Yesterday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu unveiled his new coalition government, seven weeks after his re-election. Following deadlocked negotiations, a slimmer government—with just 21 members—emerged and will be Israel’s first without ultra-Orthodox parties since 2005. Netanyahu’s announcement comes just days before President Obama is scheduled to visit the country. Martin Indyk, Tamara Cofman Wittes, Michael Doran, Khaled Elgindy, and Natan Sachs weigh in on the new coalition, and analyze the effect on the Middle East peace process.
Tamara Cofman Wittes
Director, Saban Center for Middle East Policy, Senior Fellow, Foreign Policy Program
Benjamin Netanyahu starts his new term as Prime Minister in a weakened position after he conceded essentially to all of Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid's demands (even yielding on education minister at the last minute) and still not getting an agreement for another week.
Lapid as finance minister, and Yesh Atid holding education and welfare, puts them in a strong position to fulfill campaign promises and position Lapid for greater gains in the next election. Indeed, the next election seems his primary concern. For Lapid, the peace process is not a priority issue.
Bayit Yehudi, for its part, received ministerial positions for Jerusalem, Diaspora, and religious services, all key for its constituency. A former head of the settler council, Uri Ariel, will run the ministry of housing and construction. No one expects this government to last a full term. Scenarios raised are either that it won't pass a budget or that Netanyahu will stymie Lapid so badly that it will drive him out of the coalition, allowing Netanyahu to bring in the religious parties and to shape the government he wanted all along. The latter could, I believe, only strengthen Lapid in new elections.
Aryeh Deri notwithstanding, the Haredis' attitudes on territorial compromise have changed. Netanyahu may not be comfortable with the status quo in Israel's relations with the Palestinians, given the price in international isolation and the harm to trade and relations with Europe. But beyond making some gestures, it's not clear how much he is willing to do. And with or without the Haredim, his coalition will not push him in a conciliatory direction.
Roger Hertog Senior Fellow, Foreign Policy Program, Saban Center for Middle East Policy
If the U.S. pushes Netanyahu on anything serious (not likely), then the coalition will fall, because Bennett will not be able to support. Which leads to a counterintuitive conclusion: you really need the ultra-Orthodox parties in the government to support serious moves on Israeli-Palestinian issues, because those parties give the government an extra margin of support.
I predict a short life for this coalition. This strikes me as a government in which everybody will be jockeying for position in the next election right away. The big issue will be Haredim in the military, and that will be very divisive.
Israelis love to complain about the Haredim, it's true, and everybody thinks they have gone too far. However, the secular-religious fight that is going to open up will be brutal. It's the biggest fault line in the society, and once the religious start hammering away at this government, I think we will see lots of cracks open up quickly—on lots of different issues.
The territorial questions are not central to the Haredim’s political identity and their participation in a government gives the prime minister more room to maneuver. They do not facilitate, and they have obstructionist tendencies, but they help to create an environment that is more propitious than what we get without them, which we see before us now. To me, it's a great irony of Israeli politics that I never contemplated before now.
Vice President and Director, Foreign Policy Program
The Haredim issue will not divide the government, but I don't doubt it will divide society. However, the bark is always worse than the bite in Israeli politics.
The proposition that the ultra-Orthodox parties need to be in the government for it to be able to make serious moves on Israeli-Palestinian issues is unsupported by any evidence. The Haredim have been one of the enablers of the settlement movement, and they moved progressively to the right on peace issues while they were in the government. Now in the opposition they'll be in bed with Labor and the Arab parties. Maybe that will bring them back to where they were during the Yitzhak Rabin years, but even then they were unreliable peace partners.
The Haredim are out of this government, so drafting them into the army will not divide it or bring it down. On the contrary: Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett are united on this issue, Tzipi Livni supports them, and Avigdor Lieberman’s side of the Likud is at least as hard line on it as they are. The rest of the Likud are secularist settler sympathizers. And the Haredim won't get much comfort from Shelly Yacimovich and their new leftist-secularist parties allies in the opposition. We are about to see a reasonable sharing of the burden. Good news for Israeli society even if it's bad news for the peace process.
Fellow, Foreign Policy Program, Saban Center for Middle East Policy
I agree that the Yair Lapid-Naftali Bennett alliance hides real differences between their parties, especially on issues of religion and foreign policy. In some respects, this is not a “natural” alliance; I'm actually very impressed by the discipline among the ranks of Bennett's Jewish Home party throughout these negotiations, sustaining the alliance with the secularist Yesh Atid. But the religious issues might not fracture the coalition in the short term; the main questions surrounding the Haredim have been agreed upon already and will be implemented before long, according the coalition agreement. In other words, that hurdle is largely passed. Now what remains is for Jewish Home to collect the benefits, in terms of jobs and influence within the religious community, from control over the religious affairs ministry and other positions of power. This they will be very happy to do.
One potential source of tension in the coalition is actually is the Bennett-John Kerry axis. If the United States pushes on the Palestinian issue, fissures can emerge between the core of the coalition and its far right. I agree completely that the Haredim are not a secure base for the Middle East peace process, but the Jewish Home is much less so. One of their central demands was to get the housing portfolio, with settlements in mind, and with the new, hawkish defense minister (Moshe Yaalon, from the Likud) there may be more activity on that front.
The potential silver lining for diplomacy is that some of the recent noises from the prime minister’s office are consistent with Tzipi Livni's more moderate approach. Even Yaakov Amidror, the national security advisor—probably as right wing as anyone—now reportedly sees the diplomatic price Israel pays over the settlements. The PMO's solution will likely be an attempt to garner support through talks--and through having Livni in place to lead them—whether or not these talks are meaningful or based on a true change in policy. But it's worth remembering that there is always discussion whether now—of all times—there is a change of heart in Netanyahu's circles on the Palestinian issue. This may well just be spin.
If and when the government falls, there could either be an alternative government, with the Haredim, or even new elections. A lot depends on whether Lapid sees an electoral opportunity and whether Livni is inclined to leave as well. If the center leaves en masse, Netanyahu will have a hard time, mathematically; the right + religious is likely too narrow for comfort. If Bennett's party leaves because of diplomatic developments, the Haredim may jump back in to get revenge on the Modern Orthodox, but if the mood is that Netanyahu is vulnerable, they may prefer elections to get their revenge on him too. In short, as is usually the case, the brand new government in Israel may not last its full term.
Fellow, Foreign Policy Program, Saban Center for Middle East Policy
It looks as though the new Israeli government intends to be quite active on the Palestinian issue after all—though not in the way most had hoped. With the appointment of Uri Ariel, former head of the settlers’ umbrella group known as the Yesha Council and himself a West Bank settler, to head the Ministry of Housing and Construction we can expect an even greater surge in settlement expansion in the occupied territories than we’ve seen in recent years. Ariel’s Bayit Yehudi party, the third pillar of Netanyahu’s ruling coalition and third biggest vote-getter in the Knesset, not only opposes territorial concessions to the Palestinians but openly rejects the two-state solution itself—sentiments shared by many in Netanyahu’s own Likud party. The strong pro-settlement bent of the new Israeli government is certain to alarm Palestinian leaders in Ramallah, who are sure to reiterate their message about the dangers posed by the settlements and the urgency of a two-state solution to President Obama directly on his upcoming visit to Israel and the occupied territories. Having withstood similar pleadings for much of the last four years, however, there is little reason to expect the administration to abandon its laissez faire attitude toward settlements or become more actively engaged in peacemaking any time soon.
In addition to settler control of the Housing Ministry, the Interior Ministry will be in the hands of Likud and the Defense Ministry also. So the three critical ministries for settlement activity will be in the hands of those most committed to the settlement cause.