As the new Israeli government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took shape this week, one the eve of President Obama’s first visit to Israel, a prominent political science professor voiced concerns that, counter to most expectations, it would shift to the political right.
“My gut reaction is that it is going to be a government more right wing than the previous government,” said Shlomo Avineri of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
Avineri, a former director-general of Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the recipient of the Israel Prize, the country’s highest civilian honor, explained that a major player in the new government is expected to be the “strong right-wing Jewish Home Party of Naftali Bennett with more than a dozen ministers who will represent settlers.”
In addition, he pointed out in a conference call Tuesday organized by the Israel Policy Forum, that former Israeli anchorman Yair Lapid heads the other key party in the coalition, Yesh Atid. That party, Avineri said, is “problematic on some issues regarding Palestinians. … I’m not very optimistic about the road taken by the new Israeli government.”
When Steven Spiegel, the IPF’s national scholar, noted that many people perceive Lapid to be “more centrist,” Avineri replied: “I think this is wrong. He is suave and good looking and uses understatements, but he campaigned in Ariel [in the West Bank], something that most Israelis on the academic side find problematic. To open his campaign in Ariel sent a clear message to settlers. And he said Jerusalem will never be divided … and that Israel has a right to set up settlements anywhere. He is a right-wing centrist, not a leftwing centrist.”
Bennett and his party oppose the creation of a Palestinian state. A religious hardliner, he has been quoted as saying that he opposes “a Palestinian state inside our country.” He was referring not only to Israel but also the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, which the Palestinians envision as their future state with its capital in east Jerusalem.
The new Israeli government is expected to be sworn in just days before Barack Obama is slated to arrive for a three-day visit next Wednesday, his first to the Jewish state as president.
Obama is deeply unpopular in Israel; his approval rating last year was about 33 percent — up from 10 percent in the first year of his presidency. But Avineri said he believes Obama learned from mistakes he made during his first presidential term and “would be more careful this time” in pushing for Israel to reach a peace agreement with Palestinians.
Avineri said Obama’s speech at the Jerusalem Convention Center to thousands of Israeli students “would be the center of the visit.” He noted that Obama early in his first term delivered a major speech in Cairo but did not stop in Israel, causing some in Israel to question his “commitment to Israel.”
“Most Israelis are eager to hear supporting words from the president of the United States. Israelis feel assured when they know the American people, the administration and the president know what is really bugging them. Most may not have supported the political line of President [George] Bush Junior, but they believe he understood what was bugging them. …
Once Israelis know that a person in the White House knows their concerns they feel relaxed. When they do, they are comfortable in making tough decisions; when they feel under siege, they are not.”
Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres will greet Obama when he lands at Ben-Gurion Airport. Because of time constraints, an Iron Dome anti-missile battery is to be brought to the airport for Obama to examine. The U.S. is helping Israel fund the Iron Dome, which was found to be 80 percent successful in shooting down missiles fired by Hamas during the recent Gaza conflict.
Obama, who is to be presented by Peres with Israel’s Presidential Medal of Distinction, is scheduled to visit the Israel Museum, the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum and the graves of Theodor Herzl and slain Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin.
During his trip, Obama is scheduled to travel to Ramallah to meet with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and other senior Palestinian Authority officials. Palestinian officials have been quoted as saying that Abbas would ask Obama to pressure the Israeli government to release Palestinians imprisoned in Israeli jails, especially those who have gone on hunger strikes in recent months.
After departing Israel March 22, Obama is slated to travel to Jordan for consultations with King Abdullah.
Although the issue of Palestinian negotiations will be one Tzipi Livni, Israel’s new justice minister, will be pressing in her role as chief Palestinian negotiator, there is a real question how much she will be able to accomplish.
Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University, said he doesn’t believe “Livni is going to be able to do very much.”
Avineri pointed out that there is no sense of urgency among Israelis for a Palestinian peace treaty.
“There is relative quiet and Israel was successful in putting an end to much of the Palestinian terrorism,” he said. “It also convinced much of the Palestinian leadership that terrorism hurt the Palestinians much more than it did Israelis.”
Steinberg said he believes the new government’s first priority in addition to adopting a new budget is to “lessen the connection between religion and state.”
“They will start with ending the [religious] exemption from military service and subsidies to yeshivot,” he said. “And there will be changes in the role of the Chief Rabbinate in marriage and divorce — but that will come later. They can’t do too much at once.”
But Ira Sharansky, a political science professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, said that although the issue of marriage and changing the power of the Chief Rabbinate are on the agenda, “they are at a much lower level, and my guess is they may never get to them in this Knesset.”
He agreed with Steinberg that the prime issue will be imposing an “equal burden on the haredi,” or fervently Orthodox, when it comes to military service. He said compelling Israeli Arabs to perform national service, an issue raised during the election campaign, is a “lower priority because the Arabs don’t cost as much as haredim.”
“The issue is not getting the haredim into the army,” Sharansky explained. “Rather it is about getting them to work and support themselves. Once they leave the yeshivot, they will stop being on the [public] dole. And when they finish the army or national service, it is expected that the vast majority will go to work like they do in New York.”
Asked what would happen to those who refuse to leave the yeshivot, Sharansky said the “speculation is that they will not be imprisoned but rather will have their government subsidies taken away. And yeshivot that do not send a certain percentage to the army will lose some support [government financing] – although probably not all.”
Avineri said he is uncertain about changes by the new government regarding religious pluralism.
“I assume American Jews are happy not to see chasidim in the government, and the government may be more open to American Conservative and Reform Jews, but this is a long-term process and I’m not sure it will work in this direction. If it does, it would be welcomed. But there is a difference between what people say in a campaign and how they work within the constraints of the political system.”