Israelis Beware: Coalition Deals May Turn Election Promises Into Horsemeat

If the trio of Lapid, Yacimovich and Bennett sell out their party platform for ministerial payoffs, in the Machiavellian way Tzipi Livni has done, it will be a shattering rebuff to the cross-party idealism that flowered during the election campaign.

Amiel Ungar
Amiel Ungar
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Amiel Ungar
Amiel Ungar

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, alarmed at the lack of movement in the coalition talks, shamelessly enlisted Hatnuah and its chairwomen, Tzipi Livni, as his first coalition partner. The first coalition partner is a party that sought to distinguish itself from the rest of the "centrist" pack in the last elections by pledging not to enter a coalition with Netanyahu.

Amram Mitzna, the number two on the Hatnuah list, called Netanyahu "dangerous" during the election campaign, and number three, Amir Peretz, bolted the Labor Party because he suspected that the party's leader Shelly Yacimovich would be an eventual recruit for a Netanyahu-led coalition. The Likud has constantly disparaged Livni as the architect of UN Security Resolution 1701 that allowed Hezbollah to re-arm with impunity and to take over Lebanon, and for her major role in the expulsion from Gaza.

In recognition of her contributions to these disasters, Netanyahu has awarded her responsibility for the negotiations with the Palestinians. Voters for both the Likud and Hatnuah can now commiserate with those consumers in Britain who thought they had bought prime beef burgers but were sold a pack of horsemeat.

However, attacks on opportunism and cynicism in Israel have traditionally tended to subside after the initial indignation. These attacks will soon be counterbalanced by commentaries issued by the like of Israel Radio's senior political analyst, Hanan Kristal, with his undisguised admiration for such a Machiavellian master-stroke. Even better for Kristal and his colleagues would be if the projected Netanyahu government can be marketed (or spun) as a "peace government", ready to take the brave and painful measures for "disengaging" from the Palestinians. Should Netanyahu morph into Ariel Sharon circa. 2005, and sell out his constituency, he will be accorded the same kid-glove treatment in the media.

With Livni in, and Mofaz's rump Kadima and the ultra-Orthodox parties soon to follow, Netanyahu has set up the classic game theory Prisoner's Dilemma for the tyro trio of Yair Lapid, Shelly Yacimovich and Naftali Bennett. These wannabe civic virtue politicians have been administered a lesson in old-style politics, and now it remains to be seen which of the three will cave and provide Netanyahu with a stable government in return for a major payoff.

The leader least likely to crack is Yair Lapid, because he is under the least pressure to join the government. If he stays out he will be the leader of the opposition, harrying Netanyahu after every set piece Knesset debate. Lapid has assembled a team of talented, young and ambitious Knesset members, not one of whom has ever occupied a ministerial portfolio, and still consider their role as rank and file Knesset members a privilege. After a term in the Knesset many will enjoy both freshness and name recognition. Yesh Atid's constituency is the unattached middle-class voter, and it does not have institutional interests to protect by joining the government. A term in opposition freed from government responsibilities and the onus of unpopular measures like tax increases will allow Yair Lapid to grow his party and solidify its organizational structure. He can write articles and grace the talk shows to his heart's content. The agreement with Livni - setting a ratio of one portfolio for every three Knesset seats - effectively ruling out the streamlined government advocated by Yesh Atid, another reason for staying out.

Shelly Yacimovich ironically finds herself in the same predicament that Ehud Barak, her predecessor as Labor chair, faced after the 2009 elections: A restive party and (if Yesh Atid stays out) without the solace of at least serving as leader of the opposition (a post occupied by Livni in 2009). Due to Labor's disappointing electoral showing, in comparison with the promising polls at the start of the campaign, Yacimovich's leadership is under challenge. While Labor has loosened its institutional moorings – most noticeably to the kibbutz movement - and stocked its Knesset faction with journalists and activists, it still has institutional ties with the Histadrut. It was the powerful Histadrut chair's Ofer Eini who gave Barak his blessing to join the Netanyahu government in 2009, ostensibly to preserve employment , and helped him pass the decision in the party central committee. Eini may favor a repeat performance. The older members of the faction, including Binyamin Ben Eliezer and Nachman Shai, would prefer to finish out their careers as ministers, and will lobby the party to go into the coalition to bolster the peace process.

The most unenviable position is Naftali Bennett's. Having argued that a massive increase in the party's Knesset strength would assure Habayit Hayehudi's place in the cabinet, despite the bad blood between him and Netanyahu, he may find himself frozen out. This will most assuredly ensure the continued Haredi dominance of the chief rabbinate, and an essentially spectator's role for religious Zionists, should negotiations be resumed with the Palestinians on issues crucial to Bennett's constituency. While Habayit Hayehudi has always felt comfortable as a bridge builder between the secular and the ultra-Orthodox, the latter may prefer to dynamite access to their side of the bridge rather than accept the blurring of the religious-secular line as advocated by Bennett and Lapid.

It can only be hoped that all three leaders hang firm. It will be a shattering rebuff to the youthful idealism that flowered on all parts of the spectrum if rank cynicism is allowed to prevail.

Dr. Amiel Ungar is a political scientist.

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