So Israel has a new mega-coalition of 94 out of 120 Knesset members. The news early Tuesday morning stunned a country that was already in elections mode for a presumed September 4 contest. No pundit foresaw the mega-coalition or had an inside track on it.
For both of the main protagonists in the deal—Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Kadima Party leader Shaul Mofaz—it makes eminent sense. While all polls showed Netanyahu easily emerging triumphant again from the putative elections, the deal saves him—and the country—the trouble and debilities of having to prepare for them, not to mention prolonged coalition negotiations once the results would have been in.
As for Mofaz—who wrested leadership of Kadima from Tzipi Livni in a primary less than two months ago—the polls showed his party plummeting, had elections been held, from its current 28 seats to about a dozen. While Kadima’s fate in the October 2013 (when Netanyahu’s four-year term runs out) elections will not necessarily be better, Mofaz—whom the deal makes deputy prime minister and member of the Forum of Eight (now nine) ministers, Israel’s highest policymaking body—gets a chance to make more of an impact on a public never particularly impressed with him.
But apart from Netanyahu and Mofaz, the deal—by creating a massive coalition immune to extortionate pressures by small parties—holds great potential for the country.
For two of Israel’s most intractable problems—refusal of military or national service by most of its growing ultra-Orthodox population, and dysfunctionalities of its parliamentary system—solutions are now eminently possible. In their joint press conference on Tuesday, Netanyahu and Mofaz pledged that the new coalition would tackle these issues without offering any specifics.
The problems are indeed complex. The draft exemptions for the ultra-Orthodox, which are contingent on yeshiva study, not only sow bitterness among the army-serving public but lead to large-scale unemployment among ultra-Orthodox men and a growing, worrisome drain on the economy. To date, ultra-Orthodox parties in fragile coalitions have prevented possible solutions. For the mega-coalition, though, the path appears clear to legislating some sort of mandatory service and remedying this longstanding malady.
This being linked, of course, to the issue of a parliamentary system that allows small parties of various—not just ultra-Orthodox—descriptions to proliferate and wield disproportionate influence. Again, the new coalition stands a real chance to cure the illness. Raising the electoral threshold and introducing regional elections are two often-mentioned ideas. Israel could emerge as a better-functioning, more representational democracy with much more stable governments.
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