It’s not Israel’s biggest coalition, and it will get smaller if PM pushes for mandatory national service (TIMES OF ISRAEL) By RAPHAEL AHREN 05/09/12)
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After Benjamin Netanyahu’s surprise deal with Shaul Mofaz to build a
national unity government, voices expressing concern over the state
of Israeli democracy grew louder. Critics from the political left and
center, and even from within the leading party’s own ranks, felt that
too much power in the hands of the prime minister might not be a good
“The last person who had such a coalition was Nicolae Ceausescu in
Romania,” said political newcomer Yair Lapid. Even the Likud’s own
Reuven Rivlin, the Knesset Speaker, is concerned that with 94 out of
120 MKs, the government is so vast as to leave behind a hopelessly
marginalized opposition. “The new political reality creates complex
parliamentary problems that relate to the relationship between the
coalition and the opposition,” he said.
Several academics and other analysts, however, believe these fears
may be unfounded. A large majority by no means guarantees plain
sailing for the prime minister or the leading party. In fact, many of
them say, it seems highly unlikely that this huge coalition will stay
alive in its current form for very long.
First of all, they note, Netanyahu’s claim that the new coalition is
the largest in Israeli history is inaccurate. Israel’s 21st
government, formed in 1984 after a rotation deal by Shimon Peres and
Yitzhak Shamir, included left and right parties and was backed by a
whopping 97 MKs. That’s three more than the current one. During the
Six Day War, when two opposition parties joined Levi Eshkol’s unity
government, the coalition boasted 111 MKs.
The idea that a large coalition is a danger to democracy is “utter
nonsense,” said political scientist Jonathan Rynhold, of Bar-Ilan
University. “It’s a big red herring. You have other parliamentary
democracies in the world that give governments large majorities. In
Great Britain, for example, until the most recent election there was
always one party that had an absolute majority. From the end of World
War II until the current coalition government, there was always one
party with one agenda and with much fewer divisions that had large
In Israel, on the other hand, there are multi-party coalitions. “That
means that politics will take place within the coalition. There are
checks and balances within the government,” Rynhold said. “As soon as
there are controversial issues, there will be discussions within the
Large parliamentary majorities also exist in other democracies with
multiparty systems. When Angela Merkel’s center-right party in 2005
built a grand coalition with its center-left rival, for example, they
together held 73% of the Bundestag’s seats, just five percent less
than Israel’s new unity government. Germany’s grand coalition had its
critics, naturally, but nobody decried the decline of the country’s
According to the Hebrew University’s Abraham Diskin, a specialist on
coalition theories and democratic stability, broad coalitions are
anything but a guarantor for a government’s stability or
cohesiveness. “Large coalitions are problematic. If you look at
Israeli history you will find that three out of five national unity
governments didn’t conclude their term.”
In his 1976 work “Coalitions in Parliamentary Government,” Florida
University political scientist Lawrence C. Dodd looked into various
multiparty systems and found out that smaller coalitions are more
stable than larger ones, Diskin said.
“Everything has pluses and minuses. When Israel had narrow
coalitions, people said it’s a dictatorship,” he added.
“Regardless of what Rivlin and other people said after thinking about
the issue for two seconds, history and scientific studies show that
large coalitions do not mean less democracy. It’s not a one-man show,
it’s not even a one-party show,” Diskin said.
Political analysts also predict that Israel’s current coalition will
not be as stable as the prime minister hailed it to be.
“As soon as Netanyahu tries to do something drastic, he will face
internal opposition,” Rynhold said.
And since the various parties know elections are coming up next year,
they will be reluctant to compromise on issues dear to their
A case in point is the planned substitute for the Tal Law, which
allowed yeshiva students to defer military service but was declared
unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. Part of the new coalition
agreement stipulates that Kadima will legislate a replacement for the
Tal Law that would redistribute the national burden in a fairer way.
So far, so vague. What that law will look like will be the subject of
While Kadima will draft the legislation, it is widely expected that
other parties in the government will want to have their say, too.
Yisrael Beytenu chair (and foreign minister) Avigdor Liberman already
said Wednesday that the bills he had seen so far were “unacceptable.”
The ultra-Orthodox parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism, assert
that they want to stay in the coalition. But if the government seeks
to pass a law that will effectively end draft exemption for those who
prefer to study Torah, they will surely bolt.
Equally, were Netanyahu to mollify Shas — which he might need for a
coalition in 2013 — and insist on a loophole allowing Haredim to
continue studying, Yisrael Beytenu might leave the coalition in
Current drafts of Tal Law substitutes would force all citizens to do
some kind of national service, but include a clause that allows for
1,000 gifted students to stay in their yeshivot. One way the
government could sweeten the pill for the ultra-Orthodox is by
turning the table — asking for a minimum of Haredi youths to serve
and letting the rest study, as opposed to the other way around.
This week’s creation of a broad coalition allows Netanyahu more
flexibility to get things done, as he is no longer dependent on the
ultra-Orthodox votes. He has a unique chance to impose a fairer
solution for sharing the burden of national service. But if he
chooses to do so, it will almost certainly be at the price of some
coalition departures and some severed political ties.
Regardless of what the government’s bill will look like in the end,
it’s clear that one of the sides will be disappointed. Netanyahu’s
government will survive without Liberman or the Haredim, which puts
Netanyahu, rarely for an Israeli prime minister, in a position to
push through a law on mandatory service through the Knesset.
Most of the Israeli public, to judge by Wednesday’s polls, believes
he won’t do anything of the sort — that the promises of reform “in
the national interest” of the Tal Law, and of the electoral system
for that matter, are empty.
The new alliance with Kadima means Netanyahu has the capacity to
prove the public wrong. He just won’t be able to do so as the head of
a 94-strong coalition. (© 2012 THE TIMES OF ISRAEL 05/09/12)
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