Tel Aviv — Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has successfully assembled a government, after almost six weeks of tense negotiations and pushing up against his deadline on Saturday.
Three parties will serve alongside his Likud-Beiteinu faction: the new centrist Yesh Atid, the staunchly pro-settler Jewish Home, and the Tzipi Livni’s dovish party, known in Hebrew as Hatnua. The government will have the loyalty of 68 of the Knesset’s 120 seats — a smaller majority than Netanyahu wanted.
The coalition deal, which will be finalized later today barring any last minute hiccups, is a highly unusual one for Israel, because it excludes ultra-Orthodox parties, which have been sidelined after propping up governments for decades.
Their exclusion is a result of Yesh Atid’s election success, which catapulted the brand new party in to the Knesset as the chamber’s second largest. Having promised voters that it would work to draft Haredim into the army, it argued that having Haredi parties inside the government would derail its plan, and refused to serve alongside Haredim. Jewish Home also made this demand as part of a strategic pact it forged with Yesh Atid.
While the coalition negotiations began with a focus on issues and principles, in the past few days matters like the Haredi draft took a back seat to discussions on who should serve in what ministry and how large the cabinet would be. And many Israelis are disappointed because they had hoped that the inclusion of a centrist and a dovish party would bring moderation to the country’s two most important ministries.
Netanyahu is holding the Foreign Minister portfolio for Avigdor Lieberman, the hard-right Likud-Beiteinu politician who is unpopular in the international community. Lieberman is currently on trial for fraud and breach of trust, but is expected to return to the ministry if the verdict allows him to do so.
And the Defense Ministry, the address for day-to-day and strategic decisions regarding the West Bank, will go to Moshe Ya’alon, a former military Chief of Staff who thinks that the two-state option is a lost cause, and has said that anybody who sees a solution on the horizon is engaging in “self-deception” and promoting a “golden calf.” He made these comments in an interview in June, during which he said that the conflict is currently a “problem with no solution” and it is conceivable there could be a million settlers in the West Bank.
Settlers and their political representatives reacted with jubilation to Ya’alon’s appointment. Lawmaker Moshe Feiglin, the leader of the hard-line Jewish leadership in the Likud party, considers the appointment “a move in the right direction for the Jews of Judea and Samaria,” his aide Shmuel Sackett told the Forward.
The Defense Minister signs off all new settlement building, but many of the building plans go through the Housing Ministry, which happily for settlers goes to Uri Ariel of Jewish Home, a former secretary-general of the settler umbrella organization the Yesha Council, and its construction arm. Sackett said that with both Ya’aon and Ariel, “we’re looking forward to a lot of positive construction and new life in Judea and Samaria.”
Ya’alon’s predecessor was Ehud Barak, who led the Camp David negotiations with the Palestinians, and while he was criticized by the peace camp for having seemed to move rightwards, in contrast to Ya’alon, is universally regarded as to the left of Netanyahu. Barak was persona-non-grata to settlers, especially since last spring when he swooped in and evacuated a settler house in Hebron while other ministers were still deliberating what to do about it.
Yariv Oppenheimer, secretary-general of Peace Now, commented that the Ya’alon and Ariel appointments send a “very negative message to the world and it seems that there’s a real possibility this government in terms of settlement activity could be much more harmful than the last one.”
He hopes, however, that Tzipi Livni’s appointment as Justice Minister, a position that deals with key decisions regarding illegal outposts, and of Yesh Atid’s Ofer Shelah as Deputy Defense Minister, may lead to some “pressure points” that the peace camp can target with its agenda.
While Ya’alon is hard-line on the Palestinians, he has widely been seen as more cautious than Barak on the possibility of a strike on Iran. Shlomo Brom, a former high-ranking soldier who is now senior research fellow at the Tel Aviv-based Institute for National Security Studies, told the Forward that he doesn’t expect Ya’alon’s cautious approach to disappear when he takes the Defense portfolio. “When you have more responsibility you become more cautious not less cautious,” he said.
However, Brom said that Ya’alon agrees with the basic premise that if Iran nears bomb production capability, a strike will be necessary — he differs from Barak on timing not on principles. Brom said: “The assumption is that at some time in 2013, probably in the summer, the Iranians will reach a point where the break-out point for producing nuclear devices will be very short and then a decision will have to be taken.”