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Tuesday, July 22, 2014

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Let’s hope the coalition succeeds, for Israel’s sake

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My mom tells me I should write more positively about Israel in this column, because there are too many people denigrating Israel incessantly. My usual response is that I’m not responsible for hasbarah (propaganda) and prefer to tell things as I see them from here in the Holy Land.

But I also want to make my mother happy (don’t we all), so this time I’ll try.

I had very low expectations going into January’s Knesset elections. Polls showed no real change in the offing and that we were heading for another four to five years of stagnation on issues of importance to many of us Israelis.

True, the outgoing government succeeded on some fronts. Working hand in hand with the Bank of Israel, the country weathered the global economic meltdown better than most western countries. It accelerated important national infrastructure projects – major highways and new railways. Cellphone rates dropped because communication minister Moshe Kahalon broke the industry cartel. And in the wake of nationwide protests during the summer of 2011, the government now subsidizes certain preschool tuitions, saving money for young families.

But Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s previous government didn’t deal with several issues that were the focus of popular discontent, most significantly the sentiment of many non-haredi citizens that they alone bear burdens central to the being of this country. Nothing irks these Israelis more than the thousands of exemptions from military service given annually to haredi young men.

He also didn’t do enough to advance dialogue between Israel and the Palestinians aimed at reaching a solution to the decades-long stalemate at the heart of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

While pre-election polls forecasted a slight drop in support for Netanyahu’s Likud-Beitenu, they generally predicted a larger plurality for the right, projecting an especially strong showing for the hawkish, Orthodox Bayit Yehudi (Jewish Home) party under the leadership of its young, charismatic leader, Naftali Bennett.

The election results were, therefore, a genuine surprise, particularly the showing of newcomer Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid (There is a Future) party, which won 19 seats and became the second-largest Knesset faction. It was supported by many disillusioned midstream voters looking for something different. Lapid put together an eclectic list of potential MKs from very divergent walks of Israeli life, many of whom came with impressive personal track records of their own.

But Yesh Atid wasn’t the only faction to bring hope for a different Knesset in the form of a cadre of young, motivated and talented individuals. All told, 48 of the 120 MKs are completely new. Yesh Atid’s rookie MK Ruth Calderon, a secular female Talmud scholar, made a maiden Knesset speech that was watched by tens of thousands on the Internet. It brought tears to my eyes with its promise of a better Israel, unlike the one many have become disheartened with.

Soon after the elections, President Shimon Peres tasked Netanyahu with forming a new government. He immediately began negotiations with the different factions, and it quickly became clear that Lapid and Bennett (whose Bayit Yehudi received 12 seats) had created an alliance without which no government could be formed. It also became clear they were changing the rules. They banded together to ensure a new government would actually deal with haredi army enlistment, keeping both haredi parties out of the coalition. And they united in demanding fewer ministers in the new government, in line with Lapid’s pledge during the election campaign.

When the proverbial white smoke finally came out of the negotiation room after six weeks of talks (on the same day actual white smoke emerged from the chimney of the Sistine Chapel announcing the selection of Pope Francis), Israel got a new, slimmed-down government and some genuine hope for a better future.

Critics and cynics abound. The new government is too right wing and won’t move peace talks with the Palestinians forward. It has too many inexperienced ministers, particularly with a huge budget cut on the books. Beyond the haredi enlistment plan, the Lapid-Bennett alliance won’t hold water.

Perhaps these detractors are right.  The new leader of the Opposition, Labor party head Shelly Yachimovich, and her own capable cadre of new Knesset members will try to prove that they are.

To paraphrase a saying my mom taught me: the proof of the pudding will be in the eating. Good luck to us all!  

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