Could it be that the LIkud has failed to understand the main message of the 22 January elections? Is it possible that veteran party MKs are so stuck in the “old politics” that they simply cannot fathom the degree to which ordinary Israelis want a new politic, and the degree to which political newbies Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett are committed to making that happen?
If one listens to Environment Minister Gilad Erdan, the answer to that question would appear to be “yes.” Speaking on this mornings “Hakol Dibburim” radio show with Keren Neubach, Erdan praised Prime Minister Netanyahu for agreeing to the joint Lapid-Bennett demand to exclude ultra-Orthodox (“haredi”) parties from the government, calling it a “tremendous concession”. Erdan then proceeded to warn the upstart politicians that they are playing with fire (my phrase, not his) by dragging out coalition negotiations.
“Netanyahu has already made tremendous concessions,” Erdan said. “The public will remember who made the concessions and who was stubborn”, insinuating that voters would punish the Yesh Atid and Jewish Home parties in favour of the Likud, were a second round of elections to be held.
From where I sit, however, Erdan has got it perfectly backwards. There is a strong majority of Israelis – secular and religious alike – who want fundamental change, both with regard to the way politics are conducted here and especially with regard to the country’s relationship with the haredi minority. Few Israelis will see Netanyahu’s decision take Lapid and Bennett over Yaakov Litzman and Eli Yishai as a “painful concession.”
Rather, most people will see it as a move that expresses – horror! – the will of the people. As I’ve written before, the party that stands to lose the most from new elections would be the Likud. Were that to happen, the public would indeed remember a) just how badly Netanyahu wanted to keep the haredi parties in the coalition, b) the fact that he’s promised to save the foreign minister’s job for Avigdor Lieberman, and c) the fact that he has promised both to evict and not to evict Jews from their homes in Judea and Samaria.
Divisive Hot Potato
It should be noted, however, that the exclusion of haredi political parties from the government will not necessarily translate into far-reaching, fundamental change on issues like haredi military or civilian national service, welfare payouts to adult kollel students (“avreichim”) or demands that all educational institutions that receive public funding teach the core Israeli curriculum and prepare students for matriculation exams.
It remains to be seen whether or not the Yesh Atid faction will make good on its promise to begin to deal with these issues, but if it does, the issue is sure to become a divisive hot potato between the two largest factions in the presumptive government, Yesh Atid and the Likud. Netanyahu may have agreed to exclude the haredim from the government this time around, but this does not mean he has broken his historic partnership with them, and he will be sure to keep an eye out for their interests as the new government takes shape.
One last point: One of the major Hebrew-language columnists (I think it was Yedioth’s Sima Kadmon, but I could be wrong) suggested the following scenario: Netanyahu leaves the haredi parties out, but assigns the ministries they would want – interior, religious services, housing – to the Jewish Home party. Three months from now, he could orchestrate a crisis to prompt Bennett to quit the government (start thinking settlement evictions), thus making room for Shas and United Torah Judaism to ride in to save the day. At that point, Lapid would be unlikely to bolt (standing strong to get the government you want is one thing; bringing down a government that you’re a part of is something else), and Netanyahu would have what he desperately wants now: A centre-right government, clearly prepared to sacrifice settlements if need be, without alienating the Haredi parties.