Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

The new Israeli coalition in a nutshell

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After six weeks of haggling, Israel's thirty-third Knesset was reported on Wednesday to include 22 cabinet ministers (down from 30 in the previous cabinet) and several deputy ministers from the 68-strong coalition of Likud-Beiteinu, Yesh Atid (There is a Future), HaBait Yehudit (The Jewish Home) and HaTnua (The Movement). The new government is due to be sworn in on Monday, and there are already signs that its agenda will be administered with pragmatism.

The Jerusalem Post revealed that the last minute negotiations between Netanyahu and Lapid over final ministry positions were coordinated by ‘Jewish Home' leader Naftali Bennett late on Monday night, and the government will be announced just under the 16 March deadline to form a government set by the law and Israel President Shimon Peres.

Bennett will be Minister for Economy and Trade, Diaspora and Jerusalem and responsible for an expanded Religious Services Ministry that will include conversion, the chief rabbinate and supervision of yeshivas. Despite previous reports of a promise to confer the largely symbolic title of Deputy Prime Minister to Bennett, the Times of Israel claimed on Thursday that the idea was dropped - in part due to opposition from Sara Netanyahu, who fell out with Bennett in 2008.

Other Cabinet representatives from Jewish Home are to be Minister for Culture and Sport Uri Orbach, Deputy Minister for Religious Services, Eli Ben-Dahan, and former Yesha Council secretary-general Uri Ariel as Minister for Housing and Construction Uri Ariel, under which the Israel Lands Authority and settlements policy falls. The party is also said to gain control of the Knesset's Finance Committee, with Nissan Slomiansky in charge.

Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid will gain the position of Finance Minister, while colleagues Meir Cohen and Yael German will become Welfare Minister and Health Minister, respectively. Ya'akov Peri will be Science Minister and Ofer Shelach, a former military reporter, will be Deputy Defence Minister. Yesh Atid's Rabbi Shai Piron in Education rounds out the party's appointments. In return for the education portfolio, The Times of Israel is reporting Lapid agreed to give up a claim to the Interior Ministry, and his opposition to two HaTnua ministers and an extra Likud deputy minister.

"Yesh Atid's insistence on receiving the Education Ministry stems from the fact that the path toward changing Israeli society lies there," Yesh Atid said in a statement, adding "Yesh Atid asked for the public's trust in order to battle not just for [a reduction in] the size of the government and equal share of the burden, but also for education and Israeli society's future. Yair Lapid will not back down on his principles, even it means he has to sit in the opposition."

In the new coalition, Likud-Beytenu has appointed Gidon Sa'ar as Minister for Internal Affairs, former IDF chief of General Staff Moshe Ya'alon (Likud) in Defence, as well as yet to be appointed Likud MKs as Minister for Welfare and Social Services and Deputy Minister for Education. Israel Katz is expected to remain Transportation Minister, Yuli Edelstein will replace Reuven Rivlin as Knesset Speaker, and Tzachi Hanegbi is widely reported to be the lead candidate for coalition chairman. Although currently fighting fraud and breach of trust charges in court, Avigdor Lieberman's position as Foreign Minister remains unchallenged, and will stay vacant pending his return.

Yisrael-Beytenu's Yair Shamir is slated for the Agriculture Ministry, Yitzhak Aharonovitch is continuing at the Ministry of Internal Security, Sofa Landver at Immigrant Absorption, and Uzi Landau is to become Minister of tTourism, according to the reports.

As previously reported, former foreign minister and current HaTnua leader Tzipi Livni is taking the Justice Ministry, which includes responsibility for peace negotiations with the Palestinians. HaTnua also controls the Environmental Protection ministry with former Labor leader and Defence Minister Amir Peretz at the helm.

Deputy ministries that are yet to be filled include education, finance, foreign affairs, health and pensioners' affairs, and the ministries of communications, welfare and social services, and transportation, national infrastructure and road safety are also vacant.

The domestic and economic focus of the new government has come into sharp focus early on, with key negotiating factors including the smaller Cabinet of 20 ministers, and a rise in the threshold for Knesset representation from 2% to 4% to limit the number of political parties in the parliament. A smaller, more workable, ministry was a key tenet of the Lapid campaign, in the face of budget cuts and the need to control the deficit. With familiar faces like Danny Danon and Silvan Shalom left out in the cold, and many of the new ministers also newcomers to politics, there will be a lot of experience to make up for in this team of first time ministers and members of Knesset. 

In a move unusual in Israeli political history, and one that has spurred protests in the streets of Jerusalem this week, the ultra-Orthodox parties have been locked out of the new government - a direct result of the joint negotiating positions of both Yesh Atid and Jewish Home, which insisted on reforms to conscription that the ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) parties strongly oppose, and on only entering government together or not at all. Given the Knesset numbers, the net effect is that a government containing the ultra-Orthodox became mission impossible for Netanyahu, though he probably would have preferred politically to include them - as noted by Times of Israel editor David Horovitz - because on most issues, these parties have been happy to support whatever agenda Netanyahu chooses to put forward, provided the needs and interests of their constituents were met.

According to veteran Australian Jewish leader - now living in Israel - Isi Leibler, despite the disappointing result there is no love lost for the Haredi political parties:

"The outcome may have been different had they been more cooperative with respect to sharing the burden, in particular in relation to conscription and encouraging their youngsters to earn a livelihood, but they refused to concede an inch. Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, Shas' spiritual mentor, even outraged the national religious Bayit Yehudi leaders by calling them "goyim". Their subsequent behavior extending to vile threats by United Torah Judaism to boycott settlement produce - alienated whatever lingering sympathy remained."

With the ultra-Orthodox on the opposition benches, Netanyahu's government will be able to push through a new arrangement on sharing the burden in relation to the draft. According to Leibler, in the latest compromise, national service will become universal in gradual stages over a five-year period. Up to 2,000 Yeshiva students will continue receiving exemptions and state subsidies. However, the subsidies will be predicated on including secular subjects like math, English, civics and history, as well as religious study.

The question that seems to be emanating from international media is what the new coalition government will mean for the peace process. Steven Rosen, Director of the Middle East Forum's Washington Project echoed Israeli commentators at an AIJAC media lunch on Thursday. He said that the new government is different from its conservative predecessor, and it "opens up new possibilities for peace" and described the centre left bloc of Livni and Lapid as

"people who believe that some kind of political resolution with the Palestinians is in Israel's own vital interests and that everything possible has to be done to resume Israel-Palestinian negotiations, that a Palestinian state is necessary to prevent Israeli becoming a bi-national state and that Israel can live in peace with a Palestinian state if rightly negotiated."

With the right impetus, Rosen believes this Israeli government could see an interim agreement accepted with temporary borders, and argued the issue of settlements is amenable to being finessed.

"The Palestinians, the Israelis, the Quartet and the UN Security Council have already signed onto the idea of temporary borders," he said. "If we got the Israelis and Palestinian to settle on the borders situation there wouldn't be an issue with the settlements."

However, he was cautious to say that though Obama's visit to Israel would focus first and foremost on Iran's nuclear ambition, another priority will be kick-starting the peace process, and this requires "multi-lateral cooperation", involving US Secretary of State John Kerry, the Arab League and most notably King Abdullah of Jordan.

The incoming Netanyahu Administration will be sworn in on Monday, Obama lands for a whirlwind visit two days later, his own Administration freshly appointed. It looks likely to be a vitally important trip as both governments start to make decisions about the way to move forward in the region, and are keen to reset their positions in a more constructive and cooperative future relationship. 

 - Talia Katz

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