Washington Watch: Bismarck was right

Unbelievably, Netanyahu bought the votes of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party.

Aryeh Deri
“The less people know about how sausages and laws are made, the better they’ll sleep at night.”
-Otto von Bismarck
The most right-wing, religious, nationalistic, narrow and fragile coalition in Israeli history may be the best Benjamin Netanyahu could cobble together.
It is shaping up as a government built on rejection of peace with the Palestinians, aggressive settlement construction, religious extremism, extortion, a disdain for democracy and huge payoffs from the national treasury.
If it pursues policies espoused by some of its coalition partners it could widen the growing gap between Israel and the mainstream of the American Jewish community.
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It could also be a very short-lived government, with only a single-seat cushion, which gives any member of the coalition the power to hold it hostage until his or her demands are met.
If it falls, it won’t be because of outside pressure but from the inside, a result of the difficulty Netanyahu will face delivering on promises made and the high expectations of his partners, according to Prof. Shlomo Avineri of Hebrew University.
Already, according to The New York Times, Netanyahu’s commitments to his coalition partners in exchange for their votes will cost Israeli taxpayers at least $2 billion.
Add to that the million dollars a year he will spend for each additional cabinet portfolio he offers to recruit additional partners plus another $390,000 for each deputy minister.
Prof. Gil Troy of McGill University wrote that Netanyahu “promise[d] hundreds of millions of shekels for ultra-Orthodox education which is proudly, flamboyantly, often crudely anti-Zionist.”
Unbelievably, Netanyahu bought the votes of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party by giving the Economy and Trade Ministry to a convicted felon, Shas leader Aryeh Deri, who spent nearly two years in prison for bribery and corruption for his crimes as Interior Minister.
The ultra-Orthodox are only about eight percent of the country’s eight million population, but get disproportionate aid. That’s because their votes are for sale to both the Right and Left, and in narrow governments like this one where every vote counts, they have disproportionate influence.
Their ability to extract concessions on issues important to many American Jews – defining who is Jewish, recognition of Jewish immigrants not converted by Orthodox rabbis, laws on marriage and divorce, the status of the Conservative and Reform movements – could dramatically affect Israel’s relationship with the Diaspora, cautioned Itamar Rabinovich, former Israeli ambassador to Washington.
Netanyahu won 30 of 120 seats in the March 17 election, largely at the expense of other right-wing parties and with racist scare-tactics and a vow there would be no Palestinian state on his watch. That margin means 75% of Israelis voted for someone else.
Israeli taxpayers are paying a very high price for a very shaky government that promises to push the country farther to the Right and deeper into the grip of a corrupt and rigid religious establishment that puts theocratic doctrine above democracy. But the fervently religious aren’t the only ones with a disdain for democracy.
The religious/settler Jewish Home or Bayit Yehudi party, headed by Naftali Bennett, leveraged its eight seats to take control of the justice, education and agriculture ministries. A major goal is to emasculate the independent judiciary and give the Knesset the power to override Supreme Court decisions.
It also opposes Palestinian statehood and returning to peace negotiations, wants to aggressively expand settlement construction and annex the remaining 60% of the West Bank not controlled by the Palestinian Authority.
It also champions the Jewish nation-state bill and legislation to block foreign funding for non-profit groups that oppose government policies.
Settlements are always an abrasive issue in Israel’s relations with America and Europe, and look for the hardliners in the new government to take pleasure in pushing all those buttons.
The harsher response is likely to come from the EU, which has long threatened to respond with economic sanctions; that move will be easier with a far-right Israeli government that makes little pretense of talking about peace. The Obama administration will be peeved but probably not enough to support sanctions.
The Europeans also will be pushing to revive Israeli- Palestinian negotiations, but after having been rebuffed at every turn it is unlikely President Barack Obama would want to invest any new effort on what really is a hopeless cause so long as Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas are in office. Already the administration is lobbying the French and others to hold off on pressing that issue at the United Nations at least until after Obama’s top foreign policy priority, the nuclear dispute with Iran, is dealt with.
The Iranian negotiations face a June 30 target date, after which President Obama will submit it to Congress, which will then have about 60 days to act. Regardless of quality or content, nearly all Republicans are expected to reflexively reject it along with a number of Democrats.
The showdown is likely to center on overriding a presidential veto of a resolution of disapproval.
Netanyahu plunged the US-Israel relationship to new depths this spring when he came to Washington, at the invitation of the GOP leadership, to lobby the Congress against any deal Obama may make with Iran.
Once there is an agreement, US-Israel relations will face another critical test, said Rabinovich. “Netanyahu has to decide wither to try to improve the agreement and get concessions for Israel or to join the Republicans in trying to scuttle it altogether,” he said.
“This is not related to the makeup of his government because the decisions will be made by him alone. His government will have no impact. Iran is his big issue and will remain his major issue in the coming months,” he added.
Unlike the past six years, Netanyahu has no one in his new government who can be his interlocutor with the White House. Previously he had Ehud Barak, Tzipi Livni and Shimon Peres. Today he doesn’t even have an ambassador who is respected at the White House.
Just weeks ago Netanyahu was boasting how he could ignore Barack Obama because he was a lame duck president who’d be gone in 20 more months, while he and his Republican friends could expect to be in power long after that.
Now with his own shaky coalition threatening his political longevity and Obama’s improved public support, Netanyahu has to rethink how he wants to manage the American relationship generally and the Iranian nuclear agreement in particular. Does he want to work on the inside to get improvements and concessions for Israel or go full Republican and oppose it regardless of content or cost? More than his personal political future is at stake.