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Bibi’s Tough Choices

All eyes are on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as the world awaits his final response to calls for a further settlement freeze. But what happens if he agrees – will he be able to push it through his cabinet and keep his coalition together?

Since the final days of Netanyahu’s first settlement freeze in late September, his right-wing coalition partners have been flexing their muscles. But a close examination of their stands suggests Netanyahu may have more flexibility than most perceive.

“The coalition is not as weak as is often said,” commented Galia Golan, political science professor at the Lauder School of Government, Diplomacy and Strategy at Herzliya’s Interdisciplinary Center.

To be sure, hardline statements from some of the ruling coalition’s major partners are not difficult to find.

“There is no freeze, and we are here [in the government] to make sure that there is no freeze,” Uri Orbach, lawmaker with the religious-Zionist Jewish Home party recently told a local media outlet. “And we will continue to be here – as long as there is no freeze.”

The Haredi party Shas released a statement on October 10 saying that its spiritual leader has instructed it to “strongly oppose any form of a settlement freeze extension.” Ultra-nationalist party Yisrael Beiteinu has also been pressuring hard against a new freeze.

After his own party, Likud, which controls 27 of the Knesset’s 120 seats, Yisrael Beiteinu is the next biggest coalition party with 15. Its determination to avert another freeze stems from a principle even deeper than wishing to build for settlers. The predominantly Russian-immigrant party takes a strong-arm approach to foreign relations and opposes jumping through what it sees as Palestinian-constructed hoops.

“If Israel accepted this dictate, then its position would be compromised throughout the negotiations,” Yisrael Beiteinu lawmaker Danny Ayalon, who serves as deputy foreign minister, told the Jerusalem Post at the end of September.

The party has acted on its threats before. In January 2008, it left the coalition of then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to protest negotiations on core peace process issues.

But today Yisrael Beiteinu considers itself on a roll, both in terms of electoral support and in terms of progress with its domestic agenda, and many experts believe it will not want to lose its momentum.

“I think that Yisrael Beiteinu is not stupid enough to leave the coalition,” said Shmuel Sandler, senior research associate at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University.

Its current parliamentary strength is unprecedented – it has almost 50% more seats than in the last Knesset. Party leader Avigdor Lieberman is widely thought to want to capitalize on this strength and become, in the eye of the public, the natural leader of the Israeli right. His exposure is greater inside the government in his role as Foreign Minister than it would be if he were in opposition.

Then, there is Yisrael Beiteinu’s domestic agenda. In early October its long-promised amendment to Israel’s Citizenship Law, widely considered the key to its election success, gained approval of the cabinet. A controversial piece of draft legislation decried by many, it demands that non-Jews who become citizens pledge allegiance to Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. Down the line, the party wants to go further, including requiring non-Jews who are already citizens to take this pledge. But such ambitions, if achievable, can be achieved only by a party in the government.

As for Shas, there are signs that the party isn’t united behind its declared no-freeze position. Hours before Shas released its statement on Sunday, lawmaker Ariel Attias, housing and construction minister, was quoted on Channel 10 as saying that his party would not stand in the way.

Hebrew University political scientist Gideon Rahat believes that Shas’ commitment to the issue of settlements is often overstated. “Shas is basically not about settlement,” he said. Rather, like Yisrael Beiteinu it is intensely focused on its domestic agenda, which is very important to it electorally.

In a highly unusual step, Shas leader Eli Yishai and leaders of Ashkenazi Haredi party United Torah Judaism got together for an interview with the Haredi newspaper Hamodia – published on October 7 – and addressed at length why their participation in the coalition is good for the Haredi public.

Their main focus when asked about the coalition was the housing crisis facing Haredim. “Not a day goes by that the housing crisis plaguing the Haredi community does not cross my desk, not only that but we are offering concrete solutions,” said Yishai. He had “no doubt that we’ll be bringing good news” to those affected by it.

Regarding the possibility of leaving the coalition Yishai said: “As of now there is no serious [peace] process and therefore we are still in the coalition.”

The Jewish Home party, for its part, does appear entrenched in its refusal to back a renewed freeze. It seems serious about its plan to leave the coalition if one is approved. The party’s core constituency is settlers and settler sympathizers, and leader Daniel Hershkowitz has gone so far as to say a renewed freeze would be “immoral.” But Avraham Brichta, a Haifa University professor emeritus and expert on party politics, believes that if US-promised security benefits in exchange for a freeze are as attractive as is believed, the party may stay. If it walks out, the party has only three seats, so it would still leave Netanyahu with a comfortable Knesset majority of 11 seats.

A possible upset for Netanyahu could come from the left. At a meeting of the Labor Knesset faction on October 11 lawmakers tried unsuccessfully to push leader Ehud Barak, the country’s defense minister, to set a deadline for leaving the government if there is no advance in the diplomatic process.

Brichta believes that in the short-term Labor will prove reluctant to leave government for the opposition because the 13-seat faction will be “swallowed up” by the center-left opposition party Kadima, the largest faction in Knesset with 28 seats. “They are more relevant [in government] and it’s hard to leave positions of power unless you have a better alternative.”

Still, taking a year-long view, Brichta said that either progress or a dead end in peace talks will ultimately spell coalition troubles for Netanyahu. If it is clear that talks have failed then Labor lawmakers, who are increasingly alienated from their leader Ehud Barak, will leave the coalition with or without him – in the latter scenario splitting the party. A departure of all or some of Labor would lead to early elections. And if talks advance and pass the red lines of the right, discussing topics such as the status of Jerusalem, Brichta believes that Netanyahu will lose Yisrael Beiteinu and Shas, but retain his majority by replacing them with Kadima.

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