As The New Knesset Is Seated The Game Of Chicken That Is Coalition Building Israeli Style Is About To Begin

Israeli coalition talks will soon become a theater of the absurd as the secular Israel Beitenu battles the religious parties for ending military draft exemptions for yeshiva students

Israel Beitenu leader Avigdor Lieberman
Copyright: DOD photo by U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Jette Carr

Today marked the ceremonial opening of the new 21st Knesset with the requisite speeches from the president and the leaders of the main factions. The coming few weeks are going to be highly emotionally charged in Israel. Beginning with the Holocaust Memorial Day and on its heels the Memorial Day for Israelis who gave their lives for the defense of the Homeland or were killed in terror acts, immediately followed by the celebrations of Israel’s 71st Day of Independence, the country is in for its annual emotional roller coaster ride. This spring will also bring the Eurovision song contest to Israel, a production of a mammoth size never before seen in the Middle East region. Israel is doing everything it can to use Eurovision to highlight the remarkable progress the country has made since the first Eurovision it hosted back in the 1980’s.

To add to these, Benjamin Netanyahu of the Likud has been given by president Reuven Rivlin four weeks to build a coalition that would enjoy the confidence of the majority of Knesset members. While the outlines of the coalition are clear, a fight is already brewing between the secular Israel Beitenu party headed by Avigdor Lieberman and the three religious parties without whom no coalition is possible. Lieberman represents repatriates from the former Soviet Union, people who are nationalist and security hawks, but who enjoy buying and eating non-Kosher foods like pork and seafood and do most of their shopping and family outings on the Sabbath. Lieberman’s voters are also very active in the IDF combat units, while Torah study is not something they have personally experienced or have much appreciation for. The prevailing feeling among Israel Beitenu voters is that they shoulder a disproportionate share of the burden both in terms of military service and in paying taxes, while Israelis represented by the ultra-Orthodox “haredi” parties enjoy “government handouts” in the form of stipends for Torah study and shirk their military duties, since they get indefinite service deferments for as long as they continue to be students at a Yeshiva (a religious seminary).

Lieberman wants to see public transport working on the Sabbath and those stores that wish to remain open get an unfettered and unrestricted opportunity to do so. He further wants to codify in law who get deferment of military draft, for how long, and under what circumstances. Both of these demands are anathema to the religious parties, who see in observing the prohibition of working and driving on the Sabbath at least to some degree enforced in the public square something of seminal importance to the Jewish State. Furthermore, attempts to normalize the exemptions and deferments from military service and codify them into law have routinely failed review by the Israeli Supreme Court, a court that cannot allow any discrimination based on a person’s religiosity or lack thereof. Thus the only way that the status quo in which yeshiva students are exempt form the draft can only continue with a wink and a nod, as they have been since the State of Israel was created.

Both Lieberman and his counterparts Der’i and Litzman from the Sephardi Shas and the Ashkenazi Torah Judaism parties, respectively, are veterans of many coalition negotiations and many governments and they have the scars to show for it. This time, the religious parties, with 16 seats among them to Lieberman’s 5 are enjoying an undeniable advantage, though without Lieberman’s votes, the new Netanyahu government would enjoy only 60 votes in the 120 seat Knesset, an impossible situation. So the game of chicken will continue, with each side making demands that the other cannot accept and each side saying that they are not afraid of a repeat election in the immediate future should coalition talks fail. Only one of the sides can make that claim with any credibility, though, and that side is not Israel Beitenu. Recent election showed that the religious parties increased their Knesset representation, while Lieberman’s party flirted with the disaster of not clearing the four seat minimum and sinking into political oblivion. This is a risk Lieberman cannot afford to take, but he will make sure that everyone believes he can. It will be interesting and entertaining to watch.

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