Reality Check: Netanyahu and Lapid: Fractured relations

'A snowball’s throw away from the Knesset, Israel’s political leadership indulged itself in childish spats over issues whose importance have melted away quicker than a snowman in the sun.'

Netanyahu and Lapid laughing 370 (photo credit: REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun )
Netanyahu and Lapid laughing 370
(photo credit: REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun )
As Jerusalem’s children played in the snow last week at Sacher Park, a snowball’s throw away from the Knesset, Israel’s political leadership indulged itself in childish spats over issues whose importance have melted away quicker than a snowman in the sun.
Does it really matter whether Ofer Shelah, from Yesh Atid, chairs the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee for a year and a half before the Likud’s Tzachi Hanegbi replaces him under a rotation agreement between the Likud and Yesh Atid? For a day or so, it really did to our political masters.
Annoyed by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s refusal to approve Shelah’s appointment as committee chair, Finance Minister Yair Lapid decided to get his own back and tried to block the cabinet’s proposal to establish a public committee to investigate whether or not it makes economic sense to purchase a prime ministerial airplane and go ahead with previously shelved plan to build a new Prime Minister’s Office, including an official residence for the premier.
Playing on the prime minister’s weak spot given the recent scandals surrounding Netanyahu’s residential expenses and extravagant demands for a double bed to be fitted in whatever plane he flies, Lapid argued in cabinet that government ministers needed to act more modestly and not take steps that make them seem out of touch with the harsh economic realities facing the general public.
Not surprisingly, this did not go down well with the prime minister, who saw it as a cheap populist stance unbefitting a senior member of the coalition. And in this, Netanyahu was right. There’s no harm in a public committee, headed by former Supreme Court judge and retired state comptroller Eliezer Goldberg, examining the issue. The committee will take its time in providing its findings and no immediate decision will be demanded from the government. Lapid’s comments merely served to harden Netanyahu’s resolve not to give in to Yesh Atid’s demands concerning the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee’s chairmanship. And so, in similar fashion to a kindergarten teacher sending a child to sit on the naughty step to calm down, Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein came to the rescue, temporarily taking over the chairmanship for 45 days in order to let tempers cool and a solution be found.
But why have relations become so fractured between Netanyahu and Lapid? There were some commentators who stated that the two men’s insistence that their representative have the first shot at chairing this important Knesset committee is a sign that neither men believe this government will see through its four-year tenure and that the coalition will break up within the next year.
While it is true few Israeli governments even get close to finishing their allotted time in office and most end with early elections being called, it is far too premature to begin seeing irreparable cracks in this coalition, despite its strange makeup of parties with strongly conflicting worldviews who are now beginning to clash.
The bromance between Lapid and Bayit Yehudi’s Naftali Bennett, for example, is well and truly over, as seen by last week’s other big political argument, which concerned Yesh Atid’s proposed legislation to equalize tax breaks for same-sex couples with children with that of married parents. This was pulled from the plenum following Bayit Yehudi’s veto, due to the religious party’s fear that it would set a legal precedent for recognizing gay partnerships. But the bill will be back on the Knesset’s agenda on Wednesday, with Prime Minister Netanyahu’s support, and so this crisis, too, will pass. The fundamental truth is that this government will not fall until there is any definitive movement on the peace process. Lapid merely wants to squabble with Netanyahu because he needs to rebuild his image following the unpopular decisions he’s had to take as finance minister, which have hurt his middle-class constituency.
At the same time, Lapid knows that the fruits of these decisions will only be seen in a year to 18 months’ time, and if the economy does begin to show signs of improvement then, he wants to make sure he’s still heading the Treasury in order to take full credit. And Bennett meanwhile knows that Bayit Yehudi needs to remain in the coalition to ensure that national-religious sector can continue to protect their recent gains made at the expense of the haredi parties now in opposition.
The only coalition cloud on the horizon facing Netanyahu is the peace process, which is beginning to enter a fateful few months. The nine-month deadline set by US Secretary of State John Kerry is beginning to run down, and Kerry himself is surprising Israeli policymakers with his determination to craft a deal. If Kerry does exceed expectations and produces an outline of a peace agreement for Israel and the Palestinians to accept, then the fate of Netanyahu’s government will be in the hands of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. If Abbas has the courage to break the Palestinian tradition of never missing an opportunity to miss an opportunity, then Netanyahu will be faced with the choice he does not want make: either continue negotiating and lose the right-wing parties in his coalition, or refuse to negotiate and lose his center and center-left coalition allies.
Until this political day of reckoning comes, Netanyahu has no need to fear his unruly coalition partners, at least until the government enters its third year and Knesset members start looking anxiously at the ticking electoral clock.The writer is a former editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Post.