Tuesday, March 12, 2013

White smoke over Jerusalem

White smoke was seen rising from the Prime Minister's office in Jerusalem, indicating the formation of a government coalition.  This signifies the joining of the two parties, Bayit Yehudi (12 seats) and Yesh Atid (19), with the majority party Likud Beitanu (31) to form a stable center-right government.  PM Bibi Netanyahu went to Pres. Peres last week and got the allowed 2 week extension for the formation of a government, and now he can finalize one.  The party leaders Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid remained firm in their convictions and this indicates that Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu blinked first.   Because of the conditions placed on their joint joining of the coalition, including the passing of a universal conscription law, this means that the religious parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism, will not join the coalition at this time, since they oppose mandatory conscription of yeshiva students. 
Who else will be in the coalition, Hatnuah (6) of Tzipi Livni was of course the first, although this annoyed the other two princelings.  With Bayit Yehudi and Yesh Atid this brings the total no. of seats to 68, enough for a majority in the Knesset (minimum 61).  With the rump of Kadima (2) this makes a comfortable majority (70) for what might be a stable and relatively centrist government with Yesh Atid, Hatnuah and Kadima (27) in the center and the right represented by Likud Beitanu and Bayit Yehudi (43).  Bibi threw a sop to the left by not only giving Tzipi Livni the Justice Ministry, but also giving her a role in the (virtual) Palestinian peace negotiations.  However, there is no way that Bayit Yehudi will allow her to make policy and determine the outcome in this area. 
The main sticking point in the formation of the coalition has been the allotment of ministries. The Yesh Atid Chairman Yair Lapid, who said almost nothing about foreign affairs during his campaign and focussed on domestic issues, wants to be Foreign Minister, which is considered the senior appointment.  But, PM Netanyahu has saved this position for his former FM Avigdor Lieberman until after his corruption trial, if he is found innocent then he could resume this function.  But most Israelis would probably prefer to have the charming, handsome Lapid in place of the dour, unsmiling Lieberman as a figure head.  However, Lapid has no background for this role, although frankly he has no background for any ministerial role.  He has been offered the Finance MInistry, a very powerful position, but he is apparently afraid to take it, since it is the graveyard of many politicians.  Meanwhile Bayit Yehudi chairman Naftali Bennett has almost given up hope of getting the Finance Ministry and has opted for the Industry and Trade Ministry with some expanded powers.  The last disute is apparetnly over the Education Ministry, that Bibi wants to keep for Gidon Sa'ar.  Yair Lapid has also insisted on a reduction of the total number of Ministries from the current 32, but has apparently compromised from 18 up to 21.  With the assignment of Ministries, the coalition will be complete just in time to welcome Pres. Obama.
The time-pressure on the formation of the coalition is not only from the statutory limit, but also the date of March 20, which has been announced as the start of the visit of Pres. Obama to Israel.  It has been reported that he will come whether or not there is a ruling coalition in place by March 16. He should bring a gift to the Israeli public to make his visit start with a relatively positive note.  Such a gift would be the release of Jay Pollard who has been in captivity for 27 years, a gross miscarriage of justice.  The US is always pressuring Israel to make gestures, why shouldn't the US make a gesture to Israel for a change.
The main issue of concern for Israel is the Iranian development of nuclear weapons.  While this is Bibi's main focus, it seems that Pres. Obama is not quite on the same page and at the moment the US and the EU are making small concessions to Iran in order to entice it to step backward from the brink.  However, this is unlikely to work, and hopefully while here Bibi and Barack will get together and see eye to eye on this pressing issue.  No doubt the "two-state solution" will be mentioned many times, but it is unlikely that there will be any progress, given the opposition of Hamas to any accomodation with Israel and the US.  But, expect Israel to make some small gestures towards the PA, such as releasing some Palestinain prisoners. Although all of them have been found guilty of acts of terrorism, all such prisoners are innocent according to the PA.  Nevertheless, while this might stop some of the current violence on the West Bank, it won't be enough to entice Pres. Abbas to make any reciprocal concessions in order to satisfy Pres. Obama.  He will leave with the status quo ante intact.


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