Wednesday, January 27, 2021


Vic Rosenthal's weekly column

The challenges facing the state today are enormous. Although the vaccination project has been a success, the more-contagious mutations are spreading among groups that haven’t been vaccinated, and there are worries that new strains for which the vaccines aren’t as effective may develop. The health-care system is past peak capacity now. The economic impact on some segments of the population has been exceedingly painful already, and the costs for the vaccines and lost productivity will ultimately be felt throughout the economy.

At the same time, the IDF is asking for more money, in part to prepare for the possibility that it will be necessary to neutralize the Iranian nuclear capability by military means. That also would involve conflict with Hezbollah and Iranian militias in Syria and possibly Iraq, as well as involvement from Hamas. There still is no 2021 budget, and since the Knesset has been dissolved in preparation for the fourth election in two years, there is no possibility of passing one until there is a new government. The election is scheduled for 23 March, and then there is the interminable process of forming a coalition after that – assuming that a coalition can be formed.

The “unity” government that has just fallen apart was very expensive, since it was put together by bribing various politicians to join it with ministerial portfolios; since there weren’t enough to go around, a bunch of new ministries were created, for a total of 35. In addition, it was ineffectual: since the main partners were PM Binyamin Netanyahu’s bloc and a bloc made up of anti-Netanyahu politicians (with no other ideology besides a desire to depose him), they were permanently at each other’s throats.

In recent years Netanyahu has become obsessed with protecting himself from the corruption indictments against him. As a result, he has been unable to stand up to the Haredi parties that hold up his coalition. Their constituents seem to believe that they are Rabbi Akiva and the government which is trying to enforce the rules to contain the epidemic is the Roman Empire. Their acting as an autonomous group within the state has always been a problem, but with the advent of Covid it has become much more serious. Recently they have engaged in violent riots against the police.

Bibi has always insisted on managing everything himself. Ministers often find that their authority is very limited, limited to precisely what Bibi wants them to do. Their individual initiatives are stymied, something very frustrating to people like Naftali Bennett, who have ideas and energy but are kept on a tight leash. Bibi is tremendously competent and able to do many things at once, but this sometimes results in particular areas being neglected. And lately this problem, too, has become more serious.

Everything the government has done to control the epidemic except for the vaccination program has been poorly planned, poorly timed, and poorly executed. I judge that this is because the PM wants to control everything, but lacks the power – and perhaps also the focus – to exert that control.

Finally, the temporary vacation from American pressure that Israel enjoyed under the Trump Administration has come to an end. Biden’s promise to return to the Iran deal means that sanctions on Iran will be removed and (almost certainly) limitations will be placed on Israel’s freedom to act against Iranian bases in Syria and the transfer of weapons to Hezbollah. Israeli officials believe this makes conflict with Iran much more likely.

In the Palestinian arena, too, Biden and his Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken, have reiterated their belief in the necessity of a sovereign Palestinian state in Judea and Samaria. They have said that they will restart payments to UNRWA, the Palestinian refugee agency that exists to nurture the growth of a population of stateless refugee descendants – now more than 5 million – that is a hothouse of terrorism, and which the Palestinians and their supporters demand be allowed to live in Israel. Biden also intends to reopen the PLO mission in Washington.

The administration hasn’t done much that affects Israel yet, and I would like to be optimistic about the future. But some of his appointments are troubling. For example, his new Senior Director for Intelligence Programs at the NSC, is former Obama Administration staffer Maher Bitar, a Palestinian activist who worked for UNRWA and supports BDS. Bitar will “coordinate intelligence between the White House and the intelligence community, receiving material from intelligence agencies, informing the intelligence community of White House policy, and deciding who gets access to secret information.”

All this requires a government that can pay attention to multiple issues at the same time, a coalition that can work together, and a PM that is not on trial for corruption.
How can we get one? The last three elections have been almost deadlocked. Twice no governing coalition could be formed, and the last election produced the Frankensteinian “unity” government that was almost worse than no government at all (I have discussed the technical issues in our electoral system here).

Based on recent polls, if we leave out the non-Zionist Arab parties, who will neither be invited into a coalition nor wish to be, and the Haredi parties, then neither the right- nor the left-wing blocs will be able to form a government. The Right, which has a majority of the Jewish vote, is split between pro- and anti-Netanyahu factions. With the Haredi parties, Netanyahu is very close to 61 seats – precisely the situation we were in the last time. But if he succeeds, the government will be weak, dependent on the Haredim, and will continue to be a one-man show. The Left has no chance, even with the support of the Arab parties from outside the coalition. Of course there are all kinds of imaginative solutions involving partners that would normally not be together that I haven’t mentioned. But they are unlikely.

I would like to see a fundamental restructuring of our system, but that is not going to happen under a caretaker government in the next two months. But there is one thing that could radically change the picture, and it is something that should happen in any event:

Binyamin Netanyahu should voluntarily step down as head of the Likud. This could unify the Right, and enable a solid majority right-wing coalition – without the Haredi parties, whose ability to bring down the government at will has made it possible for the Haredim to act like a state within a state.

This does not solve all of our problems. It doesn’t fix the imbalance of power between the legal establishment and the elected Knesset, for example. But it does at least make it possible to have a reasonably lean government with a unified ideological perspective that will be able to act on the problems at hand.

Since I’m dreaming, there is one other thing I would like: as part of the deal, all charges against Netanyahu – some of which are legitimate, and some fraudulent – should be dropped, in view of his service to the state.

There are only a few weeks to go before the election. Can our politicians, starting with Bibi, put aside their plans for personal glory and their thoughts of revenge, and agree to do the right thing for the Jewish state? I’m hoping they can.


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