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INSIDE ISRAEL'S NEW COALITION GOVERNMENT

Naftali Bennett with Yair Lapid

 After a protracted round of coalition haggling, Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu finally wrapped up his new government. On the way, Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett taught him a trick or too.

 Riding on their electoral gains, they joined forces to form an unofficial Knesset bloc that Netanyahu needed to keep his job of prime minister. Bibi tried but could not divide and conquer these two political whippersnappers who forced him to accept many of their terms. In fact, they took a page from the book of Netanyahu-Lieberman who ran on the same ticket in the January election. In Israeli politics, what was good for the goose was good for the gander! In their unity deal, Bibi publicly pledged to keep the foreign ministry for Lieberman, so this was a given before voters went to the polls. Lapid played it to his advantage in the coalition bargaining. This is what transpired: Lapid actually leaked that he wanted the foreign ministry and nothing else would do! He certainly would not like finance, the hottest potato in the cabinet. And might Bibi be setting a trap for him with a mission impossible?  At the same time, Lapid knew there was no way Bibi could abort his promise to Lieberman because Lieberman, would have simply taken his eleven Knesset seats out of the 31 member union with the Likud and this would have barred Bibi from forming a new government. By playing hard to get over the foreign and finance ministries, Lapid dramatically boosted his leverage in the coalition negotiations. The result was that he succeeded in getting the education portfolio for his party, which the pundits thought Bibi would assign to the incumbent minister, Gideon Saar. Moreover in keeping with a Lapid demand, Netanyahu was also forced to slash the number of cabinet members from thirty-two to twenty, which is very popular with voters. In addition, the Lapid–Bennett combination cajoled Netanyahu into giving Bennett's party the Housing Ministry, which is responsible for building in the West Bank settlements.

 In brief, Bennett and Lapid realized that between the two of them they had been dealt better cards than Bibi in the coalition poker game that followed the election. But by far, they hit the jackpot in dismantling the unholy alliance between the ultra-orthodox religious parties and Bibi. Lapid, with Bennett issued Bibi an ultimatum. Because there was no chance the ultra-orthodox parties would ever agree to serve in the IDF and getting jobs, rather than studying full-time on government hand-outs, there could be no room for them in the corridors of economic power. They left Bibi with no option but to banish the ultra-orthodox from the new government and subsequently slash funding for their religious institutions. A new law is also in the pipeline that will force them to gradually do military service. Ultra-orthodox politicians are furious at Netanyahu and vow to pay him back in spades. Deputy Health Minister Yaacov Litzman has even lamented: "Netanyahu sold us out after we were so loyal to him!" That is just the point – the ultra-orthodox automatically supported Netanyahu in return for government funding. In other words they extorted the PM for their own religious interests before everything else. On this score, they automatically approved government spending for the West Bank. Now they have joined the Knesset opposition, they promise to check West Bank spending with a magnifying glass.  

 The fact is the ultra-orthodox simply went too far. Back in 1948, Prime Minister David Ben Gurion approved draft exemptions for some gifted 400 ultra-orthodox young men in religious seminaries. But since then the ultra-orthodox have exploited their political power to gain exemptions for some 6,000 annually, that's nearly all of them. An estimated 60,000 ultra-orthodox men, who are now of military age from eighteen to thirty, have dodged the draft simply because they choose to study in yeshivas for which they receive government grants. To add insult to injury these monthly allowances are far more than the pay to IDF recruits! And there are other perks, including housing benefits. Netanyahu's Likud and the ultra-orthodox parties have now reaped the backlash of Israel's silent majority.

 On the other hand, Lapid and Bennett have pledged to work for a new deal – a resetting of the economic and social order that has tilted in favor of the well-off and ultra-religious Israelis. The problem will be how to mesh these goals of a fair shake for all Israelis, a concept that is dubbed as 'equalizing the burden'. Netanyahu and certainly many Likud politicians have been rudely awakened to the fact they also went too far and need to get their act together. (Consider this: opinion polls indicate if a coalition stalemate had forced a new election, Lapid and Bennett would gain even more votes while Likud- Beteinu would lose more. This was another bargaining chip played skillfully by Lapid and Bennett).

 There is one sticky political patch the new government will have to traverse, and that's the Palestinian issue. Lapid favors an Israeli peace initiative although he did not highlight it during the election campaign. Bennett, who is farther to the Right than Bibi, says he is not against peace negotiations per se but the Palestinians have no intention of ever burying the hatchet. Therefore it's a waste of time. This issue will appear in the limelight during U.S. President Barack Obama's upcoming visit. And where do they stand on Iran? That will have to wait until Lapid and Bennett have been briefed on all Israel's top secret intelligence inside the eight member security cabinet.

David Essing

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