Think About It: National unity and a national unity government

Is there any hope for greater unity?

Binyamin Netanyahu (photo credit: REUTERS)
Binyamin Netanyahu
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s call for national unity in the form of a national unity government, against the background of the abhorrent murder of four Jewish worshipers and one Druse policeman by two Palestinian butchers, undoubtedly reflects a real yearning for unity in Israeli society.
It is no secret that national unity is a pretty elusive commodity in Israel these days, even though in situations of national emergency – a war or an especially heinous act of terrorism – everyone feels the need to emphasize that “we are more united than ever before.” That is not very difficult in such a situation, however, whereas in “ordinary times” unity is hard to find.
There are objective reasons for this lack of unity, which is caused by the extreme heterogeneity and fragmentation of Israeli society, and the different visions of the desired nature of the State of Israel.
The current debate over the proposed Basic Law: Israel as the Nation State of the Jewish People, which is basically a debate on the balance between Israel as a Jewish state and Israel as a democratic state in which everyone enjoys full human, civil and political rights, reflects the problem.
However, there are also subjective reasons for why unity seems to be so rare in Israel today. In a society as divided as ours, the only way to overcome the worst manifestations of the schism is a constant search for constructive compromise. This simple truism does not seem to be understood by most present-day Israelis, Netanyahu included. It is perhaps indicative of the problem that the “Mapai willingness to compromise” – which was one of the hallmarks of the Mapai governing ethos that enabled it, and its successors, to remain in power in the Yishuv and later on in the State of Israel, from 1935 to 1977 – is the subject of mockery rather than admiration.
It is Netanyahu’s total unwillingness or inability to strive for constructive compromises, rather than superficial “compromises” which have little if any real content, which is his Achilles heel in this sphere. It is for this reason that one should take his recent call for a national unity government with a grain of salt, and that justifies one in viewing it as no more than a tactic, one which Netanyahu has used before, to delay inevitable early elections made necessary by his inability to make his incoherent governments work.
Just over two years ago, in May 2012, after early elections had been called for September 4 following a serious crisis in Netanyahu’s second government, he announced the formation of a national unity government that would be joined by Kadima, the main opposition party with 28 Knesset seats, which was headed by MK Shaul Mofaz. At the time the move was received with great cynicism.
However, seeing the potential in such a wide coalition, which at least theoretically would have the power to resolve some of the current burning problems, I argued in these pages that the new coalition deserved to be given a chance, and enumerated all the issues that I felt could be successfully tackled by it (“The new national unity government,” May 14 2012).
But we all know how that saga ended.
Within two months Kadima left the Netanyahu government, after it became apparent that the prime minister had no real intention of using the opportunity to make progress to resolve any of the problems on the national agenda, and was no more inclined than before to make any constructive compromises. All he was interested in was surviving as prime minister a little longer.
There is no reason to believe that this time around anything has changed. A few days before the terrorist attack in the Har Nof synagogue it was a foregone conclusion that new elections would have to take place in the first half of 2015.
The main reason for the crisis was that none of the components of the coalition seemed able to get the government to act in unison on advancing central elements of their separate agendas, whether by means of the budget or by other means, and Netanyahu was unable to work out some imaginative Mapai compromises (even within his own party). The sense of being in a cul-de-sac led almost everyone in the government to the conclusion that early elections were unavoidable, even though of all the coalition parties only Bayit Yehudi is expected to gain seats if elections are held in the foreseeable future.
Since Netanyahu is no idiot, he must certainly understand that if he cannot get his current coalition to work effectively, the addition of the haredi parties, Labor and Kadima would constitute a much worse nightmare for him. He must also understand that Labor has nothing to gain from joining the current government, and would merely add a few more incoherencies to it, while Shaul Mofaz still bears the scars of his 2012 experience, which is one of the reasons that he currently heads a parliamentary group numbering only two members, compared with 28 in the previous Knesset.
This leads one to believe that what Netanyahu really wants at the moment is for the haredi parties to join and for Yesh Atid and Kadima to leave, which would leave him with a coalition supported by 61 MKs. Though this is certainly an option that might work more smoothly than the current coalition, “national unity” it certainly is not, though the general public might be sufficiently brainwashed to blame the Labor Party, since it gave Netanyahu an immediate negative answer to his invitation to join the government.
The truth is that when the Israeli political Right speaks of unity, what it means is that the Left should admit it was wrong, on all issues including Oslo, and should repent. Similarly, when the Right says that it favors a settlement with the Palestinians, what it is really advocating is that the Palestinians should accept the Israeli narrative, and stop pretending to be a separate nation, with legitimate national ambitions and legitimate current and historical grievances.
Where does all this leave us? Disunited.
Is there any hope for greater unity? Certainly not as long as Netanyahu is prime minister. Why not? Because in a fragmented political reality such as ours no leader who does not believe in compromise and moderation as basic necessities can bridge the schisms or reduce the raging flames.
Will new elections give rise to a leader who measures up to the requirements? Perhaps, but then again perhaps not.
The writer is a retired Knesset employee.