Monday, March 18, 2013

The New Israeli Government and Obama Ba! (Obama comes!)

It is an exciting week with the new Knesset being sworn in and Obama coming for his first presidential visit to Israel.

If you are already in the loop on the ins and outs of the new government, pardon all the details.

From the start, many anticipated that Likud-Beiteinu, Netanyahu's party, would partner with Yesh Atid, Yair Lapid's party, and Habayit Hayehudi, Naftali Bennett's party. Yesh Atid is in the left-center and Habayit Hayehudi claims it is solidly on the right. They heavily disagree when it comes to issues of settlements and the peace process. Yesh Atid actually didn't focus on these issues too much on the election, but Bennett is the one who said that he fully supports the creation of a Palestinian State, just not in the middle of the Jewish one. Yet, they agree about the economy and reforming the government. Bennett and Lapid's biggest similarity, however, is that they both believe it is time to end the Ultra-Orthodox stronghold on all issues of religion, that some of the wealth that has thus far been directed solely to Ultra-Orthodox schools and institutions be shared and that the Ultra-Orthodox must be obligated to national military service. This last similarity was enough for them to tell Netanyahu that they would only join the government together. And, together, they have 30 seats.

But, the partnership potential looked a little shaky for a while. Israeli media reported that Lapid had some outrageous demands, in particular that Yesh Atid get the Ministry of the Interior and Education and that the number of ministers shrink from 30 to 18. In addition, he refused to be in a government with any Ultra-Orthodox parties; a significant demand as Shas, and Ultra-Orthodox party, had been a part of Netanyahu's last coalition. Those issues lead Netanyahu to try to form a majority with some of the Ultra-Orthodox parties.

And then, almost as an aside, the first deal was struck between Likud-Beiteinu and Tzipi Livni's party, Hatnua. She wound up with two departments, Justice and the Environment, the latter of which is most fitting as she ran as the "green party." Following that announcement, there were reports that Shas was to join Netanyahu's government any day.

Then, late last week, it was announced that the government had been formed with Likud-Beiteinu, Yesh Atid, Habayit Hayehudi and Hatnua (68 seats). After going back and forth, both Netanyahu and Lapid compromised on a number of things and the coalition was formed. Yesh Atid got the Ministries of Finance and Education among others. A key assignment for Lapid's party was the Ministry of Education which controls the money that goes to all educational institutions, including the Ultra-Orthodox ones. They did not get the Ministry of the Interior and the government did not shrink to 18 ministers as Lapid wanted, but, apparently it was enough. In addition, Lapid got a majority with no Ultra-Orthodox party, and the agreement states that new legislation on enlistment of Haredim will come before the Knesset within 45 days.

The biggest victor in all this, however, may well be Habayit Hayehudi and Naftali Bennett, who somehow made himself indispensable to both Netanyahu and Lapid. Bennett is credited with being the bridge between the two. It was reported in the papers that he told Lapid that if he didn't take this deal, he would go into negotiations with Netanyahu and the Ultra-Orthodox parties. The same sources said that he told Netanyahu that if Netanyahu didn't agree to this, Bennett would maintain his agreement with Lapid and stay out of Netanyahu's government.

Habayit Hayehudi will head five ministries: Economy and Trade, Diaspora and Jerusalem, Religious Affairs, Housing, and Pension Affairs. As head of Religious Affairs, they could bring about reform to laws of conversion and could create civil marriages, which would take control from the Ultra-Orthodox. As head of the Housing Ministry, Bennett's party oversees construction of new settlements and, as you can read in Habayit Hayehudi's platform, they wish to make settling in the entire current State of Israel a national priority.

That Naftali Bennett is quite a politician.

As you can imagine, the Ultra-Orthodox parties are not happy. Shas in particular is furious. The media reports that they now vow to form a solid bond with Labor as a part of the opposition to bring this new government down.

Yet in many other parts of Israeli society, there is definitely a sense of excitement that there is a real possibility for change. If nothing else, not having a single Ultra-Orthodox party in the coalition will seriously alter the conversations. And for us, that has the potential to change the status of all non-Orthodox religious movements in Israel, which is, of course, a very big deal.

For those of us on the outside, it feels like the topic of peace should be the most crucial issue facing Israel. Yet, for Israelis, their biggest concerns are those of their daily lives, just like other "normal" countries. To help understand that, Anat Wilf, a former member of Parliment, stated that the real issue with the peace process is not identifying the borders, but the fact that there is no one on the other side who is really willing to negotiate any kind of peace. When that opportunity comes, she said, it doesn't matter who is in power, they will take the opportunity to make peace. Left, right or center, Israel will make peace when peace is an actual option. However, that opportunity has not come. Thus, the government will focus on its internal issues to better the lives and affairs of its people. 

All this happens just days before President Obama arrives in Israel. Jerusalem is covered in American, Israeli and Jerusalem flags. The official logo of the visit "Unbreakable Alliance, Obama in Israel 2013" is displayed on posters throughout the city. Whole sections of the city will shut down for security purposes. Different organizations have all kinds of activities planned, some about the relationship between the countries and others just for entertainment. It is similar to a holiday celebration. Being here, you know how important the United States is to Israelis. It feels like the king is coming to visit our small village.

I must say that I have never been so excited for the President to visit the city where I live. I never once considered standing in line for hours just to get a glimpse of him when he has visited the Bay Area in the past. However, here, we are watching his schedule closely and hope to be a part of the excitement. He will visit the residences of both President Shimon Peres and Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday the 20th, and both of those locations are within a ten minute walk from where we live. So, if you happen to be looking for us on that day, we will be walking the streets of Jerusalem waving our American and Israeli flags with pride.

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