What Does Israel Need? Unity Government, Religious Freedom
Israel needs a unity government. This is a decision to be made, of course, by Israel’s political parties. But at a critical moment in Israel’s history, with her destiny hanging in the balance, now would be a good time for Israeli politicians to reconsider their positions on what their government should look like.
I say that because, from where I sit as an American Jew, I see Israel’s current government stumbling from crisis to crisis, lacking a plan for the days ahead, alienating friends in Congress and the Obama administration, and hemorrhaging sympathy and support among many Americans who have always stood at Israel’s side. And the stakes are simply too high for this to continue.
To understand why, we need only look at two issues that have dominated the headlines in recent weeks: Iran’s nuclear ambitions and religious freedom in Israel.
Negotiations with Iran have reached a critical stage, and if an agreement is signed, U.S. President Barack Obama will submit it to Congress for review. We will not know if the agreement is favorable until we see its terms, but I am among the skeptics. While I like the president and see no need to impugn his motives, in my view a good deal is highly unlikely.
But I know this as well: If American Jewish groups decide to oppose an agreement, the battle will be fought at the center of the American political spectrum. Centrist voices — mostly Democrats such as Charles Schumer and Ben Cardin — will determine the outcome of the debate. The problem is that with Benjamin Netanyahu heading the most rightwing government in Israel’s history, moderate Democratic votes will be hard to come by. American Jews know something about advocacy for Israel, but they are not magicians. And with an American election coming, even sympathetic Democrats will be reluctant to do favors for an Israeli prime minister whom they perceive as openly hostile to their party, contemptuous of their president, and fawningly sympathetic to Sheldon Adelson.
To be sure, the president usually gets his way on foreign policy initiatives. Finding the votes to reject an agreement and then override the president’s veto is unlikely. Still, it is not impossible. And the chances for success will be far greater if Netanyahu expands the government table; and this means bringing in Israeli figures of the center and the left who share the prime minister’s concern about Iran but not his perceived antagonism to Democrats and Obama. Furthermore, whatever the scenario — if the president prevails, or if no agreement is reached at all—the Iranian threat to Israel will remain, and a broader coalition will be essential for securing the military, economic, and political support that Israel will need from America.
On the religious front, Israel has had week after week of religious crises. The list includes the following: a) more harassment of women worshippers at the Western Wall; b) an attempt by the Chief Rabbinate to fire Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, an American-born rabbi with moderate views; c) the government’s decision to reverse a policy intended to make conversion to Judaism a bit easier; and d) two inflammatory statements by Israel’s Religious Services minister about Reform Jews. Each item received ample attention in the general and Anglo-Jewish press.
One can feel a little sorry for Netanyahu here. The media is inclined to paint Israel as a medieval theocracy, even though it is nothing of the sort; for true religious extremism, look to Iran and Saudi Arabia. Nonetheless, Israel does not meet the standards of religious freedom and pluralism that one should expect of a Western democracy. And the fact is that American Jews have simply lost patience with the second-class status of liberal Judaism in Israel.
Therefore, with the region in turmoil and Iran at the top of the agenda, Netanyahu’s decision to bring Shas and United Torah Judaism into a coalition with a one-seat majority was profoundly ill-advised. It enhances their power and distracts attention from the issues that Netanyahu claims are most important. American Jews would be delighted if the Haredim were ejected from the coalition. But even if they were to remain, in a wider government the damage they could do to Israel’s well-being would be limited.
My hope, then, is that the leaders of the Zionist Union and Yesh Atid will reconsider their refusal to join a unity government. Still, the primary responsibility rests with the prime minister. These parties will not agree to be window dressing in a government of the right, and if he wants them in the coalition, Netanyahu will need to offer them incentives to join, especially on matters relating to the Palestinians and the economy.
While the specifics are for Israelis to decide, American Jews are more than entitled to express their views. For years, American Jewish leaders have been lectured by the prime minister and a wide array of Israeli officials about the need for American Jewish action on the threat from Iran. Michael Oren’s book is only the latest in a long series of such diatribes.
But American Jews have a few questions of their own. If Iran is really the existential threat that Israel’s political leaders say that it is, why are these leaders not joining forces to respond to this threat? Why are they not making their case to the American people as part of a right-to-left government of national unity that commands attention and respect? Why are the politics of religious greed and triumphalism allowed to grab the headlines when the life-and-death questions of an Iranian bomb are before us?
It is time for Herzog and Lapid to step up, and for Netanyahu to take the lead, seize the initiative and, if necessary, challenge his base for the greater good. The negotiations are ending, and crunch time is here. If the Iranian threat is as grave as these leaders have been telling us, they need to produce a unity government to demonstrate that they mean what they say.