Monday, February 10, 2003
Good editorial from the Jerusalem Post calling for Sharon to form a quick 61-seat coalition with Shinui and the National Religious Party. I agree pretty much wholeheartedly.
Look, I don't like Tommy Lapid, and I think Shinui is a house of cards that is going to collapse in the next election. Shas won 17 seats in the 1999 Knesset elections by pandering to its constituents' fears and exploiting a temporary political opening (the weakness of Likud under the atrocious leadership of Netanyahu). Shinui has won 15 seats due to similar temporary conditions: the utterly inept Labor leadership, the corruption scandals in Likud, and fury over the strength of Shas. It will not last. Israel does not have a 15-seat Thatcherite vote, and the specific issue of haredi draft-dodging cannot be resolved with the stroke of a pen.
But Shinui represents an important constituency, and much of their platform does need to be enacted. Israel does need to liberalize the economy. Israel does need to reform the religious status-quo. Israel does need to re-integrate the haredim into society, and end the current system where they are encouraged to be parasites on the state.
Sharon should announce his coalition guidelines. On the economy: liberalization. If Amir Peretz's Histadrut can't take it, Sharon will live without Am Echad. On religion: haredim will be drafted into "alternative service" on the home-front while plans are made to transition them into hesder-style student-soldier tracks designed in cooperation with their religious leaders. State support will be rapidly phased out for schools that do not meet an audit by the Education Ministry for, among other things, civics content. If UTJ and Shas can't take it, Sharon will live without them. On the matzav: no compromise on Israeli security, no tolerance for "freelance" establishment of settlement outposts, and no foreclosure of a Palestinian state as an option in the future; but no unilateral withdrawal and no negotiations with a terrorist regime. If National Union can't take it, Sharon will live without National Union.
Shinui should embrace this entire list of priorities. The price should be a stated willingness to sit with any party that accepts these guidelines - even Shas. I don't disagree at all with the Post that Shas has been a disaster for Israel - and for its own voters. (The fault, by the way, lies more with NRP than with Likud; the only Likud leader to actively encourage the growth of Shas was Netanyahu, while the NRP missed a historic opportunity decades ago in not putting effort into extending their message to the Sephardim, focusing instead with increasing exclusivity on the settlement enterprise.) But for hundreds of thousands of Israelis, Shas is their identity. These are people who serve in the army, who work, who are, ironically, Zionists, but nonetheless vote for a non-Zionist party of religious extremism. Just the other day, I was discussing the political situation with a woman I know who is a Yemenite Jew from Israel, who used to be a Likud activist, and she commented that her brother - a captain in the army - votes Shas. That's why it's so insane that Lapid is willing to sit with UTJ but not Shas. Shas's leadership and platform have been a disaster for Israel, but Shas's voters are people who can be wooed back to the mainstream, while UTJ voters are the people Lapid is really mad at: people who don't work and refuse to serve in the army. Does anyone think that the right way to woo back Shasniks is to tell them their party is the *only Jewish party* that is not acceptable?
Sharon should not include Shas in the coalition. But he has to arrange things so that Shas is the one who refuses to join. Shas will collapse after one season in the opposition; they cannot survive without government funding. The only thing that could keep them alive in opposition is the conviction that the Ashkenazi parties have ganged up to finally exclude the Sephardim once and for all. Shas was expected, at the start of this campaign, to take fewer than 10 seats. Their former leader and a miracle-working rabbi had teamed up to form a rival party. They turned to right-wing rhetoric on the Land of Israel to try to shore up their credibility in an election dominated by national security (historically the haredi parties would sit with Labor or Likud with equal comfort). The reason Shas had a late-campaign surge was: Shinui. Shas's campaign his its stride defending "their" people from the anti-religious and anti-Sephardi "racism" of Shinui. They will gain seats in the next election if a credible case can be made to Sephardim that Shas is their only protection against "white" Tel-Aviv-ites who want to keep them in the kitchens and out of power.
The biggest problem with the scenario spun by the Post is that it puts too much power in the hands of the NRP. Effie Eitam, the party leader, is as extreme as Avigdor Liberman, if not more so. There's a war going on right now for the soul of the NRP: will it stand for a vision for Israel as a self-governing Jewish commonwealth, the party that reconciles Jewish religious values with Zionism and democracy; or will it stand for an eschatological ideology opposed to democracy and committed to a kind of blood-and-soil nationalism. Eitam favors a united front with National Union to force Sharon into an exclusively right-wing coalition. If Sharon partners up with Shinui publicly, then reaches out to the NRP to complete his narrow coalition, whom does that empower within the NRP? I think it empowers Eitam, not the moderates.
On the other hand, the far-right does not really want to bring Sharon down. If Sharon and Shinui form a partnership, with clear, reasonable guidelines, parties that refuse either to join or to support the coalition from the outside will have something of a credibility problem if the government somehow lost a no-confidence vote.
Bottom line: yes, Sharon needs a coalition with Shinui. But he needs to bring Shas voters home, not alienate them further. And he needs the NRP to turn away from a flirtation with extreme, even fascist ideology and return to an emphasis on Jewish self-government. If he achieves these things, he'll have been a truly historic Prime Minister.