There was no blue and white smoke emanating from the roof of the prime minister’s office in Jerusalem today, but not long before the College of Cardinals sent up their signals in Rome announcing the election of a new pope, reports began to circulate that after nearly two months Israel’s leading political parties had finally concluded their negotiations and a new government has been formed. Reportedly, the government will be formally announced on Saturday night and sworn in on Monday, only two days before President Obama arrives in the country.
The outlines of the agreement that seems to have been concluded were apparent as soon as the votes were counted after the January election for a new Knesset. Prime Minister Netanyahu’s Likud-Beitenu Party will join forces with the two other big winners, Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid and Naftali Bennett’s Habayit Hayehudi as well as one of the losers, Tzipi Livni’s Hatnua, to form the new coalition. The fractious talks in which both Netanyahu and Lapid appeared to be bluffing and threatening each other up until the last moment would seem to indicate that this Cabinet will be at each other’s throats and might not last the full four years until the next election. The fierce rivalries and even personal grudges among these four leaders will provide plenty of fodder for Cabinet leaks and feuds. But with only four parties in the government and with little disagreement among them on the most important economic and social issues facing Israel, predictions of doom might be misplaced.
Yet more important than the contentious dynamic that will exist among those inside the tent will be the question of who won’t be there: the ultra-Orthodox parties. Their absence and the opening for reform of the draft system, as well as the potential end of the patronage gravy train for Haredi institutions, will have a bigger impact on the nation than any disagreements among the party leaders.
With Obama about to arrive in the country, most of the attention of the world remains focused on the question of whether this new government will accede to demands to make concessions to the Palestinians in order to restart peace negotiations. But as the election campaign proved, most Israelis have long since given up on the peace process and are primarily interested in economic and social issues. The banishing of Shas and United Torah Judaism, which have been mainstays of almost every governing coalition for the past 30 years, to the backbenches has created a unique opportunity to create change.
No Haredim means after decades of failed attempts, this government will change the draft system to require the conscription of far more ultra-Orthodox Jews into Israel’s army. Though even this breakthrough is something of a compromise, since they will be able to stay out until 21 as opposed to the age of 18 for other Israelis, it does represent an effort to equalize the burden of service. Their absence will also enable needed reform of the education system.
It may be too much to ask that this team of Cabinet rivals will take the next step in terms of reform and begin to change the electoral system to one that will have constituencies rather than the ultra-democratic proportional system that has heretofore given the Haredim outsized influence. But even if they just raise the minimum number of votes needed for a party to make it into the Knesset, it will be another step forward toward a more workable system.
Israel’s next government won’t preside over the end of a conflict that can only conclude as the result of a sea change among the Palestinians. But it does have the power to enact some fundamental changes that could end some longstanding inequities. Though there may not be much love lost between the foursome of party leaders, if they hang together long enough to accomplish that much they will have still done a lot.