It is still difficult to assess how Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu will govern in his next government. The public has little interest in begging the Palestinians to return to negotiations. But then the Israeli public has rarely had much interest in pursuing fruitless deals with unreformed Palestinian terrorists. The only reason we continue to chase deals with them is because the US is obsessed with supporting Palestinian anti-Israel demands in the name of peace.
To a significant, if not necessarily determinative degree, whether the Palestinians will continue to be a salient issue in the coming years will be a function of events in the wider Arab world. The collapse of the Egyptian state, Syria’s civil war, and the potential collapse of the Hashemite monarchy in Jordan will all limit President Barack Obama’s ability to press Israel to give away land to the Palestinians.
At the same time, Netanyahu’s assault on his own political camp, starting with Likud and moving to Naftali Bennett and the Bayit Yehudi indicate that at a minimum, Netanyahu will do nothing to advance Israel’s position vis-à-vis the Palestinians. He is unlikely to permit significant new construction in Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria or significant Jewish building in Jerusalem. He is unlikely to undertake any democratic reforms in the Justice Ministry or the court system. He is unlikely to take any steps to boost Israel’s rights in Judea and Samaria or to undermine the terrorist-led Palestinian Authority.
Where the next government is likely to move ahead are in two other significant, if under-discussed areas: economic reform, and religious reform.
This weekend Israel reportedly conducted its first successful test pumping of natural gas from the offshore Leviathan natural gas field. In the next four years, Israel will become a major natural gas exporter and will make great strides in developing its recently discovered shale oil deposits. Israel’s emergence as an energy exporter will have a transformational impact on Israel’s economic independence and long-term viability.
Moreover, as the surrounding Arab world becomes more unstable, violent and fanatical, Israel’s economic independence and vitality will emerge as our most important diplomatic asset and a hugely important domestic trump card. Under the economic leadership of Netanyahu, Lapid and Bennett, as Israel stands at the cusp of this economic breakthrough, it will be led by its most powerful, and – at least in the cases of Netanyahu and Bennett – ideologically committed champions of free market economics.
Lapid’s emergence as the leader of the second largest party will lead to one of two possibilities – Shas, the Sephardic ultra-Orthodox party will join the coalition and have no power, or it will be kept outside the coalition and have no power. Either way, both in terms of Israel’s ability to capitalize on its economic opportunities, and in terms of its ability to transform the country’s religious institutions, Shas’s demotion from political kingmaker to political deadweight is a major and possibly transformative development.
As far as religious reform is concerned, one of the sources of social friction that has weakened Israeli society over the past few decades is perception shared by most Israelis that the ultra-Orthodox community is comprised of freeloaders. The fact that most ultra-Orthodox men do not serve in the IDF, while receiving government handouts to study in state-funded yeshivot is one source of social friction. Another source of friction is that while its members do not participate in either the common burden of national defense or in the economic life of the country, due to Israel’s proportional electoral system, the ultra-Orthodox minority has managed to maintain control over the state religious institutions and so dictate the (sour) relationship between religion and society in Israel
Both Bennett and Lapid ran on platforms of universal male conscription or national service and ending the ultra-Orthodox community’s monopoly on control over the state rabbinate. A Netanyahu-Lapid-Bennett government could enact major reforms in the religious establishment that would lead to a national-religious takeover of the rabbinic courts and the chief rabbinate of the country. Such a government could also require the ultra-Orthodox to serve in the IDF, and enable the community’s members to integrate into the economic life of the country.
All of these steps would have a salutary, indeed, revolutionary impact on the religious life of the country. National religious rabbis would do what the ultra-Orthodox rabbis have failed to do, or stubbornly refused to do. They would make Judaism part of the life blood of the country in a way that is relevant to the lives of the vast majority of Israelis and pave the way for Israel’s further emergence as the spiritual center of world Jewry. The ripple effects of such a reform would extend to nearly every corner of Israel, and indeed, to nearly every corner of the Jewish world.
We will learn a great deal about Netanyahu’s plans to contend with Iran’s nuclear project, the hostile Obama administration, the rapidly expanding and metastasizing campaign to delegitimize the Jewish state in the West, and the rise of genocidal anti-Semitic regimes in neighboring countries through his choice of Defense Minister. After the Prime Minister, the Defense Minister will be the most important member of the government, on nearly every level and every sphere of national endeavor. He has two outstanding candidates for the position inside Likud — Moshe Ya’alon, and Yuval Steinitz. If he chooses either of these men, then we can be relatively confident that Israel will rise to the challenges we face. If he chooses anyone else, then the country’s capacity to contend successfully with these threats will be more dubious.
But here too, external events may be more important than the identity of Israel’s national leaders. The gravitational impact of the Islamic wave engulfing the Arab world and Israel’s emergence as an independent economic force will limit the ability of any one person to determine the course of events based on his own political preferences.
We are still at the earliest stages of the formation of the next governing coalition. The reports just this week about Israeli Air Force strikes on convoys of anti-aircraft missiles being transferred from Syria to Hezbollah and fears that Syria’s chemical weapons will imminently be controlled by al Qaeda or Hezbollah; the still unconfirmed reports about an Israeli attack on Iran’s uranium enrichment facility at Fordo; and the mass riots in Egypt particularly in the strategically vital cities of Port Said and Suez all make clear that regardless of the plans of the next government, and the intentions of the Obama administration, many of the actions of the next government will be dictated by forces beyond the control of the Israeli electorate and the preferences of our leaders.