The National – 27 February 2009
Benjamin Netanyahu, the man designated to be Israel’s next prime minister, was due to hold talks today with his chief political rival, Tzipi Livni of Kadima, in a bid to persuade her to join a unity government and avert the danger of international isolation.
The Likud leader has been making strenuous efforts to woo Ms Livni – or find a “common path”, as he calls it – since he was tapped to form the government by Shimon Peres, the president, a week ago.
Mr Netanyahu said today’s meeting would be “decisive and meaningful”, implying that he was prepared to make major concessions to win over the Kadima leader.
Ms Livni is under heavy pressure to accept such an offer, particularly from senior figures in her party who hope to continue as ministers. But Kadima legislator Silvan Shalom told Army Radio yesterday that Ms Livni would rebuff Mr Netanyahu because their differences over whether to conduct negotiations with the Palestinians were “unsolvable”.
If Ms Livni stays true to her word, Mr Netanyahu will be forced to form a coalition exclusively with far-right and religious extremist parties that would command 65 of the parliament’s 120 seats.
There are two chief reasons for Mr Netanyahu’s reticence about relying on such a narrow coalition, both being the result of lessons he learnt during his earlier premiership in the late 1990s.
The first is that a hardline government, one opposed to Palestinian statehood and which includes partners with a strong racist hue, would be deeply unpalatable to Israel’s western allies. And the second, much less noted, reason is that such a coalition would be inherently unstable and likely to break apart under pressure.
Without the substantial presence of Ms Livni’s 28 seats at the centre of his coalition, Mr Netanyahu fears his tenure as prime minister will be short, with the government constantly buffeted by storms as the smaller parties feud and threaten to leave.
The biggest fault line would be between the two largest parties in such a coalition, Yisrael Beiteinu and Shas. Both are virulently opposed to peace talks with the Palestinians, as is Likud, but for different reasons that ensure no love is lost between them.
Yisrael Beiteinu mostly attracts secular voters from a group often referred to as “Russians” because they arrived in Israel in the 1990s following the collapse of the Soviet Union. The party’s leader, Avigdor Lieberman, is a Moldovan emigrant who campaigned in the elections under the slogan “No loyalty, no citizenship”, a threat directed at Israel’s 1.2 million Palestinian citizens.
Mr Lieberman’s appeal to this Russian constituency derives in part from his comforting strongman image, his ambivalence towards democracy and his fascist leanings. His scapegoating of Palestinians, both in the occupied territories and inside Israel, offers reassurance to Russians who themselves languish on the margins of Israeli society.
Shas also attracts a marginalised group: Jews originally from Arab countries, known as the Mizrahim. Many of its voters are the Haredim, religious fundamentalists who have traditionally been ambivalent about Zionism, but increasingly it also finds support among national-religious settlers in the West Bank.
Its political leadership is largely subservient to the party’s spiritual leader, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef. The fragile, elderly rabbi may not look much of a strongman but, like Mr Lieberman, he has little respect for democracy. Also like Mr Lieberman, Rabbi Yosef has regularly resorted to racist language in describing the Palestinians, calling them “vipers” and demanding their “annihilation”.
But in a sign of the mutual loathing of the two parties, Rabbi Yosef turned his sharp tongue on Mr Lieberman during the election campaign, equating him with Satan.
Their disagreement – and the likely point of friction in any narrow coalition – is over the power of the rabbinate.
At the founding of the Jewish state in 1948, rabbis representing the fundamentalist stream of Judaism – Orthodoxy – were given control of all personal status issues, such as registering births, conducting marriage ceremonies, approving divorces, awarding conversions and overseeing burials. In effect, they were given the power to decide who was considered a Jew in Israel. This was seen as a way to damp down dangerous tensions between the secular founders’ vision of Israel as a state for ethnic Jews, and the rabbis’ vision of a Judaic state that followed God’s laws.
The rabbis’ strict adherence to religious law in determining who is Jewish, however, has caused huge ructions in Israel over the past two decades as more than one million Russians poured into the country.
The Law of Return requires of these immigrants only that they have a Jewish grandparent, and allows them to bring with them a non-Jewish spouse and children. The rabbis, by contrast, agree to register someone as a Jew only if he or she has a Jewish mother. Many Russians – more than 350,000 – fail to satisfy the rabbis’ criterion. They have been left in limbo, unable to marry in Israel or even be buried in Jewish cemeteries. And the rabbis have made the sole solution for them – conversion – a fearsomely complicated and onerous procedure.
In response, Mr Lieberman has made it a key plank of his platform to end the Orthodox rabbis’ grip on conversion and to introduce civil marriages. He is expected to insist on these measures as a precondition of joining a Netanyahu government.
Shas, meanwhile, is demanding reassurance that the rabbis’ monopoly remains in place. The legislator Nissim Zeev told Israeli radio on Wednesday that civil marriage was an issue the party “can’t compromise on”.
It is not easy to see how Mr Netanyahu can square this circle in a narrow coalition except through a policy of evasion and prevarication during coalition negotiations that will eventually unravel.
His salvation is Ms Livni. If she agrees to join a unity government, then both Shas and Yisrael Beiteinu may be forced on to the back foot.