If Bibi could unite the centre…

By Richard Pater, January 17, 2013
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With days to go before the election, Benjamin Netanyahu seems the most likely candidate to form the next Israeli government, but his Likud-Yisrael Beitenu will still face the complex task of building a coalition majority around a shared set of policies.

While the world tends to focus on diplomatic issues, the campaign in Israel is orientated more toward domestic concerns. Virtually every party has prioritised social issues; a natural consequence of 2011’s social justice protests. Labour, having recruited prominent leaders from the social justice movement, has risen to second place in the polls by focussing on the cost of living and downplaying diplomatic issues.

Yair Lapid’s party has focussed on a more equitable deal for the middle class, who bear the greatest burden. Jewish Home, led by the charismatic Naftali Bennett, has also prioritised domestic issues, despite garnering much attention for his controversial views on the Palestinians. The ultra-Orthodox Sephardi party Shas claim to truly represent the “have nots”, and even include Israeli Arabs and Bedouin among their supporters. 

While security is his top issue, Netanyahu too has declared that aside from Iran, housing, “sharing the burden” and electoral reform are his major objectives. He could well be signalling to centrist parties that they can sit in his next government, as their domestic agendas appear complementary. 

Reform of the housing market will be high up

Bibi has pledged that the housing ministry, currently controlled by Shas, will be brought under his party’s control. This ministry will lead the policy on who qualifies for financial support when buying a home. The original criteria included army service and both partners working. Shas has tried to to add length of marriage, which would benefit ultra-Orthodox couples who get married significantly earlier. Reform of the housing market will likely be high on the agenda.

What might also discourage Orthodox parties from entering a Bibi-led government is the induction of ultra-Orthodox youth into national service. On this there is an understanding among the non strictly Orthodox that the status quo is unsustainable.            

A third issue that Likud-Israel Beteinu has in common with the centrist parties — Lapid’s Yesh Atid in particular — is electoral reform. A current buzz words in Israeli politics is “governability”. For an Israeli leader, few goals are more appealing than changing the system to make it easier to execute their lofty ideas. One of the ways Bibi justified the union of Likud with Yisrael Beteinu was as an attempt at self-regulatory electoral reform, by creating a single centre-right bloc, rather than two smaller factions. Proposals include raising the threshold for entering the Knesset to six per cent and making it harder for smaller, sectoral parties to survive.

This is a hefty agenda even before looking at the myriad foreign policy dilemmas await the new government. Theoretically the Prime Minister understands the necessity of the two-state solution, and he could be supported by Tzipi Livni’s party. But when Israelis look around they see Hamas on their southern border, along with the unstable Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. In the north they see Hizbollah in Lebanon and chaos in Syria. All this without mentioning US relations, Turkey and of course Iran.   

If the Prime Minister is brave enough to forgo some of his “natural” partners in order to pursue a social policy agenda that addresses the demands of the middle class — a big if, then a return to negotiations with the Palestinians may too be possible in the future.  

Richard Pater is director of Bicom Israel

Last updated: 11:18am, January 21 2013