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What Can the New Israeli Government Do?

Following the electoral upheaval, some clarity

Adam Chandler
March 18, 2013

The conventional wisdom following Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s less-than-stellar showing in January’s elections–which carried through the arduous coalition negotiations that ensued–was that Bibi would no longer be the unchallenged voice of Israel’s government. As the new government was sworn in today, that truth was realized.

But how will this new coalition work? And what can we expect from it? Those answers seem less clear. Over the weekend, David Horovitz underscored the biggest difference between this new coalition and the last one, which will have huge ramifications, namely the absence of the ultra-Orthodox:

The ultra-Orthodox parties are often described as Netanyahu’s “natural allies,” which inaccurately suggests a commonality of purpose and orientation. In fact, the ultra-Orthodox parties are Netanyahu’s unthreatening allies. So long as he funded them, they supported him. And they were never going to produce a rival prime ministerial candidate.

As Horovitz and many other point out, Netanyahu now has two rivals: Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid, whose success in both elections and negotiations all but effaced their stigmas as political neophytes. This will no doubt impact the ease with which Netanyahu is able to govern.

On a JCRC conference call this morning, Yossi Klein Halevi echoed this, explaining that without the ultra-Orthodox “rubber stamp” of Netanyahu’s policies and an ideologically diverse coalition to contend with, Bibi isn’t going to have an easy time. In fact, the first and easiest legislative tasks will take square aim at issues that are anathema to the ultra-Orthodox: the conscription and national service requirements from which they’ve long been exempt as well as education reform, which may defund religious schools that don’t teach math, science, and English, in the hopes of compelling the ultra-Orthodox to join the workforce.

As a result, Yossi Klein Halevi and others predict a “tough summer” ahead in an Israel that will be marked by heavy protests and the “hard experience of cultural war.”

But once the common ground between the coalition is spent, expect some fissures. Many are predicting that the coalition won’t last, which doesn’t mean that Netanyahu won’t stay in power, it seems likely that he will, but that some parties may exit (and enter) the coalition quickly depending on what happens.

For example, if the peace process gets a jolt from an Obama visit or a popular push, you can expect Naftali Bennett and the Jewish Home to peace out. To boot, earlier today, Foreign Minister-to-be and Yisrael Beiteinu head Avigdor Lieberman said that he would block any efforts to freeze settlements. But if the Jewish Home bolts and peace is on the table, Labor and other parties may be wooed and could make up the difference.

No matter what, expect a very wild year ahead.

Adam Chandler was previously a staff writer at Tablet. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic, Slate, Esquire, New York, and elsewhere. He tweets @allmychandler.