Jerusalem | To a U.S. observer, Israel’s multiparty political system appears to be a jumbled mess, but just days after the Jan. 22 national election, people here appear to be relaxed and patient as the process moves into its meatiest stage: building a coalition.
This arduous procedure of negotiation, which is required to form a majority government, is made no easier when one end of the political spectrum is represented by the hawkish Jewish Home party, which supports settlement expansion in the West Bank, and the other end is shared by three Arab-supported, anti-Zionist parties.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s combined Likud-Beitenu bloc won 31 seats and needs at least 30 more to form a coalition, yet, according to Israeli political scientist Abraham Diskin, Netanyahu “did not and does not want to [depend] only on the right. He wants to have center or even left-wing parties in his coalition. He would not like to find himself in the most left position in his own government.”
Diskin, a political scientist at Hebrew University in Jerusalem and regular pundit in the Israeli media, was speaking on a panel Jan. 24 at Mishkenot Sha’ananim, Jerusalem’s press club, along with Jerusalem Post editor-in-chief Steve Linde.
Netanyahu’s first phone call after the election reportedly was to Yair Lapid, leader of the upstart Yesh Atid party, which won a surprising 19 seats on a socio-economic platform and includes members who lean far left on social issues and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Lapid “is not a problem, he will cooperate beautifully” with Netanyahu, Diskin said. But, he added, “We’ll have to wait and see how cohesive Yesh Atid is going to be.”
To complete the bulk of the coalition, Diskin believes Netanyahu will turn to Naftali Bennett and his Jewish Home party, which won 12 seats. Bennett’s parents made aliyah four decades ago from San Francisco and Bennett, who was born in Israel, will have to give up his U.S. citizenship now that he is a member of Knesset. He also served as Netanyahu’s chief of staff and reportedly is not well liked by Sara Netanyahu, who would rather see her husband choose the haredi party Shas as a partner, with its 11 seats.
Possibly, Diskin said, he will ask them both.
Although all of this gamesmanship is well and good, “I can’t see this government lasting too long,” Linde said. In the meantime, though, “something significant happened in these elections: Two superstars [have] emerged” in Bennett and Lapid. During the campaign period, Linde moderated political debates, and he has interviewed both men — who were tagged the “dynamic duo” by one Jerusalem Post columnist.
“I said to myself, who do these two young men remind me of?” Linde recalled. “The answer was Binyamin Netanyahu. They are like younger versions of him.
“Do you remember when Netanyahu was young, and no one knew who he really was, we knew he was the brother of [fallen Entebbe hero] Yoni and maybe the son of [Zionist academic] Benzion, this young, good-looking guy who had the gift of the gab?” Linde continued. “[Bennett and Lapid] both have it. Bennett … reminds me of Netanyahu when he speaks; he knows how to present his right-wing positions in a fairly acceptable way.”
Lapid told the Israeli press this week that he believed he would become prime minister in the next election — another nod to the Netanyahu analogy.
Linde, who has headed the Jerusalem Post’s editorial department since 2011, noted the lack of experience running through the new parliament.
“A lot of people in the new Knesset no one’s even heard of,” he said. “Some people in Lapid’s party, for example; there’s an American, No. 17 on Yesh Atid, Rabbi Dov Lipman. He was a Republican in America before he moved here several years ago when he made aliyah. When you call Lapid’s party left wing, look very carefully.
“All these new people have no experience in politics, and all of a sudden they’re catapulted. You want people who are experienced in politics when we’re talking about maybe a military strike on Iran.”
Linde also predicted that the revolutions now destabilizing neighboring Arab countries “are going to be the main thing facing Israel next year.”
On the street, Israelis aren’t talking about Iran and the Arab Spring as much as socio-economic issues, especially housing prices, and mandatory national service for haredim and Israeli Arabs. The Israeli-Arab conflict — what Israelis call “defense and foreign affairs” — is always going to be important, but most Israelis don’t see much hope for a breakthrough any time soon, even self-declared doves.
“I have always been a supporter of the two-state solution since 1967, since I was a very, very young person. I am a leftist in my ideology,” said Diskin.
“My dream is we can go to wherever we want in Eretz Yisrael, we can live in Nablus and they can live in Jerusalem. But the reality is I cannot go to Ramallah, a 15-minute drive, because if I go there I can be killed. [Palestinians] can come here no problem. They can come to our beaches [for example], but I cannot go to a restaurant even in Bethlehem. So it’s very nice to have dreams, but I see reality,” Diskin continued.
“This is the most moderate Palestinian leadership ever, but they are not ready to come to the table. Maybe they don’t have the guts, maybe they don’t have the ability, maybe they are not ready to give up the big dream of eliminating Israel from the map.” n
Sue Barnett, J. senior editor, was on an American Jewish Press Association trip in Israel.