By Ira Sharkansky
Letter from Israel 



In all the blather from politicians and media personalities following Israel’s indecisive election, it is possible to see two ideas that might provide a map to the country’s future.

One is the equalizing of the burdens between the haredim and the rest of us. Prominent in the explanation of Yair Lapid’s 19 Knesset seat victory are the mass demonstrations that occurred during the summer of 2011. That was hardly a united movement. Chants and signs demanded too great a variety of injustices to be corrected.

What was clear, however, was that there were few if any haredim among the marchers. Lapid’s campaign, especially since the election, has emphasized the injustice of the haredi freedom from military or national service, as well as the substantial sums going to a population that is not working and paying taxes.

The haredim are not living high on the hog. The payments made to families via several sources, not all of them transparent, provide a bare minimum, in crowded, unaesthetic neighborhoods, small flats, and lots of children. In total, however, a lot of money goes to a growing population that is arrogant in claiming to preserve the society through prayer and the study of archaic texts that do not hold the keys to current problems.

The other idea has been given a boost by two individuals of high prestige, well placed in the military and Likud establishments.  One is General Yaakov Amidror, currently serving as National Security Adviser, who went public with the warning that construction in West Bank settlements is losing Israel the support of its most important friends.

“It’s impossible to explain the issue of settlement construction anyplace in the world.  . . . It’s impossible to explain this matter to German Chancellor Angela Merkel or even to Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Construction in the settlements has become a diplomatic problem and is causing Israel to lose support even among its friends in the West.”

Such comments have not ended Amidror’s career. Currently he is engaged, along with Americans, in arranging the upcoming visit of President Obama. Prime Minister Netanyahu has chosen to confirm that Amidror said something like the media is reporting, without extensive comment.

On the same wave is Dan Meridor, a second generation member of the Likud elite, at various times Knesset Member and holder of ministerial portfolios. He is widely respected for his thoughtful opinions despite having lost a seat in the Knesset due to the right wing onslaught in the primaries that also unseated other Likud moderates. Meridor has come out against further construction in the West Bank, outside of the major settlement blocs. He would continue building in neighborhoods of Jerusalem, and in settlements that Israel is bound to maintain, but cease further construction in the scattered settlements that are least defensible politically, and provide no tangible benefits to Israel.

Meridor is far from certain that his idea will produce any response from the Palestinians. He is doubtful that a Netanyahu government will offer Abbas anything more—or even as much—as Abbas rejected in 2009. He also suggests that the Palestinians may not be willing to accept anything an Israeli government can offer. His eyes are on international politics beyond the Palestinians, and what Israel should do in order to support a reasonable and defensible strategy in the presence of Arab hostility. 

Neither the Lapid nor the Amidror-Meridor ideas may survive the current maneuvering toward an Israeli government. If Netanyahu chooses the easy road of coalescing with the haredim and enough hangers-on to give him a bare majority, the secular middle of Israel can forget about equalizing the burdens between the haredim and themselves. And if Netanyahu includes Jewish Home in his coalition, Israelis concerned about an international initiative can forget about a moderate settlement policy.

On the other hand, Netanyahu is a four-star politician, skilled in finding the wind and sailing accordingly. Among the reasonable guesses is a large government with Lapid, Jewish Home and the haredim, but with commitments to reducing the benefits of the haredim and making an effort at talking with the Palestinians. It is possible to see an implementation of something that Amidror and Meridor could sell to Europeans and Americans.

And if not, one can imagine pressure building, Lapid on the outside making an issue of the haredim, along with international pressure against settlements that combine to increase the tension on Netanyahu and shorten the life of his government. Lapid has threatened that he will be the next prime minister if he must serve as leader of the opposition.

Likudniks have ridiculed him as a freshman politician who has jumped higher than his pupik. So far Lapid appears to be holding firm to his demands that the price of joining the government is serious action to reduce the benefits of the haredim. He would be a formidable annoyance if not in the government. Netanyahu wants him on the inside. Perhaps Bibi is thinking of LBJ’s comment about a problematic antagonist (J. Edgar Hoover), “It’s probably better to have him inside the tent pissing out, than outside the tent pissing in.”

Netanyahu also wants the haredim inside his tent, for pretty much the same reason.

There is no simple solution either for the haredim or the Palestinians. Even an aggressive effort could not bring the haredim into the economic mainstream in less than a generation. Most of the men have no education that would help them find productive employment. Most of those over the age of 30 already have lots of kids and may be too set in their routines to expect serious training for secular employment. Too great and too quick a reduction in their benefits could cost more in the budget supplements necessary for welfare and the police than is saved from direct payments to the haredim and their academies.

Also a possibility, and consistent with Netanyahu’s skills and previous practice, is to include all of the above in his tent, on the basis of promises that he keeps in small part, if at all. If that happens, and Lapid quits in frustration part way through the government’s tenure, he will have tarnished his reputation and join the substantial club of promising Israeli centrists who tried, failed, and retired early from any aspiration to leadership.

There are lots of possibilities. A wise observer should avoid predictions.

 Ira Sharkansky is professor emeritus, Department of Political Science, Hebrew University of Jerusalem.


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