BY MICHAEL JOHNSON, inCONTEXT—
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party announced a new coalition with the secular Yesh Atid party, the far-right Jewish Home party, and the centrist Hatnua. Just two days before the March 16th deadline to form a new government, Israel’s new coalition will control 68 of the Knesset’s 120 seats. Yesh Atid, which won the second highest vote total, will lead the Finance and Education Ministries, controlling funding to ultra-orthodox schools and institutions. Jewish Home will lead the Economy and Trade Ministry with Likud retaining the Foreign and Defense Ministries.
For the first time in almost thirty years ultra-Orthodox parties, such as Shas and United Torah Judaism, were left out of the coalition. The exclusion amounts to “the boycott of an entire population,” said Moshe Gafni of the United Torah Judaism. Many of the smaller ultra-Orthodox parties have played “kingmaker” in recent governments, and Netanyahu’s previous right-of-center coalition achieved a governing majority with their help. Israel’s left-leaning Labor Party will also sit on the opposition benches.
The makeup of coalition suggests that Netanyahu will be focused more heavily on domestic social and economic issues than was previously the case. Many in the new coalition, including Yesh Atid and Jewish Home, oppose exempting tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews from conscription and giving income subsidies to Orthodox students for full-time religious study. Some modern Orthodox Jews and secular Israelis felt strong resentment over the programs. Other domestic issues of importance to Israeli voters included income inequality and the high cost of housing, on which a broad Knesset consensus exists.
The coalition may be weaker when making decisions on international issues, most particularly talks with the Palestinians. The new housing minister, Uri Ariel, headed the settler’s “Yesha” council for 10 years, advocating for the expansion of Jewish Communities in the West Bank. Tzipi Livni, leader of the Hatnua party, will lead the government’s peace process efforts and is strongly opposed to new settlements. Netanyahu also picked former IDF Chief of Staff Moshe Ya’alon to replace Ehud Barak as Minister of Defense. Ya’alon, presently Minister for Strategic Security, has said Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, “does not believe in an agreement based on pre-1967 lines…” and is not yet “seriously committed” to peace with Israel.
President Obama will arrive in Israel just as the new government is sworn in; how ready to break new ground it will be remains to be seen.