It’s all over, except for the signing of their names.
That was the word from coalition party leaders on Thursday, after 28 days of negotiations that tried the patience of all concerned, including Israel’s five and a half million voters, who were treated to day after day of false starts, impasses, rumors, denials and ultimatums.
Now, in the few days before the planned swearing-in ceremony next week, the public is learning more about the substance of the coalition agreement: a proposal for drafting yeshivah students that threatens to divide Israeli society even more than it already is, drastic budget cuts of government support for yeshivos, large families, and the poor and working population generally, and other decrees that usually come under the rubric of “austerity.”
What finally emerged was a multiparty compromise in which nobody got everything he wanted.
Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who just a few months ago was crowned “King Bibi” by Time Magazine, without a serious challenger in sight, found himself by election eve in a struggle for his political life. In the end, as the head of a weakened Likud-Beiteinu, he was confronted by an alliance of the anti-religious Yesh Atid with the national-religious Jewish Home that forced him into a coalition he didn’t want.
Netanyahu had wanted a broad coalition in which no one party can topple the government, giving him leverage. For that he needed Yesh Atid, Jewish Home and the chareidi parties.
But Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid refused to sit in a government with the chareidim, and Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett refused to join the government without Lapid. So Netanyahu was stuck with the Lapid-Bennett team working with each other behind his back. Whatever the duo decided was to be, or he would remain without a government.
The extended period of negotiations to form the coalition and Netanyahu’s many concessions to the two prove that they perhaps wield more power than the prime minister.
Netanyahu was forced to accept his former chief of staff, Bennett, as a senior coalition partner despite a years-long feud. He was also compelled to scale down his ministerial largesse from 30 ministers to 22 to satisfy Lapid’s campaign promise.
The latter also extracted the Education Ministry from Likud, creating the problem of what to do with Likud No. 2 Gideon Sa’ar, the outgoing education minister. The placement of MK Shai Piron in that portfolio will continually provide headlines as he has vowed to force chareidi schools to adopt a secular curriculum. Because the education system is so vital to the chareidi community, Netanyahu is bracing for serious headaches regarding that portfolio.
On the other hand, Lapid’s dream of being foreign minister didn’t come true. Netanyahu wouldn’t, couldn’t, back down on his promise to hold it for Avigdor Lieberman. Instead, he will head the Finance Ministry, where he will get his first hands-on experience in government. As has been noted, he has no economics or education experience.
Meanwhile, the budget deficit is so serious that he will be forced into serious budget cuts and tax hikes on all sectors of Israeli society just to keep the government running. That goes against the premise of his entire campaign —that he came to save the middle class from the burden it carries, an economic one through taxes and a military one by army service.
But it was not as if nobody got anything he wanted.
Yair Lapid got the chareidi boycott he was bent on from the beginning. Barring any unforeseen last-minute snag, when the new ministers gather for the ceremonial photo op, there will not be a single bearded countenance among them. Even the bearded Avigdor Lieberman, though certainly not chareidi, will be absent, having had to resign as foreign minister for the duration of his trial.
Rabbi Eli Ben Dehan, from Jewish Home, nevertheless has a long beard. He wanted to be religious affairs minister. In the end, though, he will only be a deputy minister, missing from the government photo as well.
Lapid, Bennett, Lieberman and Livni have the chareidi draft agreement for which they have been agitating for years.
According to Jewish Home sources, the coalition agreement will call for a ceiling of 1,800 yeshivah students every year who will be able to obtain full national service exemptions, as opposed to the 400 initially demanded by Yesh Atid. Yeshivos and individuals will face financial and other sanctions as yet unspecified for refusal to serve.
While it too is a compromise proposal, it will still face the determined opposition of Shas and United Torah Judaism and the entire chareidi community, led by Gedolei Yisrael.
Another important issue reportedly agreed upon was a raising of the threshold for party representation in the Knesset from the current 2 percent to 4 percent. This has been a favorite issue of the center-left good governance activists for years. Designed to reduce the number of small parties in the Knesset who can wield disproportionate power in parliamentary coalitions, it will affect the Arabs first. None of the three Arab parties in the new Knesset would be there under such a law should it pass.
Netanyahu tried to put the best possible face on things on Thursday. He told a Likud-Beiteinu faction meeting that they succeeded in retaining the most important portfolios — the Foreign Ministry and the Defense Ministry, likely to be headed by former IDF chief Moshe Ya’alon.
Furthermore, he said, “I insisted that Likud-Beiteinu have a majority of ministers in government so we can get things done.”
Zeev Elkin, a right-wing Likud lawmaker, offered a slightly different viewpoint. He accused Lapid of “extortion. There is no other expression to describe it,” he told Israel Radio.
Shas leader Aryeh Deri told Army radio that he will join a fighting opposition. “Our first mission is to topple this government,” he said.
In another political development on Thursday afternoon, Yuli Edelstein was unanimously elected Likud-Beiteinu’s candidate for Knesset speaker, to replace Reuven Rivlin.
Edelstein is currently public diplomacy and diaspora affairs minister and a former immigration and absorption minister. He has been an MK since 1996, when he and Nathan Sharansky founded the Israel B’Aliyah party to represent immigrants from the Former Soviet Union. It merged with Likud in 2003.
Edelstein was born in Czernowitz, Ukraine. He served three years in a Soviet labor camp on trumped-up charges of drug possession and was active in Zionist activities, secretly teaching Hebrew in Moscow before immigrating with his family to Gush Etzion in 1987.