Israel’s new finance minister, Yesh Atid party leader Yair Lapid, gave his first Knesset speech as a cabinet minister on Monday, April 22, the opening day of the parliament’s spring session, and in defiance of longstanding tradition, he seemed to be thoroughly enjoying himself. Longtime Knesset observers say they can’t remember ever hearing such a frontal, direct confrontation with the Haredi parties from the Knesset rostrum.
Beforehand, the session heard six opposition motions of no-confidence, including several attacks on Lapid’s government budget proposal. Meir Porush of the opposition United Torah Judaism party (the seated man with the white beard; to his right, with a black beard, is UTJ’s Moshe Gafni) complained about the impact of the budget on Israel’s security and also charged that the government was “starving children.” Instead of defending his budget proposal, Lapid delivered a stinging, sarcastic attack on the Haredi parties.
If you understand Hebrew, it’s worth watching. In fact, even if you don’t understand Hebrew well, you can watch it while following along with my translation, which appears after the jump. Lapid’s exchange with the Haredi lawmakers goes up to 7:15. After that he begins to respond to a no-confidence motion of MK Moshe Mizrahi of Labor. I stopped translating after a few sentences of this exchange, because it starts getting into budget technicalities.
For context, you can read this Haaretz report on the proposed cuts in government budgets for Haredim. Also worth reading: this column on the speech and its fallout by Jerusalem Post commentator Ben Caspit, as well as we this one by Haaretz Jewish World writer Anshel Pfeffer on the challenges facing Lapid and this one by Haaretz columnist Carlo Strenger looking at ways Lapid and the Haredim can find common ground. But above all, watch Lapid, Porush and UTJ’s Israel Eichler go at each other. It’s great theater.
And my translation:
The official deadline on Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition building falls this weekend, but with just one faction on board apart from his own — the six-seat Tzipi Livni Party — he is still short of the Knesset majority he needs.
Only 37 of the Knesset’s 120 seats are in the bag, meaning that another 24 are needed for a majority — and many more for the kind of majority that Netanyahu wants. He is desperate for a coalition large enough that no single party can bring it down.
Netanyahu’s Likud-Beytenu faction says that it is close to a deal with Jewish Home, and announced today that it will meet with Yesh Atid tomorrow, but relations are far from simple with both of these potential partners. Which leads some to ask, could it be the time for Labor to re-enter the game?
Labor said that it wouldn’t serve in a rightist-led government, but the slow progress in coalition building has led to this suggestion being raised from the most unexpected of quarters: the staunchly left-wing Yossi Beilin, former Labor and Meretz lawmaker.
Beilin, who initiated the secret negotiations with the Palestinians that led to the Oslo Accords, has written that things have changed since the January 22 election.
What is Yair Lapid’s next move?
The man who shocked Israel with a stunning showing in the elections could try to establish a “blocking coalition” by uniting parties that want to stop Benjamin Netanyahu from forming the next government. Labor would definitely be game for that, as would Meretz, Hadash, the Arab parties and probably the Tzipi Livni party. But according to the exit polls, there would not be quite enough mandates to make this possible.
If he could convince the Haredi Shas party he could make it work, and such a move may appeal to Shas’ recently returned dovish leader Arye Deri. However, given that Yesh Atid is all guns blazing to draft Haredim to the army and Shas is dead against the draft, it’s difficult to imagine Shas cooperating with Lapid.
Lapid’s other hope is that exit polls may have underestimated Livni’s showing and Labors. If this is the case he could pull off the blocking coalition.
But even without a blocking coalition, Lapid’s victory is big news. If the figures are right Netanyahu could form a coalition It means that Netanyahu could leave the Haredi parties out in the cold and push through the Haredi draft. If he did this Lapid, who after all went in to politics to become a minister, could negotiate handsome portfolios for his party — I predict he will become Education Minister. The other coalition partners would be the Tzipi Livni Party and Jewish Home.
The difficulty with this option is that both Yesh Atid and the Tzipi Livni Party say they wouldn’t enter a government that won’t negotiate for a peace deal, while Jewish Home is totally opposed to a two-state solution. This raises the possibility that Netanyahu could substitute Jewish Home for Shas and resolve to advance negotiations. It’s hard to imagine given that much of his party is against a Palestinian state, but it’s a possibility nevertheless.
So, we all kind of know who is going to take top spot in Tuesday’s general election in Israel — Benjamin Netanyahu and his Likud-Yisrael Beytenu alliance. But who is going to come in second spot?
Some Israelis were starting to eulogize the Labor party after its poor performance in the last election in 2009, but buoyed by the social protests it has emerged as a force to be reckoned with this time around. To the relief of the Israeli left, it has looked all through this campaign like one of its parties would come in as the second largest party. But now it doesn’t look so certain.
A Geocartography Institute poll broadcast today on Israeli Radio predicted that Labor will win 16 of the Knesset’s 120 seats, but the right-wing Jewish Home will win 17.
In another poll released today on the Knesset Channel, conducted by Panels, Labor gets 16 while Jewish Home wins 14 — but the suggestion that it could be beaten to silver by the previously-sectarian religious-Zionist party will be causing some concern in Labor. Second-place is psychologically very important for Labor — for many in the party it’s a sign that the faction has been restored from the sidelines to its prominent status in the country.
The polls give Likud-Beytenu 32 and 34 seats respectively — a comfortable win, but far less than the alliance originally hoped for.
Israel’s political map is about to upended when Netanyahu and Liberman go on television at 2 p.m. Eastern time to announce a joint Knesset run. They’re apparently not merging their parties but forming a joint list. The aim is to ensure that Bibi ends up with the largest Knesset bloc after the January 22 elections, guaranteeing that he can form the next government. A Haaretz poll last week showed that if Ehud Olmert enters the race atop a new list that includes Tzipi Livni and Yair Lapid, he would outscore the Likud by one seat, 25-to-24, and win the first shot at forming a coalition. An earlier Jerusalem Post poll showed the Olmert superlist doing even better, beating the Likud 31-27. News 1 reports today that Bibi and Liberman could jointly grab 40 seats, guaranteeing that they bury even an Olmert superlist.
The kink in the plan is the religious vote. Liberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party puts a very high priority on a secularist agenda. Haaretz reports today that the joint Bibi-Liberman list is expected to give high priority to Liberman’s secularist agenda, and might even reach out to bring Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party into a governing coalition. But the Likud relies heavily on religious voters who won’t like that. There’s a good chance that some of them will flee to the settler-based national-religious bloc, which appears to be running under a new banner that will join the Bayit Yehudi-NRP party with the National Union, reducing the Knesset strength of the Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu list. It’s possible, though, that some will break toward Shas, particularly now that Arye Deri is returning (sharing power with Eli Yishai, who remains no. 1 on the Knesset list but hands over the party chairmanship to Deri).
So the 60,000 shekel question becomes: Can Haim Ramon engineer a center-left coalition that brings back Olmert atop a new list uniting him and Livni with Lapid and Mofaz’s Kadima, and work out a platform that allows them to join after the election with Ramon’s old friend and fellow dove Arye Deri? Can the various personalities bury their egos and feuds and join together to restore the peace process and two-state solution before it dies forever?