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The New Israeli Coalition: Promise and Peril

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The news broke only hours ago: after 40 days, an agreement has finally been reached on a new Israeli governing coalition, with the new government to be sworn in next week. This news is the culmination of weeks of dramatic and sometimes melodramatic political machinations and theatrics, including public bargaining and issuing of ultimatums, coming on the heels of elections that yielded surprising results. In the end, the new Israeli ruling coalition will be composed of Netanyahu's Likud-Beiteinu faction (31 seats), aligned with Yair Lapid's Yesh Atid faction (19 seats) and Naftali Bennett's Jewish Home party (12 seats), and cemented by Tzipi Livni's HaTnuah faction (6 seats), with key ministries parceled out among the various parties.

This new coalition, from day one, offers potential both for good and bad policies on various counts.

Democracy: One unmitigated positive development coming out of this coalition agreement is Livni's emergence as the new Minister of Justice. She comes into this role following a four-year period in which extremist Knesset members, aided and abetted by members of the Cabinet, pursued a non-stop stream of anti-democratic initiatives - including initiatives aimed at the full range of peace, civil rights, and human rights organizations. As the new Minister of Justice, Livni is expected to act firmly to block similar anti-democratic trends in the coming period.

Settlements: Those who care about peace and keeping alive the very possibility of the two-state solution will be watching closely, and with great concern, to see what this next government's posture will be with respect to settlements - given the fact that settler supporters are gaining control of the key ministries dealing with settlements in both the West Bank and East Jerusalem. The decision to put the Ministry of Housing and Construction in the hands of Uri Ariel, from Bennett's Bayit Yehudi party, is a huge red flag. Ariel, who will also be the Director of the Israel Lands Administration, is a veteran leader of the ideological settlers' movement and an avowed opponent of the two-state solution, who has called for the annexation of all of the West Bank. In both of these capacities, he will have enormous power with respect to land use, planning and construction in the West Bank. This power is, in theory, trumped only by that of the Minister of Defense, who is effectively the reigning sovereign in the West Bank. But in the new coalition, that position will be held by Moshe Ya'alon (Likud-Beitenu), who has for years been a strong ally of the settlers. Moreover, the likely new Interior Minister will be Gideon Saar (Likud-Beiteinu), who in that capacity will have virtually unchecked authority over Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem (residency, building permits, etc) and over East Jerusalem settlement. Saar has a clear track record of strong support for settlement expansion in all parts of East Jerusalem. Nonetheless, there are other factors in play, including potential international pressure on Netanyahu to stop settlement construction, potential pressure from within his coalition - Livni, Lapid - to curb settlements and not kill the two-state solution, and pressure from Knesset opposition, both from the Left and the ultra-Orthodox.

Prospects for Peace: Given the above, there are good reasons to be concerned that this next government will adopt policies that are anathema to the two-state solution itself, and that, by extension, undermine if not altogether preclude the possibility of progress toward a renewed, productive peace effort. On the other hand, the presence and power of Lapid in the coalition offers some cause for hope, given some of his public pronouncements of support for peace efforts. Likewise, Tzipi Livni's formal role as the minister in charge of negotiations with the Palestinians offers some hope, as does the possibility of increased international pressure on Netanyahu to demonstrate seriousness about peace and the two-state solution.

The Ultra-Orthodox Factor: As Yair Ettinger wrote in Haaretz this week: "Ultra-Orthodox Knesset members have been coalition partners in most governments since Israel was founded in 1948, and in almost every government since Likud first came to power in 1977." Now, following the dramatic results of the last Israeli elections and the remarkably durable political partnership-of-convenience between Lapid and Bennett, the ultra-Orthodox today find themselves in the opposition. Given that drafting religious Israelis into the IDF (as part of the demand that they bear their "fair share" of the burden of Israeli citizenship) is the issue around which Lapid and Bennett built their partnership, it seems likely that this government will remain sharply at odds with the ultra-Orthodox community. How all of this will play out is unknown, but there can be no doubt that the ultra-Orthodox will, in opposition, be a thorn in the side of this government; indeed, Shas leaders have already declared political war on the new government. Ultra-Orthodox parties (Shas and United Torah Judaism) hold a combined 20 seats in the Knesset and wield tremendous power at the local and regional levels, not to mention in the private sector and across various sectors of Israel's economy. It is notable that the ultra-Orthodox are increasingly expressing readiness to take on the settlers in the battle for government resources, essentially making the case that if it's a choice between funding settlements and funding yeshivas, the latter is far more important.

ARTICLE CONTINUES AFTER THE BOX

Fragility/longevity: This is also a coalition that will be far more fragile than Netanyahu's coalition of the past four years. This fragility reflects both the potential vast ideological schisms between coalition partners, and the fact that with 19 seats, Yair Lapid wields extraordinary power - by quitting the coalition he can bring down the government. Experts and pundits are betting that this government will not last more than two years.

With his new coalition in hand, Netanyahu is now is under pressure to meet the expectations of Israeli voters, who are looking for changes on the economic and social justice front and who, according to polls, remain strongly supportive of the two-state solution. He will also be under pressure from the international community. President Obama is now set to visit Israel, and he and Secretary of State Kerry appear committed to continuing, in some manner, the U.S. effort to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Likewise, European nations - including close friends and allies of Israel - are clamoring for progress on peace. How will Netanyahu balance his own ideological preferences, the disparate agendas of his coalition partners, and the demands of Israeli voters and the international community? The coming weeks and months will tell the story. Israel-coalition2013-FB.jpg