Friday 29 May 2015

Starting on the Wrong Foot

The entire process that led to the forming of Israel's 34th government in 68 years of independence was filled with drama and unexpected events.

Opinion polls in the weeks leading up to the election predicted that the two largest parties, the Likud and the Zionist Union (formed out of a pact between the Labour and Hatnua parties), would be fighting each other off to form the new government.  The feeling was that one or two seats would separate the parties.  Even the election's exit polls did not predict the extent to which voters ultimately favoured the Likud over Zionist Union.  When the election result was announced showing that the Likud won 6 seats more than the Zionist Union, it took everybody in the country by surprise.  Even the members of the Likud were shocked at the size of the victory, especially in view of the earlier predictions.

The pendulum of expectation swung in the opposite direction.  All of a sudden, there was the expectation that Prime Minister Netanyahu would form a broad-based, strong, right-wing coalition government in double quick time.  As it turned out, the formation of the government took way longer than expected, is the narrowest possible government and is not nearly as strong as people thought and hoped it would be.   With these fluctations came swings in the public's expectation about how long this government can reasonably survive, and whether it has the ability to govern and make the changes that are so needed in Israeli society.

If the lead-up to the new government contained its fair share of surprises, the process of forming the government has also been less than inspiring.  The prime minister has been forced to compromise on many fundamental ideas that his electorate stand opposed to, in the interests of attracting coalition partners into the government.  For example, he has been forced to go back on legislation, that was put in place during the previous government, to force ultra-Orthodox yeshivah boys to undertake military or national service like all others of their age.  He has also been forced to redirect huge sums of money to the ultra-Orthodox sector, at a time when the Israeli government has implemented large budget cuts as part of an austerity plan.  Many Likud voters are horrified at these and other concessions.

One of the persistent rumours that refuses to go away concerns the reported approach that Prime Minister Netanyahu made to Labour leader Isaac Herzog to join the coalition.  The prime minister is reported to have approached Herzog on condition that he agrees to abandon his pact with Tzipi Livni, and bring only the Labour faction into the new government while leaving Livni and her Hatnua members out of the coalition.  Herzog refused, thereby turning down the opportunity to be part of a national unity government, and provide Israel with a much more stable coalition.  Has he spited the people of Israel by preferring to see Prime Minister Netanyahu fail in his endeavours?  There are many who believe that he has chosen the egotistical path, rather than setting his ego aside in the interests of serving the Israeli electorate.

The make-up of the new cabinet is also not a huge source of inspiration.  For starters, there are a total of 21 ministers in the new government, surpassing the 18 ministers that were recently legislated as being the maximum allowed in any government.  Netanyahu was forced to pass an amendment law through the Knesset to allow him to appoint 21 ministers to have sufficient jobs to dish out to all coalition partners.  The important job of foreign minister has been left vacant and has been assumed by the prime minister.  He has also retained the communications ministry, ministry of health and ministry of regional cooperation for himself.  It seems as though Netanyahu may be reserving these in case he is able to convince Lieberman or others to join the coalition in the future.

Aryeh Deri, head of Shas, is the new economics minister.  He has recently served a jail sentence and now come out of an exclusion period, during which he could not serve in a public position, as a result of having been found guilty of taking bribes while a government minister.  Yoav Galant is the minister of construction.  This is highly controversial seeing as Galant was prevented from taking up his appointment as the IDF Chief of General Staff due to irregularities found in the construction of his personal residence on public property.  Miri Regev is the new minster for culture and sport, despite having made it quite clear that she really wanted to have the welfare portfolio.  Habayit Hayehudi's Ayelet Shaked is probably the most surprising and high profile appointment to the new government, having been appointed as the minister of justice.  In this position, she has a huge influence over the appointment of judges to the supreme court, as well as many other aspects of Israel's judicial policy and justice system.  She has also secured herself a seat in the security cabinet, the narrow inner cabinet that is responsible for formulating and implementing Israel's security, defense and foreign policy on a daily basis.  At 39 years-old, she is considered an extremely young appointment to a critical position, despite clearly being very capable.  It is reported that Likud old-timer Benny Begin only knew of his appointment to the cabinet, as minister without portfolio, at the moment that it was announced in the Knesset.

The Knesset session to present the new government was held on Thursday 14 May.  The session epitomised a circus more than a meeting of Israel's legislature.  At first, Arab members of Knesset created an intentional and sustained disruption during the prime minister's address, that resulted in  a number of them being evicted from the chamber.  A few other Arab members decided to leave of their own accord in sympathy, although they did return during the address by the leader of the opposition.  Miri Regev was also issued a warning for heckling and disruptive behaviour, although managed to survive without being ejected.  Leader of the opposition, Isaac Herzog, delivered a stinging rebuke and criticism of the prime minister and his new government.  He was heckled by members from the religious parties, who were also issued with warnings.  While the job of the official opposition (and its leader) is to ensure that the government is held to account, there are times when it is appropriate for the opposition to support the government and to show some unity in helping with its efforts.  There are many who feel that this occasion was the perfect opportunity to show some unity and support.

The inconspicuous start to the new government continued further with a reshuffle coming less than 10 days into the life of the new government.  Likud number 2, Gilad Erdan, decided that he would be better off working within the new government rather than from the back benches.  While his disagreement with Prime Minister Netanyahu has not been resolved, Erdan finally agreed to accept the ministries of public security, strategic affairs and public diplomacy.  Despite him trying to put a spin on why he changed his mind to justify his actions, it is clear to all that this is a big U-turn on Erdan's party.  Netanyahu was happy to reshuffle his new government in order to accommodate Erdan.  Benny Begin, who was asked to resign his position as minister without portfolio to accommodate Erdan joining the cabinet, was not happy to comply with the request.

Despite the problematic manner in which the government has finally come into office, it does not detract from the fact that new government has a lot of important work to do.  Israel is under much pressure on the international diplomatic front to move forward to a peace agreeement with the Palestinians.  It also has to maintain firm security against those who are determined to destroy her and her people while also addressing the social and welfare needs for the weakest members of society in a tough economic climate.  All of this needs to achieved in a climate of lower levels of government spending to manage the economy responsibly.  Israel needs a firm, stable and decisive government that can make the difficult decisions that confront it.  Even though the manner in which the new government has started out life does not seem to bode well for the future, we all hope that we will be confounded by the extent to which the government is able to achieve great things.  We wish them much success.

1 comment:

adrian bolmenn said...

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