Approaching 100 Days of the (Third) Netanyahu Government

1 July 2013
By: Shatil Center for Policy Change

June 2013

This is the fifth installment of the “rolling document” series examining political developments in the nineteenth Knesset and in the thirty-third government. It aims to illuminate the connection between the political arena and our social one. This document highlights opportunities as well as concerns of relevance to the political work toward social change.

The Netanyahu government is several days away from its 100th day. This grace period, as it is customarily called, has done anything but depict the Prime Minister or his entire government with grace.

The period’s focus has primarily been one of seeking to understand the arena. The government has eight (!) new ministers and the same number of deputy ministers. None of them have ever served in such complex or high positions, and some of them have yet to fully internalize the package of power, capabilities, circumstantial forces, and needs of the realms entrusted to them. Around them are more than thirty new Members of Knesset in both the coalition and opposition who are also learning firsthand about the wonders and complexities of Israeli politics and the Knesset.

This set of facts helps to understand why, after such an impassioned electoral campaign, with such surprising results, it is still difficult to assert anything about the abilities or aspirations of the new government. One thing has already become clear: the glue binding the coalition parties is weak. The parties’ heads and members are different and diverse. They differ in their values and represent different extremes of Israeli society. With such wide ideological gaps, it is hard to foresee any dramatic changes in the various arenas of life. That assertion, however, must be qualified when discussing the economic realm. Netanyahu and Bennett, Lapid and Livni – all share (almost) the same economic views and have a similar take on how to address the current economic crisis.

The Prime Minister would prefer to identify the contested arenas and let the “brothers” (i.e. Lapid and Bennett) fight it out, creating distance and division, to avoid any harm coming to his own standing, and avoid the public criticism. This is certainly the case regarding negotiations with the Palestinians, but also with economic issues such as monopolies, housing and others.

The Prime Minister would prefer to identify the contested arenas and let the “brothers” (i.e. Lapid and Bennett) fight it out, creating distance and division, to avoid any harm coming to his own standing, and avoid the public criticism. This is certainly the case regarding negotiations with the Palestinians, but also with economic issues such as monopolies, housing and others.

The significant processes in this government are still in the trial phase. Few of the previous government’s priorities continue, but the broader missions, for which the new and veteran players have now been chosen, have yet to get underway. In contrast, larger processes such as reducing centralism in economic control; cutting the State’s investment in its citizens; preparing for the new budget; or managing the State’s natural resources – have been dealt with extensively, under internal and external political pressure from many quarters and broad media coverage – sometimes biased and problematic – but with too little public or civic involvement.

The ruling Likud Beiteinu party has long since become a battlefield where everyone is fighting everyone else. Netanyahu and Lieberman face opposition from members of both parties, where there is strong opposition to merging the two parties. Yisrael Katz and Miri Regev staunchly oppose unification and have marked themselves as a new force not reluctant to confront the weakened Prime Minister. Danon has turned into a serial troublemaker, harassing the Prime Minister from the right in his attempt to lead various Likud institutions, and pronouncing especially problematic diplomatic statements.

The Jewish Home party is discovering the complexities in preserving the new-young-pluralistic image it cultivated throughout its election campaign, led by its new, young leader. The two streams composing the party do not agree on its objectives, or even its values at times, and the connection among its components is not always clear. Of note is the realm of religion and State: Naftali Bennett has so far managed to lead to internal decisions, but that does not necessarily attest to the way future challenging decisions will be negotiated.

Yesh Atid also features diverse ideologies. The chairman ostensibly allows freedom of movement for the various agendas within the political space, but in the end they must all rally around one line of leadership. It is expected (and desirable) that Yesh Atid ministers and MKs will challenge the party. The Minister of Social Affairs and MK Ofer Shelach for example do not perceive their role in the party or in politics the way Lapid does. That tension is likely to increase; we will thus see a new accumulation of forces and voices that will try to draw the whole party toward positions more in favor of negotiations with the Palestinians, less antidemocratic legislation, and more opposition to further harming the weaker segments of the population.

Hat’nua has not managed to make its presence felt in any effective way; its ranks serve as a repository of various ideologies and MKs with essentially fragmented bases and identities. The chairwoman’s ability to lead the party is also limited; the Ministry of Justice and the Minister’s other roles have yet to find significant expression, and Livni has frequently been overruled in those areas where her influence was supposed to be greatest.

In the background lies a cautious optimism that stems from the Israeli public’s position: a new Channel Ten – Camille Fuchs survey indicates a strengthening of Meretz, perhaps up to ten MKs (the survey asked: if elections took place today, for whom would you vote?); Shelly Yehimovich and Labor gain an electoral vote; Likud-Beiteinu would lose a seat; Jewish Home would add one; and Yesh Atid’s would remain unchanged. Tzipi Livni would lose half her strength, according to the survey, while the Arab parties would gain one seat each. There would ostensibly be a Left bloc of 61 MKs, assuming Yesh Atid could be somewhat identified with the Left.

The Diplomatic Arena:

After various difficult statements by ministers and deputies in the Likud – Elkin, who ruled out negotiations; and Danon, who disparaged the consecutive visits by John Kerry – came Minister Bennett’s latest assertion, redefining the chances of true negotiations. There does not at present appear to be a scenario in which Netanyahu could initiate a diplomatic process with the Palestinians without losing the little stock he has remaining in Likud. He has no support within the party, and certainly not with Bennett.

Shas, which announced in the past it would consider joining the government in the event of real negotiations, now sees a potential new channel through which to gain strength: it proposed to Bennett and the Religious Zionist camp a guarantee not to assist Netanyahu if the former leave the coalition, in exchange for not cutting government allowances for children and reducing the effects of legislation directed at yeshiva students (Slomianski is head of the Finance Committee). Deri has even hinted that together, the Haredim and religious Zionists number 30 seats, a force to be reckoned with. Netanyahu knows this well and will avoid as best he can any testing of that issue.

In contrast, Yair Lapid, quoted a month ago in The New York Times as opposing evacuation of settlements, this week (20 June) stated in the Washington Post something of a completely different character:

“I think that eventually we will have no other option but to pull lots of settlements out of the West Bank. What we call the blocs will stay, such as Ariel, Ma’ale Adumim and Gush Etzion, but basically, of course, if you have a two-state solution, you will pull settlements out of the West Bank. There is no other option.”

Yet it remains doubtful that Lapid will adhere to this new line.

In the background stand Minister Livni and the head of the opposition, Yehimovich, speaking into every open microphone about the urgent need for negotiations and the window of opportunity and other verbiage we know all too well. In practice, there does not seem to be any leverage to force the leadership toward a true pursuit of a resolution of the conflict with the Palestinians.

Social Justice:

At present, all the coalition delegation heads adhere to a certain consensus (with slight exceptions), regarding the ways out of the economic crisis. While critical voices have been heard from the Minister of Social Affairs, opposing the cuts to his ministry’s budget – or from Orly Levi, Miri Regev, and Gila Gamliel – those voices alone are hardly sufficient to affect the advancement of such an anti-social budget.

Civic and public action focused on the proposed budget and on alternatives. It has encountered difficulty in penetrating public opinion and moving the public to show more pronounced opposition. Difficulties are also present in influencing the various committees or the ruling party insiders to reassess their overall conception of the budget.

It would seem more effective and proper to examine ways to divide the campaign into focused issue areas – housing, employment, health, cost of living, and education. Those arenas could serve as a focus around which to build ad-hoc, narrowly defined, political and public partnerships through which to pursue support on both sides of the coalition-opposition aisle, support that crosses communities and audiences.

Democracy, Racism, Shared Society:

One of the most significant changes in the current government is that whereas in the previous government the extremist voices – those Likud MKs who spoke out or acted to pursue racist, discriminatory legislation – Danon and Akunis for example – were relatively “junior” MKs, today they have attained seniority and leadership within the party: Minister of Defense Yaalon; Deputy Minister of Defense Danon; Coalition Chairman Levin; or Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Elkin. They are the same extremist voices, but this time heard from among the party leadership.

These ministers this represent the “new legitimacy,” the space to maneuver ever rightward, and the phenomenon they represent is likely to remain.

At the conclusion of the elections, we and many others predicted that Yesh Atid, with its variegated constituents and new MKs, would not permit the advancement of discriminatory or antidemocratic legislation. Lapid’s team is made up of “good people” who have worked for positive democratic action – see Shai Piron and Ruth Calderon, Tamno-Shata, and German, Ofer Shelach and many other worthy names. At present the picture seems more complex. The Yesh Atid MKs have not rushed to oppose dangerous measures in the government. Just this week we saw how a government-sponsored bill by Yariv Levin regarding preference in hiring and other benefits for those who served in the military/national service – was easily passed in ministerial committee, despite opposition from the Attorney General.

The ministerial committee, which includes four Yesh Atid ministers, has been unable to exert influence on the other, rightist, committee members, and sometimes even joins them. When Yesh Atid offers support, that problematic legislation is seen as receiving public imprimatur – Yesh Atid, after all, is ostensibly liberal, and they signed off on it.

Coupled with that is the fashionable, automatic, weak denunciation of other racist phenomena, such as “Price Tag” vandalism, that have spread like wildfire, or continued discrimination against Mizrahi students at institutions of learning. These incidents all prompt automatic condemnation or a solidarity visit, which have zero political impact. There is no consensus to label Price Tag acts as terrorism, and the penalties for other acts of discrimination and racism are insufficient.