The Israeli elections delivered a surprising, but not an ultimate, rebuke to Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu. His Liked Party coalition, which held 42 seats in the outgoing Knesset, fell to 31 seats in the new parliament, but it remains the largest bloc of votes and so it will fall to Netanyahu to form a new government.
The surprise of the night came from a new party, Yesh Atid, which took 19 seats. Yesh Atid, led by a political novice Yair Lapid, has called for an end to the special exemption for tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews from compulsory military service. Additionally, the new party has proposed a resumption of peace talks with the Palestinians. Seeing as the party of the ultra-Orthodox, Shas, has long been a coalition partner of Likud, it will be curious to see how Netanyahu turns. Does he try to enlist as many centrists as possible in what remains an essentially conservative coalition, or does he reach out to the centrist parties and seek a coalition that will govern from the center?
In normal times, whether a country has a two party system like we do in the U.S. or a multi-party system as exists in most parliamentary regimes, governing from the center is especially difficult because the people who will be most often called upon to make a compromise are one’s most fervent supporters. You can see how this plays out regularly now in the considerations of U.S. House Speaker John Boehner: Does he stick to the “Hastert Rule” and only bring bills to the floor if they enjoy the support of a majority of the Republican members or, as in the fiscal cliff legislation and the bill to provide emergency assistance to the victims of Hurricane Sandy, allow a bill to come up for a vote even though most Republicans will be voting against it? Do you govern from the center or from the base? It is never an easy question.
But, of course, Israel is not living in normal times and so Netanyahu was right to say, after the results came in, that he will seek “to form the broadest coalition possible.” Israel faces many of the same old threats that have dogged her existence: Arab opposition and hostility on all borders, seemingly un-reconcilable claims regarding parts of the West Bank, a growing population, increasingly diverse, with a large and fast-growing demographic of ultra-Orthodox Jews who have never quite assimilated with the secular state of Israel, and all the economic challenges that modern, industrialized economies face. If those were the only threats Israel faced, I suspect Netanyahu would govern from his base, as he has in the past.
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On the horizon, however, is a new and different threat, a nuclear capable Iran. It is difficult for Americans to imagine the gravity of the threat. In our vast nation, it would not be possible, as it would be in Israel, for one nuclear weapon to kill or maim a significant percentage of the nation’s population. One Iranian bomb in Tel Aviv could kill or maim more than half the population of Israel. And, the mullahs who govern in Tehran do not approach politics with the same kind of calculations that animated the former Soviet leadership. Yes, the Soviets, especially Stalin, were ruthless and the Iranian mullahs solved the problem of Iraqi minefields in the Iran-Iraq war by enlisting teenagers to walk in front of the tanks, exploding the mines and earning their martyrdom. But the Soviets were also motivated by traditional concerns of national strength. The mullahs play by a different set of rules, rules governed by celestial calculations not mundane ones. They are seized with visions they believe were given them by God, and just so, are “non-negotiable.” I am all for religious motivation in the public square, but fanaticism is, as the Holy Father warned in his World Day of Peace Message, a grave threat to world peace.
In the U.S., whoever won the last election likes to call for national unity in the face of common challenges, a unity based on the policies he or she proposed during the campaign. That is how democracy works. The winners cloak their partisan positions in national attire. But, in Israel, this is not mere rhetoric. Israel needs a broad based coalition because the threat she faces really is a national threat, and it is far from clear, looking at the U.S.’s desultory response to the murders in Syria, that the Obama administration is going to stand up to Iran even though it is also clear the U.S. will never abandon Israel. What is at issue is where the line gets drawn. For the U.S., a nuclear-capable Iran is de-stabilizing throughout the region. For Israelis, that threat is an existential threat. Netanyahu is correct in thinking he needs a broad coalition to face it in part because such a coalition will better garner U.S. support for what might be some of the toughest decisions the Jewish State has had to make.