January 29, 2013
Coalition spins: what not to believe
1. Syria suspicions
Being suspicious or cynical about Israel’s most crucial security concerns is not a habit I’d like to adopt. But if my experience as an Israeli journalist has taught me anything, it’s to be highly suspicious about everything when coalition talks are near.
When I was much younger, I spent my first few weeks as the head of the news division of a daily paper (Haaretz) at the time when Ehud Barak was just building his coalition. I still vividly remember the late night attempts – desperate ones – to see through the spins, the lies and the manipulations created by people involved in negotiations. Every evening was a battle for a headline that, if not quite interesting, would at least be accurate; and every morning was a disappointment: we would often wake up to discover that we had been easy prey for spin doctors and had been led yet again to print a rumor or a claim that 12 hours later seemed irrelevant at best and in many cases truly erroneous. While politicians generally tend to be more flexible with the truth than most people, when coalition talks begin, they lie through their teeth. That being the case, I see myself being inevitably suspicious for the next few weeks.
This means, for example, that I treat with a measure of suspicion the recent wave of publications related to the Syrian chemical weapons program. Of course, the problem is not one to be dismissed: the Assad regime has chemical weapons and as the regime is losing power and control over parts of Syria, the danger of chemical weapons finding their ways into the hands of terrorists – Hezbollah operatives or others – is growing. This is not a new concern and many discussions related to it have taken place, both within Israel and between Israel and other countries, in the two years since the war in Syria began.
However, in recent days there’s suddenly an endless amount of attention given to this issue. Reports indicate that government officials are holding meetings in Israel and elsewhere, and security measures – such as moving Iron Dome systems from the south to the north – are already being taken. On the one hand, this seems worrying and urgent: Syria is burning, Egypt is in turmoil, Iran is still a threat and the Israeli government can’t just 'take a break' until a new coalition emerges. On the other hand, well, coalition talks are just about to begin. This means that any security “situation” is good for the PM. If there’s “a situation” the pettiness of politics as usual can more easily be pushed aside. If there’s a situation it is not the time to fight over secondary issues. And if one wants to be a true cynic: if there’s a situation it is no time to replace the Defense Minister – even if this minister is one with no party, no constituency and no political support.
2. Haredi hype
Whether Shas joins the coalition or not is for Shas to decide. Clearly, the opposition doesn’t seem appealing to a party that is used to the benefits and conveniences of being in the government. Also, as I explained right after election Day, Netanyahu would like Shas to be part of the coalition. He needs to plan for the future (i.e. his own political future) and dumping Shas and abandoning his 'base' could be costly in that aspect. While Yair Lapid is a potential coalition ally now, he is one who has already stated that he wants to inherit Netanyahu. Shas’ leaders have no such aspirations. So the right political move for Netanyahu is clear: make Lapid seem smaller, guard the alliance with Shas.
This all becomes a little more complicated when one considers the main topic around which these coalition talks will focus: Haredi draft and Haredi integration into the work force. Simply put, Lapid’s Yesh Atid has no choice but to demonstrate to their voters that it is serious about the Haredi issue. If Lapid doesn’t deliver, if he is outmaneuvered by the Haredim, he will have to stay out of the coalition or to eventually withdraw from it. Thus, if Netanyahu wants the more stable coalition – one which will include both Yesh Atid and Habait Hayehudi (the Zionist-religious party) – he’ll have no alternative but to unify it around the one big issue on which these two parties generally agree: reforming the Torato Umanuto ('Torah is his occupation') arrangement.
This is a poker game: Netanyahu would like to find a formula that can accommodate both Lapid’s demands and keep Shas within the tent. Shas keeps telling the public that it is willing to compromise, that its leaders know that the time is ripe for change. They only have one caveat: no numbers. Haredi men will enlist in the military or in national service – except for those truly studying Torah. Shas leaders would like to convince the Israelis that change is coming anyway and that it’s better to bring about this change without having to retort to coercive means. Consensual change is an appealing prospect while the alternative – change without agreement from the Haredim– might be dangerous and could even be a cause for “war”, as Haredi leaders have been threatening in all their recent interviews.
If one could only believe the Haredi promises, if one could only trust their sincerity... If they think that change is desirable, why did they not do anything about it when Lapid was not yet the head of a powerful party? If they really think it is time for the Haredi community to become better integrated into Israeli society why didn’t they say this to their constituency when they ran for election? Recent conciliatory statements seem to be the direct result of a looming threat – the threat of legislation, the threat of coercion. If threatening the Haredim is so effective, why stop now?
3. Social Sentiments
Was Lapid’s surge a direct result of the social justice movement and demonstrations of two years ago? Was it a rebuke to Netanyahu’s leadership? Was it a sign of a deep change in the national mood? Was it the beginning of the end of Israel’s right-wing domination? I can point you to hundreds of answers to these questions (It all depends on what you want to hear). In any case, each pundit's answer usually depends on that pundit’s preordained beliefs:
Right-wingers tend to interpret the election results as a testimony to the fact that Israelis no longer want to hear about the peace process. Proof: Lapid didn’t talk about peace and won, Livni did and lost.
Left-wingers tend to say that the voters clearly rejected Netanyahu. Proof: his party is much weaker and his base is now smaller – the voters moved leftward because they wanted a weaker Netanyahu. Next time, when a more viable candidate emerges, Netanyahu is going to be replaced.
Social-justice aficionados say it’s all about the “movement” – not Tzipi Livni’s Hatnua (the movement) – all the result of Israel’s amazing summer of protest from two years ago. Proof: it was the young and the middle class that crowned Lapid, the same people that took to the streets in protest of current economic trends.
Anti-Haredi activists would tell you that it is all about Israelis having had enough with Haredi power. Proof: the parties that benefited are those that highlighted a message of Zionism, sharing the burden and military service for all. Naftali Bennett kept emphasizing that his party has the highest share of combatants and officers among its elected representatives. Lapid kept talking about the importance of elevating the issue of Haredi integration to the top of the national agenda.
I heard a sociologist speaking yesterday: he thinks it is all about the new Sephardic middle class becoming more like the rest of the middle class and voting for parties that used to appeal only to upper middle class Ashkenazi Jews.
I've heard both right-wing and left-wing politicians with hardcore beliefs saying that it’s all about Israelis losing their sense of ideology, becoming either clueless or nihilistic and consequently voting for middle of the road parties which stand for very little.
And of course, many believe that it was all about tactics – the mistake of Netanyahu and Lieberman merging their parties and weakening their bloc. Had the Likud and Israel Beiteinu ran separately, they say, the outcome would have been completely different. According to this narrative, there was no real change in Israeli society- only a coincidental fluke that is going to be corrected next time.
So what were the elections about? Until more evidence emerges, until more polls more information and more election cycles make us wiser, there’s only one thing we can know for sure: the 2013 elections were great at reinforcing one's prior beliefs about where this country is headed.