online 15.05.15

talking politics

Netanyahu’s new dysfunctional government

Get ready for new elections

by Yacov Ben Efrat

A majority of 61 Knesset seats out of 120 isn’t bad, but it’s not enough to govern. Coalition members who have not yet been sworn in know this well, but they rush ahead blindly nonetheless. We have almost forgotten the last elections, yet Netanyahu took a long time to get a government together. His “natural” partners are already at the wheel and ready for the journey, but they too feel that the trip is likely to be short and end in disappointment.

In case anyone has forgotten, Netanyahu won a decisive victory. He began in opposition with 12 Knesset seats in the 2006 elections, climbed to 27 in 2009 and to 31(in a joint list with Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu) in his third government, plummeted to 20 (when Lieberman withdrew from the list), and then won 30 in the recent elections. Netanyahu goes up and down, continually switching partners – sometimes with the Haredim (Ultraorthodox) and sometimes without – and he is now leading his fourth coalition.

Except for his second government, when Ehud Barak joined him and he lasted for a full term, Netanyahu has never been happy with his governments. But the happy coalition with Barak increased social disparities to such an extent that they led to a socioeconomic uprising, which changed the political map from wall to wall. The Labor Party went back to the opposition, and since then Netanyahu has found it hard to find a reliable partner to give him what he really wants: regime-stability – the ability to govern.

In the last government, Netanyahu found a replacement for Barak in the form of Yair Lapid, whose 19 Knesset seats were more than enough to ensure the desired stability. But Lapid is a young upstart – unlike Barak, who had already headed a government and was content with nothing more than the Defense portfolio. In the last government, along with Lapid, three other wild, energetic and ambitious horses raced for the prime minister’s position, and this was too much for Netanyahu. Naftali Bennett tried to outflank him on the right, Lieberman tried to conquer the Likud from within, Gideon Saar branded himself as the natural heir, and Lapid, who is no less media savvy than Netanyahu, already had his fingers on the prime ministerial chair. It was a battle between media moguls Sheldon Adelson and Noni Mozes – between Israel Hayom and Yedioth Aharonoth, which support Netanyahu and Lapid respectively. But Netanyahu dissolved the government, reshuffled the deck, and came out of the mess like a magician: Saar stepped out of politics to take care of his new son; Lieberman, whose party is full of prominent figures under investigation for corruption, found himself with only 6 Knesset seats; Bennett had to make do with just 8, after the conservative and even racist nature of his party came to light; and Lapid, beaten left and right, came in with just 11. Yitzhak Herzog, leader of the joint Labor-Tnu’ah list known as the Zionist Camp, received 24 seats but had to share the victory with Tzipi Livni. Meanwhile Netanyahu jumped to 30.

He lost the central pillar

His previous partners may have fallen, and this is some consolation, but new partners have taken their place. Netanyahu’s victory is not so great, as can be seen now that the means he used to achieve it are returning to haunt him. When he dissolved the government and called elections, Netanyahu gained far more popularity than his rivals, but towards the end of the campaign this began to wane and on the last day he felt he was losing. His frantic warning that “the Arabs are voting in droves” may have saved his skin, but this was no longer an appeal to reason – this was an appeal to the primeval fears of the people of Israel, who answered his call and voted for him once again.

Netanyahu circumvented the voters’ common sense—as if all is fair in love, war, and getting elected—but on the way he divided the nation and was left with a broken reed. The elites of the Labor Party, the liberals and the left, do not consider his election legitimate. They ask – how can it be that those who suffer most from his policies vote for him again and again? How does he manage to win with desperate pleas about the Iranian bomb and the Arabs, while ignoring the housing crisis? Why did Herzog’s calls to care for the weaker populations who had been abandoned by the Likud fall on deaf ears? The liberal Ashkenazi population thinks that the (largely Mizrahi) periphery has lost its mind—a periphery that in its view is devoid of liberal culture and values.

So Netanyahu won – but on the way he lost the Herzogs, the Livnis and the Lapids, and for who’s sake? For the anti-Zionist Haredim, the Mizrahi Haredim led by Aryeh Deri, and of course the settlers. Ah, and we forgot to mention Mr. “Reforms in the cell-phone sector,” with his million-dollar smile, who teamed up with a bunch of people who don’t differentiate between left and right – Moshe Kahlon. The problem isn’t the number – 61 – but who they represent. It’s not the quantity that counts, but the quality. Israel is clearly divided between the center and periphery, between Ashkenazim and Mizrahim, between secular and religious (and there’s no point even mentioning the Arabs), and the character of the coalition that is taking shape is clear to all.

The losers are Israel’s central pillar: the upper middle class, the taxpayers, who – like their counterparts in other countries – hold to liberal values that they inherited from their parents and pass on to their children through private schooling and prestigious colleges. True, they too “don’t like Arabs,” but they are cultured about it. They turn their noses up at gross expressions of racism; they can’t stomach Miri Regev’s call “Sudanese to Sudan”; and they loathe the right wing’s attempts to emasculate the Supreme Court. They are also disgusted by politicians, especially Haredim, who see the Knesset as a funding source. They and their children have no need of a political career; they choose real challenges – hi-tech and science, banking and business. They are sure that they are the ones who maintain the country and they feel it’s being “stolen” from them.

The gambler

Netanyahu tries repeatedly to roll the dice, expecting a different result, but fails each time. The reason is to be found in the huge disparities which have developed in Israel since he and his friends questioned the legitimacy of the 61-seat government led by Yitzhak Rabin, in partnership with Meretz under Shulamit Aloni and with outside support from the Arab parties. To get into government, Netanyahu didn’t stop at incitement against Rabin, and it was he who took over soon after Rabin’s murder. Netanyahu’s ideology strikes at the cows which were once sacred to both left and right, and which enabled a consensus acceptable to all Jewish Israelis. The central pillar, which has a leading role in social, economic, academic and cultural activities, expresses the aspiration for a “normal” state which strives to put an end, somehow, to the cycle of war and occupation. For Netanyahu, those who make up the central pillar are “Arab lovers” and “not patriotic.” But the more he plasters them with epithets like these (they have “forgotten what it is to be Jewish”), the more he pushes them away, and with them goes the ability to govern he so desperately desires.

The current coalition proves that the right cannot form a stable government by itself. Netanyahu’s shining electoral victory, his mockery of the US Administration, his contempt for world opinion, his refusal to end the occupation, his racist legislation, and his attempt to undermine the Supreme Court – all these came to 30 Knesset seats and a coalition of 61. This is a government of limited means, and it merely emphasizes how the lack of agreement over where the state is going and what character it should have leads to a political dead end.

The right has no power to change reality. Till now, all governments – both left and right – have refused to end the occupation and deal with the discrimination against the Arab population. As a result, the political system is forever unstable. The left’s failure to offer a courageous alternative only strengthened the right. Get ready, therefore, for another election, in which the cards will once again be shuffled, but don’t expect too much. The big problems – the social disparities, the occupation and racism – will remain, and so far there has been no party willing to connect the two.