Netanyahu’s challenge

The leading party in the current coalition, Likud Beytenu, has a near monopoly on matters of high politics.

Netanyahu looking morose at cabinet meeting 370 (photo credit: GPO)
Netanyahu looking morose at cabinet meeting 370
(photo credit: GPO)
The task of governance is often divided into two components – high politics and low politics.
High politics refers to those tasks which are closely related to the prerogatives and responsibilities of sovereignty, primarily foreign affairs and national defense. Low politics encompasses almost all other matters, from economics to culture to education, from the rule of law to the personal status of each and every citizen.
On the basis of this schematic, Israel’s recently formed government is a true hybrid, the first such government in the nation’s modern history.
The leading party in the current coalition, Likud Beytenu, has a near monopoly on matters of high politics.
It controls the office of the prime minister, the Defense Ministry and the Foreign Ministry. It also chairs the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee and maintains a strong majority in the so-called “inner cabinet” which has informal responsibility over all matters of national security.
For reasons of politics, Israel’s current government even created a brand new ministry of International Relations – which might just as well be called the ministry of high politics – and that too is controlled by Likud Beytenu.
Likud Beytenu’s dominance in matters of high politics is completely justified.
In the election which preceded the formation of the current government, only the Tzipi Livni Party – Hatnua – humbly headed by Tzipora Livni, who served as Israel’s foreign minister in Ehud Olmert’s discredited government, directly challenged Likud Beytenu and its leader, Binyamin Netanyahu, for the position of prime minister. And her party was trounced by Likud Beytenu, which out-polled Hatnua by more than five to one. To underscore this thrashing, Netanyahu appointed Livni to the position of justice minister in his current government, an appointment which underscores her demotion from high politics to low politics.
Livni is not the only coalition partner of Likud Beytenu to be relegated to the level of low politics. The same fate was meted out to Likud Beytenu’s other coalition partners Yair Lapid, the head of the Yesh Atid party, and Naftali Bennett, the leader of Bayit Yehudi. The portfolios received by these two parties, as important as they may be with regard to domestic Israeli politics, hardly touch upon matters of sovereignty and security. And rightfully so – during the course of the election campaign which preceded the formation of the current coalition Yair Lapid and his Yesh Atid party all but ignored issues of foreign affairs and national defense. Bennett openly endorsed Netanyahu for the position of prime minister.
To be sure, Netanyahu did not have many options when building the current coalition. His party won far too few seats for him to rule unfettered over both high and low politics. And the polity – we the people – was no longer willing to allow the ruling party to expend the public’s largess on the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) parties just to keep Yuval Steinitz in the Finance Ministry and Gilad Erdan in the Education Ministry. As such, when building his coalition Netanyahu really had only two choices – share the responsibility of governance – both high and low – with his three coalition partners or cut the pie of governance in half, ceding control over low politics to his partners and garnering for himself and his party control over high politics. Netanyahu chose the second option, imagining that he took for himself and his party the larger half of the pie. And so was born Israel’s first-ever hybrid government.
Can the hybrid government which Netanyahu created generate the stability Israel needs so desperately? Most trained political scientists would answer this question with a resounding “no.” Israel’s political structures are notoriously weak. Its constitution is all but absent. Its system is designed to function without a strong separation of powers principle.
In Israel, the delicate balance between the executive branch of government and the legislative branch of government simply does not exist.
The judicial branch of the Israeli government may well be even more compromised and politicized then the other two branches. Worse yet, ever since the Oslo Accords, Israel’s national consensus, which once sustained its weak political structures, has all but dissolved. One would be hard pressed to find strong common ground between the vitriolic anti-capitalist rhetoric so favored by Shelly Yacimovich and her haredi amen corner, and the social and economic ideals favored by the Cohens from Hadera and their political representatives.
But some trained political scientists are also Zionists, indeed right-wing Zionists. And we would answer the above question with a “yes” – not a resounding “yes” but a conditional “yes.” Our “yes” is conditional upon Netanyahu’s ability to remove the question of the territories – the final disposition of Judea and Samaria – from the arena of low politics to the arena of high politics. As long as the issue is defined as a matter of settlements – who lives where and under what conditions – that is, as a factor in low politics, it will destabilize the hybrid government by serving as a conduit for undermining the weak consensus between Lapid and Bennett, the consensus which compelled Netanyahu to create the hybrid government in the first place.
And for this reason there is no doubt that at first blush Netanyahu will imagine that undermining this consensus is in his interest and the interest of his party. But upon reflection, we are convinced that Netanyahu will meet the challenge, and for the sake of political stability and so much more clearly define the issue of the territories as one of high politics. That is, as one of sovereignty.
From Israel’s perspective it matters not who lives where and under what conditions on either side of the green line. All that matters is who is the sovereign over the territory located within the boundaries of the State of Israel. And it is Netanyahu’s challenge to align the boundaries of the sovereign state with the boundaries of the Hebrew Bible. Anything else will destabilize his hybrid government.The writer teaches Jewish history at the Hebrew University and is the rabbi of Minyan HaMa’ayan in the Rimon section of Efrat. He also imports high quality kosher Italian wine to Israel under the Sentieri Ebraici label.