Israel’s new politics tests the waters

Reality Check: Knesset summer session begins; will see if new politics promised by Lapid, Bennett comes to fruition.

Yair Lapid 370 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Yair Lapid 370
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
As the Knesset begins its summer session today, we’ll finally get the chance to see whether the new politics promised by Yair Lapid and his fellow musketeer Naftali Bennett actually comes to fruition. And of course, the new session will also ensure that Finance Minister Lapid eventually addresses the plenum as opposed to updating his Facebook status.
The two major issues facing the Knesset over the next three months are the passing of the state budget for 2013-14, which will be the first and sternest test of the new finance minister, and the completion of the Equal Burden for All legislation to set down the guidelines for drafting young haredi men into the IDF.
Even before Lapid brings his budget to the Knesset, he will first have to overcome the fierce opposition of many of his cabinet colleagues to the cuts he’s proposing.
In such a scenario, no finance minister can succeed without the strong backing of the prime minister, but Lapid should not take Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s full support as a given.
Netanyahu is well aware that Lapid has begun to see himself as the country’s next premier, which does not necessarily make him well disposed toward his finance minister. Time magazine’s decision last week to include Lapid in its list of the 100 most influential people in the world, while leaving Netanyahu out for the first time in a couple of years, will also not have helped the prime minister’s feelings towards the young pretender.
After all, it was only less than a year ago that Time was busy heralding “King Bibi.”
But Netanyahu also understands the seriousness of Israel’s economic situation and the importance of not following in the wake of Spain, Greece and Cyprus. The prime minister will no doubt ensure an economically responsible budget is passed, but at the same time he will make certain Lapid takes the brunt of the public criticism that is bound to come with the painful measures to be implemented.
Lapid would be wise not to allow this political baptism by fire to distract him from his second battle, that of passing the Equal Burden for All legislation. It was their promise of ending the state-sponsored haredi IDF draft exemption, alongside some exceptional electioneering, that swept Lapid’s Yesh Atid and Bennett’s Bayit Yehudi into their dominant role in Netanyahu’s government.
The issue of the IDF draft is a fateful one for the haredi world as, along with the introduction of compulsory secular subjects into the haredi school curriculum, it opens the eyes of young haredim to a world outside the yeshiva study hall. The haredi parties, Netanyahu’s faithful coalition allies of the past and still his preferred partners, will fight with all their might against this legislation.
It will be Lapid and Bennett’s job to insist the prime minister not buckle under the pressure and water down the planned changes.
A failure on their part here will doom the rest of this government’s tenure and destroy the promise of the fresh new faces in the Knesset and around the cabinet table.
Less importantly, but still significant, the upcoming election of the country’s chief rabbis in three months’ time will also show whether the new government reflects a break with the past or is simply the continuation of politics as usual.
Of course, the country doesn’t actually need one chief rabbi, never mind two (one Ashkenazi, one Sephardi). There is no halachic basis for a chief rabbi and the institution is a Mandate-era body that should have been abolished the minute the British left the country.
However, one has to accept that today it will probably take the coming of the Messiah to do away with this body, given the jobs-for-the boys it provides to whichever haredi faction happens to control it.
The chief rabbis are elected by a body comprising 80 rabbis and 70 mainly secular public figures, including ministers, Knesset members and city mayors. A clear favorite for the post of Ashkenazi chief rabbi among the secular public is Rabbi David Stav, the chief rabbi of Shoham and chairman of the Tzohar organization, which seeks to make Orthodox Judaism more palatable to the secular public.
Not surprisingly, the haredi parties oppose Stav’s candidacy, as do members of the more religiously extreme Tekuma faction of Bayit Yehudi, whom Bennett succeeded in hiding during the election campaign.
If the country’s new chief rabbis turn out to be a rehash of the old familiar black-hatted faces – Shas is busy pushing for a change in the law to allow Sephardi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar to run for a second 10-year term – then we’ll know that in many cases, it’s still business as usual in the country’s political establishment.

The writer is a former editor-in-chief of 
The Jerusalem Post.