A good government, after all

Before latching onto every extremist, ambitious statement from one new Israeli minister or another as a sign of disaster, give the new Israeli government some time to get its act together and craft consensus policy. The coalition is actually is a breath of fresh air — surprising, enlivening and promising. While it’s not the coalition that Netanyahu wanted, it is certainly the government that most Israelis wanted.

3 new popes in Israel

Published in Israel Hayom, March 20, 2013.  Click for a printer-friendly copy.

Detractors and opposition figures already are alleging that the new Netanyahu government is a “dysfunctional” coalition, a nasty “settler” government, a pernicious “capitalist” government, and a hateful “anti-religious” government.

On the contrary. Prime Minister Netanyahu’s third government is actually is a breath of fresh air – surprising, enlivening and promising, and it seems well-placed to be a consensus, moderate, and effective government. It even has the potential for being a great government, one which brings about long-needed structural reforms in Israeli society. And, while it’s not the coalition that Netanyahu wanted, it is certainly the government that most Israelis wanted!

Consider: Netanyahu retains solid control over foreign affairs and defense policy in the new government, through Moshe Yaalon (defense), Yuval Steinitz (international, intelligence and strategic affairs), Zeev Elkin (foreign affairs), Gilad Erdan (home front protection), Silvan Shalom (regional development, water and energy), and Yitzhak Aharonovitch (internal security). Netanyahu holds sway in the inner diplomatic-security cabinet too, via Yaalon, Erdan, Aharonovich and Naftali Bennett, and Yair Lapid won’t challenge Netanyahu much on diplomatic matters. Tzippy Livni is the odd woman out in this regard, but she will be marginalized.

In this configuration, Netanyahu will be able to focus on what he views as his main task: Navigating Israel carefully and cautiously through the minefields of the exploding Middle East: dealing with the fallout from Syria’s implosion, Sinai’s descent into chaos, Iran’s revved-up nuclear drive, and possible insurrection in the Palestinian areas.

He’ll also be able to offer conciliation to the Palestinian Authority and reset relations with Washington. Lapid and Livni’s participation in government decision-making should reinforce Netanyahu’s penchant for measureable, if modest, diplomatic progress.

To help stabilize things a bit and to shore up ties with the Obama administration, the new government can be expected to engage in some sort of diplomatic process with the Palestinian Authority. Even Bennett’s Bayit Yehudi party, which is opposed to the two-state paradigm, will support renewed peace talks and confidence-building concessions, and abide by a settlement policy that does not generally build outside of the so-called consensus settlement blocs. (This will not constitute a settlement “freeze,” but amount to a restrained and less-provocative building path).

Nevertheless, Netanyahu will not be pushed into capricious agreements with Abbas that threaten Israel. Netanyahu does not believe that a full peace with the Palestinians can be achieved until Iran’s growing power in the region is halted, until Iran’s proxies in Gaza and Lebanon are checked, and until Abbas’ expectations are curtailed.

It’s true that almost half the coalition members and cabinet ministers are political newcomers with significant ambitions who could yet prove a significant challenge to Netanyahu’s leadership. Yesh Atid’s Lapid and Bayit Yehudi’s Bennett, in particular, are cresting a great wave of popularity, and their tactical partnership wedged Netanyahu into this coalition and already has defined much of the new government’s agenda.

Working together in startling concert, the two idealistic young Turks have secured primacy over the government’s economic and social policies, through the control of the finance, education, health, welfare, science, economy and trade, housing and religious service ministries, along with control of almost all the relevant cabinet and Knesset committees in these fields. The coalition agreements they signed with Netanyahu stipulate an aggressive legislative agenda over the next six months, meant to address the demands of the Israeli middle class for both economic relief and a fairer sharing of the national burden.

This would seem to demarcate a neat division of labor in the government, with Netanyahu/Lieberman leading in foreign affairs, and Lapid/Bennett in domestic matters. “Netanyahu, Lieberman and Yaalon will handle the Ayatollahs, while Lapid and Bennett will tackle the labor unions” – one pundit has quipped. Or, “Netanyahu will look for the centrifuges, while Lapid looks for the money” (– the later phrase being one of Lapid’s key election slogans).

The delimitation of responsibilities in this way is only surface-deep, yet it also makes a lot of sense. Netanyahu is happy to let Finance Minister Lapid struggle with the required budget cuts and tax increases while trying to fulfill all his grandiose promises of relief to the overtaxed middle class. The fancy-footwork economic reforms Lapid and Bennett speak of (breaking-up monopolies, freeing-up capital markets, eliminating protectionist duties and bringing down consumer prices, releasing more land for cheaper housing, and eliminating bureaucracy) are fine and good, but it will take time until these reforms take root and the results will be felt.

Netanyahu may even benefit from the plans that Lapid and Bennett have to draw the Haredi community into the military and the workforce. They already have replaced the Haredi parties as the balance of power linchpin in Israeli politics. Haredi institutions will likely lose much of their special funding already this year; and the Chief Rabbinate may revert to control of moderate Orthodox rabbis associated with Bayit Yehudi’s religious Zionist constituency.

While Netanyahu didn’t want to break with the Haredi parties and tackle these issues, nor deal resolutely with the draft issue, he could yet emerge stronger in public opinion for presiding over the inevitable changes. His new government may even be able to pass long-awaited electoral reform, thus strengthening Israeli politics for the long term.

Clearly, there are competing and conflicting urges within the government, from Lapid’s desire to institute civil marriage, to Uri Ariel’s promise to build many more homes all across Judea and Samaria. But I sense that the coalition partners will restrain and moderate one another, and that none of their most radical dreams will be acted upon.

To international observers I say: Take it all with a grain of salt. Before latching onto every extremist, ambitious statement from one new Israeli minister or another as a sign of disaster, give this new government some time to get its act together and craft consensus policy. I think that we’re all going to be pleasantly surprised.

David M. Weinberg is a think tank director, columnist and lobbyist who is a sharp critic of Israel’s detractors and of post-Zionist trends in Israel. Read more »
A passionate speaker, David M. Weinberg lectures widely in Israel, the U.S. and Canada to Jewish and non-Jewish audiences. He speaks on international politics and Middle East strategic affairs, Israeli diplomacy and defense strategy, intelligence matters and more. Click here to book David Weinberg as a speaker

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