Detroiters speculate on course of “shocking” new unity government.

Benjamin Netanyahu and Shaul Mofaz

On Tuesday, May 8, the people of Israel woke up to “one huge political shock,” said Kobi Erez, a native Israeli who heads the West Bloomfield-based Zionist Organization of America-Michigan Region.

The centrist Kadima leader Shaul Mofaz and the conservative Likud Prime Minister Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu — once bitter rivals — decided to join together, forming one of the largest government coalitions in the nation’s history. The new coalition now controls 94 votes in the 120-member Knesset (a 78 percent majority).

The new unity government has postponed by more than a year new elections, scheduled two weeks ago by Netanyahu for Sept. 4.

“I was surprised, as were most people who follow Israeli politics, to see a swift change, literally from one day to the next, canceling early elections with the formation of a new ruling coalition,” said Allan Gale, associate director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Metropolitan Detroit.

Allan Gale

“Israel’s democracy is strong, resilient, vibrant and amazing. But its parliamentary system is quite different from that of the U.S.,” he added.

Israeli-born businessman Hannan Lis, COO of the WW Group Inc. in Farmington Hills, had a favorable reaction.

“I am not a Likud supporter, but I think this development is an indication that Bibi has indeed come a long way as a politician,” he said.

“This was a savvy move by Bibi and Mofaz, which may actually be in Israel’s best interest. An early election at this time would have created unnecessary distraction.”

In announcing the new coalition, Netanyahu stated four goals for his realigned, dominant government:

1. To bring a just and egalitarian alternative to the Tal Law [which provides military exemptions for the ultra-Orthodox],

2. To plan a responsible budget,

3. To try to promote a responsible peace process where security is maintained. [Renewed attempts to restart talks with the Palestinians and, perhaps, a unified stand against Iran],

4. To change the governmental system.

Jeremy Salinger

Jeremy Salinger, a past president of Oak Park-based Ameinu Detroit (formerly Labor Zionist Alliance), said, “What I care about is whether the new government will be more centrist, which would be more consistent with the consensus of the Israeli electorate.

“I hope that the large majority that the Likud-Kadima coalition has will allow them to take some bold steps to address the challenges Israel faces, both domestically and internationally. I think the change will bolster the influence of the more centrist elements in the Likud party and reverse the recent trend toward ethnocentrism and theocracy.

“I’m pleased with what they say are their priorities,” Salinger said. “I’m hopeful the goals they expressed will lead to several positive changes.”

Universal Service
“Simply put, many Israelis take issue with the fact that most of the ultra-Orthodox [haredi] community do not serve in the Israeli Defense Forces — and are calling for a change to the status quo,” ZOA’s Erez said.

Kobi Erez

Lis thinks the new coalition creates an opportunity to resolve this “important issue” for everyone.

“Just being able to create a credible and effective law to better integrate the haredi community and the Israeli Arab community into the mainstream of Israeli society through participation in the burden of military/national service would be a great step forward.”

Erez suggested a possible path.

“As opposed to those who suggest integration of the ultra-Orthodox into the army by force (i.e., jail or financial sanctions for those who refuse), Netanyahu and Mofaz seem to understand that the best way to integrate this community is through cooperation and communication between the two sides, not by splitting an already divided nation with fear and intimidation tactics.

“It seems that the ultra-Orthodox political coalitions have a similar impression of the new team as they expressed their approval of the addition of Kadima to the coalition.”

Economic Recovery
Regarding Israel’s budget, Gale referenced the economic inequities affecting the middle and lower classes that led to “tent-city” demonstrations last year.

“A new generation of young people with serious concerns about their future is to be reckoned with,” he said.

Said Erez, “The [opposition] Labor Party has proposed a national budget that would promote a socialized market with an increase in the amount of government employees and spending. Socializing the market without proper balance will raise the national deficit and limit competition, which will reduce economic growth. A strictly social budget in Israel would create a similar economic atmosphere to failing markets in Europe such as Greece and Spain.

“As part of its deal in joining Likud, Kadima had to agree to support responsible budgets that promote free market values, a viewpoint that has been adopted in Israel over the last decade and has made it more resilient to world recession and unstable markets.”

War And Peace

Rabbi Herschel Finman

Rabbi Herschel Finman, who hosts the The Jewish Hour from 11-noon Sundays on WLQV 1500-AM radio, said that whatever efforts are made in the peace process with the Palestinians — the security of Israel must not be compromised.

“The Torah perspective is very clear,” he said. “Under no circumstances can any process be evoked that will endanger Jewish lives. The Palestinians have never recognized Israel’s right to exist. They have never stopped their propaganda of incitement.

“Netanyahu proclaimed that if you take all the guns away from the Arabs, nothing will happen. If you take guns away from the Israelis — there will be no Israel.”

Finman sees the security issue as compelling — all others issues being “matters of Israel’s internal affairs.”

Lis sees a new opportunity for peace talks.

“The broader coalition may provide Bibi with the support he needs to move forward with effective negotiations with the Palestinians,” he said. “I think Bibi will be smart to use the broad coalition to take the initiative on the diplomatic front.”

Hannan Lis

Erez did not agree.

“In my opinion, the joining of Kadima and Likud will not change the status of negotiations with the Palestinians,” he said. “The fact that Palestinians refuse to acknowledge Israel as a Jewish state, refuse to give up the right of return and continue to commit acts of terror has not changed.

“This new unity between the parties might promote some talks between the Israelis and the Palestinians, but soon enough they will come to a dead end again,” he said.

Salinger thought there were possibilities for an agreement that provides security for Israel and the Palestinians with a viable state. “Many times, Bibi has said that Israel is ready to make hard decisions to achieve a lasting resolution to the conflict with the Palestinians,” he said.

“I also have read reports that Shaul Mofaz made some bold proposals. In the past, Bibi’s excuse has been that his government was too fragile for bold moves. Now that that excuse is gone, we’ll see what happens.”

Gale considered the nuclear threat from Iran.

“Will the new government be able to unify the country and the political establishment on what actions are necessary to take?” he asked. Some commentators have speculated that the unity government makes the possibility of a preemptive attack on Iran more likely. In either case, if Israel chooses to strike Iran or rely on U.S.-led diplomacy, there will be a political consensus.

“With Iran and the global economy still a major concern,” said Lis, “having a broad coalition with a strong centrist element will allow for better decision-making that is more fact/issue based rather then an outcome of coalition political gamesmanship.

“For Bibi, having Mofaz representing the center of Israeli politics may be just what he needs at this point. This may be one of these rare occasions when political interests fit well within the overall national interests. Time will tell.”

Revamped Government
The two leaders also may try to institute changes in the Israeli political system to limit the power of small parties, which in the past have extracted political and budgetary concessions to help form majority governments in the Knesset.

“Netanyahu and Mofaz understand the advantages of them working together, forming a coalition with a majority of secular parties with a concurrent reduction in the influence of smaller parties,” said Gale.

“They also understand that politics are changing in Israel. Personalities and media images are important. So are new vehicles for communicating messages. And a new generation of young people with serious concerns about their future is to be reckoned with.”

Salinger said he would like to see more emphasis on accepting the diversity that exists in the country, leading to better legislation to ensure civil rights, social justice and economic reform. He added that he would like to see more acceptance of the rule of law, reducing corruption and halting attempts to ignore or bypass the rulings of the Israeli Supreme Court.

The first test for the new coalition will be the West Bank Jewish settlement at Beit El, which the Supreme Court ordered destroyed as illegal, said Erez.

“Whether Bibi will side with the political right and legalize the settlement, or with Kadima, who has stated that the government should not create laws to counter Supreme Court rulings, is yet to be determined.

“If the new coalition can reach an agreement on this issue without splitting up,” he said, “it is likely the government will complete its term as a whole which, truth be told, is a rather rare occurrence in Israel.”

By David Sachs, Senior Copy Editor

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