More parties are expected to join the third government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in coming days after former opposition leader Tzipi Livni on Tuesday became his first coalition partner.
Livni, who heads the new Hatnua Party, will become justice minister and head all future Palestinian peace negotiations.
Although Livni was widely expected to join the government, Netanyahu’s decision to let her head Palestinian peace talks makes it more difficult for Habayit Hayehudi (Jewish Home), a party headed by Naftali Bennett, to also join, according to a source with Netanyahu’s Likud-Beiteinu Party.
“He declared before, during and after the election that he is opposed to a Palestinian state,” said the source Tuesday. “Any moving forward in the negotiations with him in there [the government] is problematic because he would block it.”
On the other hand, the source said Netanyahu would like Yair Lapid and his Yesh Atid Party with its 19 Knesset seats to join his government.
Lapid has two principle goals: the resumption of Palestinian peace talks and a universal draft in which every Israeli — including Arabs and the fervently Orthodox — would report to a recruitment center. The Israel Defense Forces would then decide where and whether they would serve according to the army’s needs.
“He [Netanyahu] would like to accept him into the government because he saw [in last month’s election] that the winds have changed and the public showed wide support for him,” said the source. “And his platform is not super different [than Netanyahu’s Likud-Beiteinu Party]. Lapid cares about a lot of the same issues, and he is pretty much on the same page as Netanyahu when it comes to going forward with the peace process and what he would or would not give up.”
Since the election, both Lapid and Bennett have spoken of joining Netanyahu’s government together, not separately. And that has been the hang-up in coalition talks because together Lapid’s party and Bennett’s Jewish Home Party with its 12 Knesset seats have the same 31 seats as Likud-Beiteinu.
But Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said he does not believe Livni’s appointment as lead Palestinian negotiator would preclude Bennett from joining the government.
“I think it is feasible that both could join,” he said of Lapid and Bennett. “Just because Livni is in charge of Palestinian negotiations …. Israel doesn’t have a negotiating partner [at this time].”
And should talks resume and there be progress, Hoenlein said that historically there have been “parties that professed certain positions but when the reality changed, they dealt with it.”
He stressed that analysts he spoke with during the President Conference’s just concluded trip to Israel all believed that the opportunity for a breakthrough in any peace talks is unlikely.
“Livni based her whole campaign on [peace talks] and that’s why she lost so much support,” Hoenlein said, referring to the fact that her new Hatnua Party won only six Knesset seats in the Jan. 22 election.
Both Jewish Home and Yesh Atid share the same goal of universal conscription, as well as several other key policy issues. Likud-Beiteinu put forth its own views last week on universal conscription and the party source said the argument now is “over the ages of those who would have to go into the army, how many would have to go and for how long. They are talking too about Israeli Arabs, but primarily about haredi [fervently Orthodox].”
Political analyst Yossi Alpher, who until last year co-edited the Israeli-Arab Website bitterlemons.org, said the fervently Orthodox represent about 10 percent of the Israeli population. If all fervently Orthodox men 18 to their early 40s were declared eligible to serve, they would number about 60,000. If the draft were limited to those 18 to 21, it would target about 7,000 of them.
Lapid reportedly told his own faction this week that “nothing has happened” regarding coalition talks with Likud-Beiteinu. But Alpher said he takes those and other comments with a grain of sand.
“All of this is spin,” he said, adding that Netanyahu has until March 15 to complete is coalition government.
“He knows [President Barack] Obama is coming March 20 and my reading of Bibi is that he will string this out until the 13th of March,” Alpher said, referring to Netanyahu by his nickname.
“That would put him in a position to say to Obama that it is nice to have you here and we want to listen, but when it comes to the Palestinian issue we have just formed a government and have not had a chance to put together policy positions. It avoids having to lay out to Obama negotiating positions that Obama almost certainly wouldn’t like.”
Although Bennett and Lapid have called on Netanyahu to put forth his government’s principles, Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University, said Netanyahu “doesn’t have a vision.”
“He wants the minimum number of changes,” he said. “He has to deal with Iran, American pressure on the Palestinian issue, Syria, Egypt and maintain the economy on an even keel. He doesn’t want to bring in new issues because he believes the country can’t handle them.
“He also wants to avoid a big split with the ultra-Orthodox on the issue of army service. If he accepts the changes in the law demanded by Lapid and Bennett, that would put a much higher percentage [of the fervently Orthodox] into the military and it would be harder to get their support. And he doesn’t want to break the old alliance because he would then be dependent on voters who supported Lapid and Bennett. For him that would be a political risk, and he never has been a political risk taker.”
Were Netanyahu to go along with the idea of a universal draft, Steinberg questioned how it would be implemented.
“Nobody knows how the army would use them — what roles would they fulfill and how would they eat” because of their different dietary requirements,” he asked. “All of those questions are not answered. The principle is that everyone has to share in protecting the country, but this large population is not capable or interested in sharing in the defense of the country.”
He noted that there is also talk of Israeli Arabs, who are now exempt from the draft, being similarly conscripted into some sort of national service.
“But is all of this practical and what if they don’t want to go?” Steinberg asked. “Are you going to put them all in jail?”
Although the political elite among the Israeli Arabs fight such conscription, “the mainstream Israeli Arabs are interested in serving,” according to Hillel Frisch, a senior research associate at the BESA Center for Strategic Studies.
“It is not politically correct, but there has been increasing interest in national service,” he said, adding that a major reason it is not pushed is the financial drain it would have on the Israeli economy.
Frisch noted that the number of Israeli Arabs in the Israeli military increased from 600 in 2005 to 1,400 today.