Manage to form a government, I mean. Netanyahu, I mean. As I wrote right from the day after the elections, the easiest thing in the world for Netanyahu to do would be, to form a coalition with Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party and Naftali Bennett’s Habayit Hayehudi party. But I think Netanyahu has personality issues with both of them as they are both possible future Prime Minister material – unlike the leaders of the haredi parties. Now, unlike some people, such as the obsessive Israel-hating blogger Richard Silverstein, I don’t pretend to have any high-level inside sources. What I’m going to give you here is the average Israeli’s view of the situation, formed by many years of living in this country.
One of the major pillars in Lapid’s election platform was the necessity for a change in the system which allows thousands of haredim to avoid (some would say “evade”) national service by the simple expedient of declaring themselves to be full-time yeshiva students and registering as such at a recognised yeshiva. To make matters worse, married yeshiva students receive a government stipend (which married university students do not receive) and the yeshivot (plural of yeshiva – ed.) receive government funding in accordance with the number of students registered at the yeshiva – all of this, needless to say, at the expense of the taxpayer.
Bennett’s party is a reincarnation of the National Religious Party. The “national religious” or “religious Zionist” sector supports national service and, while opposing compulsory military service for women, encourages girls to perform non-military national service, as teachers, medical auxiliary staff, etc. They even run organizations for organising such service. Furthermore, since Torah and Talmud study is important to the national religious sector no less than to the haredi sector, they have also set up numerous yeshivot hesder, to enable young men belonging to that sector to combine military service with yeshiva studies.
For some reason, despite what seems to many to be a heaven-sent opportunity to put an end to the inequality of a system which allows thousands of haredim to get on with their lives – at the expense of the taxpayer, what’s more – whilst others have to put their lives on hold for three years, while they serve their country, Netanyahu has been giving Lapid and Bennett the cold shoulder, whilst courting the haredi parties. Bennett and Lapid have vowed to stick together, so that if Netanyahu wants one, he must take both. Lapid made what I consider to be a tactical error last week, when he declared that he would not sit in the same coalition as the haredi parties. In my humble opinion, he would have done better to say that he would be ready to join them in a coalition only as long as they agreed to some kind of a formula by which the haredim would perform national service (whether military or non-military) just like everyone else. By phrasing it the way he did, he gave the haredi leaders the opportunity to accuse him of “hatred of the haredim” and to accuse Bennett of forming an unholy alliance with a champion of secularism. Furthermore, I personally, am not in favour of ruling out any party that has any claim to being Zionist. As a spokesman for Bennett’s party said on the radio this morning, the haredim are Zionist, in their own way. This, in my opinion, is particularly true of the Shas party. Their claim is simple. They say that there are different ways of safeguarding the State of Israel. One of them is by serving in the armed forces. Their way is by studying Torah and Talmud and ensuring the spiritual continuation of the Jewish People. I cannot totally negate this claim, nor do I wish to. It is undeniable that, were it not for the continued study of Torah and Talmud, together with the strict adherence to an orthodox lifestyle, the Jewish People would not have survived the centuries of Exile and persecution. It is also undeniable, however, that it was political and largely secular Zionism, that spearheaded the return to Zion and the re-establishment of Jewish sovereignty in our ancient homeland. The haredi parties are mistaken when they accuse Lapid of causing a schism in Israeli society. The schism is already here. Ordinary Israelis, such as myself, who have every respect for the study of Torah, are unable to understand why haredim cannot combine military service with study, in the same way as “national religious” citizens do. We cannot understand why, in addition to shouldering the physical burden of national service, from which thousands of haredim are currently exempt, we should also have to support them financially. We cannot understand why a brilliant secular university student should only receive a deferral of military service on condition that he or she serves in the reserves during his or her vacation and signs a contract obligating him or her to an extended period of military service on graduation, when no such obligation binds yeshiva students (whose “deferral” almost invariably turns into an exemption once they pass the usual age of military service, and who are not even obliged to serve in the Reserves). Did not Rabbi Akiva’s students shoulder the burden of military service when necessary?
However, I think the haredim rather threw away any advantage Lapid’s declaration may have given them, when they responded that if Netanyahu tosses them aside in favour of Lapid/Bennett, or even cuts funding to the yeshivot, they would join a left-wing coalition led by the Labour Party’s Shelly Yachimovich and including Arab Israeli parliamentarian Hanin Zouabi, widely condemned for her open support of Palestinian terrorism. This was naturally perceived as a threat to join Israel’s enemies (Zouabi, that is, not Yachimovich) since, except for the Extreme anti-Zionist Left, Zouabi is considered beyond the Pale.
So, where do we go from here? Netanyahu has been forced to ask President Shimon Peres for a two-week extension to continue his efforts to form a government. Meanwhile, the only definite coalition agreement so far has been between the Likud Beiteinu party (or, rather, Netanyahu, since many of his own party are unhappy with it) and Tzippi Livni, leader of the Hatnuah (the Movement) party – that same Tzippi Livni who prides herself on her integrity and on keeping her word, and who, on the eve of the elections and in their immediate aftermath, tried to get Lapid and other leaders of the so-called “Left-Centrist” bloc, to reach a formal agreement by which they would on no account, or under any circumstances, join a government coalition led by Netanyahu. According to Israel Radio this morning, Netanyahu and Bennett are due to meet this afternoon. I imagine that by the end of the two week extension, something will have been worked out. The likelihood of Shelly Yachimovich being able to form any government – let alone a stable one – is small and nobody relishes the thought of having to hold elections again this year, especially not Netanyahu who, it is predicted, will only lose more mandates, (as will Shas), while Bennett and Lapid are likely to gain support. In my humble opinion, once Netanyahu, Lapid and Bennett reach agreement, the haredi parties (or, at least, Shas) will find some way to save face and join anyway, if only to avoid the loss of government funding to their yeshivot.
Sorry if I sound cynical – but that’s politics for you.