December 10, 2019

No Better Time to Form a New Government

Unity

The two ministers who orchestrated the 1984 unity government are ancient yet sharp. Moshe Shahal, former Labor minister, is 85. Moshe Nissim, former Likud minister, is 84. Thirty-five years ago, these two relatively young and promising politicians represented Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Shamir — two leaders who couldn’t stand each other but had to form an uneasy union. What’s the difference between these leaders and the two haggling leaders of today: Likud’s Benjamin Netanyahu and Blue and White’s Benny Gantz? 

It’s easy to fall into common sentimental traps and assume that Peres and Shamir, being legendary and dead, cared about the country more than Netanyahu and Gantz do. Maybe they did. Or maybe they were just as cynical as Israel’s current leaders, and the only thing that separates the two pairs is tactical in nature. While Netanyahu doesn’t see good reason to serve in a unity government that won’t save him from his legal trouble, Shamir had a strong motivation to serve in a unity government with his archrival Peres to save him from his own trouble. As Shahal remembers it today, Shamir was reluctant to cooperate with Peres but was even more reluctant to let his Likud comrade, Ariel Sharon, be defense minister. A unity government was a way for him to have Yitzhak Rabin, as defense minister, and keep Sharon at bay. 

The 10 days since the election in Israel were similar to what sports fans call garbage time. But although in football and basketball, garbage time usually comes at the end of games when the outcome is no longer in question, in Israeli politics, it comes at the beginning. It comes when both parties must pretend that they negotiate in good faith and yet have no incentive to make any concessions. Not now. Not yet. Not when there’s still time to hope that the other side will be first to blink. 

This is probably what we see now: the faking of good faith. Netanyahu says he wants unity, but also says that he represents the whole political “bloc.” That is: That Likud will enter into unity only with its allies: the ultra-Orthodox and right-wingers. Gantz says he wants unity  with Likud. He has no plans to have Yaakov Litzman and Bezalel Smotrich (United Torah Judaism and Yamina, respectively) as ministers in his government. Oh — and there’s also this little detail: It’d be his government. Gantz’s. Because he is the winner of the last election. Or so he seems to believe.

Is he really? That depends on one’s definition of wining. Blue and White has two more Knesset seats than Likud. Gantz has one less recommendation to be the next prime minister than Netanyahu. He can prevent Netanyahu from forming a coalition. He cannot form a coalition. 

Having met all parties, President Reuven Rivlin reached the conclusion that any child with an abacus could make: The math doesn’t allow for any coalition to form, unless some politician breaks a meaningful promise. 

It could be Gantz, who promised never to sit with the indicted Netanyahu.

It could be Netanyahu, who promised to never abandon his bloc.

It could be Likud leaders, who promised never to dump Netanyahu. 

It could be Yisrael Beiteinu’s Avigdor Lieberman, who promised to not sit with Charedis. 

It could be Charedis, who promised never to sit with Blue and White’s Yair Lapid. 

If all politicians remain true to their words (an admirable quality), Israel holds a third election (undesirable scenario). So, we, the people, must do what we hate doing. We must let our politicians break a promise without us breaking their bones.

Practicality

“We will be the cornerstone of democracy,” declared Ayman Odeh, the leader of the Joint List of Arab parties, and then quoted from the Book of Psalms: “The stone that the builders rejected has become a cornerstone.” Odeh made headlines three weeks ago when he declared that joining an Israeli coalition is something that Arab parties ought to consider. Odeh made history this week when his party — well, most of it — told the president that they support Gantz as Israel’s prime minister. 

It is no small thing for Arab politicians to recommend a former chief of the Israel Defense Forces, backed by two other chiefs, to be prime minister. Gantz began his previous campaign by boasting about the number of Arabs who were killed in Gaza under his command. Odeh, writing in The New York Times, emphasized that “my colleagues and I have made this decision not as an endorsement of Gantz and his policy proposals for the country.” So why recommend that Israel’s president choose Gantz to be the next prime minister? Because he is not Netanyahu. And because the Arabs are tired of not playing the game. 

No, they didn’t become Zionists. No, they didn’t change their ideology. No, they didn’t become a natural partner for any feasible coalition. Odeh is an interesting and cunning politician who knows how to tailor his messages in different languages to different audiences. There is the English Odeh of the Times, the Hebrew Odeh of Israel’s TV, and the Arabic Odeh of meetings with convicted murderers of Israeli civilians. It is not always easy to figure out which of these is the authentic Odeh and which is the inauthentic mask. 

Having met all parties, President Reuven Rivlin reached the conclusion that any child with an abacus could make: The math doesn’t allow for any coalition to form, unless some politician breaks a meaningful promise. 

He did something significant this week by showing that the Arab party realized something of great importance: There is a lot of potential influence for those who have 13 seats in the Knesset. There is a lot of potential influence for those willing to use those seats to advance certain causes. For many years, Arab Israeli politicians tended to stay on the sidelines and waste most of their energy on symbolic gestures of protest against Israel’s governments. The logic behind this was that playing the game legitimizes the game, and they didn’t want to legitimize Israel’s game. 

And now they have. They traded power for influence, the way politicians do. They compromised on less than their ideal, the way politicians do. They climbed off the high tree of symbolic boycotts and accepted the reality of having to choose the lesser evil.   

Sanctity

Spiritually, there is no worse time to form a new government — to deal with politicians and their shenanigans. A time of spirituality and elation becomes one of political maneuvering. Rather than looking at its future, Israel is being dragged into dealing with its mundane present. The questions that remain are trivial and tactical. There’s no worse time than Rosh Hashanah to think about them.

There is no better time to form a new government — to appoint the servants of our modern civic Jewish Temple. A time of renewal, of soul searching, of beginnings. A time to start fresh and examine old maxims. Israel is looking forward to a future that will be a lot like its past but also a lot different. Many questions remain. There’s no better time than Rosh Hashanah to answer them.

Before Rosh Hashanah, I prefer to think about the timeless rather than the timely. The timeless never portrays a clear path forward; it does not tell us if supporting or opposing a specific leader or legislation is the “Jewish way.” But it hands us a box of tools and provides us a language with which to think about life and society, meaning and morality, spirituality and politics. I would argue that it gives us a way of elevating, even sanctifying, the monotonous humdrum of political maneuvering.


Shmuel Rosner is senior political editor. For more analysis of Israeli and international politics, visit Rosner’s Domain.

Shmuel’s book, #IsraeliJudaism, Portrait of a Cultural Revolution, is now available in English. The Jewish Review of Books called it “important, accessible new study”. Haaretz called it “impressively broad survey”. Order it here: amzn.to/2lDntvh