Days before President Obama’s visit, PM Netanyahu has managed to form a new Israeli government with 68 seats (out of 120) for a ruling majority. What does it all mean? That is the question of the hour.
I offer a few observations and Israeli press sites that, hopefully, will not confuse you more than you may already be. After all, Israeli politics isn’t for the feint of heart nor the simple minded:
- PM Benjamin Netanyahu (with a total of 31 seats combined with Yisrael Bateinu) has been vastly weakened compared to his standing in the former government, though he continues to hold onto the powerful Foreign Affairs and Defense Ministries.
- Yair Lapid (Yesh Atid) and Naftali Bennett (Bayit Yehudi) with a total of 31 seats together maintained their uncommon alliance (and growing friendship) and succeeded in excluding for the first time the ultra-Orthodox parties from the ruling coalition. Lapid’s #2 Rabbi Shai Peron will take over the Education Ministry and might be able to force the ultra-Orthodox yeshivot to include English, Hebrew, math, and science in their curriculum or risk losing government support for their schools. Bennett gets the important Industry, Trade and Labor Ministry, the Housing and Construction Ministry and the Knesset Finance Committee, which will help him continue to finance heavily the settler movement that elected him, throwing a wrench into any Israeli-Palestinian negotiations (Bennett is against a two-state solution – see below).
- Lapid and Bennett’s alliance also insures that shivyon b’netel (“sharing the burden of military service”) will force Yeshiva buchers to serve in the military without the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism and Shas parties breathing down their necks. Yesh Atid has announced that a universal military service bill will be submitted to the Knesset, with Bibi’s approval, before the budget is submitted. It is likely that we can expect a sharp reduction of funds flowing to ultra-Orthodox synagogues and Yeshivot going forward.
- Lapid will now be the Finance Minister and must come up with a national budget in the next 45 days. Lapid risks losing his image as Israel’s charismatic darling for the poor and middle classes because, as Finance Minister, he will have to make tough choices and propose cuts that might hurt the very people who voted for him and who are the most vulnerable in Israeli society. He is said to dread the prospect of protestors picketing his home.
- Religious pluralism may or may not be a winner in this election. Lapid’s children became b’nai mitzvah at Reform Judaism’s flagship Tel Aviv congregation, Beit Daniel, and he is personally close to the Daniel Center’s Senior Rabbi Meir Azari. Though Lapid can, with a stroke of the pen, grant government funds equal to those going to the non-Orthodox for the first time, Israel’s culture still needs an aggressive non-Orthodox alliance between the secular population and Reform and Conservative Jews (estimated to equal 70% of Israel’s Jewish population) to fight hard to promote civil marriage and women’s rights, against government imposed Shabbat restrictions, separate gender seating on buses, and the ultra-Orthodox dominance of Judaism’s holiest site, the Western Wall (Kotel) and Plaza.
- The right-wing Yuli Edestein was voted as the next Speaker of the Knesset which now retires my cousin, the respected long-time Likud leader, Reuven (Ruby) Rivlin from that seat. Ruby was second behind Shimon Peres for President of the State a number of years ago.
- Iran and Palestinian-Israeli Peace Negotiations? Much will be revealed in the coming weeks on both fronts in light of President Obama’s mission to the Middle East starting next week. It is likely that Obama and Bibi already have an understanding on how they will deal with the Iran nuclear issue (I pray!). It is likely that something will begin anew between the Israelis and Palestinians. However, with Bennett in the government, I fear the worst even as I hope for the best – a two-state solution. In a conversation I had last week with one of Israel’s leaders, he does not believe that Bennett, representing a small faction of 11 seats, will greatly influence the Israeli-Palestinian issue. I pray he is right.
For ongoing information, I recommend that you read the English and/or Hebrew edition of Haaretz or The Jerusalem Post, and the Hebrew edition for Yediot Achronot at http://www.ynet.co.il. You can also check out http://www.walla.co.il, another Israeli Hebrew language news link.