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10 May 2012

10 May 2012

Another Political Earthquake

Naomi Chazan

This has been a particularly tumultuous week in Israel’s usually unpredictable politics. The last-minute deal between Prime Minister Netanyahu and Shaul Mofaz, newly elected leader of Kadima, to delay the elections and form a national unity government in order to promote “unity and stability” has resulted in the expansion of the coalition to 94 members, making this one of the largest governments in Israel’s history.

The overt agenda of the new coalition will focus on four main issues. The first is the budget, which will in all probability include significant cuts given current economic projections, and will significantly affect the hope for the realization of social justice initiatives stemming from last summer’s protests. Working closely with some of the leaders of that protest, who are transforming that movement into a more organized approach to significant change, we at NIF intend to keep a close eye on the budget process and continue to voice support for closing social and economic gaps.

The legislation of a new bill to replace the Tal Law, which deals with the contentious issue of conscription and/or civic service for the ultra-Orthodox (and potentially for Arabs) follows the High Court ruling which declared the current, inequitable, law unconstitutional. Currently most ultra-Orthodox men are exempted from military service, a situation that spurs much resentment among other Israelis and that also confines that sector to a self-imposed ghetto, without training for the workforce or interaction with other Israelis.

It is with outrage that we expect immediate efforts to defer or bypass the High Court ruling calling for the eviction of houses in the Ulpana neighborhood in the Beit El settlement. The High Court itself, now headed by a chief justice whom the right wing lobbied for appointment, has reacted strongly to the government’s attempts to evade its legal and moral responsibility to demolish houses built on private Palestinian land. The outcome of this case will have serious implications for the rule of law.

Finally, the new coalition promises to tackle governmental reform, which has yet to be defined, but will in all probability include measures to strengthen the government at the expense of the opposition, and raise the threshold of votes needed for parties to be seated in the Knesset.

It is still unclear what all this means for the situation with Iran and Israeli-Palestinian relations, but previous experience demonstrates that on matters of peace national unity governments are governments of national paralysis.

The implications of the new coalition for the continuing struggle between ultra-nationalists and democratic forces are unclear, but already it is possible to point out some possible effects. The stunning reduction in the size and maneuverability of the formal opposition by definition further weakens Israeli democracy. The main opposition parties are now led by women – Shelly Yachimovich of Labor and Zahava Gal-On of Meretz, and by Arab-Israelis. The opposition on the far right is in many senses not an opposition, as it has strong connections to the large pro-settler faction within the government. Sadly, we can expect the continuation of proposed anti-democratic legislation – and the new impetus to hold the large coalition together may make it easier for it to pass.

We at the New Israel Fund recognize a very salient fact. The shrunken political opposition means that now, more than ever, the fight for democracy, social justice and peace will move from the formal arena to that of civil society. This was apparent on the very night of the announcement of the dramatic move on Tuesday, when demonstrators took the streets under the slogan “we are all the opposition.” The shift in the axis of political confrontation from the government to the popular level – including to the hundreds of organizations and thousands of activists NIF supports -- is extremely significant.

At the end of the day, there is no assurance that the size of this government will ensure its durability until the scheduled national elections in the fall of 2013. Indeed, in the oral agreements reached between Prime Minister Netanyahu and Mofaz, they are already anticipating the withdrawal of at least one or two parties -- Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu’s party, or the religious Shas and/or United Torah parties.

Whether you follow our byzantine politics in Israel closely or not, we ask that you continue your support for our work in Israel, and for the values we share.

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Naomi Chazan

President

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$250 million to Israeli social change groups since 1979.