Israelis went to bed expecting the Knesset to finalize arrangements to dissolve itself and declare a national election for September 4th.
We woke to the news that Benyamin Netanyahu and Shaul Mofaz (who recently defeated Tzipi Livni in a party election to be the leader of Kadima) had agreed to Kadima's entrance into the government, and had cancelled plans for an election.
Media managers sent wake up calls to commentators, and they began their work about 3 AM. Since then a larger number have gotten the news, and are expressing themselves.
Speculation is the name of the game.
Prominent among the possibilities that seem reasonable is an ability of the government to function without the support of utra-Orthodox parties. Currently there are 94 out of 120 MKs whose parties are in the government, only 16 of which are the ultra-Orthodox parties SHAS and Torah Judaism.
High on the agenda will be the exemption of yeshiva students from the military. There is a standing order of the Supreme Court that the status quo violates standards of equality, but the subject will remain complicated even with the diminished power of those opposed to major change. There will be pressure to include Arabs in the demands for some kind of national service. Arab members of Knesset have for some time expressed their opposition to having their people forced to work for the Jewish state.
The IDF is not enthusiastic about having to accept ultra-Orthodox or Arabs. The one is not prepared by education for the demands of a modern army, and the other will present a myriad of security problems. Both groups, if they are included in a revised law of national service, are likely to face the alternative of working in social service agencies, with the Arabs assigned to work in their own communities.
Among the questions-- Would the ultra-Orthodox and Arabs have the choice of military service or something else, or would the IDF be given the role of taking them into military service, or turning them over to a National Service Administration?
The issue of military exemptions is part of a larger array of questions concerning the ultra-Orthodox. It is widely recognized that many of those claiming to be studying all their lives are not doing that. They are working in unreported jobs or doing domestic chores while their wives work. Religious academies are keen to cooperate with the bluff insofar as they get money from the government per student reported. We only hear about a few of the most blatant cases of falsehood, e.g., students who never existed or are no longer living in Israel.
Reformers hope that the end of blanket military exemptions will allow the ultra-Orthodox to live honest lives, go to work, pressure their rabbis to include useful subjects in their children's education, and maybe become too much involved with the burdens and advantages of modern life to have so many children.
The lessened weight of the ultra-Orthodox in the Knesset may also produce pressure against existing policies to grant large families discounts on local taxes and water bills, and favorable mortgages used for purchasing housing in neighborhoods designed for them.
Also outstanding are Supreme Court dictates about removing settlers from land owned by Palestinians. Prior to the suprise announcement of the new coalition, right-wing Likud and other MKs had been formulating a proposal to alter the law in order to deal with the Supreme Court decision in at least one of these cases.
This, too, is complex. Israel claims to be a nation of laws, but that may not prevent the settlers and their friends from changing the law to protect their assets. "Illegal" houses and residents are already in place, alongside other neighborhoods of Beit El. The offer of compensation to the Palestinians who the Court has found to be the actual owners of the land is not likely work. Individual Palestinians refuse to be open about taking money from Jews for their property. To do so would violate the law of the Palestine Authority, and subject them to the death penalty. If the houses are vacated or destroyed, the IDF (with responsibility for governing areas of the West Bank not already turned over to Palestinians under the Oslo Accordss) is unlikely to allow Palestinians to live alongside Jews by virtue of the threat they would pose to the security of Beit El.
Yair Lapid is expected to sink, at least in the short run. With a new coalitiion having a large majority in the Knesset, there is little reason for Israelis to flock toward another party offering a better deal for the middle class. He has denounced the agreement as the old style of politics, and a way of providing jobs to insiders.
The rivals of Kadima who remain outside the government (a minority of 26 out of 120 MKs) are accusing the party, once again, of not having a clear program that distinguishes it from other parties. Whenever the election does occur, perhaps no earlier than the Fall of 2013, Kadima may claim that it is the most pragmatic and responsible of the parties. Or it may disappear as its MK's drift back to Likud or Labor from which they came.
A minister in the government, affiliated with Likud, has urged Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to worry more today than he did yesterday. (Yisrael Katz, speaking on Reshet Bet) Prior to the coalition agreement, Mofaz (a native of Iran), accused Netanyahu of "overplaying" Iran's threat, but he also criticized Barack Obama for a weak stand on Iran's nuclear program, and said that Israel could not allow Iran to have even a civilian nuclear program.
Beyond the speculations about details that may or may not flow from the new coalition, it is possible to see an affirmation of politics in the Netanyahu-Mofaz agreement.
Kadima emerged from the last election as the largest party in the Knesset. However, the party leader, Tzipi Livni could not bring herself to compromise principles by coalescing with Likud, Israel our Home, or the ultra-Orthodox. She proved herself an anti-political politician. For those who see politics as a process akin to religion as a cement of social harmony and good deeds (i.e., via political negotiations, compromise, and ultimately counting votes as the most civilized ways of dealing with dispute), she was the equivalent of an anti-Christ.
Israel is as divided by its multiplicity of cultures and perspectives as any western democracy. The religion of its large majority is one that celebrates national history and dealing with adversity. The Hebrew Bible portrays difficult encounters with others. The prophets elevated severe criticism of governmental and economic elites to sacred values, with their words read in synagogues on every Sabbath and religious holiday. The Book of Job subjects God Himself to severe criticism. Ecclesiastes depicts the fluidity of human experience (a time for love, war, peace et al) along with the folly of expecting salvation (nothing new under the heavens), and casts doubt on all absolutes.
Neither our culture nor our more recent history--from the Holocaust to the latest terrorist incident--provides us with the luxury of ignorinig politics as a way of dealing with others and ourselves.
Whatever comes out of this new coalition will not be perfect. We know that from Ecclesiastes, as well as from all previous coalitions. Members of Likud and Kadima are already indicating what they will not accept from their leaders' arrangements. Ultra-Orthodox MKs say they will protect the interests of Yeshiva students, and the Prime Minister says that he will work to integrate the ultra-Orthodox into the society and economy, rather than force them into the military.
The essence of politics is to argue, refine proposals in light of disputes, and ultimately vote. And even more ultimately it is to think about the fluidity of political arrangements. One should not expect an unrestrained crusade against the ultra-Orthodox. Israel's leading politicians--unlike the man currently sitting in the Oval Office--have reached their positions as a result of long apprenticeships and slow climbs up the governmental ladder. They know that coalitions are temporary. Each of the parties may need the ultra-Orthodox in the not-so-distant future.
Posted by Ira Sharkansky at May 08, 2012 12:51 AM
Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem