More than a month a half after it held its election, Israel is still without a new government. On March 2, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was given an additional 14 days to form a government by President Shimon Peres after failing to do so within the initial 28 period. Netanyahu’s Likud-Beitenu party won the largest share of the vote giving it 31 seats in the Knesset, with surprise package Yesh Atid winning 19, Labor 15, and Jewish Home (Bayit Yehudi) gaining 12. Former foreign minister, Tzipi Livni’s faction “The Movement” has already pledged its six seats to Netanyahu, but negotiations are still continuing with Yesh Atid and Jewish Home, which both experienced a surge in popularity. Both parties have pledged to end a “system in which the ultra-Orthodox have used political clout to win generous government subsidies, evade compulsory military service and attempt to impose their conservative social mores.”
The potential exclusion of the ultra-Orthodox parties from the new government could have a significant impact on the political landscape in Israel, stripping them of much of the disproportionate influence they have wielded for several decades as kingmakers in Israeli politics. But while things may be set to change within Israel, don’t hold out hope that the removal of the ultra-Orthodox parties from power will increase prospects for peace between Israel and Palestine.
Together the ultra-Orthodox parties won 18 seats, with Shas winning 11 and United Torah Judaism winning seven. While this represents a significant portion of the vote, it is far below the combined 31 seats won by the centrist Yesh Atid and the right-wing Jewish Home, who have made a pact that they will only join the government together. As Ryan Jones notes in Israel Today, although Netanyahu would prefer to go into government with the ultra-Orthodox parties — given that they tend “to simply go along with any and all policies so long as tax revenues flow to” their own causes — the alliance between Yesh Atid and Jewish Home is forcing his hand.
The ultra-Orthodox make up about only 10% of Israel’s population of 8 million. The influence of their political parties has been used to “secure vast budgets for their religious schools and seminaries that teach students about Judaism but very little math, English or science. Tens of thousands of young ultra-Orthodox males are granted exemptions from military service in order to pursue their religious studies, and older men collect welfare stipends while continuing to study full time.” All of which has led to widespread, growing resentment among the secular and modern Orthodox Israeli public, which does not enjoy the same privileges.
Despite their differences, which are substantial, Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett, the leaders of Yesh Atid and Jewish Home respectively, are united in their desire to end the system of influence of the ultra-Orthodox parties. To this end they have forced Netanyahu to promise that neither Shas nor United Torah Judaism will be part of the new coalition. Understandably the ultra-Orthodox parties have not reacted well to the prospect of being on the outside, with Shas MK Nissim Zeev claiming, “They have boycotted us, this is lawlessness, this is a coalition of hatred for the ultra-Orthodox.”
A more secular government without the influence of the ultra-Orthodox parties would certainly represent a significant shift in Israeli politics, one welcomed by many Israeli’s. But this development would have little positive influence on the Israel-Palestine conflict. Although they tended to simply go along with government policy on this issue when in power and opposed any freeze to Israeli settlements in the Occupied Territories, the main focus of the ultra-Orthodox parties was on domestic policies and their own constituency.
Furthermore, the main constituency of Jewish Home is the settlers, and as Gideon Levy argues, they are a much more powerful and widely supported group than the ultra-Orthodox community. Bennet has said that he would do everything in his power to prevent Palestinians from achieving statehood and that he would refuse any order to remove Jews from a settlement. That is about as clear and uncompromising as it gets.
Although it is yet to be seen if Yesh Atid may have some moderating influence on Netanyahu with regard to Palestine, it seems unlikely. Lapid has said that he would not join any government that wasn’t serious about peace talks. But in joining a Netanyahu government he would clearly be doing that given Netanyahu’s previous record. Moreover, as Alon Pinkas, a former Israeli consul general in New York, argues, Lapid’s demand is too vague and gives Netanyahu plenty of wriggle room to get around the issue by claiming, as he has done before “that it’s the Palestinians who want to evade talks with Israel by demanding a freeze on settlement construction.” In addition, Lapid opposes any freeze on existing settlements and any Palestinian control over Jerusalem.
The recent election has clearly highlighted the obvious divides in Israeli domestic politics. But rhetoric aside, Israeli political parties essentially present a united front when it comes to the issue of the conflict with Palestine. The removal of the ultra-Orthodox parties from power and the creation of a coalition government involving Yesh Atid and Jewish Home is not going to substantively change present Israeli policy regarding Palestine in a positive way. It could even have the opposite effect given the views of Bennet and Jewish Home.