Israel's Rival Politicians Are Surprisingly United

(Bloomberg Opinion) — Less than two weeks since Election Day, Israeli politicians are busy breaking their most solemn campaign promises in pursuit of a governing coalition — and most Israeli voters are only mildly surprised. Pragmatic dissembling is the essence of the Israeli system of government.

But one campaign promise will not be broken. Despite some giddy wishful thinking by critics of Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu, he will not be replaced by a coalition that leans on Arab parties. The coming government, like its predecessors, will be a Jewish affair. And Netanyahu may very well be its leader.

Avigdor Lieberman, the man who brought down Netanyahu’s last government, bluntly acknowledges this. Despite his hatred for Bibi, he says he is willing to serve under him in a “liberal” government of national unity. Lieberman is a hawk, but also an increasingly militant foe of the ultra-orthodox theocrats, and says he won’t join a government that includes the political rabbis or the Arabs. But he makes a crucial distinction: The rabbis are political rivals. The Arab-Israeli parties that form the Joint List coalition are “enemies.”

In fact, Lieberman has served so often on coalitions with ultra-orthodox parties, it’s hard to believe him when he says this time will be different. But he has never served in a coalition government with an Arab party, and neither has anyone else. The ideological gap between the Zionist Jewish majority in Israel and the anti-Zionist Arab-Israeli minority is too wide. More than three-fourths of Israeli Arabs deny that Israel has the right to define itself as the national state of the Jewish people, a survey found earlier this year. Not surprisingly, this is the Joint List’s official position.

Also not surprising is that every other Israeli party, with the partial exception of “progressive” Meretz, views Zionism as Israel’s foundational principle. Netanyahu’s warnings during the campaign that a vote for Benny Gantz would be a vote for Arab influence in government were pure demagoguery. Gantz made it clear he would govern only with Zionist parties.

Gantz, for his part, vowed to lead a government without Bibi, whom he denounced as morally and ethically unfit for office. But this promise expired 48 hours after the vote. Gantz and Bibi are now deep in negotiations over a joint government, very possibly with a rotating prime minister.

Political hatred is no longer as decisive as it was back in the early days of the state, when Prime Minister David Ben Gurion refused even to mention the name of opposition leader Menachem Begin, much less invite him to join a coalition government. The fighting in the recent campaign was more pro wrestling than blood sport.

Partly this is a function of intimacy. Today’s political Israel (including journalists and commentators as well as candidates and office holders) is a small circle of players, many of whom grew up together, served in the same military units, attended the same universities (or yeshivas), and worked with one another on the way up the ladder.

To outsiders, Jewish Israel may seem to be in a perpetual state of civil war — rich against poor, orthodox against secular, new immigrants against the old guard, settlers against peaceniks — but beneath the turmoil there is surprising solidarity, based on shared national insecurity. On the economy, social policy, immigration and other matters that roil western democracies, the mainstream parties have no real differences.

There’s very little space between Bibi and Gantz on the fight against Iran and Islamic terrorism (including in Gaza), the need to hold strategic land and major settlements in the West Bank, or the crucial nature of the U.S.-Israel alliance. The rest is just details.

The coalition is not a done deal, and sometimes logic doesn’t prevail. A third election may be needed. But three things are certain: The next government will reflect the Zionist consensus. It will be led by a national security hawk. And it will continue to rule an outwardly turbulent but internally stable nation.

To contact the author of this story: Zev Chafets at zchafets@gmail.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mary Duenwald at mduenwald@bloomberg.net

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Zev Chafets is a journalist and author of 14 books. He was a senior aide to Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and the founding managing editor of the Jerusalem Report Magazine.

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