Israeli politics are not for the faint of heart. There aren’t two parties, as in the United States, but 12. And there is no president who sets policy without worrying about opposition from within his administration — the mere notion of such opposition is preposterous — but a prime minister who must always take into account the views of rival factions within his governing coalition.
Ideally, a parliamentary government should be made up of parties that share a common ideology on key issues. That way the government can govern, and the opposition can oppose. But when the coalition itself speaks in many contradictory voices and the prime minister is hamstrung by opposition from within, we have a government of paralysis that is incapable of making decisions on key issues.
That’s the situation with the current Netanyahu government, as was seen Sunday at the Herzliya Conference when four senior ministers made four different proposals for how Israel should proceed in the wake of the collapse of the peace talks with the Palestinians. (That would be like four senior Cabinet members in the Obama administration getting up at a conference of the Brookings Institution in Washington and proposing different plans on how to solve the crisis with Russia over its seizure of the Crimean Peninsula.)
It was truly a “grotesque performance,” to quote Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman. Economy Minister Naftali Bennett, of the Habayit Hayehudi party, spoke of annexing settlement blocs, the large population centers that will remain in Israel’s possession in any future agreement with the Palestinians. Finance Minister Yair Lapid, of Yesh Atid, threatened to bring down the government if such a plan were approved.
Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, who heads the Hatnuah party and is in charge of negotiating with the Palestinians, wants to resume peace talks as if PA chairman Mahmoud Abbas had not formed a unity government with Hamas.
And Interior Minister Gideon Saar, a popular member of the Likud, spoke of maintaining the status quo, adding that “What we’ve learned from experience is that we need to be cautious in taking risks.”
It wouldn’t be so bad if the ministers were divided on a relatively minor matter, such as where to build the next airport in Israel or what rate to tax the huge profits that gas-exploration companies are going to make on Israeli natural resources.
But we’re talking about an issue that directly impacts national security, Israel’s relations with the West, particularly its close friend and ally the United States, and the possibility of uprooting tens of thousands of Jews from their homes in a wrenching move that would make the disengagement from Gaza pale in comparison.
Ironically, while the Palestinian Authority is at least putting on a show of unity, which is being well received by the international community, the Netanyahu government is unable to muster even the appearance of a cohesive diplomatic plan and finds itself being unjustifiably blamed for the collapse of the peace talks.
“We need to … adopt a single political plan to bind all parts of the coalition,” Lieberman said, calling on Netanyahu to take the lead in formulating such a plan. “We need to do this as soon as possible, because if we do not do it of our volition we will be dragged toward what we do not want and what is not in our best interest.”
Lieberman is of course right about the need for the government to speak in one voice, but unrealistic about its ability to rally around a single, agreed-upon plan.
This serious problem didn’t begin with Sunday’s embarrassing debacle of disunity in Herzliya. It began more than a year ago, when Netanyahu formed a coalition of parties that had nothing in common other than a desire to exclude the chareidi parties.
For a while, this “anti” glue was enough to hold together a government that included both Bennett, a firm believer in the settlement enterprise, and Lapid, who believes that every shekel spent beyond the Green Line is a waste of money.
The split isn’t limited to these two political novices. Lapid is aligned with Livni, who says that settlements undermine Israeli security; while Bennett has an ally in Lieberman, who agrees that annexation of Gush Etzion and other areas would be a good move, but believes it’s impractical.
All this divisiveness leaves Israel with a government that is saddled with two oppositions: opposition parties in the Knesset that don’t have the wherewithal to bring it down, and opposition parties from within that do.
Incapable of dealing with serious issues in a serious manner, the government justifies its existence by passing populistic laws like the forced draft of yeshivah students, which has only set back the cause of chareidi employment that Bennett and Lapid say they believe in. Sunday saw another move toward eroding Israel’s Jewish character when the government’s Ministerial Committee for Legislation approved a law permitting “mercy killing.”
To be sure, the collapse of the so-called peace talks with the Palestinians, in and of itself, is not the problem. Indeed, as Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon suggested Tuesday at the very same Herzliya Conference, the “land for peace” paradigm for solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has brought Israel only “terror and rockets” in exchange for territorial concessions.
However, the inability of the government to forge a unified policy that advances the country’s vital interests at home and abroad is a serious problem and a sure sign that this unnatural coalition is on its last legs.