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Wednesday, March 4, 2015

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Netanyahu’s opportunity

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Eighteen months is a very short time in politics, particularly in Israel, but this is the window that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his new partners in the Kadima party, headed by former IDF general Shaul Mofaz, have to fix a wide range of problems.

In forging an alliance that includes 94 of the 120 members of the Knesset, they have prevented the political instability of early elections, but also created expectations that will be very difficult to meet.

For decades, Israeli politics has been largely frozen by a number of small parties that have exercised artificial power, resulting from the ability to bring down narrow coalitions. The immediate trigger that almost brought down the previous coalition was a court ruling that ended special exemptions from military service for the haredi sector. More broadly, basic changes in the relations between this narrow group and the wider population, the unjustified economic subsidies it receives, and the exaggerated political role of its rabbinical leadership are long overdue.

At the same time, the wider deficiencies in the electoral system that produced gridlock in many others critical issues will have to be addressed. Although Israel became a sovereign nation in 1948, the political process remained unchanged from the eastern European model used in the Zionist movement before independence. That system gives even tiny fringe parties a loud voice and leads to weak governments and frequent elections.

By raising the threshold for small parties and removing their veto power, as well as strengthening the position of the prime minister, the gridlock can be broken. To do this, a “super-majority” in the Knesset is required, and now, Israel finally has the right conditions to make these changes.

Wider economic reform is another immediate issue, particularly the need to reverse the growing divide between Israel’s richest one per cent and the young and underpaid general population. The Jewish principles of social justice had become empty slogans, and last summer’s student-led protests rightfully demanded affordable housing, improvements in public transportation and the break-up of monopolies.

On the complex issues of borders, settlements and negotiations with the Palestinians, the new government can belatedly confront the violent fringe that has sought to impose its views. The pragmatic consensus that recognizes the dangers to Israel of perpetuating the current chaos indefinitely can reassert its voice.

This doesn’t mean a return to the vulnerability of the 1949 ceasefire lines or destruction of communities built in good faith across that “green line.” But if Israelis see a basis for stable agreement, including an end to invented Palestinian histories and efforts to flood Israel with millions of third-generation refugees, the majority will accept the costs. And if such negotiations reach another dead end, a broad-based Israeli government can move toward implementing the consensus approach to borders and leave the Palestinians to decide how to govern themselves.

A broad unity government anchored by Likud and Kadima – the two largest Israeli parties – will also have the legitimacy and stability to deal carefully and seriously with the wider regional challenges. If Iran continues to move toward nuclear weapons, all options are still on the table, and do not need to be spelled out again. The presence of three former IDF chiefs of staff in this government is, in itself, a form of deterrence.

In addition, given the unprecedented and unpredictable change in Egypt and Syria, Israel presents an image of stability and strength. New Egyptian leaders who might seek to divert public attention from economic and other issues by renouncing the peace treaty with Israel may now have second thoughts regarding the potential response.

This agenda is daunting, and if the grand coalition fails to bring change, Likud and Kadima will pay the price. At the same time, Netanyahu’s skill should not be underestimated, as is usually the case. The fact that this political move took Israeli pundits by surprise demonstrates the degree to which he is viewed through a hostile and distorted lens. Many journalists are blind to the caution and deliberation with which Netanyahu has led Israel’s fragile government in the past three years. Now, he has the opportunity to prove them all wrong.

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