant to be doing: participating in Knesset debates and committee sessions. Is it going to happen? Again, I wouldn’t put my money on it.
AT THE end of the day, there will be one definite winner – Netanyahu. One way or another, he will get his coalition together, as befits the leader of the largest party. I too would have preferred an alternative prime minister and a left-of-center coalition rather than the continued right-of-center government we will have. But the 66 percent of the Israeli public who took the trouble to go to the polls (and the rest don’t have the right to moan and groan during the coming four years), have had their say and we now have to get back to the tasks ahead of us – and as quickly as possible.
For those of us who remain disappointed by the election result, it is about time we got our act together and formed a real opposition, one which will challenge the government during the entire four years of its administration and not just in the few weeks before an election. One which will know to come together for the common good, rather than continually divide and separate over the minor differences. Ironically, it is the right wing who do this much better, and they will therefore have the privilege of continuing to govern Israel for the next four years.The writer is the dean of the faculty of humanities and social sciences at Ben-Gurion University, the views expressed are his alone.