No deal till there’s a deal

Could Bibi Netanyahu pull a Labour-Likud-Haredim government out of his hat at the last minute?

There are certainly signs that it could happen, despite Labour Chairwoman Shelly Yechimovitch’s determined stance that her party will not be joining a Likud-led government. Cynics will look at Yechimovitch’s strong position as clear proof that she’d consider a good offer from Netanyahu; realists out there (including veteran political journalist Sima Kadmon, writing in this morning’s Yedioth Aharonoth), say that the deal has already been drafted and shelved. It doesn’t take a huge leap of faith to imagine that that deal could be dusted off and presented to the Knesset at the last minute.

Yes, in many ways the notion of a Likud-Labour partnership seems absurd, until you think of it in this light: The last headache Netanyahu needs is a government with the Jewish Home party, and not only because of his personal animosity for Naftali Bennett. He’s already the leader of a Likud faction that is vocal, strong and considerable to the right of the prime minister. It is hard to imagine that he will agree to a situation in which he promises US President Barack Obama to renew negotiations with PLO Chairman Abu Mazen, only to have to fight an “anti” block consisting of Orit Struck and Rabbi Eli Ben-Dahan, together with Danny Dannon and Yariv Levin.

And then there is Yesh Atid. If there is anything that Netanyahu should have learned from the past month-and-a-half, it is that the upstart new party is fiercely determined to change the face and practice of Israeli politics. That may be the greatest threat Netanyahu faces as he desperately tries to maintain the old-style politics that has worked for him for 25 years.

Yesh Atid ‘s revolution is happening in little and big ways: American-born MK Dov Lipman has announced that he would hold regular office hours for community relations, in order to increase accountability to constituents. Party leader Yair Lapid agreed to forego the prestigious foreign minister’s job, but refused to compromise on his demands to exclude the haredi political parties and to limit the size of the government. As of this writing, the party appears prepared to sit in opposition unless Netanyahu agrees to appoint Yesh Atid number two Rabbi Shai Peron as education minister.

Of course, with politicians it is always hard to identify the border between honest community service and narrow political ego, but the issue does seem consistent with Yesh Atid’s determination to create a government that responds to the needs and desires of the electorate. For the Likud, which has built a political empire on the notion that the government is responsible primarily to the party at the top, there is no greater threat.

It is important to remember: There is NO chance that Israel will hold new elections. The two parties who have the most to lose from an election “do over” – Likud and Labour – are also the groups that could prevent that from happening.

But time is running out. Netanyahu has until this Shabbat to present a government, and he has not managed to convince Yesh Atid to abandon its election platform in order to join the coalition.

On the other hand, in many ways Labour and Likud are a natural partnership. While there are sharp differences of approach on economic issues, there is broad agreement between the two parties on other issues such as the religious status quo, funding for haredi yeshivot and even on foreign policy: Yes, Labour would push for a resumption of peace talks with the current Palestinian leadership, but that’s something Netanyahu could live with, particularly because he does not believe the negotiations would lead anywhere.

Furthermore, both parties recognise the political expediency of having a large government. These areas of agreement, coupled with the fact that both stand to lose significant numbers of Knesset seats if there are new elections, all point to the fact that come-what-may, there will be no new election.

Lastly, Netanyahu has been loathe to alienate his long-time allies in the United Torah Judaism and Shas parties. That alliance is the reason he balked last May when the Plesner Committee presented its plans for drafting yeshiva boys, and it’s the reason he tried hard to convince Lapid to accept the haredi parties in the new government. My guess is that Netanyahu believes that Yesh Atid is only the newest incarnation of the Centre, Third Way, Pensioners and Kadima parties – a one-election wonder that will be gone by the next time Israelis hit the polls.

If that assumption is correct, then it makes perfect sense for Netanyahu to ditch Yesh Atid and Jewish Home in favour of Labour and the haredim. The only question left to ask if it all goes down that way is what happens after that?

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