Bibi currently has 37 MKs in his coalition, but maybe not. The candidate who presented herself as highly principled, i.e., Tsipi Livni, signed on, but in the process threw her number #2 under the bus and may have provoked a split in her new party, "The Movement." Amram Mitzna expected to be first in line after Livni to receive any ministerial plums associated with joining the government, but Amir Peretz, number #3 on the list, got the nod from Ms Livni. In a clip seen time and again on television, we see Peretz offering to shake Mitzna's hand on the occasion of Mitzna's birthday, with the offended MK ignoring the offer.
It should be easy for Netanyahu to add the two ultra-Orthodox parties to his coalition, which will bring him to a maximum of 55 MKs, assuming that Mitzna does not bolt and bring other colleagues with him.
Netanyahu may try to persuade Shaul Mofaz to bring along his 2 Kadima votes, but Mofaz remembers the last time he joined Netanyahu with a perceived commitment to do something about the Haredim. Mofaz left that arrangement in a huff
Bibi needs 61 MKs.
The sticking point is the Haredim. Lapid and Benet are holding fast, and now have extended their alliance to include Mofaz. They demand a program that will push the vast majority of young Haredi men out of their academies, and into the military or national service, and then to a life of work and self-support.
Lapid and Mofaz could accept an opening toward the Palestinians favored by Livni, who was given responsibility for negotiations in her agreement with Bibi, but that agreement has provoked high fever among the MKs of Jewish Home. They are resisting being quieted by the assertion that Bibi will manage the negotiations that Livni conducts, and that there is no chance that the Palestinians will participate in serious negotiations.
One prominent commentator has suggested that the baton may pass from Bibi to someone else in Likud, who does not have a personal problem--or whose wife does not have a problem--with Benet.
Involved in the domestic political fray is the current security challenge faced by Fortress Israel.
The armed forces of all the bordering countries are busy with domestic matters, ranging from full blown civil war in Syria to something close to that in Lebanon, and violent demonstrations in Egypt and Jordan.
There remains two principal missions. One is the strategic threat from Iran that demands the political skill of Israel's government along with the most sophisticated preparations of the air force, plus what may be cyber warfare and attacks against key Iranians.
At a much different level of sophistication are patrols and responses to demonstrations, efforts at infiltration, and what may be moving toward a third intifada. That mission requires numerous personnel trained for non-lethal crowd control. Most recent are marches, stone throwing, and fire bombs in support of security prisoners engaged in a hunger strike. The tasks of the IDF in these cases are closer to those of police than military.
(Anyone concerned about the conditions of Palestinian security prisoners might pause on their way to a demonstration to realize that many of them would be on death row or beyond if they had done in numerous states of the US what they did here.)
Hundreds of thousands of Syrians have crossed borders seeking refuge in Jordan, Turkey, and Lebanon. There has been fighting among Syrians alongside the border with Israel on the Golan Heights. A handful of wounded Syrians were allowed to cross the border, and were brought to an Israeli hospital. The IDF has strengthened the barriers and increased its patrols against the possibility of mass incursions. Israel's Physicians for Human Rights has demanded that the border be opened to accept perhaps 10,000 refugees, but security and government personnel have shown little interest in such a gesture.
The IDF keeps its assessment of personnel needs highly secret, but it appears hard pressed to meet the demands requiring large numbers of personnel to patrol the border fences in the West Bank and along the Sinai, as well as to deal with the marches, stone throwing, and fire bombs of Palestinian demonstrations.
The impression easy to achieve from observing Haredi young men is that many are not fit physically for military service. Many would also fail a selection process that involved a basic knowledge of history, geography, or society. However, even the most unfit could be put to work carrying bed pans and serving meals in hospitals, or doing other tasks in social service agencies.
Netanyahu's principal economic adviser has proposed to employ a combination of economic and administrative measures.to pressure an increasing number of young Haredi men to leave their academies for the IDF or social service, and then to work. However, initial responses from Lapid, Benet, and some members of Livni's party have been "not enough."
SHAS MKs have spoken about the possibility of accommodating demands for a greater equality of burdens. However, leading rabbis associated with Torah Judaism have dug in their heels and proclaimed something like "not one inch."
Important to the Haredim, and perhaps especially to the Ashkenazim, is a concern to maintain the isolation of their communities. There are few contacts between the ultra-Orthodox and other Israelis. The novel that Benjamin Disraeli wrote about different classes in mid-19th Britain--Sybil, or The Two Nations--would serve as a useful description for Israel, adding the Arab minority as a third nation.
The fear among Haredi leaders is that a period in the military or social service would expose the young men to influences they could not resist. There are rabbis who forbid the use of television or the Internet. If those are steps on a slippery slope to secularization, the military and employment outside of Haredi "ghettos" would be ever more threatening.
The IDF has isolated the few Haredim who have chosen to enlist until now from female soldiers, and has provided them with short term service and time for prayer and study. Such entitlements may not be feasible in a situation of more extensive recruitment, with the Supreme Court looking over the military's shoulders and insisting on something close to an equality of burdens.
(There is also an issue of equal burdens for Israeli Arabs, but that has not made the political impact associated with the Haredim.)
Alongside shared burdens is the issue of the overall economic burden to the society associated with the Haredi life style. Israel has moved to a position unique in Jewish history, where the state provides financial support to as many Haredi men who wish to avoid work for the sake of study. The support takes the form of welfare payments for the Haredi families that increase in size with every child, financial support for academies that do not charge tuition, special deals on housing, mortgages, taxes, and water bills, lower than usual bus fares on lines that serve Haredi neighborhoods, and outlets of social welfare organizations in Haredi neighborhoods that sell food and household products at low cost.
Politics is the way for civilized societies to deal with their problems. "Deal with" need not entail complete treatment, or anything like full equality. "Final solution" is not a label Israelis employ. Jews are generally skilled at coping, and accepting less than an ideal treatment of serious problems. Essential, however, is a government with a substantial degree of social legitimacy. The current "transition" government has all the legal authority necessary to deal with essential needs, but does not reflect the recent election.
Adding to the pressure is the high profile visit next month of President Barack Obama. When that was announced, it was widely assumed that Israel's political crisis would well passed by the time Air Force One actually arrived.
Wisdom and flexibility may come. Bibi likes surprises. He may have a rabbit ready to spring. But this is not an occasion for predictions.
Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem