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Israel’s emerging new government

Just in time for President Obama’s visit

by Linda Gradstein, The Media Line

March 14, 2013 | 10:39 am

President Barack Obama meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington on March 5, 2012. Photo by Jason Reed/Reuters

President Barack Obama meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington on March 5, 2012. Photo by Jason Reed/Reuters

Barring a last minute glitch, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is set to sign coalition agreements that will give him a new government just two days before the deadline, and less than a week before President Barack Obama arrives in Israel. The new government will have a total of 68 seats in the 120 seat parliament.

“It’s an excellent government and it will have a chance to enact changes that should have been taken a long time ago,” Eytan Gilboa, a professor of political science at Bar Ilan University told The Media Line. “It will try to correct distortions in army service by drafting the ultra-Orthodox and cut economic benefits to them as well. There will also be an opportunity to introduce changes to the economic system.”

For the first time since 2005, the ultra-Orthodox parties will not be inside the government. Also outside will be the center-left Labor party, as well as the Arab parties.

The election was held almost two months ago. Netanyahu’s Likud party, which ran on a joint slate with the hard-line Yisrael Beitenu ("Israel is Our Home"), won 31 seats—just over 25 percent, and a significant drop from their joint strength in the previous government. That meant Netanyahu needed to find at least 30 additional seats. Nineteen of those came from the election’s biggest surprise: Yesh Atid ("There Is a Future") the new party of television personality turned politician Yair Lapid, who is slated to become Finance Minister in the new government.

“This government represents a change—it’s the same Prime Minister and the Likud is the largest party, but it is a major, dramatic change,” Yehuda Ben Meir of the Institute for National Strategic Studies (INSS) told The Media Line. “This will be more of a civilian government than a theocratic government, and it represents a wide segment of the Israeli population.’

Both Lapid and his junior partner, Naftali Bennett of the right-wing Yisrael Beitenu party, had been slated to become Deputy Prime Ministers. At the last minute, however, Netanyahu decided not to appoint any deputy prime ministers for the first time in 50 years. According to Israeli media, the Prime Minister's wife, Sara Netanyahu, harbors a lingering grudge against Bennett, her husband's former chief of staff, and she didn’t want him appointed to the position. Bennett said that Netanyahu's decision violates a previous agreement with his party.

The new government is expected to be sworn in on Monday, just two days before President Obama arrives in Israel. Under Israeli law, if an agreement had not been reached by Saturday night, Israel would have had to hold new elections. Most of the wrangling of the past few weeks was over who would receive which cabinet portfolios. For example, Lapid’s Yesh Atid party insisted on both the Education and Finance Ministries; Lapid himself was angling to become Foreign Minister. In the end, Netanyahu succeeded in holding on to that job for his partner, Avigdor Lieberman, who is currently on trial for fraud and corruption.

The first tasks of the new government will be to pass a new budget. Lapid is also insisting that Israel begin drafting the ultra-Orthodox to “share the burden” of military service. Some ultra-Orthodox have responded by sayng that they will leave Israel rather than be drafted. Most Jewish Israeli men serve for three years; women serve for two. One study has shown that if most of the ultra-Orthodox were drafted, all men could serve only two years, as well.

With a slim majority, 68 seats, the government may be fragile; if either Lapid or Bennett decides to leave the coalition, the government will fall and new elections will be held.

“If this government lasts more than two years, it will be a success,” Gilboa said. “It’s also like a period of apprenticeship for Lapid and Bennett. Both of them want to be Prime Minister in a few years.”

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