Benjamin Netanyahu Hangs On as King of Coalition of Rivals

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By Ben Sales

Published March 25, 2014.
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(JTA) — In the lead-up to last year’s Knesset elections, the pro-settlement Jewish Home party released a controversial ad showing party chairman Naftali Bennett smiling alongside Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The message was clear: Netanyahu will be prime minister, but a vote for Jewish Home would give Bennett what he called “a hand on the steering wheel.”

More than having a hand on the wheel, the year since the formation of the new government has seen Jewish Home and the coalition’s other smaller parties driving much of the government’s agenda. Netanyahu’s Likud party has taken a back seat on everything besides security affairs.

Finance Minister Yair Lapid, head of the centrist Yesh Atid party, passed a controversial austerity budget and advanced a bill to conscript haredi Orthodox Israelis. Tzipi Livni, founder of the small Hatnua party, led the first substantive talks with the Palestinian Authority since 2008. Bennett advanced a string of parliamentary bills focused on religion-state reforms.

Netanyahu, meanwhile, has spent much of the past year fighting the same battles he fought in his last term, arguing for a more aggressive stance toward Iran’s nuclear program and taking a hard line on Israel’s security concerns.

With Netanyahu presiding over a team of rivals – a more difficult coalition than the relatively stable right-wing government of his previous term – many of the government’s initiatives have come from his partners, not him.

“What interests Netanyahu is the status quo,” Hebrew University political science professor Gideon Rahat said. “His style is not to do too much. Everyone else makes noise on smaller things.”

Lapid’s budget drew protests for raising taxes and cutting benefits, but proposed religious and social reforms have drawn the most attention.

As the first government without haredi parties in more than a decade, the coalition was able to pass some major legislation eliminating haredi privileges without falling apart. The government cut subsidies to large haredi families and sent the first government paychecks to non-Orthodox rabbis. Bills conscripting haredim and advancing gay parenting rights are close to passage.

The government also has moved toward forcing publicly funded haredi schools to teach English and math, as well as implementing an interdenominational compromise on the Western Wall. Yesh Atid is pushing legislation that would establish civil unions in Israel.

Not all the coalition members concur on the legislation involving haredim. Yesh Atid and Jewish Home broadly agree that haredim must be integrated and religious regulations streamlined, but they disagree on how.


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