New Israeli government: An evolution, but nothing to shift international opinion
Changes in education and religious policies are on the cards — but with no chief diplomat, Israel will stay as isolated as ever
The Knesset, seen through its front gates. The one principle all coalition parties agree on is the universal draft (Photo: Flash 90)
Very little has moved on the diplomatic front over the past four years — whether or not this has been the fault of the Israelis or the Palestinians, both Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman have had little hope that a peace agreement could be signed by politicians of their generation. Mr Netanyahu was prepared, however, to accept the two-state principle and temporarily freeze settlements. With Tzipi Livni as chief negotiator, and at least part of the coalition in favour of some form of the two-state solution, there is a chance that talks may be restarted, but the right-wing majority in the cabinet will not allow them to go very far, even assuming the Palestinians are prepared to sit down and talk.
All the parties in the coalition have mentioned rising house prices and scarcity of affordable homes as a major issue to be addressed by the new government. Previous housing minister Ariel Atias was criticised for favouring his own Charedi sector in projects and benefits. The criticism was not entirely justified, but the results were still dismal. Uri Ariel, the new minister, has an impressive record as a builder — but of settlements. He will try to push the government to build more houses in the West Bank while trying to prove that his “bulldozer” credentials are also applicable within the Green Line. He will also try — with the prime minister’s backing — to cut through red tape and make land available for building.
A mover and a shaker: Lapid with Bennett (Photo: Flash 90)
Without a full-time minister at the Foreign Ministry, it will be hard for Israel’s diplomats to embark on a concerted effort to halt the country’s growing isolation in various international forums. Former Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman was not very popular in many Western capitals, and former Defence Minister Ehud Barak and President Shimon Peres were often Israel’s main representatives in the United States and Europe. Now that Mr Barak has left politics, Israel’s foreign relations will almost certainly suffer — unless a new and effective chief diplomat suddenly emerges or if Mr Lieberman’s court case is resolved in a way that he can return to his post in the near future.
The absence of Charedi parties improves the chances that this administration will make changes to the rabbinical divorce courts so they are more friendly to women and the secular, and streamline the conversion process, helping hundreds of thousands of Russian immigrants who are not recognised by the rabbinate as Jews. There could also be some progress towards a civil marriage law. On the other hand, the deputy religious affairs minister is Eli Ben-Dahan, a conservative former director of the rabbinical court system, so any changes are likely to be cautious and slow.
The one principle that is agreed upon by all the coalition’s parties is that compulsory military service should be extended to the Charedi sector, though the details are still a bit fuzzy and Mr Netanyahu will still try to safeguard the interests of his old allies, even though they are not in the coalition. The fundamentals of the draft plan will include enlarging IDF units and programmes for Charedi men and drastically reducing the benefits enjoyed by yeshivah students who have not served in the IDF. But it is unclear how many Charedi men will actually join up as a result of these measures.
The new Defence Minister, Moshe Yaalon, is a former IDF chief of staff and he is unlikely to shake up the military establishment. His first priorities will be to maintain the relative calm in the West Bank and to prevent events there from boiling over into a third intifada. Trying to block a deep cut in the defence budget will also be near the top of his list. The biggest defence issue, though, is Iran, and Mr Yaalon’s position until now has been against that of Mr Netanyahu, who favours of an attack on Iran’s nuclear plants. That is still the position of the various security chiefs, and the prime minister will have to work hard to persuade his new defence minister to go along with him.
New Education Minister Shai Piron was the founder of a movement calling for the strengthening of public education, empowering teachers and head-teachers and limiting the privatisation of schools. He now has a mandate to carry out his policies, which, if he succeeds in pushing them through, could revolutionise Israel’s school system. His success, however, depends to a great degree on securing the backing of the prime minister and finance minister. He is not the first education minister to promise reform only to come up against a shrinking budget — and the teachers’ unions.
The new finance minister, Yair Lapid, is no economist and has asked for a short period to decide whether or not the next budget should cover one year or two. Once he decides, he will have to implement deep cuts. He will have little choice other than to follow the recommendations of the fiscally conservative ministry economists. In the longer term, he is likely to favour tax breaks for the middle classes and social benefits only for those prepared to work.
The new Social Affairs Minister, Meir Cohen, is the former mayor of blue-collar Dimona and certainly has a wide experience of the relevant issues. As a Yesh Atid minister and former Yisrael Beiteinu party member, his policies are expected to favour working citizens who have served in the IDF. Israeli Arabs and Charedi yeshivah students are likely to lose out.