By the time this issue of HaModia reaches our readers the votes will have been tallied in the recently concluded Israeli elections. Those tabulations, however, will not by themselves determine the ``results" of the election. Those will be determined by the coalition discussions, which begin in earnest only after the votes have been counted.
The morning after the elections, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon will find himself confronting a choice between forming a coalition of Likud’s traditional right-wing and religious partners or a secular coalition of Likud, Shinui, and Labor. Neither choice is without its drawbacks from Sharon’s point of view. Coalition negotiations are likely to be difficult, far more difficult than they would have been a month ago, prior to the Likud corruption scandals, when the party was projected to win as many as 40 seats.
The campaign has revealed the potence of the issues raised by Tommy Lapid’s Shinui Party – the draft deferment for yeshiva students and low rate of participation in the work force of the chareidi community – and the temptation to form a grand ``secular" coalition of Likud, Labor, and Shinui cannot be dismissed out of hand. If such a coalition is formed, Israel will have its first governing coalition without any religious representation.
Sharon has directed as much of his campaign against the hard Right as against Labor. Those parties do not accept, as Sharon says he does, the inevitability of a Palestinian state, and will fight any diplomatic compromises into which Sharon is forced tooth and nail. Sharon has not forgotten that Avigdor Lieberman’s National Unity Party deserted his last government forcing new elections or the historic penchant of the hard Right for bringing down Likud-led governments.
Nor has the Prime Minister forgotten the perpetually difficult budget negotiations with the chareidi parties or the confrontation with Shas in the last government. From his point of view, a disciplined, unified party like Shinui, with no budgetary demands, may appear a lot easier to live with than a cluster of smaller religious and right-wing parties, each with its own economic demands.
The big stick in the wheel as far as the so-called ``secular" option goes is that Labor Party leader Amram Mitzna has already announced that he will not serve in any national unity government with the Likud. If Mitzna sticks to that promise, Sharon will not be able to form a government without one or two religious parties. Shinui leader Tommy Lapid has already ruled out sitting with any chareidi party, and will not renege on a promise that is the source of much of his current popularity.
That would seem then to rule out Shinui’s sitting around the cabinet table, unless Likud does much better than currently predicted or the National Religious Party is persuaded to join a coalition with Shinui but without the chareidi parties. The latter option, however, is highly unlikely. Though many in the national religious camp share Lapid’s critique of chareidi society, his agenda of separating state and religion is anathema to the NRP, which views the state of Israel as the beginning of the process of Redemption.
While Shinui’s promise not to sit with any chareidi party can be taken at face value, Labor’s commitment not to join in any Likud-led government is not so ironclad. Labor leader Amram Mitzna fears with good reason that further participation in a Likud government will deprive Labor of any remaining identity and make it virtually impossible to rebuild the party in the wake of Tuesday’s projected debacle. He would rather be the opposition leader than submerged in a government to whose policies he is unalterably opposed.
If, however, Labor suffers a humiliation on the scale currently projected – i.e., less than 20 seats in the Knesset – Mitzna’s days as party leader may well be numbered. The daggers of other contenders for the position have already been drawn and brandished even before the end of the campaign, and all those wielding the daggers have already indicated that they will have much more to say the day after the elections.
Many senior Labor officials who held cabinet positions in the last government, and whose positions on security issues are as close to Sharon’s as to Mitzna’s, are eager to return to cabinet. They joined in Mitzna’s press conference announcing that Labor would not join any coalition with Likud, with their fingers crossed behind their backs. A cartoon in Maariv shows Mitzna’s anouncement that Labor will not go (literally, walk) into a national unity government. Mitzna then turns to Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, whom he ousted as party chairman and who served as Defense Minister in the previous unity government, and asks, ``Isn’t that right, Fuad?" Ben-Eliezer replies, ``Right." In the last box, a deadpan Fuad adds, ``We won’t walk; we’ll crawl." (On the eve of elections, however, Ben-Eliezer is carefully toeing the party line that Labor will remain in the opposition.)
Another possibility would be for Sharon to propose a short-term secular coalition around a handful of popular issues. Among those issues would be electoral reform, including raising the threshold for small parties reaching the Knesset to 5%, a move that would threaten the existence of United Torah Judaism in its current form. Another would be drafting a constitution, a step that would inevitably result in more power devolving to the Israeli Supreme Court than it already possesses. Other moves that would be wildly popular with the secular population would be those directed at the chareidi population – e.g., drafting yeshiva students, conditioning government funding of Chareidi education on Chareidi acceptance of a curriculum with substantial secular studies – and those aimed at the religious status quo, such as civil marriage and public transportation on Shabbat.
The likelihood, however, is that Sharon will not propose such a short-term coalition. The risks of such a coalition for Likud, which has a large percentage of religious supporters, are far greater than for Labor or Shinui, which have very few. Even though Sharon and Likud are eager to free themselves from the embrace of the chareidi parties, at the same time, they do not wish to burn all the bridges to their traditional allies.
Even if a secular coalition including Shinui does not materialize, as now seems likely, Shinui’s impact will continue to be felt. The party’s meteoric rise indicates the popularity of its agenda, and other political parties, including the Likud, will attempt to appropriate parts of that agenda.
In addition, a large Shinui bloc gives Prime Minister Sharon much more leverage in his negotiations with the chareidi parties. In the confrontation with Shas over the budget, in the previous government, Sharon did not blink. His popularity never soared higher than when he stared down Shas. With Shinui always lurking in the wings as a potential replacement for the chareidi parties, Sharon’s position in such budgetary confrontations is greatly strengthened.
The dismal state of the Israeli economy itself virtually assures that there will be some movement in the direction of Shinui’s calls for ``drying out" the chareidi community by cutting social support payments and support for chareidi institutions. Virtually all experts agree that the recently passed budget will have to be cut by billions of shekels more, and those cuts will fall heavily on the chareidi community.
So even with the best possible result from the coalition negotiations now under way, we are far from having heard the last of Shinui.