A recess for the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, is a recess for all of us. Two months of relative quiet, or so we hope. When the recess ends, the coalition will celebrate a year of existence. And you might say: that’s not much of an existence. But that’s not true. Not if we consider the four consecutive elections and paralyzed parliament that preceded the forming of this coalition. Not if it turns out that the first year won’t be the last year – that the most bizarre Israeli coalition ever assembled can still survive.
The public is optimistic, or pessimistic, depending on one’s political tendencies. Even among opposition supporters, reality is starting to sink in: many of them no longer expect that the coalition will be short lived. We all see the cracks. We all see the fractures. But we also see the coalition’s Houdini-like ability to overcome its challenges and get to live yet another day.
What keeps it together? Among other things: The excitement of being a novelty, the fear of a Netanyahu and right-wing comeback, the pressure of the public, which has little appetite for more election cycles, and the ability to avoid great controversies. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict isn’t on the table, so left and right can uneasily sit together. On Iran, there’s no big debate. The budget was passed, and international trends will determine how much leeway the government will have as it sketches its next budget. In a way, global trends beyond the government’s control may help it defer most other matters – the matters that could cause trouble – to a later time. There is still a pandemic. There is war in Europe and its ramifications. These are good excuses, or reasons, for postponing other things for the day after tomorrow.
And yet, the coalition is an uneasy alliance. The vision for Israel of some of the parties and leaders in the coalition is very different from the vision of other parties and leaders within the coalition. It was evident in the last two weeks, when some leaders cried that Israel must accept more Ukrainian refugees while others insisted that Israel must accept mostly Jewish refugees.
In reality, the policy gap between these two factions was not that wide – no one thinks that Israel should be the main absorber of faraway refugees, and no one wants Israel to implement a heartless policy of refusing refugees. And yet, the instinctive tendency of one camp to speak about the need to preserve Israel as a Jewish state, and of the other camp to speak about the need for Israel to be a moral beacon, is telling. Left-wing politicians are suspicious, with some justification, that right-wing leaders are not sensitive enough to human rights. Right-wing politicians are suspicious, with some justification, that left-wing leaders are more excited about saving refugees that about saving Jewish refugees.
Such hurdles disrupt the ability of the coalition to achieve its smaller goals. Important obstacles, such as passing a budget, must be overcome. But the planned reform in the system of conversion failed to materialize. Why? Because it is not crucial for the survival of the coalition, nor for the country. Raam, a religious Islamist party, decided to side with the ultra-religious Jewish parties, by declaring that it did not wish to get involved in intra-Jewish debates about religion and state. Without it, the coalition does not have the necessary 61 majority needed for passing the required legislation. Could the coalition still manage to do it? Sure, but there will be a price to pay. The leader of Raam is as good as a politician can get in utilizing his small share of the pie (four seats in the Knesset) to maximize his political influence.
What can he ask for in return for a conversion favor? That’s a good question. But here’s an illustration of the way things work in this coalition: Earlier this week, as the Knesset started its long hiatus, the Minister of Housing decided that the next two months will be a good time to renew tree-planting efforts in the Negev Desert. Why would that be a good time? The answer is as troubling as it is weird. Some Bedouin villagers in the Negev oppose the tree-planting plans, and argue that the state promotes these projects as means of weakening their claim on their plots. These Bedouins are also the voters of Raam. When the Knesset is in session, Raam can threaten to embarrass the coalition in votes to block tree-planting. When the Knesset is not in session, there’s no vote with which to embarrass the coalition. Of course, Raam could still decide to initiate a big political crisis over tree-planting. Of course, the government could still decide to initiate a trade-off, such as tree-planting for conversion (it could also be something else).
How long could this miracle coalition survive? Here is one answer: for as long as its members can withstand a constant drizzle of frustration.
To make this long story short, the fate of any specific small-scale plan is not that important. Israel could live without conversion reform, it could live with fewer trees in the Negev. What’s important is the constant need for tradeoffs. In the short run, the coalition cannot survive without them. In the long run, they become frustrating for everyone. So we ask: how long could this miracle coalition survive? Here is one answer: for as long as its members can withstand a constant drizzle of frustration.
Something I wrote in Hebrew
This complements the article above:
Here’s Netanyahu’s problem: nowhere, in any survey, is he improving his performance compared to his past performance. He has about fifty percent support. And that’s it. And there are fifty percent against him. The Russia-Ukraine crisis did not crack the opposition of his opponents. The crisis did not tear down the wall of the opposition. The crisis did not evoke longing for the strong familiar leader. There are still fifty percent who – no matter what the alternative – do not want Netanyahu as prime minister. Given the choice, they will prefer Bennett, Lapid, Ganz, Saar — almost anyone — over Netanyahu.
A week’s numbers
Here’s the illustration for the article above:
A reader’s response:
Leora Katz asks: Aren’t you writing for the New York Times anymore? Answer: No. But I write weekly at the Jewish Journal.
Shmuel Rosner is senior political editor. For more analysis of Israeli and international politics, visit Rosner’s Domain at jewishjournal.com/rosnersdomain.